Diary of a Cultural Fellow

For the past two years, I’ve had the honour of working at Leeds University as a Cultural Fellow in the School of English. I wrote this piece for the Leeds Poetry Centre blog – a creative response to my fellowship, a kind of diary from an ‘invented’ day that somehow captures all the days I’ve spent there (and none of them at the same time). Typically, I also decided to write it in the second person. 

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8.20 – There is a place on Platform 2 where you suspect you aren’t under the roof of the station at all, but somewhere out in the palm of Sheffield, staring up at the tall buildings like you did when you were a child. The train is never early. People glare down the tracks as if they can make it appear.

8.48 – You read books about the death of whales, hawk-training, short stories set in parts of Canada you feel as if you’ve been to. You rarely read poems. You take photos of pages from Maggie Nelson: most of my writing usually feels to me like a bad idea…You send quotes to people you love, disjointed text messages. But really, you are sending them to yourself.

9.02 – The barriers deal with everyone efficiently.Ticket has been captured. In the concourse, a man stands and hands out copies of the Metro in silence – huge movements, like a mime.

9.30 – The shape on top of your coffee is someone’s idea of a heart. You drink it superstitiously. Bitter, smooth on your tongue. In the open word document on the screen, an ex-policeman is trying to work out the truth about what happened to him in Hillsborough in 1989. He is reading the court cases and witness statements that you have also read, your throat tightening. You don’t know if you have the right to describe this man. By the time you have finished your coffee, he is drunk, walking through Nether Edge at night.

11.03 – In the meeting, there is a poem you’re supposed to be writing on a subject you know nothing about. You nod, jot things down in capitals. You are thinking about the Crooked Spire that twists above the town where you grew up, how it reminds you of a woman, turning round to check her reflection in a full-length mirror.

11.45 – The train you were on this morning might be in Scotland by now, moving fast along the sodden coast. You can see the train-window-sky with your eyes shut, the faint line of the sea, the places where the tracks pass close to the road. Phantassie Roundabout. Carstairs Junction. The poems you want to write are like that, carrying on without you, somewhere north of Berwick.

12.30 – At the school, in the ground floor classroom, a boy describes Headingley stadium as a bowl with two chopsticks poking out of it. A girl says the River Aire is a blue crayon line. You smile for the rest of the afternoon. The teacher tells them they can illustrate their poems and they do, drawings where the people are always bigger than the landscape.

3.05 – You are trying to finish a book review, scribbled quotes all over the page. It is all a matter of judgement. Your mind is locked inside a museum in Glasgow last Saturday, when students were stopping people in pairs to take a test. A thin strip of white paper, placed against the tongue for seconds. 25% of people will taste bitterness. You both nodded, held the paper carefully. One of you could taste it. The other could not.

4.10 – You have been invited to read at a Women’s Institute. To write a creative response to the colour purple. To endorse a pamphlet about the sea.

4.30 – The guitarist you work with plays a new piece. You are trying to figure out if it is a Bulerias or a Rumba, tapping the rhythm with your foot. When he plays it again. It makes you think of a poem you wrote about Sheffield in the rain, so you start to speak, reading when the music is least intricate. You remember standing on a bridge in Ronda ten years ago, listening to a different flamenco guitarist as swallows arced and dived to the music, swooping down the sides of the cliffs. You wonder if your timing is an illusion, if this music makes the whole world fall into step.

5.36 – At the bar in Friends of Ham, you work on a poem about sitting at the bar at Friends of Ham. You try out different descriptions for your half of beer. Stout the colour of burnt toast. Stout the colour of remorse. The beer is called ‘Broken Dreams’. The details you love best are the things that sound invented.

6.12 – Someone is trespassing on the line outside Meadowhall and the train pauses for exactly fourteen minutes. You imagine children running off down the siding, hiding in the quiet trees beside the tracks. You stare out of the window as you pass, see nothing but the turquoise domes and squares of the shopping centre.

9.05 – There is time to fold your clothes and make a list of all the things you want to do tomorrow. Three of them are impossible.

11.15 – The best line comes to you when you’re half-asleep. You tell yourself you will not forget it.

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