What’s your relationship to the sea? Writer and Poet Sarah Acton is exploring this during her new three-month residency at Weymouth Library. This residency is part our ‘Libraries as Cultural Hubs’ programme, in partnership with Dorset Libraries and funded by the Arts Council England National Lottery. It is dedicated to developing the vibrant arts culture in Libraries across the county.
Our Marketing and Communications Officer, Jasmine O’Hare, visited Sarah to discuss what she has in store for Weymouth, her January wild swim, and how you can get involved.
Hi Sarah, would you like to introduce yourself and your career to date
I’ve been working along the Jurassic coastline as a professional poet and creative writing facilitator for the past three years. I am the Jurassic Coast poet-in-residence. This involves channelling my nature connection, a passion for the coastline and Earth History into creative expression, and helping others to find their voice. I facilitate poetry workshops, retreats and walks. I work with all different communities and organisations including schools, museums, and memory cafes. I’m thrilled to be the Weymouth Library writer-in-residence. I enjoy immersing myself in the library and reaching out to local communities to deliver this project over the coming months.
What can we expect from your residency?
This project, called ‘Weymouth-on-Sea,’ incorporates and invites participation through memory and reflection about what it’s like living or visiting the area, and how life by the sea influences daily lives, past present and future. I’ve created this installation Writer’s Corner (pictured below) as a curated space with free writing materials, and inspiration to write and think creatively. There are books here on the theme of the coastline and sea, and I’m running events here throughout the residency. You can also pick up a free leaflet ‘Starting Writing’ from the front desk.
It’s a fantastic space. It’s very inviting and it encourages visitors to take part. We can see your inspiration and your interests and it’s a starting point for people’s own writing.
I like to describe the style as a ship’s cabin, or a writer’s garret, and you’ll find free writing pads, pens to use…it’s something different and playful, some ‘other’ space within the context of the library where anything might happen creatively. Hopefully, with that homely feel you mentioned, the space is offered to encourage thoughts, reflections, journal writing, anything really.
There are colourful visual stimulus here, I hope to approach this project in different ways to encourage people to write about place and belonging. It isn’t just about providing literary inspiration, I’ve picked out some DVDs on the same coastal themes, and there are these nautical charts on the walls. They’re all cut up, so if you follow one it doesn’t quite follow in the right direction, but you can tell it’s a chart and it gives a sense of navigation and adventure. I guess that’s a bit like the creative writing process. You don’t have to have everything in perfect order for it to make someone feel connected, and it’s often more interesting to cut things into pieces to create a new way to look at the world.
How can people get involved with you residency?
I’m running workshops, reading cafes and 1-2-1 mentoring sessions (thought these now have a waiting list). You have to book on Eventbrite for the workshops, the reading cafes are drop-in.
The workshops are short intense sessions to stimulate and inspire some new writing and share thoughts and ideas.
I’m also asking people to fill out these little postcards with memories and reflections about what being by on or near the sea means to them. I’ll take out phrases and weave these into a community poem at the end.
Everybody, even if they haven’t done much creative writing before, has probably written a postcard, it’s familiar, fun and anything goes, no right or wrong. It’s not a massive sheet of paper either, and you can write as much or as little as you want to. The wall is already filling up with these, and they give an immediate snapshot of the many voices and lives that pass through the town library.
What attracted you to this library residency in particular?
I use both the Devon and Dorset libraries, and I often write in libraries myself. I was interested to see what I could offer within the space, how I could connect, create community around an idea and place it physically here as an installation, and later an exhibition. It’s a short compact project; three months intense immersion to run events, research themes, and produce a community poem and my own work. I like a challenge! I’m loving working with the library staff and visitors, outreach and community is a big part of wider the project,
Speaking of intense experiences, you mentioned that you’ve joined a wild swim club for a dip. Is this part of your residency and your drive to integrate yourself into the community?
Absolutely. this project relies on community participation and it’s much more satisfying and meaningful for me if I can talk to as many people as possible and spread the word about the Libraries as Cultural Hubs projects and events. So I’ve been in contact with many local groups who use and enjoy the sea and beach; rowers, sea swimmers, the Harbour Master, and sailors. I hope to reach walkers and fossil hunters too. If anyone wants to get involved, please do get in touch.
Visiting the wild swimmers was fantastic, and er, a chilly experience. I met a group of women who go swimming in the sea all year round. It was only eight degrees when we went in! It was really cold, I just about managed to get in and then while swimming around I realised I couldn’t get out without anybody else because they had the code to get back into the locker room, so I kept swimming with the hardy group for 15 minutes. Your perspective of the town shifts from the sea, even at nose-level. The women and I spoke of the excitement of being in the moment, immersed in the wild element, utterly focused on breath and survival. We drank tea after and it took me about two days to warm up, but it was an electric feeling.
I’d like to talk about your writing. When I was reading your poetry I feel there’s a visceral sense of nature and you seem to have a really grounded relationship with it. I was wondering if that’s something that has developed over time?
Being outside in nature, spending time with the land, walking, being outside quite a lot is all part of my creative and writing practice. It’s something I enjoy doing, and vital in terms of my well-being day to day. The more time I invest in widening my perspective, deepening my connection to the land, the more I find out about myself, my place in the world and what it is to be a human being in our times.
This definitely shines through. I was reading one of your blog posts and you seem to use the natural world to talk about other things. How did you develop this style?
That’s a big question and a big answer really. It’s a lifetime apprenticeship to both my creative side, which is the writing process, and also being in service to the land. Over the last six years I’ve been going a lot deeper. I studied at the School of Myth on Dartmoor, and since then have been thinking about bardic traditions, and I study Eco-Therapy. A lot of what myth teaches us is how to spend your time well, how to be patient and focused, studying and walking the land with intention, practicing kindness and generosity. This is what brings the poetry, the beauty-making. It’s not just talking about nature, it’s connecting and protecting and making relationship being in and of living nature.
How would you like to see libraries evolve over the next five years?
I can actually feel, see and notice what a difference the residency has on the space as a focus point and permission to discuss and get involved. The short answer is that libraries are already evolving and will continue to do so. I hope that art programmes are central to this process. One participant in my reading cafe this morning said if only we can have another art centre in Weymouth. People feel the loss of art spaces and public spaces. There’s been lots of closures, so we all look to ask who can fill that gap and I think that’s where the libraries have become our cultural hubs. Places to make and do and swap ideas and learn.
Dedicated spaces that are committed to opportunity, creativity and diversity generate creativity and local culture, but I do think that’s always shifting. I’ve noticed how versatile the library space is, how many people use it in all sorts of ways, and how much it is needed within the town community.
Would you like to see this rolled out nationally?
I think if it protects libraries and provides art in community, then yes. I hope that programmes like this one help to protect the library for education, creativity and opportunity for all, it’s more important than ever. Showing people that anything is possible, offering books and events and art to fill and raise minds and souls with the alchemy of the creative process and the delight of it present in our lives. The Libraries as Cultural Hubs programme is forging a path ahead in Dorset, anything is possible, which is exciting and positive.
Finally, you’ve you’ve just been accepted onto our Culture+ Outdoor Arts training scheme. How do you see this benefiting your practice?
The outdoor training scheme is a very generous offer. I’d like to establish myself as a practicing poet, much in the same way a practicing artist would. I’d like to take on more residencies, teaching, commissions and other opportunities I don’t yet now about, for instance festival installations. This outdoor training scheme will hopefully help to open those doors for me. Also, I’m currently not sure how to package myself and to write proposals in an effective way. I think this training will help me with this.