'Prepare to be immersed in the heat and vibrancy of Florida's natural world, full of such sensual detail that to read it is to breathe it in.' -Jo Shapcott [review of Greyhound Night Service]

Collectives and companions

cover design by Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis

Last Thursday, March 26th, the literary events committee known as 'The Needlewriters', an East Sussex collective of poets and prose writers of which I have been a part since 2008, launched its first print anthology and its online 'companion' publication. The launch itself was something of a major watershed moment for me, and the mood was one of relief and celebration. The year of hard work from everyone involved in putting together the publications, not to mention the hours upon hours of conversations and meetings that went on behind the scenes toward the process of decision making, communication among writers as well as design ideas and sourcing of material was now all coming to a smooth and beautiful close. The magnificent print anthology in itself, with Mary Anne's painting on the front was just the perfect icing on the cake and when I walked into the Needlemakers cafe in Lewes, our host venue and namesake-inspiration, where every single event has been held (four each year plus book launches), I saw the smiling faces of all the contributors. Among this number were friends, colleagues, ex-students of mine, and the partners and family that attended by invitation.

The old red-brick walls of the cafe created a warm and grounding atmosphere as it always did, but this time, like our most memorable evenings, the room was packed and buzzing with conversation and the meeting of old friends before the readings had even begun. In my own connections during the evening, I greeted the other members of my own writing group, teaching colleagues who I rarely see outside of exam-marking meetings, and it was with much delight that I bumped into a writer friend of mine with whom I had lost touch for the past four years, a woman who co-organised the very first writing group I attended when moving to the UK.

As the evening kicked off, Needlewriter Alice Owens gave a moving introduction which included the reading out of the long list of names of anthology contributors, all of whom had been a reader at a Needlwriters event sometime in the past (nearly) seven years. Hearing the names of everyone involved and seeing the faces of these poets, novelists and short story writers in the crowd I was reminded just how full the writing community in Sussex has been for me.

Home to me from 2001--2014, the villages of Sussex, but especially Lewes, have held nearly all of the adult years of my life, the studying for my MA, the beginning of my teaching career, the start of my experience as a published poet, and the first half of my time working on my PhD. The Needlwriters as a collective has been the third writing / events group I have taken part in since moving to the UK and it has been the longest lived and most significant.  As a group we have meet several times a year, often with scones and tea and fruit in the sun or with tea and cake and a roaring fire indoors in winter and autumn (and sometimes spring!). We have compared notes on new writers in the area and ones which some of us knew and others did not.  We've decided on dates and readers and the tone of upcoming events, we've balanced the readings of prose writers and poets and carefully selected the MC for each evening series of readings.

For me the launch was a completion of a huge project, one which saw our group of nine work together through the intricacies of publishing an anthology (most of us involved in such a venture for the first time).  But it was also the penultimate event for me in the life of the group.  Now a resident of a county not even bordering Sussex, my involvement over the past year, since relocating, has become exhausting (always an M25 pileup on the day) and increasingly, my energies have needed to be elsewhere (my PhD and bigger teaching commitments).  All of this considered, it was still with great sadness that I made the decision, just before the launch, that it was time to pass the baton on to a new member of the collective, one who will join just now, at the end of the anthology work / start of the next round of readings.  So my attendance at the next Needlewriters reading, on April 9th, will be my last as MC and as part of the collective. I will miss the meetings and discussions with group members who I now consider friends, but will surely still attend the readings, though from now on at a more leisurely pace. 

And through this transition, I have the poems and stories of the print and online companion anthologies to keep me busy: there is so much good stuff to read and re-read!