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Becky Cullen is Newstead Abbey's Poet-in-Residence

21 June 16 words: Aly Stoneman
"When I started the residency I knew a bit about Lord Byron's poems, but I understood very little about him. I've discovered that he was a complex man"
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What is it like treading in the footsteps of Lord ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’?
When I started the residency I knew a bit about Lord Byron’s poems, but I understood very little about him. I’ve discovered that he was a complex man who stood up for people against bullies, whether individual or institutional. Across Europe and beyond, Byron is seen both as a man who wrote exquisite poems and as a hero engaged with human rights – his poetry was read aloud among the protesting students in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

I’ve really warmed to him, beyond all the sensationalist stuff about his life, just by finding out that when he was living there, Newstead was filled with laughter. Byron is as significant to Nottingham as Shakespeare is to Stratford and I’m really pleased to have been working at Newstead at a time when Nottingham is a UNESCO City of Literature, because he’s central to our literary heritage.

What have you created during your residency?
Since January, I’ve been working with volunteers and family visitors to produce a Newstead Abbey guide in poems, called Windows and Shadows. A short poem is a really good way to remember something, so by sharing poems with visitors we’re giving people ways of taking Newstead home with them. We’re launching the guide at our Poetry Party on 10 July from 12 - 4pm. As well as the fabulous house and grounds, there will be short poetry tours of the property, music from the Harlequin Choir, a Teddy Bears’ Teatime picnic, singing and games for children – anything fun and interesting, in the spirit of Lord Byron himself.

How does the location influence your writing?
I like exploring all the different ways a poem and time play together – for instance, by bringing someone from the past back to life and giving them a voice. There are lots of timescales all pushing against each other in the architecture at Newstead, so it’s the perfect place for me to be writing poems about different lives and times.

What’s your favourite thing at Newstead?
I’m in love with Arthur, the peacock, although he is a bit stupid and tries to attack his own reflection.

Why did you decide to do a Poetry PhD?
I didn’t think PhDs were for mums who were brought up in Beeston, but a doctoral training partnership called Midlands3Cities were offering scholarships and I thought I’d give it a go. I got the funding, so since 2014 I’ve been a full-time student again, which is a bit surreal. My PhD is practice-led, so I’m producing my own poems as well as a critical thesis.

What was the inspiration for your poem Majid Sits in a Tree and Sings?
Majid is a Libyan friend who told me about people being rounded up and marched to football stadiums for public executions under Gaddafi. I knew him when there was a group of Libyan students at the University of Nottingham and all Libyans were suspected to be terrorists. The regime they left was brutal, and not many people liked them here either. That feels very contemporary given some of the views in the press on refugees. Despite this, there was something childlike and playful about Majid; he liked to sit in trees and sing at picnics. I was really moved by the adult Majid behaving in a childlike way when he’d experienced such adult horrors as a boy. It is the voicing of someone at the bottom end of a distribution of power, questioning the truth they are told to believe.

Any writing advice you’d like to share?
I get a lot out of seeing people exploring writing as a means of self-expression. All my workshops start with me saying something along the lines of “allow yourself to write, try not to cross things out, or to apologise for your work if you read it out.”

What's next?
I’m at the Hucknall Byron Festival on Friday 1 July, reading my own poems and some by Lord Byron in four different cafes as part of the Byron Busk. I want to write some new poems, enjoy the rest of my PhD… and get my own peacock.

Becky’s residency is funded by Midlands3Cities and the Arts and Humanities Research Council and supported by Nottingham City Council Museums and Galleries Service, which runs Newstead Abbey.

Newstead Abbey website

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illustration: Ian Carrington

Majid Sits in a Tree and Sings

This morning, I wake with a bird in my heart.
My mother smiles only for me. I bash my car into the wall.
Sometimes she tells me to be quiet. Today, she laughs.

The men came in the hottest part of the day.
A walk, my love, a small walk, she says.
In the stairwell, the mothers hold their children.

The guns shine in the sun. I am a man,
this is no time for play, I do not hide.
We shuffle in, look for a seat in the stands.

A big black bird comes down from the sky.
The grown-ups hold their breath. They are blinking a lot.
The bird likes the meat hanging on the goalposts.

Tonight, my mother says I can sleep in her bed.
I make my back into a curved shell against her legs.
She strokes her palm across my forehead.

In the middle of the night, I watch her on her knees.
She tips her head backwards. I see all of her neck.

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