Creative Writing at Cambridge

Helen Mort 23 September 2007

Almost a hundred years ago, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a series of letters to a hopeful student trying to establish himself as a writer. Rilke’s advice to his protege was refreshingly stark:

‘This above all – ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night, must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this question with a strong and simple I must, then build your life according to this necessity.’

Stirring words. But possessed of that necessity and that compulsion, the writer still needs outlets for her work. And finding and navigating your way through those outlets can be a daunting prospect, particularly in a new city.

Like many places, Cambridge has a fragmented writing scene, and it pays to keep your ear to the ground. Many of the most interesting events in the city don’t just take place within colleges, or even the University, but are one-offs at bookshops or cafes. You could start with a good information service. The Cambridge Writer’s Guild, established by former John’s student and writer for The Liberal, Niccolo Milanese, sends regular e-mail bulletins to members listing workshops, opportunities for travel writing, poetry readings, competitions and much more. The Society organises occasional events such as open mic, and all-important pub meets up at The Castle, but is primarily a free source of information. You can find out more by contacting hm317@cam.ac.uk.

For poetry specific news, Peter Howard’s poetry pages are often worth a visit at www.hphoward.demon.co.uk/campoetry/, or check out ‘landmarks’ at www.poetrysociety.org.uk which you can use to navigate your way through poetry events around the country. An excellent point of contact for any writer is always The Society of Authors, who can be relied upon for an extensive guide to funding, prizes, events and other opportunities throughout the UK: www.societyofauthors.net.

If you’re seeking inspiration, look out for workshops run by visiting writers. Though Magdalene’s year of literature has come to an end, and with it the residency of novelist and poet Tamar Yoseloff, Cambridge colleges continue to attract big names. Poet Jacob Polley ran workshops as Trinity College’s Visiting Fellow for the Arts from 2005-2007, and both Kettle’s Yard and the Fitzwilliam Museum often organise one-day events. For details of John Greening’s forthcoming series of poetry workshops at Kettle’s Yard, visit www.poetryschool.com. Throughout 2006, playwright Issy McCann also ran ‘Scriplab’: a set of workshops aimed at generating new drama, and organised read-throughs for new writers looking to get their work performed. You can find workshops in the most surprising places: I once stumbled upon an evening for wannabe dramatists in the basement of CB2 cafe, just off East Road. Perhaps the moral of my story is that it pays to be a lazy arts student, hooked on caffeine, if you want to be in the right places at the right time.

For those looking for a chance to showcase their work in print, there are plenty of opportunities within the city. InPrint magazine is a yearly publication run by St John’s students, featuring poetry and prose from across the University. Produced in Mayweek, back issues are available from various venues around Cambridge, including Heffers and Indigo cafe. For the past fifteen years, the May Anthologies has provided an outlet for new writing and artwork by Oxbridge students. With past guest editors including Don Paterson, Sean O’Brien and Ali Smith, the Mays has developed an excellent reputation. This year’s anthology features 10 poems, 9 pieces of prose and 4 pieces of artwork selected from over a thousand individual submissions. The deadline for submissions is usually January, and the Mays will shortly be recruiting new members for its editorial team. (See mays.varsity.co.uk). You can pick up a copy of the Mays in Heffers or Borders.

It’s worth keeping an eye open for competitions for new writing within the University too, such as the John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan Poetry Prize, which offers £750 for a winning verse composition not longer than 500 lines. The winner also has the chance to be published in Salt – a press with an excellent reputation for fiction and poetry, which published several contenders for this year’s Forward Prize. Some colleges such as Trinity, Emmanuel and Trinity Hall also run their own competitions.

As ever, there’s a world of opportunity beyond the University, which it’s easy to lose sight of from inside the Cambridge bubble. Seam magazine is a local poetry publication run by Anne Berkley. Founded in 1994, Seam features reviews, essays and new work by established and emerging voices, and the website www.seampoetry.co.uk gives a flavour of its latest issue. London is an important place to look for publications and more, and a copy of the Writer’s Yearbook (2007), available from Heffers, Borders or Waterstones, will give you an excellent list of magazines, competitions and contacts.

As Rilke also warned his student, writing can be a lonely occupation, even in a busy University town. Perhaps the exception to this is performance. The English Faculty has boasted some distinguished guests, including a packed reading by Seamus Heaney in 2006, which had more of the feel of queuing for a gig than an afternoon of poetry. The Shirley Society at St Catharine’s organises visits from novelists, playwrights and poets, as does Clare Poetry, home to famous open mic nights in the Cellars, which sometimes feature the ever-popular verse-off; writers go head to head, armed with little more than insults and the odd guitar.

Towards the end of the Easter holidays, Cambridge Wordfest hits town and brings with it a host of stars and well-meaning open mic readers. Now in its 6th year, Wordfest is directed by Cathy Moore and offers a packed programme of workshops, theatre and readings with former guests including Billy Bragg, Graham Swift and PD James. More details appear at www.cambridgewordfest.co.uk closer to the time, but it’s definitely worth coming back early for.

One of the more exciting developments on the Cambridge performance scene this year promises to be the re-vamp of city-based CB1 poetry. After nearly ten years at Mill Road’s CB1 cafe, the group is embarking on a major new series of guest readings at the Michaelhouse Centre, Trinity Street. Acclaimed novelist and poet Tobias Hill kick-starts the programme on Tuesday 9th October, beginning a series of readings which all take place on the second Tuesday of the month. Each event also offers a short open mic floor spot and further details will soon be up at www.cb1poetry.org.uk.

Organised opportunities for writers in Cambridge are endless if you decide to look for them – which is not to undermine the merits of disorganisation; I met the publisher of my first pamphlet in a London pub, pint in hand. To my experience, you could devote almost your entire time at Cambridge to literary goings on, even if that just includes mis-spent hours in G David browsing their hidden stocks of second-hand books, or stuffing your face with cake at The Orchard, Grantchester, where Rupert Brooke and Virginia Woolf used to sit. If you’re as serious about your craft as Rilke’s weighty words imply, then there are worse ways to spend three years!

Helen Mort