Sue Wallace-Shaddad took the Advanced Poetry Workshops in 2022 and earlier this year Clayhanger Press published her collection Sleeping with Clouds, a collaboration with artist Sula Rubens. Here she talks about her poetry journey.

When do you first remember wanting to be a writer/poet? I wrote my first poem, as far as I know, aged 12. It was a poem about the countryside in Suffolk where I grew up. My mother kept the poem; it was a rhyming poem. I then wrote a few poems while at university and the idea of poetry stayed in my mind thereafter, emerging from time to time. I kept a phrase I had written in 1973 in my head, ‘pent winding ink’, which acted as a reminder of wanting to write. I began writing more often in my 50s and decided to focus on poetry when I retired, self-publishing a pamphlet as a statement of intent that I gave out at my farewell event. It took several years of study before I felt I could call myself a poet!

Why did you decide to join the Creative Writing Programme’s Advanced Poetry Course?  And how did you find out about it? I decided to join the Creative Writing Programme in early 2022. I already had an MA in Writing Poetry from the Poetry School/Newcastle University (2018-2020) and wanted to do a course that would be thought provoking, challenging and build on my knowledge to date. I was following John McCullough on Facebook and really appreciated the way he shared his experience and advice with other poets. I think I heard about the course via his Facebook.

Who was your tutor?  John McCullough was the tutor and excellent.

What was the most impactful element of the course for you? I gained a lot from the course. I think practical advice and the sharing of fresh approaches to writing was particularly good, allied to the sharing of work by very different poets that I had not come across before.

Did you start writing Sleeping Under Clouds on the course? No, Sleeping Under Clouds was mainly written in 2020 during the pandemic. I had met artist Sula Rubens at an event and she sent me her catalogue through the post. I found her paintings inspirational and started to write poems in response. I then sent them to her to critique, which led to further editing on my part. It was a true collaboration.

What happened after the course finished? I produced some 12 draft poems during the course as well as editing two others. I was abroad immediately after the course and then busy finalising Sleeping Under Clouds so I am still in the process of editing several of the poems with a view to submitting them for publication opportunities.

How did you finish your book and get your publishing deal? I had been sending out the manuscript to publishers from December 2020. It was shortlisted by Maytree Press in April 2021 which was encouraging. I had particularly useful feedback from the editor of Fly on the Wall Press which led to some editing on my part. I also retitled the pamphlet with its current title. It was accepted in principle by an independent press in March 2022 but six months later they advised they were unlikely to be able to take it forward in the next couple years so we agreed to part company. I then approached Roger Bloor of Clayhanger Press whom I knew published beautiful books with great care. It was particularly important to me that the artist’s work should be featured in the book alongside the poems. He agreed very quickly in February 2023 and published Sleeping Under Clouds at the end of April 2023.

Tell us about Sleeping Under Clouds?  Sleeping Under Clouds is an ekphrastic collaboration between myself and artist Sula Rubens R.W.S. The themes of the paintings and poems are displacement, journeying, kinship and survival, seen particularly from the point of view of children. The first section ‘Maps’ features reflective poems about people on the move across continents and also mirrors the fact that the artist often paints over maps. The main section contains poems responding to individual paintings and the images are set side by side with the poems, so there is a strong dialogue between text and painting. We have been doing joint talks and readings. Click the link to see and hear the launch.

What’s next for you? Currently I am promoting Sleeping Under Clouds but I have another pamphlet coming out in September 2024 with Palewell Press: Once There Was Colour.  This features poems about the current crisis in Sudan and my family’s flight from there. (My first pamphlet A City Waking Up (Dempsey and Windle 2020) was about family life, customs, language and food in Sudan but also the political uprising in 2019). I have also just received a grant from the Arts Council’s Developing Your Creative Practice programme to work with Rebecca Goss as my mentor. In addition, I am putting together full collections. One is about the changing role of women 1870s to 1950s seen through portraits of women and by women artists, including those in my family. Another is about my international working life and bringing up my two children in that context.

Do you have a ‘day’ job in addition to your writing career and, if so, how do they complement one another? I retired from a long international career with the British Council in 2014. Since then, as well as completing an MA, I have been very active in the Suffolk poetry scene as secretary and trustee of Suffolk Poetry Society. This has helped me develop my poetry networks and provided reading opportunities. I am also trustee of Ipswich Arts Association which promotes different art forms; I have a poetry mandate within that. I write regularly for The Charles Causley Trust’s Literary Blog The Maker where I share my thoughts and activities and also make connections between poetry and art.

What are your top tips for someone starting out in their writing career? My advice would certainly be to read other poets as much as you can, as people have advised me to do. I have found reviewing poetry a good way to keep reading and to continue to develop critical thinking which can inform my own poetry. I would recommend taking every opportunity to read at open mics, however small, to build confidence, polish reading skills and to get better known. Finally, I recommend you are generous in your poetry life as you will find others are generous towards you.

Anything else you want to say? I like to challenge myself as a way to grow as a poet. However, this can mean I take on too much. I think as a poet one needs to find that balance between quiet and restlessness so that there is space for poems to emerge and time to concentrate on editing. This can be difficult in the pressurised world we live in today.

Sue took the Advanced Poetry Workshops. Places are full for this October but will open in April 2024 for an October 2024 start.