Mimi Khalvati's collections include Selected Poems (2000), Entries on Light (1997), Mirrorwork (1995) and In White Ink (1991). She is founder and Coordinator of The Poetry School in London, has tutored on many Arvon Foundation writing courses, and has given numerous workshops and seminars at universities, poetry groups and art colleges throughout the country.
The residency ran from May to October 2000 and was a marvellous six months for me, in a genuine two-way process where I learned as much about stamps as I was able to convey about poetry. Contrary to my initial expectations, I wasn't working with post offices and postmen, but with the Stamps & Collectibles division of the Royal Mail. The design and editorial team are primarily concerned with commissioning artists to design stamps, producing and marketing the stamps and other products and it was a fascinating experience for me to be working with people who are engaged in both art and business in a different but surprisingly allied field. The Royal Mail has a long tradition of working with poets, from Auden's Night Mail commissioned by the GPO, to commissioning contemporary poets to write poems for the Millennium Stamps series and collaborating with Poetry International this year. So I was working with people deeply committed to promoting poetry, very knowledgeable about it and sensitive to its nuances. Stamps are a miniature art form; so, you could say, is lyric poetry and, like any miniature art, these expand and open into huge worlds.
Behind the tiny square of the stamp lies a huge world. Not only the London offices where commissioning editors, researchers, designers, marketing people and hosts more beaver away to produce the 1,000,000,000 special stamps printed every year but also the Philatelic Bureau in Edinburgh serving stamp collectors all over the world. In addition, there are the painters, photographers, sculptors, weavers, video and film makers - all the artists who design the stamps I used to take for granted but now stop to inspect, having an inkling of the world that lies behind them. Royal Mail is the biggest circulation public arts programme in the UK and the largest conveyor of the written word.
So what's one little poet doing in there? These are some of the things I did during the residency:
First, there was my education to be taken care of. So I visited the offices, including two trips to Edinburgh, met some of the 80 staff at Stamps & Collectibles, had meetings with them where they told and showed me what they did, attended a Stamps Advisory Committee, visited De La Rue stamp printers (particularly fascinating from the security angle - devices invisible to the naked eye), attended a team work event, went to two stamp shows, including an exhibition at the British Library and the International Stamp Show at Earls Court, visited a delivery office and discovered a whole new world.
In return, I ran poetry workshops with the staff and children's workshops at the Stamp Show, gave readings with the artist and stamp designer David Gentleman who gave wonderful illustrated talks, judged a poetry competition for Royal Mail staff and children, for which there were 438 entries, ran surgeries at Poetry International and compiled anthologies. This last element of the residency I found fascinating. Every month, I chose eight poems by mostly established poets on the theme of the Millennium stamps issued that month - for example, 'Art & Craft', 'People & Place', 'Stone & Soil', 'Tree & Leaf, 'Mind & Matter', 'Body & Bone'. These poems were c-mailed to staff and responses invited at 'The Poet' mail-in address. They proved to be much appreciated and tied in with the twelve poems commissioned and published by Royal Mail in presentation packs of the Millennium Stamps. These monthly themes were also used as the basis for the short films produced and shown at Poetry International. In addition, I chose ten 'letter' poems by international poets which were beautifully reproduced as large posters for the International Stamp Show, where I also read poems over the tannoy, to the astonishment of stallholders.
Royal Mail were more than generous in their support of the residency, in giving me so much time and administrative support, in publicising events, including a very wonderful launch of the residency and of my Selected Poems at Waterstones, circulating the anthology poems and also promoting my own work - including a video film for Poetry International and postcards of haiku and other poems I wrote for Royal Mail, which were also radio broadcast and given as freebies to staff.
All in all, it was a wonderful time for me, I learned a great deal and to my amazement, writing some 'letter' poems also opened up a whole new territory for me in my own poetry - particularly that of my English childhood, which has become the focus of my next collection.
I hope to keep alive a wonderful relationship with Stamps & Collectibles and to build on the work we did together with projects in the future, and of course none of it would have been possible without the support of the Poetry Society - not least in getting all those permissions and dreaming it all up in the first place. Thankyous, drinks and stamps all round.