This project from the Staffordshire Library and Information Services proposes to place poets in the moving experience. "Moving is third in the list of stressful experiences, yet curiously it hardly figures in English adult fiction, drama or poetry... By contrast, moving is a major theme in children's literature. Why can't we use a poet and poetry to help adults and their families move too?"
During the three days of our placement, Simon Pitt, the other poet and I spent time at Reeds Rains estate agents in Stafford, listening to the estate agents and the clients, picking up the terminology and language: "deceptively spacious - in need of modernization", "offering scope for improvement." There is a double speak here in which everything means something else, a meaning which needs to be uncovered and decoded.
Jonathan Reid, the managing director, spoke to us about the bizarre experiences he sometimes has with clients, never knowing when he arrives at someone's door to evaluate property what he will find or whose world he will enter. Charles Bennett, the Literature Development Officer in Stafford, also took us to see many properties ranging from Victorian villas to modem estates to the cheapest terraced houses on the books.
We spoke a lot to many different people about the whole business and strain of moving - packing up your belongings, changing your identity, uprooting, becoming someone else. I realized, for the first time, how important our sense of home is, how much we feel the need to know where we will be sleeping, where our possessions are and how traumatic it is - and must be - not to know where one belongs.
Simon and I are each writing three poems about the whole experience of moving and these will be read at a poetry event in Stafford and also put on the net.
In June of this year, I was invited, along with Tamar Hodes, to undertake a poetry placement at an estate agents in Stafford. The brief was to spend a few days talking and listening to estate agents staff and customers, viewing local properties, and writing three poems each, based on information collected.
From the outset, we found our host, Jonathan Reid, and his staff very welcoming - more than happy to answer our questions and provide us with a background to an estate agent's life. The initial chat with Jonathan revealed a job full of stress, but lots of excitement.
Although at the early stages of the project I was unsure of a starting point for the poems, I felt I would concentrate on the emotional side of buying and selling properties, and of moving house - a major experience in most people's lives. We were told of a couple whose home was reclaimed at short notice. An image of frozen food, fresh from the freezer, piled up in the snow, was my starting point for my first poem, "FRIDAY 9a.m."
Tamar and I spent time in the estate agents, soaking up the atmosphere. Listening to the staff take phone calls; their conversations with clients. It soon became clear from this, and from an examination of terms used in the sales brochures, that estate agents have a language of their own. "A useful utility", "unexpectedly elevated", "an internal inspection is strongly recommended," "tastefully appointed" -these and many other phrases repeatedly arose during our placement.
My second poem, "We can help you buy this property" was born out of this terminology. I first considered a straight cut-up collage poem but eventually pitched the piece as an estate agent would pitch a property; taking the reader on a guided tour and exaggerating the use of language to ludicrous heights.
As a Midlands-based writer, I was familiar with Stafford before the placement. However, as we toured the whole range and style of properties I found myself looking at the area in a different light, obtaining a flash of insight into an estate agents "eye for property". We viewed the most expensive house followed by the cheapest. The latter, a terraced with a crack running from roof to ground, caught my imagination and prompted my third poem, "The average price of a house in Stafford is £90,000". There was a melancholic yet dignified aspect to that tumbledown terraced. I imagined who may have lived there. I eventually used the crack in the house as a metaphor for a divorced couple - one of the chief reasons for a house move, we were told.
I found in the case of all three poems, once I had the initial idea or - in the case of the second and third poems - an image, the rest of the pieces came fairly quickly. I drafted each poem three to four times, the deadline for the commission proving useful - under other circumstances I may have been "tinkering" with the pieces for months afterwards.
Our six poems were collated in an anthology, "A Moving Experience". We were pleased that Jonathan Reid contributed a poem - he being a self-confessed writer only of reports etc. The anthology was launched at a reading at the Shire Hall in Stafford. The Stafford Literature Development Officer, Charles Bennett, who had guided us through the placement, compered and also read.
All in all this was a highly enjoyable, unusual and affecting residency - in fact, A Moving Experience.