Tonight's the night! One of this year’s ‘pamphleteers’, Isabella Mead, has been awarded first prize in the Oxford Twin Cities Poetry Competition! Isabella will be reading at their online award ceremony this evening at 5.30pm. Thinking of tuning in? Here's a little more about Isabella and her prize-winning pamphlet, Dear Rwanda.
What inspired your pamphlet?
I lived and worked in a rural area of Rwanda for two years from 2010 to 2012. I was working through Voluntary Service Overseas, training teachers in 15 primary schools on the use of child-centered methodology in the classroom as opposed to the more common practice of rote-learning. I lived in a village called Muganza, a close-knit community far down south near the border with Burundi. It was a 40-minute motorbike drive from the nearest bus stop, which was a three hours' drive to the nearest town.
Rwanda has breathtakingly beautiful landscape. The country is known as the 'Land of a Thousand Hills'. While I was there, I had a blog, and I posted monthly poems, mainly harmless, romantic poems about the hills and the animals (goats and cows, mainly), and the banana trees that sweep across every inch of the country. The only poems from that blog that made it into the final collection were ‘Rwanda’, ‘Mosquito Net’, ‘Maths Lesson’, ‘African Night’ and ‘My Village Has a New Electricity Pylon’.
When I came back to the UK to live, I kept writing about Rwanda, but tried also to resolve the complexities I felt about the experience – a mixture of frustration with the aid industry, sickness at the exploitation I had seen, sadness at the stories I'd heard, guilt about my white saviour posturing, all mixed up. The poems I was writing started to become more complex, recording journalistic reflections on the experience and encounters I'd had with people, fused with descriptions of the landscape. This time, the descriptions of landscape, flora and fauna became more symbolic, metaphorical reflections of the topic.
How long have you been writing?
I was an avid writer at primary school. Then during the joyous days of an abhorrent 1990’s secondary school experience I couldn't write at all. In sixth form I started to write again and have continued for twenty plus years.
What can you say about your writing process?
It's probably the most unproductive and unsustainable process. I have to wait for an encounter, to find a moment of inspiration: it might be a conversation with someone, it might be something I've seen in a museum, it might be a news item, it might be a flower I've seen on the way to work. I know it'll be a poem, but it has to percolate, and I can't force it. Every night I mind map around the subject, and augment this with research and reading to find specific vocabulary. For example, when I wrote the ‘Sunflowers’ poem, I read up lots about sunflowers and that's how I came across the word 'ligules' which I didn't know before!
I will continue this way every night for two or three weeks, not even attempting to structure the words into something. Then comes the 'crunch' time where I set a good long evening aside, put on some music that relaxes me, have a glass of wine, disconnect from Wi-Fi and just focus on putting all the mind maps together. At this point I'm trying to find a narrative that threads together all the disparate ideas. Usually this 'crunch' time is prompted by an approaching deadline for a poetry competition, which I find a useful way to self-discipline my writing process. So, the whole process takes about a month. Dear Rwanda is comprised of 12 years of poems!
What was the most challenging aspect of your writing?
Writing about people was the most challenging. I feel that their values are important to share, for example, the silent generosity of Papa Fabrice in the poem ‘Sweetcorn’. At the same time, their stories weren't my stories to tell so I had to find a compromise in which I transcribed observations, encounters and conversations I'd had - usually in the bar - rather than trying to claim I knew what their true thoughts and feelings were. And at the same time again, it felt really narcissistic when I put myself in the frame too much. I hope I found a respectful balance.
What do you hope your reader gains or takes away from your writing?
The values of shared community living and another dimension to a complex country that augments, deepens or even contradicts what might be portrayed of the country as a whole in the media.
Isabella Mead grew up in Cambridge and holds a Master’s in History of Art from the University of York. A former secondary English teacher in East London, she lived and worked for two years from 2010 to 2012 in a rural area of Rwanda with Voluntary Service Overseas, an experience which profoundly informs her writing. She lives in Bristol with her partner and her cat and is studying for a second BA degree in French, Italian and Spanish. Isabella is Head of Learning and Participation at The Story Museum in Oxford, through which she leads a vibrant team of storytellers and creative writing tutors. She is also a Trustee of Jane Austen House and a Poetry Ambassador at Keats’ House.
Read Isabella's winning poem 'Wellwisher' and register for the Twin Cities Prize free online award ceremony at 5.30pm tonight here: https://www.brookes.ac.uk/research/units/hss/centres/poetry-centre/oxford-s-twin-cities-competition
Isabella's pamphlet Dear Rwanda is available to purchase from the Live Canon store: https://www.livecanon.co.uk/store/product/dear-rwanda-isabella-mead