At Quay Words we love working with talented emerging writers, supporting them as they develop their craft and offering opportunities for them to share their work. In the first post of our 'New Voices' blog, Abby Crawford tells us about her experience of taking part in a Quay Voices event at the end of last year.

On a wet and windy Wednesday evening, a small group of emerging poets and writers gather to perform their work at Exeter Custom House. They share the stage with none other than a stuffed rat belonging to actress and screenwriter, Naomi Westerman. As the summer writer- in-residence, Naomi previously hosted a Quay Words workshop in which she encouraged writers to explore the nature of Exeter Quayside. Quay Words is a partnership between Exeter Canal and Quay Trust and Literature Works, to celebrate new voices in Exeter and give residents opportunities to work alongside more established writers. The performance event is a chance for writers to showcase work developed.

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The ceiling inside the 1680s iconic building is white plaster, an unusual entwining of eels and pig heads. In the centre of the room, there is a stage set up; lit with round lights, an armchair with a yellow cushion and a yeti microphone into which the event will be broadcast live on Crowdcast. As a participant myself, waiting for my turn to take the stage, I nervously ask one of the other participants, Maureen Boon if she has ever performed her work before. “Not this poem, not this stage! I was put off poetry a long time ago.” She shows me a blown up photocopy of a red leaf, which she ensures me is not actual size.

“Naomi got us to pick up natural objects and then write about them, I wrote a double haiku about these rusty leaves. Also my rescue dog, Wilmo.”

Other poets near the back of the room are no strangers to performance, but like the leaves, they are also feeling a little rusty as they haven’t performed their work for a few years. The event was hugely inspiring and the audience were so supportive, Some of my personal favourites included Mark Blackburn, Tracey Fuller and Mike Murray, as well as a hilarious naked mole rat poem performed brilliantly by Filippo Rossi. (During the previous workshop, Naomi had challenged attendees to use this as a prompt!)

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The event was a laugh yet additionally cathartic. A few read poems for loved ones that had passed, as well as shared stories of illness and Covid. After listening to all these talented writers perform, I really was struck just how important literature is and how beneficial it can be for our mental wellbeing to have the opportunity to share our stories together. Poetry especially is a way of expressing that we all have the same basic emotions and have been through similar experiences. It’s so nice being able to attend events like these again.

Writing was something I didn’t pursue due for a few years, due to mental health and self-doubt. It was only after recently receiving encouragement that I felt I had the confidence to pursue it with more serious intent and everything else then seemed to click into place. Being able to attend these local workshops and especially Quay Words events has been very inspirational, shown me it’s possible to improve and is a great way to meet others who are just starting out. Other Quay Words events I’ve attended included Anthony Joseph ‘Frequency of Magic’, a magical evening of spoken word and jazz and Caleb Parkin’s ‘Choice, Lack of’ workshop in which we learned many unorthodox and creative ways that poems can be formed. These let me discover things I never would have on my own. I next plan to attend a 5-week life writing course with Tom Cox, running again in the Custom House on Saturdays. I see myself as more of a fiction writer, so it will be an interesting and slightly out of my comfort zone to try and write from my own experience, to be more authentic.

As a UNESCO City of Literature, Exeter has so many brilliant opportunities happening all year around to improve craft and meet talented authors and poets who are eager to share their knowledge. Personally, I find these events incredibly useful as they help show that authors are not some kind of literary messiahs but just normal people and becoming one is an achievable goal. As well as Literature Works, Exeter Lit Fest are also running events at Exeter Library. I was delighted recently to receive advice from BBC journalist Mike Thompson, as well as meet Khaleed Wakkaa. I’m inspired by how much he wants to give back to Exeter after he was accepted here as a refugee here 4 years ago. I’m currently reading the book ‘Human Crossings’ in which he tells his story and I urge everyone to buy a copy as half the money goes to a good cause.

In celebration of my recent experiences and Quay Words, I decided to collate writers in my local area and create an inclusive group where we can share knowledge and support each other’s efforts. I would love for us to hold writing workshops in person in the ‘Wharfingers’ old office in Exeter Custom House sometime soon.

I’ve also decided to try and run another group called Exeter CultureSpace, an idea which merges my love of language learning and creativity with my desire to help integrate refugees and migrants into our community, through creative writing and art. I’m hoping that I can collaborate with Exeter College, ESOL in order to do this, but I’m still looking for people who would potentially be interested in helping.

Writing can be a hugely solitary activity so it’s always important to meet up when we can. I hope to encourage a social group which will allow beginners and hobbyists to come out of the woodwork, to workshop and feedback with those more experienced and eventually produce content that can be shared on an online platform.

The writing group is currently on Facebook and any writers are welcome to join.

Words and photos by Abby Crawford