The Joys of Poetry Editing and Writing Retreats

Totleigh BartonI love editing my poems. There’s a thrill in getting that first draft down on the page, but nothing beats spending hours, days, weeks, months (even years) pondering over a poem, testing out words, switching line breaks, finding the perfect form. However, I’ve never been in quite this position before, knowing that the final changes I’m making right now will end up as an actual book of poems. My debut collection Octopus Mind is due for publication in July, and the deadline is looming.   

So I’m currently going through the manuscript, checking I’m happy with all of the poems, double checking titles, adjusting the final order, considering the odd alteration… Only this is such an overwhelmingly addictive process that I’m probably overdoing it a bit (remove a comma, add the comma back in, etc etc). The thing with editing is – your brain just keeps on doing it, long after you’ve decided to stop (sometimes even while you’re asleep, in my experience) which is partly why it’s so incredibly difficult, but also incredibly fun!

And I’m at a similar (though much earlier) stage with the creative component of the PhD – a collection of ekphrastic and meta ekphrastic poems that respond to my research, which I’m due to complete over the coming months. Basically, I’m in poet heaven – with two manuscripts to work on at once.

The dining room at Totleigh Barton

The dining room at Totleigh Barton

So I decided that the work-in-progress Arvon course (with tutors Martha Sprackland and Will Burns) would be a helpful boost to my creative juices. The idea being that I’d refresh my poetry intake, be forced to try out some different writing tasks, and hone my editing skills a little further. I’ve never attended an Arvon course before, but having been to Ty Newydd a few times, I knew what to expect, as it’s based on a similar format.

Totleigh Barton looked picturesque in the photos, and I was not disappointed. It’s an old farmhouse with sloping floors, walls, ceilings, a gorgeous old kitchen and dining room (with woodburner), a comfy under-floor-heated barn full of sofas, and no phone signal or proper wifi access – a detox from the world.

I’d forgotten the sheer joy of being surrounded by poets – just poets – all the time, for a whole week. We talked about other things, occasionally, but the main topic of conversation at breakfast, lunch and dinner was poetry. And editing. And the whole submission / rejection thing. It’s such an encouragement to share poetry ambitions and challenges, and to feel like you’re not on your own. It was also a week of dry, crisp, winter weather, ideal for capturing Totleigh Barton at its best.

Totleigh Barton in the snow

Totleigh Barton in the snow

I began my week at the local station (Okehampton) where I had nearly an hour to wait for the Totleigh Barton taxi, so I sat in the station café drinking tea and editing – a perfect, writerly way to begin the week. And it was brilliant. I wrote several new drafts and managed to do a lot of editing. Best of all, I’ve come away with a whole new group of poetry friends and plenty of ideas, inspired by things that Martha and Will talked about, and the poems read by Jack Underwood (our guest reader on the Wednesday night).

The journey home afterwards was a challenge, with snow causing train delays that meant it took three freezing hours just to reach Exeter, and another hour of waiting in the cold before catching the next train back to Wales. But it was worth it.



I then had two days to recover before heading off on my next writing adventure (Gregynog, in mid-Wales) for the Cardiff University MA students creative writing retreat. I last went there in 2019, at the very start of my PhD, thinking I’d be back the following year to have a go at teaching… but of course that didn’t happen. So I took up the offer this year instead, and enjoyed running an ekphrastic writing workshop for them.

Gregynog is a strange old mansion, in its own valley, surrounded by woods. It felt particularly spooky shrouded in fog and frost. The mansion itself is pretty chilly, but they certainly know how to feed their guests (three main meals a day plus lots of tea and cake) and I had a warm bedroom, with a comfy desk to work at. The editing continued, of course.

A frozen rose at Gregynog

A frozen rose at Gregynog

It felt rather odd, going from all-poets-together at Arvon, to the strange hierarchy of academic life, but each retreat was fun in its own way, full of inspiring conversations, fueling me up for a fruitful Christmas break, some new poem ideas, and perhaps, maybe, just a little more editing.

See my Instagram feed for more photos…

*I’m grateful to the SWWDTP for funding my PhD and making opportunities like this possible.

*Octopus Mind will be published by Seren Books in July 2023.

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