Marks and Spencer:
some notes on the residency
by Peter Sansom

I am very grateful to the Poetry Society and to Marks and Spencer plc for what has been some of the most enjoyable and, poetically and otherwise, profitable months of my life.

First, the nuts and bolts. The residency began in January, and was for six months, two days a week. One day, writing (about which later). The other day was running workshops with staff: alternating weeks between an on-going workshop at the Baker Street head office (I set homework) with single visits to stores around the country. Writing exercises got people to create poems in their lunch hour; most did not expect to write, none to write as well as they did, but they did. An anthology this autumn will be proof. A number of M&S personnel have now started reading poems, and may go to poetry readings, and will go on writing. It's been more exciting and more successful than it sounds. A separate piece on the web explains some of the thinking behind writing in groups (M&S Poetry Workshop).

The main difference between this placement and others I've held is that it was not for writers. During my three years at Doncaster Central Library, for instance, I ran a workshop and surgery sessions and so saw only people who were already writing or had a yen that way. People for whom, even if only temporarily, poetry was or could be at the centre of their lives. During the current residency, for most people, writing tended to stay peripheral: an adjunct to, relaxation from, stimulus for their job. M&S staff are committed to their company; and their working lives, by and large, are given wholeheartedly, which is a testament to Marks and Spencer's employment policy, and one reason it's not surprising they have an Arts and Science Forum and so were willing to link up with the Poetry Society for the 'Places' scheme. The fact that resident poets will work largely with new or indeed non- writers is for me the principle strength of the scheme. It puts poets in touch with 'real' people, and vice versa. I'm not saying poets aren't real people, you understand, though then again I've met a lot of poets.

The Places scheme is varied and still developing, and others are better able to describe its function and possibilities; but it is very obviously an exciting initiative, tempting to say the most exciting for years, certainly of any I've heard about. It's not just offering writing time to the poets and an income; and, which some placements amount to, it's not just a chance to develop 'facilitating skills': it is putting poets in the way of completely new material - and it's going to involve a lot of writers in a lot of very different situations. Most interesting is that it may create links with businesses and organisations traditionally thought quite separate to if not actually inimical to poetry. And therefore links with people - those 'real' people - that might never expect to read and certainly not write a poem, or to see the relevance. This should, or may, undermine some popular misconceptions and half-truths about contemporary poetry, and demystify it a bit. The scheme may help to find another role for poetry outside its safe and hand-to-mouth existence; which is to say, obviously there is money in business and not in poetry (not mine at least). At a time when poetry seems to be developing a wider, well-informed readership, the media attention the scheme will continue to attract should raise its profile still further, though I suppose for the most part that may merely realign a few prejudices.

My brother-in-law's for instance, who saw me on telly, so now thinks I'm rich. My mum, for her part, saw 'Poetry Among the Knickers' in the Nottingham Evening Post, so couldn't understand, if I was in Mansfield - their nearest M&S - why I hadn't called in for a cup of tea (there are worse ways of misunderstanding that headline). Other misunderstandings: the staff at Newcastle store, and Cheltenham, thought I'd recite over lunch, like a violinist at the tables. Norwich store (where the organiser's dad had been taken into hospital) were surprised to see me (and a woman from the New York Times: 'Norwich, a drab East Anglian town in the south of England...'). My publisher thought the residency was with Sainsbury's. In Head Office they sometimes think I'm lost. It's not the dozy look, though this must contribute; it's the jumper instead of jacket and tie, the can't-be-arsed stubble, and dogeared notebook instead of an electronic word-wallet or St Michael board file at the very least. The other misconception is that Marks and Spencer were paying a king's ransom to a poet for reasons best known to themselves, probably publicity.

Well, as you will know, it's The Poetry Society stumping up: paying a fair wack - not as much as I'm worth but more than some would judge, and actually a very timely windfall - from an Arts Council Lottery grant. M&S defray travel and provide excellent lunches. M&S press office also did what they could to head off, then calm the media interest. The story broke, as we corporate swingers say, before they'd consulted staff. In any case, though they're known for it, M&S do most of their sponsorship behind the scenes, and their community involvement too, as I've learned in a small way by visiting a couple of schools. Salutary, incidentally, to remark that what seemed like stardom to my ansafone went unnoticed, though my five minutes on the Big Breakfast did the impossible, impressing my teenage daughter. Commonsense in any case that newspapers, who'd not beaten a path to my door before, commissioned not me but the oddity of the thing. I love attention, though not its outcome. Some people, though they weren't actually interested in me, nevertheless acted as though they were - and what's more in me as a poet, not a workshop leader, or editor, or teacher -; and that helped me write with more confidence. The residency itself has meant too that I've been expected to write poems, and, though they needn't have been about Marks and Spencer, that's what I've gone for. After all, I'd been given a plum of an opportunity, in on the inside of a huge and hugely diverse operation; apart from schools, the last workplace I'd been in was a record shop, around the time punk burst the bubble of progressive. That is if you don't count our office as a workplace, which is a poetry publishers, or the university I drift in and out of unnoticed even by, especially by, most of my students.

Faced with so much data at M&S, though, so much tension between product and process, the foot-shoe (137,000 pairs shifted in first week of sale) and the staff restaurant, the focus group bulletin board and the chairman's speechwriter, with the green-veried, straplined juggernaut of expansion in Europe, the caramel dessert and the forty-percent market share in underwear, I've sometimes retreated into autobiography and reconsidering what poetry is, what we can teach of it and why we want to; but something of M&S has found its way into my notebook even so. Which is to say, in among judging the Baker Street staff art exhibition and Colchester's poetry competition, and running workshops, poems have written themselves in my Smiths pad in that scrawl a graphologist could type me by, and which from this distance I'm having to guess at, make bits of it up all over again. Three or four poems can stay pretty much as they are. The rest are unfinished, unpatterened yet, and maybe won't survive their occasion, like dreams I remember only the outlines of, and which, if I could recover and redorder the detail, it would be turning a key in a lock, what I meant to say, what might have been said, about what is not just a retail outlet but a British institution.

The door opens even so and I walk in wishing - a unique experience for me - I was a novelist. The fiction of commerce is all there, office politics and areas closed off against industrial espionage; a new design for a wine label or the secret ingredient of cream of mushroom soup; the Littlewoods take-over; the bomb in Manchester and enormous floorspace of the flagship store that will replace it; the woman who says 'I'm Saturday only'; the bra-fitter; the early days of the penny bazaar; next season's fashions and the fashion show with Vogue and the dailies milling in the marble foyer. 'I'm writing a novel,' someone says and 'oh really,' the response goes, 'neither am I.' But it could be done in poetry, and some of it will be. I have M&S literature and am still allowed to nosey round, because Julia and everyone I've worked with is good that way and because staff at M&S are very willing to talk about what they do. Already I have notes and the beginnings of poems that will make up a third of my next book.

And for six months I've been comfortably off, a relative term. 'You'll never have no money, Peter,' a poem of mine opens, 'so long as you've a hole in your arse.' One of my mum's sayings. Poetry. It makes you think. Though I write poems not to think, but to make sense of my life - insofar as that is at all possible - by dealing with it in the patterns of language that as it were (to borrow a phrase of Michael Schmidt's) write me. The same is true of the reading experience; good poems read us. Which is another reason I'm keen on the Places scheme; it will ultimately encourage people to read poems as well as write them, and to read more focussedly and whole-heartedly. I believe everyone might want to do that, now and then, if they knew what it was, not what they think it is; just as, at some times, most of us might actually need to write.

The process of writing is - or may be - analagous to dreaming, and, though I can't substantiate it, serves a similar function, which has to do with our well-being. But poems aren't merely writing as therapy because like dreaming they don't tackle anxieties head on, but are coded. It's sleep we want, and the dreams happen to happen while we sleep. What's more, they do their work whether we interpret them or not, do it better perhaps if not. Or like graphology. I write to read the words, not the way they're written or what they say about me. And, like the stuff of graphology and unlike dreams, you're left with a product: something independent of you that can be shared, an artefact that can make its own way in the world. Admittedly, a product for a niche market, a line there's no call for, or not yet, on the shelves of Marks and Spencer. But give it time.

- Peter Sansom  

 

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