There are many hidden creative gems working amongst the Leeds Art Scene. ‘Artist in the Spotlight’ is TSOTA’s attempt to shine a light on some of them. You may or may not have come across them directly, but here at TSOTA we hope to gather them together and give you their lives in a few words. You can then decide if you want to know more…
This week’s Artist in the Spotlight is: Becky Cherriman
In a nutshell? A commissioned writer, creative writing facilitator and prize-winning performer.
Likely to be found: In an art gallery or a theatre, going for country walks and fox watching.
Likely not to be found: In a nightclub: “I don’t do clubbing or going out late any more. The other day someone offered me a very good deal on a makeover, hair cut and colour consultation with champagne. I told them it sounded very nice but it wasn’t really my thing. I’m all for getting dressed up but I’ll do it my own slightly haphazard way.”
TSOTA: What are your influences and how have you developed your career? Is there a particular writer you admire and draw influence from?
BC: At school I fell in love with Dylan Thomas’s lyricism and at uni I was bewitched by Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter and Toni Morrison, but there are many other writers before and since who have influenced my style. I read a lot of local poets, for example.
I studied a BA in English at the University of Leeds and there I learned to critique literature. It’s a useful skill for a writer because it encourages you to think, how did this writer deal with this theme? What are they doing with language here to make me feel so sad/amused/angry? Can I use any of these tools in my own work? And, most importantly of all, how can I do this differently?
But my writing is just as influenced by events that I witness or experience, world events, history, nature, art, people and places.
TSOTA: Does your interest in the natural world influence your work at all?
BC: Absolutely. I think the natural world presents us with infinite metaphors for understanding the world and ourselves if we just tune into it. I’m endlessly inspired by the sea, for example. My poetry is saturated with natural imagery and the novel I’m working on at the moment is set largely in or near Adel Woods where I spend a fair amount of time walking, cycling and running. But I do live on the edge of the city so there is definitely an urban influence too.
TSOTA: Do you draw any inspiration from the galleries you visit?
BC: I think writing is a natural bedfellow of the visual arts. As a writer I find the visual arts often stimulate my work in unexpected ways, not just in terms of ekphrastic writing – describing what is seen in a painting – but in the poetic links that can be made with other areas of life, in the stories we make when we experience a work of art or a series of artworks. And, through my work with The Hepworth Wakefield, The Tetley and other art galleries, time and again I see how inspired by the visual arts my participants are too.
TSOTA: How autobiographical is your work? Do you have a preferred genre or are you as happy writing novels as poems?
BC: It’s rarely completely autobiographical, although even autobiography is a perspective on events rather than one truth. Albert Camus says, ‘Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.’ Something I write about might be (or have been) emotionally true for me but the characters and events are fictional. I generally try to deal with universal themes but through the lens of the personal whether that be a real person or a fictionalised character. Even in autobiographical poems, I’ll often change a detail to make it work better lyrically or to give it more deliberate ambiguity or universal relevance.
TSOTA: Tell us something about your personality…
BC: I’m one of those people who likes to challenge myself with new experiences – if something scares me, I make myself try it at least once – so long as it’s legal and not [too] dangerous! That was how I started performing. I was absolutely terrified of speaking/reading in front of a crowd but realised if I was to sell books I would have to deliver readings so I performed the poem I was most afraid of performing and realised I quite enjoyed it.
IN THE COMMUNITY…
TSOTA: What is the nature of your work with Artlink West Yorkshire, Ilkley Young Writers and West Yorkshire Playhouse?
BC: Artlink West Yorkshire trained me as a community artist in 2002-3 and I’ve worked with them on projects ever since. They are a small team but the work they do with disadvantaged groups is incredibly important. There are always two or more artists, who are usually experts in two different art forms, working in collaboration on a particular project. These artists feed off one another and what happens for participants is often magical – a man with dementia who barely speaks, talking to another man with dementia about an abstract art painting, another speaking in poetry ready to be captured. Someone with learning difficulties who has never engaged in a group session becoming the life and soul of our group and even leading a short relaxation activity at the end of the project; women with eating disorders writing transformative pieces and delighting in performing them to the group.
Ilkley Young Writers was set up by the Ilkley Literature Festival four years ago and I have been running it alongside writer and performance poet Michelle Scally Clarke ever since. We started with six writers and now have eighteen! They range in age from 11-19 and are the most remarkable group of young people I’ve ever met. Super-articulate and funny, they are talented writers and performers with a huge amount to say about the world and the energy to change it. Between them they have been published, won national competitions, performed on Radio 4, shared a stage with Simon Armitage and been accepted onto the Writing Squad. It’s a delight to help them learn their craft and to watch their individual voices emerge, distinct and exciting.
My work with the West Yorkshire Playhouse mostly involves working with Heydays, a group of over 55s who are passionate about writing. In their number are complete newbies, ex English teachers and even a retired Chemist. They are always up for a challenge and a laugh and I can guarantee that each session one of them will make me cry, giggle or take my breath away.
TSOTA: What’s next for you? Skybound, your magical realist novel, sounds an exciting piece and you have a poetry collection that you’re developing…
BC: I’m seeking an agent for Skybound and working on a third novel. My aim is to have a first draft finished by the end of next March by working on it for an hour each morning.
I’m currently working on my poetry collection with my mentor Caroline Davies thanks to a bursary awarded by Cinnamon Press last year. The book, for which the working title is Empires of Clay, draws from a range of inspirations, most significantly the visual arts, history, mythologies, injustice and human relationships. We’re still putting the manuscript together but I’m hoping to have some news regarding publication in the next few months.
I have a poetry pamphlet ready to go and I plan to launch the poetry videos I’ve been working on with a film-maker in the new year. I’m also intending to publish my first, coming-of-age, novel, which explores the seedy underside of Harrogate in the 1990s, sometime soon. After that, I have an idea for a piece of theatre based on a local figure and for a one woman show that ties into my collection, which I will perform myself.
Beyond that, I hope that I can move towards making more of a living from my writing and performance work and, more importantly, that I keep having ideas and the motivation to write for many years to come.
Becky will be performing with Dai Parsons alongside two other writers at The Golden Ball (Bishopshill, York) on Wednesday 19th November at 8pm. Expect a little music too!