Jem Henderson photo

Why writing poetry sounds better in stereo: Leeds Writer In Residence Jem Henderson’s Reflections

17 June 2024

Jem Henderson has been our 2024 Leeds Writer In Residence. Jem is a genderqueer poet from Leeds, and a 2021 Creative Future Writers’ Award winner. Their work focuses on the body, motherhood, food, queerness and on triumph over trauma, playing with both traditional forms and experimental poetry. an othered mother, their first pamphlet, is out with Nine Pens Press. Their first collaborative project Genderfux came out in 2022 with Nine Pens Press, and a new collaborative collection with Chris Campbell, small plates, is out now with Broken Sleep Books.

Jem’s residency took place at Shine, a social enterprise community, support and co-working space in in the Harehills area of Leeds. Shine’s mission is to raise aspirations and create opportunities for disadvantaged communities, in particular support for non-violent women ex-offenders, local children,  entrepreneurs, and the environment. They also be held two workshops on the poetry of food at Shine for local underrepresented writers who face socioeconomic barriers, as well as four online sessions for wider access nationally.

We’re taught that writing is a lonely pursuit. That writers are quiet creatures curled up with nothing more than a notebook and pen, or frantically tapping at keyboards, over-caffeinated in local coffee shops. There’s some truth to it. I struggle to write when there’s excessive noise or distraction, especially now that I’m Mama. Why would I pick up a pen when I’m exhausted from caring for my eight year old and eight month old when the latest Netflix release is right there?

But what if it’s not best done alone? What if writing is a communal activity?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. For a decade, I wrote at home alone, for work and for fun. Had no company along the way except the blank page and blinking cursor, no noise except the click-clack of keys.

Then Covid came and she was a cruel ol’ diva. Suddenly we were all isolated, bored, scared and so starved for touch we started shaping loaves of sourdough. There was nowhere to go. No one to talk to. Nothing but the daily walks we were encouraged to take to preserve our mental health. I didn’t even do those. And in that silence, for the first time in years, I found myself with an abundance of words.

I took an online writing class. Then another. And another. Then in one Zoom class, perched in his little rectangle; a comrade in arms, a queer neurodivergent exuberant bear of a human who welcomed me into his fold of writers; all queer, trans, messy and joyful. And god, could they WRITE.

I flourished there. It was among these wonderful folks that I learnt that writing is best done, for me, as a team activity. Finding the people whose voices I love to read and hear helped me to understand that my writer’s voice is part of a larger whole. It’s part of a choir.

My residency at Shine, a former school in Leeds, has helped me carry this forward. It is a beautiful venue to write in. The rooms are named after their former classroom purpose: the music room, the language lab, the tuck shop. The windows stretch in arches up to the sky, letting in the light, adorned with the handwriting of former headmasters, too illegible to read. The people are wonderful and running workshops for underrepresented writers there was a joy as the space supports all sorts of folks across Harehills, one of the more disadvantaged areas in Leeds.

It was my privilege to explore the space–to take the time away from the bustle of a new baby, my beautiful but hectic family and to sit, to write and to read, to put on the space like a coat, to give myself the silence to hear that choir was so important. It’s so hard to be a mama–and mama to a newborn again after eight years at that–and also go back to work and still keep that creative practice going. Finding space to write–both physically and mentally–was a luxury. Writing in a place where that was my only job was wonderful.

That time and space pushed me to think about my writing practice. How we need to grow this choir alongside our individual efforts. I’ve had the quiet space to learn that our writing choir is composed not just of the people whose voices we read. It’s also in the characters we create. It’s the locations our writing inhabits, whether real or imagined, the spaces that seep into us, the cities and towns whose streets we haunted in our youth.

I can still write at a table alone, maybe more comfortably than ever. But it’s because I know I’ll be bringing my work back to the choir; to get feedback, to edit and hone. That we’ll share the poems we’ve fallen for, to talk about the latest books we’ve loved or hated, to reflect on our strange little journeys. Because writing is a community. It’s us all singing the chorus together loudly, with our beautiful voices echoing back from the walls of the places in which we reside.

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