Susannah Herbert: The 600 Citizen Poets of Lockdown

First, a confession.  In the eight years I spent running the Forward Arts Foundation, I was never comfortable talking about my job “in poetry”. For me, those in poetry were the poets and performers, who often doubled as impresarios, editors, publishers and teachers, even while holding down other jobs. These people, it seemed to me, worked in words as potters worked in clay. As makers, they represented something special, luminous – they were touched by the creative spark in a way that set them apart.

Since stepping back from day-to-day involvement with poetry, I’ve thought more about the changes I saw over those eight years: the growing recognition for poetry in the book trade, the media and libraries, an elision of the split between the written and spoken word, a participation surge big enough to win headlines. These days, the notion of creatives as creatures “apart” seems… inadequate.

Take the phenomenon of Haiflu, a portmanteau word coined by the young West Country poet Liv Torc, whose first lockdown response in March 2020 was to wonder what her friends were making of the new normal.

She used her Facebook page to ask for updates: in pictures and words, limiting written posts to three lines arranged in haiku form (5-7-5 syllables). The witty, touching, thoughtful responses kept coming, week after week, each like the opening of a window. Many were breathtaking: all were good in the sense of being true to a personal perception, a moment, a place, a shifting of the light.

I was bewitched by the possibilities of such a simple idea and knew others in the National Poetry Day network – libraries, schools, journalists – would be too. All Forward Arts Foundation had to do was put her in front of the right people, via the British Library’s Living Knowledge Network seminars, the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme or the Arts Council’s library experts.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

A year on, Project Haiflu has directly involved more than 600 “citizen artists” across the UK, with more than 10,000 individual poems shared with Liv for possible inclusion in her weekly short films, tying together pictures and words with music by her composer husband, Richard Monks. Now Liv, who spent much of the summer hospitalized with an auto-immune disorder, has just won a proper Arts Council England grant to turn the project into a participative show touring village halls, plus a book.

I first knew Liv as a poet, one of the dozen working with National Poetry Day and BBC Local Radio as a #BBCLocalPoet in 2019. (See her fine poem about Somerset.) But it’s only when we caught up this week on the usual stuff – health, children, what’s driving us mad or keeping us going – that I realised how much she’d changed the way I understand the working of poetry.

 “2020 turned me into a better artist”, she wrote, “because within the restrictions of lockdown I learned how to adapt my practice and continue to hold creative spaces for people. Feeling inept as an individual to report back on unfolding events, I became a weaver.” 

To hold space, to weave, to feel inept alone. Oh yes, this resonates. (That’s an inadvertent haiflu: sorry).  Liv’s creativity cannot be summed up in her own work, but exists among the furloughed librarians and laid-off office-workers who adapted the #haiflu hashtag for use in their communities, among those who found words for their disturbed senses in response to the tentative attempts of others, lonely and fearful like them… like us

That’s how poetry works. I’m glad to be in it.

Susannah Herbert

Read more about Liv Torc and Haiflu on www.livtorc.co.uk

Susannah Herbert ran the Forward Arts Foundation, the charity responsible for National Poetry Day and the Forward Prizes, from September 2012 to January 2021. She is currently working with St John Ambulance, and learning from other vaccination volunteers – mainly furloughed airline stewards – how to improve her bedside manner.

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