17TH – 24TH NOVEMBER, CLAIRE ASKEW

This week WetheHumanities brings you Claire Askew (@onenightstanzas) talking about poetry, intersectionality and connecting the two ‘worlds’ of academia and work. We look forward to hearing more about her work in the community and ways of encouraging engagement with the humanities among different walks of life.

Hi, I’m Claire Askew – you can find my personal tweets at @onenightstanzas.  In late 2013, I completed my PhD in Creative Writing and Contemporary Women’s Poetry at the University of Edinburgh, and I’m now a working writer and project co-ordinator for Scottish Book Trust, the leading agency for the promotion of literature, reading and writing in Scotland.  75% of my PhD submission consisted of a completed collection of my own poetry – the book is entitled This changes things and forthcoming from Bloodaxe in 2016.  My thesis – which made up the other 25% – took an intersectional feminist look at contemporary women’s poetry from the US and UK.  I wanted to explore to what extent female poets are still hampered by the anxiety of male influence, and examined the ways in which the work of contemporary women poets has been affected by the few female writers admitted to the hallowed halls of the Western literary canon (Mary Shelley and Sylvia Plath, among others).  Beyond that, I unpacked the various ways in which white, wealthy women’s narratives are still valued above – or at least very differently to – the narratives of women of colour, poor women, sex workers and so on.

I was a self-funded full-time PhD but also worked full-time throughout my period of study as a lecturer at Edinburgh’s Telford College, now Edinburgh College Granton.  I worked with young people and adults – mostly young men – who faced multiple barriers to learning and progression.  In the three-and-a-half years it took to complete my PhD, I became increasingly aware of the vital connections between my two ‘worlds.’  On the one hand, I was examining ideas about literary canon: the particular texts, ideas and narratives that are considered ‘great,’ and the people who produce – and vitally, are able to access – these texts, ideas and narratives.  On the other, I was working with a group of people who had never engaged – or never been allowed to engage – with the world of reading, writing and creativity.

Since the end of my PhD, I have rather abandoned academia.  In my work at SBT, I help to create books that are specially designed for adults who struggle with literacy – a big part of my work is going out to meet learners in their own communities and asking them what tools they need to empower their reading and writing and engage or re-engage them with books.  This is not a niche issue – 26.7% of adults in Scotland face challenges due to poor literacy, and a much larger number are reluctant readers.  As a working writer, I also offer freelance creative writing sessions for groups or individuals whose voices are often overlooked by mainstream media and publishing – since 2012, I’ve been involved in confidence-building creative writing projects with refugee and asylum seeking women, with homeless and vulnerably housed individuals, and with those whose lives are affected by HIV and/or Hep C.  When I have time, I try to write a few poems of my own!

As you can probably tell, I like to be useful.  I think the Humanities should be useful.  I’d like to ask some possibly challenging questions about accessibility and engagement, and hope to find out how intersectional the Humanities are, or can be.  I’d like to ask questions about funding, privilege and ‘academia’ versus ‘real life.’  Be warned: I’m more of a nosy community-worker poet than a high-minded scholar.  You might have to explain things to me more than once.

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