A desk of one's own
The image of a poet tends to the romantic – of a person sitting on a windswept hill reflecting on life and its meaning. You would not usually envisage a poet surrounded by the chaos of family life. But for most of her career as a poet Kaddy Benyon has had her desk situated in the middle of the family kitchen. She started writing poetry when her son, now aged five, was a toddler, although she has been a professional writer since 1999. She used to be a scriptwriter on programmes like Hollyoaks which was a very intensive job involving a lot of travel and meetings.
“It was manageable when I didn't have children,” she says. “I really immersed myself in it.” As soon as she had her daughter Libby eight years ago, though, she realised she could not continue full time. She dropped out of Hollyoaks, but continued script writing for the children's programme Grange Hill for five months a year and wrote three of the Hollyoaks books. Her husband is also a script writer so they could alternate looking after Libby.
Before she was born, both she and her husband had their own home office, but Kaddy's room got converted into the nursery. “I lost my workspace and I have never regained it,” she says. Instead she had a little desk in the kitchen. “It's a very public place and there are always people wondering past and spilling things,” she says.
Six months ago, however, she negotiated a poet in residence post at the University of Cambridge's Scott Polar Research Institute, which includes a desk in their library with her name on it. Now that both her children are in school she can go in daily and have her own space to write in. The residency came about because Kaddy is writing a second collection of poetry about the North Pole. She approached the museum and they said yes. The residency doesn't involve any money, but it is mutually beneficial. For instance, Kaddy runs poetry workshops there and credits the museum in every poem she writes while they promote her work on twitter.
Kaddy turned to poetry after her son was born. She decided to embark on an MA in creative writing.”I was busy with the baby, but I wanted to make sure I kept up with my writing. I needed deadlines,” she says. She had to choose between two modules Writing for Performance (which she felt she had already done in her scriptwriting career) or Poetry. “I took a bit of encouraging to take the plunge, but I'm so, so glad I did. I haven't looked back,” she says.
The course involved going into Anglia Ruskin University one evening a week for two years. It was hard work. Her assignments always coincided with the school holidays and her husbad and mum helped to cover childcare.
“I had to learn to work hard in small bites while my son was taking naps. A few times I got up an hour early to work but mostly I worked in the evenings,” she says. “I was quite strict about bedtime for the kids. I surprised myself by my diligence. It proved I really wanted to be a writer.”
She graduated last year and finished her first book of poetry, Milk Fever, at around the same time. Earlier this year she won the Crashaw Poetry competition for emerging poets. She says entering competitions and getting work published in a variety of magazines has built up her confidence. “My confidence in my writing got really knocked after having children,” she says. “Even now I think I am quite unemployable.”
One thing that really boosted her self esteem was when her daughter wrote a poem at school and said she had done it because her mum was a poet. “It was really rewarding for me that she thought of me as a poet and not just a mummy,” says Kaddy. Her son is too young to appreciate what she does, but he does carry a notebook with him which he scribbles in as he has seen Kaddy do.
Milk Fever, which comes out from Salt Publishing in November, is all about motherhood, about her relationship with her own mother and with other mum figures and about being a mum for the first time. “It's quite gritty and honest,” she says. “There's a lot of tenderness, but a lot which might make people wince,” she adds.
Her next book is based on the Snow Queen fairy tale, which was her favourite as a child. It retells the story in poems. “I see myself in the character of Gerda, journeying to the North Pole and losing myself when I became a mum. I feel I am now finding a part of me. I know that being a mum is not all I am and that there is another part of me that is private, my writer self,” says Kaddy.
Having the whole school day now to write in is taking some adaptation, she adds. “It's been quite strange over the last few weeks realising my time is mine and that I am out of the tiny kids phase,” she says.