Like the Sea I Think (2018-19)

Shared Reading, Creative Writing and Publication Project, curated and produced by Sarah Lowndes for Kunsthalle Cromer, in collaboration with Norfolk County Council Libraries and UEA Publishing Project.

The following is an excerpt from Sarah Lowndes’ introduction to the anthology Like the Sea I Think: New Marine Writing from East Anglia (Norwich: UEA Publishing Project with Kunsthalle Cromer, 2019), designed by Emily Benton. The book is available to buy here https://www.ueapublishingproject.com/shop

In early 2017, I established a new organisation called Kunsthalle Cromer in our nearest seaside town, with the aim of enhancing the cultural provision available within the town of Cromer and the wider area of Norfolk through the promotion of visual art, music, literature, cinema, performance and interdisciplinary art forms.  I established Kunsthalle Cromer to offer accessible, free and exciting cultural activity, which would bring people from diverse backgrounds together to enjoy meaningful shared experiences.  Since then, Kunsthalle Cromer has carried out two public art projects in Cromer: Panoramic Sea Happening (2017) a re-enactment of Tadeusz Kantor’s 1967 happening, staged on June 11th at East Beach, Cromer and the following year, Esplanade: A Procession for Women (2018), a public parade of 100 local girls and women, each carrying a red parasol along West Promenade, Cromer, on March 8th, International Women’s Day.  For the third Kunsthalle Cromer project, which I planned to take place during the town’s low season, we had to move indoors, and so I sought a more sheltered corollary of the beach.  The public library located in the town’s Prince of Wales Road was the perfect environment – warm, welcoming, full of interesting material and free for all to use.

The idea for the Like the Sea I Think (LTSIT) project developed through discussions I had at Cromer Library with community librarian and artist Maria Pavledis.  While the previous Kunsthalle Cromer events had given participants a chance to physically become part of an outdoor artwork, the LTSIT workshops would equip participants with lasting transferable skills and provide an opportunity to become a published author, giving this project greater legacy and impact.  When in the spring of 2018, I first approached Maria with the idea of running reading and creative writing groups about the sea in libraries in Norfolk, she explained that shared reading groups (as opposed to conventional book clubs) had recently proved to be an effective way of attracting reluctant and/or less confident readers and that Norfolk Libraries would welcome the Like the Sea I Think project as a way of bringing more readers in to engage with shared reading and creative writing in Cromer Library and the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library in Norwich.  We both wanted to support people to enjoy reading, creative writing and self-expression in a welcoming environment. We agreed that at each workshop, I would act as facilitator, and read aloud and discuss a text about the sea, with participants joining in as much or as little as they wished, followed by some time working on creative writing exercises related to the texts, designed to stimulate self-expression.  My idea was that people could turn up without any previous experience or preparation, empty handed, and participate without cost.  All materials would be provided free at each workshop, including photocopies of the texts, along with paper and pencils.  I planned to have the pencils specially made: dark green, each had a pink eraser at one end and the legend Like the sea I think printed along its length in a darker shade of pink.  As we would meet in winter, each week I would bring supplies of tea, coffee and biscuits, with mince pies and chocolates coins for our final meetings, just before Christmas.  

Beyond the workshops, I also planned to publish an anthology of new writing about the sea by East Anglian authors, seeking submissions from those who attended the workshops, and other people resident in the region, through an open-submission call.  After the book launch event, which we intended to stage at Henry Layte’s celebrated shop, the Book Hive in Norwich, we planned to distribute the anthology to local libraries and bookstores, via the UEA Publishing Project, who had agreed to co-publish and distribute the LTSIT anthology.  I hoped to work with Norfolk-born book designer Emily Benton, who had previously produced intelligent, tactile and beautiful publications for clients including the Words and Women Compendium and UEA Publishing Project.  These plans were all made possible thanks to Arts Council England, who gave full support to the project, with additional support being offered by Norfolk Libraries, who gave the free use of space in both libraries and the invaluable assistance of Maria Pavledis, who attended and encouraged the group at Cromer Library, which met every Monday afternoon for 8 weeks, beginning at the end of October 2019.  I led the Millennium Library group, which met on Thursday mornings, alone, but drawing upon the discussions we had at Cromer to enrich our discussions in Norwich from the start of November through until the week the winter holiday began.   

I designed the reading list for the workshops to feature equal numbers of men and women authors, and tried to pick writers who would illuminate different aspects of writing about the sea: ecological, dramatic, romantic, metaphorical, scientific, autobiographical, poetic and melancholic.  We read extracts from the following texts: Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us (1951), Joseph Conrad, The Shadow-Line (1917), Italo Calvino, Difficult Loves (1958), Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and The Sea(1952), Jacques Cousteau, The Silent World (1952), Victoria Whitworth, Swimming with Seals (2017), Helen Dunmore, Inside the Wave (2017) and the Julia Blackburn story, “A Box of Old Shells” (2018).  Shared reading is a very simple idea: “By bringing people together in small groups to read aloud a book, short story or poem, shared readinggroups create a safe, welcoming space where individual thought and feeling is recognised and valued. Group members can choose to read aloud, share personal reflections or simply to listen – in this way, individuals form real connections with the literature and with each other.”[i]  However, I was largely unprepared for the powerful effects of this approach: in both the Cromer and Norwich groups there were a real mix of ages and occupations, ranging from students in their 20s to midlife multi-taskers to retired professionals, and yet through shared reading we connected: we listened, talked, laughed, argued and sometimes even cried.  The Reader, who have spearheaded the use of shared reading as a practice in the UK since 2008, quote author James Baldwin by way of explanation: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”  

Part of the power of shared reading is undoubtedly derived from connecting with a particular text, but also from the communal energy generated as you read, listen and talk together: the group is larger than the sum of its constituent people.  The other important aspect of shared reading is that when you read aloud or listen to someone else read aloud, the reading moves at a slower speed, so you hear more.  As you stop every page or so to discuss, you also understand more, as in our case, the people in the group shared their inside knowledge of such things as how to catch turtles, the politics of translation or how to navigate by the stars.  Differences of taste and interpretation also led to richer and more nuanced understandings of particular texts – the two most hotly debated texts in the Like the Sea I Think workshops were Italo Calvino’s story “The Adventure of the Poet” and the first chapter of Victoria Whitworth’s Swimming with Seals, both of which were loved by some and strongly critiqued by others.  As the weeks went by, we critiqued everything more, and that critique was in itself a kind of love: real, close engagement with the text and with the group, as trust and familiarity unfolded between us.

Each week of the course I made a SoundCloud recording of me reading that week’s text and posted it on Twitter and Facebook with the accompanying exercises, to allow remote readers (who had either missed out on a place in the library workshops or lived beyond East Anglia) to follow the course in their own time.  Each week we carried out two or three creative writing exercises, such as, “Imagine yourself on an island and describe the sounds you might hear.  Describe a romantic encounter, either imagined or real, that happens on a beach.  Write about something special you found on a beach.  Write a poem from the perspective of a mother or a father on the beach. Describe swimming underwater. You could be scuba diving or perhaps, deep sea diving. Describe how it feels, looks and sounds…”. That was probably my favourite part of the workshops, seeing everyone bent over their paper, engrossed in their own writing.  There was such a peaceful atmosphere of concentration and industry around the table, that the hands of the clock would advance all too quickly.  It always felt a pity to still those pencils and bring the session to a close.

Well over a hundred authors from across East Anglia submitted their work to this anthology: I am very pleased that out of the 55 contributors chosen, 19 were people who had attended the Like the Sea I Think workshops.  The remaining 36 authors come from all corners of East Anglia, from Hunstanton, down to Sheringham and Cromer, inland to Norwich, down to the Waveney Valley, and back to the coastal towns of Great Yarmouth and further south still, to Lowestoft in Suffolk.  If you read the biographies included at the back of the anthology, you will also note that the range of life experiences and ages of the authors is immense: the youngest author celebrated her 11th birthday in the summer, while the eldest author will be 87 this year.  Some of the authors were ‘born and bred’ in Norfolk or across the border in Suffolk, others have been drawn to East Anglia to study, to work or as a place to enjoy their retirement.  All of the authors have something memorable and distinctive to say about what the sea means to them.  Each response is unique – proof if any were needed, that all who live here, can also du diffrunt here.[ii]

[i] For more information see https://www.thereader.org.uk/about/whatwedo/ Accessed 12 March 2019.

[ii] Read the annotated version of Luke Wright’s poem about the history of Norwich Here (2018) at: https://nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/article/the-story-behind-here/ Accessed 10 March 2019.

Roy Ballard, reading Mother care or Life on a Lowestoft Trawler at the launch of Like the Sea I Think: New Marine Writing from East Anglia, at the Book Hive, Norwich, May 2019.
Jessica D’Alton Goode, recording her poem Diggs, from Like the Sea I Think: New Marine Writing from East Anglia (2019) for BBC Radio Norfolk’s Jack Jay Show, 2019.
Ruthie Collins, recording her poem Persephone Wakes (Mater Matters), from Like the Sea I Think: New Marine Writing from East Anglia (2019) for BBC Radio Norfolk’s Jack Jay Show, 2019.
Sarah Walker, recording her poem Liwuli: Forsaking, from Like the Sea I Think: New Marine Writing from East Anglia (2019) for BBC Radio Norfolk’s Jack Jay Show, 2019.
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