I don’t feature poetry very often here on Being Anne, but it’s such a pleasure to welcome Claire Baldry as my guest today. Many of you will know Claire as the powerhouse behind Books for Older Readers, or as the author of the excellent Different Genes (you’ll find my review of her novel here). But others may also be aware of her as a performance poet – and her latest poetry collection, Simply Modern Life, is published today (28th August) by Matador. I’ve had the privilege of seeing an early copy – 22 really accessible poems, full of insights and observations, and quite beautifully illustrated by Amber Gee.
I’ll be reviewing the collection and featuring one of the poems – which might just be my favourite – on National Poetry Day on 4th October. But today it’s a delight to hand over to Claire, as she explains how a crisis at home was the trigger for her transition from Headteacher to Performance Poet… a piece she’s called Retiring with Rhyme.
My story begins in November 2013. After working in education for almost thirty-five years, I had just retired early at the age of fifty-eight. It was so much easier having sufficient time to support my husband’s health needs, and I was relieved at finally casting off the relentless pressure of targets and Ofsted. Nevertheless, I struggled to come to terms with my new role. I missed the company of colleagues and the mental stimulation of the workplace. I frequently found myself in tears.
That afternoon I heard a shout from the bathroom, and rushed to investigate. My husband, Chris, had collapsed on the floor. In a very short time he was wheeled into an ambulance surrounded by a whole cohort of paramedics. He disappeared towards the Conquest Hospital in Hastings accompanied by sirens and flashing lights.
Chris has had Type 1 Diabetes for most of his adult life. Ours is a second marriage, so managing his condition has always played a significant part in our relationship. I had called upon paramedics before and had been warned that a crisis could happen at any time, but I still felt unprepared. I locked the house and drove to the hospital.
A rollercoaster of ‘he might not make it’ events followed together with calls to family and endless trips to the hospital. But Chris did slowly recover from what we now know to be an unidentified virus which played havoc with his blood sugar levels. Some days later he was sent home to my care. Hypos were frequent, and he could not be left home alone. He needed to build up his strength. While Chris rested, I stared at the walls and wondered how I would cope with the rest of my life.
I have always written poetry as a hobby, mostly rhyming, lightweight creations intended to amuse friends or perform at important family occasions. So looking back, it is unsurprising that I began to fill my restless hours with writing in rhyme. Nevertheless, the poetry I wrote did surprise me. I paid more attention to detail and immersed myself in the ideas and structure. Most surprising was the amount that I wrote. It was prolific, as if the anguish of the previous weeks had rewired my brain.
Friends occasionally came to visit to lighten my incarceration as a carer. They were the first audience for my growing collection. Their response was positive, but then again it was their role to keep up my spirits. Chris too was expected to listen to my poetic output. Confined to his bed, he was a captive literary critic. Perhaps to relieve his listening burden, he suggested that I videoed myself and put a rendition on You Tube. I took his advice. In order to raise my mobile phone to the correct height, I taped it to a bucket, which I had balanced on a large pile of books. After a couple of attempts, my home-grown recording studio was ready, and I uploaded myself onto the web. People began to share the video. Encouraged, I sent one of my early poems to Silver Surfers, and it won their monthly prize. I then contacted a photographer friend and we began to create a local poetry booklet. We called it Simply Bexhill. We decided to donate any profits to Diabetes UK.
Fast forward to Summer 2018……
I am still in a marriage of three, me, Chris and his Type 1 Diabetes. Simply Bexhill has just gone for its third reprint, and Chris and I were recently awarded the Diabetes UK SE Award for fundraising. Our lives have changed beyond recognition. I have since self-published three more booklets of poetry, an autobiographical novella, and my debut novel Different Genes. I have a very regular schedule of speaking engagements (Chris calls them my gigs). Despite his failing eyesight, Chris is in pretty good health these days, and we travel throughout the South East reading my poems and talking about how his Type 1 Diabetes was the catalyst for my transition from Headteacher to Performance Poet.
So today, almost five years since I retired from education, I am welcoming poetry booklet number five into my world. Called Simply Modern Life it is a mix of my usual light-hearted view of life today, combined with a few more serious messages. It is also my very first collaboration with the very talented twenty-four year old illustrator, Amber Gee. Amber’s drawings have added a completely new dimension to my writing, and it has been a privilege to work alongside her.
Thank you, Anne, for giving me the opportunity to tell my story.
And thank you for sharing it with us Claire – see you again in October!
About the author
Claire Baldry retired from her career as a Headteacher and English Advisor in 2008. She is now an established writer, blogger, performance poet and public speaker in her home county of East Sussex. Find out more at www.clairebaldry.co.uk: you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.