Sunday sit-down with… Professor Linda Anderson
She has changed the face of the UK’s literary landscape over the last 40 years. Now, Newcastle University’s Professor Linda Anderson has been included in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list
By Becky Hardy
Academic. Poet. Head of School. Innovator. Entrepreneur. Chairwoman. Influencer. Rulebreaker. Dreamer. Doer. There are many words we could use to describe Professor Linda Anderson, but somehow they would still fall short of capturing the true character of a woman who has helped change the face of contemporary literature on a national scale – and who has almost single-handedly put the North East on the literary map.
Head of the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle University for over a decade, Linda also launched the Newcastle University Centre for Literary Arts (NCLA), an organisation which has earned an international reputation for its work promoting literature and creativity through its rolling programme of free talks, readings and events open not only to students but to anyone in the region.
A respected poet in her own right, Linda’s reputation has helped attract world-class writers to work at Newcastle, including TS. Eliot Poetry prize and Forward Poetry prize winners. She has also helped to shape the way creative writing is taught nationally, has championed work on employability in the cultural industries, and has used her position to help the university reach out to other organisations in the North East – such as the NHS, the prison service and Northumbria Police – to find the beauty and artistry in the everyday.
Now, very deservedly so, her incredible achievements have been recognised with her inclusion in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list. We caught up with Linda to find out just what her OBE means to her and how she would reflect on 40 years well spent.
Congratulations on your OBE Linda! What does receiving that award mean to you?
It came completely out of the blue, so it was a lovely surprise! I just retired in September, so it feels like a wonderful culmination of my career. I feel so touched that my colleagues nominated me and it all just feels like recognition of lots of hard work.
It comes at a time when the arts sector is being particularly hard-hit.
That’s it, it’s a terrible time for the arts right now. I feel it’s a tragedy for all of our performers, musicians, and writers – writers are maybe being a bit less hit, but the importance of festivals to book sales and so on shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s really hit everyone in the arts, this pandemic.
What would say is the role of the arts within society?
We’ve just talked about the problems in the arts right now, but what I think this pandemic has demonstrated is just how important they are to us all. We’re in a moment of personal and national trauma, really, and are turning to art as a way of finding some expression for deep, difficult, and complicated feelings. I think that’s very much their role – art says things that we can’t in our ordinary language. It brings comfort and relief and addresses us and our secret selves in ways we absolutely need.
How did you first know you wanted to become a poet?
The first thing was that I wanted to be an academic, that started very early on in my life. But when I was a postgraduate student at university, I was very interested in contemporary writing and live literature, which was quite a new phenomenon. Then when I got a job at Newcastle University, we had the wonderful Mordon Tower series of readings. I was going to those readings often and they felt important. In a way, my academic career was going on in a separate strand to my interest in poetry.
The university also had the Northern Arts Literary Fellowship – the first fellow was Tony Harrison, then Basil Bunting, then we had a wonderful series of poets from Sean O’Brien and Jo Shapcott to Carol Rumens, who all held that post. They weren’t teaching in the department, but they had a role where students could come and see them if they wanted to talk about their writing. I loved that. I loved the fact that Newcastle University was making room for creative writing in that way. So when I became Head of English in 1999, it seemed like such an opportunity to establish a Creative Writing department within the University.
I haven’t had that much time until recently for my own poetry, I’ve been writing academic books and teaching and running things. But I’ve always been interested in it. And I think it’s true that a lot of people who read poetry are often interested in writing poetry themselves. You certainly can’t write poetry if you don’t read it. So that’s how I found an interest in becoming a poet myself.
You launched the NCLA in 2008 and became its first director. Why was creating that organisation important to you?
The Northern Arts Literary Fellowship brought all these wonderful writers to Newcastle, and a lot of them actually settled in the North East after their involvement with the fellowship. I was also able to bring writers of the calibre of Sean O’Brien, Bill Herbert and Jackie Kay into the department, so the school was naturally thriving. Having been able to get that group of writers together, it just made sense to have some vehicle to be showcasing their work out to the region – not just to the students being taught by those writers, but to enable a much wider proportion of the community to engage with the potential and excitement that these writers and their literature were bringing to the North East. Seamus Heaney actually inaugurated the NCLA, and since then we’ve been able to attract the likes of Kashuo Ishiguro, Andrea Levy and Allie Smith. I feel very privileged to have had all of the experiences that I’ve had with the NCLA.
A big part of your work has been to champion employability in the cultural industries.
We’ve been able to get funding for writers by helping funding bodies to recognise their self-employed status. That’s meant that they can then be part of SMEs. And in terms of the NCLA, it’s always been important that the organisation has been a vehicle for setting up work possibilities. The big project I’ve run has been with Bloodaxe Books. Firstly, I helped the University acquire Bloodaxe’s archives and, secondly, enabled us to set up a digital site in relation to that. We did with the help of a wide group of writers and artists who we employed over a period of time to help with that project. I say employed – it was minimal funding, but it was some funding, which is always useful in the arts! So wherever we’ve been able to direct funding to writers, we’ve tried to do it.
You’ve also helped shape the way creative writing is taught nationally. How exactly have you done that?
It’s through the national roles I’ve held, I suppose. In the UK, creative writing has always developed very separately to mainstream English departments. A change has only happened in the last 10 or 15 years, and that has been enabled by the fact that creative writing has been thought about differently – namely, in terms of research. Once the output of creative writers could count as research – this is going to seem so bureaucratic! – universities could employ them, because they were not only going to contribute to teaching, but also to the research excellence of the university. And that has actually changed the relationship between English departments and creative writers completely. By holding a number of national roles on various panels and councils, I’ve been able to forward that agenda and contribute to this new thinking around creative writing and its central role within English.
What was the incentive behind setting up grassroots writing projects with NHS staff in the North East, the local prison service and Northumbria Police?
It’s fantastic to work with other people, and it’s partly that new thinking around creative writing and research that’s helped make these projects possible. Newcastle University has always been very good at thinking about its regional role, but we have been encouraged even more in recent years to think about how the university can join with other organisations in the region.
It was certainly very exciting to work with Northumbria Police. The first project we did with them involved a writer going out in police cars and getting a sense of the work that the police did, and some poems came out of that. I think the police officers were genuinely very moved by the reflections of themselves they were able to read. For instance, when a police officer walks the streets, they’ll be looking for things and noticing things that the general public aren’t aware of; for a poet to have then noticed that form of looking and incorporated that into a poem really helped reflect a sense of the knowledge and skills that they have back at them. So I felt like we did something really quite valuable there.
And of course, there are a lot of projects that involve writers going into prisons. I think that whatever you give to prisoners is valuable. They’re needing something: a stimulation, a way of being listened to, an opportunity to express themselves. Martin Luther King Junior got an honorary degree from Newcastle University and we’ve been celebrating that recently and created a celebratory anthology of poems, with Bloodaxe, around Martin Luther King Junior. We took that anthology into HMP Frankland and a lot of the poems really resonated with the population there. So, again, we felt like we were doing something very positive there.
What would you say are some of the personal benefits of writing creatively?
I don’t know what I would do without it, actually. It channels that element of trying to make sense of your life, and trying to bring together discordant, difficult or different strands of your life. In terms of our mental health, especially in the context of the present crisis, creative writing is extremely valuable. You can see that reflected back at you. You never know what you’re going to write about – I mean, you can have an idea, but you can often be quite surprised at what you’ve written. And it’s important to let that process happen. So I think that mixture of letting go and also the shaping of your thoughts and feelings into some kind of form and meaning is a wonderful thing for us to do.
What is the secret to writing successfully?
Reading! Being prepared to fail and not being put off by failure. Giving time to it – that’s what I regret not being able to do enough. Just deciding you’re going to sit at your desk for an hour and write something. If you don’t give it that space and opportunity to happen, it won’t happen.
Who are some of your favourite poets?
Elizabeth Bishop, she’s my favourite poet. I’ve been thinking a lot about Anne Stevenson recently as well, she died last year. I feel privileged to know Carolyn Forché and love her work. There are just so many wonderful contemporary poets, it feels like the field has opened up in the most exciting way. And when you think about diversity and agendas and so forth, I think poetry is now the place to go, actually.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve experienced working in your field, particularly as a woman?
It was very difficult to begin with. My career started a very long time ago, when universities were very male-dominated. When I joined the English department there were only two other women in the department, and I was wanting to introduce courses on women writers and their experiences into the curriculum, which was quite a challenge to say the least! Then I had a major challenge in trying to set up the NCLA. It was such a new thing, I suppose. But once we got off the ground it quickly achieved recognition. It’s all about convincing people who aren’t necessarily interested in the value of what you’re trying to do. The arts are now very important to Newcastle University, but it has traditionally been a university that’s been dominated by medicine and engineering. So the arts faculty started life as a very small part of the university and I was always having to work quite hard to convince people that creative writing wasn’t just a hobby! That it is a proper important part of being human – not to sound too pretentious! – but those are the stakes, really.
What do you look back on as one of your greatest achievements?
Establishing the NCLA. And also the Bloodaxe archive project, I take pride in that – partly because it was my most ambitious attempt to work across disciplines, and that posed certain problems. But everyone who worked on it was extremely excited by it, and I think it’s going to go on having an important legacy.
What would be one piece of advice you’d give to others in the region wanting to pursue a career in literature?
Work at it. Keep reading, take the opportunities to go to readings, talk to writers and join writing groups. There’s a lot of activity in the region, certainly around the university. And though it seems like writing is a solitary pursuit – and in a way, it is and has to be – but joining a writing group can be immensely valuable in giving yourself the confidence and feedback you need to grow.