Sunday Sit-Down with… Degna Stone
The award-winning poet on forging a creative career in the North East
By Jenny Brownlees
Degna Stone is an award-winning poet and editor living here in the North East. She shares her home near the River Tyne with her husband, two teenagers and their pet Chihuahua.
After working in the literary department at Live Theatre in Newcastle for 12 years, she joined Eclipse Theatre as an Enabler on their three-year project Slate: Black · Arts · World. She went on to co-found Butcher’s Dog poetry magazine and is a contributing editor at The Rialto. Her latest pamphlet, Handling Stolen Goods (published by Peepal Tree Press), explores issues of race and class.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’ve been living in the North East for over 20 years now, I moved up accidentally after visiting a friend for a few weeks in the summer of 1999. A combination of brilliant beaches and being able to spend pretty much every weekend at World Headquarters made me stick around. Most freelancers will tell you there’s no such thing as being ‘away from work’ and I’m pretty much the same. I’m lucky that what I do for a living is what I’d do as a hobby and so it all blurs into one.
What are you passionate about?
I’m not an activist but I am passionate about working towards creating a fairer society, even though sometimes it can feel like fighting against the tide. We can all do small things that will help to create a society that treats everyone with respect. We can all learn to recognise and challenge racist behaviour when we see it. We can all call out the systems and behaviours that exclude disabled people. We can all challenge behaviour that is harmful and degrading to women. If we sit back and say nothing, we’re ensuring that we live in a society where that behaviour is tolerated.
We can, and must, all learn to speak out against hatred and intolerance in all its forms. We shouldn’t let fear of saying or doing the wrong thing stop us from trying to make the world safer for everyone.
You completed a MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University. Tell us about building your career post-uni.
After finishing my MA, I applied for anything that I thought would help me to develop as a writer. When it comes to poetry (or any form of creative writing), I don’t think you can ever learn enough about craft, so I see learning as a lifelong endeavour. Over the years I’ve received so much support from New Writing North — if you’re a writer or reader based in the North of England, you should really check them out. In 2011, they invited me and six other poets to take part in a series of Poetry School masterclasses led by the poet Clare Pollard. We ended up starting a poetry magazine together (Butcher’s Dog), which I managed for five years and is now run by the brilliant poet Jo Clement.
Was editing something you always saw yourself doing?
I see editing as much a part of my creative practice as writing poetry. I was selected for an editor development programme with The Rialto in 2016 and I’ve been working with them as a contributing editor ever since. I don’t know if it’s possible to ‘make it’ as a poet. For most of us, we’ll always need a day job to pay the bills. I try to keep myself open to offers of work that might not always be poetry-related but which do tie into my interest in literature. I’ve chaired panel discussions and Q&As, I’ve written reviews and articles, and I even hosted a radio programme for Radio 4 during the Great Exhibition of the North.
Where are some of your favourite haunts in the region?
Although my clubbing days are way behind me, one of the best places in the North East is World Headquarters – its philosophy and its music really made me feel at home when I first landed in Newcastle. One of my favourite places for a coffee is The Staiths Café, which has a stunning view of the Dunston Staiths on the Tyne, it’s dog-friendly and there’s a good selection of vegan options. Just up from Alphabetti Theatre is Vegano – when I first discovered it, I went three times in one week because the food was so delicious! Ernest, run by the same folk who run Cobalt, is another great place to eat.
Curious Arts runs an amazing LGBTQ+ festival. They have so many brilliant partnerships that (in normal times) means you can get to know loads of the region’s arts venues in a couple of weeks in July.
We’re all about supporting and empowering women at HLN. Who are the women that have inspired you?
There are so many women who’ve inspired and supported me over the years, but here are a few who are currently doing brilliant creative work and brilliant work for North East communities: Andrea Carter & Clymene Christoforou (D6: Culture in Transit), Kate Craddock (GIFT), Amy Golding (Curious Monkey), Nadia Iftkhar (Company of Others), Claire Malcolm (New Writing North), Beverley Prevatt-Goldstein (an Activist and Academic), Annie Rigby (Unfolding Theatre), Hannabiell Sanders and Yilis Suriel del Carmen (Harambee Pasadia & Ladies of Midnight Blue).
Not one of these women fits into a neat box in terms of the work they do and so I recommend checking out their websites to find out more about each of them. I’ll also shout out to Mslexia, a literary magazine based in Newcastle for women who write.
Do you have a favourite poet or poem you always return to?
Late fragment by Raymond Carver is one of my favourite poems. It really helped me when my mother-in-law died of leukaemia in 2019. When people die before their time it’s hard to make sense of it, but reading Carver’s at her funeral brought comfort.
To some, poetry can seem intimidating. What advice would you offer to anyone new to poetry?
Poetry is a broad church, so my main advice for people who think poetry is intimidating is borrowed from the award-winning poet Roger Robinson: “You probably haven’t read or seen the right poetry for you yet… Be patient. The right poetry eventually chooses the reader.”
With that in mind, whether you prefer to read or watch or listen to poetry, just dive straight in. If you don’t like the first thing you come across, or if you feel like you don’t “get it”, just move on to the next thing. You probably won’t like everything you come across, and that’s okay. Eventually, you’ll find what you’re looking for. Magazines like Butcher’s Dog and The Rialto are brilliant for people who are new to poetry, but there are loads of magazines out there – check out the National Poetry Library’s website extensive list of poetry magazines.
If you prefer to hear or watch poetry, the Poetry Society’s YouTube channel is a good place to start.
What do you love most about poetry?
When I started taking my poetry writing more seriously, a friend gave me the Staying Alive anthology. It’s actually where I first came across the poem Late Fragment and I discovered that for anything (everything!) that life throws at you there’s a poem that can help you through it. Poems that can comfort you, reassure you, bolster you, drive you forward, keep you going. That’s what I love.
How do you like to unwind?
I learned to play the bass guitar during the first wave of the pandemic, so practising helps me unwind. I’ve been trying to build up a meditation practice too; I’m on a 78-day streak so I’m hoping that the habit is one that will stick. I listen to audiobooks, mostly non-fiction, but the occasional novel makes its way onto my list too. I do love a good quiz show – my favourite is Pointless. Whenever anyone gets a pointless answer, it brings me a small spark of joy.
You’re a Trustee of New Writing North. Why do you think it’s important to have this representation in the NE?
New Writing North is an extraordinary organisation run by a phenomenal team whose passion and expertise are really challenging the notion that you need to be in London to thrive as a creative. They’ve done so much for me as a writer and it’s great to be able to give something back by serving as a Trustee.
New Writing North truly understand the challenges that writers face when living and working outside the capital and they’re huge champions for northern writers, especially those who find themselves marginalised from mainstream narratives. Their work with working-class writers in particular is going to shake up the literary landscape for years to come.
Do you have any advice for budding poets?
A writer is a reader first, and this is especially true of poets – so read as much poetry as you can. Also, try and see poets reading/performing. If money is tight, check out the free events at your nearest poetry festival. During the pandemic, loads of activity has moved online, so you can see work from all over the country.
Sign up for newsletters from organisations like New Writing North, Spread the Word and the National Centre for Writing. And check out courses from the Poetry School, along with New Writing North. They offer subsidised rates for people on low incomes too.
What does the future have in store for you?
My most recent poetry pamphlet, Handling Stolen Goods, is available from Peepal Tree Press. They’re another great starting point for people wanting to find out more about poetry and one of their recent publications – Roger Robinson’s brilliant A Portable Paradise – won the prestigious TS Eliot Prize.
I have another poetry pamphlet due out with Blueprint Press soon. Blueprint is a local press run by Jo Colley and Julie Hogg and I’m really excited to be working with them.
And what are you most looking forward to once COVID restrictions lift?
When the COVID-19 restrictions are finally lifted, I’m most looking forward to catching up with my family in the Midlands and South Wales. I shall also very much look forward to an independent enquiry into the handling of the early days and weeks of the pandemic, and the cronyism that has seen millions of taxpayers’ money wasted whilst NHS staff are denied a real term pay rise.
To find out more about Degna and her work, visit her website