Room at the Top: A Writer’s Week in the Rotunda
We asked Birmingham Poet Laureate, Richard O’Brien, to tell us a bit about his residency in the Rotunda in central Birmingham, which he did in January 2019.
If you spend much time in Birmingham and you’re anything like me, ‘what actually goes on in the Rotunda?’ will undoubtedly be one of your biggest questions about the city — right up there with ‘Do the lounge colours in New Street actually mean anything?’ and ‘So… is there a Mrs. Egg?’
So you can imagine my delight when, a month or so into my tenure as Birmingham Poet Laureate, Jonathan Davidson from Writing West Midlands got in touch to tell me he had suggested my name to Staying Cool — the company that runs 35 serviced apartments of the iconic 1960s tower — who were looking for a writer-in-residence to spend a week creating work on the 18th floor.
My stay was part of the Creative Heights cultural events programme, which Staying Cool created the celebrate 10 years of their being in Birmingham, and on January 2nd I picked up the keys to an extremely swish Clubman apartment with the intention (self-imposed) of producing a new poem every day of my stay. Of course, this transpired to be overly ambitious, but there’s something about a living space with a sleek modernist couch and an Illy espresso machine which makes you feel like you can do literally anything.
I started as I meant to go on, in any case: arriving after sunset, I was immediately greeted by a jaw-dropping view of the night-time cityscape. From the floor-to-ceiling windows I could see trains pulling into the belly of New Street and pedestrians milling around under the translucent roof of Grand Central; the red lights of the Mailbox sign and the flickering torrent of traffic as cars navigated the Queensway in every direction. Once I’d assessed the kitchen situation (Olive oil! Oranges!) I wrote my first piece, a sort of general benediction directed at the places and the glimpses of other lives I could see in what felt, at this distance, like an almost empty landscape.
In my experiences, residencies tend to stretch out before a writer, a dauntingly blank calendar, and so I was determined to hold myself accountable by posting something online every day I could manage, in the hope that this appointment with an audience, however small, would force me out of pure shame to have something to show for myself. Largely, it worked, and there was actually something a little liberating in sharing work before I would ordinarily view it as ‘ready’, at an earlier stage in the drafting process. Just as it’s important for us to talk about our failures beside our successes, it’s a useful exercise to put what we know to be unfinished pieces out into the world (as long as it doesn’t become an excuse to turn up to readings with a tote bag full of unedited musings.)
As well as showing the stages of the process, I was conscious of not hiding some of the particular limitations of my work. Though the Laureateship is a public role, I know that writing for me almost always has some core of personal experience, and the challenge is dealing with that material in a way that doesn’t become solipsistic or simply dodges the brief. Some of the writing I produced at the Rotunda emerged from what was quite a difficult time in my personal life: my hope was that the pathways of thought down which this inevitably led me would nonetheless be explicitly shaped by the views of the city, from above and from ground level, which the experience afforded me. In the pieces I’m happiest with — this one, for instance — I felt like forcing myself to write directly about the sights I saw gave the more private elements meaning and direction, the sense that these stories could only be told by someone living in and reflecting on this particular place.
But although at times I found the implied responsibility of writing about Birmingham (a bustling collective entity comprised of about one million souls) as opposed to writing about Richard O’Brien (a lazy individual with, at best, one soul) a bit overwhelming, the residency also pushed me to examine that in ways that I found interesting. Being eighteen floors up meant that even though I was in my adopted home city, things I saw every day became far from familiar. I started to think about what I could see from up here, and what kinds of engagement or encounter this perspective put out of my reach. At times, I felt like there was more out of those windows that I could possibly hope to do anything effective with, but that in itself produced one of the pieces which I think does the best job of fusing private and public, reality and fiction.
The nature of a residency is by definition a fairly lonely quest to get things on paper, and so it was a real pleasure to be able to break up the week with a public reading which brought friends and interested parties into the Rotunda space. I invited Birmingham’s Young Poet Laureate, Aliyah Begum, and two more of my favourite local writers, Isabel Galleymore and Roz Goddard, to share work with me in a Sunday afternoon reading in one of the building’s penthouses as the sun set over the skyline. I can’t promise that my own performance wasn’t upstaged by the epic display going on just behind me, but as Pete Horrox’s photos from the day attest, it was a magical experience to read these poems with the views that inspired them as a truly fitting backdrop. Is it too late to add ‘Penthouse Poet’ to my business card?