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July 10, 2024

Five rules for residency

Award-winning poet and author, Maxine Beneba Clarke, shares her advice on getting the most out of your writing residency.

Writing residencies have always seemed luxurious to me: space and time dedicated primarily to making art – and to hell with the mundanities of everyday living. The concept and the ability to be away from work, caring or other responsibilities seemed like part of a bygone bohemian era.

The first writers residency I was ever able to take up was The RMIT Non-Fiction Lab’s WRICE residency, aimed at fostering connections between Asian and Australian writers. There were so many fabulous things about that residency, which took place that year (2014) in Malaysia and Singapore –from being able to meet and workshop with one of my favourite writers (Goorie novelist and Miles Franklin Award winner Melissa Lucashenko), to the broad spread of ages of those participating, to the diversity of the group, which included acclaimed Singaporean poet Alvin Pang, Professor Francesca Rendle Short (the author of Imago and Bite Your Tongue), and a young RMIT writing student, Jennifer Down, who a decade later would go on to win the Miles Franklin Literary Award for her novel Bodies of Light.

We were away for about ten days in total, and the residency program included workshopping, writing time, free time, and public readings and engagements. Bliss. I remember soaking in a deep bath at the Ren I Tang hotel in Penang, thinking: so is this what a room of one’s own feels like. Despite the harried logistics of getting away, this residency marked a turning point in the writing of my memoir The Hate Race (2016), which on publication was book-listed on the VCE English syllabus in my state, and was recently adapted for stage. The Hate Race is a memoir about growing up the Black child of migrants in 80’s and 90’s Australia. It is smattered with racism, rainbow paddle pops, jazzercize leotards and BMX tracks, and is set against Australia’s reckoning regarding the myth of Terra Nullius, and our shameful colonial past. Somehow, removing myself from Australia to write during this residency made me see the narrative more clearly. It allowed me to see that the specificity of having lived in this particular place, during particular this time was something to really lean into – that all memoir is intrinsically tied to place, and to the history of the land on which it unfolds.

Similarly, being appointed Peter Steele Poet in Residence at the University of Melbourne for 2023-2025 has had interesting location-specific impacts on my writing. University campuses are often pressure points for issues playing out in the broader community. Even in a privileged environment such as The University of Melbourne, I have watched students queue for food relief during the current cost of living crisis, and experienced the mobilisation of the staff and student body in protest against the genocide in Palestine. There are events and conversations I’ve been part of which I would never have had access to were I not Poet in Residence on the university campus, and I know that these experiences will guide my work, in some form or other.

So my first piece of advice is to lean into the physical location of the residency – to be open to the ways in which it might influence or change your content, or practice, or artistic outlook. What does it mean to be writing in this space?

My second piece of advice is to make sure you feel the residency is right for you, and not be afraid to turn down a residency offer that doesn’t resonate. That might seem like privileged advice, but the ‘wrong’ residency can actually cost you time, money or creativity. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that any residency would be great for your practice or career. Think about how and when you create, and whether the circumstances of a particular residency (geography, timing, travel and childcare costs etc) would help or hinder your practice. There are all kinds of residences available, so try to find an opportunity to apply for that suits the way you work, and your life circumstances.

Amongst the residencies I’ve been offered in the past was a one week residency gifted as part of being shortlisted for a prominent writing prize. I remember politely declining the residency when I was told it had to be taken up within the calendar year, as there was no way between other work and caring responsibilities I would be able to take up the residency during that time. I was told that I could take my kids and a (self-funded) carer with me if I wanted to, but the limited space available, and the hassle that would no doubt have been caused by uprooting small children from their environment, would have meant I would have accomplished more creatively at home. That was quite a difficult thing to realise. By far a more practical residency would have been home childcare to the value of the residency, to allow me to create in a more supported way where I’d already established a creative and care routine.

In 2023, the inaugural Peter Steele Poet in Residence position at Melbourne University was offered to me. I was excited about the prospect of a residency in my home city: a residency that didn’t rely on overnight physical occupancy, which could be partly shaped by the practice and interests of the person occupying it.

I knew the intention for the residency was both time to write, and participation in the poetry life of the University. When I initially discussed the possibility of taking up the post, I’d been really honest both about what I hoped to get out of the residency and what I felt I could offer, and about the creative projects I was working on which might put additional demands on my time (It’s the Sound of the Thing, a new collection of 100 poems for young people, and the stage adaption of my memoir The Hate Race, which was scheduled to debut at the start of 2024).

When I started as Poet in Residence I had lots of dreams of casual face to face sessions with students. Decades ago, I was a student in a Creative Writing program that included short Writer in Residence visits, including from poets Les Murray and Bronwyn Lea and screenwriter and novelist Luke Davies. Those residencies were my reference point for thinking of the residency as a fixed in place, in-office experience with set points of access on certain days. What soon became clear though, was that once folks at the University were notified I was on campus, all manner of requests for collaborations, guest lectures and events fell into my inbox – and that in itself was actually really interesting. I’ve been fascinated by the ways in which the university community has reached out and drawn me in as a creative, due to my particular skill set and body of work.

Activities I’ve participated in include a poetry session for Under 5’s at Melbourne City Library, as part of the university’s Being Human festival, and a fascinating public discussion with musicians and academics on the theme of music and breath. I’ve become a co-collaborator in the establishment and ongoing maintenance of a free Diversity and Inclusion little library on campus, and have penned a commissioned graduation poem for Arts graduates. I’ve become part of the teaching team for Dr Mariam Tokhi and Dr Fiona Murphy’s Narrative Medicine course, which has meant spending time teaching third year medical students memoir and poetry. I’ve made a limited edition poetry zine for a zine swap at a student writers festival. A lot of these activities were things I wouldn’t have imagined would be part of the residency, but many of them have opened up new ideas or channels of thinking within my own practice and community engagement.

So, my third piece of advice would be to have your creative goals or outcomes outlined for a residency, but also try and be a little flexible – to lean in to the idea that you might end up participating in some unexpected events or collaborations.

The fourth, and perhaps most obvious piece of advice for a residency is to guard your time! Make sure that, creatively, you’ve set some goals for the time you’re there. Think about when you’re the most likely to be productive, and carve out that time for yourself and  your work. If you fall short of goals, and word counts, and deadlines – that’s okay! But it’s important to have an idea of what you want to accomplish, even if that changes over time.

And lastly, don’t beat yourself up if you’ve set everything up for a productive time and it doesn’t go quite as planned. If you’re exhausted from life, and end up sleeping the week or the month away, perhaps that’s actually what you needed. You might be ten times more productive when you get back to your own home or workspace. It’s not always clear what you got out of a creative residency until you look back months or years later, and think about the trajectory your work took from that point.