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Five Minutes with Former Fenland Poet Laureate Jonathan Totman

To help celebrate the launch of this year’s Fenland Poet Laureate Competition, we sat down with five former Fenland Poet Laureates, to find out a bit more about them:

Who are you and when did you win the Fenland Poet Laureate Competition?

I’m Jonathan Totman and I was Fenland Poet Laureate in 2015. I’ve always enjoyed poetry but started writing more seriously in my early twenties. I was living in London at the time and joined a local writing group, the Highgate Poets. That group was hugely valuable for me, and really helped my writing develop. I moved to Ely in 2013 and now work as a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University. I also enjoy amateur acting.

How did you hear about the Fenland Poet Laureate Competition?

I heard about the competition at Fen Speak, the open-mic evening set up by former Fenland Poet Laureates Leanne Moden and Elaine Ewart. I entered in 2014 and won third prize, then I was lucky enough to win the following year.

What inspired you to write the poem you submitted to the Competition?

Wicken Fen which has been a favourite local spot for me in recent years – one of the few remaining areas of wild Fenland. I like walking through the reeds, the patches of thicket; I like what it hides. The poem is about the fen, but also about a relationship and the to-and-fro of intimacy and separateness that sometimes comes with sharing a walk. I think of it as a kind of marshy love poem.

What did you do with your year as Fenland Poet Laureate?

One of the main things I did with the year was to set up a new literary magazine together with my partner Mary (who subsequently became Fenland Poet Laureate herself): The Fenland Reed. We launched the first issue in autumn 2015 and since then we’ve grown and grown - attracting submissions and subscriptions from further afield, running readings and events, and this year organising our first poetry competition. Whilst not limiting the magazine geographically, it naturally has a regional angle and each issue has featured local writers. We have some real literary talent in Fenland which we feel very proud to showcase. Our next issue is due for publication in spring 2017 and is on the theme ‘borders and bridges’.

During my year as FPL I also ran a number of workshops and readings, and took the helm as the host of Ely’s open-mic night, Fen Speak.

What advice would you have to people entering the competition this year?

Think about what the theme - Fenland - means to you, then let the poem guide you. One of the exciting things about writing is that a poem can surprise you. It can teach you things - about yourself, about the place where you live - and often ends up somewhere very different to where it started. The fens are full of secrets, stories and (literally!) treasure. Walk with the poem; get stuck in its mud.

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