heritagehaiku in Exeter

By: Andrew McRae

Added: 09 October 2019

Sidling up to someone at a heritage site and asking them if they would like to write a poem is the literary equivalent of trying to sell double-glazing from a call centre. Believe us; we’ve tried. But if instead our Exeter Heritage Partnership poet-in-residence Sara-Jane Arbury were to propose to you a spot of haiku, the result might be rather more positive. Think of a couple of words, she would say, and you’re on your way to a haiku: five syllables – seven syllables – five syllables.

This was our model for the #heritagehaiku campaign which we staged in designated sites over the final weekend of the 2019 Heritage Open Days. The idea came from members of the Exeter Heritage Partnership, for whom the Open Days are the big event of the year. We ran a development session for them in the spring, and they enjoyed writing haikus so much that they wanted this experience for their visitors.

Sara-Jane spent time at four sites: the Guild Hall, the Royal Albert Memorial Musuem, the Underground Passages, and the Custom House. Wherever she was, display-boards gradually filled with haikus written on cards. At other sites, staff and volunteers did a fabulous job, on the back of our training session, fulfilling the Arbury function. Many of the poems also made it onto the map, but all of them represented individual acts of creative engagement with heritage - and that’s what Places of Poetry was all about.

Some people found it addictive. I met a man several weeks after the event who said he had written one poem with Sara-Jane, then wrote others when he visited other sites. Sara-Jane’s minder for the weekend, the fabulous Dave Adcock, just couldn’t stop writing them, and probably needed a holiday by the end of it all. And we were delighted that Simon Timms, who was incredibly supportive of us as we were developing Places of Poetry, wrote his first poems in several decades. We love this one, ‘Walking Past a Plaque on Blackall Road’, inspired by an unusually personal memorial he noticed by the side of an Exeter street:


            Plain text, low brick wall,

            Twenty five words tell us all:

            Love spells Happiness


On the back of the Heritage Open Days we commissioned Sara-Jane to produce ‘The Exeter Renga’, compiled from 56 of the haikus written by members of the public. We launched this on National Poetry Day, at an event at the Custom House that also included readings by Greg Freeman, Stephen Poole and John Wedgwood Clarke. When we began Places of Poetry we did not intend to have a residency in Exeter, but it was wonderful to be able to give something back to  our home base, recently named an UNESCO City of Literature.

And another year, this would be so easy to replicate, anywhere.

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