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AccessAbility Arts interview (Emma Conally-Barklem)

Welcome to another AccessAbility Arts interview! I'm delighted to be able to shine a light on the fantastic work being done by inspiring women, multicultural groups, LGBTQIA+ community members and disabilities in the sphere of art and accessibility. For this one, I interviewed Emma Conally-Barklem. She is a yoga teacher, writer and poet based in Yorkshire, England. She was a lecturer in English Literature for thirteen years and has an MA in Victorian Literature. Her poetry has been published in numerous journals including Free Verse Revolution Literary Magazine, West Trestle Review, Querencia Press, Black Cat Poetry Press and Wild Roof Journal. Pushcart Prize nominated, Emma had a summer residency at the Bronte Parsonage Museum and was named one of Ilkley Poetry Festival’s New Northern Poets 2022. Her bestselling first collection, ‘The Ridings’ is out now at Bent Key Publishing.

If you're on social media, give her a follow. Website: Instagram: @emmaliveyoga

Here is the interview

Daniel: What led you to become a yoga teacher, writer, and poet?

Emma: Necessity for all three really. I was on a yoga retreat feeling burn out after ten years in academia and realised yoga had become essential to my existence and I didn't want to spend my life teaching in a small room for the rest of my life. Yoga had put me back in touch with the dream to travel, see the world and feel the sun on my face. I wanted to help people feel better so signed up for four years of intense training as soon as I returned home.

As for writing; my mum was dying in a hospice. She had been gifted a journal but only managed one entry in pencil. I promised her that I would write the journal for her which turned into my memoir 'You Can't Hug a Butterfly' which is out in 2024. She died which was the worst moment of my life. Her loss didn't catch up with me until the pandemic hit. I was struggling mentally and emotionally so went into therapy. I started writing poetry then, extensively.

Daniel: What is the inspiration behind your poetry, and how do you come up with your ideas for writing?

Emma: My mum is my inspiration and now too my father who died recently, unexpectedly. I write for them so they are not forgotten and because I am deeply sad. It is cathartic and helps me process the past. I wouldn't be a writer without the loss of these two pivotal figures in my life.

I am also inspired by the people around me. For example, I wrote a collection called 'Car Office' which is about observing people day to day on a council estate whilst working in my car during the pandemic. Ideas come into my head and I write quickly then work on form and structure. The longest it has taken me to write a poem is twenty minutes because the structure was complex. Words come easily to me. I write also on nature and social justice.

Daniel: What has been the most rewarding part of your journey?

Emma: It always comes back to being able to help other people whether through yoga, through them finding solace or identifying with my grief poetry.

Something new for me and which I am really enjoying is the performance aspect. I am currently on a book tour for 'The Ridings', and being able to make people laugh and/or cry through performance is precious indeed. It is a privilege to hear peoples' stories and the feedback I get back about the collection is so rewarding.

Daniel: You have an MA in Victorian Literature. Do you explore Victorian themes in your poetry?

Emma: Yes, for my collection on the Brontë sisters, 'Hymns from the Sisters'. The whole collection is written in an archaic register to re-create the voices of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë.

Daniel: You were named one of Ilkley Poetry Festival’s New Northern Poets 2022. Can you tell us about your experience with the festival and what it means to be named one of the new northern poets?

Emma: I was commissioned to write a piece for the themed digital strand of the festival, 'the things we leave behind' so we did a recording of 'Magoa' from 'The Ridings' which is about my mum's handbag. It was put on the festival's YouTube channel and lead to an interview on BBC York about my work around grief, writing and yoga.

Hot off the press for 2023, I have been commissioned to write another piece for the festival, lead an outdoor nature writing workshop and also be a New Northern poet for 2023 so all good things! The festival has treated me very well and they have an amazing line-up of events for October 2023.

Daniel: Your first collection, 'The Ridings' is out now at Bent Key Publishing. Can you tell us a little about the collection and the process of putting it together?

Emma: The Ridings is about growing up in a working class family in Yorkshire in the eighties as well as identity, landscape and grief. I was working through layers of self and the past in therapy and this naturally translated into the poems which make up the collection. As it was being prepared for publication my dad died so it then turned into a tribute to my parents. It seemed appropriate to have my parents on the cover along with myself as a baby and my grandma, the pivotal figures in my life.

The collection came together quite organically. I'd never meant to write one as the focus was my mum's journal however I wrote 'Lodged in my Throat' which opens the collection after my first session in therapy. As I had recently joined Instagram and was connecting with poets and writers I started doing some prompts just to ease my mind and the rest is history!

Daniel: Poetry and art can be a great tool for society and looking back at history. What do you think is the power of poetry - or any art - and what role do you believe artists have in modern society?

Emma: I think all artists express the tender complexity of the human soul. Paradoxically, they express the inexpressible and often provide a commentary on the times which can be subversive and provoke thought. My favourite artists are often rebels, revolutionaries, black sheep and misfits who blaze a trail through history for example, Frida Kahlo, Sylvia Plath, Elvis Presley and Emily Brontë to name a few.

Daniel: You had a summer residency at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. What was that experience like, and did it inspire any of your writing?

Emma: It was the fulfillment of a dream. I grew up in Brontë country, the Parsonage and Haworth are central to my family history and my close relationship with my mum. I was tasked with creating a suite of wellbeing resources for the Brontë society's YouTube channel. I had a half day's access to a guide to the private collection with legendary chief curator Ann Dinsmore. This led to my Brontë collection but I had also written 'Home Fires' in 'The Ridings' inspired by walks with my mum to Top Withins and I have written poems since on the full collection I am currently writing on my dad.

Daniel: As someone who has been a lecturer in English Literature for thirteen years, how do you balance your teaching career with your writing and yoga practice?

Emma: I left academic teaching in 2012 and just took the plunge into the uncertainty of self-employment and being a full time yoga teacher. I was flying high until the pandemic. Now, I do a mixture of yoga teaching, running my YouTube channel, holistic massage therapies, freelance writing, yoga retreats, teaching English and grief work. Every day is different which I love.

Daniel: We all know how important it is to look after our mental health, so tell us, do you have any strategies you use to maintain positive mental health in your daily life?

Emma: As a yogi, my daily practice is my anchor. The eight limbs of yoga philosophy naturally lends itself to positive mental health in that it encourages self acceptance, embracing both light and shadow and observation of patterns and triggers. Yoga has been central to my life, it is a valuable tool towards experiencing some peace in this world. Alongside yoga, I go to therapy, run, spend a lot of time in nature and travel the world. I also have learned to rest more and be kinder towards myself.

Daniel: You have had your poetry published in numerous journals including Free Verse Revolution Literary Magazine, West Trestle Review, Querencia Press, Black Cat Poetry Press, and Wild Roof Journal. Can you describe your experience with publishing and how it has impacted your writing career?

Emma: I wrote my mum's journal from the day after she died for a two year period for myself really. Once I came to a natural pause, I realised what I had written might help others going through mother loss and acute grief so then I thought about getting it published. I started off with the Penguins of the world and landed where I was meant to be with a small, compassionate publisher who understood grief and my journey. This happened after eighty three rejections. I learned that rejection is par for the course as a writer. At first I didn't handle rejection well at all, I would be low for days I felt like I was letting my mum down. I kept going though and grew a thicker skin and eventually it happened.

By then I had written a lot of poetry. I saw a call out for Northern poetry written in a Northern dialect so wrote 'Vine Terrace (East) about my grandparents. It was accepted by my publisher, I was elated and encouraged to write more in that vein.

Daniel: And lastly. We all need to relax, chill, and switch off sometimes. So how do you relax?

Emma: I relax by going to the movies - a lot!

If you have liked this interview and would like to see more interviews, please feel free to contact and share your thoughts. Also, if you know anyone who fits the category, and you think they'd be interested, let me know 🏳️‍🌈

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