The Commissioned Poem: A Leap of Faith

A Poem to Celebrate 100 Years of BBC Radio

Woman’s Hour Soundscape – A Commissioned Poem

I was recently commissioned  to write a poem for Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4. to celebrate 100 years of BBC Radio. The poem was broadcast on Monday 14th November. – you can listen to the poem by clicking here

A Leap of Faith

A commissioned poem is always a leap of faith in the dark. You get a phonecall with a request to write about a particular topic or idea, and you must decide whether you can do it, whether you want to do it, but most importantly, whether you can do it in the time available.

For this commission, and for many commissions for radio, there was a very tight turnaround. I think I got a phonecall on Friday evening from the producer of Woman’s Hour, Clare Walker. She wanted a poem that celebrated the different sounds that women have heard over 100 years. the poem would be two minutes long, but the whole thing would be about eight minutes becuase they were going to weave through the poem lots of archive recordings. “Brilliant!’ I replied – thinking this was a really interesting commission, and an enjoyable one.  I briefly envisaged some peaceful weeks trawling through archive recordings of suffragettes and the sond of the first washing machine.

“There’s just one snag” Clare said. “We’re on a bit of a tight deadline, so it has to be finished and recorded by Wednesday”.  “Ah” I said.  I thought about my looming deadline for a book of hybrid essays (more news to follow on that!) which was due just a few days later.  I thought about the five days I had available to write the poem, and how for at least two of those, I wouldn’t be writing, or in fact even thinking because I have no childcare at the weekend.

“That will be fine!” I replied recklessly. “Let’s do it!”.  What kind of person would turn down a commission from Woman’s Hour, I asked myself, even with a book deadline, and just five days to write it (well really three).

you’re supposed to be a writer

Whenever I get asked to do a commission now, I always remember an exchange with my husband during lockdown.  The lovely people at Ilkley Literature Festival got in touch to ask if I’d like a commission. This was during lockdown, in that time when freelance writers were scrabbling around to find income. The theme was landscape and language. I sighed dramatically to my husband. I’m not sure I can write about landscape, I complained. He looked at me with pure exasperation.  “You’re supposed to be a writer. Someone is paying you to write” he pointed out.

I took the commission, and ended up writing a villanelle which i was pleased with. My first villanelle, and my first time thinking about the connection between landscape and language, and realising that of course there is one.  The poem has that spirit of loneliness, and claustraphobia and endlessness and beauty and pain which I think of whenever I remember that terrible time.  You can read it here

So often my default setting is that I can’t do something – sometimes I need a non-writer (my husband) to give me a prod and tell me to get on with it.

The other side of the deadline

I’m writing now from the other side of the commission, and that book deadline – I’ve sent it to my publishers, so now there is a little bit of respite and breathing space whilst I wait to hear back from them.

And returning to my Woman’s Hour soundscape, I’ve just found out that it has been chosen to be on ‘Pick of the Week’ by Kavita Puri, so it will be broadcast again this Sunday at 6.15pm on Radio 4.  And I did have some lovely hours (not days) listening to some amazing BBC archive recordings, and in the end, the commission was an absolute joy to write. So it all turned out ok, as these things often do.



3 comments on “The Commissioned Poem: A Leap of Faith

  1. Yes, the only time I’ve had a commission (a poem to be set to music by a music student for Leeds Lieder festival) I felt both enormously privileged, and scared! And I had several months to complete. I listened to yours – it was magical, thanks.

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