‘Claire Askew is a young poet at once cosmopolitan and distinctively northern, with a fine ear for the aptly-placed colloquialism, the unusual word. A skilful and understated user of form, at times she is painterly, allowing sequences of images to play out like stills from a lost reel of footage, and at other times joyously musical, creating an interplay of word-sounds whose sheer energy draws the reader onward.’
‘Askew writes with haunting precision, bringing to life the magic and wonder of the things we ordinarily overlook or take for granted. Hers are poems to savour, poems of electrifying intimacy and startling beauty.’
‘A haunted perceiver, a marker of traces and alert handler of things, an uncommonly wakeful listener to noises off.’
Claire Askew’s title and neologism, ‘Poltergeistrix,’ comes to stand for all the resurrected: traditionally, ghosts haunt because they still have something left to tell.’
- Eve Lacey, For Books’ Sake
‘My favourite part of Claire’s public life is her commitment to hosting, and participating in, the conversation about her art form. There is a transparent honesty about her… a confidence that leads toward being uncompetitive which I find refreshing.’
‘Claire Askew’s poetry is exceptional in its ability to take every day [things] and spin something rather special out of them… She has a fantastic voice, and her performance is slick and persuasive, with hardly a glance at her text. Lovely talent.’
‘Claire Askew is a poetry rock goddess.’
Hello, I’m Claire. I was born in 1986 and grew up in the rural Scottish Borders, surrounded by the countryside once terrorised by my infamous ancestor Johnie Armstrong. I know all writers say this, but I genuinely have always loved poetry. Even as a tiny child, I loved to have old favourites like “Jabberwocky” and Patrick Barrington’s “The Diplomatic Platypus” recited to me – preferably by my dad, because to this day, he does all the voices.
I started writing poems in high school, when I was introduced to Iain Crichton Smith by my excellent English teacher, Miss Barker. At fifteen, I’m pretty sure that most of the subtlety in Crichton Smith’s work went over my head, but I recognised for the first time that poetry wasn’t just funny rhymes and Valentine’s cards. Iain Crichton Smith and Miss Barker taught me that poetry could be sad and serious and political. I realised I could use it to address stuff that bothered me… and of course, as the bookish weird girl no one at Kelso High School talked to, I had a lot of that stuff.
I took Higher English, where I read Liz Lochhead and Carol Ann Duffy, and then Advanced Higher English, where I read Edwin Morgan, and started a lifelong love affair with the writing of Margaret Atwood. Then I started my MA (Hons) in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, where I got to (OK, had to) read two books a week plus a ton of literary criticism, and I discovered poets like Allen Ginsberg and Sharon Olds, Kim Addonizio and Patricia Young, Kerry Hardie and Dorianne Laux. I’m pretty sure I have never produced any poem that wasn’t at least partially inspired by something one of these poets once wrote.
^ Graduating from my MA (Hons) in English Literature
When I moved to Edinburgh in 2004 I stopped writing in secret and started sharing my work. In the ten years between then and now, I have been regularly invited to perform at established Scottish poetry nights like Inky Fingers, Words Per Minute, Shore Poets and Rally and Broad; I’ve been a feature performer at major poetry festivals like Aye, Write! (Glasgow), StAnza: Scotland’s Poetry Festival (St Andrews), and the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I love to perform, and given that I now have a few major Scottish slam titles to my name – including The Scottish Poetry Library Sotto Voce Slam (2009), The University of Edinburgh LitSoc slam (2010 and 2011) and the StAnza Risk-a-Verse Slam (2012) – I’m led to believe I’m alright at it. I was even crowned Edinburgh Literary Death Match Champion in 2012 (!) and since early 2013 I’ve been a committee member for Shore Poets, one of Scotland’s longest running live literature nights.
^ Reading at Words Per Minute. Photo by Neil Thomas Douglas.
I’ve been described as someone who likes to hop over the supposed “divide” between page and stage, because my work is also regularly published in established literary magazines and journals. To date, my poems have appeared in places like The Edinburgh Review, Poetry Scotland, New Writing North and The Herald newspaper, and outside of Scotland in places like The Guardian, PANK and Popshot (see a full list here). I’ve also been gobsmacked – and very proud – to have my work selected for major anthologies like the Scottish Poetry Library’s Best Scottish Poems (2008 and 2009); Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam (Cinnamon/Eyewear, 2012); Where Rockets Burn Through: Contemporary Science Fiction Poetry from the UK (Penned in the Margins, 2012) and Fit To Work: Poets Against ATOS (2013). Red Squirrel Press published my debut pamphlet, The Mermaid and the Sailors, in 2011.
^ With my Red Squirrel editor Kevin Cadwallender at the legendary Morden Tower.
Although I am most successful at letting their deadlines whizz by me unnoticed, I have also had some success with poetry prizes, starting as I meant to go on when, as an undergraduate, I was awarded all three of the University of Edinburgh’s major writing prizes in the same year (The Sloan Prize, The Grierson Verse Prize, and the Lewis Edwards Award for Poetry, all 2008). The University were also generous enough to award me the William Sharpe Hunter Memorial Scholarship for the work I did on their MSc in Creative Writing (Poetry), from which I graduated summa cum laude in 2009. Since then, poems of mine have won the Virginia Warbey Poetry Prize (2010) and the inaugural International Salt Prize for Poetry (2013), as well as being twice shortlisted for Eric Gregory Awards in 2010 and 2012. In 2014, my unpublished manuscript, “This changes things,” was shortlisted for the inaugural Edwin Morgan Poetry Award, the largest single poetry award in the UK.
^ The Mermaid and the Sailors, both print runs now sold out.
If all that sounds exhausting, bear in mind that poets are poor – which means that I’ve also been doing what non-writers call “real work” since my first (disastrous) paid job as a fifteen-year-old beauty salon receptionist. I worked as everything from a day-lamber on a sheep farm to a nanny and housekeeper, until I enrolled on my Masters and got what felt like my first grown-up job. From 2009 to 2013, I worked as a Lecturer in Literature and Communication at Edinburgh’s Telford College (now Edinburgh College: Granton Campus), mostly teaching compulsory literature units to young people who wanted to be sports coaches and bricklayers. This turned out to be both super fun and extremely exhausting, and it instilled in me a real love of working with young people – especially the ones who claim they don’t like books and particularly hate poetry. (Challenge accepted, young ‘uns!)
^ With my Scottish Universities International Summer School class of 2012
As well as teaching at Edinburgh College, I worked through the summers of 2010, 2011 and 2012 as a Tutor of Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Edinburgh’s Scottish International Summer School. In 2012 I also became Creative Facilitator on the Making It Home project, a year-long poetry and film fusion project funded by Creative Scotland. As part of the Making It Home team, I worked with native Scottish women from Pilton, Edinburgh, who had all experienced homelessness in one form or another, and with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from Maryhill in Glasgow. Together we read poems on the theme of “home,” we talked through our experiences of home and homelessness, and then the women created four amazing short films inspired by the poetry work we’d done. The films – which you can see along with a ‘making of’ here – are among the greatest cultural artefacts I have ever come across, and they were made by women who’d never picked up a video camera before in their lives.
^ With the wonderful women of Making It Home
Since Making It Home, I’ve felt compelled to move away from traditional teaching and into more community-based work. In October 2013 I took up the post of Young Adult Project Co-Ordinator at Scottish Book Trust, aka The Greatest Place To Work In The World Ever, and in this role I help create learning resources for reluctant readers and young people who struggle with literacy. I also go out and run interactive literacy sessions with community groups across Scotland, which is so much fun that sometimes I can’t believe I get paid for it. When I get the chance, I work freelance as a community-based facilitator of creative writing workshops (most recently with homelessness charity Bethany Christian Trust and Waverley Care), and I’m also a fully trained-up Community Champion for Scottish Women’s Aid. What can I say? I really like being busy.
^ It says, “O beautiful Garbo of my karma,” possibly the most devastating line in “Kaddish.”
Final fun facts about me? I’ve just finished my PhD in Creative Writing and Contemporary Women’s Poetry with the University of Edinburgh, and I owe my brilliant supervisor, Alan Gillis, a lot of drinks for getting me through unscathed. I run an online store selling antique and vintage jewellery, called Edinburgh Vintage. I collect manual typewriters and currently own about 30. I have seven tattoos – the most recent is a half-sleeve of a psychedelic typewriter that is typing out a line from Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” – and I want about a million more. I am a bad (but enthusiastic) knitter and a fairweather (but sincere) yogi. I’m an intersectional feminist, and I’m vegan. Nice to meet you!
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