Work-life balance

Poetry may not be the most financially rewarding career, but for Selina Nwulu her day job doesn’t just provide financial support – it’s a source of constant inspiration too

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“If you’re a poet, you often need a day job,” says Selina Nwulu. “I don’t know many people who just write poems and aren’t rich already. But maybe that job doesn’t always connect as closely to their poems as mine.”

“You need a little bit of distance from what you are writing, particularly grief.”

Nwulu might not be the only researcher sidelining in creative writing – or perhaps vice versa – but she’s a standout case. Rotherham born and speaking with Big Issue North in her Manchester home, Nwulu has spent most of her career to date in London, splitting time between consultancy work – helping charities and other organisations understand racial, climate and social justice – and penning verse good enough to make her Youth Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2016. That’s when she wasn’t lecturing, guiding educational programmes, or delivering cultural interventions tied to issues close to her heart.

Her most recent literary triumph arrived in late 2022 in the form of debut solo anthology A Little Resurrection. Filled with words that speak from and to the Black British experience – memories of being a girl of Nigerian descent growing up in South Yorkshire, time spent living in Senegal, and dealing with personal grief – it’s the latest chapter in an oeuvre separate to her other undertakings, yet fundamentally intertwined.

“A lot of what I write in general is my experience. And, you know, as a Black woman, a lot of that is around racialised experiences. And that is where it comes from, not necessarily that I’m also doing research in that specific area.

“But then I’m also involved in the charity sector and working on that more in the research side of things. So I always start with my experience, but I think I have the intention of grounding that within a political landscape, because I see everything, or a lot of things, as very political,” she says.

Poetry came first for Nwulu, who says she grew up writing, although she wouldn’t have necessarily called it poetry then, more like a diary. Writing with “meaningful intent” came later. In between was research.

“Honestly, I think bouncing around internships, with these gaps where I couldn’t really get stable work, allowed me time to really lean into more creative writing on the same issues… I don’t even know if that was intentional, but the central issues were the important thing – one side going off in research, another creative. I think that’s the power of being an artist – you can connect these seemingly unconnected things.”

With the dust now settled after A Little Resurrection, Nwulu’s first major print outing since 2015’s chapbook The Secrets I Let Slip, it’s now easier to view her path to this point in focus. She describes seeing the finished anthology, and then taking in critical and public acclaim, as “pretty surreal”. Did the process of creating and unveiling something entirely her own leave Nwulu feeling more exposed, compared with contributing to collections alongside other writers? Her response betrays the openness, thoughtfulness and wit that emanate from every page, and are tangible throughout our conversation.

“That’s something I’ll probably have to think about, ideal for keeping me up at night – thanks,” she quips, before recounting how process still allows her some degree of protection. “My work is always a part of me, there’s my experience in there, but also fictionalised elements, which I think can provide a bit of a barrier. There’s no getting around the vulnerability, but think about what it is to tell a story. Is it in the minutiae of what actually happened to me, which I need to share? Or is it larger themes that I want you to understand? I don’t need to put everything in there for you to understand it a bit.

“Making that distinction helps protect me, while still offering an authentic version of myself. That’s important. But, of course, people still read my work and think it’s all me, and are like: ‘My goodness, are you OK?’ You need a little bit of distance from what you’re writing, particularly around things like grief and bereavement. There are things that I write about in ways that are not writing about that thing, but an interesting perspective on it,” she continues, citing My Dad’s Jacket Lives On In A Pop-Up Bar In Shoreditch as one example – a poem packed with meaning and emotions relating to her late father, but not actually about him. “It’s these little ways that don’t say ‘this happened, here’s how’, but approach a subject from around the corner.”

If distance within her work can be beneficial, Nwulu believes the same applies externally. Relocating from the capital 18 months ago put 200 miles between her and the epicentre of the UK creative industry. While acknowledging tides are turning – Arts Council targeting regions as a priority, publishers setting up offices in Northern England – and the space between London and Manchester has afforded room to consider where the work should head next, she’s also clear that “there’s still a long way to go” in rebalancing the distribution of opportunities at a national level. Unsurprisingly, the same can be said for what she sees as a consultant from organisations and individuals trying to understand connections between different injustices.

“A lot of what I’m doing with different organisations is basically just getting them to think about racial justice or climate justice. These are buzzwords and, for many, things that we reflect on daily. We’re talking about them all the time and can’t choose to switch on or off. But I think, especially with the waves of 2020, a lot of people are finding these terms and not necessarily knowing what they mean, or the history of what they mean,” Nwulu says.

“You can’t just say these words and not mean it. How does it reflect your behaviours, your working practices, the work that you’re putting out, and the work that you’re doing behind closed doors? Sometimes it feels impossible. But even being able to have this conversation in this way, you know – not long ago, you couldn’t even say things around racial justice without everybody clutching their pearls and getting super angsty.

“I think things have changed a lot. So when I feel discouraged, it’s because I don’t think we’re going quickly enough.

“That’s not to say we aren’t going at all. I think sometimes I have to remind myself of that.”

A Little Resurrection by Selina Nwulu is out now on Bloomsbury Poetry

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