Interview: Beth Somerford

By James Blow

Unknown Magazine had the pleasure of interviewing poet and coach Sam Chittenden. Her poetry is written under the pen name Beth Somerford. Her work entails themes that are intimate and personal, drawing from personal experiences, emotions and family.

Sam runs workshops with organisations such as Different Development. She is involved in coaching and acting. Below is a brief outline of the things that we discussed, including Chittenden’s influences and experiences that shape her works, advice to aspiring poets, the relationship between verbal performance, leadership and poetry, and more.

What inspired you to start writing poetry?

I wrote poetry as a teenager! But it wasn’t very good. I think a lot of young people kind of write stuff. So I was just writing to express myself I suppose, to experiment. But I didn’t think it was very good and I suppose I got interested in other things, or distracted with other things and I didn’t write again until my mid-life crisis.

I mean, that’s not entirely true – I came back to be a bit interested in poetry through seeing a poem on the underground. You know those kind of poster things? They had been doing them for years, so in my late twenties I suppose I saw a poem by Carolyn Forché, who is absolutely one of my favourite poets, about her time in Chile.

It was a really powerful but beautifully written and beautiful sounding poem, and that really inspired me, so I read a bit of her stuff.

I didn’t really start writing again until my forties when I found myself in a bit of a rubbish place and I wanted a bit of catharsis – I wanted to express that, so I wrote a very angry poem about my ex-husband. Then I wrote a few more things, and I shared some of them with people. I went on a workshop called The Mastery which I loved so much that I then trained to run it which is one of the things I now do in personal development is run a workshop called The Mastery of Self Expression. As part of that workshop I performed one of these poems that I had written and I was just amazed at the response that I got from other people and how it felt to express what was going on. Not just to talk about it but to have something that was very crafted and that I had spent a lot of time on and put a lot of myself into. I suppose like making anything. But other people really got that.

So I just kept writing then and performing it. For me, the verbal expression of and sharing of words in thoughts and poetry is really important.

I mean it’s really good to look back at your poetry – it’s like something you can be proud of isn’t it?

Yeah, and to look back and see how it has gotten better. So yes to be proud of it but also to see, you know as I said the stuff I wrote when I was young – I wouldn’t publish that or share that now. But it’s good to see that progression. Like any craft – you develop your craft.

What advice would you give to young aspiring poets?

I suppose three things: read. Not just poetry, but anything – I’m amazed by how many people say they want to write but don’t really read.  You can’t hone your craft unless you know what it looks like – so read lots and read widely, not just the stuff that you like.

Write – even if it is rubbish, just write because you need to exercise those muscles.

Share your poetry – one of the things I use Facebook for is networking with different groups. Networking in the theater world I’m part of and networking in the poetry world, and sharing early drafts with people and getting their feedback. There’s a real camaraderie around that and I’m taking part in challenges around writing.

I did a thing at Lent called ‘Fourteen Sonnets’, when instead of giving up the usual things people give up at Lent we wrote a Sonnet a day.

I can imagine that’s quite challenging!

It took over my life. But it’s also exercising. I don’t usually write in a form, most of my stuff is free verse, but actually something different happens when you make yourself write in a different way. Out of those Fourteen Sonnets, I’ve got a group, and some of them are terrible, but there’s a small group of them I’m really pleased with, and a couple of them have been shortlisted in things.

Yes, I think I saw that actually online. I saw a publication. Correct me if I’m wrong, but your pen name is Beth Somerford?

That’s me, yes.

I saw some of your poetry being published in this magazine and it was really cool to see!

I’m not sure if I’m right about this but I can see in a lot of your poems including We Were Strange Children and Before the Children that there is a lot of imagery of children. Do you feel this expresses your experiences with leadership or coaching – do you see running a group or organisation as being like raising a child to allow them to flourish?

That’s a really interesting observation. To be honest, I think the reason I write so much about children is because I’m a mother of four, and a stepmother of two. So a lot of that and a lot of my poetry is quite personal. One of the things that’s changed as I’ve grown up, is my poetry’s grown up. When I wrote as a teenager, it was all about me. My perspective on the poetry, and also life and the world has changed as a result of becoming a mum. So I think that’s a very important thread for me. Interestingly, I was talking to somebody a while back about the links between motherhood and leadership and how it changes things. I think for me, leadership is about love. It’s about loving. I don’t mean that in a romantic way, but it’s about really caring about people, whether they’re yourself or your customers. Really caring about your product or your service. If those things aren’t true for you as a leader, then I’m not sure you should be given that power and responsibility.

I completely agree. I mean, if you’re leading a group of people then I think you’ve got to really connect with them and inspire them to do what they do.

But I think one of the challenges is that often leadership is that there is a danger that leaders can be patronizing – which is not great leadership in my view. I suppose one of the things I’ve explored around my leadership, around Leadership Development is what are the gender differences in leadership. You’ve heard about different styles of leadership so you know we have very strong masculine kind of factory based metaphors or war based metaphors of leadership. You kind of think about great leaders. You think that comes to mind – going into battle and getting revenge, you know. They are very old fashioned forms of leadership and they really don’t work in the modern world and yet a lot of leadership development and a lot of promotion and recruitment is based on people fitting a certain model. Lots of cultures in organisations expect people to adapt and fit into whatever the prevalent culture is in that organization. Some people can’t be themselves at work and that’s a real loss. Not just to those people who find it difficult to be in that environment, but actually the organization loses out because it kind of gets shades of grey.

It kind of falls apart within doesn’t it if that’s the case? I did a bit of research before this interview and noticed you were part of Different Development. Do you want to talk a bit more about that?

Sure! So I spend most of my career in management in the Health Service, so I was interested in creative stuff at school which is why I was writing and I was doing a little bit of theater stuff. But I put those things aside and went down a much more scientific path and a much more serious career track. I did that and I did lots of interesting things and networked with great people. It was very rewarding in lots of ways, but I came to a point in my career where I was just wasn’t getting what I needed anymore, and wasn’t stretching me enough. I was doing this workshop, The Mastery, I was sort of doing outside in my spare time and facilitating people’s exploring and growth over the space of a weekend. I was seeing more change in those for the 48 hours in the people I was working with there then kind of six months of my working with life, making meetings and making important decisions. So, I just began to realize that this is just much more rewarding, much more where I wanted to be at that point in my life.

That was about six years ago. I gradually started to look at how I might shift into a different role. I now run a training organisational consultancy called Different Development. That’s my business and I suppose the difference is how I bring together the two things I am interested in. I’m interested in people and in leadership and I’ve got a long track record in health management, but I’m also passionate about creativity and poetry and theater. So what we try and do in the business is find ways to bring those things together to create really fun exciting but impactful events, coaching and other things for the development. The people are learning but in a kind of way that they almost don’t realise that they, or that they are being stretched in a way that feels really safe because of the kind of environment. We talked about rehearsing when I’m coaching. So, how could you kind of practice that pretend in a way that doesn’t make you feel pressured?

Yeah, so a safe and fun way of experiencing for the first time and with that experience you can do better when you actually perform. That is really good.

Working with one-to-one coaching is a big part of what I do and often I’m working with somebody who says, ‘I’ve got this problem – I really like to do X, but I can’t because I’m like this, you know? I can’t have that difficult conversation with my boss because I feel uncomfortable’. So what we kind of do is set up a way that they can explore what it would be like to do the thing that doesn’t feel comfortable for them and kind of give people permission to do something that is in a different pattern to their usual pattern. If you were to pretend that you were this person, what would they do? Would they be more forthright? So they practice that and see how that feels. And often people go ‘actually, I quite like that”. People aren’t just one thing you know we think about ourselves as kind of like ‘vanilla’, we’re not just one thing, we’re multi-layered and have lots of different kind of flavours and so on.

I looked at the website for Different Development and it says it aims to help people harness their emotional intelligence and self-awareness. Do you keep this goal in mind when writing your poetry?

No, I think for me, they come together, but the poetry starts with feelings for me, so I do not know the impact on the reader. You’re kind of aware there’s going to be a reader but it’s much more about saying something that I want to say that connects with me emotionally. I suppose that can also connect with other people emotionally and certainly in the reading of another poem and a performance of another poem. I am a little bit more conscious about how do I express the emotion and how people can connect with it then. However, I don’t write a poem with that goal in mind really.

Are you doing any poetry endeavours in the near future?

I am going to publish Fourteen the selection of Sonnets from the Lent writings. I am publishing that sometime this autumn. Other than that, just try to do a bit more writing.

Fourteen the anthology has been published and can be purchased here

Learn about Different Development

 Learn more about Chittenden’s work




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