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Poem is tribute to cathedral, its saint, and most of all, its people

St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds ANL-150513-161035001
St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds ANL-150513-161035001

Poet and author Elizabeth Cook was St Edmundsbury Cathedral’s first ever writer in residence.

The job came with a desk in the cathedral library, where in summer she sat by the open door breathing in the scent of flowers and herbs from the garden outside.

Elizabeth Cook, writer in residence at St Edmundsbury Cathedral 2012/13 ANL-160917-213819001
Elizabeth Cook, writer in residence at St Edmundsbury Cathedral 2012/13 ANL-160917-213819001

Seeking inspiration for a poem that would be a major legacy of her year in residence she spent hours absorbing the atmosphere of the ancient building.

She sensed the spirit its patron St Edmund, and followed his footsteps around the East Anglian kingdom he ruled in the 9th century.

But also vital was tuning in to the cathedral’s beating heart ... the people who keep it running.

This weekend Edmund in Edmundsbury, the poem that grew out of that process, is launched in book form.

Wood engraving by Andy English for limited edition book of poem Edmund in Edmundsbury by Elizabeth Cook ANL-160917-155840001
Wood engraving by Andy English for limited edition book of poem Edmund in Edmundsbury by Elizabeth Cook ANL-160917-155840001

The 250 limited edition bound copies have been created with a huge amount of loving care and attention to detail.

They are signed and numbered, illustrated with wood engravings by artist Andy English, and will be on sale in the cathedral priced £15.

“It is a really beautiful object. Every element has been really carefully made,” says Elizabeth.

She will read her poem for the first time in public on Sunday September 25, following a service at 11.30am.

“I always planned to write an extended poem for the cathedral but it was a long time before I knew what form it should take.

“I wanted to show how Edmund is still present in Bury, and also say something about the life of the cathedral now.

“I began to feel the cathedral was like a small city – an interdependent, living organism – whose life is fed by a great variety of activities, most of them unseen by visitors and worshippers.

“I wanted to honour the people behind the scenes, the brass polishers, the launderers of vestments and altar linen, the makers of soup and cake served in the Refectory, the gardeners, the guides.

“The volunteers who staff the shop, as well as the office staff and vergers all play a part in keeping that city alive so the clergy can perform their liturgical and pastoral duties.

“I spoke to and spent time with as many of them as I could. I visited a primary school in Haverhilll with the Discovery team and watched children make paper flowers that carried their prayers and opened in the water where they floated.

“Not all are mentioned in the poem, but all fed it and are part of its fabric.

“The other strand of the poem is Edmund, whose spirit pervades his former kingdom of East Anglia and whose presence is felt in the cathedral as in so many of the places associated with his life and martyrdom.

“I followed in his footsteps where I was able, and felt him most of all at Bures, the place of his crowning, where I walked early one summer morning.

“So much of writing comes from watching, listening, and waiting.”

Elizabeth was writer in residence at the cathedral in 2012/13. “I was the first one, so it was up to me to create the job, which was rather nice.”

She became a freelance writer 30 years ago after giving up an academic career that included lecturing in renaissance literature.

But she soon realised she had not made an easy choice. “I don’t think I realised how hard it was going to be – it’s easier to do something like that in ignorance.

“I’m a very, very slow writer and had to support myself in various other ways. I taught in prisons, did copy editing, and edited an edition of Keats for Oxford University Press.”

Her work of fiction Achilles – which is also a performmance piece – won a Fringe First award at the Edinburgh Festival.

She is currently nearing completion of a novel, Lux, set partly in Old Testament times, and partly in 16th century England.

Elizabeth is a part-time Suffolk resident, dividing her time between London and the home near Halesworth of her partner David Cash, former managing director of Private Eye.

Christianity is an important part of her life, and she also has a long term interest in the relationship between art and theology.

Poetry is now at the heart of her work as a writer. But her working life is one of two halves.

For 20 years she has also practised craniosacral therapy

Sunday’s launch of her poem follows choral mattins, during which the anthem The Martyrdom of Edmund, with words by Dean of the cathedral the Very Rev Dr Frances Ward and music by Janet Wheeler, will be sung by the choir.

Elizabeth’s reading will be followed by a free reception, rsvp to dean@stedscathedral.org

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