The plane lands in the calm between two storms. Where the flash rainfall has left a standing layer of water, the expanse of airport tarmac is a mirror. It glints in the yellow storm-light. When the driver from Writers’ House of Georgia leads me out to the waiting car, the air is warm and heavy with the promise of more rain to come.
In May 2022, I spent 10 days in Tbilisi, working on my poetry collection at the Writers’ House of Georgia. I was awarded the residency after being shortlisted for the 2021 Desperate Literature Prize, and my flights were paid for by the de Groot Foundation – but (due to Covid) it took a while to get the dates in the diary. So by the time I made it out to Tbilisi, I was staring down the barrel of a poetry deadline. In the end, I think this was probably a good thing. Although it left less time for meandering through the narrow streets of the city’s beautiful old town, or for freewriting about whatever came to mind, it did mean that I had focus throughout the residency, and a project to work towards – both of which are things that I’ve found work well for me, when I’m writing away from home. They give me a sense of purpose, and stop me feeling lonely or homesick.
On that first night, the rain finally falls as I’m unpacking my bag, in the art deco opulence of the Steinbeck Room on the top floor of the Writers’ House. It falls with abandon, with thunder across tiled rooftops and lightning forking the sky above Mount Mtatsminda. It leaves me with a strange mixture of intense drama, and a feeling of being able to just sit back and soaking up the moment – a combination which would come to define my stay in Tbilisi.
While I was in Tbilisi, I slept badly. This was nothing to do with the residency, and everything to do with the impending deadline and imminent poetry festival battling for attention in my constantly churning head. But the result was going to bed early, then lying awake for hours, either reading or thinking about what I’d been reading – and then rising late to shower just in time for breakfast.
Luckily, from what I gathered, Tbilisi tends to be a city that rises late as well. Breakfast at the Writers’ House was served 9am-11am, and was usually a leisurely affair, chatting with one or two of the other writers who were staying there.
(Side note: breakfast is the only meal provided at the Writers’ House of Georgia, but it’s incredible!)
Then I would wander downstairs, to write in the dappled shade of the courtyard for a couple of hours.
I think the courtyard was probably my favourite thing about this residency – such a tranquil space, away from the bustle of the city streets, moving in and out of the shade whenever I got too hot or too cold. I had a few Zoom meetings while I was in Georgia, and I made sure to take them in the courtyard, because it was just so beautiful and idyllic.
When hunger finally drove me back upstairs (to my supply of snacks and mini pancakes taken from breakfast), I would get ready to go out for the afternoon. One of the main dilemmas of a residency like this one is how to strike a balance between working and exploring – and it can be particularly difficult when you’re working towards a deadline. I was adamant that I wouldn’t waste the chance of exploring the city, so I determined to do one bit of exploration a day. (The only day I didn’t stick to this was the day we had torrential rain and thunderstorms morning till night, and I decided to play it safe, catch up on writing & admin, and stay dry.)
So how did I spend my afternoons? I walked along Rustaveli Avenue. I wandered through the flea market by the river and read my book in the park. I took the cable car up to the fortress on the hill. I rode the funicular railway for views across the city to the Atlas Mountains. I explored the old town and sat listening to chanting in the city’s oldest church. I went to the museum. I found a courtyard bookshop and people-watched with a coffee. I tried traditional Georgian foods. On Georgian National Independence Day, I walked the length of Rustaveli Avenue stopping to watch the bands and dancers, and shopping at the independent craft stalls. At the end of each day, I collapsed back in my beautiful room at the Writers’ House with a cup of tea and a book.
This is what I mean about the combination between intensity and enjoying the moment. In some ways, the residency sped by – I felt like I’d barely arrived, and already I was on the flight home (and getting stuck at Schiphol Airport for multiple hours, but that’s another story). But in other ways, every day felt like an opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of the city – not always doing anything constructive, but often just wandering the streets and drinking coffee and letting myself be.
Which is important, too, as a writer. It’s good to strike that balance between work, and letting your brain do the work while you stare into space.
Which is maybe something I need to keep reminding myself when I’m at home.
(And yes, I met my deadline. Thank you, Writers’ House of Georgia!)