Birmingham poet-turned-novelist selected for creative writing scholarship

A former Birmingham poet laureate has won a creative writing scholarship specially designed for budding writers who would not otherwise be able to afford a Master’s degree.

Stephen Morrison-Burke has been selected ahead of 126 applicants as the inaugural recipient of the Kit de Waal scholarship at Birkbeck, University of London. The announcement of the 32-year-old’s selection was made last night (Wednesday 18 May) at an event at Birkbeck’s Arts Week.

Born and raised in Northfield, south Birmingham, Stephen’s talent for writing first came to public attention in 2012 when he was chosen as the city’s youngest poet laureate in its 20 year history, prior to which he had combined performing as a spoken word artist with a role teaching workshops to youth offenders and young carers.

Having only studied English up to GCSE level, Stephen considers himself largely self-taught, drawing inspiration from writers such as Charles Bukowski, Ernest Hemingway, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Amy Hempel and John Steinbeck.

He said: “I love language and have always loved words. But to be honest, I grew up in a destitute part of the city, so getting into literature, or being a poet, novelist or short story writer, they just weren’t options. They never came into my consciousness.

“I didn’t think that people like me wrote books. My options were sport or maybe PE teaching or something like that. So I didn’t read my first book outside of school until I was 18-years-old.”

He explained his success in poetry came at a tough time in his life.

“2014 was very difficult for me. I had little money and food, I lived alone as I had moved out of the family home and had split up with my partner. I didn’t have a social life. As much as one person can give up and live, I gave up.

“I remember going on BBC Radio 4 to perform three of my poems, and on the day I went to record that, all I had was £1.52 in my account and I was three months behind on my rent. I was broke. So you had hundreds of thousands of people listening to me on the radio and I was absolutely broke and isolated. I had to sign on the dole about a week after that. I’m not ashamed of those things. They were the making of me and this book, so I embrace them.”

It was at this time Stephen’s motivation for writing poetry was overtaken by an urge to write prose. Since then, he has dedicated his time to writing his first novel, The Purple Sun – a semi-biographical tale inspired by his father’s experiences leaving his Jamaican homeland in the 1970s to begin a new life in the UK. This month, Stephen finished the final draft, an 90,000-word manuscript, which follows two-and-a-half years of writing, primarily in the very early mornings.

When the Kit de Waal scholarship was announced in November 2015, numerous friends and family members of Stephen informed him of the opportunity. Created by award-winning British writer, Kit de Waal, the scholarship includes a fully funded place on Birkbeck’s MA Creative Writing programme, plus a financial support package and access to top literary agents.

Initially drawn to the runner-up prizes, which included sessions with editors and consultants at London publishing houses, Stephen submitted the first two chapters of his novel. Consequently invited to attend a face-to-face interview with Ms. de Waal, and Julia Bell, novelist and course director of the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA, he was delighted to hear how impressed they were with his work. Before that point, he hadn’t shown his book to anyone.

He said: “Life had been very hard for me during the time I wrote this book. To have given up everything to write it and to try and make a career out of it…I often thought, ‘what are you doing?’

“I mean, yes part of it was very special, what with it being just me writing in the early morning and learning a lot about how much I wanted this. But on the other side, you just don’t know how good it is. When Kit and Julia said that it was good, they looked at me as if I should have already known that. But I didn’t. So I had the biggest smile on my face.” 

Stephen said he was in disbelief when he was offered the full scholarship, and will likely remain so until he begins the two-year, part-time course in September this year.

“When I found out I was so excited, more so than I believed I ever would be because I didn’t think I would get it in the first place. I was so chuffed.”

Kit de Waal said: “I’m delighted that Stephen has accepted his place at Birkbeck. He’s talented, dedicated and just the sort of person I imagined would apply.”

Julia Bell, Course Director of the MA Creative Writing said: “Stephen’s application stood out for the quality of his writing and the discipline and commitment of his approach. He’s got a real talent for language but he understands that good writing is also about reading and learning and putting the hours in at your desk. I’m really looking forward to working with him on the MA.”

Stephen Morrison-Burke was formally announced as the Kit de Waal scholar at the Birkbeck Creating Writing Alumni Showcase at the College’s School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square, on Wednesday 18 May. The event took place during Arts Week, the College’s annual festival of arts and research.

On the evening it was announced that scholarship runner-up, Charlotte Forfieh, would also receive a fully-funded position on the MA Creative Writing programme. This additional funding was made available via an anonymous donation.

Speaking at the post-event reception, Charlotte said she was “shocked and surprised in the most wonderful way”.

Talking about the opportunity and her motivation for writing, she said: “I want to blow the doors of its hinges, and blaze a trail for those coming behind. The publishing industry needs to know there are other lives, voices and perspectives out there. So if I can play a small part in that I would be proud to do it.”

Read the Q&A interview with Stephen Morrison-Burke on the BBK Blog, and watch him speak below:

Find out more