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Sallie Durham


Sallie lives in rural East Sussex with her husband Mark, daughter Zhenya, their three cats and Florence, a chocolate-brown Newfoundland. She attended Sussex University then qualified as an English lecturer in further education. She later became an EFL teacher, hosting and teaching students from around the world. Her poems and short stories have won prizes and been published in magazines and anthologies. ‘I Left My Hair in San Francisco’ was joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Poetry Prize 2021 and is her debut collection.

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My love of writing began when I was nine years old with an adventure story about a shipwrecked Victorian family. The story earned me three gold stars from my teacher. One day at lunch I watched it being passed around the teachers’ table and thought I was in trouble because I’d written cockney dialogue: but this was the reason I’d achieved three gold stars. The school secretary typed out my story and it was read to subsequent generations. My mum squirrelled it away for years along with school photographs and name tags; I hadn’t known this until after she died. Unfortunately, the original work was lost during a house move.

My writing life has not been straightforward as I changed direction a few times before going to university at the age of twenty-nine. I graduated from Sussex University with an Honours degree in English literature and afterwards (somewhat predictably) qualified as an English teacher, starting out in post-compulsory/adult education, then teaching English to speakers of other languages. I’ve worked in advertising agencies in London and was a community reporter in Nottingham during the miners’ strike. I’ve also been a waitress, belly dancer, auxiliary nurse, cook and, until the pandemic hit, a learning support assistant for a neurodiverse child in a local primary school, where I sometimes doubled as an art teacher and ran a lunchtime art club – this is another direction I could easily have taken.

When I’m not writing, reading or working, I hang out in galleries and watch movies. The Depot Cinema in Lewes became my refuge when I needed to escape the hell of house renovations. Now that the house (it’s actually a cottage) is finished I have acquired a writing den. This is a dream I nurtured for many years that was finally realised. Mark sourced a delapidated Victorian shepherd’s hut in a field in the Cotswolds and spent months restoring it. He transformed it from something that looked like a bombed-out Anderson shelter to a clean, woody, unfussy space surrounded by flowers, the feet of birds and rain tap-dancing on the roof. A friend insisted that we name her – all shepherd’s huts have a name – so we called her Iris.

I write in whichever genre I feel is calling me, but it is nearly always poetry. Like many poets I also write fiction. Novels are another matter though, as they require you to enter a different world and spend time with invented characters. I quite enjoy this world however, and the characters that inhabit it – and novels do take ages to write, which is why I love the immediacy of crafting a poem. It can start with a mood, a word, an image, an emotion. Once I tap into its energy the poem will begin to


Iris and me and a cup of tea

reveal itself. I’m an active person and often compose when I’m walking the dog or riding my bike. Gone are the sedentary days of sitting for hours at a desk. Having a laptop is liberating as it means I can work anywhere – cafés, libraries, sometimes in my car or (desperate for head space) inside my local church. I will contradict myself now by saying that I sometimes get ideas when I’m in the bath, letting my mind drift and wander – my poem The Cranefly was composed in the bath.


I occasionally write flash fiction and found unexpected success with The Elephant which won the Lightship International Flash Fiction Prize in 2012. Flash fiction is something that usually happens to me by accident. I woke up one morning with the first line of The Elephant running through my head: ‘One day my husband brought home a baby elephant’. This may have been a response to the surprise appearance of the Newfoundland puppy I had no idea we were getting, but who quickly became a treasured member of our family. Once I’d chosen her name, Florence, I knew she was here to stay. Look under Flash Fiction and you can read this story along with The Saga of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria which appeared in the (now obsolete) online magazine What The Dickens. Just to mention also that I love writing prose in magic realism. It seems to have chosen me and is evident in some of my poems.

Some of my stories and poems have been highly placed in competitions and/or published (read more here). I stopped submitting work for a few years as life got in the way as it does with a school-aged child and that ‘toad’ called work (as Philip Larkin described it). During the pandemic of 2020 I was unable to do my job because schools were closed. It freed me to think, reassess, re-set.

During that first, long, summer lockdown I made a decision to reconnect with poetry. Once I’d committed it was easy. The poems seemed to flow of their own volition. The countryside got under my skin and I felt a kinship in a way I’d never experienced. I feel deeply grateful for this gift of time: I truly appreciate that time is not a limitless commodity, that it can run out for any one of us, on any day. WIth this realisation came the focus I needed.

I wrote a bunch of poems inspired by my daily walks. I became obsessed with a field of sunflowers. I noticed how birds seemed bolder and more vociferous. I looked up at the endless blue sky, empty of aircraft noise and vapour trails. Few cars were on the roads and more people were cycling, walking. The world seemed purified.

Indoors, older poems languished on my laptop. I dragged them out of dust and offered them to the light. I started submitting to competitions again and broke the stagnant spell with a shortlisted poem The Anonymity of Hotels (Hedgehog Press anthology Looking Out, Peering In).

Then – at last – the most exciting prize of my life came in the early summer of 2021 when I returned from a post-lockdown, belated birthday camping trip to discover I was joint winner of The Geoff Stevens Memorial Poetry Prize. My debut collection I Left My Hair in San Francisco was published by Indigo Dreams in May 2022. This was more than a prize: it was the recognition I had always yearned for; the joy and freedom of being heard; a feeling of coming home.

Another poem On the Importance of Being a Tree was highly commended in the Indigo Dreams Wild Nature Poetry Competition 2021 and will appear in a forthcoming anthology Voices For the Silent which celebrates the natural environment and its voiceless, defenceless inhabitants.

What’s next? Having a book out in the world has galvanised me to keep writing – even if it feels at times like I’m walking blindfold through a maze. I don’t think that feeling will ever leave me, and so I’ve learned to live with it. Writing is a crazy, unpredictable path and I sometimes think that if my had my time again I’d have chosen something different, with less angst and more financial security. I have no idea what this might have been – but then I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Finally: I hope my journey to publication, through a lifetime apprenticeship, will inspire others and lend them a little stamina to carry on.

I thank you Mark for my shepherd’s hut and for accepting my need to write. I thank you Zhenya for bringing light and reason and joy to my life.

Competitions and publications >

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