Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Helen Mort

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following poets, local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

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Helen Mort

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The Interview

What were the circumstances under which you began to write poetry?

I’ve been writing since before I could hold a pen! I grew up listening to the radio from a very, very young age and apparently I would dictate poems to my long-suffering mum for her to write down. I was obsessed with trains, she reckons. The first poem I published was – I think – when I was 9 years old and it was about being made to tidy my messy bedroom. In it, I described my mum as an ‘angry rhino’ and I’m not sure she’s ever forgiven me!

Who introduced you to poetry?

My parents. My mum read everything she could find to me when I was little and then when I was a bit older my dad started introducing me to the poets he loved: Seamus Heaney, Wilfred Owen, a bit of Ted Hughes. I’m very grateful to them for the way they encouraged me as a reader and, later on, as a writer too.

How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

I’m not sure I was aware of their influence as ‘dominating’. When I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to win the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award a few times and the prize was always a week’s Arvon course with established poets. All the writers I encountered there (Jean Sprackland, Matthew Sweeney, Amanda Dalton, Steven Knight, Moniza Alvi and many, many others) were extremely supportive and encouraging mentors. They seemed to regard us as their peers rather than looking ‘down’ to us as younger writers. It was very empowering. I think those mentoring relationships exist informally between poets all the time and they’re so valuable.

What is your daily writing routine?

I don’t write daily and I don’t have a routine! I have a full time job teaching at a university as well so the time I have to write varies throughout the year. Some months, I might snatch opportunities to scribble down ideas and lines on my commute from Sheffield to Manchester, other months I might be able to spend a week working intensively on a novel. My poems all arrive in very different ways anyway too: I might carry an image or idea for a poem around in my head for months or years, waiting for something else to connect with it and generate the ‘surprise’ I think the poem needs, or something might strike me unbidden and I’ll feel compelled to write it down. I’ve had ideas for poems and stories while running, while driving, while having a bath…..you name it.

What motivates you to write?

I’ve always felt that writing is the way I express myself best. So much of the time, I’m not articulate enough to say what I really mean but in writing (particularly poetry) I think I find a truer version of myself. Whatever ‘truer’ really means!

What is your work ethic?

If something needs to be written (either because the idea feels emotionally urgent or because I have a commission deadline) I won’t rest until it is finished. I’m capable of writing quite intensively when I need to, even when I don’t have much time. I’m a bit believer in the ‘if you want something doing, ask a busy person’ maxim. Though that isn’t always good for my life overall – I can forget that I also need a rest!

How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I’m still a huge admirer of Wilfred Owen and think of ‘Futility’ as one of the best poems ever written – its poignancy and emotional honesty. I’ve just finished writing a commissioned poem about Owen and it was a tremendous honour to do that.

Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I admire a huge number of the writers I meet and I love discovering new work. I’m a big fan of Liz Berry and can’t get enough of her collection ‘Black Country’ or her astonishing recent pamphlet ‘The Republic of Motherhood’. I am also really excited by the work Kim Moore is doing at the moment around everyday sexism. I was lucky enough to work with Malika Booker in Leeds a few years ago and find her energy, commitment and talent incredibly inspiring. And nowadays I work with Andrew McMillan whose new collection ‘Playtime’ is astonishingly good. But the list goes on.

Why do you write?

Because it helps me know what I really think and believe in a confusing, overcrowded, over-burdened, anxious world. And because I can’t read poems without wanting to write them!

What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Keep a thin skin for your writing life, develop a thicker skin for your public life as a writer. You have to be very open to the world as a writer, but you need to be able to switch that off when you’re dealing with the realm of publishing, feedback, critique and all the business of everyday life.

Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I’ve recently finished the last edits on my novel ‘Black Car Burning’ which is due out with Chatto and Windus in April next year – it’s about trust, trauma, rock climbing and the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. I have been working on it since 2012 and I’m really excited about it coming out. A more long term project is a collection of poems called ‘Failsafe’ which I’ve been steadily writing for a while now. The manuscript-in-progress received a Northern Writers’ Award in 2018 so that was a really welcome boost.

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