Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Pippa Little 

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers 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.

twist cover

Pippa Little

is a Scot born in Tanzania who has been settled in the North East for over twenty years. The Spar Box, from Vane Women, was a PBS Pamphlet Choice. Other pamphlets include The Snow Globe, Red Squirrel Press, Our Lady of Iguanas, Black Light Engine Room Press and Foray, Biscuit Press, an exploration of women Border Reivers. Her most recent full collection, Twist, came out in February 2017 from Arc and was shortlisted for The Saltire Society Poetry Collection of the Year. Overwintering, published by OxfordPoets/Carcanet, was shortlisted for The Seamus Heaney Centre Prize in 2012. She is currently working on her next collection. She has a Hawthornden Fellowship, has won many awards, been published widely in  magazines, anthologies, online, on radio and film across the world and has read her work as far and wide as StAnza Poetry Festival in Scotland and in Mexico City. She reviews, edits, co-translates poetry and is a founding member of Carte Blanche, a women’s writing workshop in Newcastle. She is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newcastle University.

The Interview

  1. When and Why did you start writing poetry?

I started writing stories and making books with drawings when I was quite young, along with my sister. I won a poetry comp when I was about 10 which set me off on poetry as a form but I also wrote short stories, song lyrics (with no music!) and three novels (one a children’s book) – but my first love is really poetry and that’s what I have stuck with for over 40 years now!

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

My father, who always loved poetry and for whom it was an important part of his bookish and thoughtful life – he used to read me poems at bedtime as a child: we began with RL Stevenson, AA Milne and later went through the work of many of his favourite poets, the ones I recall now being GM Hopkins, Edward Thomas, Hardy, Houseman…after I left home at 16 he sent me every week in the post one of a series of about 20 very small booklets he collected from the local bookshop, ranging from Thomas Wyatt to Marianne Moore – I still have them. He had been in WW2 and had lost friends, including the poet Sidney Keyes, so he also introduced me to war poets – Keith Douglas in particular. I don’t remember doing much poetry at school…but I did write my own from quite early on, and because of my father (though I never showed any of it to him!)

3. Of the poets you remember him introducing you to who were you most drawn to?

GM Hopkins – the musicality and oddness of his poetry fascinated me and I just thought it was beautiful..but one poem I remember very vividly is his ‘Felix Randal’, about this gentle giant of a blacksmith whose first line asks ‘is he dead then?’ – I really felt as if I knew him, and his world. The same with ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas – a whole world revealed mysteriously through layers of word-sounds and images.

3.1 Did you try to imitate them?

I certainly wanted to make pleasing and interesting sound patterns and to create vivid and tangible pictures but I felt quite early on that what I wanted to write wasn’t going to be in formal rhyme schemes…my father was very widely read but his taste was very much within the male-heavy ‘canon’ and once I began buying my own poetry books I wanted to try lots of different things.

3.2 Of the “male” heavy canon how aware were and are you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

Well when I was about 12, 13, I was really into Sylvia Plath! She walked a vibrating line between the academy, being formally accomplished, wanting to excel and yet feeling that the established ‘canon’ she was so eager to join involved making light of a great deal of work from voices with important and difficult things to say. I know there is a huge generalisation involved here as to what might constitute a
‘canon’ as a body of work, and it wasn’t until I was 18 that I began to read feminist literary theory which deconstructed it, but I did feel there was an unacknowledged weight of expectation and ‘achieving a standard’ which came from my father’s own very serious classical education and learning! Later when I was researching for my phd I was very moved by an account Adrienne Rich gave of her relationship with her father which sounded very like mine – very loving yet with a great deal of ambivalence.

3.3 Ambivalence?

I think for Rich it was political as well as sexual, wanting to be the ‘good daughter’ and yet knowing that would mean negating or at least limiting the full free expression of herself. Maybe what I am thinking about though is just that weight of approval, and of fulfilling hopes or ambitions of a parent (a male parent).I never showed my father my poems as they seemed too personal, too revealing…I was almost ashamed of them. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I’d taken off in a direction he wasn’t all that sure about! To be fair though I never showed work to my mother either – for years I was a closet writer, sending poems away and getting them published, even winning prizes, but not being open about them at all with my friends and family. So maybe the ambivalence goes wider than just my father and our relationship…

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I don’t have a writing routine and don’t write every day, but I think about writing every day, usually when walking with the dog I’ll mull over something and work stuff through. I write in notebooks with a very thin black pen or on to the pc. I always edit on the pc, keep drafts and print them out so I can decide about anything from commas or dashes or such to revising/­re-ordering whole chunks. At the moment I’m putting a third collection together and have lots of printed sheets in a book of clear sleeves so I can re-arrange, take out, add, etc. I go to a writing workshop on a Thursday and I love that – a group of us all concentrating around a long table, we all contribute energy to the writing and then we have a great time discussing what we’ve done! I’d like to be more organised – I have made attempts at the ‘room of my own’ thing but I really prefer to write downstairs on the sofa, with the dog, or at the pc, rather than be tucked away. Though I do like the office I have as a RLF fellow at Newcastle University. It feels good to be away from home and part of a literary community.

5. What motivates you to write?

it’s strange, I just feel a compulsion to do it.there are many reasons: it helps make sense of life, gives life some meaning; it’s a way of trying to be the best person I can be by telling my truth, being honest and open (I’m very much in awe of Carolyn Forche’s ‘poetry of witness’); of creating something pleasing, hopefully beautiful; in patterning and structuring, crafting a piece of work, honing and sleekening it (or making it edgy, disruptive); having fun; getting lots of emotions out on the page; making connections…reachi­ng others. To leave something behind. Even though I know that like so many others my writing will probably disappear without trace!

5.1 Poetry of witness’?

[Forché’s work emerges from a tradition of 20th Century European poetry in which political circumstances pervade the poem and necessarily complicate the extent to which the poet can exercise agency. Among other things, the essay offers examples from Miklos Radnóti, Paul Celan and Nazim Hikmet to introduce American readers to a kind of poetry that emerges from concerns that cannot be defined as exclusively private or public.]

Carolyn Forché

Poetry of witness presents the reader with an interesting interpretive problem. We are accustomed to rather easy categories: we distinguish between “personal” and “political” poems – the former calling to mind lyrics of love and emotional loss, the latter indicating a public partisanship that is considered divisive, even when necessary. The distinction between the personal and the political gives the political realm too much and too little scope; at the same time, it renders the personal too important and not important enough. If we give up the dimension of the personal, we risk relinquishing one of the most powerful sites of resistance. The celebration of the personal, however, can indicate a myopia, an inability to see how larger structures of the economy and the state circumscribe, if not determine, the fragile realm of the individual.

We need a third term, one that can describe the space between the state and the supposedly safe havens of the personal. Let us call this space “the social.” As North Americans we have been fortunate: wars for us (provided we are not combatants) are fought elsewhere, in other countries. The cities bombed are other people’s cities. The houses destroyed are other people’s houses. We are also fortunate in that we do not live under martial law; there are nominal restrictions on state censorship; our citizens are not sent into exile. We are legally and juridically free to choose our associates, and to determine our communal lives. But perhaps we should not consider our social lives as merely the products of our choice: the social is a place of resistance and struggle, where books are published, poems read, and protest disseminated. It is the sphere in which claims against the political order are made in the name of justice.

By situating poetry in this social space, we can avoid some of our residual prejudices. A poem that calls us from the other side of a situation of extremity cannot be judged by simplistic notions of “accuracy” or “truth to life.” It will have to be judged, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said of confession, by its consequences, not by our ability to verify its truth. In fact, the poem might be our only evidence that an event has occurred: it exists for us as the sole trace of an occurrence. As such, there is nothing for us to base the poem on, no independent account that will tell us whether or not we can see a given text as being “objectively” true. Poem as trace, poem as evidence.

From Carolyn Forché, “Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness,” American Poetry Review 22:2 (March-April 1993), 17.

I got to know Carolyn when she came to Newcastle but I had admired and loved her poetry from eayrs before. She supported a group here called The Cold Boat which works with refugees and artists/poets. Another poet of witness is Ilya Kaminsky, from the Ukraine but now in US.

Her book Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness came out in 1993. She lived and worked and wrote in ElSalvador during the 70s. Her poem ‘The Colonel’ from that time is very haunting.

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

I go back to them – Neruda, Lorca, Basho, Wang Wei, Rumi, Hafiz…I’ve returned to reading Plath after keeping away from her for years, and I have a few anthologies of ‘old’ poems I enjoy revisiting. But I’m excited by work being written now – it feels such an urgent time where words really matter. Poets like Terrence Hayes, Jericho Brown, Natalie Diaz, Joy Harjo, Sophie Collins, Claudia Rankine. Then there are the women poets I loved and still go to – Audre Lorde, Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Margaret Atwood.

7. Can you expand on those of today’s writers you admire the most and why?

I admire writers who create compelling worlds which somehow illuminate and heighten the ‘real’ everyday we all live…that holds for writers not just of poetry but of prose and memoir such as Anne Tyler and Karl Ove Knaussgaard, both of whom I’m reading just now. Poets who cast spells on me include Transtromer, John Burnside, Li-Young Lee, Jean Earle, Akhmatova…off the top of my head. I’m sure I’ll kick myself for forgetting more…but writing that is big, sees far, make big joins and speaks out, even quietly, and has a sophisticated, subtle understanding of the political, the personal, the spiritual’s interweaving.

8. Why do you write?

I love words and enjoy deciding on my versions of ‘the best words in the best order’ (can’t recall whose definition this was of poetry?)

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

I’d say you become a writer by doing it, over and over again, learning and failing and sharpening your skills, and the hard part is writing what you want and need to say, and learning what that is (and how and when it changes). Quite a lonely thing but reading others’ work and being part of a wider writing community is equally important I’d say, going along to readings, joining a workshop or group, sending work out and having it rejected but keeping going…even through those sloughs of despond when you can’t see the point – they do pass. I’d also say, experiment with forms and how to craft a sonnet, villanelle, etc., even if you want to write free verse. It all helps! Develop your own voice, your own outlook, your distinctive style…

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

Mainly I’m working on my third collection which is still in an early stage but I do have a sense of what it’s ‘about’ in a very general sense and the shape it may take eventually. Other than that I have a group of poems about sea glass (where I live, the NE coast, has a long history of glass making and is a great place to find seaweathered bits on the beaches) which still has a long way to go, and a sequence of poems exploring an imaginary friendship between two ‘real’ women, one an artist of the 20th century and the other an architect of the early 19th…don’t know if this will work out. Apart from that I do reviews now and then, when asked to, and write poems when something comes to me.

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