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.
- When and why did you start writing poetry?
After my first marriage ended I was lonely and confused, in one short-term relationship after another. A friend suggested I give my heart a rest and join a poetry group instead. In “Time Out” I found the Riverside Poets who met in the Room On The Roof at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Thinking we’d read other people’s work, I took along some Robert Frost poetry. But they asked me to read my own poems. When I said I didn’t write any they told me to start by bringing a poem to the next meeting. It was like someone suddenly gave me permission to become a writer. That evening as I walked home the first poem started coming to me. For two years I couldn’t stop writing and must have churned out an awful lot of bad poems. But I took them along to various poetry groups and started learning how to say what I really meant more effectively.
2. What made you take Robert Frost?
His poem “Stopping by woods” had become very important to me – the silence it conveyed, being alone with ones thoughts, able to watch nature and listen – at a time when, as a single parent and breadwinner I almost never had time to do so.
I was deeply aware of the sound patterns, not realising how brilliantly they were crafted, just drawn to saying the poem over and over, like a meditation.
3. Who introduced you to him?
My first encounter with “Stopping by woods” was at school in “A Galaxy of poems old and new” chosen by E W Parker. At first it seemed pastoral – reminding me of the countryside where I grew up – rather than metaphoric. Later a cousin introduced me to “The Road Less Taken”. But it was hearing “Stopping by woods” quoted after John Kennedy’s assassination that reinforced my interest in its other layers of meaning.
3.1 Other layers of meaning?
While I was at school in London, the first effect of Frost’s poem was to imagine myself in the woods around the home I had grown up in, the physical sensations of cold, silence, solitude.
In the aftermath of my marriage, the poem brought back my childhood. An only child, I remembered being happy to be alone and free from anxiety. In the lead-up to my first husband leaving anxiety had been constantly dragging me down.
As I got older, I became aware of the layer of political or spiritual meaning, the tension between living as one might wish, for example giving in to sadness or desire as opposed to following through on promises one has made.
Behind all of that is the sound of the words and the poem’s rhythms, the mood of calm melancholy they evoke in me
4 How aware were and are you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
Growing up I was aware of many “classical” poets through both school and my parents: Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Milton, Dante Alighieri,Shakespeare’s sonnets. At that stage, too, I knew about more recent poets D H Lawrence’s poems, Jacques Prévert, Apollinaire, Auden, Leopardi, TS Eliot. There were so many I had never even heard of let along read. Since starting to write poetry I have been reading so much more of it as well.
Thinking some more about this, I had heard of very few woman poets. There was nothing in the curriculum about Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sylvia Plath or Sappho. So although I was aware of older poets traditional and contemporary there was nothing that said I could be accepted as a poet. We need to do better for girls growing up today.
5. What is your daily writing routine?
A good question! This used to be my writing routine while I had a day job. I spent 10-20 every morning writing “morning pages” to clear my thoughts. Right through the week, new poetry or story ideas came at bedtime, first thing in the morning or traveling to and from work. I would write it long hand in one of my recycled A5 notebooks – they’re dotted around the house and there was always one in my bag. At the weekend I would type up the week’s new poems, doing a first edit in the process. Also at the weekend I used to work on my novel. typing up any sections I had written on the train or bus.
Somehow, now I don’t go into Central London to work, my writing routine has fallen down. Running Palewell Press occupies not just my work time but most of my waking awareness. Poems surface much less often. But I do travel more and find I can write on the journey. And I read so much more poetry now, especially last thing at night.
6. What motivates you to write?
Writing is part of my interaction with the world. When writing, I want to record what I see, think and feel as honestly as I can. Coming back to a poem I feel an echo of the original emotion. With particular poems like “Thorny Afghan Flower” and “Some days just end in sadness” writing them down eases the emotional intensity. Writing is also a tool for understanding tangled knots of thought. I love the physical experience of making a poem too, metaphor, meter and rhyme rising to the surface, hearing in my head for the first time the pattern all of it makes is deeply satisfying.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
The writers I read while young influence me in three particular ways:
The earliest poem I remember hearing was William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. My mother often recited it just before I went to sleep. The qualities of childlike wonder and immersion in the landscape shape many of my poems. I particularly loved the narrator making a quill pen out and settling down to write in the open air. One hears people talking about their inner child. For me, that part of my memory or personality is still very strong. In my poem “The long journey of humans” the last two verses include the lines: “But I discovered in my mind, and smiling,/ the little girl/ who stood there in the dark.//She is still full of wonder/ and delight, still looking out/ and up and round her/ at the enchanting and unknown,/”
Among other writers who made a lasting impression are those with strong and unusual rhyming patterns, like Hilaire Belloc in the last verse of Tarantella: “No sound/ In the walls of the halls where falls/ The tread/ Of the feet of the dead to the ground,/ No sound:/ But the boom/ Of the far waterfall like doom.”
I love rhyme though I tend to us slant rhymes and half rhymes more than full rhyming at the end of two or more lines. As well as the aural pleasure of listening to a beautiful sequence of rhyming lines, they make poems easier to memorize. Another favourite, encountered at school, is Dog Tired by D. H. Lawrence. The last few lines not only end the poem gracefully but, through their repeated slant rhymes, deliver its emotional payload: “I should like to lie still/ As if I was dead; but feeling/ Her hand go stealing/ Over my face and my head, until/ This ache was shed.”
Many of my own poems adopt a narrative voice, especially in the latest pamphlet, Tales from Two Cities. Looking back, poetry as story-telling has had a major influence on me, especially poems that use a sense of place to create a filmic effect – like Rappelle-toi Barbara by Jacques Prévert: “Rappelle-toi Barbara Il pleuvait sans cesse sur Brest ce jour-là. Et tu marchais souriante. Épanouie ravie ruisselante. Sous la pluie. Rappelle-toi Barbara.” Within 58 lines, Prévert builds all the elements of a short story or film.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
If we include recently dead writers, the poets I admire most are Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney.
• Carol Ann Duffy: For her ability to convey emotion without sentimentality as in “Last Post”, and the way rhyme and meter gently build the mood in “Prayer”
• Seamus Heaney, how his poems walked the border line between Protestant and Catholic – as in “The Other Side”. The poem starts with the poet’s resentment of the attitudes and possessions of their better-off neighbour across the stream. But then the writer crosses the stream, stands behind the neighbour and begins to empathise with him. And you glimpse where reconciliation between warring communities might begin:
“But now I stand behind him
in the dark yard, in the mourn of prayers.
He puts his hand in a pocket
or taps a little tune with the blackthorn
shyly, as if he were party to
lovemaking or a strangers weeping.
Should I slip away, I wonder,
or go up and touch his shoulder
and talk about the weather
or the price of grass-seed?”
• And in his two poems about the murder of his cousin by extremists. But also, the “Skylight” where the first part of the sonnet uses sounds that are hard to say so one feels shut in.
“The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling. Under there, it was all hutch and hatch,
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.”
and the second part changes the sounds giving an open feel.
• There are other contemporary poets I greatly admire, generally for particular poems:
o Adrian Blamires “The Effect of Coastal Processes”, title poem in his collection (published in 2005 by Two Rivers Press). It tells the story of two lovers on a beach using the metaphor of eroded pebbles so subtly to convey the decision the woman is making and the man’s emotional distance from her.
• Sue Johnson “Lily of the Valley” in the anthology “The Physic Garden” (published in 2017 by Palewell Press). Memory evoked by flower-scent – a woman comes to terms with memories of her dead mother by recognising similar characteristics in her own daughter.
• Stuart Henson “The Builder” a translation (after the prose poem “Le maçon” by Aloysius Bertrand). This is the best prose poem I know. In six four-line “verses” the poem opens, like a short film, with a stone-mason at work high up on a mosque. The atmosphere is calm. But each “verse” widens our view, further and further into the distance until we discover what’s happening to the world around the mosque. Again, it’s a story-telling poem, with the poet in such control of our perception.
• Adam Horovitz “I believed I understood the land”, first poem in his collection “The Soil Never Sleeps” (published by Palewell press in 2018). Masterly use of rhyme and meter to focus our attention on the poem’s final warning:
“If you’ve listened, you’ll know we’re balanced on the edge
between oblivion and life and that the only charm
for our salvation comes in the moments when we pledge
to do no lasting damage, cause a little harm
as we can manage in field or office, city street or farm.”
8. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Early on in my time at writing groups and going to Arvon, I heard someone say that a writer is someone who writes. That may be because they like to write or can’t help writing, because they have something to say or a problem to sort out. How you become that person is a step in each person’s unique journey. For me it happened this way: I was coming out of a difficult 15-year marriage with a lot of unacknowledged anger and sadness. For two years, all my troubles poured out in poems – most of them seem like rubbish now but they cleared the way for learning how to write more effectively.
But becoming a writer wasn’t just one step. It goes on for the rest of your life. Each course you take, each new poem or story you start to write, is part of the learning process. In order to be a writer you need to do two things: work out what you want to say and get on with writing it down.
9. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
There are two projects:
The Sea’s White Horses
Part 2 of the Reins of Power sequence of Young Adult futuristic fantasy novels. The sequence has an environmental theme with a teenage weather-witch trying to protect England’s South coast from devastating storms. I published Part 1 (The Cloud Singer) some years ago and have written most of the first draft of Part 2. But it’s really hard to find time while I’m also running Palewell Press. So I’ve signed up to a course with Cinnamon Press called “Finding the Still Point in your Story.”
A pamphlet collection of poems about my mother and two other close female friends, all of three of who died of cancer. This new project will make use of poems written over a long period. At present, I think the work involved is editing the poems and shaping the collection rather than writing a lot of new material. But once I start assembling the collection I’m aware it may take off in an unexpected direction.