Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Cathy Bryant

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.

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Cathy Bryant

has won 27 literary awards, including the Bulwer-Lytton
Fiction Prize and the Wergle Flomp Award for Humorous Poetry. Her work
has been published all over the world in such publications as Magma, The
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Stairs and Whispers. She
co-edited the anthologies Best of Manchester Poets vols. 1, 2 and 3, and
Cathy’s own books are ‘Contains Strong Language and Scenes of a Sexual
Nature’ and ‘Look at All the Women’. Cathy’s new collection is
‘Erratics’, out now. Cathy is disabled and bisexual, and lives in
Disley, UK. See more at http://www.cathybryant.co.uk

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I started writing poetry as an anguished teen. Naturally no one had
ever experienced what I was going through, so my poems were obviously
going to enlighten the world as to the human condition. Yes, those poems
were as terrible as you’d expect. I’d written stories ever since I could
read and write, but poetry was for the elite, I felt, not for me – until
I was a teen and thought I knew everything (spoiler: I really, really
didn’t, and I know even less now). The sweet thing is that two of my
teen poems made it into print eventually – one in my first collection,
and one in Magma. Maybe at least a few of those early poems weren’t as
squirmy as I thought!

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

There was no poetry in the house when I was growing up, except for
either a teatowel or a mug that had Robert Herrick’s ‘The Hag’ on it. I
loved the rhythms and movement, and the drama of it. I’m still fond of
Herrick, and ‘The Vine’ is one of those rareities, a sheerly enjoyable
sex poem.
At 14 I had a very brave English teacher, Mrs Lawton. In our strict
religious school, she chose for us to study ‘Daddy’ by Sylvia Plath.
This hit me the way the nuns did, only it was more constructive. Poetry
could do this? Naturally I became a Plath acolyte.
A couple of years later, my brother bought a copy of Penguin Modern
Poets 10: The Mersey Sound, a classic collection that influenced two
generations. Again I was surprised – were poets allowed to talk about
the things that no one talked about? Poetry seemed to be a magic key to
a place where the keyholder could explore their mind and its place in
the world, and tell their truths in whatever form was right for them.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

I wasn’t, really, except as a vaguely exclusive presence. Rather like
the Ancient Greek writers and those who were interested in them,
traditional and older poets seemed to belong to a club that people like
me (female and with no confidence whatsoever) were not allowed to join.
I lived in a tiny village – Bolton-le-Sands – and then in Morecambe, and
the idea of a poetry event or workshop or writing group never came up.
Perhaps if I had lived in the city of Lancaster I’d have found a
literary group of some sort, but I doubt that I’d have had the courage
to join it. Our ‘O’ level poetry book was ‘English Poetry 1900-1975’,
which had prescisely two women poets in it: Plath and Stevie Smith.
Jackie Kay and Ali Smith had the same book (the 1900-1965 edition) and
pointed out that between them, those two poets cover a lot of ground,
but there was obviously a gap. Were there any poets of colour in that
book at all, I wonder? The message was very much: you need to be a
clever, white, male with supreme confidence and total linguistic
knowledge, to be a Real Poet.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

It depends on my health. Some days I can’t do a damn thing. I try at
least to take notes of any interesting ideas or images that come to mind
– heavy prescription meds sometimes help with that! On a good day, I’ll
use daytime for admin – submitting, entering, logging what I’ve sent
where – and the evening and night for creative writing. One of the best
things to do with insomnia or night pain is to write a poem, I find. The
poem isn’t usually great quality, but it can be a starting point for
something better, and it’s one of very few activities that isn’t
hampered by night thoughts and experiences.

5. What motivates you to write?

I’ve always written, I think. My childhood was very unhappy – one of
those violence-and-religion ones without leavening love – and I immersed
myself in books whenever possible. One of the best things my mother did
was to take her four children to the library every week. We got four
books each, and so I had sixteen books to read every week. I loved
anthologies in particular – all those different voices. Writing was my
way of having a voice, as I didn’t have much of one in real life. The
fact that by writing a word or image you can make a picture appear in
someone else’s head – eg a mermaid sneezing and wiping her nose with
some seaweed, which now anyone who has read that phrase will be able to
see or at least think of – is to me a magical power. I also adore making
people laugh. When I won the Wergle Flomp award, I got emails from
strangers all over the world, saying that they’d laughed until they
cried. As I have depression, I know the importance of an enjoyable
distraction. The half-hour sitcom that gets you through a half-hour and
gets you to smile a couple of times – wonderful!
There’s also very little else I can do, given my health level. What a
fabulous profession, where daydreaming and gazing out of windows counts
as work (as long as you write it down at some point).

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

That combination of imagination, voice, and technique gets branded into
you when you’re a child, I think. Robert Herrick’s rhythms, Tove
Janssen’s imagination (and rule-breaking), Plath’s force and openness
(and her technique, though I didn’t recognise this when young) all leave
imprints in my own work. Prose was my main focus when I was a child, but
fortunately the good stuff has pints of poetry in it anyway – Anne,
Emily and Charlotte; Jane Austen; Wilkie Collins; whoever wrote Gawain
and the Green Knight; Aristophanes and all. My collections have quite a
lot of Greek myth in them, as well as legends and stories from all over
the world. Being a voracious reader as a child means that all sorts of
interesting stuff gets filed away in the mind. Writing poetry tends to
open up all the odd files and lets the contents run wild.

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

Dominic Berry for his honest poetry, his never-ending learning and for
being the nicest person on the poetry circuit; Cheryl Pearson for her
luminous poems (no one understands light better); Karen Little for her
originality and genius, her wild lyricism; Rosie Garland for everything
she writes, does and is; Gerry Potter for his strong voice and for
recording Liverpool’s working class history; ditto Sarah Miller for
Cumbria; Steve O’Connor for his uncompromising accessibility and
complete lack of pretension; Sheenagh Pugh for fierce intelligence and
for always finding the ideal form for each poem; Angela Smith for being
the Poet Laureate of the Fae World; Fiona Pitt-Kethley for being the
best current exponent of blank verse and for writing about minerals,
sex, cats and other subjects most poets eschew, and for being a fellow
comedian at times; my husband Keir for teaching me how to behave in a
professional way (he has lived from his writing since the mid 1990s).
This sounds as though I’m dishing out awards. 🙂 it’s in no particular
order! I’m influenced almost entirely by the poets of the Northwest
today, which is a great honour.

8. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

On the one hand, I can’t not write unless I’m very ill indeed. It’s part
of who I am.
On the other hand, no one will pay me for anything else. Over the course
of my life, I’ve made more money from poetry than any other job or
activity (that should tell you how poor I am). Before arthrtis and
fibromyalgia scythed me down, I had various jobs, in the civil service,
as a life model, selling shoes and looking after children, but I can’t
do any of those now. Poetry, particularly as I don’t follow the usual
British poet course*, is much more lucrative. I submit mostly to
American and Canadian litmags, and enter a lot of free competitions. I
write freely, edit carefully and submit in a wily manner.

* The usual British poet course: you have a choice of 1) writing and
performing autobiographical free verse, and publishing nothing but the
odd collection, or 2) writing Serious Poetry and submitting to the same
ten British litmags as everyone else in Britain (and hardly any of those
litmags pay). Either will get you a reputation; neither will get you money.

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

I get asked this all the time, partly because of the years I spent doing
Comps and Calls, a listings site of free-to-enter writing comps and
calls for submissions. The true but irritatingly unhelpful answer is,
read a lot and write a lot. I add: finish and edit poems or stories even
if you think they’ve failed – completion is part of being a writer.
Submitting and entering require a different skillset to the actual
writing, so get learning those too. Start collecting rejections, and
you’ll learn how editors work and what they want. Behave professionally
and work hard, and your writing will improve and you should start
getting published. If you proofread your work properly, and you avoid
clichĂ©s, then you’re ahead of about a third of the writers out there. Go
to local writing groups and workshops if possible. Even if they aren’t
for you, you’ll have an interesting experience and meet some other
writers. Don’t let a negative experience put you off – two rejections
were enough to persuade me that I wasn’t a writer, and shouldn’t write,
for about 25 years. Don’t let that happen to you!

10. Tell me about writing projects you’re involved in at the moment.

  • With my prose, I’m thinking of putting together a collection of my
    female-led and feminist science fiction and fantasy short stories. Now
    there’s a niche! Fortunately I have brave publishers, so I’m keeping my
    tentacles crossed.
    Re poetry, after ‘Erratics’ came out last year, I took a look at what
    I’d done so far in my collections. My first, ‘Contains Strong Language
    and Scenes of a Sexual Nature’, is chaotic and wild and patchy and fun;
    my second, ‘Look at All the Women’, is tighter, and a mix of playful and
    serious. ‘Erratics’ is more grown-up but still funny in places – and
    that’s what sets me wondering about my next collection. Should I go
    all-serious or all-comedy? A few people say that they like my serious
    side – that it yields my best work, work that matters. But most people
    love my funny stuff, and that’s what brings me fanmail and applause. As
    a depressive person, I know the value of the comic distraction – it can
    get you through the difficult hours, and remind you how to smile. But
    nobody takes it seriously! I do need to think more about the work and
    less about crowd-pleasing, perhaps. I suppose I need to sort out my own
    wishes – what do I really want to do next? Excitingly, I don’t know.

 

 

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