Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Fay Musselwhite

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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Fay Musselwhite

lives and writes in Sheffield, where she leads workshops and walks, and collaborates with artists in film, sound and other media.  Her poems have appeared in a range of publications, including The Footing (Longbarrow Press 2013).  Her first poetry collection Contraflow was published by Longbarrow Press in 2016.


The Interview

1. What led you to start writing poetry?

Words have always fascinated me. Even before I could read, I tried to guess at their derivations and connections. Growing up in a politically active household gave me a keen interest in politics, history, and how the world fits together. However, knowing no-one who wrote, I became used to getting my creative sustenance from textile media.

From my teens onwards, I’d jot down bits of memoir and treatise, attempting to get things straight in my mind, and soon began to discover the joy of sentences, their structure reminding me of the physical dynamics inherent to sewing and knitting. During my Film and Literature degree course I took modules in writing fictional narrative, but still couldn’t quite hit my stride.

Then, when I needed to get something said to someone who was dying, I remembered seeing Tony Harrison on television talking about the mechanics of the sonnet, and thus poetry came to my aid. It wasn’t a sonnet I wrote but a ballad, in which I found I could say so much more than with the declarations I’d been trying before.

It seems that the intensity of forcing sound and meaning up against each other, in the way poetry does, makes it almost impossible to tell anything but the truth. As if the concentrated energy required, once mustered can only be used for that purpose.

1.2 Strict form moulding high emotional intensity?

Emotional intensity always spurs the poetry, and strictness of form moulds – harnesses? stabilises? – that emotional intensity. In the poetry I’m aiming for truth
and precision, so the poem is precisely true to itself.

I tend not to write in reusable form, though. My adherence to rhythm and rhyme – the poem’s sound – feels quite strict (to me), but seems to happen at a subconscious level. It’s as though something in me can almost hear what the poem will sound like, and my mind tries to find the words that make that sound, and carry meanings that say what the poem seems to want said.

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

Dominating what?

2.1. I guess what I’m asking is whether when writing poetry you feel the weight of tradition, the established Canon, the All White Men Establishment of poetry putting you under scrutiny.

No, I really don’t.

3. What is your daily writing routine?

I always read and write something first thing, with my second coffee, between getting dressed and leaving my bedroom. Other than that, there’s nothing you’d call a routine. If I’m engaged in a textile project, I might not write anything else all day, but usually there’s another chunk of writing before day’s end. And for much of the time in between, there are lines I’m trying to write or resolve running through my mind.

4. What motivates you to write?

Capturing something of the world as art / craft has been satisfying to me for as long as I can remember. Through childhood I enjoyed drawing, painting and textile crafts, for the feeling of being absorbed, connected to materials, of operating in the physical world, expressing it, and, somehow, my place in it. These days I enjoy the feeling of making, capturing, learning and progressing in the same way I always have.

To make a piece of art that combines the shape and atmosphere of something with the energy of how it hits me is a thrilling thing to find I can sometimes do. Seeking that is motivating.

Sometimes I write to find out what I really mean, what I really think, or to try and find out what others might really think and mean. Sometimes to explore a connection or parallel, how far it goes, what else the material holds.

When I’ve got going on a piece of work, when it’s piling up and has started to stay in place on the page – when I feel I’m onto something – then those lines and phrases, and that feeling, are a strong motivation to continue digging to find the rest of it. From that point on, I do it for the sake of what’s already there, to give the work the best chance to be itself.

5. What is your work ethic?

That’s quite a question. Not sure what it means, but I’ll have a go.

Like nature, art is surely an ethics free zone, in the sense that it deals with what actually is rather than how we consciously decide to negotiate the world and each other. That said, art will certainly explore the ethics of those decisions, and I hope readers can see my fascination with those ethics, and the dilemmas they present.

I’ve never, so far, had to ask myself whether it’s ethical to put something into a poem. Neither (as far as I remember) have I been challenged on ethical grounds regarding anything that has gone into a piece of work or workshop draft. Nor can I imagine either situation.

As for the time I spend writing poetry rather than doing something ‘more useful’, well I do sometimes wonder. So I try to make the poetry worthwhile, worth having spent the time on, and hopefully useful to someone.

In collaborations I let my genuine engagement in other people’s work guide my contributions. In teaching and leading workshops it seems important to divide time and attention equally between participants. And in performance of my own work or anyone else’s I want to give the poetry the best chance of reaching its audience, and vice versa.

Then there’s the money side of it: needy and bossy, can’t let any of us be. Its divisive insistence on competition seems antithetical to creative spirit. It feels like an occupation by a foreign force which we all live under, and must perform its rituals regardless of whether we believe in its values. So, we all do what we do to get by.

That said, the difference between art and advertising seems clear enough: if you begin a piece of work without heed to where it’ll end, and follow it until it seems able to stand on its own, then that’s art; if you commit from the start to some kind of end product, for instance a shape, sound or message, then that’s akin to advertising.

These are all points which I’m happy to discuss and, if necessary, change my mind over…

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

The first writer I was excited by was Dr Seuss. A lifetime later, many of his lines and images, for instance his Herk-Heimer Falls –‘where the great river rushes / And crashes down crags in great gargling gushes’ – still keep me company.

As a growing child, I soon enjoyed the same belligerence and joy of language in Tom Lehrer, a favourite of my parents, then later in Frank Zappa. These three confirmed that social commentary needn’t be earnest, nor protest hectoring. Joni Mitchell was another early discovery who showed me subtler ways to express bitter wisdom.

The energy Ted Hughes achieves with stacked consonants, and his other methods of rallying sound, have always thrilled me, though for a long while I thought it all too far beyond me to be worth attempting.

John Clare’s passion for nature and against its enclosure, still fresh centuries later, is and was always encouraging. And like Clare, the war poets I read at school – Owen and Sassoon were prominent – have a way of focussing on detail to illuminate the broader story, and of making public concerns personal.

All these along with encountering Tony Harrison several decades ago, and a growing awareness of Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s poetry, have helped me realise that a desire to relate narrative didn’t mean I had to struggle on with prose fiction when it wasn’t satisfying my creative itch.

7. Of today’s writers, whose work do you admire the most and why?

A few months ago I read Roar! by Martin Hayes and was blown away. The belligerence he gets onto the page is the full-on tone of adrenaline that still kicks around even when despair has fully arrived.  I’ve seen / felt it on dance-floors before, when all you can do is revel in the pure sharing of it – there is no solution, there is no brighter side.  This is the poetry of that experience.

There’s something of the same in Cazique, the title sequence of Matthew Clegg’s latest collection.  I really appreciate how he represents the weapons-grade capitalism that we’re currently culturally subjected to by a grubby little con-man, as much a victim of his own hype as those he cons. The humanity of being invited, by means of compelling poetry, to sympathise with the victimhood of the central character, as well as everyone else’s, strikes a massive chord with me too – we are all complicit in this, none of our hands are clean.

Clegg’s tanka sequence “Edgelands” (published in his West North East collection) has long been a particular favourite of mine.  A series of understated and achingly tender images depict the protagonist’s spell of sharp loneliness after a break-up.

But there are now dead poets who feel contemporary to me, so I must at least mention Ken Smith and Peter Reading, both of whom died in the last fifteen years.  Reading’s Perduta Gente feels so relevant to our times, and the protagonist in Smith’s Fox Running is surely still glimpsed by Hayes’s drivers and riders.

Perhaps because I have a son and no daughters, or perhaps because I’m female, I’ve a strong interest in war poetry, with its insight into that otherness of being male.  Christopher Logue’s War Music is a favourite of mine for the immediacy of its style.  And Rob Hindle’s recent book The Grail Road is a fascinating and atmospheric melding of people and scenes from World War 1 with those from the King Arthur story.  He knows this isn’t a new idea, but his take on these blokes served up to fulfil the power fantasies of those who survive them is well drawn and worthwhile.

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

This is a question I ask myself – indeed recently wrote a poem about – especially as my work often features elements of sound and vision.  Part of the answer must be to do with not needing any particular tools or materials: you can write a poem in your head, scratch it in mud or sand with a stick.  But even if paint and canvas, decent cameras, knitting yarn in any shade, and / or a host of musical instruments were readily available, I’d still favour the craft of corralling words on the page, resolving the snags that arise between sound and meaning.

Because the best language for poetry is the stuff that’s in common use, using it for poetry always feels like a marvellous feat of recycling: like reshaping and realigning a substance that the world has already worked on, and has thus gained in potency.  Yes, words get tired, but turn them over to find them enriched by the history, context and broader references they’ve gathered.  All humans are accustomed to metaphor, perhaps to a surprising degree.  Any word or phrase carries with it – blatantly or surreptitiously – what it’s previously said, bringing depth, texture, tone, colour, action and music to the thing you build.

Alice Oswald said she became frustrated, when working as a gardener, that she couldn’t quite get to the growing tip of what she was dealing with.  Much as I enjoy crafting things in a physical realm, there are always things you can’t reach, and it can feel more like representation than actually collaborating with an audience / readership to create something real and visceral in the world.  This extends to the way sentences behave, which is also endlessly fascinating: changing a sentence’s structure to alter what it can hold and carry can feel like proper engineering.  Language, for me, is a very satisfying material to work with.

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

I suppose I’d ask them what they think a writer is…

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

Right now I’m writing a piece for a geographer’s PhD project, in which Fens dwellers, who don’t think of themselves as writers, are paired in correspondence with writers who live elsewhere.  It’s an open ended project, and it will be interesting to see how it progresses, where it goes.

Other than that, I’m working on my own pieces, which are yet to coalesce into anything that can be described as one thing, though connections are emerging as I go on.  It all feels quite wait-and-see, and I’m enjoying a time largely free from deadlines.

Thanks ever so much for your interest in my work and practise.

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