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.
holds an MA in Creative Writing from Leeds Trinity University and is the author of two solo collections; ‘Lodestone’ (Stairwell Books, 2016) and ‘Missing Miles’ (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2017) which was a winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Prize. Forthcoming in 2019 are her collaboration with Rosemary Mitchell, ‘Holding up Half the Sky’ (Indigo Dreams Publishing) and an inaugural pamphlet for Maytree Press, a Marsden based publishing house. That will be ‘Swn y Morloi’ and features poems from Pembrokeshire retreats. Hannah convenes the poets/composers forum for the Leeds Lieder Festival And helps host Wordspace spoken word event in Horsforth near her current home in Leeds. Details of her collaboration with composer Matthew Oglesby can be found on penthos.co.uk website. In other lives she tutors for the Open University, sings, grows food and hill walks.
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
There are several answers to this. I have the draft of my first poem written when I was seven. My mum taught English and I think she prompted me to do it. Then I wrote as a teenager in a desperate attempt to make sense of the world. For some reason I didn’t write much in my twenties and thirties when my energies went into music and bringing up a family. I started again when my eldest son went to university and I had the mental space and more silence in which to put things down. And for me it is a matter of writing down, pen or pencil, on paper. Notebooks if they’re at hand. Backs of envelopes. Inside covers of books. In extremis I did once ask the cashier at a coffee shop to give me some till roll to write on.
1.1. Did your mum introduce you to poetry?
To some extent. Every birthday and Christmas present was a hard backed book but the majority were nineteenth century novels. I remember latching on to Shakespeare early on and used to know reams of plays by heart. Wordsworth’s complete works was a heavy tome. My parents’ canon of literature and life was intense but very narrow and it took me years to get the confidence to rebel and find out new passions for myself. We do share a love of Chaucer.
1.2. Why did you latch onto Shakespeare early on?
The inventiveness of the language. In the plays the rapid emotional shifts. In terms of poetry it sat well in the mouth; energetic writing that is memorable and works on the page and spoken. For me the sounds of poetry are important so reading it out loud is a key way of engaging with it. Obviously with dramatic poetry that’s a given. I also found in Shakespeare something I quickly identified in his contemporaries, the Metaphysicals, who I would probably cite as my major influence; the agile wit and humour and toughness of the period. I soaked up the weaving in of apparently disconnect ted subject matter from such a wide range of contexts – the natural world, politics, romantic love, religion, science, current affairs. That type of poetry continues to excite me.
2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
That’s a really interesting question. I think I’m not particular aware of people’s ages though some are obvious. In terms of who excites me now it’s as likely to be poets my own age or younger as older poets. Rather than the relative age of the poet (Wordsworth compared to Keats) it’s other things which resonate more. I was certainly cowed by the sense of a canon of great poets (without getting into Leavis on the canon) and perhaps this even inhibited me from writing – a sort of prufrockian ‘do I dare disturb the universe?’ Then I realised that maybe the universe wasn’t that aware of what I wrote anyway. So I needed to think about why I did and do write. It’s a compulsion. It’s part of my identity now. I sort of ‘came out’ as a poet about 6 years ago when the first time I read at an open mic event the compere asked me what I was, promoting ‘musician? Poet?’ And I said ‘I’m a poet.’ I spent the next few years pondering that response. As a child I wasn’t introduced to many of any living poets’ work. These days I’m much more aware of them. Alice Oswald on Radio 4 recently was wonderful. And I’ve chatted a few times to Simon Armitage. I also love the work of Billy Collins which has a lightness of touch I would love to develop.
3. What is your daily writing routine?
My working life is erratic and sometimes I allow it to displace my own creative writing. So I may be writing essay feedback or to do lists before I get to the poetry! Or it may be a poetry book review or preparation for a radio interview or a workshop in delivering, or working on proofs of a book. I see writing as encompassing not only the drafting of poetry but what happens next to bring it to an audience. I’m a lark so much of my poetry is written sitting up in bed before dawn with a pot of tea and a cat beside me. If I don’t use that best alert mental time it’s easy to get sucked in to other tasks instead. I blame the Protestant work ethic! I’m not rigid about the hours though. I also build in writing breaks. Every year my birthday present to myself is a week alone in a tiny cottage in Pembrokeshire where I walk the coastal path and write poetry. Although I do write indoors a lot I often need to take a poem for a walk, or I get ideas when I’m out walking. As long as I’m on my own.
4. What motivates you to write?
A desire to seek understanding and to communicate, but that doesn’t just mean communicating what I ‘feel’. I think that poetry which just acts as a sort of psychological therapy is of limited interest to other people unless they seek to identify with that particular experience. I subscribe to Wordsworth’s idea that poetry can be emotion recollected in tranquillity. Equally it can be visceral and immediate. I tend not to put things in rigid boxes. Although in some ways quite a solitary creature I also like collaborating and this takes me into work with composers as well as other writers. One of the subjects of a lot of my academic research was a poet theologian. I like the idea of being a poetplus something. I’m currently working on several different collaborations with a composer from one of the choirs I sing in. I don’t tend to write to prompts and can get very uncomfortable in workshop situations where it seems as if everyone else has produced something in 10 minute. It can take me months or years to finish a poem. But I have successfully written to prompts for competitions or themed anthologies. By successful I don’t necessarily mean I was placed in the competition but that I wrote a poem I felt worked as a result of being given a theme for it.
5. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
Hard to say as I don’t tend to analyse it in that way. Given the way that memory works I’m aware that lines of poetry I learned (for pleasure) forty or so years ago have stuck while more recently I need to reread more in order to recall specifics. It’s possibly more the other way round; now that I am writing much more, when I revisit poets I knew from my youth I appreciate them differently.
5.1. How do you appreciate them differently?
It’s partly a matter of recognising the techniques they are using and reflecting on how I might bring them into my own writing. Also respect for when I can’t work out how they have done it but it knocks my socks off. I guess I’m more aware of the craft that goes into it the more I work at crafting myself. That isn’t to say I’m by any means always aware of what techniques I’m using – it’s often more intuitive than that.
6. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I’ve already mentioned billy Collins (twice poet laureate in the USA) for his lightness of touch and his ability to write something often sharp and searching about very little. Oz Hardwick, one of my teachers on the MA Creative Writing programme I did at Leeds Trinity not long before I finished working there, said you should be able to write a poem about shoelaces. Alice Oswald for her immerse style; also the way she excavates Homer in her long poem Memorial is stunning. And she plays with time and silence giving dignity to the space on the page. Simon Armitage for his versatility: he can be both earthy and off the wall and his recent YSP is an entrancing mix of visual and verbal. I’d be lying if I didn’t also include Oz who is not only a brilliant teacher and facilitator but inventive poet whose prose poetry has prompted me to work more in this medium. Again I love the fact he works across artistic media. I find the surreality of much of what Oz is writing now very compelling. I like to be disturbed. So far I’ve only mixed poetry and music but I will seek opportunities to work with photographers and graphic artists I think. All of these poets have my admiration and respect. They also make me think about what I’m doing.
7. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
I do lots of other things beside writing. Writing is important to my well being. It’s my way of getting things out of my head (which is often very crowded) and into the open air. Once on the page the words may make sense or not. In my experience it takes anywhere from 5 minutes to 25 years to finish a poem. Increasingly I’m finding a sense of fulfilment and purpose in writing in different ways. After my first big collaboration with a composer which has its premiere in the autumn I’m now working on opera libretto. That brings up a whole new set of skills to learn and think about. Writing both takes me out of myself and brings me home.
8. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
By writing. And reading. And being open to learning how to do both better, whether by formal studying, workshopping or discussing with friends or using some of the many books about writing that are available these days. But do be realistic. Virtually no one makes a living from being a writer. I’m working on two opera librettos with composer Matthew Oglesby, one of which is based on Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, and the other, which is a little way off, is Egyptian themed. Also I’ve just signed off final proofs for ‘Holding up Half the Sky’ and am waiting for proofs for ‘Swn y Morloi’. Before that last one grabbed me in November I was about half way through a first draft of a themed sequence of prose poems called ‘twenty nine volumes including index’. It’s a reference to a redundant encyclopaedia in my parents’ house and channels quite a lot of fairy tale influences as well as themes relating to musical form.