Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Sarah Westcott

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.

Sarah Westcott

Sarah Westcott’s first poetry collection Slant Light was published by Pavilion Poetry, an imprint of Liverpool University Press, in 2016. A poem from the book was Highly Commended in the 2017 Forward Prizes. Her debut pamphlet Inklings, published by Flipped Eye, was a winner of the Venture Poetry Award and the Poetry Book Society’s Pamphlet Choice for Winter 2013.

Sarah’s poems have appeared in magazines including Poetry Review, POEM, Magma and Butcher’s Dog, on beermats, billboards and the side of buses, and in anthologies including Best British Poetry and The Forward Book of Poetry.

She was a poet-in-residence at the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve in London in 2015 and Manchester Cathedral poet of the year in 2016. She won first place in The London Magazine poetry prize in 2017 and the Poets and Players competition in 2018.  Sarah grew up on the edge of Exmoor,  lives on the London/Kent borders with her family and works as a freelance writer after twenty years as a Fleet Street news reporter. She has a science degree and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London.

Sarah has run poetry workshops at schools and for the Second Light Network for women poets, and in 2019 starts work as a poetry tutor for City Lit in Covent Garden. She is an experienced and sensitive editor and offers a professional manuscript critique service for writers ranging from their first pamphlet to a full collection.

Website: https://www.sarahwestcott.co.uk

The Interview

  1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I had always written and doodled in notebooks and in my head as a child and teenager  but I didn’t start taking any notice of it until my children were young and I was in my early thirties. I felt like something was ‘missing’ but I couldn’t put my finger on it. ~then I realised it was, without sounding pretentious, my creativity. I needed to access that part of myself. I only studied English up to GCSE level (although I kept on reading). I took an introductory OU course in poetry and another on short fiction – they were only about three months long. It was one of those light-bulb moments – you could say poetry ‘found me’. I remember going to see Jackie Kay read aloud in a church in London and I was in awe of seeing a real poet in the flesh, reading their work. She was captivating. That was the beginning of my poetry journey

1.1. What was it about Jackie Kay’s performance that had you “in awe”?

I think I had thought, maybe subconsciously, that all poets were old white men, and often dead, and almost not real. But here was a real woman with a beautiful voice speaking her poems to a packed church and suddenly poetry was accessible to someone like me.. I think I was in awe because she was able to captivate the entire audience through her voice and her words  – no special equipment or anything – just her living voice and that was the first time I had heard a real poet reach people like that.

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

I was aware of a canon of mostly dead white men and I knew  I was ignorant when it came to understanding their poetry because I stopped studying English after GCSE. It felt like these poems were full of riddles or literary allusions that I had no chance of ‘getting’. I still feel a little like that now. I think it is partly to do with the type of education you have and mine was at a comprehensive school where my abiding memories of English were marking each others’ spelling tests.  I had read a little Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and some of the war poets at school but not really any women apart from Sylvia Plath. I used to  dip into an anthology called Palgrave’s Golden Treasury when I was bored at work in my twenties and I loved Gerard Manley Hopkins. But I didn’t really know any modern women poets and once I began reading them – Gillian Clark for example, a whole world opened up. I loved it that she wrote about domesticity, for example – I remember reading her poem The Sundial in which she starts by writing about a sick child and it was so heartening that women were writing about this sort of thing. These revelations  were only about 12 years ago which shows how quickly things have changed.

3. What is your daily writing routine?

I don’t have one as I have a lot of caring responsibilities at the moment and I’m learning on the job as poetry tutor as well. But what I do try and do is find the time to read a little bit every day. I make sure I write into my notebook  at least once a week when my three-year-old is asleep or at nursery. I often start with a free write or I might even just take my notebook out with me when I walk the dog and treat it like a ‘field trip’. I love doing this. I try and make the most of any time I have by getting something down – it doesn’t matter if it is rubbish or not. Sometimes 20 mins is enough, especially if it something I have ben thinking about for a while.  Then I have something to work with. If I don’t read and write I start to feel restless and sad. I actually find having very little time very helpful in that I dont waste it procrastinating – I just sit down and write. Likewise, train journeys are a blessing as long as I have a seat and something to write with!

5. What motivates you to write?

I am motivated by being alive – to capture something of the extraordinary quality of being a sentient being and then to connect with others – I am also motivated by observing and being curious. I love the euphoric feeling of making or creating something new from words, something that is both idea and music, that has not been made before and which reaches to other humans. If someone responds to a poem you have written it is a wonderful feeling. I am also motivated, perhaps weirdly, to leave something behind of me when I am gone. I am increasingly driven to write about the climate crisis too. I feel you cannot write without writing of it, somehow – it is a grave backdrop to everything.

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

I think it is more a subconscious influence – a lot of the stories I read when young seeped in and helped form me. I loved Judy Blume – her stories had a lot of darkness and humanity in them. Likewise the Chronicles of Narnia. I think they all go towards making up your psyche and also the richness of the place you draw from when you write. My dad used to read me Robert Louis Stevenson verses when I was young and their imaginative flight definitely stayed with me – that sense of possibility and play.

Maggie Smith said she was given the advice ‘write what scares you’ very early on. I spent a lot of time being terrified by what I read – I remember being terrified of witches and also reading the end of 1984 and understanding that Winston had figuratively died – I remember his gin-soaked tears. I think that writing and reading is a way of facing that existential terror within yourself because there is no where to hide – you are facing hard truths.

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

SO much extraordinary and powerful and important work is being made at the moment. I keep a tally of the books I read each year and put a heart by the ones that affected me most. In the last few months for me, Max Porter for his hybridity and linguistic verve, Ilya Kaminsky, Fiona Benson (her fierce and tender poems) . I also loved Sean Hewitt’s Lantern and I love the way Alice Oswald listens in to the natural world..

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

How do you become a writer? I love Mary Oliver’s dictum “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” I think we are all writers – stay curious, observe and read. When you are ready, come to a blank page with all your senses open and do not be afraid to just write. Like running, one foot in front of another. One word after another. I find free writing really helpful. Or writing letters. Anything that connects the subconscious mind with the hand on the page, or whatever works for you. Editing uses a different part of the brain. Do not worry about getting an audience or being published. Just write with your heart open.

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

I am working towards my second collection with Pavilion poetry – there seem to be some poems exploring our relationship with trees and flowers and trying to have a conversation with the natural world. I feel like I am in the realm of Keat’s negative capability – that is, not knowing or being capable of mysteries. It’s quite exciting – the book is quietly forming and re-forming. There’s a sense of ripping up my old way of writing and beginning again, also of taking as long as it will take. I’m lucky to be part of a workshop group called Nevada Street Poets and we are celebrating our tenth anniversary this year and putting together a collection of essays . Mine is on looking .

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