Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Helen Angell

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.

The Cotton Grass

Helen Angell

is based in South Yorkshire. A lover of brutalism and urban infrastructure, she has worked creatively with the National Railway Museum, The Hepworth and Kelham Island Museum. Most recently, her poetry has appeared in Strix and The Blue Nib and will be in a forthcoming anthology from The Poetry Village.

Twitter: Helen Angell @helen_angell73

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

I’ve always read and written poetry – even when I didn’t really understand what it was. At primary school I remember being frustrated by the poems we were given. To me, they were childish and I knew there was something more poetry had to give. I discovered Sylvia Plath when I was 13 then Dylan Thomas and William Carlos Williams soon after. When I was 15 I caught the bus from Rotherham to Sheffield – pre-Meadowhall days – to go and buy John Betjemen’s Collected Poems. Not my thing as it turned out on the bus back but I knew it was ‘proper’ poetry. Discovering T.S Eliot at A Level was crucial.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I have absolutely no idea. It’s like it was always there.

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

For a long time, it felt as if poetry was an older form that had fallen out of use and I read very little contemporary poetry. It’s quite the opposite now. I don’t respond well to the ‘dominating presence’ of anything and it would be foolish to feel anything other than appreciation for the wonderful work others produce. It’s there to inspire and enlighten not to feel jealous or inadequate about.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I aim for a poem a week so I’ve always got something on the go. I’m a compulsive notebook carrier and I’m always jotting things down or taking photos. I try to strike a balance between being disciplined and being free. I prefer to write early in the mornings when everything is clear and no one else is up. I write very well on trains, too!

5. What motivates you to write?

The desire to capture the beauty of the world in words is pretty much there all the time. I’m as obsessed with concrete, especially brutalism, and other urban infrastructure as I am with poetry.  So any location like that will inspire me. Having said that, I might also write something quite emotional or philosophical. Although they might not be poems I’ll show to many people.  The beauty and mystery of the world seems endless to me. There isn’t enough time to write about it all.

6. What is your work ethic?

I don’t like to make a distinction between work and play. If I’m not enjoying it I won’t do it. If a poem seems like too much hard work, I’ll go and do something else to get myself back in the right place to write again.

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

There’s no doubt the very sensory nature of Plath and the visual strength of Carlos Williams are aspects of poetry I’m drawn to, as is the playfulness in the language of Thomas and Manley Hopkins. With Eliot, it is the fragmentation of language and the search for the ‘objective correlative’ that really interests me. I’m trying to find a way of capturing the intangible in words and I’m fascinated by how different combinations can produce different resonances.  Today I’m influenced by Roy Fisher and Anna Akhmatova; I’m probably trying to find a mixture of the two. I love Akhmatova’s assertion and confidence. She just says, “It was like this” and you’re like, “Of course it was. How could it be anything other?”

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

There are so many wonderful poets and I’m surrounded by them in Sheffield. It’s good to be part of a community of people who are stronger than you. I also like Lila Matsumoto and Philip Gross very much, both use language in a precise and considered way. At the Sheaf Poetry Festival this year, I discovered Mark Pajak. He is not only a brilliant reader of his work but the master of the unexpected. I was fortunate to be taught by Denise Riley on MA Creative Writing and her intelligence is inspiring.

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

Poetry is magic.

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

For a long time, I was a writer who didn’t write. Just pick up your pen and get on with it.

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

I’ve just finished working on a project with Kelham Island Museum which gave me a chance to look a bit further back in time and I worked with The Hepworth last year which was wonderful.  One of my poems from that project is up at Sheffield station until mid-September with the photograph by Simon Roberts which inspired the piece.

I’m working on my first collection which I’m about halfway through. Some of that has involved going off on brutalist adventures with the painter Mandy Payne who is a pleasure and inspiration to be with. I’ve also been working on a set of poems inspired by Alexander McQueen. They’re much more surreal and fantastical than my usual poems.

I have a huge admiration for visual artists and I love collaborating with people who see the world in that way. I’m very drawn to painters, photographers, designers, film-makers, architects, engineers…none of them are safe from my attentions! Also, the production of the poetry I see as an activity that I need to do by myself so it helps that we work in different media.

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