Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Karen Jane Cannon

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.

Karen Jane Cannon

is a UK poet and author. Her poetry has been published widely in literary journals and anthologies in the UK and USA, including Acumen, Envoi, Mslexia, Orbis, Obsessed with Pipework, The Interpreter’s House, Ink, Sweat & Tears, and Popshot. She was a 2017 finalist in the Mslexia Poetry Competition and was commended for the Flambard Poetry Prize in 2014. Emergency Mints, her debut poetry pamphlet, was published in Spring 2018, by Paper Swans Press

Her novel Powder Monkey (as Karen Sainsbury) was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2002 and Phoenix in 2003.

Karen is also an award-winning radio playwright. She has an MA with distinction in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University, where she lectured for three years. She is a PhD Candidate at the University of Southampton. Karen is creator of Silent Voices: found poetry of lost women (https://silentvoicespoetry.wordpress.com/)


The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

I started writing poetry when I was very small and was encouraged enormously by various teachers. I entered competitions and read lots of poetry ‘how to’ guides. When I was studying English as an undergraduate, I suddenly became frustrated and frightened by poetry, lost the unselfconscious way of writing I’d had as a teenager—for two decades I didn’t have anything to do with poetry, became totally poetry-phobic. After having several articles published, I started writing radio plays and then a novel, but I felt I wasn’t really a storyteller—fiction seemed too contrived and unreal. I entered quite a bad depression. Felt I had lost my way as a writer and the only way out for me was through rediscovering poetry. I remember picking up Ted Hughes’ Moortown Diary and thinking poetry could be real and earthy and alive. I decided to try and be the thing that terrified me most—a poet! Or at least conquer my fear of it. Orbis published my first poem a year later. In 2017 I was delighted at being a finalist in the Mslexia Poetry Competition. This has really boosted my confidence.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I’m not sure. Maybe, I found out by myself, at the library when I was at primary school searching out Walter de la Mare and Kipling. Taking my MA in Creative Writing I was inspired by the work of Philip Gross who taught me for a semester—I really connected with The Wasting Game, but was still suspicious of poetry. Another tutor, Tracy Brain reintroduced me to Sylvia Plath via The Bell Jar, and her love for all things Plath was very contagious.

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

Writing poetry, you are always aware of walking in the footsteps of others. It’s normal for a poet to think, how do I get my voice heard? Why is my voice relevant? I think it’s either huge ego or that persuasive fluttering muse that makes you think your contribution is worthy. As a writer, you have to develop a thick skin and learn to do what makes you happy. Rejection is a healthy part of the writing process—the biggest thing that will make you stop and re-evaluate your work and seek to improve it. The Poetry World is hugely competitive.

Studying English at degree level, I became frustrated by the study of poetry—not being able to get a poem to immediately yield all its secrets. I remember very simplistically thinking, for example, why can’t a poem be just about blackberries?! Why does there have to be a whole subtext behind it?  I was too immature to understand that this is the challenge of any piece of art. Every time you re-examine a text, you read something new into it—that’s what makes a reader return to it years later, why it stays in the head. Every text means something different to every reader. That’s the power and joy of poetry.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I write daily, every morning, either on new work, editing or submitting. Creativity isn’t something you can control—new poems can magically pop up at any time and need writing down before they vanish. I am very organised when it comes to writing or studying. The rest of my life is somewhat haphazard.

5. What motivates you to write?

Above anything, I am a writer of place. From my first articles, to my plays, novel and poetry, I write landscape, both physical and emotional. That is what motivates me to write. I have always chosen to live in strange and fascinating places, from the second highest village in Scotland, to a village on the edge of Longleat Safari park, going to sleep each night to the sound of roaring lions and howling wolves. I was brought up a mile from the sea in Worthing, West Sussex, and spent much of my childhood either on the beach or on the beautiful South Downs. The sea, its dynamic movement and power, is a great source of inspiration for me. My first pamphlet, Emergency Mints (Paper Swans Press, 2017), is set on the south coast. Now I live in the magical New Forest National Park, a surprising wilderness in the heart of the south of England. The main themes running through my work are loss and motherhood—the two ends of the circle. I am fascinated by maps and boundaries—both real and imaginary—and the industrial footprint left in the landscape. These things all motivate me creatively, but I am motivated also by success and becoming a better poet.

6. What is your work ethic?

I have a hugely strong work ethic when it comes to creativity. I am a perpetual student—it’s important to me to improve and grow as a writer, to hopefully reach my potential. I am in the 2nd year of a part time PhD at the University of Southampton, researching poetry and place. It is a very stretching and rewarding experience. I am very focused. I don’t go on holidays—I go on research trips! My husband is very supportive—on our last ‘holiday’ we ended up down a stone quarry, because I wanted to write about it!

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

That’s difficult to gauge. I write about the effects of industry on the landscape and its inhabitants and I wonder if Blake’s Songs of Experience—and the whole Romantic movement— influenced this. I remember being moved by these poems when I was a young teenager, the hopelessness and inevitability of change. Even childhood reading like Enid Blyton has shaped my connection to the countryside. I was obsessed with the War Poets when I was sixteen—maybe they influenced the themes of loss that always run through my work, the long connection between war and poetry is fascinating and paradoxical.

In reality, it was growing up in the 1970s that has influenced my writing more than anything else. The Seventies were a dismal decade to be a child—a time of dissatisfaction and misery. This was represented across popular culture—even sitcoms such as The Likely Lads and Butterflies portrayed an adult world of frustration and yearning. The lingering after-effects of the war, sexual revolution and political turmoil were frightening and unsettling. Nothing was stable—not even the concept of family—no one was happy. Everyone trapped by something—sex, class, respectability.  But, ironically, it was all these things that made me become a writer. I rejected the restraints and limitations of the previous generation and chose my own path.

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

I have spent the last twelve months immersing myself in books on place—from Dorothy Wordsworth’s wonderfully rich journals and Nan Shepherd’s beautiful The Living Mountain, to Roger Deakin’s Waterlog and Wildwood. And of course, Alexandra Harris, Luke Turner, Richard Mabey, Philip Hoare and everything Robert MacFarlane writes! Groundwork, edited by Tim Dee, is an excellent introduction to the genre. These writers share the ability to conjure a place from the page with their knowledge and love for it. They create value.  ‘Local’ doesn’t mean parochial, it reflects the whole. I am also interested in how different genders approach the writing of place.

I have also been reading a lot of ecopoetry—one approach to ecopoetry is of the close observation of place proposed by Linda Russo. This genre needs careful handling as it involves writing with intent, which is problematic. The Ground Aslant, edited by Harriet Tarlo, is an excellent example of how to get it right.

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

I have had ideas about doing other things, but I am only driven to write. I have other useable skills—ones that would pay better—but I have no heart for them. I think I may be quite lazy. As I said above, I have had plays produced and a book published. Poetry uses the least words! What I love about poetry is the journey it takes you on. I read a lot of fiction and I find so many authors only have the one brilliant book in them. Poets by contrast keep growing and expanding.  That’s a huge draw to me. It’s rewarding.

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

I would say, to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. To paraphrase Reynolds on art, you gather the pollen to create your own honey. Experiment. Be flexible—you may start off thinking you want to be a poet, but may discover you are an amazing playwright. See where writing takes you. Write with your heart and not with your head. And if you want to improve, get critical feedback. You are unlikely to get this from friends or family. They will either tell you your work is brilliant, or that it’s not their cup of tea! Constructive criticism is invaluable. The Poetry School offers fantastic courses for all levels. And, really importantly, read contemporary work if you want to see your work published—styles change!

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

I am just finishing my second pamphlet, based around my experience of living 1400 feet up in the Lowther hills of Southern Scotland without electricity in an old leadminer’s cottage. I am working on two full collections—one set on the South coast and its industrial footprint, and a second more experimental work centred around the New Forest, which is part of my PhD. I am loving the writing of all of these book

One thought on “Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Karen Jane Cannon

  1. Pingback: Celebrate Wombwell Rainbow Interviews with me over 26 Days. Today is Letter C. One letter a day displaying all the links to those interviews. We dig into those surnames. Discover their inspirations, how they write, how did they begin. Would you love to ha

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