Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: “Lake 32” by JLM Morton

JLM Morton

JLM Morton

is a poet. Her debut pamphlet Lake 32 is just out with Yew Tree Press. Other recent publications include pamphlets: Water and Stroud Poets Series 2, work in Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, Emerge Literary Journal, Streetcake, Magma, Riggwelter, Poethead, Atrium and The Lake. She’s been invited to read / forced her way in to various poetry nights and festivals including Ledbury Poetry Festival and last year the Places of Poetry project made a beautiful film of her poem ‘Stroudwater Navigation.’ Featured by The Sunday Telegraph, JOLT, on BBC Upload and BBC Gloucestershire, Juliette was Poet in Residence at Waterland, a Cotswold Water Park lake, throughout 2020 and is cofounder of The Outposted Project. She also runs Dialect, a writer development network. In 2021 she’s Poet in Residence at Stroudwater Textile Trust. Between demands from her kids for high calorie snacks and wrenching another toy from the jaws of the dog, she writes – often while cooking. For more poems, soundscapes, artwork and info see: www.jlmmorton.com    

The Interview

  1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

 I have always been an avid poetry reader and have played with poetry as a writer for a few years but it wasn’t until I had my second baby that I started writing poetry on a regular basis – I had become really frustrated trying to write long form prose and never getting enough time to finish anything. I had an agent, won a couple of prizes and was finishing my first novel but never to my satisfaction. Poetry fell perfectly into the cracks of my life as a mother and once I started writing poetry seriously sometime in late 2018 it was like a tap had been turned on … I never had that feeling of flow and pure joy when writing prose – poetry has become an addiction!

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

It was probably my grandfather who was a huge lover of poetry – his favourite poet was John Donne.

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

Yes, very aware of this. I studied English Literature at university through to PhD level and poetry was a thread running through all of that – I have been immersed in the Anglo American, African and Caribbean ‘canons’ and have had a special interest in the marginalised /silenced voices of women, black and minority ethnic and post-colonial writers. As a working poet now, I am really aware of a literati establishment which is quite often metropolitan / London-centric and the challenges and difficulties of being heard if you live outside of that and are not well connected to that particular ecosystem.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I can’t say that I have a fixed writing route as I am juggling being a parent of two young children and having a day job alongside the poetry so I tend to write whenever I can. Often that means writing in my head when I go for a walk after the school run and before I start the dayjob (I’m a freelancer and lucky to have that flexibility) and then again later in the evening once the kids are in bed. I do write most days though – it’s a compulsion as much as anything. I’ve always got loads of ideas I want to get down on the page.

5. What subjects motivate you to write?

I’m interested in ecopoetics and poetry of place, how the starting point of a concrete object or environment can lead us to unheard stories and voices. I’m also really interested in power and narratives of race and gender, what gets legitimised as ‘appropriate’ subject matter for poetry and what doesn’t. I have a long-held fascination and history of working in gender and race studies – my PhD was on women’s whiteness and the literary imagination and for my dayjob now I am a gender and inclusion consultant, often working in humanitarian scenarios. These interests often feed into my work in oblique ways and shape the ways I see the world and write about it.

6. What is your work ethic?

 See 4. Above.

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

There are a lot of writers I really admire – poets such as Roger Robinson, Katrina Naomi, Anthony Anaxagorou, Alice Willetts, Kim Moore all inspire me as people who live the writing life well and who are generous with their energy, time and advice to other writers. I have a lot of time for Naush Sabah and Suna Afshan who set up Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal – they’re the best kind of trouble makers: insightful, questioning, incisive, making us all squirm in our seats, and both very good poets to boot. There are also other poets like Aaron Kent and Colin Bancroft who do so much for the poetry community in terms of supporting and signposting and generally cheering everyone on in their own endeavours – I really value that kind of camaraderie. And then there are the poets that I adore and admire for their art and craft – these are the ones I read and return to time and again: Fiona Benson, Alice Oswald, Pascale Petite, Caroline Bird, Eavan Boland, Tishani Doshi, Natalie Diaz, Gillian Clarke, Kathleen Jamie, Paul Farley, Michael Simmonds Roberts, Helen Mort, Nick Laird, Robin Robertson, Lucille Clifton, Ada Limon, Jen Hadfield… I could go on… and on!

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

 It’s a compulsion for me – I often ask myself why I do it and I don’t have a definitive answer – it shifts over time. Sometimes its about telling a story, other times it might be about exploring or clarifying something in my mind. I ask a lot of questions in my poems – literally and metaphorically.  I also like making things and get a lot of satisfaction of ‘making’ a poem and finishing it.

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

 Don’t be afraid of the page. Read more than you write. Establish a daily practice.  

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

My first pamphlet Lake 32 has just come out with Yew Tree Press. It’s the result of a year long residency at a lake in the Cotswold Water Park for which I wrote a poem a month. The pamphlet includes all those poems and more. In the gap between that and the next projects coming up I’ve been writing a few poems I’ve wanted to write for ages and haven’t had space to – ostensibly about mushrooms, larch trees and the Severn, but really about love and coercive control.

Coming up in 2021 and building on that pamphlet, I’ve been commissioned for a book called Living with Water (Manchester Uni Press) to walk and swim the River Churn, an ancient waterway that flows through the land where I grew up and eventually joins the Thames. I plan on doing that some time in spring and will write poetry in response to that, thinking about themes of native, invader, migrant.

I’ve also been appointed Poet in Residence for Stroudwater Textile Trust for 2021. I live in the Stroud valleys and throughout the C18th and C19th, broadcloth was a major export, fuelling the local economy, oiling the wheels of colonial expansion as a trade cloth and clothing the Redcoats that patrolled and enforced the rule of Empire. I’m fascinated by this history and will be exploring the legacy of broadcloth and globalisation past, present and future. There is still a single factory left in the valleys which makes the green cloth you’ll find on the billiard tables of Monte Carlo and the yellow coverings of tennis balls at Wimbledon.

You can follow my progress here: www.jlmmorton.com

In addition to my own work as a poet, I am involved in a couple of side projects. Last year I started The Outposted Project with my friend and artist-designer Susie Hetherington. This began in Lockdown #1 as an initiative bringing together thirty writers, artists, makers, performers and musicians from across the Five Valleys of Stroud, Gloucestershire to map our collective, creative responses to isolation using Ordnance Survey maps which we pin art to and send onwards to the next contributor. The project has since expanded to other areas of the UK involving more than sixty artists and has a call out for online contributions #virtuallyoutposted. Check us on the ‘gram for the latest: @theoutpostedproject

Last July I set up Dialect, a new inclusive platform for rural writers to develop their talent, connect with writing communities and access opportunities to share their work. Gloucestershire in particular is really under-served in terms of good quality opportunities to develop as a writer and Dialect is aiming to address that – Paper Nations kindly gave me some seed funding to get off the ground and my plan was just to support local writers but because of the pandemic and everything being online I’ve ended up working with writers from across the South West and Wales, as well as some interlopers from the East side and overseas!

Dialect speaks from the edges of things, celebrating the remote and the pastoral, the mountains and hills, the woods and the wilderness, the coasts and waterways, but also the small town and its suburbs, the retail parks, verges, dual carriageways, wastelands, lay-bys, scrapyards, agricultural spaces, derelict mills, industrial estates, motorway services, recycling centres, the spaces and voices in-between. Dialect launched quietly with an online Summer School of taster workshops. This was followed by a programme of workshops around Stroud Book Festival, regular feedback workshops and a Writer In Residence programme in partnership with Waterland which has just started. There’s a poetry course running from January – March and later in the year I’m hoping to launch a literary journal and podcast to showcase all the amazing rural writing talent if I can find the funding…

11. How did you decide on the order of the poems?

They are roughly chronological in terms of when they were written and set over the year long course of the residency

12. How important is form in your poetry? I am thinking of Hibernal Solstice, Soundscape, and Daughters.

Form is incredibly important in my work. Once I’ve had an idea for poem, finding the right form is often what comes next. What shape will the poem take? How will the music sound? What will make my lines do their work? Quite often I begin with a form – Hibernal Solstice for instance began as a poem in a sonnet series. The sonnet didn’t work for me, was too conventional to hold the idea of the poem which was about sound and music and the singing of a lake landscape – it was only later that I broke it up into it’s current form: units of sense blended together to give a sense of a journey, a soundscape. 

13. What is the importance of shamanic transformation into an animal or tree in your poetry?

It’s funny, I have never before considered it as ‘shamanic’ transformation but I do use objects and animals in my work to explore ideas or reflect current concerns. That kind of anthropomorphic world view is deeply embedded in my work. The white self-help magpie in Wingspan is based on an actual white magpie living at the lake but he embodies the concerns of people who go there, often those dealing with mental health issues including anxiety and grief. The black poplar tree in Courage articulates a sense of longing and resilience, written at the start of the first lockdown in 2020. 

14. “Sunday Service” and “Dip” convey wild swimming as a religious experience, a letting go of self. How do you feel about this?

I think wild swimming can be spiritual in so far as it is often a meditative experience which takes you into your body and environment and away from your conscious mind, especially in winter when the water is very cold. You can be nowhere else in that moment. 

I wouldn’t call it a religious experience as that implies some kind of organised belief system – pretty much the opposite of the wild freedom of swimming outdoors   

15. Noting that one of the most often used words in the collection is “wild”, what is it about wildness and untameability that fascinates you?

I think my fascination is to do with the politics of wildness – an interest in exploring wildness as set against civility and civilisation as a white patriarchal construct

16. Once they have read the book what do wish the reader to leave with?

A greater familiarity with the wonders of the Cotswold Water Park and understanding of the more local impacts of the climate emergency. I hope also that readers will have felt an emotional connection and found pleasure in reading. It’s so strange isn’t it, often we don’t start poems with a reader in mind but rather with an idea for ourselves to explore so to then try after the fact to determine what a reader might leave with feels like a stretch beyond the original intention. Of course, I hope people will connect with my work but that’s more of an afterthought than an original intention. Hope that makes sense.

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