Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews
M.A. is a poet and prose writer of Romany, Welsh and Irish descent. Nominated for the Forward Prize, Best of the Net & The Pushcart Prize, her work has been published online and in print with Poetry Ireland Review; Travellers’ Times; Ofi Press; Under the Radar; Fly on the Wall and many more. Her pamphlet, ‘Apple Water: Povel Panni’, was launched in December 2018 with Hedgehog Poetry Press and was listed in the Poetry Book Society Spring 2019 Selection.
- When and why did you start writing poetry?
As a child I loved to be creative, I danced, put on shows for my family. I also loved to read and write. I remember at the age of seven my teacher entered me for a writing competition, organised by Cadbury’s. I was amazed aswas my family to be highly commended and to receive a certificate and loads of chocolate. My first love was performing and I attended dancing school at the age of three. I went on to do really well and won competitions and took my grades in ballet, tap dance and modern. I wrote short stories and kept a diary for many years.
Writing though was to take a back seat as I went deeper into dance and acting. I still have some poems from my early years and of course I didn’t know then that writing would become my passion.
I turned to writing when I was very ill in 1996 and confined to my bed. I had a chronic disease as well as a disability which resulted from a fall down the stairs. Due to chronic fatigue and severe weakness I wasn’t able to do very much at all so I kept a journal and writing became a source of comfort to me.
Many years later I decided to apply for a Masters Degree in Creative Writing at the Unversity of Chichester. I was lucky to have half of my fees paid for by the Actors union Equity. The MA was brilliant and after graduation I began to take my writing work more seriously. Now in 2020 I am so happy to be doing what I do. I couldn’t envisage not writing. I do it every day and it heals and empowers me.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
I think I introduced myself to poetry. I grew up in a Romany household, where apart from a few Mills & Boon novels of my Mum’s, there were no books. As a small child, I loved reading and I used to have books from school which I loved to read after supper. I saw poetry in many texts. I went to Sunday School and loved listening to the Rector reading from the bible, especially the psalms. I loved singing the hymns, which to me were like poems. I remember reading Walter de la Mere at school and falling in love with the words. My Grandfather told stories and sang songs, I saw these as poetry. Later when I acquired my own books I liked to read Shakespeare’s sonnets and at dancing school I entered competitions for ‘Speech and Drama’ often using poetry and monologues from plays.
At Senior School I was inspired and encouraged by my Drama and English tutor, Heather Dudley. I remember we put on a drama presentation about ‘War and Conflict. I read Futility by Wilfred Owen, those first few lines, ‘Move him into the sun – Gently its touch awoke him once, At home, whispering of fields half-sown.’ Another poem that we used was ‘Tell me lies about Vietnam’ by Adrian Mitchell and this really highlighted to me the power of poetry, how it could wake people up. From that point I devoured poetry. I think back to my childhood and wish there had been books of Romani poetry, how empowering that would have been.
2.1. Why did you fall in love with the words of Walter De La Mare?
I loved the poetry of de la Mare because it took me into another world. That sense of otherness appealed to me. It opened a door to the realm of my imagination, there, anything was possible. It was also a way to transcend the shadow parts of my psyche. My Dad died when I was only nineteen months and my Mum was grief stricken. As I grew up I subconsciously felt the weight of that grief. De la Mare’s language surprised the young me, it was sensual, mysterious and I always enjoyed reading the poems aloud. I remember reading The Listeners at some point and putting on the voices, inhabiting the characters. The poem begins: ‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller, Knocking on the moonlit door; And his horse in the silence champed the grasses Of the forest’s ferny floor:’ Doesn’t this paint a wonderful picture, inviting the reader to read more?
The Children of Stare is another wonderful poem which entices the reader into a very different world to their own. This piece particular piece is utterly beautiful: ‘Tis strange to see young children in such a wintry house;
like rabbits’ on the frozen snow their tell-tale footprints go; Their laughter rings like timbrels ‘Neath evening ominous:
I’m not able to remember the specific poems but now as I revisit them I am reminded of their richness and depth.
I became acquainted with Shakespeare at a later age and absolutely loved ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Puck became one of my favorite literary characters and I was fortunate to be cast in the role in a production of this play at the Questors Theatre in Ealing at the age of nineteen. In the scene where he converses with a fairy, he says:
‘By fountain clear, or spangled starlight sheen, But they do square, that all their elves for fear. Creep into acorn-cups and hide them there.’ When I was acting, I was acutely aware of the poetry in this play, how it tripped off my tongue and and brought me joy.
3. How did you decide on the order of the poems in “They lit fires”?
I printed all the poems and laid them out on the floor. It was important for me to balance the voices of my characters. For example, the first monologue is ‘Under a Gooseberry Bush.’ This is told from the perspective of my Great Grandfather and he was a strong character, he takes us right back to the time of his birth. He is engaging and this is what I wanted, for the reader’s attention to be held at the beginning of the book. Following on comes, ‘The Guveney’ another male voice and like the first it has humour in it. It’s also a haibun and this form works really with Harry’s story. I also thought it was important to have a mixture of male and female voices. The last poem ‘They Lit Fires, Moved in Close’ has a feminine voice, the last line: ‘all of the malts slowly gettin’ skimmished.’ I played around with the order, placing two triolets in the middle. These were like songs and in a way helped me to consider the light and shade of the book, as well as the pace and rhythm. I decided to place ‘Bones ‘N’ Spoons at the very beginning, again this is like a song and it is light hearted. For Romany folk both bones and spoons are precious, they remind us of our grandfathers and the music that we all love. After much deliberating, I settled on the order as in the pamphlet and am happy with my decision. My editor Mark at Hedgehog thought it worked beautifully, so that was that.
4. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
I’ve been trying to put together a proper response to this question but it’s just not working for me. So I’ll just say this: I have and still am aware of the presence of older poets both traditional and contemporary. However over the years many of them have passed on. Poets like W.S. Merwin, whom I absolutely love and read often, also Jim Harrison. He writes in a very unique way. His poetry is gritty, daring and real. I have one of his last collection’s, ‘Dead Man’s Float,’ which never fails to amaze me. He lived into his 80’s and died a couple of years ago. Adrienne Rich was and still is a force to be reckoned with, always taking me into the depths of life and love. Always challenging me into looking at my own poetry. Eavan Boland, whom I had the good fortune to meet in Dublin in 2018 at the launch of Poetry Ireland Review. I was very upset to hear of her passing. her work is powerful and has continually inspired me. she stood up for women and paved the way for them to embrace a literary life.
5. What is your daily writing routine?
I have a long term illness and disability which means that I get very tired so in the morning I tend to be quiet, restful and not push myself. I go back to bed after breakfast and catch up on emails and social media. I write in the afternoon, always making a large pot of jasmine or white tea which I drink as I write.
I write longhand, with a fountain pen, often pausing and reading my work aloud. I sometimes record my poems or prose and this helps me to get some perspective on the voice and the essence of the work. I take little breaks and do a few chores then come back to my work and go onto the computer to edit properly. This is where I play around with the form and make changes as I see fit.
I like to read poetry late afternoon or in the evening and I am always jotting down ideas for new work. I’m still writing a few Romani poems but am also writing new material about Wales and my holidays there with my Dad’s family. I’m also working on new poems and monologues but I’m keeping the topic close to my heart. It’s quite exciting to be working on something totally new and different and I want to tread slowly, softly.
I submit work regularly and am writing a creative essay at present for Hodder & Stoughton. I am really enjoying it but I have found it challenging. The editors are brilliant and are very helpful and encouraging. It’s a new venture which I hope will lead to other things.
I love writing, reading, discussing poetry and being a part of the literary world. I will never stop.
6. Why do you choose to use haibuns in your pamphlet?
Going back to 2018, I attended a poetry event at Chichester library and read some of my poems as part of an ‘open mic.’ A fellow poet who was in the audience came up to me afterwards and asked if I was familiar with the haibun form. I told her that I liked the haibun as well as haiku and tanka. She thought that my Romani work would suit the style very well. I then went on to use the haibun and the first piece I wrote was ‘The Guveney’ (The Cow), based on a true story of a relative of sorts who saw a cow in his front garden. You’ll see the poem in my pamphlet, ‘they lit fires: lenti hatch o yog.’ It’s the perfect form for telling a story but also capturing the poetic essence of a piece. In The Guveney I set up the narrative of the story, using third person narrator and it is the haikus that emphasis the physicality of the cow:
‘With nostrils flared
breath rising into cold air
the brown cow bellows.’
Towards the end of the haibun there is another haiku:
The cow stands erect
appears rooted to the spot,
oblivious to men.
It ends with Harry watching two men lead the cow away. There’s something almost theatrical about this form, which really appeals to me. I love experimenting with various styles of narrative and the inclusion of both haiku and tanka.
One of my favourite haibuns is ‘Up Early’ which tells the story of my Grandmother Amy who used to travel to Waterloo on the train once a week with her barrow. She would go to Nine elms market and buy flowers, ready to sell the next day. It starts off – ‘She walks the three mile journey in all weathers, pushing her empty barrow through the station yard. Burt the Guard, is always there to greet her, he lost a hand in the trenches and she calls him a ‘dear, blessed man.’ When Amy gets to the market she meets the sellers there and eventually she buys some carnations., but just before she does this she spies some beautiful dahlias. This is where the haiku comes in and gives the whole piece its fire.
blood orange dahlias
soaking in water.
Following this central haiku I return to the narrative and it ends with: ‘Her husband wraps his arms around her waist. She says. ‘Go to sleep Alf, I’m dukkered.’ (exhausted)
The haibun is a great way to adapt stories but to keep the poetry alive. I use it often and enjoy the process of finding exactly the right imagery for the haikus. For me it’s about the visual images as well as the actual story.
7. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I admire many of today’s poets as well as poets who are no longer with us. The Canadian poet Ann Michaels comes to mind. She writes so eloquently and her words touch my soul. I heard her read at the Ledbury Poetry Festival around five years ago and loved listening to her Canadian accent which seemed to enhance her work. ‘Correspondences’ is a book that I return to time and time again: ‘and the water is engraved,/ and the sky/ with the moving mark/ of birds,/ and all around your grave/ the shadows of hoof prints/ in the wet earth’ poetry by Ann Michaels and portraits by Bernice Eisenstein, published by Bloomsbury. Sujata Bhat was also reading at Ledbury and I fell in love with her poetry too. She uses such vivid imagery and her work is a mythology in itself. Louise Gluck is another of my favourites. Her work is so rich and she has a rare quality of being able to transfigure simple day to day activities into something magical. She writes passionately about the natural world which inspires me and informs my own poetry. I also love Ruth Padel and in particular her book, ‘the Mara Crossing’ which is a combination of poetry, prose and memoir. Chase Twichell, Mimi Khalvati , Gillian Clarke are also on my list. Those who are no longer with us in body but definitely with us in spirit and on the page are W. S. Merwin, Seamus Heaney, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes, Adrienne Rich and Papusza, a Romani poet. There are many more.
8. What would you say to someone who asked you. “How do you become a writer?”
I’d say read as much as you possibly can. If you want to become a poet then read poetry, read the great poets like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Sappho then read the modern poets. Join a writing group where you can work shop your writing pieces. I undertook an MA in creative Writing at the University of Chichester and it helped me to take my work to the next level. I would also recommend looking for a good mentor. My mentor is James Simpson who runs the Unicorn Writers in West Sussex and he has helped me to grow in confidence and to work harder at my craft, to see it as a process and to take my time. So many poets want to get published too quickly. We must work hard, cultivate a work ethos. We need to write, rewrite, put the poems in a drawer to compost then take them and rewrite again. Once you do this you can look for a publisher that suits your type of work. Attend poetry events and open mics. Keep going, trust in your ability and enjoy the ride.
9. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment?
Right now I’m gathering poems for a new pamphlet, ‘The Stone Sleep’ which will be published by Hedgehog Poetry Press in the summer. Much of the work was written during the Master’s course a few years back. They are based on my experiences of chronic illness and disability as well as nature and loss. I guess you could say they represent the fragility of life. I am also writing some article on creativity and well-being for Therapy Friends, an online resource for anyone wanting to connect with like-minded people. My first full collection is to be published in March 2022 with Salmon Poetry Press so I am also editing some of the work in preparation for the final edit.
2020 was a productive and creative year for me. I am thankful for all of the good things that happened, including my work as a Creative and Cultural Consultant for New York Theatre Producer, Blair Russell. I got to work on a brilliant script for a musical called ‘For Tonight’ based on Welsh Romany Gypsies. I was also commissioned to write a creative essay for the anthology, ‘Gifts of Gravity and Light: A Nature Almanac for the Twenty-first Century’ to be published by Hodder and Stoughton in July of this year. I found it rather challenging but was pleased with my finished piece and it has encouraged me to write more about my life and the natural world. I continue to write and submit to journals and online webzines. I am also collaborating with other Romani female writers. We will be putting together an anthology which will be published sometime in the future.
Thank you Paul for giving me this opportunity to talk about my work.