Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Sue Watling

Heaving by Sue Watling

-Sue Watling

A writer and poet living in Hull, with an allotment, lots of honey bees, and inspired by ancient myth and legend, Sue has had poems published in a number of poetry journals and magazines including Dream Catcher, Dreich, The Poetry Shed, Sarasvaki, Dawntreader, Green Ink Poetry, Amethyst Review, Ekphrastic Review and Seaborne. A winner of the Dreich Chapbook Slims in 2022, with the collection ‘Heaving with the Dreams of Strangers’, Sue has also written ‘Thetis’, a poetic narrative which retells the Trojan War through the eyes of Thetis, mother to Achilles. Thetis is due to be published by Esplanade Press in the Autumn of 2022.

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

I tried to see leaving work as a gift in terms of time. I’d always enjoyed writing and once my career ended, I no longer had the excuse of not being able to make it a regular habit. As the world went into Covid lockdown, I enrolled in a series of online poetry courses where the daily prompt technique offered a structure which seemed to work for me. These encouraged a daily writing habit and taught the value of regular practice, as well as providing opportunities to share and comment on the poems of others. I’ve enjoyed finding my way back into exploring the magic of words, in particular ways to retell ancient myths and legends.

2. How did you find your way back into exploring the magic of words, in particular ways to retell ancient myths and legends?

I was drawn to Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and Odyssey, in particular how the emotions experienced by these ancient characters are hardly different to those we all go through today. Wars continue to be fought, while people still feel love and grief etc. Over the past few years there’s been a resurgence of interest in the women of Troy and ancient Greece, as well as the pantheon of gods and goddesses, and I became interested in Thetis, mother to Achilles. Thetis appears at all the main plot points of Homer’s Iliad and was clearly a woman of great influence and power over the gods, but doesn’t seem to have retained her status as other ancient divinities like Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite (who I see as glamorous but evil!) I began to wonder how the Trojan Wars might appear through Thetis’ eyes, as the mother of the greatest Greek warrior, and knowing he was destined to die young. This led to experiments with a form of narrative poetry that used a contemporary voice to merge the past with the present and explore universal themes. I’m currently working on a narrative poem which explores the relationship between Kalypso and Odysseus, and with such a wealth of ancient tales out there, I can’t see me running out of source material any time soon!  

3. How important is form to your poetry?

I’m not a fan of structured poems like sestinas, villanelles, sonnets etc. When it comes to writing and reading them, it can feel like the words and rhymes are being forced into place. Maybe I need to practice them more! Free verse can sometimes seem too loose on the page. I think a poem needs some form and for me it’s about stanza breaks and rhythm, with internal rhymes and half rhymes. I like poems where stanzas have the same number of lines, although I’m not rigid about this, and for poems to have a beat – either metrical or syllabic – so when read aloud there’s a sense of a pattern or movement. I also like poems which begin in one place and end in a different one, for example the transition between the general/objective and the personal/subjective point of view. I guess I like poems which tell a story, where the challenge is to do it concisely and remain a poem rather than poetic prose. 

4. Who introduced you to poetry?

Like for so many, it began at school where I felt no connection with the curriculum poets and thought poetry was not for me. I stayed writing non-fiction for years until I was introduced to contemporary poems and began to try writing them. Looking back, most of my early poems were not very good, but I think maybe you have to write badly in order to improve? During lockdown, I began online courses with Wendy Pratt @wondykitten, Angela Carr @adreamingskin, and Jim Bennett @thepoetrykit. These, and the tutors on a creative writing course, Sue Wilsea and Felix Hodcroft, encouraged me to explore my early interest in myth and legend as subject matter. I feel at home here but it wouldn’t have happened without the support and encouragement of all the poets and writers I’ve met along the way.

5. How important is nature in your poetry?

I have an allotment where I keep bees, so am lucky to be close to the magic and mystery of nature which offers ideas for poems. Although so much about nature has been said before (and will be said again) poetry always contains the possibility for saying it differently, whether it’s ‘big’ issues such as pollution and deforestation, or space for details like the flash of sunlight on water.  I believe nature is a force we need to respect and understand, rather than ignore and exploit it, and poetry can be a powerful way to start and maintain those essential conversations about achieving balance.    

6. What motivates you to write?

As above, I’m interested in the ways the universal themes in myth and legend are as relevant today as they’ve always been, and these often become the basis for poems. However, I think the main motivation for writing is to try and make sense of life, both mine and other people’s, with all its highs and lows, the beauty and the violence, in ways which might have resonance and make readers feel they’re not alone with whatever it is they are going through. 

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

I wasn’t a fan of poetry when young so didn’t feel much influence. I preferred historical novels from the library because they showed how you could take the past and write about it. Then I discovered more contemporary writers such as Sylvia Plath, who was one of the first poets I read where I realised poetry was something special, in particular how words on the page could have multiple layers of meaning.  It’s hard to explain how some poems seem to work for you while others don’t – it’s quite an individual experience which I still don’t fully understand. I guess you could say that where poetry is concerned, I’m a late starter but am enjoying the process of catching up!

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

It’s hard to select when so many people are writing great poetry, or at least authoring poems which have resonance. I admire poets who work with myth and fairytales like Vicki Feaver, the early work of Carol Ann Duffy (such as The World’s Wife and Rapture collections), Helen Mort and Helen Dunmore. Outside of poetry, I like the writing of Jenny Diski, Susan Vreeland and Sarah Hall. They all write with a lightness of touch, regardless of the situation, which I would love to be able to emulate.

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

Develop a regular time to write every day. It’s easy to say and harder to do, but writing comes out of practice, so try not to worry about what you are writing. Even stream of consciousness, for 10-15 minutes a day, can open up a phrase or sentence which could be the start of a poem and/or lead to other ideas. The daily practice of writing works better than thinking about it but not doing anything 😊 Taking online courses or using opportunities on social media which offer writing prompts can be useful. Also, read lots, especially the genre you want to write in, but other genres are still worth exploring. There’s lots of free help and guidance online, as well as in books. It can be difficult to get started, but the best way to ‘become a writer’ is to actually have a routine where you sit down and make yourself do it! 

10. I notice a lot of the poems are from a first-person perspective. Why do you use this particular point of view?

I think it goes back to working with myth as source material. Taking on the persona of another person can help identity and character to come across on the page, especially where space is limited and you need to create an impact. For me, writing in third-person doesn’t have the same power to connect.  I also like using a contemporary voice to tell old stories, so the poem or narrative becomes a mix of past and present, and first-person seems the most powerful way to achieve this effect. 

11. Final question: After having read your book, what do you wish the reader to leave with?

I’ve thought about this for a while, My background is in education development and I’d like to think my poems encouraged curiosity about both past and present. It would be great if readers felt encouraged to look up the backstory to some of the characters in ‘Heaving with the dreams of strangers’. Maybe Odin, Daedalus, the Willendorf Venus or Samson? There are so many different people on the pages of this collection. Ann Bonny and Mary Read really were 18th-century pirates and Terentius Neo was a baker in Pompeii the day Mount Vesuvius erupted. Did the pirate girls leave behind husbands or did the baker have a wife and children? Most of all, I hope the collection shows poetry can be about a range of topics or characters and so long as the words don’t cause damage or harm, there really is no limit to the internal landscape of a poet.

2 thoughts on “Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Sue Watling

  1. An enjoyable and interesting interview. I would concur with Sue’s advice to read regularly and to try and write every day. There are so many words out there waiting to be discovered. Sue’s words have definitely encouraged my curiosity.

  2. Pingback: Heaving with the dreams of strangers - what happens next? - Sue Watling

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