Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: Mary Ford Neal

-Mary Ford Neal

author of two poetry collections: ‘Dawning’ (Indigo Dreams, 2021), and ‘Relativism’ (Taproot Press, 2022). Mary’s poems have been published in Bad Lilies, One Hand Clapping, Atrium, Ink Sweat & Tears, Long Poem Magazine, Dreich, and various other magazines. She was Pushcart nominated in 2021. Mary is assistant editor of Nine Pens Press and 192 magazine.

“Dawning” can be purchased here: https://www.indigodreams.co.uk/mary-ford-neal/4595319360

Relativism can be purchased here::

The Interview

How did you decide on the order of the poems in your book?

The first collection roughly traces the arc of a relationship, so that was a major factor informing the order of the poems. But other, smaller decisions also factored in to the process – for example, I regarded certain poems as companions to one another, and it was important to me to keep those ones together, while not interfering with the storytelling. There were also some purely stylistic decisions, like not wanting to have the poems that used form or rhyme too close to one another. The second collection is longer, and I made the decision to structure it in sections. Again, there’s a narrative arc there, with each section corresponding roughly to a stage of life (e.g. childhood, or the end of life), or a state of knowledge (e.g. doubt or enlightenment). So narrative coherence has been a factor when structuring both books, but that doesn’t mean to say it necessarily will be in future.

2. How important is form in your poetry?

Most of what I write is free verse, and I think that will always be the case. My favourite poems of mine are free verse poems. But I occasionally like to use form – there are two villanelles, a triolet, and a sestina in my first book, as well as some other poems that use end rhyme, and a few prose poems. There’s even less formal poetry in my second collection – several prose poems, a sestina and a pantoum. I think form can work really well to restrain and contain content that might otherwise become emotionally overblown or extravagant. But it has to be handled with (a lot of!) care to avoid feeling unoriginal or naïve. I’ll carry on using it sparingly, I expect!

3. What is the role of nature in your poetry?

I tend not to think of what I do as ‘nature poetry’ in any sense. But the sea, and water, is everywhere in my poetry, perhaps most prominently in my first collection, but in the second book too. There are also a few references to space, in both books, and to trees in the second book. I think it’s impossible for any poet not to draw extensively on the world around them, including the natural world. But the primary focus of my poetry is undoubtedly human experience – human relationships, human suffering, and human destiny – and themes from nature are deployed in order to illuminate the human, rather than as a focus in themselves.

4. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I’ve been aware of poetry and vaguely interested in it all my life, mainly due to the influence of my dad, an English teacher who taught me poetry in school and at home. We had poetry books everywhere. But I must have written fewer than ten poems in total over the course of my life until late 2019, when it suddenly took off while I was recovering from a serious illness. I think the reason it happened then was that in practical terms, I had the time (I was on a months-long absence from work) and the things that had been blocking my creativity (the stress and relentlessness of my ‘real’ work) were temporarily removed. But I also had something to write about, a difficult relationship which became the focus of my first book. So those factors combined to make it happen when it did.

5. What poets do you remember your dad introducing you too?

Because he was my English teacher at school, he introduced me to all of the ‘curriculum’ poets (Chaucer, TS Eliot, Shakespeare, Donne, Tennyson, and so on). But at home, he was an admirer of Thomas Hardy and Robert Burns, and I remember him introducing me to their work and poems by Glasgow poets like Tom Leonard, Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead, and others.

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

At school, most of the poets we studied were long-dead men, and the few living ones we studied were older men, but I never questioned that. The reverence attached to their work and the fact it was most people’s introduction to ‘Poetry’ made those voices influential in one sort of way. But nowadays, I’m very aware of another sort of dominance – the power to publish or not publish, and to hand out patronages (prizes, mentorships, speaking invitations). I don’t notice those decisions being made particularly by people who are older, or male. I think domination in poetry nowadays seems more about cliquishness than age.

7. What is your daily writing  routine?

I don’t write every day, or even every other day. Between the demands of parenthood and my academic work, I wouldn’t have time for that, but in any case I don’t think I’d want to turn creative writing into anything that felt like a chore. The way I write wouldn’t really lend itself to sitting down intentionally, anyway – most of my poems tend to arrive pretty well-formed, and I then tweak things over the next weeks or months. It’s not time-consuming. What I do set aside time for is reading and thinking as much as I can. That’s the groundwork.

8. What motivates you to write?

Usually, it’s about trying to capture something, or make sense of something. Sometimes it’s about trying to imagine things that haven’t happened. And sometimes I’m not conscious of the motivation until later – I’m thinking of a particular recent poem that’s not in either of the books, which initially felt a bit surrealist and apropos of nothing, but which I read again later and its meaning was really staring me in the face.

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

The kind of writing that impressed me when I was very young, and that I’ve been drawn to ever since, has a quietness, or stillness. It’s rich with craft and wisdom and values. It sits within and honours the long traditions of writing even as it carries that tradition forward and adds something new to it. I’m strongly attracted to quietness and humility in writing, and turned off by disruption for its own sake, or anything that feels self-serving or egotistical.

9.1. Who wrote this kind of writing?

I take it you mean the kind I’m praising?? It’s a matter of opinion, but for me, lots of poets! The list could really be endless but some examples might be Hardy, Hopkins, Eliot, Millay, Morgan, Frost, Carson, Oliver, and plenty of living poets too.

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

So many! Ada Limon, for all the same reasons everyone else admires her. Amazing Scottish poets like Rob Mackenzie (for the precision of his language, his sharp humour, and his skill with form), Jay Whittaker (for the emotional impact her work has on me), Louise Peterkin (for the musicality and magical quality of her writing) and others. Maya Popa, for finding new & exquisite ways of saying universal and familiar things. GB Clarkson for being able to combine such vivid abundance (I always think of Gauguin) with a perfect restraint. The late Jay Hopler for his mastery of the short poem. Robert Selby, for his craft & the way it all comes together. John McCullough, because he always picks out something new but important to say, & says it with real skill & beauty. But I could go on and never stop. There’s an embarrassment of talent in contemporary poetry.

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

I’m just better at writing than I am at other creative things. I’m musical, & play a few instruments, but I don’t find I want to do it for hours on end. I’m okay at drawing but not good enough to want to do it concertedly. Words have just always been my natural medium, and literature and literacy was highly prized at home when I was growing up.

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

People who become good writers have several things in common, I think. First, they have a longstanding habit of reading good writing. Second, they have a reflective attitude to their own life experiences, and an ability to relate their experiences to things outside themselves. Third, they have the patience to start by being a bad or mediocre or naïve writer, and go through a process of improvement. Fourth, they have a reading & writing ‘community’ of some sort (which they may have had to construct for themselves). This list is by no means exhaustive. Of course, you may never become a writer, and that is fine too – you may be something else entirely.

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

I’m thinking thematically about my next collection, and gathering together the poems for that – I have roughly half of them at the moment. I’m also working on a long poem, but that’s taking shape more slowly. My other current writing projects are all academic pieces about Law!

14. How important is White space in your writing?

It’s becoming increasingly important as I become more drawn to writing shorter poems (with the exception of the very long poem I mentioned above!). The white space is always significant – perhaps like rests in music – but even more so with short poems and micropoems. Jay Hopler’s work has really influenced me in wanting to write shorter pieces.

15. Why does “Dawning” begin and end with a question?

I suppose it’s a question I was turning around in my head at the time when I wrote ‘Dawning’. As to why it’s there at the beginning and the end, I think I loved the idea of circularity – that we end back where we began. It mirrors the relationship in the book – you feel you’re moving toward closure as the poems progress, but then right at the end there’s this hint that nothing has been concluded.

16. Once having read your books what do you hope the reader will leave with?

I’d like readers to find echoes of their own experience in my books – to feel that I’ve found a way of saying something that they might also want to say. Art is – for me – ultimately about plugging into the collective human experience, so if no-one else recognised anything of themselves in my work, I might question whether I’d done anything valuable, as opposed to purely solipsistic.

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