Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Lesley Curwen

Lesley Curwen

-Lesley Curwen

is a broadcaster, poet and sailor who lives within sight of Plymouth Sound. Her poems have been published by Arachne Press, Broken Sleep, Nine Pens, Green Ink, Quay Words, snakeskin and Slate. (Twitter handle is @elcurwen)

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

When I was at school, after reading Tennyson and Wordsworth in the school library. Growing up in Preston in Lancashire, so close to the Lake District, I especially loved Wordsworth and ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’. My favourite line, so unforgettably musical, is this: ‘rolled round in earth’s diurnal course/ with rocks and stones and trees’. I still have a lot of my first efforts, typed out carefully by my darling mum on her manual typewriter. I keep them for her sake, though recently I did re-write one of the early poems.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

My starchy English teachers at Lark Hill Convent school, who mostly stuck fast to traditional poets, and later the university lecturers at Bedford College in Regent’s Park in London where I studied English Literature. That’s where I discovered poets such as Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heaney, though frankly it was still quite a conservative syllabus.

Weird fact – after my A levels, I actually began to study dentistry at the London Hospital but after a year realised I wasn’t happy, and switched to English, where I was blissfully reading a mountain of books week-round. I loved Chaucer, and Anglo Saxon poetry such as The Seafarer with his ‘bitre breostceare’ translated as grim sorrow, though I preferred the idea of ‘bitter breast-care’.   

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

I am aware of the dominance of older poets, and I have to respect their skills and experience. Let’s be frank, I am older myself, though less skilled than most. I hope the poetry gods design good opportunities for younger poets to make their mark, but I think the problem is that when you are making a career outside poetry in your 20s and 30s, it’s hard to carve out time to be creative. That’s what I found, making a life at the BBC as a radio and TV broadcaster in economics and business. As a result, there was a great dip in my output of poetry between 20s and mid-40s. And when I became a freelance broadcaster in 2013, suddenly there was time to write between work projects. Now the balance is switching around, though I am still making radio programmes.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I often wake up at 5am with a few lines or a buzzing idea in my head. I grab my phone while still in bed and write in Notes. Often by 6.30am when the alarm goes off, I have something that’s been written and rewritten in draft which I will transfer to the laptop later. I’ve noticed quite a few poets I follow on Twitter are also awake at that time – does poetry keep us up, or stop us sleeping?  Sometimes when I am planning to make submissions,  I will go on an afternoon editing spree of recent poems where I slash and burn. This may not be the best thing, by the way.  On Thursday evenings, I get the chance to get and give feedback (via Zoom) with my dear fellow poets at Greenwich Poetry Workshop. I’ve been a member for 17 years, and they are my poetry family.

5. What subjects motivate you to write?

I live within sight of Plymouth Sound, and I sail and swim in its waters year-round. I strongly feel the joy of it, and also fear for its amazing marine life facing the evils of plastic pollution and climate change. I’ve been talking to Plymouth University dons about what that means, so I can write poems about it. Like many other poets, I write about lost family, but also ‘found’ family – I never met most of my relatives until I was grown-up, for complex reasons, so they were a huge blessing. I’m also writing about my father, who I never met but who was treated for schizophrenia with inhumane amounts of insulin to bring on ‘therapeutic’ fits. And I have been writing imagistic poetry about the sea and sailing, encouraged by Matthew MC Smith’s @blackboughpoetry and the weekly @toptweetTuesday feature on Twitter.

6. What is your work ethic?  When I set aside the time to poetry, I am totally concentrated on it. My art teacher at school once said ‘I want you to get 65 minutes out of every hour’. I know that’s horribly old-fashioned and quaint, but it seems to work for me. 

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

I think the Wordsworthian themes still echo with me, especially when I write about sailing and the sea and the creatures in it.  And I think the Anglo Saxon poems have often led me to use very short, pithy words with occasional longer Latinate words chucked in.  My former colleague, BBC Correspondent Allan Little, teaches young journalists that words from the older core of our language are more direct and forceful, especially words of one syllable. I find those are often the words I use in poetry, as well as journalism. 

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

Philip Gross, for his beautifully chiselled and playful work, Fiona Moore for her devastating poems on grief, Liz Berry for her extraordinary, touching portrayal of motherhood, Matthew MC Smith for his vivid imagistic work,  John McCullough for the sheer inventiveness of forms and subject matter, and Jonathan Davidson for subtle and powerful poems, and also his unceasing efforts to make poetry accessible to everyone.  

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

There is no satisfaction like the feeling you get when the right word fits into the right line, until you find an even better word.  For many years I have interviewed people, as a radio presenter, then edited the words on screen, and so I guess I am used to identifying the most forceful and revealing words and phrases, and following the music and rhythm of speech. I think that experience has helped me with the creation of poems, and these days my head seems to be full of poetry, running like a tickertape through everyday thoughts. It’s a different kind of mind-set, literally, when the words flow. It won’t make much of a mark in the world, but it is the fruit of what I have learned and that’s a peculiar satisfaction.  

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

You have to find a group or someone who will help you and believe in you. I’ve seen friends from the Greenwich group who arrived with no experience of writing, and with help and advice and years of working at it, have published the work they care about, with a story and message only they could give. It’s hard to even call yourself a poet at first, and it’s been fairly recent that I have allowed myself to use that word. So much of it, I think, is about confidence and also determination to make the time for duller administrative stuff of sending submissions out.

11.Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.  I have just been collaborating with two friends from the Greenwich workshop on a 3-way pamphlet idea called ‘Invisible Continents’. It’s great working together and getting to see the links between our poems as well as their different styles.  I’m also working on two pamphlet ideas, one about sailing and the marine environment and the other about family and grief. And I’m very happy to be booked in as a host for @toptweetuesday with @blackboughpoetry, where I will be able to respond to a stream of short imagist poems from Twitter poets.

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