A freelance science writer by trade, Larissa has written poetry and prose regularly since 2016. Notable publications include Northwords Now, Silk & Smoke, Green Ink Poetry, Black Bough Poetry’s Anthologies, and the Beyond the Swelkie Anthology. She had a poem shortlisted for the Janet Coats Memorial Prize 2020. Larissa is intrigued by visible and invisible boundary lines in landscapes – geological faultlines, myth and reality, edge-lines of land and sea. Based on Scotland’s east coast, she balances her writing life with bringing up her daughters. Larissa is a founder member of the Edinburgh-based writing group, Twisted::Colon.
- When and why did you start writing poetry?
I wrote little verses when I was about 8 years old, for a short time, before I got embarrassed and stopped! I’m not sure why, whether it was a case of ‘fitting in’ or just not wanting to admit to writing little poems when I was at home. It wasn’t until 2016, about 3 months after my grandmother passed away, that I took my first tentative steps into writing poetry as an adult. I was sitting on a park bench with a friend in Edinburgh, both of us were playing around with a writing prompt. I had written a paragraph about a fleeting moment from my grandmother’s funeral – my friend remarked that it would make a lovely little poem. I think I laughed at his suggestion, but he was quite persistent, encouraging me to pull the paragraph to pieces and restructure it into a few carefully constructed lines. I was hooked after that – I wrote hundreds of poems in a very short time, many of which were awful, but a few shone through as being worth pursuing. In Autumn 2017, I had three poems published in the Scottish literary magazine Northwords Now. I can’t imagine not writing poetry now.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
Both my grandmother and my mother were always interested in poetry – my grandmother adored T.S. Eliot. She was buying his books as a teenager back in the 1930s, and loved the fact that this act was ‘daring’ and controversial in the eyes of her rather prim and proper mother. She also loved Gerard Manley Hopkins. I have a memory of her reciting fragments of poems to me when I was small. My mother was very keen on Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and some female poets like Carol Ann Duffy and Christina Rossetti – these are just a few names I can remember from the bookshelves at home when I was growing up. I was curious, puzzled by these books with so few words and phrases that I could make sense of, yet intrigued to learn more. While I enjoyed English at school, I clashed with my teachers who intensely disliked some of my less-traditional choices, and it was only once I got to Aberdeen University (where I studied English and Scottish Literature) that my love of studying poetry and fiction really took off and I felt it was acceptable to read and enjoy more contemporary poets’ work.
3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
As I mentioned, poetry played a role in my childhood, and various poems and poets have followed me throughout my life to this day. A favourite book of mine was the Child’s Book of Verse with illustrations by Margaret W. Tarrant. This included Robert Louis Stevenson’s Land of Storybooks, and Eugene Field’s Wynken, Blyken and Nod. Coleridge and Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Tennyson, T.S.Eliot and many other male ‘canonical’ writers were definitely on my radar growing up. It was really once I reached university that I started to broaden my reading beyond these – I’m not sure I could name many female poets before reaching university, I am sorry to admit. I am hopeful that my daughters are far more aware of contemporary poets and a wider diversity of writers than I was at their age. I think internet platforms such as Black Bough Poetry’s @TopTweetTuesday have dramatically altered the way that poetry is accessed and read. I really applaud this, and I’d like to thank all those people behind such platforms who put so much time and energy into boosting contemporary poets.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I write for a living as well; I’m a freelance science journalist. This means that there are days when I simply cannot write creatively, no matter how much I might want to. My brain is tired, and my ability to focus has been completely absorbed by writing in a very specific, structured way for my work. So, I’ve learnt to take these days into account and not panic if I don’t write a single creative line in a day. When I am creating something, I’ll write wherever I am – cooking dinner, travelling by train, walking… in fact, I’m more likely to scribble a few lines down whilst I’m in the middle of something else than I am to sit and deliberately focus on trying to write something completely new. When I do sit down and focus, it is to work on ideas that I’ve already had or drafts that I’ve already written, for the most part. With a busy family at the forefront of my life, and elderly parents who often need support, I find that writing a few notes here and there helps me to feel like I’ve created something regularly, no matter how small that something might be. Often it can take months for those lines to be worked into a poem or story; sometimes I lose notes and come back to them afresh after months away. That can be a lovely surprise, finding something that you really like but you’d completely forgotten about. If you get stuck, find that you’ve not written anything in weeks, I find it helps to deliberately take yourself somewhere unusual to sit and write. Even if all you get from the experience is a couple of images, tastes, sounds, smells that you bring away with you. I write in the ruined cottages up the hill from where I live, I’ve written in caves, in churches, whilst I’m out paddleboarding early in the morning. The place doesn’t have to be quiet, either; I find the constant hum of machinery can trigger interesting patterns in my writing. I’m thinking of (old) industrial spaces – a working watermill like the one in Blair Atholl, Scotland, for example, or train stations, or sitting beside working harbours.
5. What subjects motivate you to write?
There are many – and I’m lucky enough to work in a job where new stories and new science cross my desk daily. So many writers are now plugging the immense holes in storytelling, poetry and creative non-fiction relating to women’s health and associated experiences. Childbirth, mental health and (postnatal) depression, chronic illness, menopause; all of these experiences need to be openly discussed, and I admire the many writers who are now embracing these stories. I am also intrigued by people’s entangled relationships with the land and sea, and with heritage and communities. I love geology – I’m a pebble geek and I love learning about how the Earth has been shaped over hundreds of millions of years. I’m an astronomer’s daughter, so the James Webb Space Telescope has really fired my imagination in recent weeks!
I also find psychology and psychotherapy fascinating; more often than not, there is more than one way to read my poetry – one a surface reading, the other intended as a far deeper commentary on a state of being, or the wide stretching influence of trauma or illness, for example. I think being a science writer has broadened my sphere of influence in terms of subject matters – I have been known to branch out into writing science fiction short stories, too.
6. What is your work ethic?
Keeping a very open mind and not panicking if I write nothing at all for weeks! I used to get so frustrated by my lack of ‘content’, or that I hadn’t reached my writing goal for the week. This was until I realised that, for me personally, that kind of structured approach simply doesn’t work. Instead, I’ve begun to see quiet patches as times of absorption, rather than production – days or weeks go past where I mainly observe, read, listen, and feel the world going on around me. And that’s ok! I’ve learnt not to be afraid of my own silences – instead I embrace them, welcome them as a chance for my brain to reset, or to work through ideas. I have a whirlwind going on around me sometimes; I help care for my mother who has complex epilepsy, and I have two (near) teen girls at home. Having said all of this, I do find it immensely helpful to have targets set up every few months or so – I’ll collect together a few submission calls or competitions that I hope to enter, and work towards them. If they have a theme, even better – I tend to write well when someone gives me a prompt to work from. I like the challenge of a specific poetry call; this can bring out surprising ideas and new thoughts / processes that are always interesting to follow.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?
When I was little, I was completely hooked on the natural world and the descriptive detailed imagery of it in books by writers such as Jill Barklem (Brambley Hedge), Kenneth Graham (Wind in the Willows), Tove Jansson (Moomins) and Brian Jacques (Redwall series). My mother had copies of Ted Hughes’ poetry that I used to look through – I didn’t understand them all, but I loved the look of poetry on the page, and the idea that you could write about the natural world in such a pin-sharp, filtered-down way. Someone bought me a hardbacked copy of T.S.Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats when I was around 10 or 11 – and suddenly these characters burst from the page, scampering across my mind with energy and humour. I think all of these writers have filtered through into my writing over the years; certainly the natural world – the sea, shore, geology, astronomy, birds, flora and fauna – all find their way deep into my work.
8. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Oh my, I knew you’d ask me that! Where to begin… Poetry-wise, I’d have to place the American poet Christian Wiman very high on that list. I find his poetry incredibly powerful, his intensity and spirituality are intoxicating. I really admire his perspectives on writing too, his ideas surrounding the art of poetry and the space required to write it well, and how poetry sits within theology – he talks of ‘accidental theology’, works of art (including writing) that hold a strong spiritual pull to them even though they are not intended as religious. Another poet I love is Kathleen Jamie, who writes with such eloquence and poise about the natural world here in Scotland (and beyond) – just stunning. Alice Oswald – in particular her long-form poem Dart – explores that rich space between landscape and people that I am intrigued by. I admire the work of Scots poet Lynn Valentine, with her sparkling turns of phrase; Martin Malone’s Larksong Static held me tightly in its spell; and Ankh Spice’s The Water Engine pulls and tugs with such tides of emotion and weight, it has moved me to tears on several occasions. Prose-wise, I’d have to lead with Ali Smith, A.L. Kennedy, Robin Wall Kimmerer and Rebecca Solnit. Also, I have huge respect for Robert Macfarlane, particularly the absolute powerhouse of a book that is Underland.
9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
Poems are like puzzles. I think of writing as playing ‘games’ with language, and they can be enormously satisfying when they ‘click’ into place (note: I don’t mean games in a flippant way, far from it!). Sometimes the click is instantaneous – I’ve been known to write a poem in ten minutes, on days when one seemingly drops out of the sky into my lap. Other times I’ll spend hours, days or weeks returning to a piece until I figure out how to fit it together. I think of each poem as chain-linked curve of ideas, a complete whole in and of itself. I love it when I can tie the beginning of a poem to the end of a poem with a refrain of some kind, though that doesn’t always lend itself to a piece. I would say trust your intuition on that one – sometimes you want to create a loop, others you might wish to shock or surprise your reader with a twist to the ending. Sometimes I write backwards. If I have a lovely line in mind, instead of using it as an opening line, I’ll put it at the end of a poem and work my way back through an idea, thinking of how I can reach that final line rather than moving forward from it. Poems can be tiny stories, or they can form vignettes or ‘moments’ that stand alone, outwith time (in that, if you’re lucky, they can become timeless and/or ever-present). I simply cannot imagine not writing, whether in my head or on paper. My mind seems to be tapped into it, to feed off it – poetry and language nourish me.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
For me, listening is a huge part of learning to write, not just poetry but any form of writing. Listen to other writers describing their processes, their philosophies about writing, listen to poets’ recitals (ideally in person but podcasts and audio books are great too!). Listen to yourself reading your work aloud – in fact, always read your poems out loud as you’re working on them. Record yourself and play it back; listen to rhythm, rhyme and half-rhyme, verse breaks and breaths, the patterns of consonants and vowel sounds. This is a key part of my writing process; I have many awful recordings of myself using the voice recorder on my phone. No-one else ever gets to hear them, but they are invaluable for me to really tune into and understand my work. If you have a friend with an excellent reading voice, try getting them to record some of your work for you. Find out from them what they found easy or tricky about reading your poetry out loud.
In general, have confidence in what you’re hoping to achieve. Be realistic in terms of setting goals – if the goals have to be small so that you can fit writing in around your job, family, caring commitments or whatever, then so be it. Even little goals achieved can give you a real buzz. If you can find a like-minded little community, either online or in person in the form of a writing group, embrace it. There’s nothing better than creating in a warm, supportive environment.
11.Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
My current project is an art-poetry collaboration with my lifelong friend and mixed media artist Elspeth Knight. Life on Scotland’s east coast is, and always has been, fuelled by liminality – an ever-shifting space infused by tides and weather. In the past, many had to choose a life at sea or a life on or even within the land, a choice between rock or salt – farming or mining; fishing or shipbuilding. The ROCK | SALT project explores the local heritage of South Fife’s coast, exploring work and family relationships, how romantic relationships might weather the storms, and how people build relationships with the land and sea here, both past and present. It’s been brilliant to explore these themes through the mixed mediums of visual art, poetry, sound and texture – we’re hoping there will be something for everyone at our exhibition in the autumn.
The ROCK | SALT exhibition will run Fridays – Sundays from October 28th -Nov 20th 2022 at the Glisk Gallery on the High Street in Burntisland, Fife, Scotland. Follow us on Instagram/Facebook @rocksaltproject to see our work in progress and find out more!
12. How did you decide to the order of the poems in both “Caesura” and “In February”?
For ‘In February’, the order was dictated by the challenge I’d set myself – to respond to Robert Macfarlane’s Word of the Day, which he posted each morning at 7am on Twitter. I had no clue what I’d be faced with each morning in terms of subject / word choice. Most of these were written in ‘real time’, one a day for the month of February 2018, and then I edited them more carefully afterwards. Obviously Rob had no clue what I was doing until several months later, when I contacted him to let him know. Thankfully he was delighted!
The order for ‘Caesura’ required far more thought. I shuffled about 20 poems on the theme of loss and miscarriage around on my study floor for several weeks, pulling out some that wouldn’t quite fit, or those that repeated core thoughts. I eventually figured out how to pull the threads of eight poems together in a kind of ‘collapse & repair’ storyline, with the title poem in the middle acts as a kind of pinned thought – that thought being the pause created by the emptiness of grief and how it can feel like you’re walking through an endlessly repeating landscape, until something ‘wakes’ you.
13. How important is the natural world in both these collections?
I would say it provides the lens through which to explore a multitude of human emotions in my work. Nature has the power to heal, in the most extraordinary ways, and I’ve always been a firm believer in that. The thought of Deep Time is a comfort to me, not something to be overwhelmed by or afraid of. Poems like ‘Footprints’ attempt to capture that, the sense of security I find in knowing that the universe simply stretches out, ad infinitum. My Dad always says that if you’re feeling low, go out in search of a big sky and sit under it for a while – be that day-light or night-light. I see ‘Caesura’ as a search for a big sky; a wide open space in which to shout and scream and watch the pain get caught in the wind or river and pulled away, eventually lessening its hurt.
14. How important is form in these poems?
If I’m honest, form isn’t something I’ve really focused on in my work until very recently. For the poems in ‘In February’, I was simply focused on producing free verse that said something about each WOTD – one or two of them do experiment with form, but it wasn’t something I consciously thought about at that point. I always read my work aloud as I’m working on it, and I work out the best stanza breaks or patterns to each piece from the way it sounds as I read it. ‘Caesura’ is more deliberate in terms of each poem’s structure – the first few are more assured, following precise imagery and creating the sense of someone who had confidence but is slowly losing that ‘frame’ around which they had built their life. ‘Caesura’ itself is the point at which everything breaks apart – this poem was actually written originally as lots of tiny poems: each stanza could theoretically be read in any order in the original experimental piece. I added more of a story to it for this pamphlet, although it is still meant to be read as a pile of broken pieces. ‘Whole to the World’ is deliberately dreamlike and odd – sentences running together bookending the poem, with the strange ‘chattering’ sections representing a disturbed, grief-stricken mind. Then the poems regroup a little towards the end, representing hope in the dark, a glimmer of light in the distance. So yes – form is becoming far more important to me as I continue my progress as a poet, for certain.
15. What appeals to you about imagistic poetry, as opposed to an for example narrative poetry?
I appreciate the challenge of distilling images down to their crisp, pin-sharp best. For me, imagistic poetry is a little like capturing a moment in words as you would aim to capture a moment in a professional photograph – it has that same immediacy. Whether an imagistic poem aims to catch a fleeting or overpowering emotion, or to capture a lived observation in time, that particular poetic movement has a sparkling edge to it that really appeals to me. To think that I am sometimes able to ‘nail’ an imagistic poem gives me a real buzz! This is not to say that I don’t love and enjoy many other forms of poetry – I mentioned Alice Oswald’s Dart earlier, which I think is extraordinary. And I also have a real soft spot for Coleridge and Tennyson, I’d happily drift away into their beautiful long poems.
16. Time is threaded throughout both books, the passage of time, and Deep Time. Why is time significant to you?
This is a really interesting question. I have always had a strong sense of ‘time’ as a multi-layered concept, I think. As a child, I was intrigued by the idea that both the ground beneath my feet and the night sky above my head had an immense depth of time to them – I could sense that the landscape around me had been shaped and had been fundamentally changed over and over again. When my father explained to me that I was looking back in time when I looked up into the night sky, it simultaneously blew my young mind and made absolute sense to me. I often think of landscapes as having multiple ‘asotate’ layers to them, I think of all the rock layers intersecting and diverging and being manipulated and eroded and rebuilt over millions and millions of years. So I guess I’ve always held this ‘concertina-ed’ sense of time in my head, as though I can move in and out of different layers like being inside a pop-up book. Deep Time is not something to be afraid of or over-awed by, it’s a brilliant sparkling fact that can give you courage – that child-like amazement that you’re alive and a part of a tiny moment in history is something to hold onto. I’m not sure if that answers your question, but it’s the best description I can come up with of what goes on in my head – not just when I’m writing, but as as I go about my day-to-day life!
17. I notice Scottish dialect in these poems too. What do you think it gives a poem?
I think it’s vital to keep authentic Scots words and phrasing dancing through all forms of art. With poetry in particular, many Scots words provide a wonderful texture and onomatopoetic touch – words like birl, skirl, drookit and dreich. I often reach for a Scots word if the English equivalent doesn’t quite provide the feel that I’m after. How lucky am I to have access to a whole other language! Writing in Scots also allows me to find new characters, new voices. I do not have a strong Scots accent myself, despite being thoroughly Scottish (I’ll not tell the long story as to why that’s the case) – but I have been soaked in the language all my life and it feels like a second ‘internal’ voice that I can run with when I want to.
18. Throughout your poetry run references to paths and veins and pattern recognition, and the search to find and explore these. Why do think this is so?
I see pathways and route ways and boundary lines in everything, at all different scales – a pebble with a vein of quartz, a beach with rippling tide lines, the animal trackways running through woods… If I’m honest with myself, I probably took most of the first half of my life to find my own path and feel secure in myself – maybe that’s why the feeling of searching and seeking is so prominent in my work.
19. Many poets have combined science and poetry. What do you think your role as a science journalist gives to your writing?
As a science writer, I’ve been trained to be as succinct and precise as possible in my descriptions – this has certainly carried through into my creative writing. I try to be accurate if I’m including detail from scientific themes such as geology or ecology in my poetry, purely because I don’t wish to add to misconceptions or to add ‘embellishments’ that muddle a particular story.
I think the science stories that I cover everyday help maintain my sense of awe and wonder in the world. The breadth of subjects I am asked to write about also helps me stay open-minded and to find new topics that fascinate me. It also helps me make connections and word choices for poetic imagery that might be a little more unusual.
20. How important is the notion of transformation in your poems?
It can be such a joy, such a release, to transform through language into something or someone new or unknown. The world and all living beings in it are in a constant state of flux – mutating and transforming – to me this theme embodies so much of what it is to be human. We all change as we grow, we want to change specific parts of ourselves or the ways we think and how we are perceived. I think putting ‘constants’ (like Deep Time) against this backdrop of change can help us to gain perspective. I loved writing The (Re)Absorption of Wodwo, for example – the idea that a myth, or mythical creature, can surface and be subsumed repeatedly over centuries. How a creature might recognise this of itself, too. I think there is a strong influence of Shakespeare in this poem (‘to sleep, to sleep exquisitely’), a nod to how his faery folk and other characters have reappeared in so many guises over the centuries. And a nod to how he originally took them from folklore, oral traditions and myth, transforming them for the festival of the Midsummer or Twelfth Night stage.
21. Why does the word “twist” wind a thread through “In February”?
I was quite hooked at the time on the threads of coincidence – random chance events happened in quick succession, each linked to the last. I think subconsciously I was looping / twisting all these moments and ideas together in my mind as I wrote. Good spot, I hadn’t noticed! I think all writers have favourite words that keep resurfacing. ‘Silver’ is another one of mine that I have to argue with each time it appears!
22. In “Lost Words” you say you despair at AI’s being only taught the most common words as you fear the richness of language may be lost. How do you preserve the richness of language in your poetry?
I aim to use broad vocabulary as best I can; within my own obsessions with certain words of course! Certainly I am doing this more and more as I practice my writing. I don’t shy away from using scientific terms or Scots words that may not be recognised by every reader. I like the idea that a reader might come away with a new term from a piece that I’ve written.
23. Throughout your work the act of movement, activity, physicality physically, spiritually from one shape or form to another seems integral. Why?
Actually, I think the answer to that question has its roots in some stuff that is quite personal to me. I’ve never had a very good relationship with my physical self – by the time I was 30 I’d already had six operations – so when I was younger it often felt as though my body wasn’t ‘right’ and had failed me in some way. I felt I had to change in order to achieve what I wanted to achieve. I think, perhaps, there’s an element of distrust in physical ability that runs through my poetry – and a search for a version of myself that is stronger, or more capable in some way, comes through in my need to shapeshift. Quite a deep answer that one; this is a very interesting interview!
24. Why is, the sense of touch, of all the senses, so prominent in “In February”?
I find winter to be the most tactile of all the seasons – patterns abound – bare trees, seed pods, splayed roots and frost fingers on every surface. Because I was writing ‘In February’ throughout the coldest month of the Scottish year, it became infused with touch and textures.
25. Once having read “Caesura” and “In February” what do you wish the reader to leave with?
With a strong sense of hope, I hope, certainly with ‘Caesura’. And a sense of how brilliantly detailed the world can be when you look closely. I also hope I’ve introduced my readers to a few new words, or new concepts to mull over.
Thank you for all of your questions – this is my first in-depth interview as a poet, and you’ve really made me think hard about my work and what fuels it!
If you wish to purchase any of Larissa’s book she would like you to DM het on Twitter, or email her via her ammonitesandstars blog website