Hannah Linden lives in Devon and is published widely. Her most recent awards are 1st prize in the Cafe Writers Open Poetry Competition 2021 and Highly Commended in the Wales Poetry Award 2021. Her debut pamphlet The Beautiful Open Sky will be published by V. Press 19th Sept 2022 Twitter: @hannahl1n
Her book page is now available on V. Press here: https://vpresspoetry.blogspot.com/p/the-beautiful-open-sky.html?m=1&fbclid=IwAR1fKkRQq5EpRN9-Z-go_orYCKiVZGSt9hGf2Km7NPyOsEQe0APm3ClP6nI
1. How did you decide on the order of the poems in your book?
When I submitted the pamphlet, the basic pattern was the same, the opening and closing poems and most of the last few poems have stayed in the same order. But, after working with my editor at V. Press, Sarah Leavesley, she felt there was a choice to be made about exploring different aspects of motherhood or drawing out a narrative thread and the latter seemed a more accessible way to order the poems. So I changed some of the order to make sure there were no time inconsistencies, for example. There was one poem that had some copyright complications that would slow things down too much, so that one was replaced with another and we had to jiggle with the order to accommodate that one, too.
I was interested in the way ‘mother’ is both a role and a relationship, so I wanted to retain that aspect in the order, too. So The Shed, for example, explores the way ‘Mother’ is a term that children use when an emotional distance has been created (as they observe a mother who is struggling). This poem, though it ‘feels’ like it could be in the first half of the book, is a reminder that there isn’t a perfect ‘mother’. Being an ill-prepared child-mother or finding oneself in difficult circumstances, eg a marital breakup and its aftermath, can potentially derail a parent/child relationship. If The Shed had been in the earlier part of the pamphlet, it could have suggested a simplistic judgment to which I wanted to add some balance.
I also wanted the voice to change as the pamphlet progressed. The first poems are in the voice of the child of a child-mother (narrating from a distance), who then moves on to narrate her own experience of being a mother. By The Shed, she is saying what she thinks her children may be feeling and then she lets them start to speak for themselves whilst navigating the role of a single parent. As her children mature, the mother starts to relate to them more as independent people and, in the last poem, the adult daughter herself is speaking in the poem’s title as the mother comes to terms with letting go.
Like all poems, they speak to each other and, if there were in a different context, they would explore different dynamics and have a different conversation. Some of them, for example, are possibly in my collection Wolf Daughter which explores a father’s suicide where they would have different connotations. Some could be part of an exploration in a very different context and speak in the voice of a different ‘character’, too. Mindstrap, for example, is a voice that I’m sure many people brought up in the North of England, during a time when a leather strap was used as corporal punishment in schools, would recognise. How we pick up voices that then speak through us, interests me a great deal, especially when we import them into our closest relationships.
2. When and why did you start writing poetry?
It’s more how did I ever think I could write poetry?
I’m from a working class background. That means different things to different people: in my case, I was born into a Northern cotton mill town slum which was demolished when I was seven. Before then, we shared an outside toilet between three houses/families and had a tin bath. We knew other working class people had bathrooms but we were very poor! We didn’t have many books at home except Sunday School prizes and no poetry apart from at school. My nan, though, like many working class grandmas, could recite reams of Shakespeare and classic poets that she learnt by rote when she was at school!
But it didn’t seem like something one of us could write or think of as ‘ours’ until I, as a teenager, got drunk for the first time, at a party. I was very teary and overwhelmed about life and the host’s 80 year old father took me aside and read me Eliot’s The Wasteland. I didn’t understand a word but I was hooked. I understood the feeling he was communicating by some kind of osmosis and I wanted to understand how to do that kind of alchemy. I started writing poems on paper bags, during my Saturday supermarket job whilst other till-workers told people to come to their till instead because ‘can’t you see the poet is writing!’ They never saw a word I wrote but they cheered me on anyway and covered for me if a supervisor appeared. One of my teachers encouraged me to enter some of those poems into the creative writing addition to A Level English and those were entered into a prize which I won! But another teacher I admired said I was not a poet but a prose writer and I believed her.
As the first person in my family to do it, I went to university, I felt in awe of all writers, out of my depth and that I was kidding myself to think I could be ‘one of them’. I gave up until I was in my early 30s, when I’d moved from the North to Devon and I was lonely. I looked into Adult Education classes locally and the only one I felt drawn to was a poetry class. I joined and started writing again but the teacher told me that I wasn’t really a poet but someone who wrote puzzles and her voice was louder in my head than the small group of poets I’d joined to workshop and perform poems. So I went back to writing a novel. Around the same time, a random man I met in a pub asked what I did for fun and when I said ‘writing’, asked why I thought I’d have anything to say that anyone would want to hear? I thought deeply about that and couldn’t answer the question and felt paralysed by it.
Then I had children: for fourteen years I didn’t write anything or read poetry at all – until a random meeting at Sidmouth Folk Festival between my son and a boy who wanted to duel light sabres. Whilst they played, I talked to his dad who was Mike Sims, who had just started a job with the Poetry Society (I had no idea what that was!). He asked me to send him some of the poems I’d written. He was encouraging and suggested I write new ones. So someone thought I had something worth saying and, of course, everyone does (such a simple point but it took a long time for me to really accept this!) Meanwhile, this niggling disquiet in me, an underlying irritation or itch I’d had for years, eased! For a year we exchanged poems and then I joined Simon Williams’ Poem a Day group online, which led to the 52 project: a year-long intensive online workshop. The people in that group didn’t know I was a beginner and treated my poetry seriously. I didn’t know how established and respected many of these poets were (if I had known I would never have dared to share my work with them!). I forged deep friendships with many of them and they have sustained me through so much.
As I started writing regularly, the work helped me access feelings that were buried under depression and dissociation. I managed to learn how to write myself out of a damaging marriage and to learn how to transform trauma and everyday observations into art. That wasn’t something I’d expected poetry could do. I think the 80 year old man at that party was trying to show me this when I was a teenager but I didn’t know how to understand it at the time. I didn’t know that writing and reading poetry was how we learn to bear and celebrate life and how to share deeply with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences across time and space. Once I stopped trying to ‘do’ poetry and instead, focused on how to get out of the way of it coming through me, I realised that I’d always been around poetry. When I was little, the kids around me made up (and passed on) hundreds of old and new skipping game chants; people around me sang lyrics and old ballads; teachers read nursery rhymes and Edward Lear poems to us. My mum wrote a poem for each of us kids in our autograph books, as did lots of our friends. My dad invented versions of Red Riding Hood with a different coloured cape in crazily rhyming stories. It just took me many years to recognise that mine was a poetic tradition too and I had a place in it and that I could meld all of that together with poems from the canon, into my own work.
3. What is your daily writing routine?
I don’t have a routine. I’ve tried it and then I feel I have to ‘write poetry’ which leads to horrible results! It’s much more organic than that.
During April and September, I join Simon Williams’ Poem A Day group (PAD) and then I write daily (often more than one poem each day). I go with the flow: read drafts other people are posting, read published poems, look at prompts people have shared ….and wait for a subtle itch which tells me I have something (which often comes in the middle of reading a line and stops me instantly). Then I open a word document and start writing.
I have no idea what I’m going to write, where it’s going, or when it is finished until it is there. I let myself be distracted too… I look up words to see if secondary definitions add texture, I answer messages and emails, I research topics, I talk to my family etc. When I come back to the poem, the next line is just there (I let my ‘backbrain’ do the work whilst I’ve been distracting the fact-finding ‘frontbrain’). Sometimes, I write uninterrupted too… if I’ve managed to get myself into a trance-like stillness. But some of my best poems were written whilst distracted and with no conscious awareness of what I’d written until I looked at it later to tidy it up. I often write very quickly, after idly thinking about getting around to it for hours whilst doing other busy-work instead.
If I can’t write anything more, I stop. If I’m stuck completely (usually because the poets who most inspire me haven’t posted anything), I trawl old notebooks or a notes file and see if there’s something I abandoned for which I can now sense the next line or stanza reorganisation etc. Or I’ll figure out where an old poem lost impetus or pick the one good image or line and start again from there. I often leave poems in a huge word file or in randomly organised books and forget about them for awhile, so there’s always something to re-discover and develop. Or I use Robert Peake’s poetry writing prompts random word generator to see what interesting contrasts there are between the words if I can pop one into a poem.
I don’t work at a particular time of day and during those PAD months, I like the pressure if I have not written something and midnight is approaching… I’ll get poems I don’t expect then that come out of nowhere. Or, if I’ve posted a poem and it’s not great, that pushes me to write another one. I like the feeling of being with a group of friends who are rapping on each others’ work and urging each other on. My poems are usually nothing like the poems that have inspired me but they have somehow unlocked something.
Outside April and September, it varies a lot. Sometimes I write often, other times, I don’t. I’ve no idea why. Whilst doing monthly submissions, I look at poems in my ‘poems to submit’ file and my recent poems file and edit some of them. When they come back declined, I edit them again and put them back into the submit file. When I wake up in the middle of the night with a line in my head or a solution to a poem problem I jot it down. For editing, I need to concentrate without distractions. But it’s still spontaneous and random and chaotic.
I know I ‘should’ be more organised and structured… but what I do, works for me. I’m prolific. I read early drafts with a poet friend regularly and that helps me to hear which ones to work on first. I have far more poems than I’ll ever be able to finish.
Which is perhaps why I’ve slowed down recently: I haven’t written a lot that is new, outside of PAD, since last December. I’ve been working on editing A Beautiful Open Sky and compiling other pamphlets and working on my collection. I’ve been reading a lot of online journals and catching up on reading collections and magazines that friends have passed on to me.
Also, I did ModPo last autumn (a free online 10 week course in American Poetry run by the University of Pennsylvania). It was very immersive, thought-provoking and unsettling so I think I might be re-inventing my poetry practice in my backbrain. Whenever that happens, I trust the process and don’t worry too much about fallow time.
4. What is the significance of the birds and nests throughout your book?
Years ago, whilst watching Northern Exposure (which was based in Alaska), I came across the ‘shamanic’ idea that people who talk too much are really birds who talk to ground themselves (with both positive and negative consequences). I don’t know how to communicate what a profound effect that had on me — the use of a such a simple but powerful metaphor, or system of understanding, to express something that had deep resonance with me and became part of the window through which I looked at the/my world.
I’ve worked a lot with bird metaphor, and how that resonates with other animal metaphors, as a way to explore experiences which can lead to dissociation and feelings of ‘otherness’. My in-progress debut collection is called Wolf Daughter. It explores a relationship with a father lost to suicide. There, the pull to be a bird is in conflict with the feelings of wanting to honour a father by being a wolf. I’ve also written a series of poems using birds as one way to explore the escape from domestic abuse.
One of my earliest deep connections was with a baby blackbird that had a damaged wing. As a family, we nursed it back to health. The bird visited us regularly and continued to do so, even when we moved to a new house over 8 miles away. How did it know where we’d moved? To be so honoured has stayed with me as an unexpected blessing.
In this pamphlet, the ‘beautiful open sky’ is a way of trying to see the world when a series of situations are weighing you down, oppressing or terrifying you. Different birds populate the book and its landscape. The first is a chicken leg that is being eaten by a mother who is stealing her child’s ‘dream coat’. Her child, in the next poem, makes the decision to try to keep a blackbird quiet so she can carry her song with her into a world where individuality is discouraged. Later, an eagle is evoked to ‘rip the lies open’ and be ready for the ‘open skies of first light’.
Re-visioning motherhood when you have had a difficult childhood yourself, inevitably brings the difficult patterns along with it. In the later part of the pamphlet, there is a poem called Bird where the grandchild of that first mother is having to deal with ‘the cough-up of bones/ and dismantled teeth’. In Fear of the Sky, the daughter-mother is helping her son come to terms with his difficult emotions and looks ‘at birds moving in flocks, catching the last light of the day,/ the silver & gold play of their wings’. Here, birds are free and catching the beauty of the day. The pamphlet closes with a poem where owls ‘call across the valley, hunt/ and flirt with each other’.
I wanted to explore the variety of bird species and activity that we can hold close to ourselves as inspiration and possible pathways out of a closing down of imagination that can be the result of early trauma.
It’s always hard to know how to encapsulate the complexities of psychological struggles and I think the precariousness of a bird’s nest is a good way to communicate the experience of learning how to be a mother yourself, especially when you haven’t been taught how to build a safe home by your own mother. Home seems such a stable and secure word compared to a nest and so it had the emotional resonance I wanted to convey: both its exposure to external influences/weather; and that it has to be re-built over and over again, in response to damage (being in unsuitable tree/family/marriage) and external threats (eg predators like unexpected tigers, for example!).
5. How important is the act of listening in your book?
There are lots of messages from people and from the wider world, in the poems. Identifying which you should listen to is part of the journey in the book: an exploration of the stories being told to you; the ones you tell yourself; and especially the ones you tell children and how we hear their responses (and do we facilitate or prevent them from telling their own stories, too?).
Alice Oswald once wrote that you should listen to the small, inner voice when you are writing and editing poetry because it is always truthful and will tell you when something isn’t right. I find that advice very useful, as a poet, generally, but especially if you are navigating a healing journey. The book shares the struggle of learning how to use active listening as a form of self-invention.
Lots of poems in the book explore listening and not listening; and how silence can be used coercively or as an act of acceptance (the book ends with an act of letting go into listening to an empty house).
Poetry always encourages a listening to the sonic echoes, like internal rhyme, alliteration and assonance etc that form complex connections within and across poems. My two children are both musicians so the sounds of their practice sessions come into the poems, just as they are often the background landscape whilst I’m writing and editing. I was a drummer when I was younger, and I’m slowly going deaf, losing the ability to hear certain pitches. But my inner landscape is full of sound memory echoes.
There are lots of poems in the book where inner psychological process and observation are expressed as if they were a sound eg ‘the ripping shriek of morning’. One of the ways I learn about how I feel or how a character within a poem experiences something, is to observe what sound words I’ve chosen. I play around with those a lot until I feel they have the right emotional harmonic resonance. When you haven’t got music to accompany poems, you have to work at the musicality of the poem – the refrains, dissonance, rise and falls, just like you find in a piece of music. When it works, the tensions of the work find some kind of resolution or deliberate non-resolution. So I tried to listen for that when I was putting the book together and my editor was really good at picking up things I’d missed.
6. Why did you want include references to fairy tales and nursery rhymes in your poems?
I’d turn that question on its head: where there is a seam of common cultural identification, why wouldn’t a poet long to draw from it? For me, the common denominator in a culture is the fairy tales and nursery rhymes we hear as children at home, at school and dramatised through video games and TV. When you have a difficult childhood, sharing these are rare moments of stability and connection within your family and with the outside world. They are connotation rich and immediately accessible whatever your class origin.
As someone from a working class background (and as a woman, too), I’ve noticed a kind of hierarchy around which old stories are seen as clichéd or limited and which are seen as infinitely rich sources across all art forms. So, part of my decision to allow fairy tales and nursery rhymes into my poetry is also political.
I took a course in romance, ballad and fairy tale as part of my degree and I was fascinated by the way an oral tradition keeps a story alive whilst also offering slight individual twists and additions with each new narrator. This was likened to the way a flock of birds operate… each bird takes turns to lead the flock until another suggests a new direction which the flock will choose to follow or not – in which case, the not-followed bird will rejoin the direction of the flock. It looks like the flock is in synch but actually it’s constantly improvising. Fairy tales and nursery rhymes are like that too and people are always re-engaging with and re-creating them in a way that feels open to everyone.
When I was a child, my escape was into these tales and rhymes. They were how I made sense of very difficult emotions that I didn’t know how to name, eg how to navigate feeling ugly, lonely or powerless. Not to get into Wolf Daughter too much (as it’s a different book and not published yet) but exploring Red Riding Hood as a motif for suicidal ideation, was very helpful for me in processing my father’s death, for example. I’ve allowed myself to sink much deeper into that kind of landscape in that book than I have in this pamphlet, where fairy tales references are restricted to a couple of poems and I’ve also referenced a couple of modern children’s books.
When you have your own children you’re brought into immediate contact with old tales on a daily basis, far more potently than bible stories (in our mostly secular culture). They’re more familiar than Greek myths etc too which seemed, to me growing up, to be more associated with people from a more privileged background (though Percy Jackson, Marvel films and video game landscapes are making those more relevant for Millennials/Gen Z, so are becoming more widely popular as source material for art as a consequence).
In the pamphlet, I also directly challenge the definition of ‘witch’. The oppression of women during the witch hunts, as a felt history, is still very much alive in many people, who reconfigure it into different forms of oppression and resistance. Parents find fairy tales and nursery rhymes so essential that, almost universally, they pass them on to their children so it feels important to unpack what we are communicating. Many people are researching and discussing their findings through Tumblr and TikTok, for example (just as film-makers are suggesting new directions in fairy tales, too). I think a poet can contribute to this in a unique way because we are condensing complex societal movements into a form that can be held like mantras or battle cries. For me, that can be very empowering.
7. Throughout the book are lots of references to mouths, swallowing and eating. What is the intention behind this?
I was often hungry as a child. Food is such an essential element of mothering and I wanted to incorporate that into the ‘home’ of the pamphlet. In the opening poem there are references to vinegar and ‘sherbets/ dipped bitter with liquorice’ and the pamphlet explores those acid, sweet and bitter tastes that are offered by a child-mother in their crudest form. How someone (or something) is fed is contrasted throughout the pamphlet and whether it satisfies a need or not.
Food is seen as a tool for manipulating, testing, abusing, placating, nurturing, healing, understanding and revisualising how to live a good life. Some of the poems show how horrific it is when someone is forced to swallow something they know isn’t food (sand in this case). Other poems are more playful: ‘Mummy Elephant of the Big Bang shooting cherry stones out/of her trunk’ where food is used to teach a child about space and time. Or: ‘outside children’s stories,/ who keeps a regular stockpile of tiger food?’ as a way of diverting attention away from external threats.
Mouths are open because they are hungry, terrified or singing. So mouths can be like doors: they are ‘sewn shut’ to stop someone fulfilling their potential. Finding ways to unpick this and sing again is as important as learning how to eat healthily. The pamphlet is looking at what we internalise: what feeds us, how what we swallow limits us or enables us to heal and grow: how we take the ‘trimmings’ of a damaged life and turn it into ‘a stew/to suit every one’.
8. Why did you call your book “The Beautiful Open Sky”?
It’s a quote from one of the poems in the pamphlet, The Whole Family Climbs Aboard the Wonky Future Machine, which is about how scary it is being a single mother but how you have to, rather than focusing on possible disasters, think of the beautiful open sky. I did consider calling the pamphlet the title of that poem because it’s unusual but I decided it would ill-prepare someone for the earlier poems which are so emotionally raw and challenging. But I wanted to let the reader know that when you’re down, you can look up, even if briefly, and the beautiful open sky is right above you, even if it’s scary sometimes (there’s a later poem called Fear of the Sky). The title is a signal and a promise that there is light at the end of the book.
9. How important is form in your writing?
I don’t work within traditional forms very often but there’s a terzanelle in this pamphlet. It’s about breaking patterns, so the formal aspect is tongue-in-cheek. There’s also an informal sonnet: it’s about not knowing what you’re doing as a mother (and failing to meet expectations) so the form is a nod to the idea of an imperfect love poem.
My concern with form is usually more about balance in poems, so I try a lot of different stanza patterns until I find one that feels balanced. Mostly, I’m working with carefully considered line breaks. I like to think of a line as an entity so that it can take on secondary meanings if viewed independently. So the last word may feed back to the beginning of the line, for example. This is true for where stanza breaks fall too. I find end rhymes restrict playing with this, so, if I use rhyme it tends to be internal or slant.
I like to think of poems as sculptural so that there are connections within and across stanzas both in terms of meaning and as a visual experience. For example, one of the poems has long lines interspersed with short lines as a way of mimicking a juddering vehicle, lurching forwards.
I often, also, look up secondary definitions of words which can then feed into the texturing of a poem on a meaning level, but also, visually.
I’ve written a lot of poems that are more experimental, but, for this pamphlet, the stanza forms I’ve used (couplets, tercets, quatrains etc) seemed more appropriate for what I was trying to express here.
10. Houses and sheds become their own characters in your work. What did you want to convey through this?
Back to when I seven: my whole neighbourhood was designated as a slum and targeted for demolition: about one square mile of houses where my ancestors had lived for about 300 years. We were one of the last families to leave and so, with other children, we played inside these houses as they were reduced to skeletons. We threw ropes up to the roof rafters and swung across the rubble of ceilings. We foraged among the scraps that people had left behind. It felt like these houses were dying and they each felt like they died differently. It mirrored what was happening to the people inside. My parents’ marriage was falling apart and we left Dad behind when Mum moved us into my Nan’s house. So I didn’t see what happened to my house and it carried on living in my imagination. When we moved back to a street close by, the whole neighbourhood had been grassed over but, for years, the paving stones where we’d played marbles remained, so I could work out where my house had been. All the people were scattered and most of them I never saw again.
As everyone there had been Auntie or Uncle to us as children, I didn’t know which I was actually a blood relative; and as my parents were only briefly on and off until his death five years later, I lost my community and my family history too.
In the pamphlet, the ghost of that experience is still there. People and houses are interconnected and they play a part in the fabric of family: ‘one in four children/ is bound to be the insulation in the loft’; ‘there’s a blizzard of broken promises// to shovel into the shed’. But houses are deceptive and vulnerable like the gingerbread house in The Cottage in the Wood. The daughter-mother struggles to find a house that she can fit into as her child self overwhelms her. She’s more comfortable in a shed full of shadows where she retreats when it’s impossible to keep the world at bay. But, even there, her children observe that she’s opening and shutting the doors repeatedly. It takes until the last poem for her to find some kind of peace with how she interacts with the breathing of a house as the weather warms and cools its bones.
My dad was a builder. The last time I saw him, two days before his death, he showed me the plans for the houses he was working on. He was very upset by new identikit housing that he describes as little boxes for caged animals. He said no two houses should ever be the same or the people who live in them can’t truly be themselves: the house needed a character so they could become friends and that friendship would form the foundations for the family living inside. When you are poor, you have very little control over the way a house is designed and all that work to build suitable housing becomes internal ‘Maybe the pain is the walls moving’ as we work through difficult experiences.
I wanted the pamphlet to find some answer to the feeling the child has in the second poem ‘I wanted her to have that far-flung sky,// the view out of the door of the painting’. Children often see things very clearly but how to enact them can take a lifetime… in this case, how to find an ‘anywhere but here’ based on a view in a painting above the living room fire of a house that is about to be demolished. The child wants this for a fictional character in a painting but the pamphlet, of course, is exploring different kinds of mothering and as that patterning passes through the generations, the questions that need to be answered, if we are fortunate, change. For the granddaughter, her task is different: ‘she should be somewhere else. //It’s too safe for her here now’. For her, the ‘cooling house’ of her mother, with the creaks, the ghosts, the insects, isn’t where she needs to be, now. She is becoming aware of the calls of different species of owls from across the valley.
11. In “Mindstrap” Lancashire dialect becomes a metaphor. Why did you decide to use dialect?
It’s the language of my childhood. When I was growing up, everyone around me spoke in dialect and we had to learn to ‘talk proper’ for school or we’d be incomprehensible to anyone ‘outside’. When I went to university, everyone expected me to lose my accent but that would have felt like a betrayal to me. In my twenties, when I moved to Devon, I lost touch with my roots because my immediate family moved away, too, so I rarely go back. I still have the accent but lots of the dialect I’ve forgotten because I’m not using it. I’m not sure that it still exists in the way it did, back there and then, when it was a tight-knit, insular and stable community. My nan and her contemporaries kept it alive but dialect was already being diluted and changed when I was a teenager.
Every now and again, though, a phase will resurface and I only realise it’s dialect when everyone around me looks confused. Mindstrap emerged when my ex said he’d looked up ‘mard’ in the dictionary and went on to tell me what it meant….! Anyone I meet from the North knows exactly what it means and there’s a visible shudder when I ask if they know the words ‘don’t be mard’? I can’t think of an equivalent phrase that has the same visceral impact on people.
It took me twenty years to finish this poem. It was painful and horrific to re-conjure that aspect of the culture I’m from. The strap was a piece of leather which teachers used when punishing children. In another poem I’ve written using dialect, there’s a girl who has the indentation mark of a stud in her thigh from where the headmaster hit her with his strap. Within that culture, this was normal and parents often used the belt too. I miss a lot about the community spirit where I grew up and I was worried about showing this shadow side but I’m not comfortable, either, with the nostalgic superficiality I so often see when Northern working class culture is portrayed.
I wanted to portray a real person but also let them stand for an aspect of the culture as a whole. So many people then were, in essence, like the character in Mindstrap and everyone was enacting some form of reaction to them! I wanted you to hear them loud and clear, so you could feel how it felt to be a child then. If you can’t hear people speak in their own way, you don’t hear them at all.
I find some of the words and ways of talking are so delicious to use, too. I don’t want to lose them. They’re not just home for me, they’re wonderful and I want to celebrate them. I have others that are so specific, obscure and hard for people to hear, that I’m still trying to find poem homes for them, too.
12. Who of todays writers do you admire, and why?
I admire far too many to list. Many, many writers are producing stunning work that’s innovative, tender, hard-hitting, taboo-breaking, inclusive and/or beautifully expressed. Some poems hit me immediately and some grow on me over time. I don’t have a hierarchy, in my way of thinking, about who is more admirable so it would be misleading to pick out a few of them and leave out the others.
Poetry, especially, writes itself out of an inner need to express something true, necessary, and/or idiosyncratic and when it succeeds, it’s like a small realignment that clicks somewhere deep inside you… as a writer and as a reader. Some of those realignments have become so embedded that they’re part of me now and others are so new I can still feel the wonkiness of them as I try to make sense of what else needs to shift as a result.
I did the free online ModPo course last autumn and a lot of the contemporary American poets I came across for the first time are having that effect on me at the moment. It’s wonderfully disconcerting.
13. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Accept it takes time and you have a lot to learn. Start writing!
Whenever I have an idea, I jot it down. I don’t kid myself that I’ll remember it. I get it down and if more comes, I carry on. I don’t worry about quality at all. I’ve found that if I ignore this, then everything dries up fairly quickly. If I haven’t been writing for awhile, I accept it’ll take a bit for this process to kick in again. It’s as if my writing self is sulking and needs encouragement that I’ll be listening now.
I read a lot – especially current writing. There’s a lot online now so it doesn’t have to cost a lot. I follow a lot of poets on Twitter so that I learn from them what to read and from other things they share. Order them from your library and join the online National Poetry Library for free access (request a PIN by email: email@example.com)
When I’d been writing again for about a couple of years, I realised that I was nowhere near as good and I was miles away from the people whose work I admired. A lot of people give up at that point but I came across something that said you have actually improved enough to be discerning so don’t stop, do the opposite: write like the devil is on your back. Don’t worry about quality as much as quantity; write like a potter who is learning to throw pots; accept that most will be discarded; for fun, copy other people’s styles. You have to write a lot of rubbish to get to the good stuff so the faster you do that, the better.
If you’re lucky enough to be in a poem a day group (or something similar as I was) or a workshopping group, this is where it helps to have support because people can cheer you on and you learn as much from helping them as from them helping you.
There are good books on writing, online prompts, courses (some have bursaries). I read a lot of ideas so that it can all contradict itself in my brain and then I let it settle into things that work for me. I accept that I will carry on learning. Forever!
Be kind to other writers. Accept you’re going to get far, far more rejections that you get acceptances (it really helped when I set a goal of getting 100 rejections a year because it made rejections into a game). Be kind to editors because they are usually unpaid and often have thousands of submissions. Get to know people because the poetry community, especially, is very supportive and inspiring.
14. How important is white space in your writing?
I think a lot about how a poem looks on the page. If a line is longer than the others, for example, then it will draw the eye and so if there is another longer line, there’s an immediate connection between those lines. So white space is acting as a canvas. Within a line, if there’s a white space, like in The Inner Dialogue, then there’s a hole/space/pause which takes on extra resonance and meaning. It slows the reader down, suggests hesitation and signals that there’s more going on below the surface reading of the poem. Leaving a lot of white space around a single word eg ‘eventually’ in The Start of the Fire, adds an implication of hanging in space/time for the inevitable shoe-drop.
If long lines are squeezing out the white space then that might suggest an overflowing of strong emotion, like in Oh Mother; or that there’s a lot to teach someone, like in The Stars Are Cherry Stones That Have Lost Their Colour, where a mother is packing in lots of seemingly unconnected ideas and tying them in with understanding that will soothe a young son’s fears.
You can communicate a lot of the emotional landscape by playing around with white space and it’s often the first thing I start looking at when I edit a poem. Or what I need to change if a poem is almost there but still isn’t working.
15. Once the reader has read the book what do you hope they will leave with?
Gosh that’s a hard question. I hope they make that satisfied poetry sigh because the journey of the book feels healing. Especially for people who’ve had difficult experiences with a parent and/or parenting themselves. If the reader has been blessed in that way, I hope they can empathise more with the friends around them who have been struggling. I hope it feels like a gift.
16. Tell me about writing projects(s) you are involved in at the moment.
I’m currently writing a collaborative poem with three other women: one from the UK, one from Melbourne, Australia and one from Kerala, India who I met through ModPo last autumn. We’re also slowly working on a book together.
I continue the ongoing editing of individual poems, other pamphlets (about climate change; and domestic abuse) and my collection (about the impact of parental suicide on children).
In September, I’ll be joining my Poem a Day group again and jump-starting my writing because I haven’t written many new poems recently and it’s good to re-connect with my support network.
And The Beautiful Open Sky will be published on 19th September so I’ll be promoting that and hoping people will buy it. If anyone wants a signed copy, contact me through Twitter DM: @hannahl1n
The book page is now available on V. Press here: https://vpresspoetry.blogspot.com/p/the-beautiful-open-sky.html?m=1&fbclid=IwAR1fKkRQq5EpRN9-Z-go_orYCKiVZGSt9hGf2Km7NPyOsEQe0APm3ClP6nI