Sarah James

the possibilities of poetry…

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I’m absolutely over the moon that my poem ‘People Scare Me Because’ is shortlisted in the open category of this year’s Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine.The final decisions are announced in May and I’ve had a fun time recording a video reading of the poem for the virtual award ceremony in the second Poems to Live for live-streamed Zoom session which will start at 9pm UK time on Friday, 15 May. Meantime, I’m keeping busy so I don’t have time to get too excited or too nervous about it!

With my editor’s hat on, I also have fingers crossed for two V. Press authors, Diane Simmons and Damhnait Monaghan, whose flash fiction novellas An Inheritance and The Neverlands are both shortlisted in this year’s Saboteur Awards for Best Novella. More on this and how to vote for them here!


Kaleidoscope audio cover

Like a lot of authors, I’ve lost out on work because of the current lockdown. But I do have a new book out – an audiobook recording of me reading the whole of Kaleidoscope is now available on:

Audible using this link;
iTunes in the app store;
Amazon UK on this link; on this link.


A poetryfilm version of my poem Model Child from Vindication (Arachne Press) can be enjoyed below.

The Vindication anthology is available from Arachne Press here.

One of the reasons for making the above film is the Covid-19 lockdown, with traditional book reading and online poetry readings and experiences needing to fill the gap created by people being unable to go out to actual poetry events.

It’s also a time when poems can not only entertain or distract us but potentially help lighten the load and uplift. I was delighted to hear from the fabulous Brenda Read-Brown at Poetry on Loan that she was going to feature my commissioned postcard poem ‘And counting…’ on the Poetry on Loan website front page for this reason. You can read the poem here and it comes with my love and good health wishes to you all.

I’ve also created a poetryfilm of my Guillemot Press anthology poem ‘From Wild Sargasso Seas…” This can be enjoyed along with other eel poems here or by clicking play on the video below.


My poem Doing the School Run with Freud which was shortlisted and won a special mention in the East Riding Festival of Words Poetry Competition 2019 can be read here.
Through Our Letterbox (poem) in Caduceus 102 in March 2020;
In hollowed oak – a short owlish meditation on mothering (CNF flash) on The Blue Nib‘s The Write Life in March 2020;
Hidden histories and Worcester’s Second-hand Store (poems) on Nine Muses poetry on 2 April 2020;
Keeping Guard used as the cover image and published within Door Is A Jar Literary Magazine, Issue 14 Spring 2020 in April 2020, available in paperback here and as an ebook here;
Yin & Yang (photo) in Door Is A Jar Literary Magazine, Issue 14 Spring 2020 in April 2020, available in paperback here and as an ebook here;
About Halving (flash) in Door Is A Jar Literary Magazine, Issue 14 Spring 2020 in April 2020, available in paperback here and as an ebook here;
At White Lake on Spelk in April 2020;
The Nook and the Knack and Our Time (poems) published on Good Dadhood on 5 April 2020;
Apocalypses Don’t Start This Way (poem) published in Capsule Stories‘s special pandemic edition in April 2020, more info and e-editions are available here on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


‘watering the light’ (photo) and ‘still a chance’ (eco-inspired ink-drawing) for Flash Frontier in April;
‘The Darkest Well’ (poem) for Black Bough Poetry, issue 6 in April/May 2020;
‘Strange Orbits’ (poem) for publication on Atrium Poetry on 29 May 2020;
‘Cocktail Dreams’, ‘Uncaught’, ‘Nanna dances’ and ‘Tidemarked’ (poems) for publication in the autumn issue of The High Window;
‘Along our coastline’ (poem) for publication on The Beach Hut in April/May;
‘The day we disappeared’ (flash with a hypertext twist) for Ellipsis on May 4;


Unfortunately, this year’s Hastings Litfest has been cancelled, including the flash fiction competition that I was due to judge. However, I am delighted to be the poetry judge for this year’s Gloucestershire Writers’ Network 2020 Competition, supported by The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival. The theme is ‘My World’ and the deadline is early July 2020. Full details about the competition and how to enter can be found here. Please do follow the instructions carefully, particularly making sure your entry is anonymous.

I’ve had a relaxed but lovely start to 2020, matching the end of 2019. I don’t really believe in resolutions specific to new year. But July 2020 will be ten years since my first collection Into the Yell was published by Circaidy Gregory and at the end of last year, I decided that much my work at V. Press needed to slow enough to give me more space as a person and as a writer. I’ve felt quite introverted and somewhat isolated as a writer over the past few years, partly because of the workload involved with running a press. I love V. Press and the poetry and flash that we publish, so this won’t be stopping, I’m just building in more time for me to get out and see places, enjoy new experiences and meet more people.


I started the year by judging the Against The Grain Poetry Press poetry competition, something which I wouldn’t have had time or space to do in other years as the competition had nearly 600 poems entered. The results and my judge’s report/comments can be found here. (See the end of this blogpost too for news of a flash fiction competition that I’m judging.)

Shepton Mallet reading 20200215_144910 (1)      Shepton Mallet Award 20200215_145736


I’m absolutely stunned and delighted that my poem ‘Quiet Curves’ has won this year’s Shepton Mallet Snowdrop Festival Poetry Competition judged by Jane Draycott. The festival also runs a photography competition, a display of the shortlisted photos and poems, a poetry anthology and an award reading. It was humbling to hear the beautiful poems across the different age ranges and I the stunning quality too of the photos across the different age groups – I can away awed and inspired!

Sarah Leavesley magical profile picI’m absolutely delighted too that my poem ‘Landlords and lodgers’ – inspired by the owls that live at my parents’ converted barn – has won first prize in the Barn Owl Trust Poetry Competition 2019 and been published in the Wildlife Words Volume 6 anthology.

I’ve also enjoyed a trip up north for the East Riding Festival of Words Poetry Competition 2019 prize-giving in Bridlington, where my (humorous) poem ‘Doing the School run with Freud’ won a special mention (top 8). It’s quite a journey from where I live, but gave me a chance to explore York (my first visit to the stunning city) while I was up there. The competition theme was ‘My mind, my thoughts’ and it was great to here the range and slants the winning poems took on this. I don’t often write humorously, so it was also particularly lovely to hear one of the judges, The Philip Larkin Society’s Literary Adviser & Co-Editor of About Larkin James Booth comment on how funny my poem was. I came away with an extra glow from his kind words.

I’m super chuffed too to have had a microfiction, ‘Spinning’, shortlisted in the National Flash Fiction Day 2020 Micro Fiction Competition. National Flash Fiction Day is a fabulous annual day-long celebration of flash and takes place on Saturday, 6 June, 2020.


How to Grow with award croppedI’m also absolutely delighted to have had a new review of How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Poetry Press) by Helena Nelson. The review means a lot because Helen Nelson is someone I particularly admire on numerous counts, as a poet herself, her work as a publisher at HappenStance and also in running the Sphinx/OPOI review site. A snippet from the review can be found below, but I’d really urge people to check out the whole thing and the Sphinx/OPOI site.

“This is a poet who most of the time avoids the first person and slips more readily into second-person mode, the kind of ‘you’ the reader can easily identify with. […] More unusually, words themselves, and their complex sounds (S. A. Leavesley is exceptionally sensitive to sound), become their own metaphor. They are dangerously alive and can be active barriers to communication, especially in the context of love.”

Helena Nelson, Sphinx/OPOI (One Point of Interest), full review here.

The pamphlet is available from the Against The Grain Press shop here!!!

It can also be ordered from the Poetry Book Society here.


Publications include:

A Cacophony of Lovers‘ (flash) in Bending Genres, Dec 2019;
Still the Apple‘ on Words for the Wild, Dec 2019;
Steps‘ and ‘Dead bunny season‘ (poems) on Apex Poetry in Jan 2020;
Sammy‘ (flash) for Fictive Dream on February 16;
Among the Buddleia‘(flash) for Reflex Fiction in February 17;
‘Rarely’ (flash) in the Museum of Walking’s Autumn Colours flash competition anthology chapbook published by Sampson Low – more on the anthology and inspiration behind the winning flashes can be found here and copies of the limited edition anthology can be bought here;
‘A Cacophony of Lovers’ (flash) in the Bending Genres Anthology 2018-2019;
From Poetry to Prose in a Flash‘ article on flash from a poet’s viewpoint on The Blue Nib on March 9;
International Swimming Pool Rules‘ (a hermit crab flash) for Ink Sweat & Tears on March 9;
My Last Angel‘ (poem) on Dear Reader on March 11;
In the leaves‘ (flash) on Mookychick (March 13).

P1100767 'Different kinds of flight or Haunted Beach' at Northcott Mouth

A series of connected articles featuring travel on a smaller scale has also been featured on The Blue Nib. ‘Becoming a wing-thru’ features seven daily pieces about discovering self and nature through cycling. It’s also a series about raising environmental awareness, overcoming depression and poetry appreciation of work by various nature-inspired poets. It includes some of my own accompanying photo-poems. The various parts can be read by following the links below:
Becoming a wing-thru: Part One – Rediscovery;
Becoming a wing-thru: Part 2 – The Landscape’s Languages and Lines;
Becoming a wing-thru: Part 3 – Fences and Memoryscapes;
Becoming a wing-thru: Part 4 – Sound Sounds and Keeping the Quiet;
Becoming a wing-thru: Part 5 – The Art of Endurance;
Becoming a wing-thru: Part 6 – Finding Self & Avoiding Wastage;
Becoming a wing-thru: Part 7 – Finding the Right Words/Terms.

I’ve also had various acceptances brightening the next few months ahead:

‘Hidden histories’ and ‘Worcester’s Second-hand Store’ (poems) for Nine Muses Poetry (April 2);
‘At White Lake’ (flash) for Spelk (April 3);
‘About Halving’ (flash), and ‘Yin & Yang’ and ‘Keeping Guard’ (photos) for Door is a Jar with ‘Keeping Guard’ also selected as the cover art, issue 14, Spring 2020 (April);
‘The Rising Sun’ (poems) for The Poetry Village (April 30)
‘Sudden’ and ‘Not Mercury’ (poems) in Unpsychology, issue 6;
‘Through Our Letterbox’ (poem) in Caduceus 102;
‘At breaking point’ (poem), which won second prize in the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine 2018, is to be included in an anthology of the main prizewinning poems from the first ten years of the Hippocrates Prize. The launch for this takes place at Medical Society of London (11 Chandos St, London, W1G 9EB, nearest tube Oxford Circus) on 25 March from 6-8pm.
Entry cost: £10 including a copy of the anthology and a glass of wine. Tickets (while they last) are available on EventBrite:;
‘The Nook and the Knack’ and ‘Our Time’ (poems) for the Good Dadhood journal;
‘Writing Life’ and ‘More than snapshots’ (poems) and ‘In hollowed oak’ (an ink drawing and photo combination artwork) for Irisi Magazine‘s hope issue later this spring.

So that’s my recent out and about in person, online and on paper, and hoping that 2020 will bring more of all three!


frozenandartsg1200A few years ago, I was delighted to be commissioned to write a poem for the Still Born project, responding to beautiful and moving artwork by Adinda van ’t Klooster (see the image above), who is now running a Crowdfunder campaign to help support a touring exhibition. Pledges to the campaign come with various rewards, including a high quality PDF or a high quality A4 print on lightfast paper version of the poem. The campaign can be found here:


Meanwhile, indoors is and always has been made for reading, and I’m delighted to endorse The Significance of A Dress (Arachne Press) by Emma Lee. A very short snippet of my thoughts about this collection can be found below. You can find a sample poem, more information and order this collection from Arachne Press here.The Significance of A Dress pic

Nothing is unimportant in The Significance of A Dress, where next year is not the future but a question. Each refugee, suffragette or shushed voice and narrative encompassed by the poems is personal and individual, yet simultaneously universal in its reach and significance. In ‘Dismantling The Jungle’, flames form “an echo of a former life”. This vivid collection is full of such flames and echoes. Whether it’s “Each dress hangs from a noose” (‘Bridal Dresses in Beirut’) or “Everything Abdel sees is smeared, despite his glasses” (Stories from The Jungle), Emma Lee’s focus is precise, poised and packs emotional punch. Her evocative imagery is reinforced by taut lines, striking juxtapositions and intimate, moving details. The Significance of A Dress is a beautiful, powerful and haunting collection.


I’m very very delighted to be able to share the news that I’m judging this year’s Hastings Litfest flash fiction competition. The deadline is early June. Full details about the competition and how to enter can be found here. Please do follow the instructions carefully, particularly making sure your entry is anonymous. I’m very much looking forward to reading the entries.


I’m pleased to have been a very small part of the Redditch Borough Poem – a community-written poem that will be launched on Friday 20 March, 2020, 19:30-21:30 in the Palace Theatre Studio in Redditch. The event will be presented by former Birmingham poet laureate Spoz and Tom McCann as part of a ‘Licensed to Rhyme Take Over’. As well as poems from the two presenters and a participatory performance of the Redditch Poem, there’ll be an open mic, giving writers the chance to share their work in a warm and welcoming setting. Tickets are just £5 and can be booked via the Palace website or over the phone at 01527 65203. (NB Before making plans, please do double that any events mentioned on this blog and my website generally are still as mentioned here.)

Happy Christmas & New Year 2019 to 2020

Advent News

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My life is nothing but ironic, but hopefully in this post’s irony lots of hope, for other writers too. The past few months I’ve had disappointments of various kinds with various writing projects, manuscript proposals and commission bids that have hit harder than usual. But also sudden unexpected joyful surprises at the opposite extreme!

One of these is to find out that my poetry chapbook How to Grow Matches from Against the Grain Poetry Press is a finalist in the poetry category of the Eyelands Book Awards 2019 – it’s a truly international list, and I’m both excited and nervous now ahead of the winners announcement on December 20! Meanwhile – sales pitch warning! – if anyone would like a copy of How to Grow Matches it’s available from the press and also at the Poetry Book Society here.

DSC_1122Another is that I’m absolutely delighted that my poem ‘This Beetle-Thing’ has won second prize in the age 26 and over category in the Lichfield Cathedral Poetry Competition! The winning and shortlisted entries (top 10) from each category are on display at the Cathedral until January in a beautiful walk around A2ish size anthology style display. The cathedral Christmas trees and light display is also well worth a visit, including the beautiful installation below. While I was there, I got a video of myself performing the poem, so this may follow at some point… Meanwhile, congratulations to all the poets and big thanks to judge Michael Symmons Roberts, Lichfield Cathedral, Lichfield Poetry Festival, competition organisers and all involved in this wonderful poetry competition, display and event!





In other news, I had one poem, ‘Nanny Prosser’, shortlisted and highly commended, and another poem,’My Still Life’, shortlisted in the Living Well Poetry Competition, – both published in the Living Well Poetry pamphlet.

The past few weeks I’ve also been enjoying contributor copies of various anthologies with some of my poems or flash in:

Pressed Flowers (‘Speaking with Flowers’ and ‘Pressed Beauty’, poems) – available from Black Pear Press here;
Ripening Cherries (‘The last red phone box’, poem) – available from Offa’s Press
The Poetry of Worcestershire (‘No Still Life’ and ‘Salt of the Earth’, poems) – available from Offa’s Press;
Flash Fiction Festival Three (‘Summer Joyrides’, flash) – available from AdHoc Fiction here;
Ellipsis Zine, Six: 2119 (‘In the Days of Automata’, flash) – available from Ellipsis here.

I’ve also had various online publications:

‘Eel, frog and butterfly’ (flash) published on Ellipsis here;
‘Survival’ (flash) published on Spelk here;
‘the glass impressionist’ (poem) in London Grip here (or a printable version here);
‘Remembering Eggshells’ (poem) on Atrium here;
5 pieces of art from my sequence ‘chambers of the heart’ – open-hearted; heartache; ghost traces; hole-hearted; crow-heart surgery – in Bonnie’s Crew here.

I’m delighted to have three photos (‘dreamscape lake’, ‘puddles of blue’ & ‘walking off water’ or ‘beached’) published in Highland Park Poetry’s The Muses’ Gallery 2019 Fall/2020 Winter.

This month sees my last work as The High Window Resident Artist 2019. My last installment of artwork features some thoughts on the possibilities of photo/photo-poem ‘haibun’, some hand-drawn images and a poem-sketch/drawing animated gif, as well as editor David Cooke’s announcement of the journal’s next resident artist. You can read all this here.

The latest issue of The High Window also has my review of Jane Lovell’s stunning pamphlet This Tilting Earth (Seren, 2019). You can read my review here.


Just a quick reminder that I’m judging this year’s Against the Grain Poetry Press poetry competition – DEADLINE END OF THIS MONTH (Dec 2019). You can check out the rules and enter here.

My Against The Grain Poetry Press chapbook How to Grow Matches is available from the press here, the Poetry Book Society, or drop me an email on if you’d like a signed copy posting out.

My life has never been very still, much though I enjoy brief moments of peace when I meditate. The past few months, like the past few years and much of my life has been filled with both low points and highlights. I’m going to focus on the highlights because the disappointments have already had more of time and energy than I’d like! Plus I also have lots of gratitude and thanks to the editors, festival and event organisers who have made all the fabulous things below happen!!!

October started with the National Poetry Day launch of the Poetry on Loan poetry postcards, including my poem ‘And counting…’ The picture below features some of the poetry postcard poems on display in poster-form at Hereford Library for the launch reading.

Poetry on Loan pom postcards 2019 DSC110

My next publication excitement was ‘Stopping for a Coffee on Drury Lane at Dusk’ (poem) published in Domestic Cherry 7. The launch was at The Big Poetry Weekend, Swindon – big thanks to Hilda Sheehan and all for a fun, characterful and memorable evening! I also had a festival reading and publishing panel event. All three were great fun, as was the whole of my time at the festival. The atmosphere and setting (at Richard Jeffries Museum) were magical, friendly and warming. I also got to meet, hear, chat with and pick up pamphlets from some amazing poets, including Julia Webb, Olivia Tuck, Fiona Benson, Michelle Diaz, Alison Brackenbury, Claire Crowther (my fellow reader and panelist) and more! Hats off to all involved, especially Carrie Etter and Helen Dewberry. I’d really recommend these poets and the festival – I came back feeling re-energised and inspired!

20191026_191823 Sarah at Gloucester Poetry Festival 2019

On the festival front, I was really pleased to be a Guest Poet with David Ashbee, Sharon Larkin, Roger Turner and Derek Dohrenat for The Gloucester Poetry Festival’s Echoes event this weekend. My family on my father’s side hail from the Gloucestershire-Wales border and Forest of Dean areas, so it was great to read some of my Gloucestershire poems. The evening was wonderfully wide-ranging and I’ve come home with some fabulous books to read. Big thanks to Ziggy Dicks and all involved in organising the event and festival. (The festival runs until this Thursday, so do check out The Gloucestershire Poetry Society on Facebook for more events!)

I’m also delighted to have had a haibun ‘The last red phone box’ published in Ripening Cherries (Offa’s Press) and my poem ‘The First Secret’ published in Confessions, an anonymous prize anthology judged and edited by Worcestershire Poet Laureate Charley Barnes. I’ve a short poetry sequence ‘Speaking with flowers’ and ‘Pressed Beauty’ forthcoming in the Black Pear Press Pressed Flowers anthology commissioned by Charley Barnes and Polly Stretton. This is being launched at one of my favourite poetry venues, Park’s Cafe in Droitwich, on Wednesday, November 13 – 6.30pm for a 7pm start. I’m looking forward both to reading and catching up with friends I’ve not seen in a while – do join us if you can!

I’ve also have a poem ‘the glass impressionist’ accepted for the next issue of London Grip New Poetry, in December.

On the art and photography front, I was delighted to find my photo ‘Knowledge Decay’ was in the Top Five of the Borderlines Carlisle Book Festival photography competition 2019 for images with a theme of change. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it up to Carlisle in person to see it on display in Tullie House, but the festival team kindly took a picture for me.

Bordelines book festival top 5 photo credit Borderlines Carlisle Book Festival - Copy

Seasonal Adjustment Order‘ (flash fiction) published on Words for the Wild in September.

The Dream Dresser‘ (flash fiction) published on Literally Stories in September.

I’ve also had my micro ‘In the Days of Automata’ accepted for Ellipsis Zine 6: 2119, which is due out soon. Meanwhile, I’m really happy and grateful to have another micro fiction, ‘Summer Joyrides’, taken for the next Flash Fiction Festival anthology.

While I’m writing about this, I also have to give a shout to Kathy Fish for her fabulous fast flash fiction course. I’ve literally just finished this and found the ten day online couse simultaneously challenging, intensive and totally AMAZING!!! To put this in a more concrete context – I’ve more flash fiction drafts from this course than I’d normally manage in 6 months to a year! (The next step for me, of course, is revising, redrafting and then submitting some of the pieces. But I’ve already had one micro-fiction started on the course, ‘A Cacophony of Lovers’, accepted for Bending Genres issue 12, out in December.)

This leads me into another piece of news. I love running V. Press but it inevitably takes a lot of my time and energy, meaning my personal output, submissions and publications often takes second place to press demands. I do need to create myself though, and in particular to write and find new creative challenges, in order to rebuild the energy needed to do everything else. I’m not just an editor or publisher, and one of the things that I’ve realised over the past year in particular is that I do need to be able to make and maintain some kind of space for me as a writer. As part of this, I will be taking a month away from V. Press at the end of next year, for a residency by the Baltic Sea in Latvia. Although that’s still a while off, I’m excited already – and knowing I have that lined up is also revitalising in itself!


I will be judging this year’s Against The Grain Poetry Press poetry competition. You can check out the rules and enter here. (And my Against The Grain Poetry Press chapbook How to Grow Matches is available from the press here. Or drop me an email on if you’d like a signed copy posting out.)

Disappointing Alice cover

In my latest interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Rachel Piercey about her poetry pamphlet Disappointing Alice (HappenStance)…


“Alice was a disappointer
of people she loved and who loved her.”
(‘Deep in the Desert’)

Your pamphlet is called ‘Disappointing Alice’ – a wonderfully evocative yet enigmatic title that immediately makes me want to read the pamphlet. Why Alice? And how do elements of this apply to, or make themselves felt across, these poems?

Thank you! The pamphlet had a few possible titles but now I can’t imagine it being called anything else. Alice in the poem is a kind of nexus for many of the pamphlet’s explorations. She’s caught up in people’s expectations – but then some of those expectations are reasonable. She’s looking for and losing connections. She herself wants more from people than, probably, they can give. She feels abstractly harried; she is anxious. She uses drama and hyperbole to get her point across. Her problems are no doubt amplified by technology, but they are also eternal human concerns, so I enjoyed using a variety of registers to express them.

The name ‘Alice’ can never be free of the associations of Wonderland and I like that. Wonderland Alice has a kind of eternal, fluid symbolism, attached to and detached from the context of the actual book. She exists in so many versions, she is used to sell so many things, but she never quite loses her charm. She’s brave and inquisitive and has very human reactions to events. My Alice benefits from the symbolism of Carroll’s Alice – just by using her name, especially in combination with a disconcerting adventure – even as her sense of self crumbles apart. Maybe there’s also a hint that this could be a new manifestation of Carroll’s Alice, tumbling down an unfamiliar modern rabbit hole.

But equally important was that the name worked, sonically. I had the word ‘arid’ early on, it was exactly the word I wanted to describe being emotionally exhausted, and the name ‘Alice’ chimed so beautifully.

I am interested in role models – the ones we choose and the ones we are given. Alice is failing to find or be someone admirable, but I hope she is relatable, which in turn might make her a funny kind of comforting example. Many of the characters in my poems are at some point in the process of defining themselves against or within a set of symbols and expectations, for better or worse.

“I would scream until my voice
smashed […]”
(‘Glass Slipper’)

This is one of many striking lines that really caught my attention. Could you talk about fairytales and the potential ideals or role models that appear and/or are subverted in this pamphlet?

I like the ‘and/or’! I want to probe these pervasive and harmful ideals – which often relate to the concept of a woman’s proper conduct and therefore ‘marriageability’ – but it’s important to me to honestly represent how seductive I find them, as well. Cinderella has very little agency, like most fairytale ‘heroines’, and I think she’s a terrible role model for young girls, but oh the world she lives in is gorgeous: soft, glittery, romantic. I can’t dismiss that appeal and, for me, any interrogation must acknowledge it. Likewise with the age of chivalry. The women are so passive – but that whole aesthetic, and the idea of courtly love, knights and maidens, tugs on some gold-brocaded part of my imagination. (I can’t be the only one, look at Game of Thrones.) I want to be upfront about my ambivalence.

I also want to be upfront when I am sure of my role models! The pamphlet features two of my heroines, Kate Bush and Amelia Earheart, as well as a poem in praise of some of my favourite women from The Archers, and poems where Eve, Miranda from The Tempest and Anne from Famous Five turn away decisively from the suffocating elements of their lives. Some literary / pop cultural / societal ‘types’ are oppressive, but some are fun to engage and play with. One of the many reasons I adore Kate Bush is that she tries on so many roles (lover, mother, child, witch, ghost, pilot, rocket, soldier…) making them her own and then springing gracefully on to the next.

The cultural allusions in these poems are wide-ranging and always intriguing. Be it Enid Blyton, the Bible or ‘The Archers’, park gardens, the sea or aviation history, each poem takes a striking and unusual ‘slant’ on its subject matter. What are your main sources of inspiration and influences, in this pamphlet, and more generally?

I would find it hard to pinpoint any main sources of inspiration, outside of reading as widely as possible. I was lucky enough to study Latin at A Level, which encouraged my interest in classical literature and etymology, and then my degree was in English Literature – three glorious years of reading a thousand years’ worth of prose and poetry. I find the sheer breadth of contemporary poetry giddily inspiring. There’s a sense of freedom at the moment – I don’t feel bound to write in any particular style, or on any particular theme. The poets I have always gone back to and back to are Mary Oliver, Philip Larkin, Alice Oswald, Kathryn Maris. Recently, I’ve been deeply struck by Tara Bergin, Dorothy Molloy, Melissa Range… Oh, it’s hard to narrow it down. I’m loving Deaf Republic (Ilya Kaminsky) and Flèche (Mary Jean Chan) right now. Reading any collection and watching that poet leap again and again into the mystery is the most inspiring thing of all.

I’ve always got my ears and eyes open – when a concept and a feeling come together and shimmer a bit, I know I’ve got something to work with. Misreadings and mishearings can be productive. That’s how I started ‘Complaint’ – I thought I heard someone say something about gardens writing letters to each other. It was actually nothing of the sort, but I loved the idea, and I’ve always been interested in Georgian era design. I wrote ‘The Sea of Marriageability’ after a stargazing event with some friends – they showed me a map of the moon, and I noticed the Mare Nubium. My Latin is a little hazy now, and my brain went to ‘nubile’ and ‘nuptials’, though the actual meaning is ‘The Sea of Clouds’. I wondered what a ‘Sea of Marriageability’ might look like and wrote to find out. Though now I’m looking up the etymology, it turns out ‘nuptials’ and ‘nubile’ originate from the word ‘clouds’, as in ‘to cover or veil oneself for a bridegroom’. Another poem?!

In another life, I would have liked to study biology, and be working in some way with woodland. I love trees – I made a conscious effort to learn to identify them a few years ago, which has been very rewarding. There is something powerful and connecting about being able to name something. But that raises interesting questions too – why do I find it so important to be able to name something wild and natural? Is it respectful or is it a kind of human imposition or insertion? I am really interested in the interaction between humans and nature: how we conceive of it, adore it, use it up. Thinking about this is more urgent, now, than ever.

Rachel Piercey

Given the title ‘Disappointing Alice’, I want to ask what you feel are the hardest types of disappointment to deal with, in life and in poetry? Also, about the possibilities of disappointing (expectations, demands, impositions…) as a potentially positive and active form of defiance?

Disappointment is a funny one. The word itself is almost fussy, bureaucratic. It means ‘to deprive of a position’ and in a way, when it’s focused outwards, it’s the language of complaint letters. You are disappointed that your train was delayed, or your favourite lipstick is discontinued. But it’s a gut-wrenching emotion when it’s focused inwards, when you’ve disappointed yourself, or someone else being disappointing feels personally directed. Then it’s a polite word for something very painful. I wanted to play with both levels in the Alice poem.

Disappointment in poetry… well, rejections are an obvious one! Sometimes they really get you. But in the sense of day-to-day writing, I get disappointed with my practice when I know I’ve got a good idea but I’m in a hurry to get the poem finished, and so I skim over or allude to the heart of the issue, rather than digging deep and submitting myself to multiple redrafts. I’m trying to work on that.

I think several of the characters in my pamphlet embrace their ability to disappoint tired and damaging stereotypes: Miranda, Eve, Anne from Famous Five, the speaker inspired by Kate Bush to reject the tropes of ‘chaste’, ‘whore’ and ‘witch’. I am proud of the fire in these poems. But then other poems just try to lay disappointment and anxiety bare, without offering solutions – I find reading poems that do this comforting, and I like the idea of offering that perspective to another reader.

At the same time, I’m interested in how certain expectations and responsibilities can anchor and connect us to other people. My poems about pilots and the idiosyncratically supportive women of The Archers probably speak most to that idea. The daily predictability of Susan, Lynda and Kate creates a rounded and reassuring radio world; they are like reliable friends, which I enjoy testing out in an extreme hypothetical situation in the poem. So I hope that Disappointing Alice comes at the notion of disappointment from multiple perspectives.

What haven’t I asked that the pamphlet would absolutely insist that I should question? And what is the answer?

I want to tell you about the peacock in ‘Love’! I really admire the Australian painter Sidney Nolan and I went to an exhibition of his work a few years ago, which included his Ned Kelly series. There was one painting of a policeman being scared off by a peacock – apparently people used to use peacocks as watchdogs, because they could see for up to two miles. I just loved this fact. The Ned Kelly element fell away, but for me this poem exists in the queasily saturated, frenzied world of those paintings. I heartily recommend taking a look.

Disappointing Alice cover

Where can people get hold of a copy of ‘Disappointing Alice’?

If you’d like to buy a copy – and thank you very much! – please visit the HappenStance website: As well as a webshop full of exquisite publications, the website also contains an inspiring and extremely useful blog and a link to the unique One Point of Interest review site. Nell is a wonderful editor and HappenStance is a wonderful press – do consider becoming a supporter, you will receive all sorts of generous goodies in return.

Thank you, Sarah, for your careful readings and insightful questions.

Thank you, Rachel, for these wonderful insights into ‘Disappointing Alice’, your role models, influences and inspiration.

To read more In the Booklight interviews with authors, please click on this link.
My OPOI (One Point of Interest) review of Disappointing Alice can be found on Sphinx here. And my second, complementary, micro-review here.

It’s been a lovely summer – sunshine in between the rain, time with my sons, a few breaks away. As usual, the holidays have quickly become a distant memory. For once though, it’s also been a bright start to the autumn, with two big pieces of news.

The first is being one of five poets shortlisted in the Wigtown Poetry Competition 2019 Alastair Reid Pamphlet Prize. I’ve been a bit despondent about my own work lately – the demands of time, energy, life – so this is really boosting news!

My second is exciting in a different way – I will be judging this year’s Against The Grain Poetry Press poetry competition. The press published my most recent poetry chapbook, How to Grow Matches, in 2018. I’m very excited to be working with them now as a judge, and to reading all the poems that I know are going to stun, move and leave me spoiled for choice in choosing the winners. You can check out the rules and enter here. (And my chapbook How to Grow Matches is available from the press here. Or drop me an email on if you’d like a signed copy posting out.)

Other news that I’m feeling very grateful for:

‘Love as a prose poem’ (poem) published in Bonnie’s Crew issue 4 (page 44) in August 2019.

‘The Mermaid with a 12m Tail’ (poem) published on The Stare’s Nest in August 2019;

‘Stopping for a Coffee on Drury Lane at Dusk’ (poem) published in Domestic Cherry 7 to be launched at The Big Poetry Weekend, Swindon (see below for link to the festival) on Sunday, 6 October, 7:45pm to late.

My The High Window Resident Artist autumn slot has just been published, with four pieces of photographic art created in response to four poems in The High Window. This was great fun to do and I only wish I could have done it for more of the poems – there are so many stunning poems to enjoy in this and previous issues!

I’m also delighted to have poems ‘No Still Life’ and ‘Salt of the Earth’ accepted for the Offa’s Press Poetry of Worcestershire anthology.

I’m similarly over the moon to get a place on one of Kathy Fish’s fast flash (fiction) courses in October. I love running V. Press but it inevitably takes a lot of my time and energy, meaning my personal output, submissions and publications often takes second place to press demands. I need to create myself though, and in particular to write and find new creative challenges, in order to rebuild the energy needed to do everything else. So this course is a well-needed chance to refocus on my own work – even just thinking about it, I feel re-energised!


My short OPOI (One Point of Interest) review for Rachel Piercey’s Disappointing Alice on calls for attention can be enjoyed on Sphinx here.

A second OPOI on the counter-side of calls for attention – responding – can be enjoyed below.

Different Kinds of Attention – responding

Rachel Piercey’s Disappointing Alice (HappenStance) reminds me that giving attention has never seemed more urgent. Also, how unrelenting expectations and a need for attention can become.

In ‘Post-Film’, the main character ‘has the pleasant sense of being watched’. But everything is reduced to a filmic focus. Even washing his hands must be interesting. The girls in his life become part of this angle, rather than individuals. Here ‘the rain | on his face will be the applauding of hands’.

Relying on others in expectations or for self-esteem is risky. In ‘Deep in the Desert’, the main character may evoke Lewis Carrol’s Alice. Her call for attention may sound simple if needy:

‘Alice sent a message re. her total dereliction
of spirit and body in a far-off country,
stripped of wallet and phone.’

But the language also recalls contemporary internet scams that hijack people’s email accounts to ask for money to help friends in an emergency. The demands for attention are unsatisfying all round: ‘They all felt terse and arid | about disappointing Alice’.

This is self-conscious or staged attention. But even paying attention to the present moment isn’t straight forward. In ’Spring Cleaning’, distraction results in wonderful imaginative analogies like ‘I would be frightened | to feed a horse with apples | but I feed the hoover dusty hairballs’. Blinking is inevitable. Yet, when attention shifts to garden delights, it leads to:

‘[…] the tangible rattle
up the hose of something substantial,
which might matter, which might be
something I wouldn’t want to lose,
stuck now in a matted shroud.’

Attention is always a choice that prioritises one thing over another. This leads neatly into Piercey’s editing and crafting. Reading Disappointing Alice, I’m never sure what will come next. And it’s not that I need to pay attention, but that I want to pay attention — because each poem has a striking style and interesting approach. Imagery, metaphors and allusions are reinforced by alliteration, rhythm, rhyme. This attention to detail not only makes me want to read on, but also to read again – to enjoy the lines at every level.


Thursday, 3 October 2019 – Reading/Performance – Hereford Library
The new Poetry on Loan postcards National Poetry Day launch will feature readings/performances from Jeff Phelps, Emma Purshouse, Brenda Read-Brown and Sarah – four of the eight poets whose poems feature on this year’s postcards. Sarah will be sharing her anniversary-themed Poetry on Loan postcard poem and other poems including a selection from plenty-fish and How to Grow Matches.
7pm for a 7.30pm start
Venue: Hereford Library, Broad Street, Hereford HR4 9AU

Saturday, 5 October, 2019 – The Big Poetry Weekend, Swindon – Poetry Publishing Panel & Reading

3-4 p.m. Poets & Publishers: Carrie Etter in conversation with Claire Crowther, Deputy Editor of Long Poem Magazine and Sarah Leavesley, Editor of V. Press. £7.

Claire Crowther has published three full collections from Shearsman and five pamphlets, the latest of which, Knithoard from Happenstance, launched in June 2019. Her first collection was shortlisted for the Aldeburgh Prize. Her poetry has been published in many journals including London Review of Books, Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review, Poetry Wales, and Times Literary Supplement. She writes reviews, teaches creative writing at Oxford University, and was poet in residence at the Royal Mint.

Sarah Leavesley/Sarah James is an award-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer, featured in the Guardian, Financial Times, on the BBC, and in the Blackpool Illuminations. Her work ranges across nature, place, the environment, family, relationships, disability and more. Her latest books are How to Grow Matches (Against the Grain Press) and plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press), both shortlisted in the International Rubery Book Awards. She also runs V. Press, a poetry and flash fiction imprint.

4:30-5.30 p.m. Reading by Claire Crowther and Sarah Leavesley. £7.
Venue: Tent Palace of the Delicious Air at Richard Jefferies Museum, Marlborough Road (corner of Day House Lane), Coate Water, Swindon, SN3 6AA

Full programme:
Tickets (including weekend passes, and day passes at £15):

Kate Garrett WoodlandCoverIn my latest interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Kate Garrett about her poetry pamphlet To Feed My Woodland Bones [A Changeling’s Tale] (Animal Heart Press)…

‘To Feed My Woodland Bones [A Changeling’s Tale]’ is simultaneously bewitchingly ‘other world’ and very human. How much does the I narrator of each poem match and/or differ from you as a daughter, woman, mother and talented poet in the 21st century?

Well, I guess to start with the ‘I’ in the poems is supposed to be taken for an actual changeling; she is me but she isn’t me. It was my way of dealing with many experiences and feelings in my life that I almost couldn’t write about in any other way, the issues I faced and moments I’ve lived are there, the other people involved are there as ‘characters’, but the delivery is otherworldly. And the changeling has some supernatural powers I obviously don’t have – they aren’t overdone, but for example she can quite literally summon a storm, music, and ghosts, as in ‘An elf summons’, that poem was pure fantasy about being able to bring about things I love as comfort whenever I need them.

“As I grew into this world, I found the darkness had its uses:” (‘That merry wanderer of the night’). Could you say a little more about both darkness and its uses, not just in this particular poem but across the pamphlet as a whole?

Well to start with, ‘That merry wanderer of the night’ is about how frightened I was of so many things as a child, everything in the wider human world seemed very loud but also completely incomprehensible (looking back, I know this was my autism, which was of course not widely diagnosed in the 1980s…) – but it’s about how some of the things I was afraid of – particularly the ethereal things of horror films and ghost stories, the possibility of what might be in the woods and dark back yards – simultaneously held my interest, so I grew only to love them and see as part of me, the idea of those things doesn’t scare me a bit now (and I do still believe in ghosts!). In my own life, the darkness is where I learn, and find parts of myself I wasn’t aware of, and reach new levels of empathy with others, and so on. So… in this pamphlet the changeling is facing a lot of darkness, opposition she didn’t ask for, tough times… and in battling those things one by one, she realises she’s actually carrying a lot of light (‘a being in a beam’ as in the last poem, ‘Pixie-led’).

‘To Feed My Woodland Bones [A Changeling’s Tale]’ is a beautiful blending of folklore, strong emotions, magical imagery and striking lines. What were your main sources of inspiration, were the poems all written individually or did you have the overarching pamphlet structure in mind before you started and did the poems’ themes lead to the title or vice versa?

The first poem to be written in this collection was ‘Changeling’ and I wrote it back in 2013! Then in the early summer of 2018 I wrote ‘An elf in awe of her human lover’, and around the same time captioned a photo on facebook as ‘An elf in the witch-garden’, which a poetry friend said should be the title of my next book. I thought well, it might not be the title of a book, but I will write that poem. And I did. Then I wrote ‘An elf turns inside out for the dragon’ for a submissions call about bodies, and from there it became… why not… why not make all of these poems about all of these things, through the eyes of a fictional changeling who is actually me. ‘To feed my woodland bones’ is a line from ‘An elf turns inside out for the dragon’, and I felt it summed up the process, the journey from confused, lost, hurt little faery child trying to navigate the world, to someone who maybe hasn’t managed to fit in, but can at least not worry about it anymore. All my life I’ve been doing all I can to feed my woodland bones – to stay strong, to keep a grasp on who I am in spite of things.

Kate Garrett CollageMaker_20190613_111649080I love the way you use white space and punctuation within these poems; it adds to the sense of poetry working as a spell. In a similar, yet different, way, lines like ‘borrowed bodies dreaming the snagged veil whole’ (‘Glamour’) seem to hint at potential healing possibilities, or at very least of pain transformed into beauty through poetry. What do you think are poetry’s main powers and how do they come into play in ‘To Feed My Woodland Bones [A Changeling’s Tale]’?

Ah thank you! I used strange punctuation and white space – slashes, square brackets instead of parentheses, odd movement between lines, etc – for this very reason (to make magic), I’m so happy you noticed!

I think for me the power of poetry is its immediacy, how a good poem hits you square in the solar plexus. And I don’t necessarily mean it will hit you there painfully, though that is one option – sometimes it’s a soothing feeling, a sense of calm, maybe a laugh, maybe a sense of recognition with your own life – whatever, it makes you feel something, and that rolls into making you think about something new. And that is a small transformation in itself. I never know if any of my own poems will do that, but naturally I hope that for someone, they do. On one hand I wanted to leave readers unsettled with this pamphlet, because the life that led to these poems was unsettled. But I also wondered if others might find solace in it. And some readers have read it and nodded along – they completely get that changeling feeling – and some will perhaps read it and see life in a new way, if they don’t have first-hand experience of feeling they are Other.

What question haven’t I asked that I should have asked, and what’s the answer?

Hmm… maybe: “You reference Shakespeare in two of these poems, and thank him and Puck in your acknowledgements – what influence have they had on you and this book?” I always like a chance to talk about Puck. The poem ‘That merry wanderer of the night’ is of course named after him, because if I could be any fictional character it would be Puck, or Robin Goodfellow – and talking of the light and darkness from earlier, he is a mischievous faery, a trickster type, and a trickster perfectly encompasses that balance. He pranks people, but he also helps people – and he enjoys himself either way. I think my changeling has learned a lot – and could still learn much more– from Puck. And as for Shakespeare, in a more general sense, I think he influences everyone in a thousand different ways (sometimes people don’t even realise he’s influencing them), but I decided to openly thank him in this case.

Kate Garrett WoodlandCoverHow can people get hold of a copy of ‘To Feed My Woodland Bones [A Changeling’s Tale]’?

By visiting the good folks at Animal Heart Press – or contacting me for a copy directly.

Thank you, Kate, for these thought-provoking glimpses into the work and life behind your pamphlet and the transformative power of a good poem, which I definitely felt reading ‘To Feed My Woodland Bones [A Changeling’s Tale]’!

To read more In the Booklight interviews with authors, please click on this link.

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doubled poppy with gold watch faded with words but no weblink

Ivor Gurney’s ‘After-Glow’

My role as Ledbury Poetry Festival Guest Editor for Versopolis included interviewing Sandeep Parmar about Difficulty, Diversity and Responsibility, and commissioning: ‘The Hills Are Alive‘ an eco-poetry piece by Ledbury Poetry Festival Troubadour of the Hills for Ledbury Poetry Festival Jean Atkin; a review by Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critic Jade Cuttle; and ‘Memories, Moments & Mingled Space‘ by Margaret Adkins. My editorial ‘Community, Conflict and Compassion – with a few confessions!’ can be read here.

I’m also delighted to have my poem ‘The Disappearing River, Stream, Trickle’ (with an audio recording too) published at the end of the beautiful Streams strand on Words for the Wild in July 2019.

‘Wet Weekend’ published in The Cotton Grass Appreciation Society (Maytree Press) in August 2019, copies available here.

‘Love like glass’ (syllabic sonnet) published in Cupid’s Arrow (Hedgehog Poetry Press Stickleback) in July 2019.

Other news includes ‘The Mermaid with a 12m Tail’ (poem) to be published on The Stare’s Nest tomorrow (Aug 12), a flash ‘The Dream Dresser’ accepted for Literally Stories in September, a haibun taken for the Offa’s Press ‘Japanese’ anthology to be published in October, five pieces from my photographic sequence ‘chambers of the heart’ accepted for Bonnie’s Crew issue 6 in December, ‘Still the Apple’ for the ‘fruit’ themed strand on Words for the Wild in December.


I’m delighted to have a review of Sophie Essex’s Some Pink Star up on The Poetry Shed here.

My review of Jane Lovell’s This Tilting Earth (Seren Books) is also forthcoming on The High Window.

If you scroll down to my previous blogpost, there’s my In the Booklight interview with Sue Burge about her collection In the Kingdom of Shadows, which also includes some micro-review of the poems.

Later this month (Aug 23), I also have an In the Booklight interview and micro-review piece with Kate Garrett about her chapbook To Feed My Woodland Bones.

In the Kingdom of Shadows coverIn my latest interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Sue Burge about her poetry collection In the Kingdom of Shadows (Live Canon)…

“It all starts here,
among the gravestones,
names like promises…”
(‘The Storyteller’s Journey’)

‘In the Kingdom of Shadows’ flows beautifully from poem to poem, from start to end, with linkings through words and ideas. It also has a sequence (‘A Short History of Birds’) spread across the whole book, and is laid out in four sections. Some of the poems too explicitly reference journeys and trails, such as the beautiful lines, “She breathes a vapour trail of longing | onto each cold, dark pane”(‘Windowgazer’) and “shining a path back | to the wombneck of the harbour” (‘after Alfred Wallis…’). How did the collection start and how did you arrive at this carefully crafted structure and flow across it?

The collection was initially called “Moments of Sleeping and Waking” which is the title of the poem I wrote about staying in Asta Nielsen’s house (she was a famous silent movie star) in Berlin. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of liminality, the spaces between experiences where we wait, sleep, travel. The collection initially had four sections – Bones, Dolls, Stories, Sleeping and Waking. Thanks to my two brilliant mentors, Heidi Williamson and Maura Dooley, it gradually transformed into the current format so it has kept the basic themes of the four sections but they are less rigid so the poems are able to have a more fluid dialogue with each other, calling up the ideas I’m interested in poetically – conjuring liminal spaces, cinematic space, what lies beneath in terms of psycho-geography and past lives, women’s voices, marginalised art, loss, storytelling, the Gothic etc

As the collection title might imply, death is a recurring theme and a beautiful, moving, haunting presence across the collection – as in life. Animals and children also play important roles in many of the poems, which include a taxidermist’s apprentice, dead sheep, broken eggs and the graveyard as:

“We are part
of an underground bestiary,
where worms unfurl,
where earwigs uncurl,
to feast on our untold tales.”
(‘The Storyteller’s Journey’)

What lead you to choose these themes, or did they choose you?

Probably a bit of both! I’m very interested in what shapes us and how childhood events and traumas create an adult but with a child hidden inside (or not so hidden!). I think many of my poems reference this. I walk a great deal and am always struck by the number of dead animals and evidence of predation one sees on country walks. I guess we constantly walk with death, but often don’t acknowledge it. I am fascinated by early, silent films and the idea that everyone on screen in these films is dead, we are seeing living ghosts, shades on screen. I teach a course on Gothic cinema where often the boundaries between life and death are blurred and that has been a big influence. Back in 2016/2017 I was involved in a project with the Poetry School and the Cinema Museum where ten poets wrote responses to the documentary film “Battle of the Somme” which was shot on location in 1916, a quite extraordinary film. It was a huge hit in 1916 as many audience members went to see if they could spot their sons, brothers, lovers, husbands etc for the last time… I find this such a profound and moving thought. I’m honestly not a miserable, doom-ridden person but that kind of experience stays with me and informs my work.

My earlier quotes and questions lead me into thinking about narrative and the use of history and story both explicitly and implicitly in ‘In the Kingdom of Shadows’. Poem titles include ‘A Short History of Birds’, ‘Legends of Suffolk’, ‘Hansel goes to Disneyworld’, ‘The Truth About Happily Ever After’… and elements of personal narrative, witnessing events and stepping into the shoes of historical figures thread through and across the collection. How interconnected are ‘history’ and ‘story’ for you?

Oh very connected! I did an MA at the University of East Anglia called Studies in Fiction and became fascinated with how narratives unfold and how they repeat themselves constantly, there are no new plots under the sun after all. I very much enjoy stepping into the shoes of historical figures and enjoy how poetry allows one to be speculative and imaginative without getting too bogged down in historical fact/accuracy although that should, of course, also inform the work. I did a wonderful workshop at the Foundling Museum with Tammy Yoseloff which led to the poem “Rock-a-bye-baby”. I wrote a sequence (not in the collection) called “What Became of the Prostitute’s Hair” inspired by a Grayson Perry exhibition which had Victorian tapestries sewn with human hair. I’ve also written a poem about Fanny Burney’s mastectomy in the nineteenth century (without anaesthetic). I find it really easy to step into historical shoes, everything they experienced we still experience today. The emotions are the same whichever historical period you choose and I guess that’s where my personal experience and feeling of witnessing comes through and into my characters. I was a town guide in King’s Lynn for many years and, although the buildings were wonderful, what I enjoyed most of all was uncovering the personal stories behind the town, the social history. And fairytales, well, aren’t they just our psychological fears and concerns transformed into stories?

Sue Burge author photoFollowing from the earlier questions, what are your sources of inspiration and influences, both for this particular collection and also in your poetry in general?

Apart from my interest in film, history and narratives such as folk tales and fairytales, I suppose another major source of inspiration would be exhibitions. I devour them! The sequence “A Short History of Birds” in the collection was inspired by a fascinating exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum on birds in art. There were a lot of stuffed birds throughout the displays and I started to look at the idea of taxidermy more closely. It’s yet another example of transformation and the history of taxidermy is bizarre, to say the least! The poem in the collection about the Ibeji dolls of the Yoruba came from my time as a guide at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich which has a strong focus on world art. Travel is another big influence. I don’t do much long-haul travel now but I’ve written a lot about the countries I’ve visited. “Day of the Dead” was inspired by the markets I visited on frequent work trips to Mexico. I’m currently working on my second collection and have a sequence on Carmen (the Bizet opera heroine) – a previous visit to Seville really helped me to capture a sense of heat, street culture and eroticism (I hope!). Probably the biggest influence is reading other poets. I bore all my students with J K Rowling’s three tips to aspiring writers – read, read, read… I think it’s so important to immerse yourself in the genre you write in and beyond. Reading sparks my imagination, makes me look at the world differently, helps me to see how other writers craft their words and how they use structure and form. I also attend as many poetry workshops and courses as I can. They are always so stimulating and it’s great to meet fellow poets and bounce ideas around a community of like-minded people. I love the Poetry School’s on-line courses, particularly now I’m based in North Norfolk. They really help me to stay in touch with new ideas and provide contact with a wide range of poets.

You’re a film lecturer and there’s a filmic quality to many of these poems – they’re very visual and the details included, like film cuts perhaps, feel very carefully crafted, precise, important and sharply focused. The gloves in ‘Marigold’ is just one example. ‘Gothic’ also explicitly evokes film in its striking closing stanza:

“And me, caught in the projector’s dancing beam,
lips parted, wanting it
dark, dark, dark.”

What do you feel are the similarities and differences between poetry and film, both in how they work and the effects and experiences that they can create?

This is a question I’ve been thinking about more and more as I’ve been teaching some poetry courses called “Inspired by Film” where I’ve been using film clips to help participants generate new work.

One big similarity between film and poetry is its careful, deliberate structure. Sometimes a poem can even look like a strip of film on the page with its neat stanzas and stanza breaks. Deciding where to break a stanza or a line, how to create flow between different stanzas or aspects of the poem, where to put cuts so it’s more precise and dramatic – all these are considerations for film-makers too, particularly at the editing stage. I suppose when I say “film” in this context I mean arthouse, independent films which tend to be more challenging and thought-provoking whereas commercial films tend to be more for entertainment, a bit more surface, a bit more Hallmark card in terms of poetry?!

Film uses close ups, long shots, establishing shots and poetry does this very well too – going from the general to the specific and focusing down in almost painful extreme close-ups at times. Poetry is a lens through which we see the world. Christopher Isherwood famously said his way of viewing the world made him like a camera. Poets are close observers and can take you into a self-contained and believable world in just one short poem. I believe reading a poem should be like coming out of a good film, stepping from the dark into the light – not quite believing you aren’t still in that created world, but also with the feeling that there will be an interesting aftertaste for a long time to come and that the viewer/reader would like to see/read the film/poem again and again to discover more layers.

Style is another aspect of film which often comes into poetry. There’s a film called “Russian Ark” which is all in one take, and I’ve noticed recently quite a few poems are being written in just one sentence which is a lovely parallel of the long take, absorbing experience in one elongated in-breath… I’m very interested in experimental film. It’s often fragmented, non-chronological and subverts traditional techniques. For example, David Lynch’s films will often disconnect from the viewer in surprising ways, playing with time, transforming character, inserting another genre. It seems to me to be the poetic equivalent of deciding how to push the boundaries of the page, how to stretch language, break the mould of conventional meaning. The sonnet form is often used by contemporary poets in very experimental ways, broken apart and reconstructed.

Poetry also has a visual, narrative quality which is often very cinematic and can evoke atmosphere well with a few chosen words and images. I hope I evoke the Gothic with my choice of words in “In the Kingdom of Shadows”, and also expressionism with my focus on light and shade. Film noir is a great one to play with, I love creating poetry which has a rainy, gritty, urban feel!

I think film probably has a stronger focus on character and narrative arc than poetry does, poetry evokes the essence of things, conveys emotion, mood and perhaps makes the reader work a little harder than the viewer at times. Overall, both film and poetry are trying to convey something important to the viewer/reader, to communicate meaning in fresh and innovative ways.

“Now I practise daily.
At the local pool I swim
drowsy, dreamy lengths
until the ends of my hair
start to turn green.”

“One morning as I brush my hair
with long, slow, strokes,
Tangled in the greeny gold
are tiny shells, a seagull feather,
a wisp of salty seaweed.”

The two stanzas above from different places in your poem ‘Sirens’ make me think about transformation. This can also be found in other poems in ‘In the Kingdom of Shadows’, from the poem ‘Bonemeal’ to the lighter ‘The Chandelier Competition’. Could you talk about the role and importance of transformation in poems in the collection? And also your thoughts about the transformative nature and powers of poetry itself?

I suppose I’ve always been interested in transformation. I love fairytales and how the hero or heroine is often unaware of their true identity or power. I like the idea that we can all become something else, and indeed we do transform throughout our lives, constantly taking on new roles. But I equally like the idea that we can dream ourselves into something completely other, exploring hidden selves, psychological selves, alternative selves. In poetry we can adopt alter egos and go exploring. Poetry transforms experience, it makes the ordinary extraordinary, makes the reader see something familiar from a fresh perspective. I think poets are alchemists, using words to create a series of transformative moments. Good poetry has the power to transport the reader into different worlds and often has a triggering quality – as we read, we make associations and understand ourselves more deeply. Often if I’m stuck when writing, I’ll read a few poems by other poets from my neverending stack of poetry books. This often sends my mind in different directions and the subconscious triggers mean that I can often juxtapose two ideas I wouldn’t have thought of putting together. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not plagiarism, more like having a discussion with a poetic friend and coming out the other side with fresh eyes.

What question haven’t I asked that I should have asked, and what’s the answer?

Maybe whether The Kingdom of Shadows is typical of my poetry? It is and it isn’t. I quite often try really hard and really consciously not to write in a cinematic way, not to constantly reference films in my head. Of course, that never works! My debut pamphlet, Lumière (Hedgehog Poetry Press), is a celebration of Paris’s cinematic legacy as well as my personal relationship with the city. My new collection focuses on different themes (dance and the AIDS crisis) and a new pamphlet, due out soon, looks at my relationship with the sea and also explores illness. The way I’m tackling these subjects, however, is still very much in my particular voice with undercurrents of my abiding interests, although I think I’m pushing the page more and writing less often in neat stanzas now. For some reason Russian film keeps sneaking into my poems at the moment!

In the Kingdom of Shadows coverHow can people get hold of a copy of ‘In the Kingdom of Shadows’?

You can contact me through my website if you would like a signed copy or you can buy direct from the publishers (Live Canon) at

I’d love to hear what people think of the collection!


Thank you, Sue, for these wonderful insights into ‘In the Kingdom of Shadows’ and the inspirations and influences, filmic qualities and transformations in your work.

To read more In the Booklight interviews with authors, please click on this link.

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