slant lightIn my thirteenth interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Sarah Westcott about her poetry collection ‘Slant Light’ (Liverpool University Press)…

Animals, flowers and other elements of nature feel like quite a strong theme and thread through this collection. Are there any particular places or other inspiration sources that lie behind these poems?

The natural world in its multiple forms inspired most of the poems in this book. Although a coherent theme of ‘nature’ is not something I was consciously aiming for, I have always been preoccupied with getting close to living things and really looking at them, especially the apparently lowly or insignificant.

There’s a delight for me in engaging with the specificity of things, and later trying to approximate it into words.

I find there is a gulf between observation, which can be a wordless absorption, and description and poetry helps make the leap between them – but words are always a rough approximation of ‘the thing itself’. It’s a paradox really trying to get into the voice of a living thing when all we can do is be human. Les Murray and Alice Oswald are two poets who inspire me and often capture the essence of some animals and plants.

My surroundings are also a strong influence – we live on the edges of suburban south east London – an area crossed with roads and rail – and I’ve found inspiration in beautiful flashes of wildness – a kingfisher, or vigorous cow parsley. There is ancient patch of woodland that I’ve walked through countless times, across all weathers and seasons. The incremental changes each day in this small, quite scruffy patch of wood inspired the poem Spring Wood.

A visit to a grander wood – a grove of ancient giant sequoia trees in the Yosemite National Park in California also set going a small sequence of poems in the book, The Mariposa Trees. The rangers gave each group of trees a name such as Bachelor and the Three Graces and The Faithful Couple and it was irresistible not to anthropomorphise them.

For me, reading, there’s also a beautiful mythical quality to many of the poems. In part, I take that from the subject matter, such as the series of charm poems inspired by Anglo-Saxon texts, but I also think that it’s something that’s in the language of these poems too. How important do you think myth or mythical qualities are – and why?

Thank you. I don’t feel particularly well-informed in myth but there is something enduring deep in the soil and in the natural rhythms and seasons that lives in myth and its stories. I am interested in the places where myth and biology intersect.

The hare, for example, has been a fertility symbol in disparate cultures, as a shape-shifter and even a witch, and is behind a poem in the book.

I have a sequence of charm poems which are loose translations of metrical charms from a time where paganism was still prevalent, alongside nascent Christianity. People had a belief (faith?) in the power of herbs and plants to ward off evil – in the form of demons and diseases – and these metrical charms were meant to be spoken and heard as physical and spiritual cures.

I liked the idea of trying to draw these living myths into a modern register because there is something uncannily prescient about them and their rich language.

So I think myths bind us as humans. There is also something inherently true in their telling – telling something ‘slant’ that has been told many times before and shaped over the centuries. A privilege really to reach back to these loaded words and stories and have a stab in the dark at playing with their music and meanings. Perhaps that is what each re-telling of a myth is and what keeps them alive.

Sarah Westcott - photo by Matthew Pull

Sarah Westcott – photo by Matthew Pull

The collection’s title, ‘Slant Light’, puts me in mind of Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” – and reading the collection, the poems seem to take unusual and striking slants on their subject matter. Was that quotation in mind when you chose the title and are there any other ‘slants, or ‘light’, that come into play for you?

The collection didn’t have an obvious title for a while and when my editor Deryn Rees-Jones suggested the phrase, it seemed apt. Slant light is used in the opening line of the opening poem, Bats. I like the sense of spiritual questing Dickinson’s work may prompt in the reader.

There is also something mysterious and off-key in light that is not direct, but slant – coming in at an angle and reaching unusual places, perhaps.

At best, poetry liberates us from a single, blinkered point of reference – telling the truth but telling it “slant”.

I also wanted to write about environmental peril without being didactic and the best way for me to do that was to write about it obliquely. For example, drawing on the voracious appetite of the snail in ‘for the love of green leaf’ and how that might translate into an OTT poem.

How did the collection come together as a book? Were you writing to a set of themes from the start, or did you find that the natural flow of this collection arose later, as you were picking the poems that you wanted to include?

The natural flow arose later.

I had a mass of poems that I initially had ordered into three sections but it made a lot more sense to pare it down and make the book continuous.

To that end, a lot of poems were taken out leaving hopefully a more coherent whole.

We also tried to order the collection so it ranged in scale from the micro-scopic to the cosmic without being too linear or prescriptive.

I’m very struck by the wonderful use of sound in this collection. I’m wondering how much this comes naturally to you or whether it’s something that you have to work at or craft? And are there any rituals of inspiration, or editing processes and techniques, that you use to help with this?

Thank you! I guess like most poets I love music and sound and I’m drawn to the sounds and textures of words, particularly obsolete or scientific words.

Quite often I play with lines or phrases while I am walking or running in a gentle rhythm and I can let my thinking brain switch off. Mostly it is instinctive but I always run the poems again and again like a spool of tape, hearing their music and trying to ensure there aren’t words that jolt unless that is part of the poem’s design. I like smoothness and flow but maybe that is something I will experiment with disrupting in the future.

What slant on the collection have I forgotten about in my questions so far?

None that I can think of ! But I’ve just found this quote from William Blake, in a letter to Reverend Dr Trusler, written in 1799, which I wondered if I could share here, because it encapsulates something of the impulse behind the poems in Slant Light.

Blake writes: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.

“Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity … and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he sees.”

slant lightWhere can people get hold of a copy of ‘Slant Light’?

From me – sarah.westcott@tiscali.co.uk or from the LUP website below

http://liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/products/73654

It is also available here – http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/slant-light,sarah-westcott-9781781382929 and amazon as well.

Thank you, Sarah, for sharing the inspiration and influences behind the nature, myth and sound in ‘Slant Light’and that thought-provoking quotation.

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