The following pieces is an adaptation of an interview with Sarah on The Wombwell Rainbow in October 2018, with slightly rephrased and more questions, as well as more direct links to others’ work. (The original interview can be viewed here – with big thanks to Paul Brookes for his inspirational questions which encouraged Sarah to further develop this interview.)

plenty-fish with award cover cropped P1080021 Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 14.23.59. with prize

What inspired you to start word-juggling writing poetry?

Feeling intense beauty and emotions with little time (because of work or my children) to really feel or write about them in anything but the briefest snatches.

“To write songs of flight in italics
against grey skies, and dig out

the worms that dirt hides. To carry dawn
home in my silky down, spread light

across fields and town, then balance
stillness in the winter’s stark trees.”

(From ‘Fierce Love’, The Magnetic Diaries, Knives Forks And Spoons Press, 2015, collection highly commended in the Forward Prizes)

How did your childhood get you hooked on poetry?/Who’s to blame for the words that came later?

My mum, church, school. Poetry of one sort or another, with or without the overt music of nursery rhymes or hymns, has always been all around me. William Blake’s work, especially ‘The Tyger’, resonates particularly strongly in my memory from childhood – finding its way out later in some of my poems.

“I am the tiger. Stripes alight, my bright
eyes burn two holes in the night as I blaze
fearful forests with my gaze; search my self
for the slightest trace of symmetry.”

(From ‘Welcome to the Zoo’, Into the Yell, Circaidy Gregory Press, 2010, third prize in International Rubery Book Awards 2011)

But I think I’ve also made a fair few references to T.S. Eliot’s poems too in my own work over the years, as well as many other writers.

Which poets dominate you with their presence or rise from the past to haunt, and/or taunt, you?

My Dead Poets Society has a large, and varied, membership. I’m very aware of presence and influence – it’s there in everything I read (and all I experience). But I wouldn’t describe it as dominating. It’s just there, and it’s natural that it should be there. It can be indirectly useful to me, as in re-reading Ted Hughes’s ‘Thistles’ many times while writing ‘Endurance’ for plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press, 2015), where:

“Stubborn roots draw up strength
from the land’s glacial inheritance…”

Or it can be the spring-board for a more explicitly direct response, as in ‘From His Uncoy Mistress, 2016’, where:

“Your words rise up to meet me
at the most awkward times –
now poised on a crest of surf
ready to claim the perfect wave;
only my own body to hold in balance…”

(From ‘From his Uncoy Mistress, 2016, How to Grow Matches, Against The Grain Press, 2018, shortlisted in International Rubery Book Awards 2018)

These words referred to are actually the ex-lover’s in the narrative. But the poem itself is a response to Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’. Taken on their own, my first two lines above could also apply to the writing influence process. Personally, I tend to find others’ great writing mostly inspires me to try harder, craft better, strive for something differently striking. I guess one particularly slightly daunting figure for me though, as a woman who’s written a lot, but not exclusively, on themes of womanhood, depression and mental illness is Sylvia Plath. In this case, her presence is maybe a counter-force rather than my wanting to follow in her footsteps. Her writing is totally unique. I’d aspire to that level of uniqueness more than Plath’s style.

How do you bring structure to the daily mayhem/chaos of writing?

I don’t have a strict routine as such. There’s always too much to do for the time available, so I have prioritising systems to ease both writing and general workflow. For example, I use personal, competition and submission deadlines to focus me and make me edit. I became a reviewer for Riggwelter to allow me to prioritise some reading above other jobs. I’ve also learned the hard way to listen to my own energy levels and fit different tasks to the right time/mood, rather than battle to get something done immediately when I’m in the wrong frame of mind. What takes five hours at the wrong time can take 5 minutes in the right headspace. This is particularly true for me on a long tiring day when going to bed is likely to mean I can power away first thing the next morning rather than try to get something finished that night, fail and then wake up still exhausted. One thing I have to have in my daily routine is exercise, preferably outdoors, to balance my energy levels, generate ‘feel-good’ hormones, get a sense of greater perspective and also so my subconscious can pace out editing problems in a way that keeps the words in rhythm. I guess this might all reduce down to a guiding writing mantra that’s somewhere between the following:

“With me, without me, the clock’s hands pierce crimson wormholes…”

(From ‘Blue’, Be[yond], Knives Forks And Spoons Press, 2013)

“Rain presses its rhythms into earth skin;
our heartbeats glisten.”

(From ‘Laptop TV’, Hearth, Mothers Milk Books, 2015)

What presses your button when it comes to inspiration?

Intense beauty, emotion or wonder. Trying to understand or capture something important through snapshots in words, such as:

Raindrop on a Red Leaf

His hand cupping a spider, wrist trembling;
a thin branch in the wind,

or the lurch of lungs and stomach when a plane
takes off and the world sinks away,

or the first bead of bone clearly conceived
from that scan’s black smudge.

Suspension of time itself, the moment’s
gasp of skin and lips,

when the whole future balances
on the wet leaves of two tongues.”

(From plenty-fish, Nine Arches Press, 2015, shortlisted in International Rubery Book Awards 2016)

I guess also part of this may be trying to hold onto, or guard against forgetting, important moments in life.

“Ada thinks of Babcia and what it must be
to live with no past, just a flickering now
traced in fragments on an unstill surface.

“Even the things she’d will to forget
are part of her heart’s pulse.”

(Lampshades & Glass Rivers, part XIV, Loughborough University, 2016, Overton Poetry Prize Winner 2015)

The analogy of authors in some ways being like gods in terms of their creations is one that’s been used a lot. But I think authors’ power isn’t without a darker, more devilish, side (as suggested maybe by my quoted lines in answer to the second question above). Also, when I start a new piece of writing, I often feel the inspiration and characters are as much in control of me as vice versa. Control returns to my hands more in the editing stage.

What drives your writing/how do you cope with long work hours?

“I am the cochineal beetle who bleeds
ink willingly. I’d grind my own body
to find the answers; spell them out in red
while the cactus quill spears me as I write.”

(From ‘Welcome to the Zoo’, Into the Yell, Circaidy Gregory Press, 2010, third prize in International Rubery Book Awards 2011)

Work hard, then work harder? Try, try and try again? I’ve been diabetic from the age of 6, so I have a strong striving cycle built into me, with a need to prove something – that I’m not faulty despite the disability, that I won’t be stopped from doing things because of the diabetes… Of course, in reality, my life isn’t the same as someone without diabetes, never could be. But the same is true of lots of conditions and circumstances. Overall, I get satisfaction from a job well done, and I am someone who bores easily, so I like to always be doing something. I’ve learned with age that balance and down-time are an important part of work, both for recharging energy and also because some procrastination gives creativity space to happen, allowing ideas to arise from the subconscious. These days, I try to adapt ‘work hard’ to ‘work smart’, and then smarter!

How does childhood reading influence your work now?

All of the writers and books I’ve ever read have shaped the writer I’ve becomes. I think everything I’ve experienced in life is part of my life and therefore part of me in some way. Traces of this thread through this interview. One author I’ve not mentioned and ought to in terms of my fiction is Jane Austen. As a child, I felt her novels were all very similar in terms of plot but I absolutely loved her free indirect speech style. Her influence is there in many of my third-person flashes, but also my two short companion novellas from Mantle Lane Press: Kaleidoscope (2017) and Always Another Twist (2018).

“Claire stares at her life – a painted brick box, 8ft by 10ft. It’s small but at least it means she can shut out the world, almost pretend she isn’t there. Instead, she’s on a palm-tree beach, the sun on her face, a cocktail in her hand, warmth beneath her bare feet. Or she’s staring out over a clam blue ocean: seals are soft, curved and shiny on the rocks, dolphins arc through the air, spray falls in rainbows. If she’s lucky, there’s a baby in her arms. And if she’s not? Well, she’s still somewhere else, anywhere but here…” (Kaleidoscope)

“Betrayal always has a name, Julie sees that now. This name as familiar as a best friend’s or partner’s. But, once betrayal has a name: Lucy, it also has a face that can be made to cry, a heart that will bleed.
“After discovering what her boss, Lucy, has been up to, Julie’s a cauldron of anger and frustration…” (Always Another Twist)

Which contemporary writers do you admire most?

I tend to admire writing rather than writers, and I don’t hierarch them. I have eclectic reading tastes, so what I like and admire most differs a lot, depending on what reading or writing ‘zone’ I happen to be in at any given time. All my collections have poems written ‘after’ or referencing other writers – across a broad range including contemporary writers like Lyn Hejinian, to name just one. At the moment, I’m finding a lot of writing inspiration and admiration outdoors, in nature and from poets like Lorine Niedecker, Gillian Allnutt, Mark Goodwin

Too Modest

after Lorine Niedecker

Lone ‘plover’:
                    contents shaped
          from marsh mud & Rock banks

That anon can
                    thru which cut
          lines shine

A rhythm river trimmed
                    with reeds,
          silver fish & light slivers

(From plenty-fish, Nine Arches Press, 2015, shortlisted in International Rubery Book Awards 2016)

When I won second prize and a commended in the 2018 Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, it was an even greater delight because Mark Doty and Carol Rumens were judges. I was also very lucky to have Michael Symmons Roberts and Jean Sprackland as portfolio supervisors on my masters – amazing to get feedback and advice from two poets whose work I really admire.

Of course, for every writer I might mention here, there are x others I’d have unintentionally missed off. There’s a lot of great and inspiring poetry out there!

Are you mad? I mean why not knitting, knife-throwing or night walking rather than writing?

Because I can’t not write. Writing doesn’t feel like a conscious choice, more something that’s part of me, so happens whether I want to do it or not. I love the creative and inspiration part of the process but editing is a mixture of delight (when the metalwork starts to gleam) and frustration (when it refuses to shine no matter how hard I polish). On top of language’s inexactness and the almost impossible act of balancing rhythm, sound, imagery, meaning (some compromise somewhere nearly always has to be made), being a published writer comes with other anxieties. These worries include how the work will be received, if my writing actually achieves anything, if I should be doing something more useful…to the point sometimes of:

“I’ve stopped writing poetry because…

my children have eaten all the pens,
the mouse won’t click right,
my smart screen has frozen,
and the keyboard ‘e’ keeeeeps sticking;”

Full poem on Amaryllis Poetry here.

Of course, this circles right back round to the start of my answer. Though I often feel like not writing, it’s so much part of me that however long this feeling may last, I’m more likely to end up writing about this feeling than actually definitively stop writing! And this is another of the infinite number of true answers I could give to this question – a desire to create something of beauty or meaning, even out of pain, maybe especially out of pain.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to become a writer?

Make sure that you’ve got loads of mice and your children don’t eat pens! The problem with advice is that it’s often too generic, not individual. I’d say that for myself I didn’t become a writer, writing has always been in me. In terms of working as a writer or becoming published, there are lots of website, journals and books out there that might help (such as How to be a Poet, Nine Arches Press). I’d also suggest interacting with other readers and writers, find out what’s worked (and not worked) for them, then decide what might work for you.

So what else have the children eaten/your age-nibbled brain cells forgotten?

Everything. Isn’t one of the beautiful things about ageing being able to leave past mistakes behind? Although actually…

The je ne sais quoi of it

It’s almost a kaleidoscoped dream: that year
lazing on the brasserie terrace, breathing after
his Gauloises, Pascal Obispo on the headphones.

But one word: say oui, a non, maybe a peut-être,
and I’m back in Prévert’s ‘Déjeuner du Matin’,
replayed slowly in monochrome footage…”

(From plenty-fish, Nine Arches Press, 2015, shortlisted in International Rubery Book Awards 2016)

Reading Jacques Prévert’s work as a teenager is what actually first got me overtly hooked on poetry, even if the roots of my addiction also go back even further in my subconscious. That Prévert was a screenwriter as well as a poet can be seen in his poems’ imagery. This particular poem can be enjoyed in French here and English here.

Would you unwrite a published poem? How and why?

No. I don’t. I don’t believe in regret, not least because what’s gone is gone. Ironically, much of what we say or write as individuals weighs and counts far less than we might sometimes like to think in terms of the wider world as a whole. Yet, at the same time, one word to one particular person can be the making or breaking of so much else.

“A lunar footprint scratches just surface
dust but lasts for millions of years.

Unlike his fingerprint on that note;
finall thoughts looped from black curves…

I hold onto the words like a moonstone,
harden my fist around his imprint.”

(From plenty-fish, Nine Arches Press, 2015, shortlisted in International Rubery Book Awards 2016)

Plus, I edit and rewrite most of my poems a lot before they’re published – though that’s no guarantee that everyone will like the or that I’ll match it to the right audience or publication.

Can I rewrite me instead – above and beyond the way life constantly remakes who I am? Imagine if Christian Bok’s fabulous experimental Xenotext ‘chemical alphabet’ could be implanted into my DNA/genome to make me create poems in a similar way to his bacterium?! I’m joking, of course, but something like that would be experiment and collaborative work taken another huge leap forwards. And given all the other things that been developed and happened in the world over the past thirty years or so, not as far-fetched as it might at first sound.

What other far-fetched, or nearer-focussed, projects are currently on the skyline?

I’ve two potential poetry collections and two pamphlets that I keep tinkering with now and then but haven’t done anything with yet. I also have a memoir that was longlisted in the New Welsh Writing Awards, which I’m not sure where to go next with. A lot of my time is currently taken up running V. Press poetry and flash fiction imprint though, which means my personal slots of creativity are quite short, so more at the level of individual poems or flashes.

Another thing that I’ve become increasingly interested in in our highly social mediaed world is combining poetry and photography. Two of my own haiku-influenced ‘photo-poems’ can be found below. But I also recently started an online journal to open this up to other writers. In LitWorld2, I combine others’ short poems or 100-word flashes with my photos to create Pic Pocket a Poem or Snap Up a Flash images which can be used by the writer and are shared through Instagram and other social media, as well as on the journal.

a sunlit heartpuddle poem