Tell us about your poems.
My poems are nearly always very personal: they’re usually about my relationships with my friends, boyfriend, and self. Honesty is central to my writing, and I’ve had to accept that whenever I do a reading or submit work to magazines I’ll be giving people a lot of information about myself. The last time I read my work I covered my last break-up, self-esteem problems, my religious background, and my dad issues, in less than ten minutes. I’m envious of people who can write poems about interesting moments in history or imaginary characters, but I don’t feel like I could be genuine when writing about something like that.
I tend to focus quite closely on the body, and lately I’ve been writing a series of poems centred upon specific body parts such as navels, earlobes and hip bones. I’ve also been challenging myself to write about love, which I think is a really difficult topic if you’re trying to write something original and interesting, and on painful personal topics, where it can be difficult not to be melodramatic or to shy around the issues. So it doesn’t look like I’m going to stop shouting about my personal life any time soon…
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing since I was seventeen, so about three and a half years. It feels like a lot longer though – I can’t imagine my life without it. The prominence of poetry in my life is always increasing. I began by scribbling a few things in my journal at school, and didn’t really know why I was writing or think about how I was doing it. Winning a commendation in the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award in 2006 gave me an enormous confidence boost and encouraged me to write more. Now I’m constantly writing and reading, attending poetry readings, and sharing my work.
Do you have any publications to your name (apart from this one)? What’s the next stage for your work?
I’ve been published in a few magazines run by students in Durham . I’ve also been in the ezine Pomegranate a few times, and I’ve been in Read This, Angelic Dynamo, Spark Bright and Rising magazine. I also have work forthcoming in Cake, the Cadaverine and the Glasgow Review. I think the next stage is to just keep reading my work to audiences to improve my confidence and reading style. And I’d be pretty excited if I had work accepted by a well-established magazine.
What do you think is your biggest poetic achievement to date?
Being accepted for the 2008 Tower Poetry Summer School was very encouraging for me. They take poets from the age of 18-23, and I found out about it when I was 18, so I’d planned to apply every year for five years. I was accepted on my second try, and I was over the moon. I also recently found out that one of my poems made the top 100 shortlist for the Mslexia competition, and as it’s an international competition I’m really happy about that.
What’s the best thing about writing poetry? And the worst?
The best thing has to be the moment of writing itself. Few things are as exciting to me as when I get a new idea for a poem, and the lines start developing in my head. I know it’s a total cliché, but I love it when I’m writing and the rest of the world fades away, and I feel like the idea is taking shape and looking good. The next best would be reassurances that the hours spent writing and editing aren’t for nothing – the Foyle commendation, having work published, the Tower School , encouraging rejection letters. Having strangers compliment you after a reading is amazing too. I am always so grateful to people who do that.
The worst… Well, looking at a poem the day after you wrote it and realising that maybe it’s not so great after all can be quite depressing. But I’d have to say the worst is how isolating it can be. Until recently I didn’t know anyone who wrote poetry; I can’t really bring it up in conversation with friends or family because they wouldn’t know what to say. And it can be very difficult to improve your writing when you don’t know anyone else who writes.
Got any suggestions for young, upcoming poets?
It’s hard to come up with something valuable that hasn’t been already been said here, although the three tenets (read, write, share) can’t be stressed enough. If I could give advice to my seventeen-year-old self, I would say:
1. Don’t hide too much in metaphors. They can be a great way to express ideas, but they can also be an easy way to avoid coming to grips with a topic.
2. Don’t keep your work to yourself because you’re afraid people might not like it. Poetry is a highly subjective art form, so there will always be people who dislike your work – it doesn’t mean you’re a bad poet.
3. If you find it difficult to find poetry you enjoy, then shop around until you do. Don’t feel embarrassed that you don’t know anything about the “great” poets — a lot of people don’t know anything about contemporary poets.
4. Consider carefully everything you write — every metaphor, simile, word, even punctuation. Think about whether they are appropriate to what you’re trying to say, whether they fit with the rest of the poem, whether an idea actually works. When I look back at my older poems I think the biggest weakness is that I didn’t think about these things, often I simply wrote what came into my head and consequently there’s a lot of clichés or ideas that simply don’t work if you take a moment to think about them.
Who/what influences your poetry?
As I said, my friends, boyfriend and family have a big influence – they send me to the heights of happiness and the pits of despair, so they’re what I write about most. Talented young poets like the winners of the Foyle award and the poets in the tall-lighthouse’s “Pilot” series are a source of inspiration, because their poetry is often so original and brilliant they prove that age has nothing to do with writing fantastic poetry. I recently bought Jay Bernard’s pamphlet from the tall-lighthouse website and some of her ideas and imagery are stunning. I also love reading Kathryn Simmonds and Catherine Smith right now. They both take everyday topics and shine a light on them, showing how extraordinary they are. Their poems show that you don’t even have to leave your front door to find something beautiful.
I wore my uniform long after the school bell’s
startled cry. That sagging material became my skin,
I couldn’t tear it away.
The years were narrow corridors
lined with carefully-placed legs,
Coke bottles making hollow sounds
as they hit my head. Each day hoping
my friends wouldn’t have to peel
another crusted sanitary towel from my back.
There were more ways to get things wrong than I could comprehend.
Hot pink ankle socks, Woolworths shoes
with heavy soles. I didn’t understand
how the other girls could fly through school
- their swan-white Topshop shirts, weightless laughter-
when I couldn’t find space to lift a wing.
They took off when the bell rang.
I remained, searching each bathroom mirror
for change, stealing bits of sky
from the windows.
But today I have looked down
to find a single brilliant feather.
And found the sky pressing
against the glass, so close
I could reach out and clench the clouds,
swing myself into the air.
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(Photo by Sasha of www.birdsflyphotography.com)