August 13, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Helen Mort by Jon André Hafslien
1. How long have you been writing poetry? Why & how did you start?
I started writing poetry when I was a child – my mum says I dictated a poem about trains to her when I was very young! But I started writing more regularly after I entered a competition called The Foyle Young Poets’ Award when I was twelve. I was lucky enough to win the competition and that was the first time I started to think that other people might be interested in what I had to say, that I might have an audience for my work one day. Mind you, I think I would have written without that sense of audience anyway, I just might not have sent my work into a public domain. Writing never feels like a choice, more like something I’m compelled to do.
2. How did you get your work published or heard? Did you confront any difficulties?
I met my publisher, Les Robinson, when I was eighteen – we were both at an event in London. He’d come across my work through the Foyle competition and was interested in seeing more with a view to publishing it, so it was a very straightforward process. Last year, I was approached by Chatto & Windus to see if I’d like to publish my first full collection with them. So I’ve been lucky and haven’t faced any difficulties in publishing my books. But that brief summary says nothing of all the years of sending poems to magazines (often getting them rejected) and all the readings I’d do to help get my work ‘out there’: there’s always a lot of background work.
3. Is there a particular process you use when writing poetry?
Poems start in my body. More specifically, they start in my legs and lungs. That’s because I don’t write my best poems when I’m sitting at my desk, but when I’m moving; walking my dogs round the back of Oaks Farm and through the half-hearted woodland behind it, rock climbing on Stanage Edge in the summer, or, most often, when I’m out running and short of breath. I go out with an idea and redraft lines in my head as I run or walk. By the time I get home, the lines I can remember are usually the strongest ones. I think it must be something to do with the rhythm that helps refine a poem.
4. At what point do you decide that a given poem is finished?
As Paul Valery said, ‘a poem is never finished, only abandoned’! I write by ear, so when a poem ‘sounds’ right (when it says what I wanted to express in a musical, well-balanced way) I’ll usually stop drafting it for the first time, but then I’ll send the poem to a couple of other poets I trust for feedback before I decide it’s ready to be sent out into the world.
5. What inspires your poetry the most, and why? Is there an aspect of your life that is particularly influential on what you write?
I suppose an obsession with particular places (whether it’s rooms or entire landscapes) and the strange melancholy feeling they’ve always given me. I’ve always wanted to live everywhere at once. I’m obsessed by places. To me, one of the most mesmerising, sad things to do is to walk down a street at night when you can see into other people’s lit living rooms. I think a lot of poetry comes from a kind of greed – a longing for the lives you haven’t led, the places you haven’t lived. Poetry allows you to capture something of those places, those lives. It’s a strange thing.
6. What do you enjoy most about being a poet?
The feeling you get when you’ve expressed something, however small, in a way that connects with other people. I wish that feeling weren’t so rare! Like many poets, I feel quite inarticulate 99% of the time. But just occasionally, when I’m writing, I succeed in saying what I really want to say.
7. What do you feel you can express in poetry that you can’t in another literary or art form?
Everything. There’s nothing that comes close to poetry for me. I love the fact that all my favourite poems by other writers can’t be paraphrased…
8. What advice would you give young writers to encourage them to write poetry?
Don’t censor yourself too much early on: there’s time to worry about what other people think later. Enjoy the freedom writing offers. Most of all, read like there’s no tomorrow. Reading is the most important part of the writing process and, if you can find a handful of poets whose work inspires you, really makes you want to write, then that’s even better.
9. Can you retrace your thought process when writing your poem “Other People’s Dreams”?
I wrote ‘Other People’s Dreams’ one evening when I was living in Grasmere, doing a wonderful residency at The Wordsworth Trust. The evenings were a great time to go walking because the village seemed so still and eerie at night. As usual, I heard the first line of the poem when I was out and it started to obsess me: I began to think about the strange idea that, when other people dream about you, they create a kind of parallel universe that you occupy. Having established that idea, some of the writing was more mundane (for example, I tried out several different images before I happened on the idea of the SPAR store room with its oranges, or the Scottish layby), but I was surprised by the poem’s final image which seemed to appear unbidden, about a week after I’d started the poem (again, when I was out walking). It’s not unusual for me to hold the skeleton of a poem in my head for months before I finish it – I carry ideas around for quite a long time.
10. You seem to have achieved a lot, and look quite merited at a young age for a poet. Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Will you try out other kinds of literature or remain a poet?
I’ll always write poetry as long as the poems don’t abandon me! I can’t imagine giving it up, unless it gives me up. I’ve written plays and short stories in the past and I can see myself experimenting with other forms in the future, but I’ll save my strongest ideas for poetry, the ones that are hardest (and therefore most important) to express.