August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Seni Seneviratne by Lakeshia Sterling-Henry
1. What made or inspired you to start writing poetry?
I was very interested particularly in war poetry. So I used to find poets I liked and copy them out into a book. I actually still have them, all sorts of handwritten poems that I really liked. I guess I started writing poetry just for myself really, you know issues to do with growing up, identity and I never showed my poetry really to anyone they were just really personal. It was only really later, probably in the late 80’s, that I started to show my stuff to somebody else, there were a couple of other women and we started to show each other our work. So yeah I could say I got into it from a very personal route I would say – a way of expressing myself and how I was feeling. That was kind of the way I wanted to do it.
2. How old were you when you first started writing poetry? Starting form a young age at school you mentioned above, that must have been very difficult, from being at such a young age? Did you have other friend’s that liked to write as well or was it something that u liked to do on your own?
I first started writing poetry when I was at school, and I enjoyed reading poetry, and I also studied English literature at my secondary school, so I guess it was then that I started writing. I just used to write in not so much as a journal but a diary and I used to write lots of things like how I was feeling and all the sort of teenage angst. And I just sort of ended up writing it in poetry form really, was just how it happened wasn’t planned that way or anything. They weren’t crafted poems they were just out on the page as you feel it, but I think having this notebook where I have all these poems that I liked and there was also that series of books called Penguin Modern Poets, I have quite a few copies of those. Looking at the dates in there and seeing how long ago I got them made me realise I was into writing from school. I didn’t get into poetry from studying it just came naturally to me.
3. As a young girl did you ever show your poetry to anyone like family or friends to see their reactions to your writing? What was the first thing you ever showed anyone, and what did it feel like?
As a young girl I never showed my poetry to anyone it was always for me and nothing else, I think the first time I showed anyone my work was when I came together with two other Asian women and we made a booklet. Though before that a poem of mine was published in the school magazine but that was anonymously.
Who did you appeal your poetry at? What type of people did you want your poetry to affect or reach out to?
The first thing I published was in 1989, and was with two other women and we got funding from Sheffield library, and published a book together that had photography and poems from the three of us. After that I began sending work into different publications to be published in anthologies so I have lots of different work published in different anthologies in this country and in Canada, just sending things off asking for submission. But I did not do my own full collection until 2007, so it was a long time before I published a sole collection.
My most successful poem before I was published would have to be a poem actually from my first collection, which is called Cinnamon Roots. It was written in 1992, and was in response to the “celebrations” about Christopher Columbus. It was published in various anthologies and was the inspiration for the title of my first collection.
My poems don’t really appeal to just one genre or type of person its actually quite broad I get different people coming up to me saying how they love and connect with my poetry.
5. What was it like to be commended by the judges in The Forward Poetry Prize 2007?
My publishers submitted my collection and there is a category for single poems, and any poems that stand out in the collections that are submitted are considered. And to see my poem in the Forward Poetry Prize 2007 anthology was amazing you know, it felt like such an honour and was a wonderful surprise.
6. In 2008 when you were selected to take part in The Complete Works A National Development Programme for advanced black and Asian poets, what did it mean to you as a Sri Lankan poet?
I was very, very pleased to get selected for it, I applied for it the application is done like most competitions, and so your work is submitted and its done anonymously so they select you purely on your writing talent. It felt like a good boost or acknowledgement, as I was shortlisted purely for my work. It came at a good time for me as I was starting to think of beginning a second collection. It was a fantastic project like doing a funded MA. There were seminars and I was provided with a mentor, Mimi Khalvati.
7. I’ve read that you do creative writing workshops in schools and colleges, do you think that it helps to see children and young adults that are interested in poetry and to have you help them with various issues and writing skills?
When I was a school we didn’t have visiting writers doing workshops for us and I would have loved to have had something like that. What’s really exciting when you go into a school, particularly with the younger the children is their excitement and enthusiasm. To take hold of that enthusiasm for language that they have at such a young age, and to encourage them to do more with it at their age is vital.
8. What was it like travelling to Cape Town and writing with artist there? What experiences did you gain? And did any of these influence your poems?
Quite a few of the poems in my second collection I wrote in Cape Town, and one of the issues I was writing about and talking about there was about trauma and poetry and poetry and witness, so in a way it linked with some of the themes in my collection. It was interesting working with visual artists, and I got into painting while I was over there through the work that I was doing.
9. When your collection was published – Wild Cinnamon And Winter Skin – how did that feel? To know you had accomplished something that could in turn affect and be read worldwide. How long did it take you to compose the collection, and what was your inspiration?
It was a great feeling having that first collection come out, it was like bringing something out in the word that I had nurtured and know that it was able to reach places I could never reach physcally. A good thing about getting published is that it not only changes the perception of yourself, it changes the way people see you as well. It’s quite exciting too having the Internet as your able to Google and see how far its travelled in the world!
Wild Cinnamon and Winter Skin was a gathering of poems from the previous 20 years all in one collection really so I suppose it has taken that long for me to compose in a way. I decided that I wanted to work on a collection in 2004 so from then to 2007 was how long it took me to get everything together. I wrote a lot of new poems in that time so that became new material for the collection and made it a mix of old and new poems.
10. Being of mixed heritage did that contribute to your work in any way? Did it make you want to write from different prospective such as a Sri Lankan prospective or and English prospective?
Being of mixed heritage influenced me as a person, growing up in Leeds in the 50’s and 60’s in an environment that was predominantly white. It shaped who I was and I think though racist attitudes and prejudice had a negative impact, the fact that I didn’t fit easily into any one category became in a way a gift for me. The notion of not fitting into anything easily became a positive thing for me and especially as an artist. I never take the easy way out, I take the hard route, the one that presents the most challenges. I have come to celebrate my difference really and for me it’s a good thing, and it helps me as a writer.
11. What difficulties/ obstacles did you face when starting out at a young age with writing poetry?
I think the best support that I had was myself. I believed in myself and believed in what I wanted to do and what I wanted to achieve. I had got to appoint in my writing career where, although I had a lot of work published, I didn’t have my own collection and began to think it might be too late to do that. But I am glad that I got the support to work on it. There are always going to be times as a writer when you doubt yourself. It’s important to develop self-confidence and not to sit back and think you have achieved everything you can but to have the confidence to keep going, keep creating.