Poet Profile: An Interview with Sarah Law

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Sarah Law

A Brief Bio:  Originally from Norwich, Sarah Law lives in London where she is a tutor for the Open University and elsewhere. She has published five collections of poetry: two with Stride, two with Shearsman, and her collection Ink’s Wish, first published by Gatehouse Press, was shortlisted for the 2014 East Anglian Book Awards. She also edits the online Amethyst Review. She runs, loves cats, and writes fiction on the quiet. Follow her on twitter @drsarahlaw


Tell me about your journey into poetry

SL: I must have been very young when I first started writing poems. I remember making up songs – usually nonsense ones – when I was a child, probably just four or five, and singing them ad nauseam in the back of the car. My parents were very patient with me. I remember being given and reading children’s poetry anthologies such as Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse. I remember realising with enjoyment that words and lines sometimes meant much more than you might at first think they mean. Meaning can come from repetition and tone as much as the straightforward sense of a line. e.g. ‘What is the matter with Mary Jane – and it’s lovely rice pudding for dinner again!’

Later on, when I was a teenager, I liked all sorts of pop and rock music and had all the usual teenage ambitions and anxieties. But I read a lot at the local library; I even did some work experience there for a while as a teenager. I read all sorts, but remember coming home once with a volume of Keats’ poetry, and being entranced by its sensuous language even though I probably didn’t understand that much of it. I remember holding that volume, out in the garden, and thinking to myself, ‘I will become a poet’. I have no idea why I had that thought, and I certainly didn’t hold on to it. But I remember it now.

At school, we studied Robert Browning’s Men and Women which I loved, and the idea of the dramatic monologue seeded itself in my mind. Then in the sixth form, we looked at The Waste Land and the cadences of that poem also had a big effect. It’s rather telling, looking back on it, how little educational exposure we had to women poets at that time.  But for my seventeenth birthday a friend at school bought me Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and that made a huge impact. Then slightly later on I discovered Stevie Smith and loved her subversive voice.

I wrote poems all through my teenage years, and most of them (all of them, in fact) being what you might expect from an anxious young person who was also an only child and spent a lot of time reading.

Early writing is a necessary stage; a long, formative stage. I think one still has to go back and revisit those feelings of clumsy rawness; wanting to write effortlessly and elegantly, but falling very wide of the mark.

 

What do you consider your largest accomplishments as a poet?

SL: Perhaps that fact that I’ve kept the faith – I’m still reading and writing it! Although I’ve had plenty of periods where I’ve wandered off, and got caught up in work (I’m a university tutor of English Literature and Creative Writing). I’m proud of Ink’s Wish because it was shortlisted for the East Anglian Book Awards in 2014. I’m pleased with my new publication, My Converted Father and hope as a pamphlet it will get more readers than perhaps a full-length collection.

What was your journey into publication like?

SL: I wrote a poem at school once that was read out at the Advent service in Norwich Cathedral. It was about darkness and light and about a sudden light in the dark night. I don’t think that at the time I intended it to have the spiritual implications that it was given. But that was an early instance of having a poem put into ‘the public domain’. Otherwise, I just had a few poems published in my twenties. I had some poems published in Reflections magazine; I think that was my first proper submission and acceptance. Then I really enjoyed writing experimentally for a while. I had some experimental work published in an anthology (Public Works) edited by Ira Lightman, which I was really pleased about. Then Rupert Loydell got in touch and I sent him some poems and Stride published my first collection, Bliss Tangle, in 1999. I do remember a mixture of elation and anxiety with every initial publication. I don’t think that ever really goes away, though I feel less viscerally invested in finished poems and projects now, perhaps.

Notable journals who have published my work: UK-based: Stride Magazine; Ink, Sweat & Tears; Amaryllis; and forthcoming work in Wild Court and Riggwelter.

US-based: Psaltery & Lyre; Soul-Lit; Where is the River and forthcoming work in America; The Windhover; Loch Raven Review; Saint Katherine Review

 

Do you have any tips on publication for emerging or unpublished poets?

SL: It’s so much easier now to get a feel for what publications might be a good market for your work if you’re an emerging poet. I used to make tentative submissions – all printed out and posted with a stamped self-addressed envelope – based on the odd recommendation, or after a couple of hours browsing at the National Poetry Library in London. Now, there are many excellent online journals available to read (it’s important to read and support prospective journals) and submit to for free, and if you’re able to afford a subscription to Duotrope, you can browse thousands of publications, check their preferred styles and submission guidelines, and keep track of all your submissions online. Having said that, it’s never exactly easy to get accepted, and rejection is inevitable at all stages of a poet’s career. I still get plenty but I’ve learned not to give up!

Have an honest conversation with yourself: are you happy with your ‘finished’ poems or do you need to sit with them a little longer? If they have been submitted but returned by an editor, consider whether any tweaks are necessary or even whether a poem should be retired or rested for a while.

If an editor has made any specific suggestions or invited you to submit again, then be heartened. On the other hand, if you are incessantly delaying sending work out and reluctant to re-send, then it’s worth making yourself take the plunge. What have you got to lose? It’s all good practice. And it might be that your poem is just what someone, somewhere, would like to read, and perhaps really needs to read in order to give them fresh insight, courage, or just a smile to keep them going.

Often, poems can take several outings to find a home in the right publication. If you believe in your work, keeping sending it out. I’ve had poems I’ve felt very strongly were good poems, but it’s taken three, four submissions or more, and a few minor revisions along the way, for them to find a good published home.

When it comes to publishing pamphlets or full-length collections, the same combination of research, persistence, professionalism, and patience are required. There are some brilliant pamphlet publishers out there, from online e-books to beautifully printed chapbooks. I highly recommend becoming well-read in the world of contemporary pamphlets/ chapbooks (e.g. BOAAT and Black Lawrence in the US, Broken Sleep and Salò Press in the UK) and micro-chapbooks too (e.g. Ghost City Press).

Finally, there’s nothing wrong with keeping a writer’s blog and publishing some of your own work there. In due course, you might even consider setting up an online poetry journal yourself – and promoting the writing of other poets is a brilliant way of making connections and playing an active part of the literary community – being a good literary citizen.

From start to finish, how do you typically write a poem?

SL: Inspirations: photographs inspire me, as does writing in an imagined voice. The older the photograph, the better. I love nineteenth-century photography. The stories behind those faces, the poses, and the state of the photographs themselves – they’re all fascinating and often very poignant. Some of my poems about Saint Thérèse came from looking at the photographs of her that were taken before and during her life in the nineteenth-century Normandy convent where she died in 1897, aged just 24. More recently I’ve been writing some poems about Bridget Cleary, the last woman to be burned in Ireland on suspicion of being a fairy changeling, in 1895. There are some striking photographs of the Tipperary cottage – inside and outside – where she lived and died.

With voice, I’m thinking mainly of dramatic monologue, of inhabiting the voice of another character, imagined or historical. In Ink’s Wish, for example, I wrote a collection of poems mostly in the voice of medieval visionary Margery Kempe, a voluble, unstable, and also courageous character. Although some aspects of her personality appealed to me (her position as a perpetual outsider, in particular) I certainly don’t identify with her, and so ‘meeting’ her by writing poetry in her imagined voice was very energising.

There are plenty of other sources of inspiration, many of which just occur – a particular moment, such as taking my elderly mother to the jeweler’s to have her too-tight wedding ring cut off prompted me to write a poem. Still, others spring from odd facts from history, such as the value that was ascribed to uterine calf vellum in the middle ages. My poems ‘The Cutters’ and ‘The Inside’ come from these two instances respectively – both are forthcoming in Loch Raven Review this autumn.

Another thing that I find inspiring is working in sequences, and thus knowing that I will be inhabiting a particular poetic world or character for more than one poem. I think it gives the mind, including the subconscious, time to dwell on a subject more than with a single poem.

Process: I like to write the whole draft of a poem straight off if possible, either on my laptop or in a notebook. Then I revisit over the course of the next few days. I have had periods where I was writing a poem every evening, last thing before bed, and then it would be the first thing I would look at in the morning. Sometimes I surprise myself with this process. Alas, the draft of the night before is not always as good as I had thought. Although sometimes it’s better than I’d thought. Occasionally I have almost completely forgotten what I’d written, and look at it over breakfast in astonishment.

Locations: I like to write in coffee shops, on trains, sitting on or even in the bed, or anywhere else, really! I do get ideas when I’m out and about. I am trying to be more organised about capturing ideas in a little notebook, otherwise, they can flit away like butterflies and, I suspect, will go and land somewhere more receptive. When writing I like to have a large mug of tea to hand (coffee when out) and peace and quiet. If I’m at home, the company of our two large black cats is welcome. They are like a couple of living quotation marks, within which my domestic imaginative life dwells.

Which of your own poems is your favorite and why?

SL: This is definitely a moveable feast. Like many poets, my favourite poem is often the last one I’ve written, precisely because it’s the most recent one and I am delighted that I can still occasionally write something nuanced and concentrated enough to feel like a poem.

I still read and get comments on some poems from my second collection, The Lady Chapel (Stride, 2004, republished 2017); in fact, I still read some of these poems as part of a performance with medieval music performers The Telling. One of these poems imagines a brief dialogue between medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich and Persian Sufi mystic Rumi:

Two Mystical Poems

i. Rumi to Julian

Everything you saw
had that glimmer in it.

You took each object, held it high
squinted as the sunlight glinted

and at its passing you could read

tiny words
in the wound
of your hand

words circle the stone
and not otherwise.

 

ii. Julian to Rumi

A woman went into a room
and held a hazelnut.
Her hands were so warm from praying
that the nut became a cinder

and the incense spiralled across the glass squint
which looked over the altar.
And in the swirling were the faces
of all the mothers she had ever known.

She met those women at a second window
singing to her, through black cloth crossed with white.
The songs refracted into harmonies
making the ambit of her heart expand.

Singling out the liveliest harmonic
she thought she saw a dancing man;
feeling his arms somehow around her shoulders
yet also uplifted, praising God.

She yielded to this sense of spinning
until her hands were a million doves
sending him hazels, olives, peace.
She would write to her mother of this.

The poem wrote itself as far as I remember. It was inspired partly because I had seen a photograph of a mural featuring dancing mystics, and Julian and Rumi were the two I recognised. [I can’t find the image now, alas.]

Another favourite from The Lady Chapel is a dramatic monologue in the imagined voice of eleventh-century Rhineland visionary Hildegard of Bingen. It was another one of those poems that just seemed to arrive without too much interference from me,  and is an energising one to read aloud, so I like that one too.

Recently, my poems on nineteenth-century Saint Thérèse of Lisieux took up residence in my heart, I think mainly because Thérèse’s own short life was so moving. Two are online at Psaltery & Lyre. I have five forthcoming in Saint Katherine Review, all of which I still feel very close to; in fact, I know them by heart and sometimes recite them to myself as a kind of poetry prayer. The collection as a whole is under consideration at a publisher’s, so I won’t say anything else about it for now.

I don’t only write spiritually-inspired poems – far from it – although it’s interesting that those do seem to stay with me, perhaps as my form of meditation. My latest pamphlet, My Converted Father, despite the title, is not at all religious and only idiosyncratically and very tangentially spiritual. It comprises memories of my father, who passed away in 2004, and imagined conversations with him in the present tense. The conversion is one from living to an imagined afterlife, from action to reminiscence.

You might say I’ve converted him into poetry, in a way. The poems actually started life as prose poems and then I ‘converted’ them into lineated pieces and put them together as a pamphlet. I’m pleased with them – to me they feel as though they have the right balance of personal investment and poetic detachment. I hope that this balance comes across to readers.

What factors in your life most inform your poetry?

SL: I believe anything can inform poetry – you might argue it’s more a case of having a poetic mindset than looking for specific things to inform and inspire. But yes, conversations, work, family visits, and discussions can all spark off a piece by way of memory or anecdote or of a quirky phrase. I’m not averse to historical research too when appropriate. The poignant details of the past can helpfully inform a poem and stop it being too vague or general. I have to feel some kind of connection, passion or investment in a topic to write well about it. I think that’s generally true – no matter how tangential the connection. Finally, here I’d like simply to recommend reading: the more I immerse myself in poetry and poetic language, the more easily I can access that poetic spring in myself. I think this is generally true.

What’s the purpose of poetry?

SL: I think that this is the most difficult question of all! But strong poetry is made with considered, resonant language, and is often strangely, startlingly beautiful, and because of this, it offers a little space for reflection and for new ways of looking at and thinking about things.

Do you have any favorite poets or poems? What draws you to them?

SL: Again, I could give a long answer to this question, with many suggested poets and poems. Denise Levertov for her organic approach to lyricism and her ability to encompass the spiritual, the lyrical, the specifics of the moment and the individual lines and language of each poem she wrote. Brendan Kennelly for his wit, humour, and directness.  Lyn Hejinian for her innovative and accessible prose poetry. Alice Oswald for her innovative and lyrical approach to her poetics. So many poets. So many poems.

What are you currently reading?

SL: Poetry-wise, I am reading Kierkegaard’s Cupboard by Marianne Burton (Seren 2018). It’s a collection of sonnet-based poems drawing on Danish philosopher Kierkegaard’s own life and writings, so as well as being lyrical and interestingly crafted, the collection is a work of allusion, retrieval, and interpretation. Fiction-wise I am reading The Dying Detective by Lars Persson, translated by Neil Smith. I love Nordic Noir, and the new waves of regional crime fiction in general. Lined up to read next on my poetry list are A Spoon of Honey by Ion Corcos, and The Unmoving by Maria Stadnika, both very talented poets.

What is the most difficult part of writing poetry?

SL: Getting started on a poem can be quite hard actually. But if some kind of routine is established, it can feel as though a channel is open and the poems can come quite quickly. They won’t always come complete, even as drafts, at one sitting. But overcoming the initial resistance, and if possible, giving your poetry a regular place in the day, or the week, is the best remedy for this. Worrying about quality in a first draft is counter-productive.

There will almost always be editing, cutting and shaping. But there may well be some lines and phrases that ring true even from the first draft, and that gives me the courage to continue. I don’t believe in forcing poems, but I don’t think long periods of not writing any at all is helpful either. A useful compromise is to commit to writing ten or so lines a day, every day, even if you don’t feel inspired. You can always write more if the muse arrives.

Completing poems can also be hard, although sometimes the ending of a poem appears intuitively and that’s a wonderful feeling, and when it happens I rush towards it like a long lost friend. But other times it is hard to keep revisiting and revising a poem to give it the ending it wants. I am guilty of abandoning some poem drafts which might have come to life had I given them more trust and attention. Of course, this may yet happen – though it can take some time to feel your way back to a poem that started longer than a week or two ago.

If you could let our readers know just one thing, what would it be?

SL: Life can be hard. Poetry can help – reading it, writing it, ideally both.  It can make you feel less alone, and it can offer fresh insight into all sorts of situations, including yours.

What’s next for you?

SL: All sorts of writing. And definitely more poetry.  As mentioned above, I’m writing poems (including prose poems) about Bridget Cleary, and would like to develop at least a sequence and perhaps a collection. I want to return to experimentation, and write some more innovative abstract pieces too. I’m also writing fiction, trying to finish off a couple of long projects at the moment, and am nearly there with both. I’m quite interested in hybrid genres, and will perhaps try writing some lyric essays. I’d also like to keep developing Amethyst Review, my online journal for new writing engaging with the sacred. I’ve had some wonderful work submitted this year that I’ve been extremely proud to publish. I’d like to develop an idea I have for publishing some Amethyst-related e-chapbooks. I’m also in discussion with some other poets about starting a small press and developing some print collections and pamphlets, so watch this space.

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