I interviewed her by email for the Magma Blog:
What got you interested in poetry, both reading it and writing it?
After graduating, I moved to London from Wales and started a new job at a publishing company. I hated it. Out of frustration, perhaps, I started writing – something I’d done on and off since I was a child, but half-heartedly, because it had never felt legitimate. Around that time, I heard a recording of T S Eliot’s reading ‘The Waste Land’ and it completely opened my eyes. I started reading contemporary poetry too, but it was a while before I started to take my own writing seriously. It was longer still before I was able to try to write what I wanted to write, rather than write what I thought a poem should be.
What obsessions drive your urge to write?
It’s hard to say what drives me to write, but it’s something to do with possibility. When I write, I’m somehow more ‘me,’ and yet more able to imagine the possibility of other worlds and other lives too. I create different characters and it’s as if I’m having a conversation with them, as well as with myself. My poems are driven by my dreams, but also by determination. I spend days, weeks (and occasionally years), fiddling around with a poem, wanting to get it down on paper, just so. In a way, writing itself is an obsession.
Your poems are often infused with discomforting imagery, as if danger and violence are always lurking in the background and then reveal themselves. Do you intend your poems to reflect on the darker, hidden sides of life?
When I write I try to find new ways of expressing and transforming thoughts and feelings. I’m very interested in the uncanny and try to capture this strange (un)familiarity of experience in my work. Alongside this, I’ve been exploring the idea of affective disorientation – what Sianne Ngai calls the feeling ‘in which one feels confused about what one is feeling’ – and how poetry can often create this unsettling ambiguity. I usually start a poem first thing in the morning, before I’ve woken up properly and had a chance to find excuses to do something else, and so the poems are often imbued with my dreams. I think this dream-like quality is what can make them feel disturbing, but as well as incorporating the darker, hidden sides of experience, my poetry is also about being playful – about playing with our ideas and expectations and about finding that space inside us to think and feel things anew.
Can you talk us through the writing process in one of your poems published in Magma 42? What kick-started the poem? What problems did you have to overcome to get it written?
I wrote ‘Clam’ while on a writing residency on the Fielding Programme. My accommodation overlooked Loch Long on the west coast of Scotland, and I wandered down to the shore early one morning. Walking back up to the road a while later, I crossed a wide stretch of mussel shells on the rocks. There were thousands, and they made this strange crunching sound under my feet and I thought it sounded like children clapping. This was the image that stuck with me and the poem came from there.
My main difficulty was finding the voice for the poem. I wanted to combine the eerie sound of the mussel shells cracking with the loneliness of the Loch, as well as its physical beauty. I decided to create a female character who merged with the water. As her voice developed, I returned to the importance of sound in the poem and its effect on pace and rhythm. I focused on half-rhymes, re-ordering lines to try to emphasise ‘b’ sounds – ‘beach’, ‘body’, ‘barnacles’, ‘bunches’, ‘bare blue’, for instance, and also the repetitive ‘dragging’, ‘snapping’, ‘clapping’ in the final stanza.
Can you name two poetic influences on your work from the past, and also two writers you feel are producing memorable work today?
That’s probably the hardest question you’ve asked because it’s so hard to pick just two. I’m hugely inspired by Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson. Anne Carson and Selima Hill are two of my favourite poets writing today – but I’ve just read Jen Hadfield’s ‘Nigh-No-Place’ and loved it.
Your pamphlet, ‘Milk’, was published this year. What it was like to put that together?
I think the most interesting aspect for me was not looking at the poems individually, but thinking about them as part of a collection. I learned so much about the ways in which poems can work together (and against each other), and how sometimes you have to take out a poem that you like because it doesn’t work in the whole.
Milk was published in December 2008 by Pighog Press.
Sarah will be featured in Bloodaxe’s new anthology, Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Generation (September 2009), edited by Clare Pollard and James Byrne.