FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
MARIA APICHELLA: The only thing I was good at in school was writing poems, so I just carried on. I believe in life you must play to your strengths and I only had one string to my bow. Besides, I found tinkering with words great fun as a child and I still do.
At home, we were taught to notice and celebrate Beauty in the natural world. I remember being on holiday in Scotland. We were leaving a campsite very early in the morning, dawn in fact, and the sky was pink and purple. We were all drowsing but dad made us wake up and look out the window. He pointed at the morning star above the mountain and said, ‘look, kids. That’s beauty.’ That always stayed with me. I always had a sense of wanting to translate images and impressions into words. Some people take photographs, paint or make music. For me, words were more immediate: cheaper than buying a camera, less messy than tubes of oil and less stressful than trying to learn the violin (which I did try).
I read a lot as a child and my interest in poetry sprang from reading the Psalms when I was given a grown-up Bible aged seven. They are physically in the centre, a natural opening point to a child when handed a big book. Most of the Bible is dense prose, but the Psalms contain white space and shifting lines, and many of the poems are fairly short. I immediately responded to the voice and language which was violent, emotional, ecstatic and immediate. The writer, who I assumed was King David, had an insistent, plaintive voice. His poems spoke directly to God about his own world and private pain. Part of me thought the poet was self-indulgent, and should be more sensible. However, I also had an intuitive response to the themes: feeling scared, loved, and misunderstood as well as the desire to sing and worship amid pain, doubt, anxiety, confusion and peace. I absorbed the metaphoric language of the human body, food, and the landscape. When I started to write poetry as an adult, I consciously allowed myself to be in dialogue with the Psalms.
FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
MA: Going to Aberystwyth in 2004 to study creative writing was a big step for me. The landscape affected me viscerally and I suddenly found myself in a small, isolated community filled with amazing writers: Matthew Francis, Tiffany Atkinson, Jem Poster, Kelly Grovier, Damian Walford Davies and Richard Marggraf Turley. These people were personable and accessible to us undergraduates through classes and regular poetry readings on campus. It is because of their encouragement that many of us have gone onto be published: Katherine Stansfield, David Towsey, Tyler Keevil, Bethany Pope and the up-and-coming Amy McCauley. My supervisor Tiffany Atkinson first told me about a call for submissions for poems about God which Eyewear was running. Through submitting to that I discovered the Melita Hume Competition which is a fantastic opportunity for serious poets at an early stage. I was shortlisted for it in 2013 and then in 2015 I was joint winner with Tony Chan. Tony had never been published at all which goes to show how publishers like Swift are not afraid to take risks and champion new poets. I know Tony and I are very grateful.
In 2004 the creative writing course at Aber was fairly new so there was a sense of freedom as we were breaking new ground. In fact, on the Open Day my dad signed up to do as PhD in Creative Writing. He was their first student to start and finish. My grandfather left me some money so I was able to do a Masters and after that I decided to do a PhD. I was not funded so I studied part-time and worked several jobs but every aspect of life feeds into writing: from teaching to cleaning toilets, to working in a call centre by night to sitting in the Welsh National Library reading Dylan Thomas in rainy afternoons.
Wales itself was/is a fertile place to be as there are lots of opportunities for new writers to develop. Jan Fortune of Cinnamon Press published my pamphlet Paga and was generous in her feedback to poems I would send. The international literary journal The New Welsh Review was based on campus. Its physical presence always spurred me on to get a poem published with them. After lots of attempts, I had one accepted. It’s always important to have goals and to patiently work towards them.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
MA: I am thrilled and amazed and excited.
FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?
I composed Psalmody during my PhD at Aberystwyth. Early on in my studies, it was my intention was to write my own Psalms; that is, poems as authentic prayer, using the Psalms as a springboard. Mirroring the structure of the Psalms, I wrote 150 devotional poems addressed to God. As I examined the Psalms, I saw they were speech acts which called out to God, the self and the world. I wanted to explore the idea of writing speech acts; poems which address a presence, including God, without being kitsch, or ironic. In this, my poems are like liturgies addressed both to God and David. The female speaker is in dialogue with herself, her lover and God. The tension between the female voice, David and God is like overhearing one end of an intense phone call. While you may not hear David or God clearly, you catch a rhythmic buzz and tone of voice, sensing that there is a crying out, a dialogue. I realised I also wanted to tell a narrative through lyric poems – and the gaps between them – a contemporary story about the love between an atheist and a Christian, the anxieties and beauty of daily life between a man and a woman with conflicting views. The themes and emotions of Psalmody are the result of my own relational, spiritual and intellectual journey as a female, a poet, and a Christian living in Wales, framed in fiction.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
MA: I love the poetry of Michael Symmons Roberts. Until the publication of Symmons Roberts’s Drysalter, the serious poetry published in Britain today seemed to have little relation to the Psalms. Contemporary poems sympathetic to themes of Jewish or Christian orthodoxy are rare, despite there being an abundance of poems which explore spirituality. For Symmons Roberts, writing involves exploring the total experience of life. The books we read, our geography, national identity, religious experiences will naturally filter into our poetry. I found this view liberating and felt free to write about my own varied interests, including the Psalms.
Tiffany Atkinson’s collection Catulla et al also played an important part in the creation of Psalmody, as did Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband and Deryn Rees-Jones’s collection Quiver.
I also love the work of Jane Kenyon, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Gillian Clarke and Mimi Khalvati – I am inspired by her modern ghazals as well those of the Sufi poet Hafiz.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
MA: I have left Aber now so I am seeking another writer’s community. I hope to do more readings and workshops and generally be involved with sharing poetry and enabling people to find their own voice.
I am working on several clusters of poems. One is about the Welsh artist Kyffin William, and the others are about times spent in Texas and Italy. I hope to form into these into a second collection.
I am writing a memoir which was longlisted for The New Welsh Review Memoir Competition this year.
I also am tinkering with a children’s story.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
If you want to write, be sure to read a lot. Go to second-hand bookshops and find obscure old poetry books and pamphlets. Read widely: old and contemporary, classic and off-beat, celebrated and ignored poets. Buy literary magazines. Make notes about what you see, smell, taste and feel each day. Be playful with words and sounds. Writing poetry is messy. Once you have a big body of mess, start cutting abstract words or generalisations. Never throw away or delete your work. Just shift it into another file. Write the kind of poem you want to read.
You don’t write in a vacuum so seek community. I studied creative writing at Aberystwyth University and had brilliant teachers: Matthew Francis, Tiffany Atkinson, Jem Poster and Kelly Grovier. Don’t be knocked back by constructive criticism. Seek it out from writers you trust and admire. For me, this was Elin Ap Hywel, Elizabeth Cook, and Jan Fortune who gave me the best bit of advice: cut all your last two lines! Find writing friends and show them your work. Look at theirs. My poetry friends are Amy McCauley, Katherine Stansfield and Lowri Emlyn and their comments over coffee in the Arts Centre in Aber were spot on.
When you are happy with a cluster of poems, send them out to magazines and don’t despair when they are rejected. Be bloody-minded. Keep editing. Keep sending them. Keep writing.