FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: Please talk about your development as a write of poems. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
SASHA DUGDALE: I don’t think I ever feel like a poet. That feels too grand a title. I write poems because I have to write them, and I suffer when I can’t find that space to write. You have to allow poems space or they can be silenced – they wither and disappear when they are not tended. I think ‘tending’ poetry is still harder for women, who are often juggling jobs and being carers. I read Tilly Olsen’s Silences as a young mother, and absolutely identified with her analysis of the problems for women writers. I know there are writers who write a great deal and then out of their writing they gather material and poems that work. Other writers write very little and only when they have to. I’m in the latter category. For me to write a poem the stars have to be correctly aligned! So when I don’t manage to tend the poem and bring it to life it feels doubly hard.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
SD: I’m delighted because it’s proof that the poem has communicated with others, and I am also delighted for Michael Schmidt and PN Review. It’s a long poem and I was grateful to Michael for publishing it. I sent it in desperation and I didn’t begin to think he would publish it!
FAF: Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?
SD: ‘Joy’ is a long monologue, spoken by Catherine, the widow of the poet William Blake. William Blake was a craftsman, an engraver, and he lived in poverty and disregard, working constantly and gripped by the passion of his work until the day he died. William married Catherine when he was 24, he taught her to read and write and to help him in his craft. They lived and worked side by side until Blake’s death. Catherine was involved in all his work, colouring, making up chemicals, perhaps even drawing. They were never parted. In this monologue Catherine looks back at their life together in her grief and solitude. Part of her grief is the natural grief of losing a life-partner, but I also wanted to consider what it would be like to lose a partner in creativity, in poetry. All the parts of Blake’s life were so integrated, that Catherine, in losing Blake, lost everything. In the poem the word ‘Blake’ runs through like a leitmotif.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
SD: I read a good deal of world poetry because of my work editing Modern Poetry in Translation. Recently I have been reading Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War and I have huge admiration for this book. I’ve also really enjoyed Richard Zenith’s translations of Carlos Drummond (published by Penguin), Krystyna Miłobędzka in Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese’s translations, Syrian poet Golan Haji in Stephen Watt’s translations and David Constantine’s translations of Brecht. I translate from Russian, and I am desperate to get my teeth into the poems of excellent contemporary poet Maria Stepanova. In all cases I read this work because I need to – it is like a vitamin injection. English suddenly seems bigger and richer and I itch to write again.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
SD: I am itching to write at the moment! There is so much to write about. The world is full of wonderful and frightful things which interest me and I want to consider, either in poetry or prose. I’d like to write in a more experimental way, but I also like the tension between the traditional lyric and contemporary madness.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
SD: I was very anxious when I started publishing work. I never wanted anyone to read it. I felt shamed. Now I would tell my younger self to be braver and thicker-skinned and to dig away deeper at what I thought I wanted to write. And of course (everyone always says it) to read. But read like a predator, only read what is useful!