FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it? 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.
MARTHA SPRACKLAND: I must’ve been six or so. In a truly weird twist of fate, the first poem I might’ve written was in Liverpool, at a workshop for children at the Palm House in Sefton Park, where Deryn Rees-Jones helped me to write a poem about a mouse, on purple sugar-paper, with a felt-tip. I’d forgotten this completely, of course, until I told my mum, who is a poet, that I’d signed a contract with Liverpool University Press, with Deryn as my editor – she looked quite startled and reminded me of that link back a quarter-century ago. I doubt Deryn remembers that first editorial session.
Though I can’t quite claim to actually remember that, I do remember being very excited about poems when I was young. I used to enter them into the Original Poem category at the village show, along with the miniature flower arrangements (different category) mentioned in one of the poems in Citadel. I was better at the flowers, in those days. I would write poems in my school books (I found a few, last year, in a dusty box, with their kind This is a lovely poem, Martha, but it does not answer the question and will therefore receive NO MARKS in the teacher’s exasperated handwriting). A fair bit of the curriculum was tedious, as everyone remembers, I’m sure – plodding through the duller, jingoistic bits of the war poets, but then I was captivated by Sassoon, when we got to him, and Owen, and memorised their poems. It was the rhythm that caught me, then: ‘Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled, / And one arm bent across your sullen, cold, / Exhausted face?’ I loved that emphatic rhythm. And its alliteration, the ‘guttering gold’… and then I liked all those same things in Gerard Manley Hopkins, too – ‘God’s Grandeur’:
it will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
The electricity of it, the understanding of and deviation from form, the unsettling effect of the lineation, the music – I used to mutter it to myself as I walked to school.
And then I was well into Plath, I thought, thanks to Alanis Morrissette; it turned out I didn’t understand anything of it but the energy, the patterns, of course, until much later. I was too young! The mystery was part of the point, though; it hinted at something I later learned to call the confessional, but at the time – I might’ve been twelve – just felt transgressive, honest, intimate, just out of reach – completely tantalising.
I was very lucky to have poetry books on the shelves at home – I’ve never been more grateful for anything, I don’t think – so I could discover Keats and Celan and Eliot, and, in my early teens, to find Olds and Lorca and Sexton.
The life-changer was winning the Foyle Young Poets Award, and getting to go on a week-long Arvon course, to Lumb Bank, when I was eleven. That cemented it, I think, that week spent with likeminded kids, teenagers, all staying up late and writing and reading poems together – I was hooked.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
MS: I haven’t come to terms with how it feels. It feels good. I didn’t expect it, because the book is strange, as a reviewer has astutely pointed out. I didn’t set out to write something so convoluted, but I think it has come out that way – at some point its symbolic language took charge.
Anyway, I’m delighted. It’s taken a long time for me to get to the point of publishing a debut, though I’ve been writing for more than two decades and working in poetry as an editor for something like thirteen years – it’s been tough. I don’t swallow my own medicine, editorially. Six times, seven, eight perhaps, I reached the point of a full manuscript, and every time lost confidence in it before any editor even saw it – started again from scratch, reinventions so successful many of those poems are completely lost, now. I wouldn’t put up with myself, if I were my editor. It’s thanks to Pavilion, and to Deryn’s acuity that the book exists at all.
So, I’m delighted. And I’m delighted on other counts, too – this year feels too good to be true: not only does the Best Single Poem category include a poem I put forward from Poetry London, where I am editor (the spectacular ‘Mama Cockroach, I Love You’ by Fiona Benson), but my brilliant author Ella Frears’s debut Shine, Darling is on the First Collection shortlist, too. It feels like we’ve both been invited to the same very good party.
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?
MS: I didn’t set out to write around a theme – the poems just coalesced that way. I didn’t set out to write about Juana, either – and in a way, I haven’t written about her; I didn’t want to write her biography, fascinating though it is.
Rather, I needed some help, I think, in writing the poems, and communication with Juana helped me to do that. I felt I had to be very careful when sharing page-space with her – I have an advantage, in that I have a voice (Juana left almost nothing written down), and I haven’t intended to employ her voice in my service – rather, I wanted to be overheard in conversation with her.
At its simplest, Citadel is a book about a rupture or portal in time, through which two women separated by hundreds of years could talk. Juana spent the majority of her life incarcerated, and I wanted to create a different reality in which she could be written to, entertained by a sequence of letrillas, spoken to, kept company, and in which the contemporary speaker of the poems could also find companionship and succour.
The citadel itself is a place of both danger and safety, a retreat from pain but also a prison, the fortification of the body but also the bounded space of the mind. When there is a breach in it, in the walls or in time, things can enter and depart – there’s risk in it, and freedom. So when the protections come down it’s possible for communication to occur, for snatches of sound (techno from a car stereo, karaoke in a holiday resort, sirens, the shipping forecast) or light (the blue flash of an ambulance, fork lightning) or even objects (a cord, a hubcap, a dangerous dead man) to cross over.
I wrote most of these poems in Madrid, where I’ve spent a lot of my time since I was in my late teens – at first draft, these poems were footed by street names, forming a sort of walking-guide to the city. The other major location in the poems is Ainsdale, a coastal village in the north west of England, on the boundary between Merseyside and Lancashire, where I grew up. That’s an unpredictable place. There are wrecked ships buried in the beach, exposed every so often at very low tide. The sand blows and covers everything. The dunes walk, and howl. In ‘Aquarium’ and in the sequence ‘Melr’ that landscape and distant Madrid make some communication, too.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
MS: I mentioned Olds, Plath, Hopkins and Lorca already, I think – they remain touchstones. Elizabeth Bishop, big time. Selima Hill was one of my first favourites, particularly Bunny, and Derek Walcott. The late, great Eavan Boland. I think Karen Solie is incredibly good, and Tara Bergin, and Frances Leviston. Denise Riley of course. I’m not sure how comprehensively I want to answer this question. I like assonance, I like broken forms, I like a sense of play and trickery, I like poems that sound like incantation. I like poems of transfiguration, poems that try to bend the real world into a different shape. I like being able to see the work in it.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
MS: Lord knows. A difficult second album. At the moment I’m writing about portable holes, The Animals of Farthing Wood, detectives and dioramas; giving the teeth, blood and eggs a rest for a little while.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
MS: Be curious about absolutely everything; be curious about your own curiosity. I like how Peter Schjeldahl has it in a recent article: ‘To limber your sensibility, stalk the aesthetic everywhere: cracks in a sidewalk, people’s ways of walking. The aesthetic isn’t bounded by art, which merely concentrates it for efficient consumption.’ That’s stayed with me.