FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it? Please talk about your development as a writer of poems. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
REGI CLAIRE: I started writing and publishing fiction in the mid-nineties and early on was told by poet friends that I approach writing ‘like a poet’. This rather puzzled me, but it’s true: I argue through image, I care about rhythm and sound (I read work-in-progress aloud to myself) and I’m very conscious of patterns and form/structure. Also, I prefer obliqueness and regard the reader as my collaborator.
That said, ‘(Un)certainties’ is my first ‘real’ poem. I wrote it from mid-March to early April 2019, moved by a sudden deep urge. And what a rush I got when I sensed while working on it that something within me had changed. Not so much my sensibilities as a writer perhaps, but my attitude towards my writing. Yes, I realised, I was free to play with sound, rhythm and imagery, was free to reveal meaning through an unorthodox form, free to leave spaces, silences. And yet I wasn’t sure I’d actually written a poem – not until a very good friend, a novelist and poet, kept referring to ‘(Un)certainties’ as ‘your poem’.
Since completing ‘(Un)certainties’, I have written a two-page narrative poem (as well as some short fiction). What a liberation to be able to acknowledge, at long last, my poet’s voice!
I write slowly, painstakingly, and I’m not very disciplined. I write in fits and starts, sometimes with my eyes closed, letting my mind go blank and my fingers find their own way around the keyboard.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
RC: It’s an incredible honour and a real affirmation, and it has given me a near-tearful sense of self-belief and the courage to persevere, to take myself seriously as a poet.
My heartfelt thanks to this year’s judges and the Forward Arts Foundation.
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?
RC: One morning in mid-March 2019 I woke up and just knew I wouldn’t be able to continue being a writer unless I expressed my grief, expressed it in a form that could contain and make some kind of sense, even a warped sense, of the senselessness of my sister’s and her partner’s deaths. Lying there in bed, yet again overwhelmed by all my unanswered and unanswerable questions, I suddenly thought of the only possible format that might help put them in some kind of order while at the same time reflecting my distress: a multiple choice questionnaire. Although a drastic and reductive solution, it would give readers the necessary breathing space and allow them to try and fill in the gaps.
Barely a fortnight earlier I’d been deeply affected by Jo Ann Beard’s extraordinary personal account of a US college massacre, published in the New Yorker in 1996. ‘The Fourth State of Matter’ looks and reads like a short story but is, in fact, non-fiction. I chose it for discussion in my critical reading group, which I’d set up under the auspices of the Royal Literary Fund’s Reading Round scheme.
Beard’s subversion of genre became a catalyst, as if a door had opened inside me, letting the light shine in.
I cried as I wrote ‘(Un)certainties’, cried as I re-wrote and re-wrote, cried as I read aloud. But I couldn’t let my sister go unsung.
‘(Un)certainties’ forms the heart of my work-in-progress, a narrative consisting of poetry, short fiction and non-fiction.
Please feel free to visit my website: www.regiclaire.com for examples of my other writing.
FAF: At this moment, the world has been turned upside down by Covid-19. How do you think these extraordinary times will affect your readers’ response to your work?
RC: I hope that ‘(Un)certainties’ and its portrayal of the bewilderment, powerlessness and grief I felt after my sister’s ordeal will give solace to readers and allow them to mourn their own losses.
FAF: Which poets, that you’ve read in the past year, would you most recommend to others and why?
RC: I have been especially moved and impressed by the work of Alice Oswald, Maggie Millner and W S Merwin. Their poetry achieves that rare thing, transcendence. Here are a few of my jotted-down thoughts, in no particular order: meaning as a shimmer of possibilities, form as meaning, words turned inside out and outside in, shape-shifting, quicksilver flashes of insight, epiphany, revelation, stillness of the moment, metamorphosis, arresting imagery, simplicity, universality, playfulness.
And, of course, I love and admire the poetry of Edwin Morgan and Norman MacCaig, two of Scotland’s Grand Old Men, both of whom I had the great pleasure of meeting in their own homes.
A framed print of Eddie’s concrete poem ‘Shadow’ (from his series Guten Morgan) hangs to the left of my desk, and a sun-bleached postcard of one of his Brecht translations is taped to the wall in front of me, below the skylight: ‘When the times darken / will there be singing even then? / There will be singing even then. / Of how the times darken.’
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
RC: I will go wherever the mood takes me as I try to listen to my inner voice. I would love to work towards a first collection.
FAF: Can we look forward to a publication in the near future?
RC: I have recently completed my third collection of short fictions, A Bestiary for Our Times, for which I’d like to find a publisher.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
RC: Give yourself a chance. Be inventive. Push boundaries but don’t write for effect. Always remain true to yourself. Write what only you can write. Trust yourself! And read – read aloud. Different poets, voices, themes, structures, sound worlds, rhythms, imagery etc. Listen as you read and, if possible, listen to the poets themselves.