FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
CECILIA KNAPP: I confess it was a total accident. I didn’t know poetry was a career and I certainly didn’t know about the (vivid and alive) contemporary British poetry scene until I stumbled across a free spoken word workshop at the Roundhouse when I was eighteen. The poetry community became visible to me after this, suddenly I was going to readings and seeing the most incredible poets, live on stage, reading poems that felt so new, original, playful and spoke to the current moment. It sparked my love, it led me to voraciously read and watch a wide range of poetry, seek out other free workshops (I was young and broke, thank you Apples and Snakes and other arts charities!) and get the courage to start writing and performing.
FP: 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.
CK: I think when everyone starts out, it’s like trying on a bunch of different hats. Am I a floppy hat person? How about a beret? My poems didn’t have a voice for a while, I was learning and reading and digesting like an eager little sponge. It was fun. But when I started to discover and land on the poems for my first collection, poems that felt like they were speaking to each other and might cohere into a body of work, I felt I knew a bit more about who I was as a writer, what I wanted to write about and how. It was a bit of a step change and a focus. A lot of this was to do with kind mentors and editors encouraging me to nudge through certain doors that were, until then, only ajar. They gave me permission to write my poems in my voice, to find the things I enjoyed and write into them. Something clicked then. I had a body of work that I was proud of. Though I do believe that anyone can, and should, say they’re a poet, regardless of where they are in their poetry life. Not all journeys are the same, and there aren’t arbitrary markers to identify you as a poet who has ‘arrived.’ It’s hard to define what feeling like a poet is, but I think all it takes is just a real love for poems; reading them, delighting in them, writing them.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
CK: I don’t really write with an audience in mind. Writing is a process of discovery; how do I find the language for this vast internal territory I am slipping around on? I write and I am alone, nudging language around a page. Then I nervously share it with some trusted friends. Then I send it out into the world not knowing what will happen but hoping something will. To know that this poem has not only been read but that it’s had some sort of impact is just incredibly affirming and connecting. I read poetry because it allows me to empathise with others, to see the world a little differently, to understand more deeply a particular feeling or uncertainty. If my poem can do that for someone else, I feel part of a huge community, an ongoing exchange of writing, sharing and reading, and that’s an honour I do not underestimate.
FP: 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?
CK: The poem is from Peach Pig my debut collection forthcoming with Corsair on the 6th October. Amongst other things, the poems look, in lots of different ways, at the death of my older brother to suicide following years of addiction. The shortlisted poem is a space for one aspect of grief; the surrealness and mundanity of life without the person you adored, the macabre humour we lean into to cope, the precarity of memory, the unanswerable questions you are left with. I think I’ll be writing about grief forever. Every time I think I have found a way to express the experience of grief, it slips and changes with time, and I am sat again at my desk with the cat, writing a new poem, this time from a new angle.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
CK: Too many to list! Caroline Bird taught me about finding the joy in writing, the impossibility of what we do and how that can be ultimately freeing and generative. Rachel Long gave me permission to say the things in poems I thought I ‘wasn’t supposed to say.’ Natalie Shapero is endlessly hilarious and devastating. Gboyega Odubanjo is a delight to read and watch; his voice is compelling and original. I always go back to James Tate and Frank O’Hara and Anne Carson. Lately I’ve enjoyed reading Hannah Sullivan, Jack Underwood and Rachael Allen – the contemporary poetry community is just abundant with brilliant, distinct voices.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
CK: My collection is out on the 6th October. I have been working on it in some way for over a decade. I think I’m ready to release it, and in the releasing of it, see what that opens up in my new poems. I write novels too, my debut Little Boxes was published in March and I have a new one in the pipeline. And I teach as well- it’s something I love to do, to talk about poetry and all it can do for us. So more of that I hope.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
CK: Don’t be afraid to write about the things you want to, in a voice that feels right for you. And have fun. Don’t take it too seriously. That’s when the magic happens.