When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
Poetry wasn’t even on the curriculum at the state primary and comprehensive schools I attended. My mother had a beautifully illustrated, hard-backed copy of The Rubaiyat in the house though and encouraged me to read it. Although I was too young to understand most of it, there was a sense of meaning in the voice that I found beguiling; it seemed to transcend everyday logic. Then, in my late teens I discovered Seamus Heaney and Les Murray – poets who often wrote about fields and farms, the landscape that surrounded me.
The final element of me becoming a poet was the influence of a former tutor, Caron Freeborn. Caron was a poet and novelist who gave me great encouragement – she was so enthusiastic about my early poems that eventually I grew in confidence and began to write more and more.
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.
In 2016, I entered a pamphlet competition (Paper Swans Press). I never thought I would get shortlisted, let alone win. I looked on it more as an exercise in ordering and structuring poems I’d written over a four-year period. When I heard that I’d won, it took me weeks to come to terms with it (I think I had imposter syndrome), but when I began to get invited to do readings and the pamphlet went on to win the Saboteur Awards, I finally began to feel like a poet.
Another crucial aspect of my development as a poet is the support I was given and the welcome extended to me as a new poet from other poets. This kindness stayed with me and made me want to give back to poetry. As such, about five years ago, I created my own poetry magazine, Fenland Poetry Journal. I also started an open-mic evening and have been single-handedly running the Fenland Poet Laureate Awards.
What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
I’m overwhelmed, a little shocked and so very grateful to the panel of judges and everyone involved with the Forward Prizes – and of course, I’m indebted to Chris and Jen at Salt Publishing! Chris heard me read a few poems from my name is abilene last year at an event in Margate held by Richard Skinner. Afterwards, Chris contacted me to ask me whether I’d be interested in sending him the collection. I was delighted, but also panicked as I’d sent it to another publisher. I didn’t want to submit simultaneously, so I decided the best course of action was to contact the first publisher, explain the situation and ask whether they had read the collection yet. They hadn’t, so I sent it to Chris who responded the next day with an acceptance!
Being shortlisted for such a prestigious prize has also made me reflect on my poetry journey and the poets who’ve helped me so much along the way: Mona Arshi, Rachael Allen, Sharon Black, John Greening, Rebecca Goss – just to name a few.
Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book.
I entered my full name (first, middle and last names) in an anagram maker and one of the phrases it gave me was ‘Abilene Fluorescent nightclothes.’ I challenged myself to write a poem from that prompt and the title poem of the collection was the result. At the time, I was going through some difficulties in my personal life. It was the year of lockdowns and I stepped into the persona of Abilene. She became an imaginative extension of my life and personality.
I feel this collection does mark a departure from my earlier work, not so much in terms of rural setting, but in structure and approach. I wanted to capture the way in which memories can be like waves. They rarely come as a single wave and however they come, they wash over a person to the extent that they have no control. They may emerge feeling cleansed or almost drowned. As such, I decided to sequence many of the poems, with a gentle break (a fleuron) indicating a lull before the next wave.
Flowers are an integral part of abilene. There was an image early on in the development of the book that I kept returning to – that of a lone rain-drenched rose in a neglected garden. That image came to symbolise so much in terms of what’s going on in the collection.
In terms of punctuation and lower-case letters as entry points to the poem, I am a fan of letting the line push and pull against the white space to create its own punctuation. I also like to let the reader step into the poem without the grand gesture of a capital letter and step away without the finality of a full stop (I don’t like to think of leaving a poem as an exit). I did feel that in places I needed some commas and full-stops, however, as a reading aid.
Despite my need to capture the rawness of Abilene (in many ways I wanted her to be a metaphorical representation of female pain when a woman is pushed too far), I also felt it necessary to create some degree of overarching structure. I decided that the book could largely be put into two sections, introducing a chronological order: ‘before john’ and ‘abilene.’
I knew I wanted to create situational vehicles for the feelings of betrayal, heartbreak and pain to be worked through. To a certain degree, Abilene is such an absurd rendering of the heartbroken woman, that I had to move far away from conventional tropes. Abilene is anything but conventional.
Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
I admire poets such as Benjamin Garcia, Richard Scott and Sharon Olds for their brilliance and the fearlessness of their art. Also, years ago, I was introduced to the work of John Berryman – his use of persona has had a great influence on my own work. Daljit Nagra is another poet whose energy, creativity and wit inspired me to push my poetry further.
What is next for you as a poet?
I am writing a collection that takes the Prime Meridian Line as its main focus. I am also halfway through writing a crime fiction novel.
What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
So much of poetry is about truth, writing or speaking the truest things. Often, it’s difficult to locate or acknowledge your truth because it’s been hidden, due to it not being pretty or conventional, for example, but I encourage you to sit with your truth for a while. Let it speak.