FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
HELEN MORT: I started when I was a child, at primary school I think – the first poem I can remember composing was something daft about not wanting to tidy my bedroom! My mum would read to me constantly, right from when I was small so I think I fell in love with the sound of language. Listening has always been important to me. I’m an only child so I spent a lot of time with the radio, or making up my own imaginary games and conversations.
FP: 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.
HM: When I was a teenager, I entered a competition on a whim: it was the Foyle Young Poets of the Year prize and I really didn’t think I would get anywhere with it. To my utter amazement, I was chosen as a winner. The prize was to attend an Arvon course with two tutors and other young writers. That course was an awakening for me. A validation. The chance to see that other people cared as much about words and their sound and their order as I did. That’s when I first dared to imagine that one day other people might way to read my poems. I always love working with young or aspiring writers because I know how pivotal that time was for me.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
HM: It has always been a bit of a dream! I was a judge for the Forward Prizes a few years ago and I can still remember the joy and privilege of immersing myself in so many new books. I recall thinking what an honour it would be to be on one of those lists myself. But I didn’t think it would actually happen!
FP: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
HM: This is my third collection and the book has been a journey. My work has always been concerned with body image and the female body – my last poetry book explored some of the stories of early pioneering women mountaineers and drew on my physical life as a rock climber and long distance runner. But this collection took a bit of time to find its form. Many of the poems emerged after the birth of my son and a period of postpartum depression. Then, when my son was still small, I had the bizarre and traumatic experience of finding out that someone had taken pictures of me from Google and my social media accounts and turned them into violent ‘deepfake’ porn. At the same time, my mum was diagnosed with a life-altering degenerative condition. I wanted the book to examine the ways that we attempt to take ‘ownership’ of our bodies after these unexpected and defamiliarizing experiences. I was very influenced by John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’, the idea of internalised surveillance.
For me, one of the most powerful means of reclaiming my body has been through body modification. There’s a direct correlation between my own encounters with gendered violence and the number of tattoos I’ve ended up getting. The history of the illustrated female body is full of contradictions, rebellions, injustice and defiance. In 2018, women overtook men as being more likely to get inked. There are more female tattooists working in the industry than ever before. But women still report feeling more judged than men for their body art. I wanted to chart the contested history of the ‘tattooed lady’, from the hypocrisies faced by Victorian working class women who could earn more in the circus than their male counterparts but were still expected to cover up in the street to recent research cited in Psychology Today showing women with tattoos are assumed to be more promiscuous than ‘their clear-skinned counterparts’. The title is a response to Ray Bradbury’s story ‘The Illustrated Man’. Its also a nod to the idea of the body as charted, mapped but unknowable, something we try to illustrate for ourselves. I also write about the body as it ages, the influence of online porn on the porn industry and the violations of image abuse. There’s a preoccupation with skin and the idea of being ‘thin-skinned’ which, of course, all writers are when they are receptive to ideas.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
HM: This book was hugely influenced by reading Natalie Diaz and the way that she merges bodies of land and human bodies – ‘merges’ is the wrong word, she shows us how they are one and the same.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
HM: My beloved dad, the man who introduced me to mountains and mountaineering, suffered a life altering stroke in 2021 and we are now at the point of supporting him to see if he will be able to walk again. I’m in the early stages of writing some poems which consider the word ‘stroke’ and what it holds, how much many of us take for granted when we stand or walk. It has made me intensely aware of the privileges I have in my own body, the simple things. So many people live with physical disabilities and I’m a bit ashamed that – as someone who has defined their life through sport – it has taken me so long to properly consider that, to try and empathise with my body as well as my mind.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
HM: Read. And never stop reading. You can always learn more from other poets. Don’t ever think your work is done!