FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
VICKI FEAVER: As a child I found a book of William Blake’s poems in my parents’ bookcase. I wrote my name, Victoria Turton (as I was then) and address inside the cover and kept it under my bed and read it at night by torchlight. When someone asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and I said, ‘A poet’, they laughed. Aged about fourteen, still harbouring the secret ambition to be a poet, I discovered Dylan Thomas. Long before the film Dead Poets Society, I stole matches and a candle, poured sherry into a cough-mixture bottle to swig, and read his poems to my friends in a wine cellar deep under our school.
FAF: 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.
VF: I didn’t begin writing seriously until my mid-thirties when the last of my four children went to school. The anecdote in the poem ‘1974’ is true. A man at a party asked me ‘What do you do in the afternoons?’ Desperate not to admit that I was a housewife, mother and typist for my then husband, I lied, ‘I’m a poet’. It had the effect, as I put it in the poem, of
jolting myself to life:
a woman buried under ice
with the poems burning inside.
Soon after, I joined a poetry class at Morley College, taught by Colin Falk. Selima Hill was a fellow student. My first book, Close Relatives, was published by Secker in 1981.
By the time my second book, The Handless Maiden (Cape, 1994) was published, I was living alone and in a full-time teaching post. It was an enormously important book for me. The title poem is based on the fairy tale of a girl whose hands were cut off but grew again when she plunged her arms into a spring to save her drowning baby. Interpretted psychoanalytically, as the recovery of her lost creativity, it was my story. Fairy tales, bible stories and legends were perfect vehicles for poems that broke away from what I regarded as the tameness of my previous work. ‘Gloves off’, as Adrienne Rich put it, I wrote ‘Ironing’, ‘Marigolds’ and ‘Judith’, a poem about the murder of Holofernes that won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem.
The Book of Blood (Cape, 2006) reflected a move to the country, first to a house with a toad in the cellar (‘Bufo Bufo’) and then, remarried, to a house with bats in the roof. Later, after a move to Scotland, a gun entered the house with surprising results. Doubtful at first, about the killing of pigeons and rabbits, I describe how
I join in the cooking: jointing
and slicing, stirring and tasting –
excited as if the King of Death
had arrived to feast, stalking
out of winter woods,
his black mouth
sprouting golden crocuses.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
VF: It means a huge amount to me. The Book of Blood was shortlisted, too. But the twelve year gap between the books and the fact that I don’t move in poetry circles, and that there are so many good poets writing and less space for reviews, means that the recognition of being on the Forward shortlist is even more precious. Until now, I’ve had to be content with lovely emails from my children and sister and friends. Among them was Wendy Cope who wrote, ‘I sat down and read it from cover to cover without getting bored. There aren’t many new books of poems I can say that about . It’s great to find one I can understand, enjoy and admire.’
FAF: 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?
VF: Neither the title, I Want! I Want!, nor the idea of a book that follows a ladder of life from childhood to old-age, came immediately. I set out initially to write a book of poems about childhood, a subject that had provided rich material in previous books. The first poems I wrote, such as ‘Boy with a Knife’ and ‘Elocution’ centred on incidents from caravan holidays and school, still vivid in my memory. Further poems, ‘War Baby’, ‘The Doll with a China Head’, ‘VE Day Photo’ and ‘Pugilist’, reveal a child fought over by her mother and grandmother, absorbing their grief for her uncle killed fighting at the end of World War II, and upset by the arrival of a new baby. I stopped writing poems about childhood because I found it too upsetting. My mother was dead, but it still felt wrong to write negatively about her, or about sibling rivalry. I didn’t want to upset my sister.
Fortunately, filled with these and other anxieties, I wrote the poem ‘Prayer at Seventy’ and, soon after was offered a commission to write poems about old-age for a Saltire Society pamphlet. I might have turned it down – I’m not good at deadlines – but I’d recently run a poetry workshop at the former home of the artist, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. Her injunction to her ninety-two-year-old self, ‘Do it now. Say it now. Don’t be afraid’, inspired me not only to write the poems for the pamphlet but to go on and finish the book. ‘The Blue Wave’, one of my favourite poems, imagines her working on a painting that I remembered seeing in her house: lifting her arm in
a single brave
upwards sweep with a wide
distemper brush, so loaded
with paint the canvas filled
with the glittering blue wall
of a wave before it falls.
The first poems I wrote addressed my fears about old-age: memory loss in ‘Forgetfulness’, the ageing body in ‘Bone-house’, and, in ‘The Mower’, the maddening way that when I was young and unhappy time crawled past and now I was older and happier it speeded up like ‘an out-of-control mower […] decapitating all the flowers’. I wrote cheerful poems too: ‘All Kinds of Horses’, an antidote to dementia about the playfulness and sensual delight of being old. The roses in ‘These Roses You Gave Me’, are versions of me and my friends, like ‘elderly actresses / performing until they drop’:
one boasts an errant streak
of canary yellow, another,
a bush of gold stamens
The childhood and old-age sections almost complete, I created a middle section containing poems like ‘Head Wars’ and ‘Bramble Arm’ about the effects of childhood stress on my mind and body. Also included were poems on the theme of wanting – ‘The Snow Queen’ who wants a husband, ‘The Mermaid’ who wants to leave the sea. ‘The Surgeon’s Widow’ (another of my favourite poems), is so grief-stricken by the death of her husband she digs up his bones and reassembles his skeleton. Putting into her my feelings of grief and longing for the loss of partners I’d loved, I found it easy to imagine her washing the skeleton husband, dancing with him, carrying him up the stairs, and slipping into bed beside him:
his knees slotted into the crook
of her knees, her buttocks
cradled by his pelvis,
her head on the pillow
beside his, dreaming
of his breath on her neck.
The title of the book and cover illustration came from the poem ‘to William Blake’ which describes how, reading his poems as a child, I decided to be a poet, ‘undaunted / as the child you pictured – / one foot on a ladder / reaching to the moon, / crying, ‘I want! I want!’
Finally, after writing the poem ‘The Ladder’, I suggested to Robin Robertson, my editor at Cape, the idea of ladder motifs to separate the sections; testing his patience to the limit by wanting them drawn to just to the right degree of wobbliness.
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?
VF: It is a strange thing to say about a book that looks back at a life from old-age and contemplates an uncertain future but I hope that it might be consoling. There are some sad poems in the book. But overall it’s a book about growth and survival and the healing powers of nature and the imagination.
One of the poems that cheers me most is ‘Blackbird Shower’. I wrote it after I’d stood for ages in the shower, so lost in worry that I hadn’t noticed what should have been the pleasurable sensation of hot spray bouncing off my skin. Looking through the bathroom window to see a blackbird having a wonderful time splashing in a puddle, I imagined swapping my ‘wrinkled skin and shrivelled spirit / for his glossy plumage / and joie de vivre’, flying through the window and, sinking my breast into a puddle’s coolness,
then fluffing out my feathers
and shaking myself,
sending a spray
of glittering drops
over my back and wings.
Another poem that cheers me is ‘Old Woman in a Forsythia Bush’, written after a particularly grim winter. This year, when spring arrived as it still does, whatever nightmares beset the world, I sat among the bush’s ‘starry stems’ trying to recapture the time-out-of-time experience of feeling
buoyant again, as if sprung
from my body and floating
above it, like a seed flung
from the grey head
of a dandelion.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
VF: For a long time it was poets from the canon of English Literature: Herbert, Donne, Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Blake. Then I discovered John Clare and Edward Thomas. It was only in my thirties, when I began to write poetry, that I discovered women poets: Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti and then Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, Denise Levertov, Stevie Smith, Adrienne Rich and, later, Sharon Olds, and since then many more. What I admire about all these very different poets is the clarity of their imagery and language. Also, their power to move me and excite me with a little quiver of envy (Oh, if only I could have written that!). I like all kinds of poems: story poems, place poems, object poems, riddles, confessional poems and dramatic poems that speak in the voice of a character, or thing. When I discover a poem I like very much, I copy it into my notebook: most recently, Yeats’s poem ‘The Stare’s Nest by my Window’ and ‘Wish’ by Mary Jean Chan.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
VF: I never set out with a plan. The only confidence I have in writing poetry at all is that when an idea for a poem comes into my head I usually can’t resist trying to get it into words. Hopefully when I’ve accumulated enough poems they will suggest a possible direction.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
VF: Read as much poetry as you can, from the past as well as contemporary poets. Keep a notebook. Copy in to it poems that you really love. Maybe in another notebook (though I have only one) write down immediately things that strike you as interesting material for poems. Be patient. Don’t get so excited at writing a poem that you send it off, as I have often done, when it is only half-cooked.