Interview with poet, Helen Mort

As a young poet who is tentatively starting to get my work out there, I was delighted when Sheffield born poet, Helen Mort, agreed to do an interview with me recently for my Arts Award in Writing. I love Helen’s work, and I’m also inspired by how she has accomplished so much with it so young.

Helen started taking her writing seriously in her early teens winning a Foyle Young Poets award a staggering 5 times. She has published two collections with Chatto & Windus and four pamphlets. Amongst her various accolades, Helen won an Eric Gregory Award and the Manchester Young Writer Prize in 2008. She was also the youngest ever poet in residence at The Wordsworth Trust, in 2010, and the 5th Derbyshire Poet Laureate in 2013. All this and she’s currently writing a novel and a play, and she’s not even 30!

Here, Helen talks about her journey as a writer from a young age and her latest collection No Map Could Show Us. She also offers some great insights and tips into writing and editing poetry.
Beth Davies

When did you start writing and what do you think attracted you to poetry?

Probably when I was at primary school, around seven or eight. And I just always loved reading or being read to when I was a kid. My mum used to have to read to me to get me to stop crying. I think it’s the sound of language that I got totally attracted to. I used to dictate poems to my mum when I first started to get interested in creating things myself. A lot of my poems even now start from sound rather than from a sense of what I want to talk about. It’s quite a musical, miracle sort of thing for me.

I used to dictate poems to my mum when I first started to get interested in creating things myself. A lot of my poems even now start from sound rather than from a sense of what I want to talk about.

What motivated you to go on to focus on a career in writing?

I always think career is a weird word around poetry. A lot of people talk about poetry as a career but for me it never really feels like a career. It’s just something that I’ve always had an impulse to do, whether or not I could make any sort of living from it. I think that, like a lot of writers, but especially a lot of poets, I don’t feel like I’m very articulate most of the time. if I’m talking to people in conversation, if I’m emailing someone even, I just get really nervous and often feel like that thing that I’m saying isn’t quite what I really mean. But poetry has always been a bit different. It’s something about how short and concise it is as a form. I feel like, if I’ve managed to get it into that small shape on the page, it must be what I really want or need to say. And there’s something really appealing about that, rather than the rest of the time feeling like you’re not quite getting it right or you’re not quite communicating properly. I guess that means I’ll always want to express myself, whether or not anybody’s wanting to publish it, so I always think of it as more of a vocation than a career.

But poetry has always been a bit different. It’s something about how short and concise it is as a form. I feel like, if I’ve managed to get it into that small shape on the page, it must be what I really want or need to say.

divstreetCan you tell me about your journey into publication?

To cut a long story short, it was, like most people, lots of sending work out, starting with magazines and competitions, particularly the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, which helped to get some of my work out there. And then I published four pamphlets before I ever had a collection out. So I started small, publishing individual poems first, then shorter collections, meeting more and more people along the way, reading widely. I think it’s a good tip with magazines, to read the places that you’re going to submit to and see which ones might be the best destination for your work.

How do you think you’ve evolved as a writer over the years?

Great question. It’s really hard to answer because sometimes you’re not sure that you have evolved that much. The main thing for me has been getting better at editing. When I look back on some of my early publications, it tended to be that I just sort of splurged things onto the page. Then I got better at reviewing my work and paring it back a little bit and making the poems more tightly focused. Definitely around the time I published my first and second collections, I was getting more like that, more lyric, more condensed poems. Ironically, having done all that, recently I’m starting to feel like I want to be a bit more expansive again and to make my poems a bit more sprawling. I think some of these things come full circle the more you write. Definitely what’s been a big change has been confidence with editing and confidence in my own judgement, not feeling like I have to ask other people all the time.

One area I struggle with in my poetry is editing my work. Could you tell me a bit about your own editing/rewriting process and do you have any advice?

It is really hard! I really sympathised because I do as well. And you’re probably better at it than you think. I think it’s just something we’ve all got anxiety about.

I have one person who’s a really good friend who I show most of my work to. Quite a lot of the time I don’t show it to anyone else, just to that one person. Whoever you share your early work with, it’s got to be somebody who understands what you’re trying to get at, or what you want to do with your work. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be exactly the same as you in that, but they have to be able to give you feedback that isn’t just ‘Oh this is what I’d do’. You need somebody who’s sympathetic to the way you write.

When you look critically at your own work, or when you get someone else to look at it, what you really want to know is what are the criticisms that could be levelled at this poem. But that isn’t the same as asking what definitely should be altered about this poem. For example, I might show someone a poem and they might say that it risks being too sentimental. I might tone some of it down a bit, or I might think that’s something I’m willing to risk in the service of what this particular poem is trying to do. It’s important to get that sense of what somebody could critique about your poem, but you don’t have to take 100% of their criticisms on and change absolutely everything about your piece. It’s important to hold onto a sense of your purpose and self, as well as valuing those external opinions. It’s a bit of a balancing act, a process of juggling.

When you look critically at your own work, or when you get someone else to look at it, what you really want to know is what are the criticisms that could be levelled at this poem.

Definitely finding someone that you trust to look at your poems is very important. Also, a really basic practical piece of advice is to put the poem away for a few days and look at it fresh. You get too close to things that you’ve just written. It’s amazing what difference it can make to look at it cold later on.

I was really interested by your poems about the stories of real historical climbers like Alison Hargreaves. How do you approach writing about someone else’s experience and how does research inform these poems?

I think you do need to do a lot of research. For example, with the poems about Alison Hargreaves, I was reading her diaries and biographies of her. It’s important to read widely and have that information in your head. But then, paradoxically, when you sit down to write the poems, you’ve got to push it to the back of your mind and think about your own investment in that particular subject. It doesn’t matter how much you know about it; why do you care about it? For me, it was thinking that the way that Alison Hargreaves writes in her diary, about how she only feels like herself when she’s climbing, reminded me of how I’ve always felt about writing poetry. I started thinking about that rather than thinking of her as a climber. So read a lot and then keep it in the back of your mind and try to think ‘Why am I invested in this subject or this person’s life? Why do I care? And what might I have to say about it?’ I had to work out my connection to the subject.

nomapA lot of your work strikes me as being really good feminist poetry. What role, if any, does feminism play in your writing?

I’m really chuffed you think the book was a feminist book because I think I wanted it to be. I didn’t set out to write a book that was feminist. I just ended up thinking about how, when I was growing up, all the stories that I read about mountaineering were always narratives by men and how women’s stories have got pushed to one side. I think sometimes feminism is about redressing a balance or making a voice heard in some way. Sometimes it’s about a lot more than that and about more positive action. But feminism in poetry can speak of something and impose a competing narrative. Poetry is really well-placed to show other stories and alternatives. For example, in Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, there’s this idea to tell all these classic stories but tell them differently, tell them slant. That’s such a huge power, the power of imagination, the power to get your particular voice heard.

This thing about offering a parallel narrative is why I called the book No Map Could Show Them. It’s about the idea of things that can’t be held on maps, women’s stories that aren’t always apparent. In mountaineering that’s not just a gender issue. There’s lots of stories that don’t get told, particularly thinking about Sherpas on Everest and the colonial aspect of mountaineering.

Do you think poetry has a purpose? Is there something particular that good poetry ought to do?

I think there’s no such thing as just one kind of poetry. A good poem makes you want to read it again, pure and simple. But I also think poetry’s purpose is something fundamentally political, something that’s about counter-culture and different voices being used in subversive, perhaps ironic, ways. That’s something I was aware of when writing this book. I think subversion through competing narratives is something poetry does brilliantly.

Were the women whose stories you tell in No Map Could Show Them people you were already aware of when you started writing the book, or did you seek out those stories in order to write it?

The best thing about writing that book was that stories lead to other stories. Lots of them I knew I wanted to write about Alison Hargreaves. I had this brilliant book called Mountaineering Women by David Mazel. Often, I’d find somebody in there and then I’d find out about someone else through a reference to them in a story. And also, I was talking to other people, especially other women who like climbing, and they were saying ‘Oh, do you know about So-and-so?’ It was this brilliant kind of web or network of word-of-mouth.

In the end, annoyingly, a lot of the interesting stories that I was reading and hearing about didn’t make it into the book. This links back to your question about research. Just because something’s a really interesting story and because it’s something that you’re fascinated by, it doesn’t necessarily make it a good poem. Sometimes the poems that I really wanted to work didn’t. Sometimes people’s stories were more interesting in and of themselves than anything I could add to them. It’s a bit of a back-and-forth process.

What’s the best experience you’ve gained through your writing?

I love this question. There’s so many things I’ve got to do that I wouldn’t have otherwise. This summer I went to Greenland on a mountaineering expedition as part of a film, music and poetry project with a composer I know, who’s also a climber. And we went to live on a glacier for three weeks, camping and climbing and researching the glaciers in East Greenland, as part of a piece that we’re writing together next year. If I wasn’t a writer, I wouldn’t have been asked to do that. And it just seemed like the most immense amazing opportunity, so that’s definitely top of my list.

This summer I went to Greenland on a mountaineering expedition as part of a film, music and poetry project with a composer I know, who’s also a climber. And we went to live on a glacier for three weeks, camping and climbing and researching the glaciers in East Greenland, as part of a piece that we’re writing together next year. If I wasn’t a writer, I wouldn’t have been asked to do that. And it just seemed like the most immense amazing opportunity, so that’s definitely top of my list.

Which poets or poems most inspire you? Whose work would you recommend with regard to contemporary poetry? What are you reading at the moment?

I’m always reading different things. I’m always discovering new poets. Recently I’ve gone backwards and I’m reading the first poet who I ever read. I remember my dad reading me Seamus Heaney when I was a teenager. I really admired his ear. And I came back to him again recently. I was thinking about his brilliant poem ‘Postscript’ and the way it talks about a landscape. It describes in a gale, how the wind across the cars can “catch the heart… and blow it open”. So, he’s someone I’ve had a lifelong connection with as a writer.

More recently, I tend to enjoy individual poems over poets. I really love Fran Loch’s book, The Mystic and The Pig Thief, which came out a couple of years ago. I admire her work partly because she writes really differently from me. I don’t think I could write in her particular style. I often like people who are doing things a bit different from what I could do. I love an American poet called Kim Addonizio as well, for similar reasons. She’s really bold and funny and direct in a way that I don’t think I could be.

Do you have a particular process or place where you like to write, and does a poem start life in longhand, notes, or straight to the computer?

I like to write in my head first. I suppose I write differently for different pieces. But if it’s a shorter lyric poem, I like to sketch it or map it out in my head first so I know where it’s going to start and where I’m going with it. I can maybe even see what the lines look like on the page, not always but sometimes. I very often get an idea like that when I’m out running or walking, or even driving sometimes. I just kind of mull it over in my head and go round and round with it.

And then I go to a notebook next. I always sort of sketch it out on the page, trying to get a feel for stanzas and line breaks. I only go to the computer quite late on and pretty much when I’m just typing it up and tinkering around with small edits. So, it’s in my brain first, then on the page and then the computer.

That stage of carrying things round in my head, depending on the poem, is often just over the course of a day, but sometimes it could be over six months or even a year, just having these fragments that I carry round in my head and mull over before I commit them to paper.

That stage of carrying things round in my head, depending on the poem, is often just over the course of a day, but sometimes it could be over six months or even a year, just having these fragments that I carry round in my head and mull over before I commit them to paper.

I can write anywhere really. I’m not that precious about place in terms of sitting down with a notebook, quite often I’ll just stop the car and sit in a layby. But there are places that make me want to write. Every time I go to Stanage Edge in Derbyshire, I always get the urge to write a poem whether or not I’ve got anything to say.

How do you respond to writer’s block or not knowing what to write?

I’m really glad you asked me that because I talk to a lot of people about writer’s block and quite often when they’re describing to me what they think of as writer’s block, to me I think ‘You’re still writing quite a lot’. I don’t write that often, despite what I’ve just been saying about things starting in my head. I can go for months without writing a poem and then maybe a few come out at once. But I try not stress about it too much now. I see the times when I’m not writing as the times when I’m gathering material for the things that I’m about to write. So, I just try and enjoy living as much as possible. And I read a lot. And try not to give myself a hard time about it. I know people have different approaches to this. Some people think you should sit down and just make yourself write, almost like flexing a muscle. But I personally don’t go for that approach. I just tend to accept quiet times when they happen. And read a lot because often reading makes me want to write as well.

I can go for months without writing a poem and then maybe a few come out at once. But I try not stress about it too much now. I see the times when I’m not writing as the times when I’m gathering material for the things that I’m about to write. So, I just try and enjoy living as much as possible. And I read a lot.

[Advice for young writers] That links to advice for young writers, which would just be to read as widely as you can and find the stuff that you absolutely love. I think it was Emily Dickinson who said “I know it’s poetry if it feels like the top of my head’s been blown off”. Find those poets, the people who make you feel that way. And read and read and read them. Find the things you admire about them; don’t try and necessarily repeat those directly but maybe find how that connects to what you want to say and what you can learn from them. Then you start to assimilate all those different exciting influences I think and learn to be yourself through them.

I saw on your blog that you’re co-writing a stage show based on the story of Medusa. Can you tell me about the inspiration behind that and how the experience differs from writing ‘page poetry’?

I was actually writing some last week while I was away. I was approached by a theatre company called Proper Jobs Theatre. They asked me if I’d write about Medusa, so it was their idea, not mine. But I started to look at the myth and the different interpretations of the Medusa myth. I think like a lot of people, I just thought of Medusa as the Gorgon with snakes on her head who turns people to stone, that was all that I knew about her. I didn’t really know much about the story of her possible rape and victim-blaming on the back of that. It’s interesting that a lot of the tellings of the myth either choose to slightly emphasise that side or they don’t portray it with her as a victim- it’s all sort of that she was a bit promiscuous or something like that. I find that fascinating because that’s a topic that I’ve been thinking about a lot and it’s something that’s really prominent in the news at the moment, or has been for a long time. There are more stories of people being shamed as victims. I found that side really interesting, so I just shaped it around that and tried to make it this dystopian, slightly futuristic play about how we treat victims of sexual assault, how we sexualise figures in society and how we navigate issues around that. So, I’ve turned it into the kind of play that I want to write, about the kind of issues that I’m interested in.

I found it really challenging writing for the stage and fascinating to work with actors in a hands-on way. Seeing how some of the lines that you thought worked well don’t work so well off the page and other lines that you thought were a bit boring work better off the page. And I think that’s a really good lesson if you’re a poet used to writing stuff where you’re going to read it, it’s going to be in your voice and you’re sort of scripting it yourself. It’s relinquishing a bit of control and also realising that you don’t need to put everything in there- you’ve got to leave things for the actors to do and the director to do. I’ve really loved that challenge.

I found it really challenging writing for the stage and fascinating to work with actors in a hands-on way. Seeing how some of the lines that you thought worked well don’t work so well off the page and other lines that you thought were a bit boring work better off the page.

It’s made me go back and read a lot of Sarah Kane as well, who’s one of my favourite writers in any genre. She’s a playwright but she started off as a poet, I believe. It’s been really interesting going back to her and admiring how pared back and powerful and punchy her dialogue is.

I’ll have to let you know how it goes when it’s all finished. It’s still very much a work in progress at the moment! It might be completely terrible. But again, and this goes back to the writer’s block thing, one thing that can be useful as a writer, when thinking about where you’re going with your work and worrying about not having things to say, is to always have a sense of a new challenge and something that you’re moving on towards, something that you do that’s a bit different from what you’ve done before.

You’ve not long had your second collection of poetry out, where do you see yourself going next?

I’m finishing off a novel at the moment that I’ve been working on for the last few years. What with that and doing a play, I’m interested in branching out a bit and seeing how those different forms, prose and drama, both relate back to poetry, and how writing those things might change my poetry, and what poetry can bring to those forms as well. So, I think I’m interested to see what those different kinds of writing add, and also whether I’ve got the stamina to really finish redrafting a whole novel.

But I’m also working on another book of poems and gradually starting to explore those a bit. They’re all loosely themed around failure, which is kind of interesting, I suppose. It sounds like a weird idea to start a book about failure in case you fail to write it. Hopefully that will see the light of day.

One of the things I like about being a poet and having poetry at the centre of my life is that it always feels to me as if the poems take care of themselves in the background and they’ll always be there and they’ll just pop up. It’s not the same as sitting down to finish a project like a novel or a play, which feels much more like this big body of work. Poems are like my constant companions, they’re always there. Quite often, like with my last book, they’re all speaking to each other as well. They’re all connected to each other in some way, but you don’t necessarily know what their connections are. I love that about it.

With thanks to Helen Mort: www.helenmort.com
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