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In Conversation: Helen Mort
Helen Mort was born in Sheffield in 1985. Her collection, Division Street, is forthcoming from Chatto & Windus. She has published two pamphlets with tall-lighthouse press, the shape of every box and a pint for the ghost; the latter was a Poetry Book Society Choice for Spring 2010. Five-times winner of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, she received an Eric Gregory Award from The Society of Authors in 2007 and won the Manchester Young Writer Prize in 2008.
Helen spoke to the ORbits editor about some of the preoccupations of British poetry’s rising generation, including performance, the literature of place, and the challenges of judging a major competition.
You recently spent a year as poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust. Do you think the landscape around the Lakes has much to offer British poetry today, or is it interesting chiefly as a site of nostalgia?
To see a rural landscape like the Lake District as a ‘site of nostalgia’ would be to woefully misunderstand something about the nature of the varied island we live on: landscapes like the Cumbrian fells are every bit as contemporary as our cities, because they’re still here, still thriving, they’re still places where people live and work! As such, they’re every bit as vital as a backdrop to poetry as urban places are.
Personally, I find a landscape like the Lake District far more inspiring than anywhere else – I write most of my poetry when I’m out walking or running in the hills. I’m at home on top of a mountain and an imposter in the city. The only problem for me when I was living in the lakes was that it almost seemed too awe-inspiring to do justice to in my writing, so I didn’t write about the landscape directly very much, I approached it through other themes. Landscape is hugely important to my work, because I’m interested in people and I think places of all kinds have a huge psychological influence on us. My work is shaped a lot by the area of north Derbyshire where I grew up, the ex-industrial landscape south of Sheffield, and I’m always trying to capture what it feels like around there in my poems. The way a place makes you feel is the hardest thing to put your finger on. That’s why I admire writers like John Burnside: he’s very good at catching the elusive, changing moods than places have.
What does performing add to your work?
Performing compliments a tendency I already have, I suppose: I write very much by ear (partly because of the way I compose poems, on the move) and thinking about performance sometimes accentuates that, because I’m thinking more directly about how it will sound. So I’ve always been interested in the performative aspects of writing in one way, the oral tradition. I’m a big believer in Steven Mithen’s theory of the musical origins of language and the musical functions of early poetry. I think all poets who write primarily for the page (as I do) can learn a lot from performers. Performance poetry (and I’m not really sure I like or agree with that term and the artificial division it implies) teaches us how to engage with an audience, how to be rigorous about the way we communicate, how to be clear and direct, how to make our work entertaining.
I think if you’re asked to give a reading, you have a duty to respect your audience and try to present your work in the most accessible way you can – there’s often a distinction between the poems that work best on the page and the poems that are best in performance, so I tend to think about the two things separately.
You were a recurring winner of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in the early 2000s, and this year will be returning as a judge. How do you conceive the role of a poetry competition adjudicator?
Judging is a difficult thing because in some ways it seems antithetical to the spirit of poetry, which is about sharing as much as selection. I think the role of a poetry adjudicator is to be open-minded (and thus recognise the difference between quality and personal taste), to look for potential in the poems and to give each poem its fair share of sustained attention – the thing I love about poems is that they often don’t reveal themselves immediately, they demand patience (that’s true of writing them as much as reading them). You have to spend time with a poem to get to know it. In a competition where there are thousands of entries, that can be a challenge — but it becomes even more crucial, I think. I know how much the Foyle Award meant to me as a young writer and how it changed my sense of who I was and what I was capable of, so it isn’t a duty I’m taking lightly.
A Pint for the Ghost confronts hauntings. Is poetry an exorcism for you, at any level?
I once had a conversation with another poet in which he was adamant that poetry is not therapy, it makes things worse rather than better, and I think he’s right: if you want to feel better, talk to someone — don’t stay in and write a poem. But yes, there is a sense of ‘exorcising’ an idea that has been haunting you, sometimes. I’ve noticed that before I write an ‘important’ poem (for want of a better word), I feel absolutely terrible for a few hours first. I’ll be moping round the house wondering what’s wrong with me, wrapped in this strange sense of tension and melancholy, and eventually the poem starts to present itself. At that point, the adrenaline starts to kick in and I feel excited rather than gloomy. So the act of writing becomes a sort of release. Those days, it’s a relief when the poem arrives because I know I’m not feeling blue for no reason, it’s not the start of something irrational and frightening. I suppose you could call it a sort of productive melancholy!
Young British poets today are going in a huge variety of directions. Which emerging styles do you find most exciting?
It’s never really style I find exciting, it’s substance — and substance is a happy marriage of form and content, I suppose. ‘Style’ for me is just a route to that substance. I don’t mind how someone gets there as long as they do; as long as they produce something moving or memorable, or both. You can’t be in love with style for its own sake, because style’s the medium, not the message. And as far as style goes, I tend to think there’s not much new under the sun anyway – everyone thinks they’re an innovator (we wouldn’t write unless we did, perhaps) but most things have been done before stylistically!
I suppose that’s why I’m often drawn to what you might think of as traditional lyric poetry; it’s an enduring, effective, powerful means of poetic expression. If poems are, as Don Paterson says, little machines for remembering themselves, then metre, rhyme and rhythm only accentuate that memorability, help to get the message across. There are loads of young British poets today who are writing memorable, startling, fascinating poems, and not all of them have to be linguistically innovative to do so. I’m excited by anything that makes me do a double take, that invites me to re-read the poem not once, but many times.
Chloe Stopa-Hunt graduated in 2010 with a BA in English from New College, Oxford. She is a senior editor of the Oxonian Review.