Expectations, categorisations and loaded words: we caught up with poet and tutor Claire Askew to find out more about her Autumn Term course, ‘Creatrix: Women’s Poetries for the 21st Century’:
Hi Clare! How’s your summer shaping up?
Claire: Great, thanks! I’m just back from a holiday/research trip to Cornwall: I’m doing research into English witchcraft for my second poetry collection, and Cornwall is chock-full of witchy things. I’ve never been before… but it turns out that Cornwall is also where the sunshine lives. Back in Edinburgh it’s colder and wetter, but my fledgling vegetable garden is enjoying it.
What poetry are you reading at the minute?
Claire: I just finished absorbing Mark Doty’s new collection Deep Lane. I say “absorbing,” because I read it about five times in a row. I really thought he couldn’t get any better, and yet somehow, he has. I am also re-reading Karen Solie’s The Living Option, because it’s wonderful.
Tell us a little more about your course – what do you have planned?
Claire: Participants can look forward to 10 weeks of reading contemporary poetry by women, and then being challenged to write poems of their own around the same themes and concerns. We’ll be looking at poems by well known writers, including present and former poets laureate – Sharon Olds, Carol Ann Duffy, Liz Lochhead, Mary Oliver – but also discovering poets whose work may be less familiar. I’ve been waiting years to introduce the brilliant Canadian poet Patricia Young to a new audience, for example. The poems we read on the course will explore themes like domesticity, physicality, and love and family relationships. I really hope there’ll be something for everyone.
Who would you look to as a good example(s) of a contemporary poet that subverts some of the expectations we might have about poetry by women?
Claire: Sapphire, the African-American poet who also wrote Push (a novel which became the movie ‘Precious’) really messes with traditional ideas about women poets and domesticity. The word ‘domestic’ is very loaded for women of colour: Sapphire writes poems from the point of view of domestic servants, female prison inmates, and victims of domestic violence. She peers into every cranny of ‘the domestic sphere,’ and shines a light in those dark places.
I’m also a huge fan of Northern Irish poet Kerry Hardie, who often links her examinations of the natural world with her personal journey back and forth between sickness and health. The earth becomes a living body which is also sick, vulnerable, and reliant on outside forces which don’t – or can’t – always help. Hardie writes about the frightening passage of time, and the inevitable decay of all things, in a way that manages to be hugely uplifting in spite of the subject matter.
Do you feel that there is a dominant narrative in poetry by women in the UK today, or is there a wide variety of voices being heard and recognised?
Claire: I think there is a wide variety of voices out there – on the page, in performance and in the spaces between – but I do have questions about why certain voices are amplified over others. I feel excited to be around at the same time as amazing female poet like Kate Tempest, who’s doing sterling work bringing brand new audiences to contemporary poetry. But at the same time I find myself looking through poetry anthologies and wondering why there aren’t more poems in them by women of colour, or queer women, or trans women. I know from going to live literature events and connecting with other poets on social media that these women are out there, producing great writing. They just don’t always seem to get the attention their work deserves.
You studied for a PhD in Contemporary Women’s Poetry – could you tell us more about that?
Claire: It was a half-and-half PhD, actually: the other half was creative writing. Over the course of my three years of full time study, I wrote a pile of poems which eventually turned into my first collection MS, This changes things. Alongside that, I submitted a thesis examining the ways in which contemporary female poets in the USA and UK have taken up the baton of “confessional poetry” from trailblazers like Plath, Sexton and Rich. A lot of the poems in This changes things are confessional, and I wanted to understand why. So in the thesis, I concentrated on female poets whose work had influenced me: Sharon Olds, Liz Lochhead, Patricia Young, Kerry Hardie, Sapphire. I got really into it and wrote way too much – I ended up having to cut the entire Kerry Hardie chapter, and most of the Patricia Young stuff, too. Looking back, I can’t believe I wrote that much: I didn’t get any funding so I was also working full time to pay the fees. I think I may have been a little manic… but I’m glad I did it.
When did you come to writing?
Claire: I’m very lucky to have parents who understand the power of books and stories, so as a small child, I was read to constantly. My dad really likes poetry, and used to read silly poems to me instead of bedtime stories: things like Jabberwocky, and Patrick Barrington’s ‘The Diplomatic Platypus’. So poetry was never a scary thing for me the way it is for some people. I remember writing my own limericks and skipping rhymes when I was in primary school. The other kids must have found me utterly bizarre.
Do you enjoy experimenting with ideas of expectation in your own poetry?
Claire: I’m interested in these things, but I’m also aware that I don’t push myself into new territory as much as I should. I try not to be an approval-junkie, but I do want my poems to be read and liked and understood. There are female poets whose poems push the boundaries far more than mine, but they can struggle to be seen, to have what they’re doing properly acknowledged. I want my poems to be seen… but I also believe that poems ought to do something, ought to be useful. My hope is that my better poems look harmless enough on the surface, but then get lodged in your head and make you think about things, maybe even make you change your mind about things. I just wrote a poem for the online anthology New Boots and Pantisocracies called ‘Yarl’s Wood moon’. It’s ostensibly just a poem about the moon… but it’s the moon as viewed from behind the high walls of Yarl’s Wood women’s detention centre, where many refugees and asylum seekers are held in prison-like conditions.
Your debut full-length collection This changes things is forthcoming with Bloodaxe. Could you tell us more about it?
Claire: I have all the feelings about this collection! It’s been years and years in the making: a couple of the poems in it were written as part of my MSc in Creative Writing, as long ago as 2008. And something I hadn’t ever realised before was how long it takes to get a poetry collection from submitted manuscript to finished book… so even the most recent poems in it were written over a year ago. I feel like I’ve moved on, like I’m writing quite differently now, so sometimes when I look at This changes things, I’m surprised at how I sound. But I’m also proud to have created this collection, and to have sent it out into the world in spite of the fact that in places, the poems are intensely personal. It sounds corny, but I think writing this book helped me figure out who I am, and now I’ve done that, I can go on and write about more interesting things! I’m not really selling it to you, am I…?
Do you have any projects lined up after your book launch, or a well-deserved break?
Claire: I love to be busy, so I’m already knee-deep in writing my second collection. This one, I’m really excited about. There are a lot of eco poems in it: eco poetry is new ground for me. I’ve also got very interested in witches: it’s likely I’m a direct descendant of Anne Askew, a female poet who was burned at the stake in 1546, four years after the first English Witchcraft Act was passed. I’m writing poems for and about Anne, and for and about women like her, and I’m reading all sorts of spooky books about the history of witchcraft. It’s great! I’m incredibly grateful to Creative Scotland, who awarded me a grant to help with this new book.
Join Claire in an exploration of writing by women and about their lives, including ideas of the confessional, domesticity, the natural world, family, love and relationships, and explore and subvert these traditional categorisations in your own writing. Find out more and book here, or call us with any questions on 0207 582 1679. Absolutely everyone welcome.