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Love, Death, Art, Time and Nature: an interview with Sarah Corbett

Tell us more about your new course, ‘Love, Death, Time, Art and Nature…‘. What brought you to the subject?

Sarah: I was asked to do five sessions that would appeal to students at various stages in their development, so my idea was to take five ‘themes’, and to treat each session as a unit in its own right. The five sessions will be connected, so that the whole has a unity and progression but the emphasis is on creative and critical exploration, rather than an ‘end product’ such as a portfolio.

It’s become less fashionable to talk about ‘Grand’ themes, and I confess that my first impulse was to cover ‘the five senses’ – as hackneyed now, perhaps, as ‘what I did in my summer holidays’ – and my own work has perhaps been characterised by its focus on interiority, intimacy, experience. But I think that no matter how personal our poems may appear to be, there are these fundamental themes at work in the background all the time. For example, you can be writing a poem about making a cup of tea, but what you’re really writing about is the process of making itself, the process of making a poem, of making art. And any poem about the loss of a loved one, even a pet, is tapping into that great theme universal to us all.

I guess the question I hope to explore is twofold: How do we as poets approach the grand themes with confidence and a sense of voice – a right to speak about them -and how might we use our more subjective experiences and subject matter to explore these themes; how can we make the personal universal?

I’ll start each session with a brief introduction to the theme – but these are not lectures – and we’ll look closely, as a group, at a chosen poem that reflects that week’s theme. The second half of the sessions will be given over to a guided writing exercise. Depending on the size of the group, we may share work at the end together or in small groups, with an opportunity in the final session to share a completed poem with the whole group. I will provide hand-outs and suggestions for extra reading, but students are free to explore the themes and ideas that arise out of each session in their own time if they want to.

 So: Love, Death, Art, Time, and Nature – are you drawn to one above all?

Sarah: I’ve probably written more about death than I have about love – although my new book is all about love, and what happens when you lose it – and nature is always there as a backdrop in my work; I wrote a series of poems responding to John Clare last year, some of which were published in the John Clare Society Journal, and I found the process of working so closely with nature immensely renewing. I’m very interested in the way poets use art in poetry, both as a way of exploring ideas in deeper and different ways, reflecting on the process of making poems and in creating a dialogue with artists both living and long dead.

I’ve been writing – or attempting to write – about time for the last few years. I’ve always been interested in time from a narrative point of view, and time – messed about with, rules not followed – plays a huge role in my forthcoming verse-novel. In new poems I’m exploring, on the one hand, how time is suspended and on the other, how time is ever-present; how we might come to understand T.S. Eliot’s famous lines in ‘Four Quartets’: Time present and time past/are both perhaps present in time future.

The two themes perhaps conspicuous by their absence are war and religion … but I could only choose five, so art and love won out…

 Do you think that these remain consistently popular in poetry, or are there patterns / lulls with theme?

Sarah: I don’t think that ‘popularity’ has much to do with it; I think there are fundamental themes in poetry, just as there are said to be seven fundamental stories, and that all poets at all times, in one way or another, are dealing with these fundamentals. It’s how we deal with them that has changed, and has perhaps become more subjective. I do think there is a gender dimension to this too, and that women poets might be more likely to embed ‘Grand’ themes in more personal work, and that male poets, on the whole, still feel more able to claim that centre, public ground; the obvious contemporary exceptions, being of course, Alice Oswald and Carol Ann Duffy.

The exception might be the poetry of war, and it is significant that there has been a resurgence – and flowering, if that word can be used in this context – of war poetry in the last decade; a necessary development that is nevertheless in response to the times that we live in.

 Writing about subjects so huge can be daunting –do you have things that you actively avoid when you write a poem encompassing themes like love and death?

Sarah: Well, I would always guard against sentimentality!

 When did you first start writing poetry?

Sarah: Although I’d always written stories, and made illustrated little books of them as a child, I started writing poetry at university in Leeds, when I was in recovery from a major breakdown. But it had always been there, waiting. I remember trying to read Keats when I was about 8 or 9 and not being able to understand it, but being deeply drawn to it all the same, oh and stealing a John Betjeman poem and trying to pass it off as my own for a competition at Primary School – so the ambition must have been there very young – I’ve never told anyone about the Betjeman ‘theft’, but I’m pretty sure the teachers found me out, as I didn’t win… the lie is finally out!

 What do you like in a poem? What don’t you like?

Sarah: I like tension – formal, linguistic, emotional – and something else, that shiver moment, that tingle, and something that takes you out of yourself. I don’t like ’academic’ poetry, or pretension – Latin phrases and such like – we didn’t all go to private or grammar schools! Fortunately the demographic of poets is changing, has been changing since the 1980’s: greater class, gender and ethnic diversity; greater authenticity.

 You often work collaboratively – is there one medium that you most enjoy joining forces with?

Sarah: I worked with the artist Zoe Benbow last year in conjunction with Deryn Rees Jones and The Poetry Society, on an exhibition of women’s landscape poetry and painting, ‘Where we Begin to Look’, and Zoe and I are currently planning a new project. I’m very interested in how poets and artist can rekindle the kind of relationships and conversations that have always taken place between them in the past but seem to have become side-lined in recent times. I’d like to take poetry into three-dimensions, and into public spaces and art galleries … I started out doing art, and my father was a painter, so I don’t think I’ve ever really lost that interest and impetus.

 Your verse-novel, And She Was, is due for release in April. Could you tell us more about that?

Sarah: I wrote And She Was as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Manchester University, so it was always meant to be playful, experimental, a test of form and ideas, and of risk – it is a very risky book I think, in both its themes and formal ideas – as I’ve said, it plays around with time, relies on the reader’s imagination and collective unconscious to put the story together, as it’s very much a puzzle. I was interested in seeing how far I could push the lyric in the service of narrative, and how far I could push narrative under the pressure of the lyric. At its most basic though, the book is a love story, and may be read as post-modern re-writing of the Orpheus myth. The title comes from Talking Head’s 1980’s song ‘And She Was’ … It’s quite erotic too, and explores themes of limits and boundaries, of how far we can go in an intimate relationship without losing our identity.

 I read that it contains elements of the filmic neo-noir of directors like David Lynch. Do you often draw inspiration from film?

Sarah: My best friend and sometime collaborator is an independent film-maker, Gabrielle Russell. Gabrielle made a short film based on the poems of my first book, The Red Wardrobe, and we’ve always worked together on ideas and supported each other a great deal creatively, although we haven’t lived in the same place long enough in order to work closely together for many years (we do hope to do so again in the future though). I used to watch a lot of films with Gabrielle, and was very influenced by her aesthetic vision (she trained as a fine artist), and David Lynch was a favourite as he appealed to both our sense of the gothic, the strange and of turning narrative linearity upside down. I have a powerful memory from my early teens of sneaking downstairs at night to watch Channel 4’s then ground breaking Film 4 series, and one night coming across David Lynch’s Eraserhead … it was like nothing I had ever seen before, and have ever seen since.

Gabrielle makes a brief appearance in And She Was, as a woman cycling to work along a canal in the early morning and being greeted by swans …

 Are you working on anything else at the moment?

Sarah: I’m writing a novel – a very ordinary novel, by which I mean not experimental or cross/discipline, a sort of fairy-tale thriller (well, all fairy tales are – or should be – at least a little bit scary) about a middle-aged woman who finds a runaway girl in her garden.

If you want to explore these five great poetic themes and discover new ways of approaching them in your own writing, Sarah’s new course, ‘Love, Death, Art, Time and Nature: A Short Course in Creativity and Criticism‘ will be starting on Tuesday 5 May. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.

Sarah Corbett was born in Chester in 1970 and grew up in rural north Wales. She studied at Leeds University and the University of East Anglia, where she obtained a masters degree in Creative Writing, and the University of Manchester, where she obtained a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing in 2013. She has published three collections of poetry. The Red Wardrobe won an Eric Gregory Award in 1998, and was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and Forward Prize.

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