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Playing with History: an interview with Kelley Swain

Hi Kelley! Could you tell us about your Summer School workshop, ‘Playing with History: Using the Past in Poetry’ – what can we expect?

Kelley: “Playing with History” is going to be a full-day workshop, starting at 10:30 and running until 4:30 in the afternoon, with a lunch break. I’m going to start by talking about my experience in writing books that draw on historical facts and turn them into fiction, or, in this case, poetry. There will be a section in the workshop on the history of London’s Frost Fairs, which – I hope – will incorporate The Poetry School’s summer theme of “Festivals,” and provide a good contrast to the (hot? Sunny?) summer weather outdoors!

Students can expect a walk along part of the Thames near the South Bank (not mud-larking, just a stroll,) drawing inspiration from the great river. Then, back in the classroom, students will be prompted to work on their own poems. There will be time for reading and discussing poems about London’s Frost Fairs, and time for editing and crafting. Students can expect to come away with a workshopped poem.

What were the Frost Fairs like for Londoners? Do you have a favourite story from the accounts?

Kelley: The Frost Fairs turned the social norms of London on their head: all bets were off. When the Thames froze over – the ice was thick enough to hold people, tents, and horse-drawn carriages in 1683-4, 1716, 1739-40, 1789, and 1814 – it effectively created a vast, temporary, stretch of land on which there were no laws, no ownership, and all kinds of mischief. One staple of the fairs seemed to be, in later years, dragging printing presses onto the ice (which must not have done any good to the machinery!) and printing on-the-spot rhymes and ballads to sell to people who could then say, “I was there!”

You’ve studied science and literature extensively– do poetry and science have a lot in common?

Kelley: Poetry and science both begin with a person interpreting something, so they are both, initially, actions based in sensory experience. Both start with close observation and an attempt to understand – whether that is to observe and comprehend our emotions, or a phenomenon, or the flowering of a plant. If we remember that the fundamental basis for interpreting our world and translating it to a familiar human scale always begins in opening our eyes, ears, and hearts, we can stop worrying about subject distinctions.

Your collection Atlantic was written whilst you were travelling back and forth between the UK and the US. Is place, and the history of a place, very important to your writing?

Kelley: Place, voice, and landscape are all inextricably linked, as we can see from poets being celebrated for their distinctive voices and backgrounds, such as Liz Berry or Seamus Heaney. I recently realised that two of my favourite poets, Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop, are both women from Massachusetts, and wonder if their background being so close to mine (I’m from Rhode Island) has something to do with my preference. Place and history of place is important to my writing, and I love researching a place it if it’s foreign to me, such as I did for my poetry play set in Florence, Opera di Cera.

Your forthcoming travel memoir, The Naked Muse, reflects on your experiences as a life model – could you tell us more about that?

Kelley: I worked part-time as a life model – yes, a nude model – for about eight years. The highlight of this was a month in Bruges, modelling for an Atelier full-time, where students were learning oil painting in the style of the Old Masters. Though I didn’t begin modelling in order to write about it, the more I experienced art from this perspective – that of the viewed rather than the viewer – the more I wanted to put it into words. I’m delighted that The Naked Muse is going to be published by Valley Press in 2016.

Is it ever difficult to switch between auto-biographer, novelist, poet? Or is it all just writing?

Kelley: For me, it seems that inspiration comes from the subject, and then the genre comes from the inspiration. So, I’m captivated by something or someone, say, Caroline Herschel, the astronomer. I read, research, and get an idea of the subject. And then the form seems to suggest itself: Double the Stars was only ever going to be fiction, just as Opera di Cera absolutely came out in poems. I tried to write Opera as a novel and it refused to work! So fortunately, for me, the decision seems to be out of my hands.

Your workshop involves a walk along the river – do poems often come to you when outdoors?

Kelley: Yes, different genres seem to have different starting points. I try to always carry a notebook and pen, because all of my ideas, for anything, go into the notebook first. Walking and writing have a long history – when your legs are moving, your mind can operate more freely. I’m more likely to write poetry longhand, in a notebook, whereas I prefer to type fiction or non-fiction on the computer. And though I have a laptop, generally the poetry seems portable, whereas the other genres happen at my desk.

What’s your writing regime like, are you a prolific writer?

Kelley: I may be in danger of being called “prolific,” though published work should always be about quality over quantity. In the past eight years, I’ve had amazing opportunities to spend most of my time writing, and I’ve tried to make the most of those opportunities. Last year was, probably, the peak of that, when I had three books published in a single year – and while I’m very proud of those books, I recommend spacing your publications better, so each project can get your full attention! Three books in one year is too much!

To explore poems new and old and imagine yourself skating down the Thames amongst the Frost Fairs revelers, ‘Playing with History: Using the Past in Poetry’ is available to book online or by calling our offices on 0207 582 1679.

Kelley Swain is a poet, writer and educator living in London. Kelley's memoir The Naked Muse is forthcoming with Valley Press (2016). Her poetry publications include the verse drama Opera di Cera (Valley Press, 2014,) the collection Atlantic (Cinnamon Press, 2014,) and her first book, Darwin’s Microscope (Flambard Press, 2009). Her debut novel, Double the Stars, an historical fiction about the life of astronomer Caroline Herschel, was published by Cinnamon Press (2014).

One Comment

  • oliver dixon

    Hi Kelley,
    Sounds like a fascinating workshop. Just wondering if you’re aware of the poem about the Frost Fairs in my first book Human Form (Penned in the Margins, 2013). It’s called The Ice River and its theme is similar to what you say about ‘ a vast temporary stretch of land’ with no laws and plenty of mischief.
    All the best,

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Image Credits:

Image: Unknown artist, Frost Fair on the Thames, with Old London Bridge in the distance.

Image Credit: Wikimedia