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Poetry and the Brain: an interview with Helen Mort

Hi Helen! Tell us about your upcoming course, ‘Poetry and the Brain’. It seems a far cry from Division Street

Helen: For the past three years, I’ve been studying for a PhD at the University of Sheffield, thinking about whether neuroscience and contemporary poetry might have anything interesting to say to each other. It turns out that they do – I think a lot of popular neuroscience (such as the work of V.S. Ramachandran or Oliver Sacks) is preoccupied with questions about the relationship between body and mind that also fascinate many poets. My course will explore some of these links through a series of writing prompts. We’ll be considering memory, metaphor and even the Extended Mind Hypothesis, which suggests we think through our surroundings.

So then, does the body rule the mind, or the mind rule the body?

Helen: I like to think of it as a constant dance between the two, but I’m glad that lots of people are becoming interested in the important role that the body plays in cognition now – there was a time when it got a bit neglected in favour of computational theories of mind. As someone who uses my body to climb and run around the Peak District, I’ve always thought that my body was key to the way I think – for example, I get all my best ideas for poems when I’m walking or running somewhere.

What drew you to neuroscience? Are you a frustrated scientist posing as a poet?

Helen: If I was a scientist, all my experiments would fail! I studied psychology when I was an undergraduate and I’ve always been fascinated in theories about the mind and the brain and how we think. I’ve never seen that as something that runs contrary to poetry though – aren’t all writers interested in what makes people tick, on some level?

Have you acquired any useful ‘brain hacks’ while researching your PhD?

Helen: I’ve learned loads of useful things from Tom Stafford’s book Mind Hacks and I’d recommend it to anyone who is curious about the brain. You can test yourself for synaesthesia and discover useful ways to win an argument!

When did you first start writing poetry? What brought you to it?

Helen: I started when I was very young – apparently I used to dictate poems to my long-suffering mum. I blame being an only child, spending too much time on my own and listening to radio in the background. I must have formed an early interest in the sound and rhythm of words, the way they can comfort.

Do you have any unusual writing habits or superstitions?

Helen: I do a lot of rock climbing and I find climbers rival writers for their superstitiousness (perhaps with good reason!). I’m not really a writer of habit at all – if a poem or an idea for a poem is going to come to me, it’ll usually ambush me no matter what else I’m doing. I think it’s important to make time for that to happen though (and to make sure you have lots of time where you’re receptive to a poem arriving). Oddly enough, I get a lot of inspiration for poems in the car, so perhaps I should be superstitious about my driving routes.

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

Helen: I like a sense that a writer is invested in their subject matter (that doesn’t mean the poem has to be serious, I just have to feel that they care) and that they’re taking a risk, on some level. I like sincerity, but not so much that the poem bludgeons you round the head with it, reminding you that it’s ‘worthy’. I enjoy shrewd observations, a joy in the sound of the words. And I like memorability.

What are you working on at the moment?

Helen: I’m working on the draft of my second collection of poems, No Map Could Show Them, a book which contains a number of poems about the contested history of women’s mountaineering. I’m also writing a novel called Black Car Burning which may or may not see the light of day!

What have been some of the standout moments in your career as a writer? Last year seemed like a really good year for you?

Helen: Being a writer affords you so many surprises. One of my favourites was getting to spend 3 weeks in the Canadian Rockies in winter 2012 as part of a residency at The Banff Centre. I ran up Tunnel Mountain every day, fell in love with Canadian beer, went on an ill-fated rock-climbing trip in the freezing cold and got mistaken for a bear while out running in the woods. And I wrote a sequence of poems about the climber Alison Hargreaves that are now dear to my heart.

Are you a prolific writer? What’s your writing routine like?

Helen: I’m not a prolific poet at all and I don’t have a particular routine. I have a hard time sitting down and trying to write for the sake of it, I usually have to wait until a poem or idea is ready to mug me. At the moment, my poems are choosing to arrive on the walk between Leeds station and Leeds University, where I work. The lines start in my head as I’m walking through the city, so I try to repeat them over and over to myself (dodging other pedestrians and cyclists on the way), get to my office as fast as I can, close the door and scribble them down for half an hour or so.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Helen: I’m not sure I’ve ever had a bad job: every place I’ve worked has given me new ideas and brought me into contact with people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I’ve worked as a pharmacy assistant, a barmaid, a nightclub cloakroom attendant and in an office. Working in a nightclub is always fun – it makes you realise how terrible people get when they’re drunk. And how hard it is to be in a club when you aren’t!

What’s a good question and what is its answer?

Helen: Is this a riddle? If so, I’d say ‘a poem’.

Finally, many years ago you won Foyles Young Poet of the Year on more than one occasion. What would advice would you give a young poet writing today?

Helen: Read, read, read, read and don’t worry too much about where you’re going at first. You’ll find the poets that speak to you and they’ll help you along the way.


Want to understand what’s on your mind? Or rather, what’s in it? Consider themes such as memory, embodiment, synaesthesia and pattern formation and look at poems that challenge the idea that the brain is confined to the body on Helen’s new course, ‘Poetry and the Brain’. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.

Helen Mort was born in Sheffield in 1985. Her collection 'Division Street' is published by Chatto & Windus and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Costa Prize. She has published two pamphlets with tall-lighthouse press, 'the shape of every box' and 'a pint for the ghost', a Poetry Book Society Choice for Spring 2010. Five-times winner of the Foyle Young Poets award, she received an Eric Gregory Award from The Society of Authors in 2007 and won the Manchester Young Writer Prize in 2008. In 2010, she became the youngest ever poet in residence at The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere. Helen is currently a Creative Writing Fellow at the School of English, University of Leeds.


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