Sarah Westcott’s debut pamphlet Inklings feels deceptively flimsy – I love the way that it builds up minute observations to reach its epiphanies. ‘Who can argue with the woman / who saw Christ in a slice of Mother’s / Pride, his beard and aquiline nose / branded into the hot crust?’
Without wishing to blow the Poetry School’s trumpet, it was a wonderful surprise to open the Winter 2013 PBS Bulletin and discover that Sarah, an ex-student, had been selected as the PBS Pamphlet Choice. We spoke to her about the challenges of moving on from magazine publication to putting together a first pamphlet, and the multifarious differences between poetry writing and tabloid news reporting.
How did you go about structuring your individual poems as a pamphlet for this first time? Will you do it differently next time, when you put together your first full collection?
Sarah: The pamphlet’s beginning came about when I entered the Venture Award about three years ago. I got together 15/20 pages of poems, mostly written when I did my MA, spread them on the floor, and shuffled them about, trying to find some unity or thread connecting them. I found it quite hard to be objective about them, and how they might work together in a ‘book’ format.
The real work came later with my editor Nii Parkes at Flipped Eye when it all became less abstract and more tangible. We spent several months adding to the manuscript and taking other poems out, mostly at Nii’s suggestion, because they didn’t fit the overall tone of the pamphlet. He also came up with editorial suggestions for individual poems, down to line-breaks and individual words, and it was helpful to have such detailed feedback.
I was relieved to take many of the original poems out and substitute them with newer work as I felt I had moved on, poetically. I wrote the title poem Inklings, only a few months before the book was published, and Nii was happy to include it. So we made changes up until the last minute really and it was a collaborative, dynamic process.
It is only in retrospect, really, that I can see Inklings as a body of work, and I think if I did it all again, I would like to be able to have a clearer ‘overview’ of the collection as I put it together, rather than in hindsight. But then again, I quite like the ambiguity of being surprised by the poems and how they might react with each other, out in the world.
In Heston Services, you seem to be drawing similarities between superstition and a poet attributing significance to small things. Have I read this right, do you think the two are related?
Sarah: I think there is magic in the world, and significance in small, humdrum commonalities. I like to find the numinous in the ordinary. It infers the weirdness of being alive, now, in the world, and how that is a gift, a privilege. I used to take my small son to watch trains arriving at the station and to him, it was miraculous. I guess that’s what I’m saying in the lines: “I only had to look: it was all there.”
Can you tell me about the experience of contributing to the ‘Pocket Horizon‘ anthology? What object were you given to write about, and what did you learn about its history?
Sarah: Pocket Horizon came about through the vision of Kelley Swain, a member of our poetry group. Seven poets were each given two carefully chosen objects to write about – one from the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge and one inspired by objects in the ‘Medicine Man’ collection at the Wellcome Collection in London.
I was given delicate glass models of bremia lactucae (downy mildew), a fungus that attacks lettuce crops; made in the 1930s. Their creator was Dr Dillon Weston, a mycologist working for the Ministry of Fisheries. Instead of referring farmers to pictures of fungi, he created hand-made models of them using clear glass.
My other object was a votive womb from Etruscan times which I initially found quite loaded and heavy, however, in the end it produced three poems for me. It was interesting how I had to make several approaches to the object before feeling I had done it and myself any justice.
We wrote the poems in a very short time-scale (two weeks or so) and it was the first time I had been commissioned to write to such a short deadline. We later workshopped them with Don Paterson so that was added impetus to do the best we could. It was a really fun project to be involved with and I enjoyed everybody’s unique take on their objects.
You’re also a journalist, which requires a style of writing that I feel is almost diametrically opposed to poetry. Did you have any difficulties breaking away from your journalistic background and writing effective poetry? Or do you feel there are areas where the two genres aren’t so different?
Sarah: This is such an interesting question! Journalism came first, but poetry was always there.
I work as a tabloid news reporter. A key part of the job is condensing quite complex stories or issues into, literally, a box on the page. That’s probably the part of the job I find most interesting – as you have to feel the weight of each word and consider its place, and cut back. When I read wordy intros in broadsheets I often feel myself itching to cut them back. Some tabloid intros almost have a sprung rhythm. There is also plenty of word play and pun.
But on another level, journalism and poetry use completely different parts of the brain. When I go to work I put on another head, like Worzel Gummidge. There is no place for ambiguity in journalism, or, in the work I do, subtlety. There is also no room for preciousness about your work – it gets cut, spiked, or altered all the time and that is a good thing for it makes me less precious about poetry. I don’t feel the two are in competition but I have to be aware that a certain crudity of thought or eagerness to tie up loose ends doesn’t intrude into my creative writing. Both genres are ultimately concerned with communication, and humanity, and I like to think they nourish each other. But ultimately, for me, poetry is where the ‘truth’ lies – at best, it liberates us from a single, blinkered point of reference.
Finally, what do you have planned for the future? Do you see your poetry changing/developing? What are your plans?
Sarah: For me, it’s got to be about each individual poem, line by line. If I can write two or three that I am pleased with, in a year, then I am happy. Eventually I would like to have enough to make a first collection I am proud of, and I think (hope) I am on my way..