Wednesday, January 29, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Janet Sutherland

Janet Sutherland was born in Wiltshire and grew up on a dairy farm, she is the author of four poetry collections all from Shearsman Books: Home Farm (2019), Bone Monkey (2014), Hangman’s Acre (2009) and Burning the Heartwood (2006) and is working on her fifth about her great great grandfather’s travels to Serbia in the 1840’s. A pamphlet, Crossing Over (Nosuch Press) came out in 1983. Her poems are in many anthologies such as The Virago Book of Love Poetry and The New British Poetry 1968-88 (Paladin) and are published in magazines such as Poetry Ireland Review, New Statesman and The Spectator. Prose memoir has appeared in anthologies such as Queer in Brighton (New Writing South, 2014) and True Tales from the Old Hill (Frogmore Press, 2015). A critical essay on the poet Charles Reznikoff appeared as an afterword to two new editions of his work, Holocaust, in the UK (Five Leaves Publishing, 2009) and USA (Black Sparrow Press, 2007). She won the 2017 Kent and Sussex Poetry Prize and received a Hawthornden Fellowship for 2018.  She has an MA in American Poetry from the University of Essex. She lives in Lewes, East Sussex, UK.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I don’t think any of my books have changed my life; work and family stuff flow round the edges and the writing fits in where it can, but the books allow me to express publicly what I want to express and I’m at my happiest when I’m writing. I’m incredibly grateful to Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books who has published all four of my poetry collections and who has supported my writing. My most recent work, Home Farm, is the most autobiographical as it’s about the dairy farm where I grew up. It includes poems about farm life, landscape, memory, forgetfulness and ways we might look at, look after the earth itself as a Home Farm. In contrast the previous book, Bone Monkey was a book length sequence about a trickster-like character, brutal and amoral who wanders the earth by turns perpetrator and poet, murderer and lover, gardener and carer. On the surface they are very different, but I think the essence of the books is similar. A recent reviewer, Peter Kenny, commented on how he sees the way my work compares from one book the another here:

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I fell in love with poetry and song lyrics at an early age. I went for a couple of years to a Roman Catholic primary school where we practiced handwriting by copying poems, sang and read the poems from Longfellow’s Hiawatha, sang hymns and carols and did lots of in class detailed work on poetry. I wrote my first poems age nine at that school and feel fortunate to have missed out on the primary education in the UK today which is focussed on grammar and getting things right (or wrong) to the point where joy and creativity has been sucked out of English lessons. Later I fell in love with the poets I studied during an English Degree at Cardiff and during a Masters degree in American Poetry at the University of Essex.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I generally take about three years on a book but the initial stages of research and some of the poems may have emerged while I was writing a previous collection. The book I’m working on now, working title The Messenger House, I started around 2013 when I began to look at the original handwritten journals of my great great grandfather, type them up, make notes on them and travel to make my own journals of the same journey. At the same time I was working on Home Farm. Some individual pieces come quickly and some more slowly within the framework of a whole book. I edit extensively and research widely in all sorts of directions. I quite often include material from elsewhere and other documentation within poems. The poem will usually alter radically during the editing process, layers may be added, stripped away. I might look for the poem within another text or use visual prompts either from direct experience for from images. I belong to a couple of groups and will also sometimes share with individual poets during the editing process. I find that editing over days, weeks or months and repeatedly coming back to a piece after a break is useful.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

My first collection, Burning the Heartwood, was composed of mostly short pieces I’d written over a twenty-year period which included a ten-year writing gap. It included pieces I’d written in my twenties and pieces from my early forties. The subsequent books, Hangman’s Acre, Bone Monkey, and Home Farm have largely been written as book length projects where the concerns I’m mulling over stretch over the whole book. My current project, working title The Messenger House, will also be a book length project as it’s based around journals my great great grandfather wrote about his travels across Europe from London to Serbia in 1846 and 1847 accompanying a Queen’s Messenger called Mr Gutch.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love doing readings and meeting the people who come along. I see readings as part of the process. The poems exist on the page but also in the voice. I like working out which poems suit being read aloud in public and in what order and how they sit next to each other. Readings seem to me to be similar to the creative work of putting a book together in the way the poems speak to each other and what their sequence should be.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I suppose I could say I’m looking for clarity, looking at the record of what we humans do, in the tiny, small and larger scales. I think the current questions are about “truthfulness”.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Writers can take time to look in detail at where we’re at, to dissect and examine and sometimes to produce a coroner’s report on the state of the world. I think the writer’s role should be to challenge. It seems to me that we are at the point of no return—and that if we fail to act there will be no larger culture for writers to have a role in. This is a collective responsibility – not just one for writers, it has to be said.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I think the process of working with an editor depends on which editor you have. Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books is very easy to work with. He is incredibly hard working, knowledgeable and straightforward. When we are working towards a new collection we’ll have an exchange of emails over details like the cover, blurbs, etc but the poems haven’t generally been re-edited although we’ll address layout issues, punctuation, typo’s etc. Editing is, however, essential and I always arrange a session with a trusted poet when the manuscript is nearly ready and will also have shared the manuscript with one or two poet friends beforehand and changes will have been made at this stage before I send it to Tony. I have heard of other poetry book editors who do a so called “bastard hard edit” but haven’t experienced this myself… 

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

It would be to subdue the critical voice whilst writing the first draft.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I don’t have a strict writing routine but I tend, though not exclusively, to write first drafts in the morning and edit later in the day. I like to edit over short sessions, leaving the work repeatedly over the session, walking away, making tea etc because even a short break of a few minutes allows one to see the work differently.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Walking and gardening both hold that place for me.  I have an allotment garden where I grow the vegetables we eat and going there to work helps me think through what I’m writing. There’s something about the physical act of gardening where your hands and part of your brain are engaged on something else that lets another part of your brain loose to think about the writing. Alternatively researching without a specific purpose is helpful too – digging around in abstruse areas, thinking about the language used, the ideas expressed – that’s also very freeing.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Silage and manure – I grew up on a dairy farm! Also Honeysuckle – it grew outside my parent’s bedroom on the east side of the farmhouse and I now grow it too.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I spend as much time as possible walking and looking. I live by the South Downs in the UK and can walk from my house into the South Downs National Park. I like taking photographs of nature too including close studies of flowers, leaves etc. I’m also influenced by scientific and political writing both current and historical.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

It’s hard to bring this down to just a few writers but I love Anne Carson’s work, particularly Nox, Float and Autobiography of Red. I also love the work of Lee Harwood who was a friend – his final work, The Orchid Boat, is exquisite, also his Collected Poems (Shearsman Books). The work of Charles Reznikoff is also very important to me.    

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’d like to write at least a couple more books.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I haven’t explored drawing/painting since I was at school but I’d like to try that. I’d rather not pick another occupation. I’ve worked in all sorts of places including factories and offices and now I just want to write!

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Writing is so interesting. It’s a constant puzzle to find the way to express what you want to say using different forms, the lyric, found texts, narratives, the testimony of others. It’s a way to process experience but also to look outwards at what it’s like to be human.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I read The Poems of C P Cavafy in English (Shearsman Books) and poems of his in other translations.

I recently watched a documentary film called Outside the City, director Nick Hamer, 2019, which is about the life of a Cistercian Monastery in the UK. It’s a very powerful study of an enclosed order. I’m not religious but it was moving listening to monks who were approaching death having spent fifty to sixty years in that contemplative life.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a new collection, working title The Messenger House, about my great great grandfather’s travels to Serbia in 1846 and 1847 with his friend Mr Gutch. It’s likely to be a hybrid collection using some of his journals, my own journals and poems, long with other historical materials. I’m at a fairly early stage and still working out how it will be.

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