“The North Sea lies belly up tonight:
claws sheathed; canines and incisors
tucked in slack, blue-black gums.”
(‘Below Sea Level 2’, from Talking with the Dead, Cinnamon Press, 2011)
Anne Caldwell is a writer and lecturer based in West Yorkshire. She teaches on the Masters in creative writing for the Open University and runs Prose-Poetry UK, a new project raising the profile of this form nationally and internationally (Twitter: @Ukprose). Anne is studying for a PhD at the University of Bolton.
ML: Thanks for joining Page Chatter today, Anne. Let’s start at the beginning – what would you say were the formative influences that led you towards writing?
AC: I had always written as a child, and, like many other writers, had a brilliant English teacher at school. I think I began to take writing more seriously when I was an undergraduate student at UEA. I worked alongside Fleur Adcock and Hugo Williams, who were writers in residence there at the time. I then had quite a gap whilst working more generally in the arts. Writing was a slow burn, and doing a Masters at MMU, and workshopping with Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, when I turned forty, gave me the confidence boost I needed to start getting published and sending work out.
ML: Which writers / artists (whether predecessors or contemporaries) have been your “permission-givers” and how?
AC: I have just been watching a documentary on Angela Carter and had forgotten what a major influence she was when I was younger. I admired her use of language and imagination. I think she was ahead of her time and daring in her approach to subject matter. Hughes and Plath were early poetic influences and I also loved the experimentation of Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes. More recently, I was lucky enough to spend time at the Banff Centre in Canada and re-discovered the poetry of Margaret Atwood, as well as Anne Michaels and Anne Carson. Simon Armitage had introduced me to prose poetry, but the Canadian writers I have read opened up its possibilities.
ML: What relationship do you have to forms of writing other than poetry? e.g. short stories / flash fiction, longer fiction, drama etc.
AC: I have written for and edited a book of Creative Nonfiction called Some Girls’ Mothers and read a lot of new work in this form. I also teach this genre through the Open University’s Masters programme in Creative Writing and have discovered the delights of memoir, the lyric essay, experimental journalism and cross-genre approaches to writing. I really enjoy the work of Joan Didion and Geoff Dyer as well as the artist and writer Sophe Calle. I read a lot of short stories and hope to pluck up the courage to write some myself in the near future. I have just read a collection by the late Helen Dunmore, (edited after her death), and the stories blew me away. She has a poet’s eye when it comes to fiction but also the ability to really inhabit a character and any world she creates.
ML: Can you talk about your relationship to prose poetry, which features at times in all of your published poetry collections, and which I understand you have been focusing on for your research recently?
AC: I’m currently half way through a PhD at the University of Bolton and decided to specialise in prose poetry for the creative element of this research project. I have taken part in a prose poetry email project through the University of Canberra for the last five years, working with prose poets from Australia, the UK and international locations. Reading their work each week inspired me to be more adventurous with the form and explore how this group of over thirty writers each approach its challenges: https://www.axonjournal.com.au/issue-c1/prose-poetry-project
My own research has focussed on the idea of north, and how prose poetry can be used to explore the relationship between identity and landscape. So far, I have a draft collection of 65 poems that create a personal map of the north of England, exploring its emotional touchstones and places of significance to me. After Brexit, I also began to look at how prose poetry can take the idea of borders and transgression as a theme and have recently written prose poetry about the notion of the far north, the Arctic and exploration. I have begun to see north as a compass direction, both real and imaginary rather than a set location. This year’s Great Exhibition of the North has included a wonderful project at the Northern Poetry Library which also explores some of these ideas (not in the prose poetry form).
ML: Why north? And how would you define prose poetry? What qualities would you say it has that make it distinct from other forms of prose, such as those mentioned above – lyric essay, memoir – or flash fiction / non-fiction?
AC: The idea of north and a sense of place is intertwined in my writing and my own personal history:
Geographic tradition would have it that place, as opposed to space, is something subjective and meaningful. It has been tied with issues of Being in the work of Heidegger and Bachelard, with belonging, with home, with community… as well as with existential issues of the self.
(Paul Hetherington, “In Place of Geometry”)
As I have edited new writing over the last few years, I became aware of how the idea of the North has informed my own sense of an emotional landscape, choice of language, voice and identity within the body of my creative work to date (2008 – 2018). In ‘Losing the Language’, from my third collection, I wrote:
I’ve a kirk and a kirk-yaird, a herring quine’s empty kist,
flooer-beds of roses gardening the streets
The voice within this poem reflects on dialect and memory in order to capture a sense of difference. My father came from Aberdeen and I spent many summers up there as a child, looking out at the North Sea and wondering what lay beyond that horizon. Painting the Spiral Staircase (2016) contains a sequence of poems that chart a journey north with many references to the place names, weather, geology, characters and speech rhythms of the north of England: a place that I have called home for the last thirty years. I see this as a search for an idea of home and belonging, but one that is not bound by the small mindedness I see evident in the Brexit discussion. I want to feel a sense of rootedness but also feel like a global citizen, who can look out to the wider world and feel connected to it.
I’m working on a new collection of prose poems that explores the concept of the North from a contemporary, female perspective, as I think this is a new and fascinating angle for writing, and ties into ongoing debates about place and identity. For me, prose poetry has a litheness/subtlety to it and is therefore suited to the exploration of place: real and imaginary, physical and existential. Carrie Etter has also made this observation. She defines the prose poem as “circling or inhabiting a mood or idea, perhaps remaining in one place (although not static) rather than moving from A to B as a poem does.”
There’s a fascinating link between the prose poetry form, its hybrid qualities and the theme I have chosen to write about. The cultural commentator, Stuart Maconie, captures the sense of hybridity and difficulty of defining the geographical area of the North:
The north, what is it, where is it, where does it begin and end, what does it mean to be northern and why, in a country that you could drop and lose easily in one of the American Great Lakes, does a two-and-a-half-hour journey from London to Manchester or Leeds feel like crossing time zones, political borders and linguistic and cultural frontiers?
(Maconie, In Search of the North, xii.)
I’m interested in the way that the north of England defies definition and confuses people. The writer Rochelle Hart made a similar observation about the American Mid-West. She discussed Detroit’s history of long industrial decline and showed how this post-industrial place was therefore suited to the form of the prose poem. She observed that the form looks like prose and acts like a poem. It mixes narrative techniques and lyricism. This hybridity is suited to the fluid nature of a place that is hard to define:
A prose poem can contain the uncontainable. It allows emotional and stylistic risks. As a form it exposes the paradox that once you fence things in this process allows you to see through them at the same time.
(Hart: Hybridity and the Mid-West, AWP Writing conference presentation, 2016)
Flash fiction and the lyric essay, I think, share the idea of experimentation, and often the boundaries between these so-called genres are very difficult to define. Sometimes it is more useful to think about the writer’s intention rather than worry too much about definitions.
ML: Can you tell readers more about the Valley Press prose poetry anthology project that you’ve been leading? What are your aims, what was the motivation for setting it up etc?
AC: After taking part in the Tongues and Grooves Prose Poetry Competition earlier this year, and being lucky enough to come second, I realised there was a gap in the market in the UK for a new anthology of prose poems that reflects the form’s growing popularity. With funding from the Arts Council, I therefore set up a new project that aims to identify at least sixty prose poets of quality and diversity working in the UK and publish an anthology of their work. The anthology has the working title of ‘The Valley Press Anthology of British Prose Poetry’ and will be co-edited by myself and Oz Hardwick. It will be published in the early summer of 2019. The project has a new website [www.prose-poetry.uk] that hopes to raise the profile of the form as well as a social media presence. We have been working with younger writers to introduce them to writing in this genre, and kick started this part of the project by running a writing weekend in Bridlington for eight talented writers under the age of 25 with myself and Beverley Ward. We are planning an anthology launch and symposium for the summer of 2019, as well as a series of events at literature festivals.
ML: Can you talk about the role of landscape and environment in your writing? There are some wonderful poems about (or alluding to) climate change in your books, and also poems that are highly descriptive of both natural and built environments….
AC: I do see climate change as the most pressing issue for a writer today, and it is impossible to write about the environment without alluding to its effect. As a writer who has always been interested in landscape and place, I think this theme comes through my writing even when I am working with metaphor or narrative. I don’t want to be didactic about this issue but do believe writing as the power to encourage readers to empathise and explore the world around them and consider our relationship to it. This is not a new issue. I have been moved by the ecological work of American writers such as Gary Synder and the Beat poets from the seventies. Looking further back, John Clare and Thomas Hardy’s poetry has also influenced my approach to celebrating and writing about the fragility of landscape.
ML: If writing’s role is to encourage people to “empathise and explore… and consider our relationship” [to our environment], does poetry have a particular, more specific role to play as part of this? i.e. would you say poetry’s potential contribution to conversations about environment is in some way different from, or a subset of, the more general role that literature has?
AC: I think that poetry can get to the heart of a debate or theme in a concentrated way because of its use of language and image. It can encourage a reader to feel a visceral, emotional impact to a subject, as well as using the tools of narrative and storytelling to bring the issue to life. For example, I think Margaret Atwood’s poetry condenses the themes in her novels, combining, feminism, environmental activism and a search for social justice. For example, her poem ‘Carrying Food Home in Winter’ carries the plea for human beings to take more care of resources with a delicacy and lightness of touch.
I feel acutely aware of the world’s fragility and the effects of climate change on our habitats. The term “eco-poetry” was in its infancy when Atwood started writing and I realise that now I am not alone in this view of our interconnectedness. However, I do think poetry can be part of the wider debate. Many contemporary writers from other genres perceive this link between environmental concerns and writing about the landscape: writers such as Roger Deakin, Nan Shepherd, Helen MacDonald and Richard Mabey. Robert MacFarlane, writing in the New Statesman in 2015, puts forward a vision of nature writing that does not separate it from other environmental movements. He suggests that a new “culture of nature” is changing the way we live – and could change our politics, too. He sees a direct connection between writing and environmentalism: ‘Literature… can feed into policymaking’.
MacFarlane argues that poetry does not need to be didactic or to spell out this message, but it should celebrate the natural world, with a close attention to detail. He suggests that writers such as essayist Julian Hoffman and poet Thomas Clark “ask readers to approach the living world not as a standing reserve but as a precious gift” and he quotes a striking phrase by nature writer, Tim Dee, who notes that “we need bird poems as much as the RSPB”. I share this approach to the purpose of writing in an era of climate change and have borne it in mind when researching the flora and fauna of the north of England for my collection.
ML: I’m struck by how often in your books you revel in playing ventriloquist – channeling the “I” of a poem into a voice that is not your own, though you may feel a connection. The opening eight-poem sequence ‘The Underwater House’ in Talking with the Dead, for example, which is spoken by someone whose house has slipped into the sea and who by the end seems to have become a mermaid. Or ‘Angel’ in the voice of Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North… Crusoe. The Handless Maiden. Theseus… Even your “Alice” character who recurs in different collections (although those are in third person). Can you talk about your interest in character, in terms of these differing fictional voices, and the process of turning an imagined character into the persona for a lyric poem. Do you identify characters with whom you can feel some kinship, where you, as writer, can develop a personal identification with the speaker? Or are you led by a more scientific curiosity, a sense of writerly escape into absolute otherness? Have you been inspired by other writers who “ventriloquize” like this?
AC: When I was younger, I wrote more confessional poetry, often using the first person. In the end I think I got slightly bored with my approach to the lyric form, and with my own internal monologue. I began to experiment with stepping into the voices of others, both male and female personas, and found this very liberating. I do identify characters or stories that I think I have a kinship with, and often have written from the point of view of a marginal character within a bigger story, such as a blackbird from the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’, a shipwrecked sailor or an underwater woman who has made her home beyond the coastline. I have got to know the poet Vicki Feaver in recent years and really admire her ability to write using the first person in a character that is not herself. The fictional genre of magical realism has been a big influence, I think, as well as the dramatic monologues of writers such as Liz Lochhead and Carol Ann Duffy.
The Alice figure in my prose poetry collection does feel a little like an alter ego. She is a grown-up Alice in Wonderland, a character with more bravery than me, and one that is rebellious and challenging. I have really enjoyed seeing this voice develop in my work. It feels subversive and alive.
ML: One thing that’s really striking in your pamphlet and first two books is the range of tone and the range of subject matter. While certain themes recur, you come across as a poet with a restless curiosity to explore, to respond to the multiplicity of the world. Do you think there’s too much pressure upon unpublished poets nowadays to submit distinct sequences as pamphlets or full collections, in order to make their books more categorisable and “marketable”?
AC: Yes, I do see a pressure here, and wonder if this is a mistake. I think the marvelous thing about poetry and especially prose poetry, is its ability to stretch boundaries and explore a wide range of subjects in a condensed and concise way. Pablo Neruda never limited himself to one subject, and if a writer is not curious about what might lie just beyond a horizon, he/she may be limiting themselves. Having said all this, a well put together sequence does give a poet a chance to work on a bigger canvas and really push the limits of an idea or theme. I remember having a conversation with the brilliant poet, Sarah Hymas, who was writing about the sea. She said that she would keep going to the limits of what she could think or feel about this theme, and then take it further. Great advice. You can read about her amazing trip to Svalbard here: http://sarahhymas.blogspot.com/
ML: Can you tell us about your teaching of creative writing – the role it plays in your life and what you have learned from it?
AC: I have always been a teacher and facilitator of creative writing as well as writer. Often the act of teaching has enabled me to discover new writers and also understand my own creative process more deeply. If you are enthusiastic for your own art form it makes sense to want to engage and inspire others and I still feel this excitement now, even though I have been teaching, lecturing or facilitating for over thirty years. People constantly surprise me and I am always amazed by the writing of others, particularly those new to the act of writing.
ML: What would you say in response to those writers, like Hanif Kureishi [Link] who create headlines by claiming that writing “can’t be taught”?
AC: As someone who has spent a large part of her career teaching creative writing I find Kureishi’s point of view rather baffling. If you were an artist who wanted to develop their craft, you would surely consider going to Art School? If you were a composer wishing to develop their musical abilities and understanding, you would attend a conservatoire? Why is writing any different to other art forms, where training in the form emphasises the need for professional development? I have thoroughly enjoyed working alongside students and seeing their writing grow and develop. I do think there is a role for teaching the craft, but then letting a writer find their own voice and own approach to writing to develop. I’m not a teacher who thinks you’re there to create writers in your own mirror image and see myself more of a facilitator than ‘preacher’. I often tell new writers who are blocked to remember that there is rarely a completely original subject matter. I do think each individual writer can find their own approach and viewpoint on perennial themes such as love and war, sex or death!
ML: What changes would you like to see in the poetry world / UK poetry scene?
AC: I think it needs to be more inclusive and open to new voices, and a little less inward-looking. I would love to see poetry have a bigger prominence in schools, and for us to embrace it as a genre open to all. I think children are natural poets and storytellers: somehow this gets drummed out of us. A good friend of mine, the writer Beverley Ward, is working in primary schools in Sheffield at the moment, running writing groups and they are a runaway success, showing the interest there is out there, even at a younger age range.
ML: The government is eradicating literature by burning all books. You can save one from the fire and run away to the woods to preserve it, where you will share it with fellow rebels and future generations. Which do you save and why?
AC: I think it would be The Rattle Bag, edited by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney as it is the book I have bought most and given away to friends. It is the kind of anthology you can dip into and always discover something new. I have just realised I don’t currently have a copy in the house as my last edition has also gone to a young poet!