Hi Abegail. Thanks for taking the time to chat. 2016 looks set to be another exciting year for you with the publication of your next full-length collection The Skin Diary. Can you give us a flavour of what to expect in these new poems and how do you think they compare to or follow on from your previous work?
It’s a pleasure to talk. I think “my voice” is still strong, but the poems feel a little more rooted than in previous collections. I think we refine our writing, we work on our craft with more vigour and I would like to hope this collection has built on my previous ones and is a more substantial body of work.
Jane Commane at Nine Arches is great and I think we’ve got something we are both really pleased with. The collection naturally fell into three parts and I guess it is like a journal in that it documents life from childhood onwards. I am not very good at saying what my poems are about, so I will quote Jane:
“These poems confront loss in its many forms with unwavering and astonishing clarity… New skins and old disguises are stitched together, the fabric of life tries to hold fast whilst all else unravels and comes apart at the seams.”
It isn’t a depressing read, but it’s an honest one.
You’ve been fairly prolific since the publication of your full-length debut with new publications being released every other year since then. Have you always been somebody who writes a lot of poetry or has the momentum built up over time as you’ve grown as a writer?
I did rather fall into having collections/pamphlets published frequently and it wasn’t an intentional decision. Jo Hemmant at Pindrop Press offered to proof my manuscript of Snow Child before I sent it out and then asked if she could publish it.
Eva and George was a bit of an obsession. I had set my students an ekphrastic exercise – to write on one of George Grosz’s illustrations from the Hayward Gallery Touring Exhibition. I then realised I should have a go and found Eva Grosz’s voice somewhere in my head scrabbling to get out, and I wrote the entire collection from her perspective.
I really loved the historical research and was able to include images and photographs courtesy of the George Grosz Estate. It was brilliant to be doing something completely consuming and completely different to Snow Child and I was pleased when it turned up in the PBS review.
You’ve also been a poet-in-residence at Riverhill Gardens. Can you tell us a bit more about how you found it and do you have plans to collect the poems together in a pamphlet like you did with your previous residency at Scotney Castle?
I enjoyed Riverhill because it once again took me to new ground. In a way I found it difficult as my target audience was diverse and I needed the poems to be totally about the gardens, the history, and the family from a perspective that I felt shouldn’t include my natural default setting of the gritty bare bones of life.
This was to be a celebration and I hope I fulfilled my brief. I particularly enjoyed the Haiku day. Riverhill is child centric and judging the childrens’ entries was fun. We also had an amazing writers’ event with 40 local poets spending the day gathering inspiration from the grounds and closing with an open mic session at the end. It was topped off by wall-to-wall sunshine.
Your blog The Poetry Shed contains lots of useful articles, interviews, and poems from new and established poets alike. I’m curious if it still matches the original vision you had for the site when it was first launched, or has it grown and developed over the years in ways you hadn’t expected?
I think my original vision was to just put something out there, mainly to do with How to Pour Madness into a Teacup. Being shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection was a huge surprise and I hadn’t really found my feet at that point.
It has grown exponentially since then and evolved into more of a dialogue between the shed and the reader. I love to support poets by featuring them on my site and the themed submissions are something new.
It can be time consuming sometimes. I often work on several posts and keep them as drafts so during busy periods I can just press “publish” and keep the posts fresh.
What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any poetry dates in the diary you are looking forward to or are there any specific goals you have set yourself?
Last month I was involved in a major event with The British Library. Catherine Smith, Emer Gillespie and I set up EKPHRASIS to invite poets to write on various exhibitions. Our first outing was with the Royal Academy and this year we focussed on the Alice in Wonderland exhibition.
We invited a cross-section of poets to contribute to the anthology and had the following poets reading at the event: Mona Arshi, Ian Duhig, Amali Rodrigo, Chris McCabe, Helen Mort, Clare Pollard, Sasha Dugdale, Robert Seatter, Luke Wright, Hollie McNish, Emer Gillespie, Catherine Smith, and myself. Further info is available across at our website.
I was also responsible for editing the anthology. It was a steep learning curve, especially testing when the printer said my margins were 2mms out! It was exciting to finally send it off to print and I waited with trepidation for it to come back.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
The poem I am sending is the opening one in The Skin Diary. It’s a scene-setter to a collection that explores the possibilities of life – what might have happened had we taken different routes, made different decisions. A sort of parallel world not dissimilar to the film Sliding Doors.
This poem and much of the book questions what happens to things that have ended, been lost or never born. Other poems on this theme include ‘The Museum of Missed Opportunities’, ‘The Archive of Lost Lives’, ‘The cabinet of broken hearts’ – all of which are repositories for loss.
This poem won the Cinnamon Single poem prize a few years ago.
Before you write off your imaginary sister
remember how she didn’t take her blunt playschool scissors
to your Tiny Tears doll, didn’t lop off a curl,
how it didn’t make you cry for three nights in a row,
your only consolation, not inviting a mantra to your lips:
You are not my sister, you are not my sister.
Think of that night she wasn’t at the tap-end
of the bath, not blowing bubbles through her fingers,
not sloshing them over your face, how water didn’t slop
over the bath’s rim, how you didn’t slip
when your mother hugged you out in a towel.
Memorise how she didn’t cuddle close for those stories,
clap when they escaped the Gingerbread House. Learn how
she didn’t travel with you on the school bus, wasn’t there
when you rubbed your fingers over the invisible bruise
that couldn’t yellow on your thigh, wasn’t bashed by her bag.
Before you know it, she’s not at your wedding,
taking the posy from your nervous hands, doesn’t smile
when she doesn’t do it. Bear in mind she didn’t
have that look in her eyes when she didn’t hold your son
in her arms in amazement. Learn by heart those miles
she couldn’t take because you couldn’t call her at two a.m.
thinking he might die from colic. Remember how
she doesn’t say, she loves you more now than ever, and how
desperate that cannot make you feel. And know now
all you can say is, I miss you, I miss you.