Clare Pollard

clare-pollard

Photo Credit: Richard Henson

Clare Pollard is a poet, writer, editor, and tutor. Her collections include The Heavy-Petting Zoo (Bloodaxe 1998), Bedtime (Bloodaxe 2002), Look, Clare! Look! (Bloodaxe 2005), Changeling (Bloodaxe 2011), and Ovid’s Heroines (Bloodaxe 2013).

As well as being a poet, Clare has written plays for both the stage and radio. A new poetry collection entitled Incarnation is forthcoming from Bloodaxe in early 2017.

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Hi Clare. Thanks for taking the time to chat. You have a new book coming out next year with Bloodaxe called Incarnation. Can you tell us a bit more about it and how you feel the poems hang together as a collection?

My last book, Changeling, used old ballads and folktales as a starting point, and I hugely enjoyed researching and reworking such uncanny source material. For Incarnation I began with the idea of reworking religious stories instead. I’m agnostic but was brought up Christian and the first narratives I remember are those of the nativity, the ark, Moses in his basket, Jonah in the whale – I wanted to revisit their strangeness. And since my last book I’ve travelled in India, Turkey and Jordan, and read the Ramayana and the Quran and some Sufi spiritual poetry, so there were other religious texts I was interested in exploring.

Then about a third of the way into the collection I had my first child, and so Incarnation became my book about that experience too. But I hope it’s not what people expect when they hear that; it’s not poems about my baby being a perfect miracle or anything. It’s political. I’m interested in looking at the discourse around pregnancy and motherhood. I think the poetry of parenthood should be treated seriously as a genre – the best of it wrestles with life and death; the viscerality of our animal bodies; the responsibility of making a human being. And that feeds back into the religion thing – what are the stories we tell our children to make sense of the world? How do we teach them about goodness or tell them about death?

 

 

You’ve also successfully toured a live poetry show Ovid’s Heroines these past couple years, which brings to life your translation of the Heroides by Ovid. I’m curious what challenges you faced putting together the show as it is a more sustained and intense performance than an ordinary poetry reading?

I’ve been very lucky to work with Julia Bird at Jaybird, who has put together many dazzling live literature shows. We had a couple of weeks of rehearsals with a director, which was very intense, and I’ve had to learn large stretches of the text by heart which has been fairly nerve-wracking. But it’s been great fun too.

We put together a soundtrack of contemporary strong female voices to act as a counterpoint to Ovid’s women – Amy Winehouse, Joni Mitchell, Anna Calvi, PJ Harvey. I get a tingle of anticipation whenever I hear any of them sing now.

And the set and the lighting are so pretty and subtle. I’m a bit of a frustrated actress, and I’ve written for theatre before, so a part of me has definitely relished the opportunity to cut loose and be dramatic. I mean, Medea is a dream role. I really go for it during Medea.

 

 

You’ve supported new and emerging writers in the past through your co-editing role in the Voice Recognition anthology and your involvement with the inaugural Hippocrates Prize for Young Poets. Do you think there are more opportunities now for younger poets living in a digital age compared to when you started out as a young poet yourself?

Yes, definitely. I’ve been involved with lots of other things too – I was on the panel for the first Faber New Poets and the most recent Next Generation promotion, and I’ve done mentoring for Arvon and New Writing North, and I teach on the Poetry School/Newcastle University poetry MA.

It’s a great time to be an emerging poet, with lots of opportunities to develop and a thriving pamphlet culture that makes it possible to try things out (one of my mentees, James Giddings, recently won the Templar pamphlet award for his wonderful Everything is Scripted).

Poetry has always had a DIY culture, and it’s also easier than ever to self-publish something lovely, or set up a magazine with just a WordPress account. I think poetry suits the internet – poems are short enough to blog, tweet, photograph or make into a YouTube video. So it feels poetry is cool and exciting again, and I like that – when I was a teenager in Bolton and into poetry I felt like a lonely geek.

There is a downside though. It’s much, much more difficult now to make money. Social media has brought with it the expectation you’ll give away your work for free and promote it yourself too. Or pay even, for the privilege of writing. As a writer, you’re increasingly expected to feel ‘lucky’ and ‘grateful’ for any platform you are offered at all.

The majority of the contemporary poetry industry, insofar as it has a business model, is based on extracting money from writers, not giving it to them. Every year, I have to work harder to make a comparable living. Corporations like Amazon have driven royalty percentages down. No one expects magazines to pay anymore.

And then I look at my accounts and festivals, for example, were paying me £150 when I started 20 years ago, and that’s still what some of the big ones are paying now. I don’t blame the festivals particularly – they have lots of other pressures – but if a young poet wants to make a living it’s tougher than ever. Like with most jobs, I guess.

 

 

I understand you recently guest-edited Issue 8 of The Butcher’s Dog poetry magazine. How did you find the experience and were there any particular poems in the submissions pile that struck you or impressed you?

It was terrific fun working with Sophie F Baker and Amy Mackelden again, both of whom I tutored for New Writing North (The Butcher’s Dog came out of their mentoring group). They are both extremely talented, and we had surprisingly similar tastes – I think our selection has a lot of zing and sex and pop culture! Judging anonymous submissions was really enjoyable actually, there was none of the usual anxiety about rejecting people you know, or cringing at cover letters. It’s liberating to just really engage with the work poem by poem.

 

 

Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this year?

I had my second baby in May, so I’ve been a bit out of the loop. I’ve really enjoyed some of my Ovid dates though – we had an amazing one in a Manchester synagogue, alongside a truly bizarre ‘Live soap opera noise poem’ version of my translation of Ovid’s Medea by Serafina Steer and Natalie Sharp, including Wiccan dancing, a flame-eyed bull and Kibbo Kift style robes!

And I was part of a fabulous Alice in Wonderland event at the British Library, organised by the Ekphrasis team – Abegail Morley, Catherine Smith and Emer Gillespie – for the 150th anniversary. I’m an Alice nut, so that felt special.

I went to the Forward Prizes reading last month too. I know Malika Booker from my days as a tutor alongside her at the City Lit and I thought she did an amazing job as chair. The individual poems, in particular, were knockout – Melissa Lee-Houghton’s ‘i am very precious’ and Sasha Dugdale’s ‘Joy’ would both be amongst the top poems of any year.

 

 

Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?

It’s called ‘The Reef’ and is the second poem in Incarnation. It’s about when I was in Jordan. I’d conceived my son but hadn’t realised yet. Snorkelling for me is one of life’s great pleasures, I can spend hours out there – it makes me think of adventure and otherness and freedom – and my husband and I have often stayed in cheap, mosquito-ridden beach huts in places where we know there’s a good reef. Anyway that turned out to be the last time I snorkelled. He got me some beautiful reef identification books that year for my birthday, and in a way it just felt like taunting me with the end of my carefree travels!

But there was also something about the poetry of the names that made me think of the otherness of pregnancy; the strange, fluid, shifting otherness of the pregnant body. And it’s a poem about climate change in a way too. Having children has definitely heightened my panic about our planet. I read articles about the bleaching of corals obsessively – I’m terrified that when my children are my age there may be no reef left to snorkel…  The diminishment of the world. That’s the greatest sin. That’s what keeps me awake at night.

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The Reef

Pregnant already, I launch
my body into the Red Sea.
Cleavage, differentiation.
The mask lets in a slosh and
salt sears nostrils as I gasp,
dip, hook eyefuls of black
or cabbage, slopes of fire,
lion, parrot and angel, sard-
-ines flickering like lashes
against glare, bleach blue,
barred butterflies, a sea-
star in the Japanese garden’s
surgical green, octopus fuss
over fronds, reticulate gold.
Implantation, zona hatching.
I listen to the earfuls of
wet heart, amongst polyps,
veinwebs, worm, thicklip,
feet kicking, wounding
coral that loosens its pink
gametes to snowstorm up
like winter’s opposite like
the human embryo, merry
clownfish, still gill-slitted,
swishing in me later as I
unwrap the guide to tropical
fish, a birthday gift, travel
pornography as freedoms
dissolve or ebb from me,
who once raced reef sharks
with women in burqinis,
who was once chased for
white meat through black
and fan by men’s lust
to touch a mythical beast.
Small sulcus or groove
forms above eye and below.
I paddle through pages,
dip, see squishy skulls
of moon jellies breathing
like ultrasounds, phantom,
flatworm, fringe, sourcream
scales, cowrie, clitoral
fingerlings, moray’s startle
of eyes locked in fear at her
own mouth, needles, violet
rhinophores, moonsnail
drag of mantleskirt, kimono,
the ray a loose shadow,
speckle, puffer and lavender
in the unimaginable water,
simmering and acidified
in this translucent second
but still so full of world that
a flung face can shatter
a palest turquoise rinsing
through to skyfuls of sun.

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