Helen Evans is a poet, tutor and editor. Her poems have appeared in places such as Obsessed with Pipework, The North, Clear Poetry, and The Rialto, and she was a prizewinner in the 2010 Manchester Cathedral Prize.
Helen’s debut pamphlet Only by Flying was published by HappenStance in 2015.
Hi Helen. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your debut pamphlet Only by Flying with HappenStance last year. For the uninitiated, can you give us a bit of background on the collection?
Thank you. As you can guess from the title, flying – specifically, flying without an engine – is a key theme of the pamphlet. Many of the poems draw upon my 25 years as a glider pilot. I’m very conscious of how lucky I’ve been: life on Earth has existed for four billion years or so; Homo sapiens for a couple of million; poetry for perhaps a few thousand; and heavier-than-air flight for a century. So to live in this era, and in a country where women have the freedom to fly, is an extraordinary blessing.
For a poet, of course, flight has a metaphorical richness, too. That’s a gift and a trap. I have to remember that soaring, which for pilots is a metaphor and an activity, is for most people solely a metaphor. It might signify freedom, or love, or the triumph of the human spirit, or… you name it. And that metaphor’s been around for thousands of years. “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles,” said the prophet Isaiah, long before Cayley, Lilienthal or the Wright brothers.
A metaphor that’s been used for millennia risks becoming a cliché. So for me, privileged to have flown like an eagle, the challenge is to avoid that risk, to make the poems both metaphorical and real. I hope Only by Flying shares the literal pleasures of flight with poetry readers and the nuanced pleasures of poetry with glider pilots.
You gave a special reading at the Scottish Gliding Centre at Portmoak earlier this summer, which was the place that originally inspired many of your glider poems. I’m curious how you felt the poems resonated with the audience who will have been familiar with the subject matter though not necessarily contemporary poetry?
That’s an interesting question, especially for anyone concerned with bringing poetry to a wider public. This reading turned out to be one of the most enjoyable I’ve done, partly because it was in support of an excellent charity, partly because I felt at home among pilots, but mostly because the audience was so appreciative.
Like you, I had wondered how contemporary poetry would be received. Indeed, I’d wondered if anyone would come to the event. It alarmed me just beforehand when one pilot sidled up apologetically and explained he intended to sit next to the door because he might need to leave early to go flying. I was afraid he was planning to bale out if he was bored.
But it was apparent as soon as I began that people were listening deeply. Attentive silences. Nods of recognition. Eye contact. Many of those present came up afterwards to talk about the poems; the comments were some of the most perceptive I’ve had at readings.
I sold out of pamphlets, although since the reading was in aid of a charity, Walking on Air, which enables people with disabilities to go gliding, there was a goodwill element, as well. The pilot who had earlier parked himself by the door – and who did stay till the end – bought a pamphlet and shared an insight into one of my favourite poems, ‘Vantage Point’, which nobody else (including me) had noticed, and which rang true. Most glider pilots value the beauty and subtleties of flight. That’s why many of them do it. I should have had more faith in them from the start.
My publisher, Nell Nelson, commented afterwards that even she, who knows the work so well, experienced it differently when she was in an audience of pilots. She heard the metaphors as facts first, which of course the pilots did. When I shared poems about glimpsing a solar glory, or about sea breezes killing convection, or about chasing your glider’s shadow across the snowline, they knew what I was talking about, literally, and that opened up the figurative meanings.
What I took away from the experience is that if you want non-poetry-readers to warm to poetry then it helps to meet them where they are, in words that resonate with their own experience, and it helps to be present in person so they can engage with you one-to-one. If the words come from an authentic place in the poet, I believe people will listen.
A number of your poems also feature birds (‘The Dipper at Rooksmoor Mills’, ‘Fledging’, ‘Leave-taking’, ‘Edgeworth’, ‘Carduelis carduelis’). When did your interest in birds begin and do you think it is inextricably linked to your fascination with flying?
The two developed separately but clearly complement each other. I absorbed the love of birds from my father, a keen birdwatcher, very early on. I remember him driving the family deep into mid-Wales to see a distant dot above a distant mountain, which he assured us was a red kite, when they were almost extinct in the UK. I’ll be volunteering as a commentator on some of the RSPB’s Exe Estuary Avocet Cruises this winter if any bird-loving poets fancy coming along for the ride…
One thing birdwatching and flying have in common is the feeling of grace that I sometimes experience while I’m doing them. During a difficult time a decade ago, watching birds was one of the few things that took me out of myself. ‘The Dipper at Rooksmoor Mills’ comes from that experience. And in the other poems you mention, describing the bird in the moment is what reveals another layer of meaning. For me it all comes down to what Mary Oliver says in her poem ‘Praying’:
pay attention, then patch
a few words together…
Many contemporary British poets write about birds, and I wonder why. Maybe that paying of attention, which for me is so central to writing poems, has something to do with it. Birds offer so much to the observer. And not just poems, either!
I understand you started taking your poetry writing seriously around ten years ago when you attended evening classes led by Greta Stoddart. I’m curious how big a part of your life poetry and poetry writing was prior to then?
I wrote a lot as a child and teenager, and because I had the kind of mind that retains quotations the poetry I studied at school – Blake, Eliot, Keats – stayed with me. But I didn’t have confidence in my work and spent 20 years as what Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, calls a ‘shadow artist’ pursuing a ‘shadow career’ – training and working as a journalist.
I ended up in what was then my dream job, editor of the national gliding magazine. But being a workaholic who, in nearly nine years, edited something like two million words, I had no headspace at all for writing poetry and precious little for reading it.
I finally noticed that when I did take holidays I was writing haiku, very bad villanelles and free verse that was even worse. In the dark times, too, I was stumbling across classic poems that resonated. I realised I had to change my life. Returning to poetry was one strand of that change.
Greta’s evening classes offered me a way in and, on her recommendation, a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews was the next step. It was one of the best years of my life. Five years after that, Only by Flying was published. I can’t thank Greta and Nell enough for their belief in and support of my work.
Were there any dates in the poetry diary you especially enjoyed this year?
The awards ceremony at the National Library of Scotland in May, after HappenStance Press was shortlisted (for Only by Flying) for the Callum MacDonald Memorial Award. It was good to meet the other publishers and poets on the shortlist and very affirming to read there.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
Certainly. It’s called ‘Soaring’ and I’ve chosen it because it follows on from my earlier comments about metaphor.
An airborne glider pilot is always looking for signs of rising air (“lift”). A cumulus cloud. Other gliders circling. Perhaps even, as in this poem, smoke. Her plan is to find the lift (a “thermal”), spiral up in the fastest-rising part (“centre in the core”) then glide to the next one. This is an exhilarating challenge and by now you’ll have gathered I’m passionate about it.
But I find myself quarrelling with poetry or prose whose soaring metaphor is – in my humble opinion – unconnected to reality, or too glibly uplifting. Perhaps that’s because of my own insecurity about whether my poems manage to avoid cliché. Perhaps it’s because I’m aware of the paradoxical reality of flight, which I can find frustrating and frightening as well as uplifting.
Whatever the reason, this poem from Only by Flying drops out of that quarrel.
Below my wing, two plumes of smoke converge.
Two thermals, merging, fed by two small fires.
I stop to circle, longing for a surge
of usable, strong lift. The stench of tyres
from that torched car abandoned on a verge
seeps through the cockpit from the fresh air feed.
I’m struggling to find the core I need,
scraping round and round and round this thermal,
altering the attitude and speed,
trying to fly some kind of clever spiral—
to keep me climbing, centred, in good air.
But that’s the dream. How soaring ought to be.
Effortless and peaceful, fantasy
of freedom or escape. Not this weak core,
hard to centre, faltering and bumpy,
acrid with the taint of rubber burning.
This is flight: a blackened wreck, a yearning.