Suzannah Evans is a poet and tutor based in Sheffield. Her poems have appeared previously in Magma, The Rialto, The North, Brittle Star and Iota. Her debut pamphlet Confusion Species was a winner in the 2011 Poetry Business competition.
Hi Suzannah. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Since publishing your debut pamphlet Confusion Species back in 2012, you’ve become more involved with running poetry workshops and mentoring newer poets. Can you tell us a bit more about how you got into this and what challenges and rewards you’ve encountered along the way?
In 2009 I started an MA in writing at Sheffield Hallam University, which I studied part-time alongside my then job as a debt advisor. One of my projects on the MA was to devise a literary project of some kind – mine hinged on running creative writing workshops in an art gallery and putting together an anthology of the poems produced.
In making my enquiries, I met some really nice people at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery at Leeds University and they let me run workshops there in real life! It was great fun and they’ve kept inviting me back ever since. Everything else has grown from that really. I now teach for The Poetry School, for Leeds Museums and Museums Sheffield.
It was a big challenge to build from this to a point where I could leave my ‘day job’. I am now working freelance alongside my part-time job as production manager for smith|doorstop books. I’m just past the one year mark and I feel very lucky to be working with things I like all the time. I’m also very financially careful after six years spent giving debt advice, so that must help!
The mentoring work came about initially through an organisation called Writing Yorkshire who trained me and ‘hooked me up’ with my first mentee. I absolutely love mentoring – getting to know a person’s work and working with them to bring out the best in it, while improving their confidence as a writer, is one of the most rewarding things I can think of.
One of your more recent creative writing workshops has been at Weston Park Museum, running sessions inspired by the exhibitions hosted in the museum’s collection. How has this been going and can you tell us a bit more about the themes and subjects you’ve been looking at?
I’ve been quite varied in our themes at Weston Park, but there are some fantastic natural history displays there, including a new bird exhibition, ‘Over South Yorkshire Skies’ which documents all the bird species resident in South Yorkshire. It produced some really interesting work from the participants.
The bird workshop included a focus on folk names for birds, folklore and the ways in which birds have captured our everyday language. So many of our figures of speech return to them – ‘light as a feather’, ‘pecking order’, ‘chickens coming home to roost’.
You’ve also held a residency at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield since 2013. I like the idea behind your Poetry Map project which you describe as exploring the relationships between location and maps and the different aspects that come together to assemble an idea of ‘place’. What do feel you have learned from the project?
I’ve learned a lot about process from the residency. The Poetry Map, which can still be read as a blog, was quite a clear focus in my mind when I started the residency. I expected to run the project and manage the blog, but in hindsight I think I felt that I already knew how it would turn out. I wasn’t prepared for the ways in which the project would surprise me as it went along…
As poets and readers I think we do tend to focus on and examine the finished poem as an ‘outcome’, as that is what is ultimately published or performed, whereas the residency taught me to learn more from the making of poems, and to experiment in making them.
You are also active in the poetry reading scene in Yorkshire. Do you find the performance of poetry as enjoyable as the writing of it?
I love reading poems to people, even though I get pretty nervous. I love the atmosphere of good poetry readings. I like sharing something that started as a small mad idea and finding that other people know what I mean. When it goes well it’s just as good as writing.
What does the rest of the year hold for you in the world of poetry? Are there any dates in the diary you are especially looking forward to or goals you have set yourself?
The year has started pretty well actually – I have a couple of poems in magazines due out, and some readings lined up in the early part of the year. I’m also going to Ty Newydd for a writing retreat in March which should be a lovely quiet writing time.
I was part of the Aldeburgh Eight last year and we are reuniting for a reading at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden on the 27th February, so I am really looking forward to that because I’ll get to catch up with everyone as well as reading and hearing poems.
In terms of goals, I’ve been writing a lot and I have to try quite hard not to worry too much about what’s next – I am starting to feel like I’ve got a publication coming together but I think it’s too soon to look directly at it, so I’ll continue to take the poems one at a time for now.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
It’s a poem that spiralled out of the topical but much revisited idea that artificial intelligence is on the brink of becoming intelligent enough to pose a risk the future of humanity. Professor Stephen Hawking spoke about it quite publicly last year and I’ve also been fascinated by the work of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University (albeit as a rather non-techy layperson).
It occurred to me that rather than a quick shift, there might be some sort of awkward period where neither humans nor robots know who is in charge, and the strongest comparison I could find was the workplace idea of a ‘handover’ which is never the efficient thing we expect and more like an awkward halfway phase. At that point the office environment setting for the poem became clear too.
Half-way through the presentation
the paperclip machine tells Jamie from marketing
that the carbon atoms of his body
would be more effectively arranged as paperclips.
It’s a version of what we’ve all been thinking anyway.
If the world is to be re-configured
as paperclips, Clippy 3000 continues
then we are doing it wrong.
For optimisation it requests a killing package
and a carbon-harvesting system.
Jamie from marketing glances towards the fire exit.
The CCTV system wheels its swivel head,
by repeated use of the word killing.
Ann from accounts mutters something
about budget forecasting, and not this quarter
and Clippy, diodes flashing, collects its papers
on the maximum-speed setting.
Clippy is quiet all afternoon. The temp
catches it standing in the server room
watching the green sea of twitching LEDS.
As we clock out later we glimpse it
through the echoing angles of the open plan
arranging a set of knives on the glass
of the photocopier, examining each
under a hood of scanner-light.