INTERVIEW by Suzannah V Evans NWR Issue r14
An Interview with poet Helen Mort
The poet Helen Mort was born in Sheffield. Her first collection Division Street
(Chatto & Windus, 2013) won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize. Her second collection No Map Could Show Them
(2016) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and contains a sequence of poems about the history of female mountaineers. We spoke to Helen just after her appearance at StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews, Scotland, where she ran an all-day workshop on one of the festival’s themes, The Heights of Poetry.
Your collection No Map Could Show Them
, published last year, is firmly rooted in landscape and place. How important to you as a poet is connecting with your surroundings?
Massively. I tend to think through the places that matter to me – mountain landscapes, moorlands and the ‘edgelands’: ex-industrial area where I grew up. I sometimes worry that I find it easier to connect with places in my poems than with people! Though when I think about it, the landscapes of my poems are almost always populated: I’m interested in how people think through places, how they relate to familiar and new landscapes, the stories they tell themselves about where they’re from. I come from a town with a crooked church spire and there are so many legends about it, I imagine that storytelling around place influenced me a lot.
Following on from this, one of the early poems in the collection is written after Jemima Morrell and her tour of the Alps in 1863. You were able to retrace some of her journey in 2013 – how did this inform the poem and your sense of what the collection might be about?
I wrote that poem quite a long time after going to Switzerland clad in a crinoline, after some time spent immersing myself in the journals ‘Miss Jemima’ wrote in the Alps. It ended up being a bit of an ‘afterword’ to some of my other poems, a way of looking back on women as writers as well as women as explorers. I love Jemima’s sharp wit and wanted to reflect some of that in the piece too. A lot of my poems about female mountaineers had focused on their physicality so I wanted to say something about women as authors of their own adventure too.
Your poems zoom in on many of the forgotten achievements of female mountaineers. What role do you think literature can play in rebalancing the scales of history? What prompted this theme?
I’ve been lucky enough to be a judge for the Man Booker International prize this year and have read over one hundred novels in translation so far. I’ve been struck by how many of those books succeed in shining a spotlight on a neglected aspect of history. As someone who often feels very ignorant about world history, I realised I get most of my world view from novels rather than non-fiction or news. I think literature (and perhaps poetry in particular) is well-placed to tip the scales of history and tell stories that might have been neglected. And, of course, invent entirely fictional new stories too! I started writing about female climbers after I discovered a brilliant book called Mountaineering Women
by David Mazel and began to reflect on how many of the early heroic mountaineering tales I used to read were by men.
‘Difficult’ is a poem that addresses the concept of ‘difficult women’. I’ve heard you read the poem several times, and it has always prompted delighted laughter from the audience. How aware are you of the idea of an audience as you write?
I do try to keep a sense of audience in mind when I write, but firmly in the back of my mind – otherwise, I’d get too worried about ‘crowd pleasing’ to express myself. A notion of audience (or editor) tends to come to the fore later on when I’m redrafting. But I usually write my poems with spoken performance in mind and read them aloud as I go.
Could you tell us about your process of composition? How does a poem first appear in your mind, and how long until you consider it finished?
My best poems begin as a kind of haunting, or insistence. This often happens when I’m out running or walking or just out and about, doing something else – driving, often! There’s an idea or a line that won’t go away and I carry it round with me, waiting for a secondary idea to connect. Sometimes, that happens very quickly (within the course of a run, for instance) but at others it can take months or even years. There’s no fixed time span or process.
Do you have a favourite poem from the collection, or one that you prefer performing more than others?
I really enjoy reading a piece called ‘Ablation’ which was informed by a heart procedure my dad had. I often get people coming up to me after readings and telling me about their own operations, and that feels like a rare privilege to share.
:You were the judge of the 2016 New Poets Prize, for writers aged between 16 and 22. What advice would you give to young writers seeking to improve their craft?
Read, read and read some more. Find writers that excite you and work out why. Take your writing seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously.
And finally, if you could sum your own writing up in three words, what would you say?
Bittersweet, local, pubs. I don’t know what sense that makes, but those are three words that sprung to mind!
Suzannah V Evans
was born in London and studied at the universities of St Andrews and York. Her poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Scores, Eborakon, The North, Tears in the Fence, Ariadne’s Thread,
, and she was highly commended in the 2016 Vernal Equinox poetry competition.
previous interview: John Barnie: A Happy Pessimist?