No 9 - Spring 1997
John Stammers interviews Kate Clanchy
|Kate Clanchy was born in Glasgow in 1965 and educated in Edinburgh and Oxford. She won an Eric Gregory Award in 1994. Her first collection Slattern (Chatto and Windus 1995) won the 1996 Forward Prize for Best First Collection, the Saltire Prize for the Scottish first book of the year, and a New Writers Award from the London Arts Board. She lives in the East End of London and is freelance writer and teacher.|
How was it you started writing poetry?
I started writing about four years ago. I was going out with the playwright Stephen Clark. I think being in that relationship made me see that you could be a writer. I didn’t really understand that before. He very much encouraged me to start writing myself. I first of all wrote a short story called ‘Boom’ that was published in a book called Smoke Signals and won the London short story competition. Then, around new year’s time that year, I got very depressed a close friend had recently died. Then, when the new year’s party I was due to go to was cancelled, I instead sat down to tidy up my sock draw. I did this by first emptying everything onto the floor. S o everything was complete mess around me and that’s when I sat down and wrote ‘Slattern ‘, which is the first poem I ever wrote. It’s really about leaving yourself around and trying to gather yourself up together.
After that I quite quickly wrote some others that are in the book (‘Men’, ‘For Absent People’): within the first three weeks actually, which was very exciting. I thought it was all very easy; I discovered afterwards that it was very difficult. I subsequently went on an Arvon course with Carol Ann Duffy and she gave me an enormous amount of encouragement, faith and direction - very helpful.
You say Carol Ann Duffy was very helpful. Would you say that she is a major influence on your work?
I don’t know, I hope I don’t sound too much like Carol Ann. Certainly, I think that, as an inspirational role model and as an example, she is. I think the way she makes verse, which is to allow the sound and the assonance to guide the verse rather than the form, I think certainly I imitate. But I don’t write dramatic monologues very often, for example. So I hope I don’t sound too much like her.
Can you think of any other major influences then?
Probably older writers. I like Larkin very much and I certainly think that some of my early poems are Larkinesque. I like kind of brainy poets: Donne, Marvell; although I don’t know if they actually sound through my verse. Conversely, I also like certain women poets who seem to me to have a very authentically female voice: Stevie Smith, Selima Hill. I think that maybe as I’m relaxing now those sorts of voices are coming through more in my work.
When you say relaxing, in what sense?
It’s a shock to become a poet, it’s a shock to become a writer. It takes a while to have faith that your own visions and fantasies are legitimate on the page. I think, as you get my confident in your voice, you can put more of that kind of stuff down.
You talk about the shock of becoming a writer. How would you characterise that shock in a bit more detail?
Well, I didn’t expect to be a writer, I expected to be a teacher. I’ve always read enormously, but I was never one of those people that wrote, at any stage. I didn’t write adolescent angst poems, I didn’t write university pretentious short stories, I didn’t do any of those things. I think I felt I wasn’t entitled to, or I was too much in awe of things that were too good. So I was amazed to find myself writing and even more amazed to find it picked up so quickly and to be published so quickly, the girl from nowhere, if you like. It was incredible, very exciting.
Your first collection, Slattern, has won a number of prizes. How does affect you? How do you feel about that?
Oh, great. I mean it’s very nice to win prizes. The last time I won prizes was at school and that was twenty years ago. It’s very helpful just from the straightforward money point of view. It has enabled me to go freelance which is wonderful. It is also affirming; you don’t want to get too twisted up in them and think that your poetry’s no good if you don’t win. But it is affirming to win them and it does confirm the seriousness of your position. I makes me feel that people will certainly listen to the next thing I have to say which is wonderful. I’m very happy.
In your book Slattern, to my mind, there are some distinct themes and perspectives. One of these is the theme of men and your relationship to them. I wonder what you would say about that?
The first review I ever got was in the Big Issue and it said: “Kate Clanchy, poems about blokes”. I suppose I was asking for it in that I put a nice picture of men in stripy trousers on the front cover and that the first poem in the book is called ‘Men’. I suppose it is interesting that it is a woman writing about desiring men and being refused and being refuted and being turned back and being dumped and all those things. But I think that if you think of them as being poems about desire and wanting, they wouldn’t be unusual at all. It’s simply because we’re used to having questing poems of desire written by men about woman; that’s one of the great genres of English poetry. I think that the only thing that’s a bit more unusual is that I’m explicitly writing them from a woman’s point of view about men. Also that they’re not angry about men (or not very angry - some of them are.)
I think all this is partly due to the kind of privileged position I found myself born into, in that I was lovingly brought up by both a father and a mother. I was brought up to believe that I could do anything and that I could have any kind of education that wanted, brought up like a man effectively. I suppose that’s what allows me to speak about desire. I think that’s what the muse is: desire, the thing that you chase. So I know that people will inevitably go on about the fact that the poems are about men and, yes, they are humorous and it’s a good laugh that people say that. But I don’t necessarily think that. Yes, the man is the subject but theme is desire. I hope that in twenty years time it won’t be considered so unusual to have a woman writing about men in this way. I hope that people will just look at the poems on their own merits.
The other more general aspect to many of your poems is the perspective. It seems to me an individual, somewhat solitary one. I don’t know whether you agree with that?
The woman in the Glasgow Herald accused me of being lonely the other week and I felt like a real, sad outsider. I think any writer is an observer, any writer is locked inside themselves in some level and their dialogue is, to some extent, within themselves. So I think that any kind of writing is going to be lonely in that way. Some of the poems are dramatic monologues some of them do take on other people’s voices. There’s also a couple of quite happy ones in there, I hope! I don’t know if I’m a lonely person, but I do think that certainly the writing part of me is lonely; but I think most people’s writing voice is lonely. If they are going to observe, then they can’t be too engaged with other people.
Going on from that: the poem ‘Slattern’ Is about a kind of fragmented “I”. Do you find yourself In any of those “I”s particularly?
Well, a poem gets written at a certain time and the “I” of the poem is never the “I” that is it now. I don’t think that I’m any of those people really, I hope the poem has a bit more extra-personal resonance. But I think that the one at the end of the poem, that is hopeful and still walking. I hope that’s one that I could identify with, the person who can enjoy the fantasies and the memories, not reject them but assimilate them. I think that what the poem’s trying to say is that it might seem very slatternly to leave yourself about everywhere and to live in your dreams but, on the other hand, that’s the hopeful perspective and the inclusive one. I hope that’s what my work is like.
You’re trained as a teacher. Do you teach poetry at all?
I teach literature A Level and they do quite a lot of writing poetry as they go along. They tend to learn a concept, do an image, then create something. They certainly do a lot of imitating poets as they go along. I also teach A Level English Language which is essentially writing. All my students do writing poems. I also do creative writing courses in which there is lots of poetry, but also short stories and film writing. I certainly think you can help anyone to write a poems. I also think that it is a very powerful critical tool because, if you have experienced making a poem, it’s much easier to break one: to understand the language and the construction. I think that poetry is often quite badly taught as literature in that it’s taught as a whole, as something that’s complete, that’s mystical. Whereas, in fact, it’s a language, a language of seeing and hearing as well as understanding. It’s good to break up the language and to encourage people to visualise as they read and to hear as they read; I encourage everyone to do a lot of drawing in my classes, for example. There’s usually posters and film scripts based on poems round the walls which is part of learning to visualise the poem. This is a way you can teach that language of seeing poetry and hearing it. I hope that’s something I’ve managed to do quite well and I’ve tried to use writing as in integral part of that, as a valuable tool.
You said that you attended an Arvon course. I wonder what you felt you got out of that and if you go to any other groups or courses?
Well, they should have me on the advertisement for Arvon course. Actually. I went on one Arvon course with Carol Ann Duffy and she really set me on my path, told me I was writer, told me how to get on, how to go for an Eric Gregory Award. Then I went on another Arvon course, this time with Simon Armitage when he’d just been made poetry editor at Chatto and Windus, and he offered me a publication. So I think that’s what people perhaps dream of when they go on an Arvon course. It certainly wasn’t something I expected before I went! So from that point of view, Arvon really created me as a writer. I’m sure I wouldn’t be anywhere without them. I am hopefully going to get to teach one soon, which I’d love to do brilliant! I think they can be very very helpful, that they can change people lives.
I do go to a group irregularly with some poets I know. I work quite closely with Colette Bryce who is a very good poet. I think the editing relationship is very important: I have a very good editor in Simon Armitage. I haven’t found a group that really suits me. I think it’s very difficult to find one that is the right size; where you really get constructive criticism; and where you can separate personalities and poem.
Do you think that’s desirable then, to separate the personalities from the poem?
Well, I think that the trouble with being published is that it’s much more difficult to get into a teacher-pupil relationship. I mean, I love being in a teacher-pupil relationship, I’m very happy to be either: i.e. when I know that I’m one or the other. When everyone is supposedly of equal status, it’s much more difficult. They can get tangled up in personal perspectives very much, that’s all.
So what can we can look forward to from you?
I’ve gone freelance as a writer. I do want to write my book; I’ve written some new poems which I’m really pleased about; Slattern is doing really well; I’ve written a film treatment which I hope will be picked up; and I’m doing quite a lot of teaching projects. So, quite a lot of exciting things really. So I hope I’ll be alright in my new writing life.
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