Natalie Bolderston caught up with Sarah Corbett to discuss the parallels of poetry and cinema and the inspiration and storytelling behind her gripping collection And She Was.
And She Was is described as a ‘verse novel’, as the poems connect to make one continuous narrative. What made you decide to combine the two forms? Did you face any difficulties?
I’ve always had an interest in narrative and storytelling (I’m currently writing a novel) and narrative verse, and in pushing my practice as a poet …there comes a time when every ambitious poet has to try out the epic! I had the idea for three linked tales or novellas based on a series of recurring dreams some years before starting the book, which was written as part of a PhD in Critical and Creative writing, but attempts to find a narrative prose voice came to nothing. It wasn’t until I read Deryn Rees-Jones’s Quiver that I thought ‘Ah, that’s how I can do it’. As I got deeper into the work (and three books became two) I started to play with aspects of novelistic technique – point of view, voice, tense, time, characterization – alongside aspects of the poem – form, line, image, stanza, page – I was beginning to investigate how far I could push the lyric in the service of narrative and visa versa. The work was written quite quickly in short bursts, then underwent many years of resting, re-writing, development and revision. It took a long time to finish because I wanted to bring the same density to each line, each page and each poem as I would to the briefest lyric poem – and in over seventy pages. In some ways it is one whole poem. In the end I had to trust a great deal to my instincts (for example I reversed the original order of books one and two to create a circular narrative structure), and to the wisdom of the imagination. The opening triptych was written after the main text was finished, and within a couple of days. Deryn asked me if I could write that third book – I couldn’t, it would have taken too long, but the three poems do the double job of summing up the central themes and filling in the ‘gap’ between book 1 (‘The Runner’) and book 2 (‘Pinky’).
Your poems feature many arresting and unexpected images, e.g. ‘They patched up my hymen, / Made a mouse ear / Of my stomach[.]’ How do you maintain the ‘element of surprise’ when writing?
I write very instinctively – and very much from my visual imagination. As a child I drew obsessively, and wrote and illustrated stories and made little books, so the connection between the felt, the visual and language – the hand-eye-mind connection – has always been very strong for me. I both see and feel and hear the images and am often working through the difficulty of language to reach and express the clarity of that image for the reader. I’ve always done that, so I know when to trust it – you get that raising of the hackles when you know it’s ‘right’. This is also about understanding and viewing language as a system of signs – words create images that then create big pools of meaning that are bigger than what is on the surface. I suppose I get this from always having been interested in dreaming, the unconscious, the ideas of Carl Jung, and of reading poets like Sylvia Plath as I was starting to write as a very young poet. That doesn’t mean to say that I don’t also fall into cliché and tired repetitions just like anyone else, and often need other people to point these out for me!
You state that you are influenced by filmmakers such as David Lynch. How do you think cinema relates to poetry?
I think the relationship between poetry and film is closer than between film and the novel, even though it is the novel that is most often adapted for cinema (i.e. more populist viewing). This relationship is a question of form as much as content and is more evident perhaps with Arthouse or Avant Garde cinema. Both good cinema and good poetry are working through the image as the primary means of conveying experience and meaning (we are being shown, not told) and both take risks with and demand much from the reader/viewer. Both require the reader/viewer to be an active participant in bringing the work – poem or film – to life on the page, the screen, and in the imagination. Both should have the power to affect the reader/viewer on a physical and emotional level in the moment of experiencing the film/poem.
I’ve heard that you were partly inspired Deryn Rees Jones’ book length poem Quiver. How did this influence your writing? Which other writers do you turn to for inspiration?
Deryn’s book pointed out the way – how I could stay with the density and beauty of lyric poetry and how I could trust the reader to go on a narrative journey that was not necessarily written in a straight line. Quiver plays with the murder mystery (which I am somewhat obsessed with!) but is also an ‘epic’ poem underpinned with myth, and deals with love and loss – you could describe And She Was in similar ways; I suppose you could say they are ‘sister texts’, even though our styles, voices and approaches are very different. The other poet whose work had a huge influence on me was Anne Carson and her 1996 ‘verse—novel’ The Autobiography of Red. I remember reading this when I was writing my first book, being overawed by its reach, risk and beauty, but thinking ‘one day I want to do something like this’!
My influences are very broad – but broadly speaking within the English lyric tradition. I’ve already mentioned Plath, but I’ve learnt to handle her with care, she can be a very powerful influence! Amongst the first poets I got to know and love really well at school were Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney, and it’s the power and density of their music that has stayed with me and is probably the strongest influence on my ‘style’ of writing – I can usually rely on them if I need a spark to get me working.
Are you working on anything new?
I’m just completing my next collection of poems A Perfect Mirror, which will be published by Pavilion next year. The title is taken from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal (she is referring to the lake on a particularly still and beautiful day). The book has evolved over roughly the same period of time as And She Was (hence having two books out quite close together), although there are new poems getting written all the time – and it is a book that has shed many skins along the way. It is a return to the formal lyric with forays into prose poems and exploded lyrics, and is thematically centred on place – mostly the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire where I have lived since 2002 – and in nature. The collection has a ‘dark heart’, with poems of hauntings both real, poetic and of the unconscious, ‘haunted’ by the presiding spirit of Sylvia Plath, whose burial place I can see from my back bedroom, but also by the instability inherent in the landscape (it is a place of cycles and renewals yes, but also of death and uncertainty, floods and disasters). The title poem is being written as part of a collaboration with the landscape painter Zoe Benbow in partnership with Lancaster University and The Wordsworth Trust, and the image of the mirror might refer the reader to Shakespeare’s idea of art as the mirror of nature, or to the more unsettling notion of nature as a mirror to the self.
About Sarah Corbett
Born in 1970, Sarah grew up in North Wales and gained a PhD in Critical and Creative Writing from Manchester University in 2013. Her first collection of poetry ‘The Red Wardrobe‘ (Seren,1998) won the Eric Gregory Award and was shortlisted for the T.S Eliot Prize and the Forward Best First Collection Prize. She followed with ‘The Witch Bag‘ (Seren, 2002) and ‘Other Beasts‘ (Seren, 2008). She currently lives in the Calder Valley and is a Lecturer in Creative Writing for Lancaster University.
From And She Was
Leaving you for an hour is a wound
from shoulder to hip. I stagger
like a soldier from the fray,
like a bull from the axe,
but we have to eat.
I buy fruit at the market,
the asked-for berries,
and walking home
take a strawberry
from the punnet.
This eating is love’s union,
the twin lost when cells
folded and hardened
to a ridge, the fruit
a globe of flesh
that has left the body,
a painted heart
that yields when bitten.