A Perfect Mirror has seen every success since its publication earlier this year. We caught up with Sarah Corbett to discuss art, poetry, and the unconscious life.
You lecture in creative writing at Lancaster University, do you ever find yourself being inspired by your students and their writing?
Sometimes I find that in working through a problem with a student that I have worked through a problem for myself. Occasionally I see a student do something innovative that I wouldn’t have thought of, but that is rare, and it is actually a moment of feeling that great, they have done that essential thing that all ‘teachers’ hope for – they have outgrown their need for me! Mostly I keep my writing life and my teaching life separate.
You have collaborated with the amazing landscape artist Zoe Benbow for the title poem The Perfect Mirror, are you influenced by art regularly, and how important do you think it is for art and poetry to coincide with one another?
I started, as a very young child, obsessed with drawing (and singing, I have recently found out!), so I think that for me, as for many other writers (and many artists), that word and images, the hand and eye, go together. My Dad was a gifted amateur painter, so I grew up surrounded by art books and art materials, – the smell of oil paint and linseed – and the idea that art is what mattered above all else. I almost pursued the path of a visual artist but realized very quickly during my A levels where my real talents lay. I kept drawing through university – I used to earn money doing street art and painting murals – and my social circle at Leeds University was with the fine artists – finding my best and oldest friend, the filmmaker Gabrielle Russell there. I think that there’s little separation really between visual art and poetry – they just use different mediums – although Zoe would point out the difficulty visual artists have in dealing with time and narrative (something she works with in her painting). What I noticed most about working with Zoe was that what she embodied through her artistic practice and was also very good at verbalizing, was an artistic process that I recognized as my own – something mysterious perhaps, or containing and attempting to preserve mystery – but also deeply rooted in the material worlds of the body and the landscape. Maybe we are just the same kind of artist, and that there are other kinds too. In the past, there wasn’t the sort of polarization between art forms and ‘worlds’ that there is today. Some of this, I think is to do with the excessive commercialization within the art world, and the denigration, in some senses, of poetry within our culture – but I guess they both share the problem of feeling out of reach for the general population. On the whole, I think that poets are nearly always communication with art in some way, and would love to see the two worlds coming together more often, or for there to be a more acknowledgment that what visual artists are doing is the same-but-different to what poets are doing – I think that it would help to raise the profile of poetry in cultural life.
You are clearly very inspired by Sylvia Plath, what is it about her and her life that you find the most intriguing and fascinating?
The most important thing about Sylvia Plath for me as a young writer starting to write, and I continue to write, is that she symbolized the ‘Writer as Artist’, by that I mean that writing and being/becoming a writer was central to her entire existence. I learnt from her focus and dedication and sheer commitment to hard work, her projection of absolute belief even when she was privately full of doubt (that doubt is, though, as essential to any writer’s journey as self-belief). So I learnt about graft and craft – how she taught herself through constant practice of the craft – and I did the same thing – practice, practice, practice, like a pianist learning scales… it’s the only way to internalize those patterns of poetry that can emerge as if instinctually – that’s how she reached those incredible – free – heights of her last poems. The other thing I took from Plath was the permission to write about my own life, my experiences and inner world – my own terrors and madness. There were other poets who were already doing this, and who influenced me too – Vicky Feaver and Sarah Maguire for instance – but I imagine that they had also been given a similar sort of permission by Plath; in many way Plath now stands as the Godmother or Great Matriarch of much contemporary Poetry; she paved the way for so much that we can now say, and how we can say it.
Your poems particularly ‘The Perfect Mirror’ and Sylvia Plath’s ‘Dust’ have a very specific and beautiful layout. The words falling down the page like dust in the latter poem is striking. How important is layout to you when writing your poems, do you decide how they will look on the page as you write them or is this a decision you make after?
It’s not so much as a ‘decision’ as something that emerges organically from the writing of the poem – the needs of the poem itself dictate the form or shape it will take on the page; I also do like the way things look – the picture they make on the page. I am allowing myself to be more playful and free these days though, as I can get stuck in formal patterns. I do, however, love form and pattern, hence the prevalence of sonnets, terza rima, quatrains and the sestina – I love the challenge and the pressure they place on the writing process. Writing a poem though is so much an internal process for me – something like entering a trance state where the ‘rules’ and outcomes are dictated by the process, not by a – separated – conscious mind. Although there are times when I am making later, editorial changes – ‘decisions’ you might then call them – about line endings or stanza breaks, punctuation or word choice – but again, even then I can only do this successfully through contacting the inner workings of the poem – the poems’ essential spirit. None of this though is to suggest that poems arrive like magic – I’ve spent thirty years practicing! So, not magic of the mysterious kind then, but Magic Circle magic, where it appears mysterious, but is really down to well-honed, long practiced and internalized skill.
The collection has very much a haunting and dark feel to it, you have stated you have an interest in psychology, particularly dreaming and the unconscious, do you feel like this is what allows you to write such meaningful and dark poetry? Do you often feel yourself tapping into your unconscious to write these poems?
Anyone familiar with my poetry will recognize this dark and often unsettling voice. I trust my unconscious life, yes, I respect it; there’s much poetry there: poetry is half in this world, half out of it. I try to be as cheery and positive as possible outwardly, but I’ve battled many very real demons throughout my life. I’m also, I think, very sensitive to the external world which is often a terrifying place, so whereas my poems can seem very personal, very interior, they are actually a symbiosis of a troubled interior world and a frightening external one – I think I’ve come closest in this book so far to getting the balance between the two – the internal world and the external world – or at least showing how it is there and how it operates on the imagination. This is something I think, that I share with Plath, (and is at the root of how she is and has been misunderstood – and how my own work is very often misunderstood), although I don’t claim to share her energy nor her genius!