Pavilion Author Q&A: Sarah Westcott

Always international in its reach, Pavilion Poetry is poetry that takes a risk. Whether by new or established and award-winning writers, this is poetry sure to challenge and delight. 2022 marks the eighth year of Pavilion Poetry, and we’re taking the opportunity to look back at our brilliant collections with a series of author Q&As. For the latest interview in the series, we chatted to Sarah Westcott, author of Slant Light (2016) and Bloom (2020) to discuss her two collections and her feelings about poetry and nature more widely, examining the discourse between the two which flows throughout her work.

1. Bloom is your second collection with Pavilion Poetry, following Slant Light (2016). What inspired you to write another collection? Did you notice any differences in your writing process?

Bloom feels aligned to my third child’s life – the first poems began shortly after he was born. The book spans the first five years of life with him and a growing awareness of bodily and environmental precarity. We went for a lot of walks in which I came to accept – and love – the suburban world around me with its cyclical music and endless traffic roar. A lot of this noticing and feeling was non-verbal – it was just being outside, feeling alive in the world. A kind of receptive passivity.

The pressures of caring for a baby meant some of my poems stayed in my body for longer than they might have done and so came out quite formed and distilled, such as ‘Breast’ which I wrote in notes on my phone. There was no pressure to produce a new collection but I did very much want and need to keep reading and writing.

The process of writing the ‘Spring Fragments’ section was different – we were deep in the first lockdown and I felt deeply alive, guiltily alive. Years before, my mother had given me a small notebook with a pigeon on the front. One evening I took the notebook out and began writing, looking for something and nothing with my pen. Just lo-fi mark making, with some sense of musicality, innate in us all. I also started sketching as well. These fragments are written across several months, in different pens and handwriting styles, depending on my mood. I think if I had known they would form part of a ‘book’ they would have become something more mannered. As it is, they have their own unselfconscious energy, I hope, and say something, for me, about the pandemic, in an oblique way, and the nature of perception filtered through language.

Slant Light by Sarah Westcott

2. Nature is a key theme throughout your poetry. Where do you find inspiration in nature? Were there any locations that particularly inspired you?

There is a beautiful quote from John Clare in which he says ‘I found the poems in the fields, and only wrote them down’. I don’t mean to say I wander around in fields collecting poems like butterflies (although that does sound quite idyllic) but I find inspiration where we live on the edge of London. It is quite a traffic-heavy environment but it is also where the city begins to unravel into something less tightly packed and built-upon. I can look out of the window and see the Dartford Crossing and also the office blocks of London. I went purposefully and a bit self-consciously to encounter Nature in the North Kent marshes and was amazed to hear nightingales singing in the middle of the day. But in the poems, as in my own experience, the beyond-human comes in as a protagonist itself, more than a setting. I think it has seeped into me and is the poem as much as I am, if that makes sense.

Our garden, the skies over it, and the small river that runs near, the patch of ancient woodland, Greenwich Park, the roadside verges with lizards and vetch, all these places are in me, and in the poems. A lot of the time, in the first lockdown last Spring, I looked out of the window at the beauty of the world, especially in the early evening. I was behind glass but I could feel and smell the intensity, the conditional fragility of the trees, pear blossom, bird song, sirens.

3. The poems in Bloom ask the reader: ‘Have you looked / have you looked deeply?’. What meaning do you hope your audience will take from your collection? Are there any poems that particularly resonate with this call to look deeply?

Simply, an engagement with our shifting relationship to the more than human? Its necessity and its limitations and its endlessness, this other living, living here. I am interested in the limitations of language as a medium when it comes to translating experience.

Writing of mosses, Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests they ‘… issue an invitation to dwell for a time at the limits of ordinary perception’ and how botanical lexis ‘polishes the gift of seeing’ but also objectifies. Questions of how we write about, or through, or with, the non-human concern me. I am quite happy to stare, smell or touch a piece of lichen for a long time with no words involved in our encounter.

These poems are, hopefully, the result of a certain intensity of paying attention, a quality of noticing and feeling in a human body moving through the world. I write about the experience of being a woman, the body as vessel and sensory instrument, locator of perception, fallible and sensitive. I also begin to explore the body as a site of cultural interpretation – as floral and as beyond-human – as tree, as a feeling, turning space. Judith Butler talks about knowing in a way ‘that does not seem to capture … that preserves alterity even as it knows’ – I think that is a place I am attempting to write from. For me, the natural world remains inexplicable so a poem is always a gesture and never complete.

I am just beginning to explore, in some of these poems, the connections between botany and sexuality, the association between flowers and ideas of innocence (the folk term Fair Maids of February, for example, for snowdrops) and the phrase ‘deflower’. Flowers are, of course, the reproductive organs of plants with their own scale and agency yet almost always vehicles or conduits (as they are in this collection). We remain obsessed with the aesthetics of sight and smell of flowers. To bloom, of course, is a dynamic process with narrative connotations of growth, fecundity and fade but it was/is also a social category ‘occupied’ by young women, or ‘blooms’ in 19th century novels and to some extent today (I am thinking of the tabloid ‘countdown’ to Charlotte Church’s 16th birthday). Amy M King has written about this and there is an interesting essay here by Daisy Lafarge in the plant sex issue of Mal.

I was also interested in the connotations of Bloom in terms of (sweet) rot and overgrowth as we might see in blooms of jellyfish (a harbinger of warming oceans) and fungal growth.

Bloom by Sarah Westcott

4. In your poem Desert Holly you refer to works by the late Martin Roth – was there something specific about his work that captivated you? Do you think it is important to merge nature with art and literature?

This poem is really his work. I have only ever seen Martin Roth’s work online. The titles of his work are compelling (‘I released 50 crickets inside an industrial building’) — they express something of the futility and tenderness of humanity towards other living creatures and settings. There is something graceful and oblique about the way he nurtures living things in fresh contexts, subverting conceptual boundaries between the natural and artificial. Through his work we become intimate participants in our thoughts about the non human world and its relation to us. His work is mortal, temporary and dynamic. He raised ducklings in a gallery, sets free flies as collaborators.

In responding to his work, I tried to imagine what might happen with his work if it was left to grow beyond the usual physical/economic constraints of an art installation – what if a gallery allowed his trees to grow for ten years or more and bear fruit? You can see more of his work here.

5. Your poetry focuses on the interconnected world of birth and death; the body in ecstasy and decay. Was there an emotional process in writing these poems for you, particularly in the background of a pandemic?

Spring 2020 was so vivid and beautiful, death so insistent and present. These poems are an attempt at understanding the experience of being in a feeling, living body, in a transient world. A few years ago I wrote down a quote from the writer Tessa Hadley who said ‘… reading is in itself experience’. Writing is also experience and there was an emotional impetus to write, to process what was happening in the outer world through the prism of language, as a way to express some of the gravity of what was, and is, happening.

Through the last year, and before that, I’ve had a strong awareness of the fragility of my body, and all bodies, be they vegetative or muscular or on a larger scale. I think this soaks into the tone of the book in which life is precious, inexplicable and relational.

You can buy a copy of Slant Light and Bloom via via the Liverpool University Press website.


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