In conversation with Sarah Corbett…

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 lifeI’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!


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 is currently a Lecturer in Creative Writing for Lancaster University.

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In conversation with Nuar Alsadir on ‘Fourth Person Singular’

To celebrate the release of Pavilion Poetry’s three new collections for 2017, and in the run up to the official launch, we have a series of exciting interviews to share with you. This week, Natalie Bolderston is in conversation with poet, writer, and psychoanalyst Nuar Alsadir, on her brand new collection Fourth Person Singular

Fourth Person Singular

1) Could you explain the title of your collection, Fourth Person Singular?

There was a period during which I was trying to figure out what kind of speaker to use in my poems. I was grappling with the recognition that even though I’d developed an aversion to confessional poetry, the poems I found moving, which served as my measure of a poem’s value, were invariably lyric, written in the first person and addressed—as is all speech—to a second person, whether circumscribed or implied. I spent the bulk of my waking hours trying to work out this problem until one night, during sleep, my dream voice said, “The fourth person singular exists in the fourth dimension.” I woke up and immediately began attempting to decode that fragment by researching the fourth dimension (I have a background in neuroscience, so the task was not as daunting as it may have otherwise been). Amazingly, through the lens of four-dimensional space-time, it is possible to grasp the meaning of the fourth person singular. There’s a lyric essay in my book that explains what I came up with.

2) In that essay, you discuss physics, with particular focus on four-dimensional space-time. What are the challenges of this?

I suppose the biggest challenge would be that the ideas might seem too difficult, alien, causing the reader to disconnect. But that’s always a concern with science and math, which are often shrouded with so many associations of impenetrability that it can be difficult to step back and allow the beauty to come through—as one might be more able or willing to do with a complex piece of music.

3) Can you tell us a bit about how your background as a psychoanalyst feeds into your writing?

I am endlessly fascinated by the mind, how it draws associations, redacts, displaces, represses, moves. The most useful sessions occur when the analysand does not have an agenda or subject and allows themselves to simply free-associate. In doing so, the mind will invariably come upon something significant that the analyst will ideally recognize, point out, so that it can be explored. That free association is similar to improvisation in dance. The improvisation is necessary to figure out how the body is organized and moves, but eventually certain gestures will stand out, demand interrogation, and become the basis of the choreography of a piece. The choreography may appear improvised because of where it originated, but is, in fact, carefully crafted.  I hope my writing similarly retains that free associative, improvisational impulse even as the choreography of the book is consciously set.

4) Throughout the book, you make use of a range of poetic forms and intertextual references. As a writer, do you have any particular influences – literary or otherwise?

The poetic forms reflect the shape of the gestures or thoughts propelled by that free associative, improvisational impulse I just mentioned. As for influences, I’m really more of a thinker than a reader. When I read, I like reading poetry, aphorisms, philosophy, theory—texts that I can read very little of and then think about, off-page, for hours. As I turn over phrases, images or ideas in my mind, I invariably alter them. In the book, I’ve used the altered forms—representing my Franz Kafka, or my André Breton—and have then provided the correct version in the notes. All of the texts I reference in my book are important to me, but I’d have to say the greatest influence on my writing is quotidian experience. I’m probably as inspired by what happens on the subway as I am by what happens within texts. There’s a great line in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, “I’ve been around the world several times and now only banality still interests me… I’ve tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter.” Virginia Woolf has that relentlessness, as does Larry David, Tracey Emin. I can think of many contemporary poets whom I’d consider bounty hunters in that same way.

5) In one of your lyric essays, you reveal the process behind creating your ‘night fragments’: waking up at 3:15 a.m. each night, and writing down whatever was at the top of your mind. Do you have any other processes or rituals that help you to write?

Marianne Moore once wrote, “We must have the courage of our peculiarities.” That precept guides my process. I’m open to letting my peculiarities reveal themselves, and to exploring whatever sense of shame that revelation might evoke. In psychoanalysis, there’s no subject matter or material that is higher or lower than any other. I approach poetry in a similar way.

6) The collection features striking illustrations, photographs and references to visual artists, such as Louise Bourgeois and Marlene Dumas. How do you think poetry relates to or complements visual art?

I’ve always wished my poems could be experienced as art installations, so that the reader could enter and experience them without the linear unfolding created by reading across and down the page. I’ve tried to disrupt that linear unfolding somewhat with simultaneous texts, but the dimensional limitations of the page are unavoidable. The mind doesn’t have thoughts, see images, hear, smell, perceive in tidy succession—that cacophonous chaos, which visual arts often capture so vividly, is exciting to me.

Click here to read an excerpt from Fourth Person Singular featured in Granta 


Nuar Alsadir Photo by Grace Yu (c)

Nuar Alsadir is a poet, writer and psychoanalyst. Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Grand Street, the Kenyon Review, tender, Poetry London and Poetry Review; and a collection of her poems, More Shadow Than Bird, was published by Salt in 2012. She is on the faculty at New York University, and works as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York. Her latest collection Fourth Person Singular can be found here


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