We caught up with Sarah Westcott to discuss the interplay between science and creative writing and the various aspects of life and culture that enrich her poetry collection Slant Light.
As someone who has studied both biology and creative writing, do you think that scientific methods (e.g. observation and analysis) bear any similarity to poetic composition?
Yes and no in the sense that both involved sustained and careful observation of both the immediately visible and then the less obvious before any conclusions are drawn or ideas expressed.
But no in the sense that when I am writing early drafts of a poem I am drawing on parts of my mind that do not attempt objectivity. Objectivity is of course fundamental to scientific observation and analysis.
Both disciplines are also infused with the kind of curiosity that is unconscious and in-the-moment and then have parallels in the time afterwards when the mind works over and through what it has been looking at.
There is also a sense for me when editing that I must engage my rational, discerning, critical mind to excise and explain and this is very much a mind I recognise from looking down a microscope or under a stone and examining what is there.
In some of your poems, such as Bats and The Mariposa Trees, nature seems to speak for itself. How did you go about developing a voice and consciousness for different aspects of the natural world?
Thank you – that is something I am still working on. I think for me it is a question of immersing myself in the landscape and also spending time in the garden standing quietly as the bats flicker above me. Those immersive times which are wordless give me a taste of the language that might suit that species. So for the bats I went for a lot of consonantal, clicking sounding words which reflects the staccato nature of their flight and the echolocation they emit (which I can sometimes still hear).
So it’s a question of listening to (and feeling, as a fellow animal) what is already there and then trying to capture something of that essence in our language.
You also work as a journalist. Does this feed into your poetry in any way?
I have been a news reporter for almost twenty years now. In terms of writing, a lot of the news we report is quite complicated and has to be condensed into a few hundred words. So clarity is very important and I think the word-by-word editing skills of weighing up whether a word, phrase or even comma should be there is useful in both areas.
Likewise with rhythm – there is a beat or rhythm in the intros (the first paragraph) of most tabloid news stories – this may sound fanciful but you do hear it in the sentence as you write it. There is also a degree of word-play.
The other parallel is an awareness of an audience which is strong when I’m writing a news story. We were long ago told to consider: “would this article/angle be of interest to Doris in Doncaster?” And when writing poetry, being able to step back and think “does this actually make sense in its own right” helps my poems hopefully become more understandable.
I have found in my job that you become immersed in all human life as a reporter – not only speaking to people but also sitting through the court cases and inquests, the weddings, the funerals and any occasions when there are crowds of people mourning or celebrating. It’s a kind of privilege to be able to be in those crowds and talk to people and understand why they are there. As a journalist people sometimes tell you quite intimate thoughts as well. You’re also party to terrible cases of abuse and also the fragility of life. I think that can only help feed my poetry with a respect and even love for us “naked apes”.
You have previously cited Alice Oswald as an influence. What do you value most in her work? Do you have any other literary influences?
I love her use of language to describe the non-human – she manages to make us see creatures, and places almost in a heightened reality without in any way sentimentalising them. For example, writing of a rotted swan as “hurrying away from the plane-crash-mess of her wings” communicates the arched structure of the swan’s frame and also the rigidity and stillness of death and also the way swans ‘run up’ and take off into flight.
My literary influences are everywhere. I am a magpie. I like poems that stretch language to its limits and are not afraid to go beyond.
I really enjoy hybrid work at the moment – recent highlights are Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers and also Solar Bones by Mick McCormack.
I am also fascinated by the sounds, music and meaning in registers of language we have at our disposal – particularly the specialist vocabulary you might find in science. At their best they give you a new way of seeing the world and also sound beautiful when defamiliarised.
Slant Light features several Anglo-Saxon charms and references to folklore. What is your process for transforming raw material such as this into poetry?
A lot of the charms came about when I was writer-in-residence at a nature reserve and I wanted to write about the properties of the plants growing there – many of them common weeds with medicinal properties.
That lead me into researching the charms which are these rich, song-like poems that seem to operate in the area between early Christianity and paganism. I find that hinterland really exciting. I moved between the old texts and my own new interpretations by translating word-by-word using an online dictionary and a bit of poetic license. A lot of the words are open to interpretation and a lot of them are direct translations. What is exciting is the rhythm of speech is already there in the originals which gave me a powerful sense of reaching into something real. They were, I think, performative and meant to be heard. In that sense, the form of the poems, like line breaks and pauses, fell naturally as breath.
About Sarah Westcott
Sarah Westcott’s debut pamphlet Inklings was the Poetry Book Society’s Pamphlet Choice for Winter 2013. Her poems have been published in journals including Poetry Review, Magma and Poetry Wales and in anthologies including Best British Poetry 2014 (Salt). Sarah grew up in north Devon, on the edge of Exmoor, and has a keen interest in the natural world. She holds a science degree and an MA in poetry from Royal Holloway, University of London. Sarah lives on the London/Kent borders with her family and, after a spell teaching English abroad, works as a news journalist.
For more information on Slant Light and other titles in our Pavilion Poetry series, please visit our website.