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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The Inspiration and Storytelling of And She Was: In Conversation with Sarah Corbett

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,

home-grown russets,

pitted cox,

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.


Sarah Corbett


For more information on And She Was and other titles in our Pavilion Poetry series, please visit our website.
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