Tuesday 4 February 2014

Interview with the poet, Barbara Smith

Continuing my repostings of interviews, here's Barbara Smith whose second collection, The Angel's Share was published by Doghouse last year.

 Barbara Smith was a recent reader at the Oxfam Spring into Poetry series in London. A first collection, Kairos, was published in 2007. Her work has been shortlisted and awarded prizes, such as at Scotland’s Wigtown Poetry Competition 2009 and the Basil Bunting Award to name a few.

Hello Barbara and welcome. How did you first get into poetry?

I always loved English, I was an early reader and devoured books growing up. I got into poetry through a great English teacher I had. I went to a convent school in Newry and we had one of those teachers who is able to make poetry come alive. I remember vividly poems such as
'In a Station of the Metro,' by Ezra Pound, as an introduction to the idea of how poetry worked in images; brief but startling - where people's faces became 'petals on a wet, black bough'. All that compression seemed intriguing. Later on Sr. Olive introduced us to Wilfred Owen, Ted Hughes and an especial favourite from school, Robert Frost. I can still remember her reading 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.'

Later on in my late teens I took to scribbling lyrics for a band I was in- they were rubbish! the lyrics I mean, not the band. Later still,in my twenties, I met someone who was into poetry; reading it well as writing it. We would share work and criticism, and I then joined a group, which was helpful in getting my work straight.

Why did you decide to do the MA in Queens University, Belfast?

I did the MA in Queen's sort of by accident. I went back to study English Literature, as a mature student in my 30s, with the Open University. In my last year of my primary degree, I thought I would do a module on Creative Writing, as I had been writing poetry. I wanted to try out writing stories as well. Anyway, I was thinking of doing a MA in Queen's, but in Irish Literature, not writing. I met a poet whose work I admired, Todd Swift, at a reading of his work in Galway. He knew my work too, and he thought I was mad not doing the MA in CW. I remember him mentioning Medbh McGuckian and Ciaran Carson, and thinking that he had a point. I came home and changed the registration, and the rest is history. The MA was terrific, and really helped my work to grow immensely, as well as giving me much more confidence in my poetic capabilities. I had a few competition placings as well, which helped too!

You teach creative writing yourself. Do you have any classes coming up? 

I have been teaching CW in Dundalk to a very capable group of writers, but alas, they don't need me anymore- one lassie in particular is now turning up on competition shortlists everywhere, and she won the Fish Short Short a few years ago. We still keep in contact and I meet them regularly at reading events around Dundalk. They are very proactive in writing! At present I work for Meath VEC in Adult Education and I would use a lot of the CW techniques I have to encourage people to tell stories or write poems - whatever gets them turned back on to writing!

What do you think about the question of how much writing can be taught and how
much is unteachable?

I think that in the whole nature vs nurture thing in CW, you can't teach imagination. That's the key element. You can show people techniques; how story is constructed; how alliteration works in a poem; the job that rhyme does - but you've got to have people there that are into wanting to know more. This argument is a little like saying painters are born, they learn nothing in classes or college. Of course they learn more - but they already had the raw talent to start with!

What would a new writer look for in a writing class or one-off workshop?

If I were a new writer looking for a class or a workshop, I'd probably be looking at the name running it - if I was a new writer I'd be reading a lot of contemporary Irish writing and I'd know who I liked and perhaps want to attend classes by writers I'd admire. I'd maybe look at the Irish Writers Centre website and also ask locally in my own region. Each area has an arts officer and they are only too glad to point you in the 'write' direction! You can find a local arts officer by looking at the co co website.

What advice do you have for writers who are starting out now?

My advice to writers starting out now? Read, read, read. Read your contemporaries. Go to their launches; they're human like you and they'll appreciate your coming along. Buy their books; you'll want them to buy yours when the time comes. Go to readings, you'll hear how the work sounds and you'll get to meet other writers like you. Join a peer group or a writing club -- you can't exist in a vacuum alone. Network on FB and twitter; try blogging, you might just be good at it. Foster connections whenever you can. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. ;)

Which magazines would you recommend for new poets to read?

I would recommend reading journals like Stinging Fly, PIR, Mslexia, if you're a woman (great tips and advice too) Crannog and Southword online. Also in the north, Abridged isn't bad either. Try getting outside Ireland too, go for Poetry London, Poetry North; or Iota is nice, and changed ownership recently too; think Templar publishing have that now. It's a good idea to subscribe to different things if you can at different times; see what's being published and who knows they might take your work too. Orbis is another one, as is The Rialto. Look at some of the writer blogs, if you aren't doing that already; some of my favourites would be Emerging Writer, Baroque in Hackney, Women Rule Writer, Eyewear, Heaven (mairead byrne's blog). Mostly women, I've just noticed, but then I am one!

What do you wish you had known when you were new at the game?

I wish I'd known more about technique in poetry; I'd always thought it was too hard or difficult. When I got into it I found it easier than I expected it to be. It's still hard, but I get it much more in other people's work now because I know how it's worked for. The other stuff I've enjoyed learning as I've gone along, so I wouldn't change that.

When I say technique, I suppose I'm referring to the poetry toolbox of rhyme, rhythm, assonance, as well as things like form - you know, sonnets, haiku etc etc. I knew very little of it when I was starting out, and I've learned a lots as I've gone along, but I suppose, to use the artist analogy again, it's a little like knowing all the different ways you can apply paint to get different effects. At the start you're just firing the words on the page like so much paint, hoping that there'll be something nice at the end. When you know what you're doing you don't even have to think of those things, it's just there (I hope!) to be drawn on as and when you need it. Not to say that you don't have to work at it; I think you have to work even harder at making it look like you do know what you're doing, when you supposedly do know. If you follow me :)

How did your first collection come about?

My first collection, Kairos came about from sending the manuscript out and getting lots of rejections. I did the Poetry Ireland Introductions series in 2005, and I was asked when my collection was coming out. I hadn't thought it was ready, but when I went home and looked at all that I had and the publishing credits I'd gathered, maybe it was time to send it and see. I tried the usual suspects in Ireland, but I hadn't heard of Doghouse before. I sent to them and then forgot all about it until a nice phone call came from their editor Noel King, telling me it was a go. That was five years ago, and it's good to be able to say that the print run is all sold.

Why do you think the second collection is dreaded?

I think the second collection is dreaded because you're hoping to surpass the first. It's got to show some growth or development past what you achieved in the first one and that's really hard to gauge when it's yourself looking at it. You can see it quicker on other people's work than you can with your own - a bit like your kids; it's only when they grow up and go away that you realise you've done a pretty good job raising them.

What have you got coming up?

The new collection should be out this year; could be early rather than later; I'm hoping to be doing some good gigs with the Poetry Divas. Anything else will be a bonus ;)

Well good luck with that. Looking forward to reading The Angel's Share.

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