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Sunday, 4 September 2011

Want to be a poet? Cath Nichols invites you in.

I have always loved poetry, both the writing and reading of it, as a way of enriching our dialogue with the world. Someone else who has found a rich source of pleasure in poetry is poet and lecturer Cath Nichols. I took the chance to ask Cath about her writing life, and was really inspired by her answers. If you live anywhere near Lancaster, don't miss her excellent workshops.

What is it about poetry that makes it essential to you?

Cath: Something about the reading of poems makes me go into a different space/time experience – reading them in my head or hearing the poet read them out loud. It’s not usually a ‘story’ space (escapism, learning or forward momentum) as I get from reading prose. It’s more like meditation or a quality of attention. If prose is forward momentum, poetry is circular! It ripples out form centre. Certainly when I’m writing poetry, too, there is a sense of ‘tardis space’ – time spent ‘in’ poetry is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside!

2.Tell me about the themes that most excite you at the moment, or structures in poetry or prose that make your eyes light up.

I have been preoccupied with the sea for years and various myths. Also hybrid people and characters: mermaids and over the last couple of years the Procne and Philomela myth where both women are turned into birds. I’ve noticed that I often get hooked on material that was someone else’s first. The hook is where my mind keeps going back to a thing that I disagree with strongly. It’s the gritty irritation than later develops into something. Often a kind of injustice in the older writing that needs re-writing for today (in my opinion). Philomela (the nightingale in various odes) had real appeal: why should she sing a sweet sad song having been raped by her brother-in-law? It made me furious! So, I wrote a poem and later a play (set in the present and involving an Asian family in Manchester) to work out a different approach.

I am building up a novel now which is a response to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Again deep outrage that Imogen’s husband agrees to a bet to test his wife’s faithfulness. She is put at great risk; he believes she has been unfaithful and sends someone to kill her; and then at the end of the story they reunite to live happily ever after! Aargh! The gall of it. Of course I realise in those days women had to put up with a great deal and possibly marriage was the best protection available, so you’d do all you could to make it work, and forgive all kinds of crap. But not now.

Structures: something about rhythm and alternation. It happens in my poems and dramatic writing. There’s even a trace of that in the novel. In prose it seems to be to do with suspending the revelation of plot; and in a poem it’s to do with tension and enjambment...

3. You are interested in radio and the aural experience of words. How has this influenced your work?

It was a big part of my PhD research. I’d noticed that many poets write for radio as dramatists, docu-drama writers and sometimes as poets. I love Michael Symons Roberts work (he used to be a BBC documentary producer and later Head of Religious Broadcasting before becoming a full-time poet and academic). Paul Farley and Simon Armitage too have done a lot. Way back you have Dylan Thomas and in fact almost every poet based in London in the forties. Samuel Beckett did some innovative stuff (the first really radiophonic work All that Fall – using sound in a distorted way for atmospheric effect). Joan Littlewood and Charles Parker valued working-class history and experience. With Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger they made the Radio Ballads series: this pretty much invented documentary without commentary – people were heard in their own voices for the first time instead of transcribed interviews being read by actors! That followed on from the invention of new technologies that made recording equipment portable – writers and producers could get out and about. Kathleen Jamie did a wonderful radio play in the 90s that had imagined characters from Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings talking about their lives since the great Whitsun train ride. Their stories were interleaved with Larkin reading the poem. You can listen to it in the British Library if you go to the sound archive there. All of it is just so inspiring.

I’ve done some local radio short drama and poetry but I’m still trying to crack Radio 4 drama. New writers have to go via the Afternoon Play slot which is pretty pedestrian. Only the famous get asked to do docudrama stuff, which would be more up my street. So, watch this space!

4. Which other writers have made a lasting impression on you and why?

For novels, Shani Mootoo’s The Cereus Blooms at Night. Fabulous, surprising novel set in the Caribbean with race, sexuality (as in queer as well as straight) and gender issues seamlessly woven through a great story set in the past and present.

Anne Carson, a Canadian poet and Classics professor who writes book-length poems or sequences. The Autobiography of Red (Red is a little ‘creature’ from a Greek myth alive in the present day), and Glass and Gods. The sequence where the narrator goes home to Mum after heartbreak but re-investigates Emily Bronte and the moors sums up a particular kind of sadness and detachment. It is sometime shocking when it describes certain acts of desperation, but it’s so truthful as to how humans can be with each other. And she never loses her amazing touch of language and surprise even though there is a fair amount of ‘story’ going on. Carson also does translations of Greek drama and writes fantastic essays.

5. You teach poetry workshops, what has surprised you most about the process of passing on your

I really enjoy it. University students on Creative Writing courses are sometimes there because they want to write prose and might be a bit dismissive of poetry. So getting them engaged with an exercise and enjoying themselves feels terrific. In other non-uni settings students are more likely to be keen poets already. I think it becomes a dialogue. I’m interested in people’s responses and the happy coincidences and surprises.. When you have a conversation you sometimes stumble on things you didn’t know you knew – or they do! I think teaching makes you a better writer – so long as you can create the time to keep writing your own stuff.

6. Tell me about your publications, and how we might join a workshop with you.

Collection, My Glamorous Assistant (Headland, 2007).
Pamphlet, Tales of Boy Nancy (Driftwood, 2005)
I think these are out-of-print now. But I’ve poems forthcoming in Poetry Wales and The Stinging Fly and, I found out last week I’ll be in 2012’s Lung Jazz: Young Poets for Oxfam. (I’m not that young but the line was drawn at 40 at the time of sending work in!)

I’m teaching a six week course at litfest in Lancaster (near the train station)

on Monday evenings from the 26th September.

We’ll be exploring how ideas about form can inform the way we create free verse poems. I felt that poets today often get stuck in one of two camps: the ‘strict form only brigade’ and the ‘totally free verse crew’. I wanted to show how both sides have something to offer the other and that free verse (where many writers start) can become stronger from a few well chosen techniques. It’s partly about re-drafting: making your initial poem much more ‘poem-y’. Lots of exercises, some reading and happy discussions I hope.

Mondays 26th September - 31st October, 6.30pm-8.30pm.
Cost: £60 (£50 concs.)
Book by 9th September by phone, 01524 62166, or by cheque (post to Get Writing, Litfest, The Storey, Lancaster LA1 1TH, with course name, ticket price and your full contact details)

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