Sarah Fletcher’s Beautiful Disasters
Young poet Sarah Fletcher has received accolades from The Christopher Tower Poetry Competition and The Poetry Society – she’s already making her mark with the sweep of her pen. I spoke to to the talented artist about her inspiration and influences and defying conventional stereotypes.
How did your passion for poetry develop?
I’ve written poetry for most of my life – around the ages of seven and eight I wrote poems about nature; around eleven I started writing what I called “song lyrics without melodies” about boys I liked. Once I started to realise I couldn’t sing nor play guitar well and enjoyed writing lyrics more, I started to categorise my lyrics as poetry. Once I made that shift in categorisation, I started to read other poets more and edit my work more. I had less emphasis on shoe-horned rhyming and abstractions and focused more on concrete images and more subtle forms of music, like alliteration. I became influenced by writers such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who I discovered through my concurrent interest in feminism. That shift was very influential on my work, and the next influential shift was winning the Christopher Tower Poetry Competition in 2012. Having my work be validated by such a big competition boosted my confidence. It was a concrete justification of the hours I’d spent editing. After winning that competition, I definitely committed myself more to seeking out more poetry opportunities, reading poetry, editing, and submitting to places.
Do your poems have any predominant themes?
Once, funnily enough, poet Christopher Reid read a selection of poems of mine on the Foyle Young Poet Arvon course and said I seemed to write a lot about “physical discomfort in grotesque ways.” I’ve since reflected about this statement and now realise that this concept of being “physically uncomfortable” goes hand in hand with the fact I write a lot about women and the experience of women through history until now. Unfortunately, a lot of this history is that of both mental and physical discomfort. I enjoy the juxtaposition of physical discomfort in situations often perceived as glamorous or lucky. For example, my poem Kraut Girl, my 2013 second place winning Tower poem, details the story of a Dutch woman who marries a nazi soldier for safety during World War II. The phrase “I knew his razor/burn from skin-on-skin, the rash of kissing/moustached men” is purposely grotesque; it would have reflected the experience of being in a physical relationship with someone out of desperation, with a terrifying power dynamic. Even my 2012 Foyle poem Brighton tells the story of a girl coming home from a nightclub, but zooms in on the bruise marks she finds on her arms the next day, perhaps from falling down, and the red blisters on her feet from her heels. I like setting up situations that are often romanticised and toppling them, perhaps. Or drawing attention to the ugly. It’s a bit like the vanitas paintings by the Dutch masters — they will draw beautiful bouquets but once you look close up, you will see a fly eating a petal, or a rotting stem.
Who do you consider to be your major influences?
I have lots of influences that have changed over the years and, especially now that I’m at university and reading more, are expanding to encompass more authors than ever before. I’m very influenced by the role of form in contemporary poetry and enjoy poets Glyn Maxwell, Don Paterson, and Robert Lowell for their attentiveness to metre and rhyme; I think rhyme and metre are often unlawfully labelled as stuffy and restrictive to a poem, but I find these poets’ poems more musical, more powerful, and more memorable for their uses of form. I love Edna St. Vincent Millay as well — her poems are so musical, mournful, and What lips my lips have kissed and when and why is a poem that still haunts me.
In terms of older poets, I love Gerard Manley Hopkins and his use of music. Hopkins caused me to be more attentive to the function of sound in my poetry and since being interested in his work, I often read my poems out loud as I write them. I enjoy John Donne for his seductive wit and Shakespeare for nearly everything. Of course, there are things beyond poetry that, in my opinion, have heavily inspired my poems. I’ve been highly influenced by Frida Kahlo and her spooky surrealism; if someone has put “grotesque physical discomfort” on a canvas, it would be her. Other visual artists like Egon Schiele and film makers like David Lynch have had similar effects. My most recent poems have been heavily inspired by the concept of faith and lots of them are influenced by The Bible and, beyond that, a contemporary poet named Kathryn Maris and her collection God Loves You.
What is your process as a poet? What are the perfect conditions for writing?
Wordsworth says he writes in “emotions recollected in tranquility”, and I cannot agree more. I find that my best writing comes when I am clear minded, calm, and happy. The image of the crying poet, throwing herself unto her writing desk with a crumbled love letter in her left hand, seems so exhausted to me yet surprisingly prevalent in the public. For me, the perfect conditions for writing arise from a phrase or an imagine I find interesting and want to expand on. This can come from anywhere! Poets need to work as magpies and collect whatever they find striking. Then, I’ll usually sit down and start ‘building’ around it and arrange phrases differently, experiment with order and structure, until I’ve reached something that feels complete. Then I’ll usually look at it the next day with a discerning eye and think about editing. I won’t force a poem and if it seems it’s not completely coming together, I’ll let it simmer for a while and come back to it. Again, I need to free my mind of emotional clutter. I find I write less when stressed or upset. I often have difficulty writing head-on about my life through poetry; it always ends up seeming too much like a diary entry!
What is the most challenging part of your work?
I think writing as a young person is difficult because it’s difficult to be taken seriously. I find that being a teenage girl and saying “I write poetry” automatically conjures up stereotypes of weepy, overemotional, 80’s movie caricatures who own journals and hackney rhyme. That’s why I laud competitions like The Christopher Tower Poetry Prize and Foyle Young Poets – young people who are serious about their work need that supportive platform! I think it’s important to remember that Rimbaud, one of the most celebrated poets, gave up poetry at the age of twenty and Keats wrote his greatest odes at twenty four. While us young poets may still, admittedly, have a lot to learn, our voices should still be valued.
So in 2012 you were awarded the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize – tell us about that.
Winning the prize has a profound effect on me and my work; I think until then I saw poetry more has a hobby and interest than something work pursuing with everything in me. Meeting the judges – Christopher Reid and Don Paterson, two poets I love – also gave me a bit of an idea what ‘real live’ poets were like. Before then, I had no concept of how modern poets lived. Were they Byrons? Were they starving? It was nice to see talented and wickedly smart poets in real life and moreover listen to them speak about literature and not be living on the streets, starving (a common stereotype I joked about but secretly feared.) It gave me something to look up to. Since then, I’ve spent more time reading other poets (both old and new), writing, and editing my poems, knowing it won’t damn me to poverty.
Of the poetry you’ve written, do you have a particular favourite?
I think my poem Kraut Girl (the 2013 Second Place Tower poem) is a personal favourite. I wrote it while on a trip to Amsterdam; I went to the National Liberation Museum and saw the phrase “Kraut Girls” underneath a photo of crying, bald women. I immediately loved the phrase – it was so visceral and bizarre. When I was back in my hotel room later that night, I started to think about what a Kraut Girl would say if I could talk to one. In very loose, iambic beats, I started to write. After lots of reshifting of phrases and editing (the final poem is very different from my original version!), I had something I was happy with. I think it best reflects my interest in assonance, internal rhyme, and form, as well as my growing interest in the dramatic monologue. I recently wrote a Poetry Challenge for the Young Poets Network on the topic; why does the “I” in poetry always have to be yourself? The poem Kraut Girl was my first break away from this belief.
What advice would you give to other young aspiring poets?
I’d have to say don’t give up and have conviction in what you want to say. It’s so important. Think of the great Rilke quote “Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart…ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?…And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity.”
Secondly, I know everyone says this, but I would also say read lots and read often. I find that my work has only been strengthened by reading other poets, both modern and historical. You may not like a particular author, but always ask yourself what you can learn from him or her’s work.
Where do you hope to be in the future and how will you get there?
In the future, I hope to definitely still be writing. I’m currently hoping to publish a pamphlet and then soon a collection; I think there are more opportunities than ever for young people to break into the poetry world. Faber’s New Poet scheme is an opportunity few have had in the past. Same with prestigious competitions for young poets such as Tower and Foyles. I think the hardest part for me now is crossing over from a “young person who writes poetry” to simply being a “person who writes poetry”. I think organisation is key in this: submitting work to magazines, writing cover letters. Organisation, though, tends to be the Achilles Heel of many creative people! I hope in a year I’ll have a pamphlet out (I’m in the midst of compiling one at the moment!) but, in the end, I’m sure wherever I’ll be in a year, pamphlet or no pamphlet, will be the right place for me at the time.