Interview With Poet Sarah James

I love interviewing poets, but I really love interviewing poets who publish their first collection and let me know that the title poem was originally a response to a Poetic Asides poetry prompt. And yes, I’m talking about today’s interview with poet Sarah James.

Sarah’s collection Into the Yell was published in 2009 by UK publisher Circaidy Gregory Press (Sarah currently lives in Worcestershire). She is a prize-winning former journalist and has published her poetry in several anthologies and publications.

 

Here is the title poem for her collection:

Into the Yell, by Sarah James

Mandy’s lover forces open her soprano mouth
with a dentist’s grip
to search for sound.

Or not. Her closed throat
hides the secret of a voice whose shout
even is music pouring

                             out for others:
her soul, love, skies, birds,
the essence of human desires.

Perhaps he imagines extracting
that perfect vibration. A small slit
of a cut and he could

pull out her vocal cords for himself
like plucking strings.
Or gutting a rabbit.

Whatever he is looking for, it is not
this shriek that he squeezes from her lips
while her silent song overflows.

*****


What are you currently up to?

 

Where do I start? Juggling mainly! I’ve got three
pamphlet-size collections in various stages of being ‘coerced’ into shape and
I’ve just started an MA in creative writing (online poetry route) at Manchester
Metropolitan University. There are readings from my poetry collection ‘Into the
Yell,’ and I’ve started doing some poetry/art displays, audio recordings and
poetry videos. (I’ve just made one in support of the Helen Bamber Foundation’s
work to raise awareness of human trafficking, which is also inspired by the UK
National Poetry Day 2010–on October 7–theme of ‘home.’ Here’s the link:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOzaD5yiuf4.)


I’m also rep (organizer) for my
local Poetry Society stanza (poetry group) and I run writing workshops, give
talks, write feature articles, etc., to try and bring a little money in. This all
fits around looking after my two boys–three if you count my husband too! And
when the muse strikes, most things get thrown up in the air all at once, while
I write creatively. It’s good fun though. I love being busy.

 

You mentioned to me earlier that the Poetic Asides
prompts played some role in your collection Into the Yell. Could you tell that
story?

 

I was in the process of putting my collection together
when I started the Poetic Asides’ Poem a Day April challenge 2009. (The fresh
prompts were a delicious creative contrast to the frustrating detail of editing
and organizing.) The prompt for April 15 was either to use the end or the title
of another poet’s poem as inspiration. (I can’t remember which now, as I
actually did both.)


I chose Auden’s “Eyes Look Into the Well.” Over time, my
title changed from “Eyes Look Into the Yell” to simply “Into the Yell.” I also
made other changes, including losing the last line of my first version, “face
down into love’s bloodied brook,” which was a play on Auden’s “face down in the
flooded brook.”


I also realized that the female character in my poem was
actually a character that featured elsewhere in my work. In the collection,
this became the middle of a series of three ‘Mandy’ poems and also eventually
the title poem for the whole collection!

 

Into the Yell is your first collection. How did you go
about putting together the manuscript and submitting it for publication?

 

There are two ways of telling this story. The sensational
journalistic one is that I blogged about it and was offered a contract! This
could give false hope to literary bloggers though as there is more background
to the tale than that.


I had already met my publisher, Kay Green of Circaidy
Gregory Press, in a virtual sense on the internet. She knew my work and that I
had been placed in numerous poetry contests, including ones she ran at her
writers’ website at www.earlyworkspress.co.uk.


When I started blogging about
the process of trying to gather together and assess 10 years’ worth of poems in
terms of creating a collection, she read my posts. I was part way through, and
hadn’t even thought about potential publishers, when she asked whether I wanted
to submit my manuscript to her at Circaidy Gregory Press. I did and it was
accepted. I was lucky, but it wasn’t random luck!

 

Was there anything that surprised you or that you
found interesting in the process of publishing your collection?

 

I was surprised by how much I had written over the years–and how hard it was to pull it together to form a cohesive collection.
Sometimes even prize-winning poems had to go simply because, while they worked
well as an individual entity, placed with other poems they were maybe too
similar in theme, subject matter, etc., and detracted from each other and the
collection as a whole.


I was extremely lucky to have a good editor, in the form
of fellow Circaidy Gregory poet Marilyn Francis, to help me with this. On the
other hand, I was amazed by how the whole process inspired me creatively. I
actually wrote some of my favorite poems specifically for the collection.

 

You’ve worked as a journalist. Have you ever found
that journalism helps your poetry or that your poetry helps your journalism?


I guess working as a news reporter has taught me things
about ‘hooking’ in the reader and the importance of conciseness. These skills
are often useful in poetry. But sometimes they are a handicap in terms of the
journalistic tendency to over-sensationalize or oversimplify issues! Otherwise,
being a journalist has brought me into contact with interesting people/stories
that have sometimes featured in my poetry.


In terms of PR, this experience helps me to write the
kind of press releases I would have found useful to receive as a reporter.
Generally speaking, I don’t enjoy the self-promotion/selling side of being a
published poet. But I think being a journalist has helped me to detach from
this and view myself in the third person when tackling that side of things.


I think being a poet has probably helped me as a
journalist to develop a quirkier, more interesting feature-writing style. It’s
also a whole area that I love writing features/articles about.

 

You have experience running poetry workshops. Are
there any points that you stress with writers you teach?

 

I’d stress different things not only to different groups
of writers but potentially to different individuals within a group. I mainly
lead workshops for primary age children (under 10) and keen but not necessarily
advanced poets. For both, I think it’s important to focus on enjoyment.


With
children, I often try to stress the idea of poetry as word music and word play.
For adults, in general terms, I’d be likely to stress the importance of reading
and enjoying all sorts of poetry and of not being overly self-critical in the
initial stages of writing–better a full page of inspiration which can then be
shaped and crafted than a few overly-forced ideas/images or a completely blank
page!

 

You maintain a defined web presence (website, blog,
social media profiles, etc.). Are there things you think a poet should do
online to help build an audience?

 

Generally speaking, I’m not keen on ‘should’–I impose
too many imperatives on myself to like them! But the world has changed
massively, even in just the ten years since I really started writing poetry. If
I want pizza these days, the first place I go to look for a number is the
internet. In fact, I’d probably even order and pay for the whole thing online.
I’d say that, unless you’re already an incredibly well-known/established poet,
some sort of website is a bare minimum now. My current website at
www.sarah-james.co.uk was relaunched to coincide with the publication of Into
the Yell
but I have had a website of one sort or another for about seven
years.

 

Of course, the problem with just a basic/static website
on its own is that if people look at it and you’re not quite what they’re
looking for then, there’s no particular reason for them to look you up again.
(A bit of a shame if you win a $xxxx poetry prize the next day!) Updating your
website in an interesting and regular way is one means of encouraging people
back, for example through a blog.


The important things are 1) doing it on a
regular basis so people know when to expect new stuff and 2) making visiting
your website a worthwhile experience. Ways of doing the latter include offering writing prompts, news of contests and submissions interviews, etc. Your own
Poetic Asides blog is the most obvious example of how to do this successfully.

 

I’m lucky enough to have a talented sister, Rebecca
Howarth, based in California, who is well up on IT and a great web designer. She
designed my site at www.sarah-james.co.uk and suggested I include a fansite
that people had to register to use.


My main website offers bio, CV info, a few
poems and a regularly updated blog (weekly) of writers’ events I’m involved in,
some other submission/contest/event details and a few personal bits to give a
taste of who I am as a person. For those who register for the fansite, there is
access to more poems, audio recordings, videos and a regular (weekly) blog, usually
offering free writing prompts, which I can send straight to these subscribers’
inboxes.

 

Every time I blog on my website, this fact is also
automatically fed to my Facebook wall. As far as writing and social sites like
Facebook go, I think the key is not to think in terms of audience but dialogue.
These sites can take up a lot of time, so for me the key has always been to
have fun. I have Twitter and MySpace accounts but rarely use them because I’ve
never really enjoyed them. By contrast, I love Facebook because I have met so
many interesting and wonderful people on there with whom I can share a common
passion for art and poetry.


Again, I also think the important thing here is
not to try and create an audience for one particular poet but to share a love
of poetry. Enthusiasm creates enthusiasm. Facebook is great for sharing news
about launches, contests, events, submissions, etc.–not just one’s own but
other people’s. That’s how I found about the Poetic Asides PAD challenge!

 

UK National Poetry Day organizer Jo Bell is great at
letting Facebook poets know about writing things that are going on. I’d say
Chris Hamilton-Emery at Salt Publishing also makes great use of the internet in
many different ways.

 

Who are you currently reading?

 

Robert Frost for my MA. (I am supposed to also be
studying Thomas Hardy but, although I enjoyed his novels as a teenager, his
poetry just doesn’t appeal in the way Frost’s does.) I’m also reading the
latest Orbis journal and have just started dipping into Things to Say (John
Lucas) and The Ghost Twin (Anne-Marie Fyfe). (I’ve just been sent these by
the Poetry Society as I have a poem in the latest Poetry News.)


Fiction-wise,
I’m part-way through The Language of Bees, by Laurie R King. I’m really enjoying
this but find it hard to justify reading something purely for enjoyment’s sake!

 

If you could give only one piece of advice to other
poets, what would it be?

 

Listen to others’ advice but only follow your own! By
that I mean be willing to listen to criticism and feedback and be open to new
ideas, etc., but remember that many things are highly subjective and at the end of
the day you need to learn to be your own best critic. (And this is a piece of
advice that I’m still trying to learn to follow myself!)


*****


Thanks to Sarah for participating! And that last tip is a great one.


*****


To learn more about Sarah, check out her website www.sarah-james.co.uk.


To learn more about her publisher, Circaidy Gregory Press, check out their website at www.circaidygregory.co.uk.


*****


Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer


*****


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6 thoughts on “Interview With Poet Sarah James

  1. Amy Barlow Liberatore

    Dear Sarah and Robert,
    Thanks for a wonderful interview and for good advice.

    Sarah: It’s daunting to be a full-time writer as well as mom, but the proof is in the pudding. You’ve managed to wend your way through many types of writing to "this poetry place." Also, love the cover art on your book.

    Also, I agree on your final thought… I actually ASK people to give me creative and editing feedback. At one point, Tyger (who hasn’t been here for a while now) emailed me a suggestion about inserting quotation marks to cite a speaker within the poem. It made the whole piece better. By the same token, if I don’t agree, I still thank the person who offered the critique. Thirty+ years in the music business gave me a thick skin about critics!

    Robert: Thriller, huh? A PA prompt becomes the title work for a poet’s book! Great to hear from someone who has participated in our community here.

    Peace and thanks again to you both, Amy

  2. Sarah James

    Thank you, Pearl and Colette,
    I think it’s wonderful how the internet – and particularly sites/blogs like Robert’s – have made it so much easier to share inspiration and a love of poetry. And to meet so many other writers.

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