Are there any sights more cheering than crowds of readers tramping across a field carrying books, or sitting under canopies discussing the minutiae of a single line of poetry, or a page of fiction? Increasingly, we live in such a fast-paced world that leaves precious little room for these acts of literary activity (for ‘activity’, may we read instead, ‘rebellion’?). Instead of thinking about Tennyson, or Eliot or Woolf or Plath, we must spend our days flicking through the endless annals of social media; while corporations pipe endless Muzak into our ears and other orifices, and we slave away for 80 hours a week for stagnating wages, just so we can afford the shiny and colourful things advertising billboards and signs on every public surface insist we must purchase immediately.
In such a world, events that enable literary conversations and communion to flourish are, therefore, to be cherished. It is an honour, therefore, to bring you the following interview with Anna Saunders – founder of the Cheltenham Poetry Festival.
Anna is the author of Communion, (Wild Conversations Press), Struck, (Pindrop Press) Kissing the She Bear, (Wild Conversations Press), Burne Jones and the Fox ( Indigo Dreams) and the Ghosting for Beginners ( Indigo Dreams, Spring 2018 ) described as ‘ a beautifully evocative read’ by Fiona Sampson.
She has had poems published in journals and anthologies, which include Ambit, The North, New Walk Magazine, Amaryllis, Iota, Caduceus, Envoi, The Wenlock Anthology, Eyeflash, and The Museum of Light.
Described as ‘a poet who surely can do anything’ by The North, ‘a modern myth maker’ by Paul Stephenson and as ‘a poet of quite remarkable gifts’ by Bernard O’Donoghue, Anna founded the Cheltenham Poetry Festival in 2010 as an all-singing, all-dancing festival – one that fuses poetry and music, film, drama and visual art. Most importantly of all – it helps brings creatives together (which is where they belong, if you ask us).
Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle
I live in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire though originally come from Hoylake – a coastal town not far from Liverpool. I am lucky to be able to go ‘home’ often and enjoy the vibrant cultural life of Liverpool, and walks along the shore, as well as having a home in the heart of the Cotswolds.
I come from a family of journalists and writers – one boss said I had ‘ink in my blood’. Most of my life has revolved around the literary arts; consuming or producing them. I am a poet, author of 5 collections of poetry and the Founding Director of Cheltenham Poetry Festival, I also teach creative writing.
Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?
I love any immersive experience – walking by the sea, watching live music, reading, going to the theatre, spending time with people who inspire me.
Running a poetry festival is a great joy too – it’s exhilarating to have a creative vision and see it come to fruition. I really enjoy ‘poet shopping’ when I am building the programme. It’s always a thrill to bring your literary idols to town. Last year for example I booked Matthew Sweeney, whose work I’ve always greatly admired;I programmed Kathy Towers, Sasha Dugdale, Fiona Sampson and Wayne Holloway Smith, too. It was a thrill to meet them all and I felt a little star struck.
When you write – be it poetry or fiction – how much of the finished manuscript is in your mind when you start out?
When I started writing my last two collections, I had some idea of the shape of the books, or at least their driving themes.
Burne Jones and the Fox (Indigo Dreams) was inspired by a love affair between Maria Zambaco and the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne Jones, I tell the story of their intensive and destructive love affair through a series of poems, the collection also explores what I see as the duality within us – between the feral and the civilized, the artist and the fox. Ghosting for Beginners also has a consistent theme – i.e. what ‘haunts’ us for good or bad. I guess both these books are like concept albums!
Joyce Carol Oates once said that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out “are they as crazy as I am?” Do you have any particularly crazy writing habits?
I usually have to write first drafts on rough scrappy paper – ideally without lines! I do a lot of walking around, muttering to myself – is that crazy enough?
For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. What voice does Anna Saunders, poet, speak with?
I have been told I ‘write like an American’ –perhaps that’s because of my direct, ostensibly conversational voice. Rory Waterman said my work was ‘superbly imagistic’ which was a huge compliment – I aim to empower my work with the use of potent images, and of course I use legend, and classic narratives.Paul Stephenson called me a ‘modern myth maker’.
Does your reading affect what you write?
Yes – absolutely. I read a lot of poetry and while I am writing I keep dipping into books. It’s impossible for me to write well without reading, it’s like needing to hear the music before you start to dance.
Looking around at current trends in poetry, what are your thoughts and feelings on the ‘poetry industry’. If we can define it thus. And how would you advise aspiring poets to break out onto the ‘poetry scene’?
I think the poetry scene is thriving. We’ve seen a huge increase in audiences at Cheltenham Poetry Festival and poetry book buying has surged too. There seem to be some incredibly talented spoken word artists and poets emerging daily and I am completely in awe of the work being published by Nine Arches, Indigo Dreams, Bloodaxe, V Press, Seren and other publishers. It is, however, a really competitive industry – and the route to publication can be a convoluted one! I’d advise aspiring poets to read copious amounts, study craft, write every day and keep their eye on journals and on line publications, keep submitting and build up that CV so they can meet the requirements of the publishing houses.
Though having said all that – it should be all about the creative act really, rather than public success. As Virginia Woolf said ‘writing is the most profound pleasure, being read the superficial!’
Can you talk to us about the ethos behind the Cheltenham Poetry Festival – is it important, do you feel, to bring writers and creatives together?
I think the Guardian put it perfectly when they described the Festival as ‘a poetry party with a healthy dose of anarchy’ – we try to have a punk spirit; and be questioning, free thinking and speak out against the system from time to time.
We are serious about poetry, but like to have a good time too. There is a great buzz when the festival runs – with audiences getting the chance to hang with some of our greatest living writers. Since the festival kicked off in 2011 we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy performances by some stellar names– they include John Cooper Clarke, Fiona Sampson, Owen Sheers, John Hegley, Hollie McNish, Don Patterson, Clare Pollard, Matthew Sweeney, Murray Lachlan Young, Jacob Polley– to name just a few. And yes, it’s incredibly inspiring for creatives to meet the writers they admire.
James Joyce argued poetry was “always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality.” In the modern world, ‘actuality’ is increasingly hard to define – with reality often seeming more fictitious than fiction and beyond the imagination of mainstream culture. How does poetry revolt against actuality in a reality increasingly ‘false’? And what role can poetry play in protest and activism – specifically protest and revolt against current dictats of ‘reality’?
My recent work has been inspired by events on the world stage, politics and the crisis of austerity – but I try use dark humour and some aesthetic beauty to address these subjects.
I have found it increasingly difficult to turn away from some of the horrors we are experiencing due to governmental decisions.
I am working on a new book which uses figures from Greek and Roman myth to explore contemporary issues – in one of the poems Persephone goes on Question Time to interrogate Hades, who has abducted her and taken her into the underworld to starve – a great metaphor for the punitive measures of austerity.
Could you give us your top ten writing tips for writers?
- Read widely and copiously – not just the poets you admire but the ones you find challenging, even dislike. Study the craft. We can learn so much from the writers we love or even loathe.
- Ignore the Inner Critic – give yourself time to free write – set a timer and just let your ink flow for 10, 15 minutes – let your imagination have free reign, don’t stop to correct spelling or punctuation. Write wild. Your most exciting ideas can emerge this way.
- Write regularly. Keep your appointment with the page and the muse will know when to show up.
- Keep a journal, or a writers notebook – open your eyes and ears to what is around you. Get in the habit of being a word magpie and steal conversations, quotes, scenes from around you and get them on the page.
- Use a mixture of Latinate and Anglo Saxon language. Too much of the first and your work may seem overwritten and too much of the latter, and it may not sing.
- Edit. As Hemingway said ‘first drafts are shit’. Revise, redraft again and again.
- Avoid clichés and tired expressions. Avoid abstract nouns and excessive use of adjectives.
- Listen to feedback and accept intelligent critiques of your work if they help your hone your craft. Embrace any opportunities to learn ( I studied for a Masters in Creative Writing).
- Take risks, believe in your vision, keep going.
- Ignore all advice. Except this advice.