Sunday, 18 September 2011

Essence and Inspiration

An interview with Cath Nichols, extended from one previously conducted by Deborah Swift (novelist) at:

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

Something about the reading of poems makes me go into a different space/time experience – whether that’s reading them in my head or hearing the poet read them out loud. It’s not usually the ‘story-telling’ space (which I think of as a kind of escapism, or learning, or forward momentum) that 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 from the 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 with various myths. Also hybrid people and characters: for example, mermaids, and over the last couple of years the Procne and Philomela, a 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 (such as Hans Christian Anderson’s use of the little mermaid and how she has to work to earn a place in heaven - yuk). It’s the gritty irritation than later develops into something, a percieved 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 turn into a nightingale and 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.
Investigating structures: now I’m doing longer works I am fascinated by links between poetry and prose or plays – it’s something about rhythm and alternation, I think. In prose it seems to be to do with suspending the revelation of plot and creating recurring motifs; and in a poem it’s to do with the tension in enjambment, and repetition of words or sounds.

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 Symmons 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 did some work for radio as an actor, writer or producer. Samuel Beckett did some innovative stuff (he did the first really radiophonic play 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 BBC 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 docu-drama 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 sometimes shocking when it describes certain acts of desperation, but it’s so truthful as to how humans can be with each other. The Beauty of the Husband is another book-length poem of hers (subtitled ‘a fictional essay in 29 tangos’!). It won the T.S. Eliot Prize a few years ago). Carson also does translations of Greek drama and writes fantastic essays.

5. Tell me about your publications or scripts-in-progress.

Pamphlet, Tales of Boy Nancy (Driftwood, 2005). This is being re-issued soon by erbacce press (Driftwood having closed) with a group of new poems, ‘Distance’.
Collection, My Glamorous Assistant (Headland, 2007).
I’ve poems forthcoming in Poetry Wales and The Stinging Fly and, I found out last month that I’ll be in 2012’s Lung Jazz: Young Poets for Oxfam. I’m not that young, but the line was drawn at 40 years old at the time of sending in work last year.
I’ve a couple of plays doing the rounds at the moment (i.e. being sent to theatres and companies), so look out for them, or if you’re part of a theatre group you can request to read them. They all have very strong parts for women. Drowning Meirion Evans – set around 1915, Woolworths, the Lusitania and with lots of magical business. Birdie – the Philomela myth re-written for an Asian family in Manchester. And there’s Ada – a take on Phaedre where an older married woman falls for a young lad with dire consequences. I took inspiration from the Iris/ Peter Robinson affair in Northern Ireland (she was sixty and had an affair with a nineteen year old, yikes!), but also gave it a twist: she is ardently religious and finds out that the lad thinks he might be gay – so she’s trying to ‘help’ him be straight. It all takes place in a country on the brink of civil war, and Ada is married to the country’s president.


vicky ellis said...

I think responding to work which you've disagreed with is a great springboard. I admit I tend to work the other way round. The version of Procne and Philomele in Wertenbaker's Love of the Nightingale showed me how to revise a myth from a feminist perspective and get it right. That urged me on to follow in her footsteps.

Good writing shows you what can be done, bad or unjust writing (as perceived from our subjective viewpoint) shows you what ought to be done.

The re-workings of the Greek mythologies sound fascinating. I hope they are taken up soon. British Theatre desperately needs to work harder on producing work from new writers with strong female characters.

This is a really inspiring post Cath, thank you.

Ashley R Lister said...


Thanks for joining us here at the Dead Good Blog.

I have to agree with Vicky. Responding to work with which you disagree is not an approach I've previously considered (although I'm now going to have to consider it).

Ordinarily, if I disagree with a piece, my knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss it. The idea of appropriating the piece and redressing the issues with which I'd disagreed seems like an innovative way to tackle a theme.