Poet and Pen Pusher contributor Helen Mort on the individuality of poets, her prize-winning poem ‘Deer’ and her new pamphlet and show ‘a pint for the ghost’.
A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to speak at an ‘empowering women’ event at a Cambridge College (for the sake of argument, let’s call it Oldham). The thought of inflicting my inane ramblings on a public audience makes me want to reach for my hip flask at the best of times. All the same, I braced myself, took a gulp of Ardbeg and said yes. I started to get a sinking feeling shortly afterwards when I saw the posters: a large picture of my face was emblazoned next to a list of all the ills suffered by women worldwide. It reminded me of a ‘WANTED’ notice.
A fortnight later, as I perched on a sofa in the dark hall, relieved to have survived my talk and poetry reading without being pelted with rotten fruit or homemade WMDs, a young anthropologist who was dominating the Q & A session afterwards did nothing to dispel this impression of anxiety. What relevance did my poems have to Andean villagers? What could they say to victims of genital mutilation? How could somebody who had been enslaved hope to understand them?
I found myself closing my eyes and thinking of Auden: ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’. Or rather, its relationship with the political is an ambiguous and fluid one. Throughout my speech on what it is to be a female writer, I’d argued that, though all poetry is necessarily informed by the poet’s experiences and background, great poetry aspires to a kind of anonymity as well as a kind of universality. The writer should always be secondary to the writing.
That’s the reason I’ve always been drawn towards the pleasing anonymity of competitions, and I was delighted to find out recently that my poem ‘Deer’ had won the Norwich Café Writers’ Prize, judged by George Szirtes
But perhaps there’s no such thing as a truly ‘anonymous’ poem. As we write, we give ourselves away constantly. The more we restrict ourselves, the more our individuality tends to force its way through. But there’s something appealing about submitting work without a name – I always used to enjoy it when The North printed a list of contributors in the back of the issue, but refrained from putting names next to poems.
There’s certainly something that makes me feel uncomfortable about being asked to speak as a ‘female poet’ (or a ‘young poet’ for that matter) rather than as somebody who happens to produce poetry. When I write, gender isn’t at the front of my mind, even if it comes through in the writing process. The poems I chose to read at my ill-fated talk were mostly from my new pamphlet ‘a pint for the ghost’, inspired by South Yorkshire myth and legend. As I recited them, I heard each word thud on the tasteful, wooden floor like a lead balloon. Their concerns are certainly not stereotypically ‘female’; it’s a collection full of smoky pubs, ex-miners and steelworkers, Friday night chip shops. In that sense, it doesn’t reclaim some notion of female identity in the way the organisers perhaps hoped I would. But who’s to say what the scope of our writing should be? Experience should be an enabling, not a limiting factor. A poem should be able to say something more universal to its audience, it doesn’t depend entirely on its context.
So I was pleased to retreat from the College (dishevelled, bored of the sound of my own voice, clutching a chocolate sponge and bottle of Chardonnay) and learn that ‘a pint for the ghost’ is the Poetry Book Society’s pamphlet choice for Spring 2010. ‘A Pint For The Ghost’ is also a show that will be touring next autumn (with a few early performances, including the wonderful London Word Festival in March 2010) and you can find out more about it by following my blog. I’d like to say a massive thank you to everyone who has supported the project so far, particularly to my hard-working editor, Les at tall-lighthouse, who has the patience of a saint and the coffee making skills of a barista.
I think these two recent pieces of good news are an omen. In fact, if I crane my neck slightly, I think hear my dad sending me a message through the oracle, like an ageing Lancashire fortune cookie: ‘Stick to t’ day job, lass. Don’t go talking crap in Colleges.’
by Helen Mort
The deer my mother swears to God we never saw,
the ones who stepped between the trees
on pound-coin coloured hooves,
I brought them up each teatime in the holidays
and they were brighter every time I did;
more supple than the otters that we waited for
at Ullapool, more graceful than the kingfisher
that darned the river south of Rannoch Moor.
Then five years on, in the same house, I rose
for water in the middle of the night and watched
my mother at the window, looking out
to where the forest lapped the garden’s edge.
From where she stood, I saw them stealing
through the pines, and they must have been closer
than before, because I have no memory
of those fish-bone ribs, that ragged fur
their eyes, like hers, that flickered back
towards whatever followed them.