I talked to Elisabeth Sennitt Clough about poems from her pamphlet ‘Glass’ (winner of the inaugural Paper Swans Press Competition 2016, and subsequently the Saboteur Awards Best Poetry Pamphlet 2017) and her first collection ‘Sightings’ (Pindrop Press 2016).
PART 1: THE FENS
PS: When did you realise the unique quality of that black Fen soil? Do you think the soil shapes the temperament of the people? Is it a metaphor for something?
ESC: I’ve heard that living at or below sea level can have an effect on a person’s physical/mental state. I don’t know how true that statement is, but it interests me, as does the fact that the Fens were once underwater. Growing up, I didn’t even question why there were so many freshwater snail shells in the soil.
PS: What was it like growing up in the Fens, in 10 words or less?
ESC: It all seemed very conventional until I moved away!
PS: When you were far away, say, when you were living in California, and you thought of the Fens, what did it conjure up?
ESC: Well, I lived in Fresno. It’s in the middle of the state – at the bottom of the Central Valley – and is very, very flat. It’s also the agricultural heartland of the country. Driving along minor roads and seeing all the field workers, I only had the temperature to remind me I wasn’t in the Fens. Though they still have agricultural practices there that I think we have banned, like crop spraying.
PS: I know you have lived many years abroad, in America and the Netherlands. What took you there? Have you written poems inspired by these places?
ESC: Yes, I have travelled a lot, since my late teens with my own work and later with my husband’s job. I wanted to escape the Fens (all teenagers do), but I kept returning. I was once away for four years though without coming back to the UK and it started to affect me. I began to read UK newspapers every day online in case I forgot some of the phrases we use, or cultural references. Perhaps I was homesick? When I did return, I found that I had ‘re-membered’ a lot of the places in my mind; they looked entirely different and I’d only been away for four years!
PS: I am not very conscious of the Fens as a place represented or celebrated in the arts. I know only of Graham Swift’s novel ‘Waterland’. Did you look to painting or other art forms for inspiration? Is there a poetry of the Fens that goes way back?
ESC: I really don’t have much knowledge of Fenland painters. This is in part my own ignorance, and in part a reflection of my tastes: I’m very much into contemporary art, to include conceptual works and installations. Also, I think because I grew up looking at the Fens every day, I hold those images in my head and prefer to rely on my own inner gaze as it were, rather than other people’s representations of my region, as inspiration for my poetry. In terms of Fen poetry, a local historian alerted me to a poet called James Withers, known as the “hedgerow Poet’ because he was often homeless. I believe that he died in a workhouse (clearly his life invites a lot of comparisons with that of John Clare). He published three volumes of poetry and was admired and supported by Queen Victoria. I’d like to find out more about him and read more of his work – possibly in conjunction with my next project: At or Below Sea Level.
At or Below Sea Level began as an Arts Council-funded project to research and explore sites of interest for my next full collection. One year into the project and I’ve run a series of free workshops in and around the Fens and coastal areas, to include schools in Wisbech, Kings Lynn and Cambridge, and adult workshops in Hunstanton, Ingoldisthorpe and Ely. I also have a chapbook-length work that will be published before my next full-collection comes out. I see the chapbook an object of beauty, perhaps engendering a heightened sense of artistic originality. My chapbook takes the form of a triptych that includes a sequence of immured sonnets.
PART 2: THE POET
PS: ‘Boy’ suggests ambiguous gender roles and/or playing to a gender for somebody else consciously or unconsciously. Do you have anything to say on this?
ESC: This is an uncomfortable poem. As a child, I didn’t want to be female because I’d been conditioned into thinking girls and women were weak/lesser beings by my stepfather (who beat and humiliated my mother).
PS: You draw on your autobiography in your poems, particularly with a view to your relationships with your mother and father. Did you feel like you needed any kind of permission to involve your mother in your poems? Were there any ethical issues?
ESC: My mother and I have an open dialogue. She has been very supportive. My stepfather passed away a long time ago and has no living relations. Even so, there were times when I felt uncomfortable, that what I was writing was wrong, but I resisted the urge to silence myself, having often been too scared to speak during my childhood.
PS: Is there a point in writing poems where one’s parents become characters and fiction, or artistic licence creeps in, even if the essential truth is there? How accurate must the story be?
ESC: Of course, it can never be totally accurate because we all remember things differently. With me, this is compounded by the many gaps in my knowledge about my family (my mother never knew her father and I cannot remember my own father; I never knew his parents or siblings).
PS: You refer to Old English, to German and to Bulgarian in your poems. Is it sound or meaning that most interests you in foreign vocabulary? How do these words enter your poems?
ESC: I think it’s born of an interest in both sound and meaning. I do love the richness of foreign vocabularies. ‘Little Touches’ was originally called ‘Des Petites Attentions’ – an example of a French phrase that describes a specific group of actions. There is a poem in my collection titled Qeqertarsuaq. I cannot pronounce that Greenlandic word and chose it deliberately because the poem is about not being able to voice matters and concerns within a relationship. Subconsciously, I might borrow words from other languages because I was (for many years) unable to articulate certain traumas as a child and adolescent.
PART 3: THE WORK
PS: The poems make clear that the Fens is a place of work, from the small holdings, the farms, eel nets, tracks, dykes and furrows. Indeed, work has shaped and defined the landscape. What do you think?
ESC: Yes, from the time the Fens were drained, agriculture has been the defining feature. Unfortunately, the ecological destruction is quite dramatic in places, with visible subsidence. The artificial waterways keep the peat drained and therefore dry, making it vulnerable to wind erosion: ‘the Fen blow.’
PS: You lived for several years in the Netherlands. It was the Dutch that drained the Fens. What similarities and differences do you see between the people and landscapes?
ESC: I lived in South Limburg, so I can’t really draw any parallels. It’s picturesque, with lovely rolling hills, as you know! If I’d lived in North or South Holland, or Zeeland, that might have been different.
PS: I am intrigued by the lantern men. Can you tell us more?
ESC: The lantern man is a willo-the-wisp type of creature, a spirit full of mischief that lures people into fenland drains with its light. I think it was the element of mischief that attracted me to it!
PS: Bait, eels, pike and zander. Can you fish?
ESC: No. I tried it a few times as a child, but now I am far too squeamish.
PS: In ‘Starlings’, you have the wonderful line ‘So frit was he of a ding of the lug’. Could you help shed some light on this?
ESC: Frit is still used in the Fens (cf. frightened) and I think lughole is still slang for ear. My stepfather spoke in fen dialect, but it is really outdated to speak like that these days. Teens in many Fenland towns have adopted Estuary English.
It’s the summer holidays and here I am fidgety
at fourteen, taking a factory job and fidgeting
money away on make-up, my fingers fidgeting
over poultry-farm chickens – how they fidget
even after they’re dead. Their guts fidget
their way into a slop trough, their smell fidgets
up my nostrils. The conveyer belt fidgets
and creates defects: feather-stubs fidget
on torn lips of skin. I’m told to work faster. I fidget
harder with gloves that are always a fidget
to get on and off. I watch the older women fidget
to tie twine below their knees so the rats won’t fidget
up their trousers. The clock-in clock fidgets
its way forward somehow and the foreman fidgets
with his boiler-suit buttons and because everyone’s fidgeted
off to work by now, asks me to fidget
with the fidgety thing he holds in his hands.
PS: ‘Fidget’ is a very playful with its use of repetition, though an uncomfortable poem. Did you have many part-time and summer jobs? And have these encounters fed your work?
ESC: I had numerous part-time or temporary jobs. In the Fens, there’s always something that needs cutting, sorting or packing – whether it’s fruit, veg, or chickens. And no I don’t eat chicken now if I can help it!
PS: ‘Potato Season’ seems like a signature poem for me in that it captures what many people assume as the reality of much of north Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire with the plight of immigrant labour in agriculture. You introduce an obvious violence. Did you sense back then that their presence was a divisive issue in the community, as the media seems to make out today?
ESC: The man in the poem had not been paid for weeks. My mother was his supervisor and what he didn’t know, when he entered the portacabin, was that my mother hadn’t been paid for weeks either. When she told him to go ahead and he realised that she didn’t care whether she lived or died, he must have grasped that she was in the same predicament. To me, as a child growing up in the 70s and 80s, there didn’t seem to be a divide between local workers and workers from other parts of the world. I’m sure there was though; I just didn’t notice.
PART 4: PS: You recently graduated from the Manchester Writing School. In fact, we met online in autumn 2015. What would you say to anybody considering an MA?
ESC: Well, I can certainly recommend the MA at the Manchester Writing School. My full collection is my MMU portfolio. It won the Michael Schmidt Prize and a poem from the collection was highly commended in the Forward Prize and appears in the Forward Book of Poetry 2018. That says a lot about the course.
PS: You were lucky to work with Mona Arshi as part of the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme. How do you feel that her poetics and concerns have rubbed off on your own writing? How did you use the mentoring scheme to further your work?
ESC: The Arvon/Jerwood scheme offers a great deal of support and opportunities. I feel truly blessed to have Mona as a mentor. I think we share similar concerns, but as writers Mona and I are very different – that was part of the beauty of the mentorship. Not only does she use forms that I hadn’t used before (the prose poem, the ghazal), Mona grew up in London – and some of her poems offer snapshots of a childhood that was very different to mine. I am from rural Cambridgeshire and my childhood was informed by a bleak, Fen landscape. Mona and I enjoyed a laugh over words that she hadn’t come across before. I think ‘frit’ may have been one of them! She critiqued many of the poems in my book (as did my MA supervisor Nikolai Duffy). I am now being mentored as part of the Toast Poets’ Mentorship Scheme – I would also highly recommend applying to this scheme to mid-career poets.
PS: I understand you have set up your own Poetry Society stanza group. How did it come about and how is it going? Is there a poetry scene in the Fens?
ESC: I have just handed over the reins, as it were, to another stanza group member. The group was just a natural development of a monthly poetry group that I started a while ago. It’s been very successful, with a core group of about eight of us attending every month. Yes, there’s a thriving poetry scene in the Fens. Jonathan Totman, who is a member of the stanza group, started Fenspeak, a monthly open mic night. He and his wife Mary (Livingstone) Totman also co-edit The Fenland Reed. I am currently guest-editing Issue Six on the theme of the body.
PS: Any poetry plans for 2017? What readings do you have lined up? What are you working on?
ESC: I’ve had a busy start to the year with my launch at Waterstones in Brussels in January, which you were kind enough to attend and co-host a poetry workshop with me. Since the launch, I was picked up for the Ledbury Coaching Workshop Scheme for New and Emerging Poets and read there; I’ve also read at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, with Carol Ann Duffy & Friends; the Cheltenham Poetry Festival; Café Writers, Norwich; the King’s Lynn Poetry Festival and Poetry in Aldeburgh with The Rialto.
PS: Where does the poem begin?
ESC: Events, conversations, gossip, galleries, journeys, museums, workshops, songs, landscapes, cityscapes. It begins in the spaces between the jostlings and murmurings of everyday life.
Fascinating interview, Paul that has a wide scope. You ask about other artists and the fens. The landscape and working life of the fens first impinged on my imagination through Caryl Churchill’s play Fen.
I will look out for Elisabeth’s poetry. E
Thanks Elizabeth – I shall pass this onto Liz – it may be useful for her project.
Great interview, Paul – and Elisabeth! I especially like what she says about how she dealt with difficult autobiographical material in her poetry.