Interview with Fiona Moore

I talked to Fiona Moore about her first collection ‘The Distal Point’ (HappenStance Press 2018) (photos by Naomi Woddis)

THE POET

Could you tell me about the places of your childhood?

London, living at plane tree canopy level, at the top of a terrace house. Cambridge, staying with my grandparents every school holiday. At the end of the road were the Fields – ponies, trees, gates to climb, a stream with small fish. We ran about all over the place with the other children from the road. I think I may have a memory of winter 1962/63: huge icicles hanging everywhere against whiteness, a sense of wonder (aged three) at a transformed world that hadn’t been in my range of possibilities.

Later we went to the Isle of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides for summer holidays. Everything that happened on Eigg seemed epic to me: being allowed to milk the trickiest cow, climbing the craggy Sgurr, going mackerel fishing by moonlight, playing on the beaches with the factor’s children, dancing at ceilidhs, lighting (with great care) the ancient gas-lamps in our cottage and having baths by candlelight, getting caught on the way to Canna by an unexpected storm whose giant waves I watched, fascinated, from the fishing-boat’s open hold. Eigg was going through hard times, with bad lairds. Eventually the islanders did a buy-out and are now thriving. They have a hut for writing residencies. Kathleen Jamie’s been there and so has Amy Key. One day I’ll apply, I want to go back.

And the people who shaped your sensibility?

I adored my mother’s Cambridge parents, great tellers of stories about their own childhoods. A best friend at primary school was much more imaginative than I was. We’d stay up half the night at sleepovers, reading her book of ballads. The headmistress read us Esther Hautzig’s book The Endless Steppe, about a Jewish girl in Vilnius in the second world war, ten years old like us, who was deported with her family to Siberia in cattle trucks. I was completely hooked.

You live in Greenwich, London. What took you there and what do you like most/least about living there?

In the 1980s I lived for a while in Narrow Street, in Limehouse, in a narrow house plastered to the side of a cardboard factory. We had our own quayside and at high tide in the summer we’d sit on the edge, hoicking driftwood out of the river to dry for winter fuel. I was very happy there, going to sleep and waking to the sound of the Thames. Eventually I needed to move out; how could I live without the river?  The answer was a house in East Greenwich part way up the hill, with distant river views and a few minutes’ walk away.

Narrow St(photo: house on Narrow Street, Limehouse, London)

You can’t see the Thames now because of all the new developments (a disgrace; Greenwich council’s figures for social housing are far worse than neighbouring councils’). The park and the river path are lovely, especially in midwinter or bad weather when there’s hardly anyone there. There’s a main line train into London, and when I get off the train here at night the air smells sweet – although down by the river it’s very polluted, and will get worse… unless the Silvertown tunnel is stopped. We’ve won one victory – plans for a cruise terminal at Enderby Wharf have been cancelled, following a big local campaign I took part in. Docked ships would have spewed out, continuously, the equivalent of nearly 700 lorries’ worth of diesel fuel. But Sadiq Khan (why?) and Greenwich Council are still hell-bent on the Silvertown tunnel.

When did you come to poetry? Were you exposed to many poems at school?

My first memory is reading Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Tarantella’ at school – the rhymes, and the varied rhythm which I still have in my head. I can see the picture I formed of the inn, not far wrong for a 7-year-old who’d never been abroad. And hear the contrastingly doleful vowels in the last verse, “never more.. high peaks hoar… torrent at the door…” and the dreadful d’s, “the tread/ Of the feet of the dead to the ground/ No sound” and the ghostly oo’s, “the boom/ Of the far Waterfall like Doom”.

But my early reading memories are mostly of novels, which I read and read, anything in the bookcases at home or my grandparents’, from my mother’s old pony stories to Rosemary Sutcliff, John Buchan to Dorothy Sayers to WH Ainsworth’s Old St Paul’s.

We didn’t read much poetry until the First World War poets when I was about 13; they were a revelation. Then Keats, Wordsworth, Blake etc for ‘A’ Level. Keats!! We did Hamlet and King Lear with the amazing Miss Poyntz, whose Irish voice I can still hear. I don’t think I can ever disentangle myself from Shakespeare – the river underlying everything. Modernists I had to discover later, on my own.

After university I joined the Foreign Office and didn’t read much poetry for years. I was too busy and rarely in the right frame of mind. The world of telegrams and anger…

poets for the planet climate change march 2014(photo: Poets for the Planet, climate change demo, March 2014)

Which poets do you particularly admire and why? Which have influenced your writing?

Where to start? I suppose there are a few consistent obsessions. Some of them I’ve blogged about on Displacement. J H Prynne: some of his poems, e.g. from the early collection The White Stones, send my synapses wild (that may be physiologically inaccurate). The way he defamiliarises language is brilliant. Denise Riley, again partly a matter of synapses, also her humour and feminism and the directness of her sad elegies in Say Something Back. Elizabeth Bishop, for the way she shows you how a poem is happening in the middle of its happening. Paul Celan for reaching into the abyss. WS Graham for defamiliarising language just a little, and for speaking very close to my ear. Norman MacCaig whom I just adore. Mary Jo Bang, the American poet, who’s a bit like Denise Riley (and like her has written a book of elegies for a dead son); she digs deep into how life feels.

More Americans: DA Powell, whose poem ‘cruel cruel summer never fails to send me into ecstasies of joy and envy. I love the way his voice seems to have absorbed Shakespeare and co alongside American traditions. Mark Doty, Tracy K Smith. Macedonian poet Nikola Madzirov and Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku (thanks, Bloodaxe!) who write big, pan-European poems. Slav language poets I can read or half-read in their original language, with a translation: Wiesława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert, Anna Akhmatova, Miroslav Holub. Emily Dickinson. The poems of Helen Macdonald, rather more famous for H is for Hawk. Kathleen Jamie, Seamus Heaney.

This year, new/ newish books by Kathryn Maris, Tishani Doshi, Amy Key, Richard Scott, Amy McCauley, Danez Smith, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Matt Howard, Zaffar Kunial, Polly Atkin, Emily Hasler, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett and many more…  I love the explosion poetry’s going through, especially the huge increase in profile of poets of colour – poetry can’t live without these voices yet until the last few years they were squeezed out by most of the leading publishers. I love it for selfish reasons too – there is so much new to read and so much to be open to, influenced by. How fortunate I feel to be reading and writing in English which comes back here from so many different places.

You chose to read Classics – do you see the fable or myth in your work? Are there classical elements such as form or structure that have seeped in?

I read Classics because I wanted to do history, languages, philosophy and literature and that was the only way. I half-learned, for fun, to write elegiac couplets in Latin (a hexameter followed by a pentameter, with strict rules). I was actually better at hexameters (see e.g. Virgil, Homer and some Horace), which are supposed to be harder. I do like form – it’s endlessly interesting and offers endless possibilities for doing something new. I write in form less than when I started writing seriously. My poems have got messier. I went off Greek myth etc until while living in Greece I came across the mid-20th century Greek poet George Seferis. His poems swept me away; they also reconciled me to modern Greek.

Evia June 2015(photo: Evia, Greece, 2015)

You published a first pamphlet ‘The Only Reason for Time’, which was a Guardian poetry book of the year. How did you start writing on such a difficult and personal topic?

I left the Foreign Office at the end of 2003 in order to write. My partner Graham triggered this turn. We got lost in Suffolk late one May evening on the way to the pub in a nearby village. Foaming cow-parsley marked the path but we took a wrong turning. I was despairing about my work (my last job was leading a multi-million pound internal project involving cultural change, systems and processes, which was interesting but I’d had enough of it). He turned to me and said: “What will you regret not having done when you’re 60?” And the answer came straight out: “Writing poetry”.

Graham suddenly became very ill three years after I left my job. While he was ill I did go on writing, and had my first poem accepted for publication (in The Rialto). This made me think: here’s my lifeline, I must grasp it and not let go. So when he died I only stopped writing for a few weeks. Then someone sent me an email from the Poetry School… and I got a place on Mimi Khalvati’s famed Versification course. That put weekly knots in the lifeline for three whole terms, making it much easier to keep hold of. I’d get the train to London after days of clearing out Graham’s house and walk into another world. I made friends, people who were committed to the reading and writing of poetry.

Graham & Fiona Southwold 2006(photo: Graham and Fiona, Southwold, 2006)

The title poem is taken from an Albert Einstein quote ‘The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once’. How did you encounter these words and why did they resonate so?

I can’t remember how/where! But they instantly took hold of me – it seems to me they make a sentence full of possibilities. I wrote the poem after finding the quote. When I started putting the pamphlet together, I tried to check it out, with the help of a theoretical physicist friend (every writer should have one). Neither he nor his friends could find it though they were all sure it was genuine. Likely explanation: Einstein said it in German.

What was the process of putting that first pamphlet together? What approach did you take to bring poems together?

I spread the poems all over the floor, and shifted them around and in/out. So nothing unusual. The process is more instinctive than logical – it feels like the part of the brain that’s engaged is the same one that wrote the poems.

John Field (Poor Rude Lines) said of it, ‘terrific poems, wrestled from the darkness…’ To what extent does this metaphor of wrestling in the dark capture the physical, visual and emotional difficulty of writing of love and loss?

I love it as a metaphor, but am not sure how much I relate to it. Darkness sounds more exciting than the dull landscape of grief.

Does one write on, of, around, through, under or inside grief – what has been the preposition for you?

Nice question! Maybe ‘through’…?

You brought out a second pamphlet, ‘Night Letter’, which was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets. How did this take forward your earlier work?

Most poems were taken from the same pool as the earlier pamphlet. Night Letter came about by accident: they needed another reader for a HappenStance event at Poetry East, so Helena Nelson (Nell) invited me and said, why don’t we do a mini-pamphlet to sell at the event? Six pages turned into twelve, and I was astonished when Nell said she’d printed 300 copies… The theme that people picked up on was sleep, or lack of it, and a waking/sleeping state of dream which runs through most of the poems. A few were more formally inventive than poems in the earlier book.

(photo: The Only Reason for Time, 2013; Night Letter, 2015)

THE BOOK

Your collection ‘The Distal Point’ was recently published by HappenStance. Can you tell me about the process of putting the book together?

I had a session with Mimi Khalvati, going through lots of poems; her comments were illuminating, as always. Then I went to Greece for several weeks, to an old house on the island of Evia which used to be my refuge when I lived in Athens. It’s a long, wild island. The house is under a 1,400 metre high mountain and its outlook is sea. I rose early, shuffled poems around before the sun came over the ridge, and got frustrated. It was like wanting to write a poem and not being able to – my instinct wasn’t working. Then I was in the house alone for a fortnight so I spread the poems on a table and moved them around. The result was a five-part draft that I showed to a friend, Colin Hughes, when I got home. He said various useful things, especially: five parts is too many, it’s over-structured. So I reduced five to three. This was a while ago. The manuscript went on three excursions to publishers, one lengthy, before it settled with Nell.

Evia manuscript 2015(photo: Evia, Greece, manuscript in progress, 2015)

About the title – what is a distal point?

The distal point itself is a geological term meaning the far end of a feature. I found it in a hut on Orford Ness off the Suffolk coast; here it refers to the shingle spit there, “the point of greatest change”.

You are a keen swimmer, even venturing into the North Sea in winter. Where does this enthusiasm for outdoor swimming come from?

I love the sense of immersion in the land/seascape. A hill-loch, a river, the sea – each place is different and in the same place each swim is different. In Hampstead Ladies’ Pond you can get close to ducks and moorhens and swim under willows and oaks and past reeds, bulrushes, waterlilies and, in season, many-coloured dragon- and damselflies.  The water’s dark and deep, so there’s a sense of risk. Bodily and mentally, outdoor swimming is very relaxing; when the water’s cold the startlement is good too. I like floating round the points of the compass and watching the swivelling horizon. At home I swim twice a week all year at the local lido which is heated. When the weather’s sunny and very cold, golden steam comes off the water.

My maternal grandfather used to swim in the river Cam, summer and winter. Cold water was, long after his swimming days, the death of him (taking a cold bath after the doctor had said, no more). I do NOT take cold baths!

(photos: After an Aldeburgh swim, November 2018)

Some poets find a line as they walk or run. Do you find that being in water, being immersed in the sea, half-submerged, invites ideas and language?

Yes – each piece of water has its own language and each swimming stroke its rhythm. I walk, too, ideally up hills, and that has the same effect.

How did you work with Helena Nelson [Nell] on editing the book?

It all happened quickly. She broadly agreed the structure, demanded some poems I’d kept back and suggested throwing a few others out. Two other HappenStance poets, Charlotte Gann and Stephen Payne, read the manuscript and both questioned the transfer from the elegies of the first part to the middle section’s political material, some of which recalls my time living in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. The subsequent work was like redrafting a poem; small changes can make something suddenly go right.

I was very interested (probably over-interested, from Nell’s point of view!) in the cover design – I wanted grey with the text in a strong dark colour and something very plain and simple. I love the way Nell did it.

the distal point(photo: The Distal Point, 2018, front and back covers)

Can you tell me what you feel each section contains, or what defines each one? Is there any chronology to the poems and when they were written? 

Structuring a book of poems seems to happen mostly in the same part of the brain that writes them, though with a logic-and-structure programme running in the background. Logically, the main problem was how the poems addressed to my partner would fit with the rest. I didn’t want a fully chronological structure, or to tell too obvious a story. So I looked at what poems seemed to go well with each other. It made intuitive as well as logical sense to group the Eastern European and other more political poems together, and I wanted them in a middle section called Exclave because they are like an exclave in relation to the rest, they both do and don’t belong. The first section does tell a sort of story, though not in order. The third section maybe looks more up and out of things. As a female writer of poetry against millennia of mostly men I relish the idea of the male muse – at least three are addressed in the book.

The shirt in the opening poem provides such a powerful image. It is a very intimate object in the context of the poems and such a vital emblem of life. And thereafter you suggest the ocean as a garment. To what extent did you find that exploring an object provided a way into writing on this subject?

It wasn’t deliberate. Do you have a mental store of poems you know you want to write, but not how? ‘The Shirt’ was one of those: the image of the crumpled, cut-up shirt at the back of the airing cupboard and the terror it invoked.  One day I was reading Lisel Mueller’s poems (thanks to my friend Jeri Onitskansky who had brought one to a workshop, and to the Poetry Library for having the book) – and ‘The Shirt’ started writing itself. Reading is such a good way to start writing, especially the excitement of discovering a new writer. ‘Island’, with the ocean as a garment, is a recent poem – the sea/garment coincidence is accidental, but is partly why the two poems are together.

Among the many, I really enjoyed ‘The Poem in Which I Think Myself Out’ for its form and playfulness, the way it very effectively captures the randomness and (il)logic of our thought processes and transforms it into a journey. How did the poem emerge?

Thank you! I go to a weekly workshop. Stuart Mackenzie set a homework about making unexpected jumps of thought / connections; I think he used a poem by Lyn Hejinian as one example. Maybe twice a term, the homework cuts across something already half in mind, and results in a poem.

In certain poems you seem very conscious of your consciousness? This is slightly different to, but perhaps driven by, an awareness of mortality. What do you think?

That’s a smart comment; I recognise it, so yes! I don’t want to analyse it. I fear that analysis of my thinking processes might lead to No More Poems Ever.

The politics of place is recurrent in your poems, on Auschwitz, Iron Curtain borders, Loukanikos (in the wake of the Greek crisis) and London (as we go through Brexit, arguably a crisis of politics). How should we write the political well?

It’s very hard – how can poetry find a distinctive voice among so much noisy discourse? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to write the modern equivalent of a diatribe like Shelley’s ‘England in 1819’ or an angry lament like Blake’s ‘London’? But poetry seems to be moving away fast from a quiet phase so maybe it’s now possible, starting from the great and very welcome excitement around poems that address the politics of race and sexuality. Techniques such as erasure, collage and found texts are producing strong work (Tracy K Smith, Solmaz Sharif and Layli Long Soldier are the first ones who come to mind, maybe no coincidence that they are all female US poets of colour).

These times contain such excesses of consumption and bad verbiage that they seem ripe for satire – where is our Juvenal, our Pope? I’d love to be able to write satire.

Have you travelled much around Germany and Poland? What draws you to this particular part of Europe? 

I lived in Poland for three years in the mid-1980s, explored much of it and visited other Warsaw Pact countries. I was doing economic and political reporting at the British embassy in Warsaw, which meant talking a lot, mostly in Polish, to everyone from Communist Party officials to Solidarity members (those who weren’t still in prison), preferably people who weren’t talking to other foreigners because of the language barrier or because the others didn’t bother. It was fascinating, totally absorbing.

I haven’t been to much of Germany – yet. East Germany at the time of the first free elections in early 1990 was unforgettable, see ‘Political Cabaret’.

River Narew, Poland, 1986(photo: River Narew, Poland, 1986)

You make the connection between Brexit and Neapolitan ice cream, which itself suggest flags, nationalities, identities. Have you since solved the mystery of how it is made? And what’s your favourite flavour today?

No! I don’t want to. I’ve just discovered that Jen Campbell did a really nice talk about this poem, near the end of her podcast on the Poetry Book Society’s autumn selections. She found some things in it that I hadn’t consciously intended.

As for the far more serious question of flavours, forget British ice creams of the 60s and 70s. Adulthood and travel brought gradual, delighted discovery of gooseberry, rhubarb, apricot, blackcurrant, nocciola (hazelnut), super-dark chocolate, fior di latte – tastes we never dreamed of. The less sweet, the better. I could talk about ice cream memories – how long have you got?

‘Dark Car’ is an unsettling poem in which you play with line length to great effect. How to you think the variation enforces or reinforces the effect of the poem? What was your intention?

To write the poem that wanted to write itself. It just seemed to work like that. I’m glad you like this poem. It’s one of the few in the book that wasn’t published in a magazine.

You have a brimming, bucolic poem called ‘Eden’. I asked this same question to your co-editor Matt Howard in my previous interview. What do you think about the labels ‘nature poetry’ and ‘eco poetry’? Does that poem qualify?

Matt has answered this so well; please go to his answer! I agree with him that ‘eco-poetry’ has an activist element. I’ve read a lot of submissions recently (to 2017 Rialto Nature & Place competition and for the Magma Climate Change Issue that’s just come out). For both, we got many poems that described going for a country walk, watching a bird or examining a plant. It’s surely not possible, these days, to pay attention to any land/seascape without being aware of its fragility. Maybe it’s becoming harder to distinguish between nature- and eco-, though eco-poetry tends to be modernist in approach, which few of our submissions were. My favourite anthology is The Ground Aslant (Shearsman, 2011), edited by Harriet Tarlo, which describes its contents as ‘radical landscape poetry’ and contains poets from Peter Riley to Helen Macdonald.

As for that poem, it’s just a poem, written without intention… If I could choose one fairy-godmother gift, it would be to write poetry adequate to climate change, a challenge so large we can hardly see it and prefer not to pay much attention (see last November’s budget!). I’m obsessed with this Seamus Heaney quote: “the problems of poetry [in the context of the Northern Ireland Troubles] moved from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament”.

Magma the Climate Change Issue

(photo: Magma, The Climate Change issue, autumn 2018)

Your poem ‘The Rose, The Stars’ is a tour de force, a very finely crafted poem with the first and last line of each of the six 9-line stanzas inverted. It seems to be a poem of the self and the universe, of man and nature, loss and hope. Some parts are also ‘poetic’, which might be a risk. Can you tell me about writing the poem, I imagine it went through several drafts

Yes! All I knew at the beginning was that the language would be fractured in some way. What exactly is the risk in writing ‘poetic’ poems? If people jeer, that’s not going to kill me. In the real world, people are risking their lives or liberty for important stuff.

Do you have a favourite poem in the collection?

No.

Is there a poem you hesitated about including and if so, why?

I didn’t send Nell ‘The Cell at Plötzensee’. Then someone else mentioned it and she asked me for it. There’s another one I had doubts about but I’m not going to say which or why.

distal-point-launch.jpeg(photo: the launch of The Distal Point, London, June 2018)

What did it feel like to launch the book in the summer? What has the reception been like?

People have been very generous. The book’s sold well at events and HappenStance sales have been good. I want my book to be financially worthwhile for Nell, who works extremely hard and doesn’t pay herself a salary. The book had a couple of very good, interesting reviews online, on John Field’s blog and by Ian Brinton on the Tears in the Fence blog. The latter ended with: “This is a debut volume of poems which stops the reader in their tracks: buy it, read it, and then read it again.” Wow! The fact that TiF’s roots are modernist and radical doubled the compliment.

I was delighted to read at Poetry in Aldeburgh in early November 2018 with three other swimming poets whose books I admire, though I was worried I would feel a fraud because I suspected that Emily Hasler and Elizabeth-Jane Burnett were stronger and more intrepid swimmers, but I swam, and the waves weren’t too big.

The book was chosen as a Poetry Book Society recommendation, a fantastic accolade. How has this helped you?

The PBS ordered 100+ copies from Nell, which have all sold, so that’s good, see above. The PBS quarterly booklets are lovely. I was thrilled that my book was chosen by such a cool pair – Sandeep Parmar and Vidyan Ravinathran (neither of whom I’d met). It’s great that the PBS selectors have moved away from the old poetry carousel of poets published by the big six publishers choosing books by other big six authors. They are now choosing a lot of books from smaller presses and a diverse mix of poets. Similarly getting shortlisted for the T S Eliot prize, which was a big shock, was especially gratifying because it’s a list I’m proud to be on (which I couldn’t say of many past prize shortlists!) and the three judges are all poets whose work I admire. Again there’s no personal connection, e.g. through teaching; I’ve met two of them a couple of times each.

stickermania(photo: Stickermania – The Distal Point is a ‘Poetry Book Society Recommendation’)

POETRY AND WORK

You gave up work to dedicate yourself to writing. How did you come to that decision and was it an easy one to make?

Instantaneous, and very easy. See my answer to your earlier question.

You worked for the Foreign Office. What are your overarching memories of working in Whitehall?

The world of telegrams and anger, very process-driven… After I came back from Greece in the mid-90s I did an MBA, sponsored by the Foreign Office. I specialised in organisational culture and behaviour – the FCO had a very strong culture, which could seem very blinkered, though it contained a lot of intelligent people. I interviewed people and wrote a dissertation with various recommendations on openness, senior management, etc which got a sometimes heated discussion going and attracted interest from incoming Labour ministers in 1997.

What was your approach to writing in those initial years post-work? How did you organise your time?

I had around 3 days a week to write. I started each day by reading, anything from Milton (I’d never read the whole of Paradise Lost!) to whatever I had from the Poetry Library, which I used a lot – what a wonderful resource. Ruth Padel, whom I knew through a mutual friend, recommended Teach Yourself Writing Poetry by Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams. I did all the exercises, and read poets whose poems were in the book, from Tess Gallagher to W S Graham.

Did you turn to any particular organisations that help and advise writers? Were there particular venues that enabled you to meet other writers?

There’s a Greenwich Poetry Workshop which I started going to after I’d been writing for less than a year. It was supportive and enjoyable, and Judy Gahagan, our occasional tutor, was very encouraging. I’ve been going to workshops with Mimi Khalvati for around 10 years; very good for my poems and the source of some strong friendships. And Poetry School courses, from Anglo-Saxon to contemporary American poetry. I used to go to a Morley College workshop, mostly with Kathryn Simmonds; some of us eventually broke away and started our own, taking it in turns to chair and set weekly homework.

You have a very fine blog and were awarded Saboteur Best Reviewer in 2014. What has been your approach to both blogging and reviewing? Are their particular challenges?

I just wrote about what I wanted to, for the blog. I haven’t updated it for a year – keep thinking I must start it again. Too much editing, see below. When I started reviewing I was terrified I might miss crucial references in a work and therefore fail to do it justice (and look stupid!) All you can do is read more, and hope…

You went on to work in sustainable development for a charity specialising in sand dams. Can you tell me a little about this venture?

Excellent Development was founded to support and multiply a concept that came from a Kenyan farmer, Joshua Mukusya, who’d promised his parents he’d do something to stop the next generation missing school, as he’d done, because of having to fetch water from miles away in the dry season. Excellent supports subsistence farming communities to build small dams in dry river beds, in semi-arid areas. The rains come once or twice a year and wash everything downriver; after a couple of years the area behind the dam is filled with sand – it looks like a beach. Underneath is a vast reservoir, millions of litres of water. Mosquitoes can’t breed and cattle can’t pollute it. It’s filtered clean by the sand, meets WHO drinking standards and can be extracted from a shallow well or a pipe in the dam wall. The water table rises for some way back, and riversides regenerate.

Farmers, many of them women, do much of the dam building themselves. They also terrace the land either side of the river (very hard work), set up seed banks and learn to propagate trees and improve soil quality. There’s a massive impact on everything from nutrition and health to the environment to schooling (especially girls’) and women earning incomes because they’ve got more time to farm and produce to sell. If you drive around South-east Kenya you can see which communities have sand dams because the valleys are green. People are much more resilient in the face of increasing drought. When I started working for Excellent, initially as a volunteer, it was literally a kitchen table charity. Now it supports sand dam ventures in several countries.

grasslands cliff

You were an assistant editor for The Rialto for several years. I would imagine that reading so many different types of poems would feed a consciousness and appreciation of the poem from the reader’s or editor’s perspective. How did it influence your own reading and writing?

It left me a lot less time and mental space to write my own! And, perhaps more importantly, less time to read poetry books.  I enjoyed the experience a lot, though, especially working with the other assistant editors, and learnt plenty, from what makes a poem work / not work to how to go about planning an Arts Council application. But in the end reading so many submissions silted up my brain and I needed a rest.

You are now on the board of Magma. Can you tell me about the experience of editing the issue on climate change alongside Matt Howard and Eileen Pun? What surprised you about the poems submitted?

After a year’s rest I came back for more! The most striking poems were the ones that came at the subject from an unexpected angle, while also working well technically in all the ways a poem should. The issue was published in November 2018 and we are proud and delighted.

Which are the most useful resources for stimulating your own poetry reading and writing? Do you have favourite magazines and journals?

Reading poetry collections, especially ones by writers I haven’t read before, especially Americans whose ability to write big poems I envy.

When and where do you write?

At my table at home. On trains. Wherever.

Where does the poem begin?

[Warning: this may sound pretentious]: the best ones begin with a distant sound, a rhythm and/or music: like a train you can lay your ear to the rail to hear, or an underground river. The sound comes before the words, or with the first words.

Narrow St sunset(photo: Narrow Street at sunset)

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