Angela Dye in conversation with Rosemary McLeish.

Rosemary McLeish is a poet and an outsider artist. A late starter, she began to write when she was near 40 years old. She has had poems published in many anthologies and magazines, self-published two pamphlets, and her first collection, I am a Field, was published early in 2019. In December 2018 she won 2nd Prize in the MsLexia/PBS poetry competition, and in January 2019 2nd prize in the Bedford International poetry competition. 

Angela: When and why did you start writing poetry?

Rosemary: In my late 30s, riding my bike around London-I’ve no idea why but lines for poems would come from nowhere into my head. Later that transferred to any kind of travelling. My first book ‘I am a field’ was written on a train. When I was 38, my mother told me something about my childhood which released an enormous creative block in me. For many years poetry was a private side-line, while I waded my way through swamps of prose.

Angela: Your books are very honest, rooted in nature and the body- what motivates and inspires you?    

Rosemary: Music, contrariness, pain, nature, anger, injustice, love-these all motivate and inspire me. Other writers inspire me too. There are so many wonderful poets in the world. I don’t really have favourites… they change depending on my mood. I think of a list that would start in my bedroom and unwind out the front door and down the street and I don’t know where it would end. But here are a few I like off the top of my head: Alice Oswald, Philip Larkin, Pablo Neruda, Sharon Olds, Shelley, Jane Burn, Charles Bukowski, Robert Burns, Dorothy Parker.

Angela: Do you have any theories about poetry? What does poetry do? What is it for? Why is it important?

Rosemary: I don’t have a theory but I have opinions. I’m sad about certain trends: people selling out poetry for the sake of celebrity. Poetry expresses the truth of the soul. Unlike any other form of writing, poetry talks directly about pain, joy, and the soul.

It is important especially in a society like ours where conformity and prevailing trends are more important than truth. Poetry subverts that. Today’s competitive element, desire for fame and celebrity, and aggressive rejection of what has gone before (many so-called poets don’t read poetry) are threatening the integrity of poetry.

Angela: You read and listen to a lot of poetry. What do you like to draw from a poem?

Rosemary: I like to find expertise in the craft and something worth hearing – some unexpected truth – like having a meaningful conversation instead of a social chit-chat.

Angela: How do you create a poem? Do you have a concept, idea, line, prompt?

Rosemary: I have no ideas but I do get a feeling like ‘something’s coming’, so if possible I find a pen and a notebook and write down what comes out.

I edit a few days, weeks, or even months later.

Angela: What is your ‘goal’ when creating a poem? Is it for you or for the reader?

Rosemary: It varies. With ‘Defragmentation’ it started just for me, when I got angry or despairing.  It helped me bear some of the most difficult times. After a while I discerned a pattern, which was how much of my difficulties were to do with not feeling what I ‘ought’ to be feeling.  For instance, when having radiotherapy, you are asked every day how you are feeling. When I said I was depressed, none of the radiotherapists and nurses understood me. Someone even asked me whether something in my life had caused me to be depressed.  I thought we don’t hear enough about this aspect of cancer. It’s all a specific scenario. The hospice nurses told me I am not alone, depression is a common response to cancer. So I wrote it for other people in my shoes and for people who didn’t understand the effect of the diagnosis and the irrelevance, at times, of positive thinking.

Angela: Do you have any particular rituals about how you approach your writing?

Rosemary: I write by hand as I think the hand-thought connection is very important especially to my generation.  These days my husband transcribes and prints out successive drafts.

Angela: How do you think your style has developed or changed from the first book to this one?

Rosemary: Neither of them started out as books. I just write what I write. I think my style has improved, sharpened, but only from writing more.  I write most days. Both books have poems in them that I wrote years ago and poems I wrote yesterday.

Angela: Are their moments in your writing career that have been defining or pivotal?

Rosemary: Yes. My oldest brother’s death when I was 52 and our visit to Greece nine months later were really pivotal. In 2005, I studied for an MPhil in Creative Writing. Other pivotal moments for me were: walking out of a tutorial and refusing to take more abuse from my tutor, doing workshops with members of Second Light, being published by Joy Howard, and meeting Barry Fentiman-Hall who encouraged me to submit works for publication and competitions, and do public readings.

Angela: You have won some prestigious competitions?  How did you feel about those achievements?

Rosemary: Ambivalent to say the least.  When I was growing up the attitudes of my parents were unencouraging.  We were all overshadowed by our oldest brother. I was subjected to public humiliation for winning prizes.  Just before I did the 11 plus, my father took me to Wakefield Prison where I sat an IQ test in front of 36 policemen.  This had a profound effect on my ability to accept public approval. With the poetry competitions, there is little feedback.  Nothing happens, except for, sometimes, a cheque in the post. Poems are not always understood even by judges and the whole process seems rather arbitrary.

Angela; How important was it for you to write defragmentation as a truthful experience and not frame it in a way that was more soothing for the reader?

Rosemary: It is framed to make it easier for the reader. I did this when pulling it together as a book, adding some lighter hearted poems to break the mood.  

I wouldn’t wish my unadulterated experience on my worst enemy. The fact of my experience being told in fragments helps distance the poems and make them tolerable. Writing it kept me relatively sane too.

Angela: What do you want a reader to get from this book?

Rosemary: I wanted people in my situation to feel less alone, and people outside it to understand more so they would be kinder. It doesn’t have to be about cancer. It’s about any totally discombobulating experience. I would hope the reader will feel comforted and less alone and see that speaking your personal truth is strengthening and possible. If no-one in your circle wants to know, make it into a poem. It’s the opposite of “positive thinking” which is for other people.

Angela: Do you have a favourite poem in the book and why?

Rosemary: ‘I miss my mum’ because it astonished me.

‘Skeleton’ because I knew I had a way to go in accepting what has happened to me, and it was like a signpost.

Angela: The poems are accompanied by your own art depicting the cancer. Did the beauty of the cancer at the molecular level bring any responses- i.e. the sense of design and beauty in something so awful. How did this alter how you felt about what was happening within you?

Rosemary: So far it hasn’t altered my feelings much. It is like a meditation I need to practice every day. Perhaps I have found a little more peace, but I have to keep going back to it.  And unfortunately with metastatic cancer, it moves on. So now I have other things to try to come to terms with.

Angela: What is next on your horizon?

Rosemary: Trying to keep going. Putting more of my poems into a collection.  I never thought of myself as a nature poet. I thought of myself as a feminist poet. My nature poems were more of a private side line and of course I never expected to have a project such as metastatic cancer. So I’m going back to the main body of work and see what I find. I have only published a small fraction of my poems so far and I’d like to get more of them out there into the world before I die.

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