Helen Mort speaks to Abhaile editor Tracy Gaughan about unsung heroes, where poems come from and the places that shape her imagination.
When did you start writing poetry and why have you continued? What would you say is the main impulse behind your writing?
I started when I was a child, found poetry a huge source of solace as a teenager and have carried on ever since. Poetry and fiction are the places where I feel able to articulate myself clearly, say what I really mean. The rest of the time I get frustrated by my own inarticulacy!
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
When I was a child I used to record tapes to send to my grandad in Birmingham. He lost his sight when he was in his 70s and Talking Books were a real comfort to him. I remember making up stories for him to listen to, imagining him sitting back in his chair with his headphones on, savouring the words. Experiences like that made me appreciate the ways the spoken (and written) word can help us to connect with one another.
What poets are important to you? Which ones find their way into your head when you’re writing and who do you go to for pleasure?
My favourite ‘go-to’ poets when I’m feeling stuck or flat or just a bit lost are Norman MacCaig and Kim Addonizio. I love MacCaig’s sharp eye and his keen wit, his refusal to accept lazy anthropocentrism. And Kim Addonizio reminds me that no subject should be off limits. In terms of influence, the first poets I read were war poets like Wilfred Owen and Irish and Scottish poets: Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland are both big influences.
Poems often bear the logic of dreams and many writers speak of poetry being written by the dream self which we always carry while awake. Where do your poems come from and can you talk a little about your writing process?
The best poems seem to ambush me when I’m doing something else, often walking or running or doing a task that doesn’t absorb too much of my mental energy. I love that idea of the ‘dream self’, that rings true. I sometimes carry an idea for a poem or a line or image around with me for years, waiting for something else to connect with it.
Your work reverberates in the landscapes and stories of the North, not least in your acclaimed novel Black Car Burning (2019) and the provincial Britain of Division Street (2013). How important are your roots and heritage to your imagination and work? And, how important is culture in general in shaping who we are?
Absolutely crucial. I think places shape our imagination and you could spend a lifetime unpicking that shape! I keep thinking that one day I will have said all I have to say about Sheffield and the Peak District but I find the landscape that surrounds me endlessly fascinating. I think writers are always sensitive to their surroundings, whether that’s the physicality of the place where they are or the political context of their life.
American poet Robert Bly sees rhyme as ‘an unnatural baroque embellishment’ which has been exhausted, while Frost likens writing free verse to playing tennis with the net down. Of course, you are no stranger to metrical steadiness, however, what are your own views on writing in form?
I love form, but I often let rhyme come and go in my work. I think when I write I’m trying to stay relatively true (relatively!) to the music of my own thoughts, my own accent. I like to write things that I know I could read out loud.
Do you have a favourite under-appreciated poetry collection?
‘Into You’ by the Scottish poet Andrew Greig has always been one of my all time favourite collections and I wish more people had read it: an enchanting book, full of poems that have haunted me since.
We’ve seen from the recent GCSE controversy, that poetry is often considered complex and readers must work hard to ‘solve’ poems. Yet, for poet Donald Hall, poetry is a ‘sensual body’ from which we derive pleasure. As an educator, do you think poetry is being taught as it should be in the classroom? Should we be thinking about poetry less and receiving it more?
I think we should be doing both and there should be room for both approaches (typical Libran answer!). Thinking about poetry can yield fascinating and valuable results. But we certainly shouldn’t only be thinking about poetry and not receiving it, not encountering it, being with it. It should engage the heart as well as the head. So perhaps it’s just a case of the balance needing to shift. I absolutely believe that students gain from writing as well as reading poetry and that the two can go hand in hand.
What are your feelings about the kind and quality of contemporary poetry you’re seeing today in the UK?
I think poetry is in pretty good health at the moment and there are new voices being heard every day, which is something to celebrate. I love reading magazines like Poetry London and Poetry and other smaller magazines that I encounter in print and online, getting a sense of what’s out there. It makes me excited and a new poem or a new voice always makes me want to write.
This paradox as a poet: desiring immersion in the life of the world but also needing to go more deeply into the self and silence to write. Is there a dichotomy here that needs negotiating or how do you see it?
Yes. I struggle with it all the time. I love people and I want to connect with them (that’s partly why I write) but I’m intensely solitary by nature and I often want to hide away, like my kitten, Pippin, who loves to purr on our laps but also needs to dive behind the sofa every now and then. I have found this especially hard to negotiate since being part of a bigger family and having a child of my own: solitude becomes hard won. But at the same time my son is the most precious gift I have and he helps me see the world anew, gives me ideas for writing.
You are a five-time winner of the Foyle Young Poets award, have been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot and Costa Prizes and you won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize in 2015. You’ve also been described by Carol Ann Duffy as one of the bright stars of British poetry. How have these successes affected you personally and professionally?
I’ve been extremely fortunate to win a few prizes and to be recognised as a young writer. I don’t think I would have built a life around poetry were it not for that validation. As long as you don’t allow yourself to feel pressurised, I think that recognition is a wholly positive thing. The Foyle Young Poets Award was life changing for me as a teenager: it introduced me to other poets, made me believe that people might value my work.
There has been a long history of gender bias in the literary world. What challenges have you faced as a professional in the industry? Are there negotiations yet to be made as a female poet writing in the UK today? Also, your 2016 collection, No Map Could Show Them draws attention to the heights that previously neglected pioneering women have scaled. Can you talk to me a little about the collection and your interest in highlighting the narratives of unsung heroines?
I think there are many negotiations to make, not just as a female poet but as a female human. For a long time, I’ve wanted to create some kind of ‘resource’ to support young women on the poetry performance circuit: it can be hard to call out things as inappropriate when your place of work is often pubs late at night. That would be the same for any artist who performs I guess.
To answer the other part of your question, I’ve always loved the outdoors and mountains in particular and I grew up devouring books about climbing. But they were overwhelmingly written by men. As a published author, I wanted to use poetry to shine a light on some of the incredible, pioneering female climbers I had researched. I’m still fascinated by unsung heroes, by people who never quite make the history books in the same ways as others. There are always more stories to uncover. And it upsets me that access to wild places should be so limited, so influenced by race and class and gender. There’s a lot further to go in widening participation. My book was a very partial celebration of the unsung because I was mostly talking about economically privileged white women.
There is impressive traditional witness to your authorship as a poet and mountaineer, connecting you to Coleridge, Wordsworth and other Romantics who made significant ascents in the Lake District. No Map Could Show Them (2013) of course, but how rewarding was it to write about your two great loves in Never Leave The Dog Behind (2020).
It was a dream! I had the opportunity to walk with St. Bernards in Switzerland and hide on moors waiting for search and rescue dogs to find me! Animals change the way we see the world and I loved the excuse to get out of my own mind a bit, pretend to be part animal.
Where next for Helen Mort?
I’m working on a third collection of poems and on a non fiction book about motherhood and mountaineering, due from Ebury in 2022.