Margaret Royall was shortlisted for the Bangor Literary Journal and Crowvus poetry prizes 2018. Her first collection appeared in 2017 and her poems have featured in many journals and pamphlets, most recently The Blue Nib, Hedgehog Poetry Press, andothers. Her prose/poetry memoir of childhood is due out with Crumps Barn Studio in May 2020. Margaret’s poetry will feature our upcoming print issue 42, due July 2020. The following interview was conducted via email in April
Why are you a poet? What poets do you read?
I have always wanted to be a poet, right from being 3 years old. My maiden name is Browning and the paternal side of my family is allegedly descended from Robert Browning. Many older family members have written poetry, so it was probably there in the genes way back. I was encouraged to write poetry at primary school and have continued ever since. I write poetry because it’s a compulsion, part of who I am.
I try to read a wide variety of poets both traditional and contemporary. I especially love the Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, etc and Victorian poets such as Browning, Clare, Tennyson, and Yeats. Inspiration also comes from poets like Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Emily Berry. On my bookshelf at the moment is poetry I dip into by George Szirtes, Kerry Darbyshire, Jo Bell, Kei Miller, Clive James, and Helen Farish.
What is the nature and function of nostalgia as a recurring theme in your work? Do you believe that we can never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory?
I guess much of my writing is nostalgic, in line with my age (more is behind me than probably in front of me! ), and stems from my experiences of loss and chronic illness. In 1998 I lost three of the people closest to me in life – my husband, my best friend, and my mother-in-law, all within the space of three months and was then diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. I find it cathartic to work through these experiences by writing about them and finding closure. They have provided the signposts to my life in my ‘third age’ and the fallout is with me every day. I would definitely say that we cannot truly value moments until they become memories. Maturity brings wisdom and heightened awareness, allowing greater insight into the past and enhanced understanding and answers to the frequently asked question: why me?
How do poems come to you and how do you develop them? Can you guide us through the stages of a poem and tell us a bit about your own editing/rewriting process?
Sometimes they come like flashes of inspiration from the blue, you could say ‘channeled’. At other times inspiration comes from the landscape, a painting, a photograph, an overheard conversation, or a poignant memory. I start the day by writing while I am fresh and alert. I revise my work frequently – edit, edit, and re-edit. If I get stuck, as I often do, I leave the poem and return to it sometime later. I find this often works wonders and suddenly the words or structure that have eluded me fall miraculously into place. When editing I try to keep the imagery fresh and to the point, something I admit to finding hard, as I am very much a details person and can easily ramble on for too long! A brilliant tip passed on to me is that poems are like buildings. They need scaffolding during the construction process but once completed you need to remove the scaffolding completely so the building can be viewed at its best.
Occasionally I revisit something I wrote a few years back and it strikes me immediately that I have used the wrong form. Couplets and tercets are my present favourites along with quatrains and cinquains but I have to admit to adoring the challenge of writing sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, and other disciplined forms.
The natural world has a solid presence in your work with keen attention paid to minute details and changes in nature as we see in Lady with Lavender Aura and Sunday Morning for example. How does nature inform your work and was there a moment in becoming a poet where the nexus between poetry and environmental consciousness became apparent to you?
The landscape has always informed my work. I grew up in a Lincolnshire seaside resort, which influenced me from an early age. On Sunday afternoons my family would drive out to the beautiful Lincolnshire wolds for strolls and picnics. I felt very at home here. It was a place where the imagination could run riot. However, I think I had my big ‘aha’ moment on a writing retreat on the Isle of Iona in the Inner Hebrides. I have returned there annually for the past eight years. We write in the landscape, immersing ourselves in the changing weather, the flora, fauna, and history of the place. It was during one of the first visits that I decided this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Iona won me over completely. There is something very vibrant, spiritual, and mystical about the place, something which, to my mind, is best expressed through the medium of poetry.
So you find working with words and responding to the world the way you do as a poet cathartic in some way?
Yes, definitely. Writing poetry about grief and loss has helped me process the tragic events in my life and helped me to acquire a healthy relationship with them. Friends sometimes comment that I have had a lot to deal with in life but I reply that these difficulties were in some way a gift, that’s how I see them. They unlocked the door to creativity, compassion, and empathy. I’m not sure I would ever have had the time or focus to become a published poet had they not occurred.
Describe the route to being first published.
It actually happened by accident, quite an unexpected piece of good fortune. I was leading a writing group where I used to live. A member’s son, who has his own publishing press in the USA, generously offered to publish an anthology of work from the group or individual books, if preferred, free of charge! I hadn’t planned on finding a publisher at that point but decided the offer was too good to miss. Jeremy did most of the hard work of formatting and linking with Amazon and Kindle for me, although I did the editing and proofreading myself. Pen names were advised and I, therefore, published under an old family name, Jessica De Guyat. That is how my first collection, Fording The Stream was born, September 2017. Since then I have published under my own name.
Has poetry taught you anything about yourself that hadn’t occurred to you before?
Indeed it has. It has taught me that I am definitely creative and that I can be disciplined, learn patience, and not take myself too seriously. It was a surprise to me that some of my holiday writing had listeners falling about with laughter. I had never appreciated my comic ability before! I also realise I used to expect too much of myself; everything I did had to be perfect. Now I am more laid back, less stressed about outcomes. It has taken years for me to say, without feeling a fraud, that I am a poet. I now feel comfortable saying it and am learning to respond with confidence. Doing what I love best has taught me that I can be master of my own destiny, not beholden to anyone else!
How important are literary groups and readings? Do you have a circle of fellow writers with whom you share your work?
They are very important. I attend as many festivals and readings as possible. As mentioned previously I am a member of Hedgehog Poetry Press’ ‘Cult of the Spiny Hog’ and have made many new online friends there. It is a great community and we support and advise each other frequently. I also belong to three groups locally, one of which I facilitate in Nottinghamshire. I also perform at our local open mic nights.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Without a doubt, it was attending the East Midlands Writers Conference 2018 and being granted a mentoring session with poet Malaika Booker. Also investing in poetry workshops with George Szirtes and writing retreats with my tutors Angela Locke and David William Clemson on Iona.
What’s the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
The worst advice would be to imitate other successful writers. By all means, read them but you have to write in your own voice and pursue what you are good at. Trying to be someone else never works. Just be yourself!
Are you working on anything at the present you would like to share with your readers?
I have just completed a memoir of childhood in prose and verse: The Road to Cleethorpes Pier which is being published 20th May by Crumps Barn Studio. I am also working on further poems for a second poetry collection and have ambitions to write a first novel.