Andrew was brought up in Bolton like Clare Pollard, he was a natural choice to interview her in 2006. ‘I have a lot of time for Clare,’ says Andrew, ‘I think it is because we are around the same age and also have the same social/local references; early 80s in Bolton, the pasty shop, the elephants. I have read with Clare but this is actually the only interview I have done with her. It is hard to questioned a friend in such away and it was very difficult not to go off on tangents, which we did many times, none of which made it into the final interview…they were too embarrassing’.
Roar, Clare, Roar!: Clare Pollard Interview by Andrew Oldham
Clare Pollard was born in 1978. She survived a Bolton comprehensive and three years at Cambridge to end up in London, where she is now working on a novel. She published her first collection, The Heavy Petting Zoo with Bloodaxe in 1998; won an Eric Gregory Award in 2000; and took to the road in the First Lines young poets tour in 2001. Her first collection was followed up by Bedtime (Bloodaxe 2002). She has presented two TV documentaries, one for Channel Four with a verse commentary on the breakups and piss-ups of Bolton’s 16-year-olds. Her present collection is Look, Clare, Look! (Bloodaxe 2005) and deals with the story of a year, in which she set off on a six-month world trip, to write a long poem which engaged with what she saw and felt during her travels. On her return, she discovered that her father was seriously ill, he died shortly after. The collection reflects on her travels and her loss and is a thought provoking book which ushers in a new voice in her writing. We sent fellow Bolton survivor and writer, Andrew Oldham, to probe into Clare Pollard the woman, the poet, playwright, editor and television presenter.
Last year you were appointed the new editor of the Reactions anthologies, taking over from the poet, Esther Morgan. What has it been like to be an editor judging other poets? How has editing Reactions changed your views on poetry?
“It has been an absolute pleasure. I thoroughly enjoy both the thrill of finding a genuine new voice in the slush pile, and the adventure of seeking out exciting new writers through events, rumours and tip-offs. I’ve always had very strong opinions about the kinds of poetry that are undervalued or neglected, and to have free reign to exercise those opinions over an anthology is incredible fun. I was excited to include lots of poets under thirty in Reactions, as well as some like Cheryl B and Tim Turnbull who have been dismissed as ‘performance’ poets for too long when their language works incredibly well on the page. I did my BA in English lit, and have just completed an MRes on Anne Sexton, so have always felt comfortable as a critic, and feel able to get to grips with texts easily and see where they need redrafting. It was really satisfying to work with new writers and feel I was pushing some in the right direction. I wouldn’t say that editing Reactions has changed my views on poetry particularly though, other than increasing my love for it”.
Editors often come in for criticism rather than praise when selecting work for anthologies. How difficult was the process and how did you select the final poems for Reactions?
“Not actually that difficult. I decided from the start to set the bar very high, as we want Reactions to become a kind of textual equivalent of the Eric Gregory Awards – something that provides a genuine boost to the career of any new poet, and opens up both opportunities and a support network. We also want it to be the first place for readers to look to find out who’s ‘up-and-coming’. I cut the number of poets we published, and only accepted those who had a substantial quantity of good poems to showcase. And once you’re asking for more than four book quality poems, that really narrows down the contenders. In the end I actually sought quite a few of the poets out and commissioned them – Daljit Nagra, for instance, who had a huge buzz around him at the time, and who I hear has just had his first collection accepted. Or Meryl Pugh, who was recommended to me by a publisher, and was just shortlisted for the New Writing Ventures Prize. I imagine it’s much harder for editors who have to pick out individual poems, as almost any writer can have a moment of brilliance, but I had to look for poets who were ready to take the next step in their writing career, and on the ‘cusp’ of something big. With Rebecca O’Connor and Tim Turnbull publishing first collections this month as well, I think our hit rate has already been quite good”.
In the past few years we have seen a rise in new presses and new voices. How do you feel Reactions fits into this new movement and tackles critics calls that British poetry is elitist, academic or lost?
“I don’t really think that accusations of British poetry being elitist and academic can be backed up. However, it is rather safe. I think it’s because of this that young talent gets neglected – there’s a sense that you should spend years and years chipping away at the magazines and letting your voice mature before you get published. The youngest writer in the recent so-called ‘Next Generation’ promotion was 29. I think that’s just absurd. Throughout literary history youth has produced some of the greatest poetry – from Keats and Rimbaud through to Kathleen Jamie or Zoom! – and I get a bit bored of the current insistence on careful, elegiac and mature voices. What about young writers being allowed to speak for and to their generation? I think that if the scene was more generous and celebratory about its young voices – as the worlds of drama and fiction are – it would make British poetry braver, cooler, less predictable and ultimately more popular. So I suppose I hope with Reactions we’re helping to clear that space”.
Look! Clare! Look! (Bloodaxe) compared to your prior work has a different resonance that tackles both the journey of the word and the heart. Can you take us through the physical and emotional journey you undertook during the writing of the collection?
“The book is chronological, and was literally written over one year. I received an Society of Authors travel grant, so when I set off with my round-the-world plane ticket in the new year in 2003, I decided to keep a kind of poetic diary of my travels called ‘The Journey’. I was particularly interested in looking at a lot of the big issues that trouble my generation, but which are not really being explored by many poets – ideas of globalisation, western consumption, the damage we are doing to our environment – and as our journey developed and both SARS and the Iraq War began to dominate the news, the poem really came together. I suppose it has a real debt to the confessional movement, because I like the brutality of their honesty. They don’t just tell anecdotes, they worm their way to a truth, however ugly. I think I’m very hard on myself in that poem. It’s not a comfortable read. There I am in my big long-haul plane, flying from ethnic trek to beach party whilst the world burns… When I got back, I had no particular plan for the next part of the collection, but then very quickly I discovered my father had terminal cancer. I began to write incessantly – I think it really confirmed for me that I am, in my bones, a poet, as it was the only way I could deal with the horror of those months. Somehow by putting things into poetry I could gain some measure of control over them, or transform them into something I was able to look at straight. As I had started to study Anne Sexton for my MRes, the confessional spirit really continued through the poems, which I hope are a very honest depiction of what it’s like to lose someone you love, and how fucked up and messy it is. There are other poems in there too though – about the chain pub I worked in around then, and getting engaged (I’m now married). My father died just before Christmas and was buried on New Year’s Eve. Even the day after my father died we stopped on the motorway for coffee and a poem – ‘Cordelia at the Service Stop’ – appeared fully formed in my head. Monstrous, really. I haven’t really written any poetry since then. I’m exhausted by it”.
What were the highlights and low points of your six-month trip that influenced this collection?
“The high point was China. It’s absolutely terrifying but so genuinely other that overturned all my assumptions, and felt like a real adventure in the way so much travelling fails to do now. The low point was losing my handbag with all our money in it in Bangkok, due to a Thai-whisky binge. I was puking on the steps of the police station when we went in to report it. A complete disgrace”.
You grew up in Bolton and made the move to London a few years back. How much did your upbringing and environment affect your way of writing? And, how did the move away from this to London change your writing?
“I was never really a regional writer. Except I swear quite a lot, and I’m not afraid to tell the truth – both possibly Boltonian characteristics! I like the anonymity of London – the huge diversity of places and people, and how you can move around like a ghost, unobserved, taking it all in. I feel very alert to the voices of adverts, the cry “buy! buy!” on every inch of the city, so I suppose that has affected my work. I feel obliged to wrestle with that language”.
Poetry is often marginalised in British education, with teachers concentrating on dead poets rather than bringing contemporary poets into the classroom. What was your own experience of poetry at school and how did your classmates treat you when they discovered you wrote poetry?
“Poetry was definitely a marginal part of the curriculum, but I had a couple of very good teachers who introduced me to writers that still influence me. One of our set texts at A-level was Plath’s Selected Poems, and this had a profound impact on my desire to be a poet – when I wrote my first book, The Heavy-Petting Zoo, my main aim was to capture something of her intensity of emotion – her ability to write rage, or move you to tears in the space of a few lines, which seemed to me close to miraculous. Having seen my work, one teacher suggested I write an essay on Gerald Manly Hopkins, and I think his density and musicality has marked my poetry. And then of course, Shakespeare, who I constantly go back to – I recall having to perform Lady Macbeth’s ‘I have given suck’ speech in one class, and being completely overawed by it. Given that I was a bit of a loner and ‘swot’ at school, I don’t think anyone was particularly surprised to discover I went home and furiously scribbled verse. In fact, the response was good – there was a kind of novelty in seeing their own experiences of clubs and fumbled kisses put into poetic language”.
You appeared in a series of TV programmes dissecting poems for secondary school children. How important do you feel Lit Criticism is and how do you feel that it helps readers understand poems?
“I think lit criticism teaches us a closer, more intense way of reading, and a fuller engagement with the text. So many people let words float past without really thinking about them. I know there’s the argument that criticism takes fun away from reading – and a little does go a long way – but sometimes complex texts give us the richest pleasure, and just a few simple pointers in the right direction can unlock them for us. There are millions of people out there who say: ‘I don’t understand poetry’, and I think the TV series Arrows of Desire is a really important because it says yes you do, and leads you though famous poems in a really clear way. People get really intimidated by metaphors, for example, and I think that metaphorical thinking is something you can learn really easily”.
If you could change British poetry in anyway what would you do?
“I would like it to open its doors more to young writers, but I’ve probably banged on about that enough. I’d like people to start buying more. That would be nice”. You were named as one The Independent’s top writers under 30. How much do you think this has helped your career and what was it like to see yourself in a national newspaper?
“It might have sold a few books, but if anything, my appearances in national newspapers have probably harmed my poetic career. Poetry’s a small world, and when it’s felt that the ‘wrong’ people are getting press attention, there’s usually a mixture of jealousy and annoyance. My mum likes it when I’m in the papers though”.
There is often the argument that what the poet means isn’t always found by the reader, and that the reader interprets the poem the way they want. How important do you feel this is? And has anyone ever got the core message of your poems wrong and how did that feel?
“I think my work’s quite explicit. I’ve never really been greatly misinterpreted, apart from the fact that occasionally people don’t pick up on my very black sense of humour. I did all that ‘death of the author’ thing at university, but ultimately, I think literature is about communication. I don’t read to see my own self reflected back – I want to know about other people, other lives, other opinions than my own”.
If you could talk with any living or dead poets, who would they be and what would you like to talk to them about?
“I actually have a poem ‘Fantasy Dinner Party’ that features Sylvia Plath. But I think I’d rather have a few cocktails with Anne Sexton, just to hear her wonderful husky voice and find out if Diane-Brook Middleton’s scandalous biography is all true. I think Frank O’Hara would be interesting on the subject of globalisation – there’s this queasiness about consumption in his poems. And Shakespeare, of course, to see if he’s actually Shakespeare”.
You presented The Sixteenth Summer for Channel 4, how did you find the process of writing for television and going back to Bolton to chronicle the break-ups and piss-ups of 16-year-olds? What did you learn from the process?
“Documentary is a very funny medium. I felt pretty guilty most of the time, because these kids were sixteen and didn’t really know how they were going to appear on camera. It felt intrusive, even though I think it was a very sensitive film in the end. There was one amazing sequence, where these sixteen year-olds were having an Anne Summers party, and all sucking chocolate cocks until they oozed out between their teeth, which was horrifying but an amazing image of girls on that edge between womanhood and innocence. We decided it was too exploitative in the final cut though. I’m quite good at writing quickly, to order, and it was interesting writing around the edit, and then dubbing my poetry over the top of footage straight away. And it was a very weird experience when it got screened at the Manchester Cornerhouse – my face 10ft high was an alarming spectacle!”
What do you think makes a poet?
“A love of language, a love of reading, the urgent sense that you have something to say. Attention to the detail – whether that’s the placing of a comma or remembering the precise scent of your ex-lover’s clothes”.
You have held a series of jobs to support your work, managing editor of The Idler and assistant director of the Clerkenwell Literary Festival but what has been your worst and best job and why? What did you learn from these jobs?
“The worst was in a chain-pub opposite Liverpool Street Station. My poem ‘The Chain’ is a kind of torrent of bitterness against all the patronising bastards who abuse and insult barmaids. Plus the place was so expensive I felt the urge to apologise before I served a drink, and the staff so badly paid that all apart from me were squatters. The only good thing about it was that it inspired a poem. The best has been working at The Idler. They’re really inspirational people, throw great parties, and are flexible to the point of ridiculousness (e.g.: “I’m not coming in today, I feel like sunbathing” is a completely valid excuse.) I’ve also learnt a lot about editing from them that I’ve applied to Reactions.”
Your play The Weather (Faber, 2004) was performed at The Royal Court last year, can you take us through the process of how the play came about? And, what have you learnt that you are taking forward to your next play?
“I did a course with the Young Writer’s Programme at the Royal Court a few years back, which I think is the best writing course in the country, bar none. I was taught by the completely inspirational playwright Simon Stephens one night a week, saw lots of plays for free, and spent hours in the bar debating the state of modern drama. That was when I first started writing seriously for the theatre. The Weather was written very quickly, in about a fortnight, when my dad was ill. It was fuelled by a lot of rage. It’s set in the near future, with the weather getting dramatically worse, terrorists blowing up shopping centres, and the end of the world in sight. I wanted to explore the visual side of theatre, so decided to put a poltergeist in the house, which becomes a metaphor for the outside world finally catching up with this privileged family and wreaking its revenge on them – although it’s also linked to the daughter’s anger. It was a real thrill having a play on. It can be quite lonely being a writer, and it was fun to work with lots of other people, although a wrench giving up total control of my work. I think in future I need to let go more. My new play under commission for the Royal Court is called The Zoo-Keeper’s Wife, after the Plath poem. She has a breakdown and the monkeys start talking to her. I don’t think I can go wrong with talking monkeys…”
Returning to Look! Clare! Look! can you take us through how you edited the collection and how that differed from your work with Reactions?
“As I’ve got older my editing has become very much gut instinct. If something feels wrong or dull, even if I can’t quite explain why, I’ll just cut it. I’m ruthless. There wasn’t really much more editing to do on Look, Clare! Look! once I’d cut out the weak links, as the chronology was dictated by the subject matter”.
What does this collection mean to Clare Pollard the poet and Clare Pollard the person?
“I think it’s my best book by quite a long way. I love the whole package, from the photo on the front – a snapshot of my eye taken on the night I got engaged – to the map my husband drew of our journey that prefaces the poetry. I also think that I’m dealing with really important things in it, not just looking round for a suitable poetic topic – these are poems I felt impelled to write, which is something I can’t quite say about my previous work. So as a poet, I’m proud of it. And as a person, I suppose I think of it in a way as a tribute to my father, and a kind of love letter to him. It was very important to me that I commemorated him somehow, and words are how I do it best”.
If you could give any advice to people who are thinking of trying to make a career as a poet, what would it be?
“I know everyone always says read a lot, but it’s true. If you don’t read contemporary poetry books, why would you expect anyone to read yours? Apart from that, the only real way to break into poetry is to build up a reputation in the magazines – Poetry Review, The Rialto, Magma and Poetry London are all very good places to be spotted. Be true to your own vision, rather than writing what you think is ‘publishable.’ And the sign Sexton had pinned above her desk is a good rule of thumb: ‘WHATEVER YOU DO DON’T BE BORING'”.
Finally, What are you working on at the moment? And what have been the successes and the problems?
“I’m working on The Zoo-Keeper’s Wife for the Royal Court, and a movie script for the production company Celador. It’s a rom-com. I’ve never 10 really written comedy before, but I keep chuckling to myself at my desk, so things must be going okay”.