Andrew interviewed Esther Morgan in 2006 via email. ‘In that year,’ Andrew says, ‘I interviewed quite a few female poets, it seemed to be a year when Bloodaxe came to the fore and what Bloodaxe does well is strong female voices. Esther has become a friend since this interview and has even given me feedback on my own poetry. When I interviewed her she was happy to receive additional questions and discuss the darker elements of her work and talk about the glass ceiling in Literature. This kind of question would have enraged many poets but Esther’s answer is honest, truthful and shows the changing face of English Literature’.
The Truth With A Line: Esther Morgan. Interview by Andrew Oldham
Esther Morgan was born in 1970 in Kidderminster, After reading English at Newnham College, Cambridge, she worked as a volunteer at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, Cumbria. She took an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and has since taught on its under-graduate creative writing programme, editing the UEA new poetry anthology,Reactions. In 1998, she won an Eric Gregory Award, and taught at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia. Beyond Calling Distance was her first book of poems from Bloodaxe, followed up be her recent collection The Silence Living in Houses.
In your new collection The Silence Living in Houses you deal with unsettling themes of ghosts, sisters who come to a macabre end and servant girls that vanish. Why did you want to tackle such themes and what drew you to the characters, their tales and the language or their poetry?
“I’ve always been interested in themes of absence, silence and erasure. My first collection contained a lot of poems that touched on silences between people who are failing to communicate in some way. But the feel of the second collection was prompted in particular by a move to an old house in Oxfordshire about three years ago. The circumstances are unusual: my partner and I don’t own this house, but are in effect care-taking it for the owner. The house isn’t that old – only Edwardian – but it hasn’t been renovated for half a century. There is, consequently, a powerful sense of history in the place – a lot of the furniture is of the period and details like the servants’ bells remain, along with antiquated plumbing and no central heating (there’s a lot of wintry imagery in the book). It’s got a magical atmosphere – surrounded by trees with an overgrown garden that backs on to fields and woods. It’s the house that time forgot and living there has been a powerful imaginative experience – the past is so palpable it’s as if the former inhabitants are sometimes more real than ourselves, as if we are the transient presences. But whilst the rooms are redolent of former lives, these remain in the realm of hint and suggestion so it’s natural for the mind to start inventing stories from the fragments that remain, like the broken china we occasionally unearth in the garden which surfaced in the story of the disappearing maid in ‘Bone China’. In a way the house has provided a setting and a different slant on subjects I’ve always been interested in: the hidden lives of women, the secrets within families, what happens behind closed doors”.
This collection is infused with a rich tapestry of language and intrigue. What do you enjoy about this medium of poetry? What is about poetic language that drives you to write?
“Because the poems were written in a shorter period of time than those in the first collection, the book has a stronger sense of cohesion, something that is often the case, I think, with a second collection. But I’ve always been drawn to poetry that modulates language through the course of a book. I’m also more interested in poems that proceed through suggestion, that are ambiguous in some way. In writing a poem I’m struggling to express something which may be ultimately incommunicable and that tends to lead to a strategy of implication. I don’t set out to be deliberately mysterious but I am fascinated by how little we know about other human beings, even those we profess to be close to, sometimes them most of all. We all wander through life like icebergs with nine tenths of us hidden beneath the surface – that’s the bit most writers are interested in exploring. As far as what drives me to write, I think it’s a sense of territory. When I’m engaged on a poem and it’s going well I feel like I did as a child making a den at the bottom of the garden, a place where I could think and dream away from the adult world. Writing a poem is like making a den out of words. I also feel I’m deeply inarticulate much of the time – I’m not someone who is good at arguing or particularly confident in my own opinions – I often only know what I think or feel about a given situation after it’s passed and I can talk to myself through writing. I feel very cut adrift when I’m not writing, because I’m reduced to reacting to the world rather than thinking about it”.
Poetry is often seen as a personal medium, that themes tackled on the page are often drawn from the poet’s background. At the heart of your new collection there is dark menace of violence, and the question arises of whether the poet has first hand knowledge of this or if not how did they perpetuate ‘the truth’ of the collection?
“I agree there can be a problem with the ‘I’ in poetry and the assumption that this equates with the person of the poet in a very direct way. I’m interested in the implications of using the first person and the construction of identities that are tangential to the poet. This was an issue for me in writing the poems in the second section of ‘The Silence Living in Houses’ (the book’s split into three sections altogether, each of which is linked through the idea of interiors). The second section was problematic because it deals with domestic violence, albeit in an oblique way. I haven’t, thank God, ever experienced physical violence myself, though I think I have an understanding of emotional intimidation which often goes hand in hand with violence. The immediate context of these poems though, stemmed from my work as a Case Conference Administrator for Oxford Social Services, taking the minutes of Child Protection conferences where domestic violence was often a factor within families where the children were having problems. Some of the stories really got under my skin: I was already writing poems about what happens inside houses and this subject started to creep in, particularly the sense of secrecy and isolation these women were suffering. I was struck by a remark one Social Worker made, that in the right context domestic violence can be a raised eyebrow, because of the threat the gesture implies. I found I was writing poems where it was this threat of violence that’s more frightening and controlling than the violence itself. But to get back to the issue of using ‘I’, this was a real problem in these particular poems – though I was careful not to use any real details from the cases I heard I still felt that adopting the first person was an appropriation of others’ experiences. The last thing I wanted to do was suggest that I was a victim of this kind of situation. I therefore switched early on to using the second person, ‘You’, in these poems which is more inclusive, though readers may still may make assumptions about autobiographical elements even so. Of course, I believe writers are entitled to write about any subject but with the proviso that if it’s not your own direct experience you have a bigger responsibility to get it right, to try and inhabit the material as fully as possible. I didn’t have this issue with the other two sections of the book – the first being largely free invention, and the third drawing on personal childhood memories”.
The poetry in the collection is haunting and disturbing, how hard was it to delve into such areas?
“Some of the poems about home life were tricky as well – you may feel you own your personal memories but they are also the stuff of the memories of others who are close to you. This presents a different challenge from the one discussed above. I don’t want to imply there are any terrible family skeletons which I reveal in the book – there aren’t – but nevertheless the public narrative a family tells about itself can be rather different from the secret one which rumbles on beneath the surface of everyday life. In my case it was the relationship between my grandmother, her daughter (my mother) and myself. There were plenty of hidden tensions – nothing out of the ordinary but powerful nevertheless, particularly as I spent a great deal of time with both of them growing up. Children are very sensitive to emotional atmosphere and this is the territory that these poems explore – but investigating this can be unnerving and I did worry about the reaction they’d get. In the end I gave them to my mother to read before publishing them – my grandmother died a couple of years ago – as I wanted her to absorb them before they appeared in public. I felt I owed her that as a courtesy – after all it’s her past as well – and fortunately she thought they were good and didn’t have a problem with them”.
Poets are illusionists that the poet can create as well as draw from reality. But how much do real events on a personal and global level affect you? And how, if you do, do you tie these into fictional event that reenforce what you are trying to say?
“‘The Silence Living in Houses’ is a pretty internalised collection, claustrophobic even. There’s plenty of autobiographical material in it, especially in the third section which re-examines the interiors of houses from my childhood. However, I don’t feel I’m a nakedly personal writer in the way someone like Sharon Olds is, whose work I very much admire for its combination of honesty and technical skill. However, whilst I draw on personal memory a great deal it’s often transformed into material which feels more like folk or fairy tale. For instance, my grandmother is a key figure in my life and writing – she was both deeply ordinary and quite remarkable – but in the poems in the third section she becomes more like a figure from a childhood story, part nurturing, part frightening. So her old-fashioned way of laying a fire becomes a kind of ancestral haunting in the poem ‘Firelighter’. She played cards a lot to pass the time, different kinds of patience in particular, and this found its way into a poem called ‘La Patience, 1943’ which is based on a painting by the French artist, Balthus, but is transformed into a gothic tableau. Elsewhere there are poems which come from sources external to memory and family life. For instance ‘Half Sister’ was triggered by watching the film The Others starring Nicole Kidman (not a great film to watch alone in an old house where there are rooms which aren’t used!) One of the most haunting details in the film was the child who can’t be exposed to daylight otherwise they’ll burn. This image of someone trapped in a twilight world was very powerful to me and became a kind of doppelganger in the poem, an image of an alternative life which is ghosting the present. Another poem, ‘Fast’ is from a shocking true event in which three sisters and their aunt deliberately starved themselves to death in an act of religious fervour in the midst of an ordinary housing estate in Dublin. So external events are an important inspiration but the distance between poems based on these and more personal memories is often not that big, in that I use a similar approach in both cases. If by global events you mean more overtly political or environmental concerns, these inform my view of the world but they don’t often enter directly into the poems – I can’t just choose to write about something, be it the Iraq war or the Asian tsunami, unless it connects to some inner poetic impulse. Perhaps this sounds selfish or remote from real life, but I don’t feel this is so – I can’t write a successful poem from the head, it has to be more than an intellectual articulation and to do otherwise would result in false writing. However, some of the ideas that obsess me, particularly silence and the voice connect to repression in a wider sense – it’s so hard to speak freely even if your culture, at least on the surface, allows this. I’m interested in the power mechanisms, personal and political and sometimes a combination of the two, that prevent people from speaking. And in my first book there are poems about isolation which touch on environmental degradation – Beyond Calling Distance begins and ends with fables of landscapes which have ceased to be fertile and the psychological impact of this on a community. So yes, what is happening out there finds its way into the work, but usually in quite a roundabout way that takes time to mesh with my poetic voice”.
How did you edit your latest collection? And how important do you think the skill of editing is to a writer and poet?
“This collection actually fell into place quite quickly. It became apparent that I was writing about three main subjects: the old house, domestic violence and childhood memories and once the idea of interiors had taken hold as a unifying theme, the different sections were clear-cut. I do think editing skills in terms of a whole collection are important – thinking about the shape of a book and also considering on a smaller scale how the juxtaposition of different poems affects the way a reader interprets them seems to me an extra resource at the poet’s disposal. I know readers won’t always begin with poem one and read straight through, but I often read several poems in a row, or once I’ve dipped into a collection several times, may then read the book in a linear way. Arranging poems in a book is a bit like arranging stanzas in a poem: I enjoy the process and the way surprising connections can reveal themselves along the way. For example, the second section of the book moves from stifling confinement and oppression towards some possibility of release; this wasn’t pre-planned but as I wrote more poems I began to see a subsumed narrative was possible and that it would be good to progress towards the idea of escape”.
Until recently, you were the editor of Reactions, what did you learn from this time and how had it improved/detracted from your view of poetry and your own work?
“Editing Reactions was a very positive experience and a continual reminder of how many different kinds of poetry there are. I dislike anthologies that try to spin a party line or are only interested in promoting one kind of poetics. No single book can be comprehensive and taste will always be subjective, but I was determined to adopt as broad-minded approach as possible to the editing task. Any submission that seemed to offer anything at all was always read more than once and I’d bring in other colleagues as readers in trying to make the final selection. In terms of my own work it showed me different possibilities exist: there’s always a danger as a writer that you start reading only material which confirms your own taste, that a kind of narrowing will occur over time. As an editor it’s impossible to remain insular – every now and then I’d read a poet whose work really jolted me awake, that I was surprised I liked. On the other hand I gave up editing as I moved more deeply into writing the second collection. I needed the solitude, to focus the energy inwards and that’s hard to do if you’ve got fifty other voices competing for attention inside your head. I find this tends to be my writing rhythm – that I need alternating periods of busy engagement in the wider world, followed by bouts of introspection”.
Do you feel that in the UK poetry scene that there is a glass ceiling for female poets and what do you feel perpetuates this?
“I feel personally I’ve been very fortunate in the opportunities that have come my way, not least of which was editing Reactions. Also my instinct as a writer is to be very private – I’m not comfortable in pursuing a particularly public role in the poetry world, competing for editorships or review space. For me this is detrimental to the writing process as I find myself worrying about what other people think of my poetry and my judgement – feeling self-conscious just makes me and my writing awkward! Having said that I think it’s absolutely vital that a wider range of the poetry community has access to the most powerful jobs in poetry, not just women but poets from different ethnic backgrounds as well. I’m glad that Poetry Review now has a woman editor in Fiona Sampson, and there are plenty of examples of women making headway in this respect, such as Pascale Petit and now Martha Kapos’ editing role for the wonderful Poetry London. But still the major poetry publishers are male-dominated and I think that does need to change – that’s not to imply that the existing male editors aren’t doing a good job but there should just be greater representation across the board. It’s far too easy for a situation to become self-perpetuating in a small world like that of poetry publishing where a relatively small group of people becomes comfortable with each other and the status quo – that’s true of any field and needs a good shaking up from time to time”.
What kind of problems have you had as a poet in the UK and abroad?
“The enduring problems are with myself, the endless battle to give myself permission to write. Laziness and lack of confidence are formidable foes and need watching carefully. I thought the writing process would get easier with experience but I’m not finding that – perhaps this is a bad time to ask as I’m searching for a new direction and haven’t yet picked up the thread! A friend just sent me the following poem by Elaine Feinstein which I’m finding very inspiring – so I thought I’d pass it on: ‘MUSE/ for E.T./ “Write something every day, she said”,/ “even if it’s only a line, / it will protect you”./ How should this be?/ Poetry opens no cell,/ heals no hurt body,/ brings back no lover,/ altogether, poetry is/ powerless as grass./ How then should it defend us?/ Only by strengthening/ our fierce and obstinate centres.’ I love that last line – I often feel I lose my ‘fierce and obstinate centre’ amongst the demands of everyday life and that’s precisely why I write, to fight against a tendency to acquiesce or just drift along without questioning things. I think reading as well as writing poetry can help strengthen this too; that’s why it remains important”.
What do you think of the UK Poetry Scene today? If you could change it anyway what would you do?
“This connects to some of the thoughts I express in answer to question above – since I became interested in contemporary poetry in the late 80s I think it has become a more vibrant and open-minded place but there’s a way to go. Healthy debate is good, bitchy faction-fighting isn’t and I sometimes think there’s a fine line between the two as far as the poetry world is concerned. For example the concerted campaign against Bloodaxe’s Being Alive and Staying Alive anthologies in some quarters of the specialist poetry press enraged me and flew in the face of the books’ reception in the general review pages of newspapers and magazines, and the overwhelmingly positive reception the books got from the public, perfectly intelligent and sophisticated reading public I might add. That struck me as intellectual snobbery, the squeals of an elite faced by an external threat beyond their control. It reminded me of certain tutors and fellow students I came across at Cambridge who were intent on using knowledge to bully and undermine the intellectual confidence of others – it’s something I’ve no time for. On the other hand, I know from personal experience how very generous poets can be to one another – my own creative journey wouldn’t have been possible without the unselfish support and encouragement that I’ve come across. There’s often a lot of coverage of spats and feuds in the poetry press but not much attention paid to the quiet, ongoing sharing of work and resources amongst practitioners. If there’s one thing I could change it would be to somehow get poetry reviewed more extensively and substantially in the broadsheet press; my sense from speaking to literate friends of mine who are avid fiction readers is that poetry remains too much of a mystery, that they don’t know where to start when it comes to contemporary poetry. The prizes and gongs of recent decades have done something to publicise poetry beyond it’s ghetto, but so much more needs to be done. I know from my experience as a teacher that students who are initially suspicious of contemporary poetry are converted very quickly when good examples are placed before them week after week. That’s all it takes – here’s a poem, and another one and here’s another – what do you think of them? And then they’re away. But that only happens in small pockets, not across the culture as a whole”.
How important do you feel it is that writers and poets should be readers?
“Absolutely 100% vital. Any breakthroughs in my own work have come from reading others and absorbing approaches, ideas, techniques and then trying them out for myself”.
What are you reading now? And what is your favourite piece of work?
“A great deal of my reading recently has been bound up with my involvement in a project called The Poetry Archive. It’s an online resource of poets reading their own work, both contemporary and historic. I’ve been working on both elements, researching recordings, writing introductions and amalgamating all the bibliographical info etc. So my reading has really been listening and that’s been a powerful experience, to get back to the voices of poets and their different intonations and accents. It’s made me re-assess the relationship between the spoken and the written voice and how the two might influence each other. Particular favourites include Margaret Atwood’s laconic tones which suit her dry-eyed, sometimes acerbic poems, Christopher Logue’s impassioned reading of a section from All Day Permanent Red and Roy Fisher’s quietly ruminative and witty meditations on art and our industrial heritage. It’s a different experience from going to a reading where poets tend to stick to their tried and tested favourites and the performance element can dominate. These are largely studio recordings and have a personal, more reflective quality as if the poet is speaking quietly to you alone – and that can be a very charged experience. The Archive’s an ongoing, inclusive project (everyone from Betjeman through Heaney to Denise Riley) with many more poets due to be added over the coming months – www.poetryarchive.org”
What are you working on at the moment?
“As I mentioned above, I’m casting around for the next book, the next idea. Work commitments meant an enforced break last year so I’m experiencing an uncomfortable rustiness at the moment. But I know I want a more open collection this time – whether in style or subject matter or both”.
Many poets and writers are drawn to academia, why do you think writers and poets end up in a HE environment?
“By accident! I think with the proliferation of creative writing courses there are more teaching opportunities than ever, however these are mainly part-time and insecure posts, so it’s not a bed of roses. However, it does provide some flexibility I guess and the lure of the holidays to get some writing done, though in my experience these are often taken up with planning for the next academic year”.