Inroads, a poetry collection by the lovely and talented Carolyn Jess-Cooke has just been published and I was lucky enough to be able to ask her some questions earlier, and put to her some questions by some other lovely and talented people.
I do love doing these interviews.
Welcome to the blog, Carolyn. Your debut poetry collection, Inroads, has just been published. Can you tell us about it?
Thanks Nik! Inroads emerged from a poem I wrote (titled Inroads) as an undergrad at Queen’s University, Belfast – I was doing a creative writing module and just beginning to take my writing seriously (as I’d already been writing poetry for about ten years by that point). Once my undergrad tutor, Carol Rumens, alerted me to the fact that a mere mortal like myself could one day rise to the dizzy heights of an entire poetry collection, I was off! The name of the poem stuck as the title – although the poem got scrapped and replaced ages ago – and during the next ten years I explored a variety of forms and themes, which is probably why the collection is about motherhood, travel, failed romance, oh, and astronomy.
What does the word ‘poem’ mean to you?
Oooh, what a good question. For me, a poem is something beyond music, photography, sculpture, etc. that takes me into a new realm of insight with endless textures. It’s an incredibly personal instance of revelation and art. It should be an experience of creativity for the reader.
What kinds of poems can we expect to read in Inroads?
Boisterous poems, reflective poems, formally subversive poems, formally obedient poems, political poems, poems that are intended to rouse audiences at a poetry reading from their armchair slumber and send them out into the streets like wild animals, ravenous for more poetry…
It’s notoriously difficult to have a poetry collection published – could you tell us a little about your road to success?
It took me about ten years or more to get a publishing contract for the collection – I think I have letters dating back to 1996. Rejection letters, of course. It also took some publishers over a year to respond (with a no) so I got quite discouraged along the way. Finally, magazines started saying yes. At first, they’d offer to publish one poem, then two, then five, so I felt I was at last getting somewhere. In 2008 I received a letter from Seren, completely out of the blue, saying they’d like to consider my collection for publication… I think I choked on my hot chocolate at the time. I’d never expected someone to approach me.
What’s your writing process?
I write intensively, rather than often – although on the other hand, I would say I’m always writing, as I’m constantly rolling ideas and phrases and characters around my head, even during important meetings, which is probably annoying for everyone else… I simply don’t have time at the minute to do the typical 1000 words-a-day routine. Though when I wrote my novel, I wrote 12,000 words in one day – simply because I had only one day to write those words, not twelve. Pressure brings out the best in me when it comes to work.
I absolutely adore Inroads’ cover – how did that come about?
Thank you! I was scouring the earth for a surreally-type photograph and found Jamie Baldridge’s amazing collection of photos at his website, http://www.jamiebaldridge.com/. I had to have this one – something about the woman writing with strings was incredibly evocative of what I wanted to say with this collection. I emailed Jamie and begged him to let me use it and he very kindly said yes!
What advice would you give to someone wanting to be a published poet?
Put the writing before the publishing. It’s amazing how much writing time can be used up by trying to get published. It’s horse, then cart. I think that actually reading contemporary poetry helps – I’ve met a lot of aspiring poets who hadn’t even heard of some the major poetry magazines – and giving readings wherever possible. Some people don’t advocate poetry workshops (for fear of the dreaded ‘workshop poem’, whatever that is) but the few I’ve attended have helped me work to a deadline – there’s always a million reasons not to write, especially when one is being rejected left, right and centre… Persistence!
I write in many genres, but poetry has a special place in my heart. There are things I can articulate and express in poetry that I simply can’t in any other genre.
Could you recommend some good contemporary poets to us?
Loads! I was lucky to study at Queen’s University alongside some of our finest contemporary poets: Sinéad Morrissey, Leontia Flynn, Alan Gillis. I also recommend Luke Kennard – the range of his wit astounds me – and, on another side of the spectrum, Sharon Olds. Her poems seem to reach out of the page and bash me over the head with a blunt object. I love Alice Oswald’s collection Woods Etc. and am inspired by the contemporary surrealism of Kathryn Simmonds and Valeria Melchioretto.
Julia Bohanna asks: I have always felt that poets are simply more alive than most people, that they see the world in a more intense way. How far would you say that is true?
I think poetry requires an intensity in terms of how we view and experience the world: for me, a poem is most effective when it makes me see things in a way I’d never seen them before. There are many poets out there whose work is celebrated for its intellectual exploration of textuality and form, but if the work has no soul, no sense of honest human encounter, it’s dead to me.
And Vanessa Gebbie says: How does she know a poem is about to be born? What does it feel like?
It usually begins with a line that won’t leave my head, sometimes a title. One of the poems in Inroads is called A poem without any vegetables, and when that title came into my head I was so intrigued by it that I spent a good few weeks wondering what on earth it was meant to be about. Eventually, it became a poem about sibling rivalry in early childhood. Occasionally, I’ll set out to write a poem about something and eventually the lines will follow.
Vanessa would also like to know:
And how does she know when to stop tinkering, and walk away because the poem feel’s ‘cooked’?
When my gut says so. It’s a wonderful feeling. However, I’ve been known to return to a poem months after the ‘cooking’ and find that I want to shift something very minor, but the core of it is unalterable: I know that if I tried to fix what’s ‘cooked’, I’ll be severing an artery…
And this from Michelle Teasedale: Has she ever thought of writing song lyrics? Is poetry for everyone or just the literary elite?
I wrote a musical about six years ago and loved the lyric-writing part. I have such strong objections to poetry being for some literary elite that I won’t even submit my work to a particular poetry magazine because the stuff they publish is always by the same poets and never reaches me on a personal level (oh, and because they’ve rejected me a few times!). Poetry should reach everyone; if it’s enshrouded in intertextual references or cryptic messages, then it’s code, not poetry.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently editing my first novel, The Guardian Angel’s Journal, which is being published by the Piatkus imprint at Little, Brown in April 2011, and then I’ll be working on a second novel, A Very Human Thing, which Piatkus are publishing in April 2012. The launch for Inroads is March 11th at the City Library here in Newcastle, and shortly after that I’ll be having a baby!
Anything you’d like to add?
I’m looking forward to reading some amazing new poetry collections: The Water Table by Philip Gross, A Scattering by Christopher Reid, and Through the Square Window by Sinéad Morrissey. And I’ve a bookcase full of novels I’m anxious to read, just trying to find the time… Thanks for the invite!
Carolyn Jess-Cooke was born in Belfast in 1978 and now lives, works and sometimes plays in bonny Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. Following several careers as a musician, photographer, filmmaker and academic, she has finally and conclusively opted to be a mother and a writer. She has published 4 non-fiction books as well as ‘Inroads’, a poetry collection, and has many pieces of public textual art dotted around England. Two novels, a children’s story book, and a poem for an astronomy sculpture in Durham are forthcoming.