Rachel Piercey won the Newdigate Prize in 2008 for her poem ‘Returning, 1945’. She is now an editor at Cadaverine magazine and the Emma Press. Her illustrated pamphlet of love poems, The Flower and the Plough, was published by the Emma Press in 2013. She lives in London.
Interview carried out by Jack Little (Mexico) in March 2015.
Published in issue 41 of The Ofi Press.
1. A recent review of your wonderful pamphlet Rivers Wanted describes how you are not afraid to take risks with language and voice? How important is it for poets to take risks when writing?
Thank you for your kind words! I think all writing is a risk of sorts. You’re pointing at something and saying ‘this is how I feel about it’, or ‘here is a truth I believe I have perceived’. It feels very revealing, especially as there is a tendency to conflate the speaker and the ‘actual’ poet, unless it is very obviously a dramatic monologue.
In terms of individual poems, I don’t think a poem should ever feel safe or familiar or obvious. But most of my favourite poems by other writers explore familiar ‘big’ themes (love, death, relationships) and often in a familiar form such as a lyric or sonnet. Part of what I love about poetry is how consoling it can be, how it articulates and makes wondrous our shared human hopes and anxieties. Of course these poems find new and perceptive ways to look at these grand themes – but I wouldn’t necessarily identify them as taking risks.
Then taking a broad look at poetry, of course we need poets to be bold and experimental! That’s how we make progress. Language is infinitely flexible, so there are new ways of making, and past experiments to reinvigorate, and also old security blankets to rehabilitate as risks. For instance, I love it when poets use old-fashioned or clichéd language in new ways. At the moment, I am really enjoying experimenting with the use of exclamation marks and the word ‘O’.
2. You run the Young Poets Network in the UK which aims to provide a platform for publication and support for young British and international poets. What have been some of your highlights in working on this project?
I love working on Young Poets Network, which is the UK Poetry Society’s digital resource for poets aged 25 and under. The highlight has to be reading all the poems in response to our writing challenges, which are mini competitions for new poems on particular set themes. We work with partner organisations to explore intriguing subjects – the Gothic, the theatrical history of Shakespeare, Freud’s theories, WWII poets, nature and conservation, Victorian London – which we hope will inspire our young audience to write. We get such imaginative, sophisticated, daring poems in response – and ones which show how widely young people are reading. The future of poetry is in safe hands!
I was particularly moved by the poems we received for our first ever Timothy Corsellis Prize last year, for poems written in response to Second World War poetry. Timothy Corsellis was a young poet and pilot killed in 1941 and the Prize is supported by his family. We all study the First World War poets at school, but the Second World War poets are less well-known; I’d never read writers such as Keith Douglas or Henry Reed before so it was a great education for me too. The entries we received were written with such sensitivity, clear-eyed urgency and attention to language, it was a marvel. The winners were announced on the anniversary of Timothy’s death so it was a really poignant tribute to his talent. You can read their wonderful poems on the Prize page on Young Poets Network.
3. You co-edited the poetry anthology Homesickness and Exile from Emma Press. Have these been themes present in your own life at any point?
I am lucky in that they have been present only in a minor way. But I think longing and belonging are two fundamental poles of human experience, and I think a sense of dislocation is probably part of the human condition – and often poets are writing across that keenly-felt gap.
The Homesickness and Exile anthology was part of our ongoing engagement at the Emma Press with the Roman poet Ovid. This anthology is based on his Tristia, and our Poetic Primer to Love and Seduction is based on his Ars Amatoria. There are more planned! Ovid knew a resonant poetic theme when he saw one.
4. How does your work as an editor affect your own poetry?
It gives me new ideas and makes me feel part of a community of craftspeople, which is invaluable. It also helps me understand the process behind curating a book or magazine and how subjective that process is – I try and remember this when another editor rejects my poems! I do find editorial work requires a similar type of creative energy to my writing though, so I have to be careful to keep a balance.
5. What tips or recommendations would you give to young poets who are just starting to explore their writing?
The usual cornerstone: read, read, read! Read books if you can get hold of them – single author collections and anthologies – and check out the Poetry Archive and the Poetry Foundation and the Poetry Library’s list of online magazines. Reading is absolutely the best way to improve your writing.
I’m biased, but I would also say definitely explore Young Poets Network! We run regular mini writing competitions and also keep a directory of Poetry Opportunities from other organisations.
Remember that most people will find your work online, so don’t save your best poems for submission to print magazines. There are so many great online magazines – submit as seriously to these as you would a paper journal. Check out Ink Sweat & Tears, And Other Poems, The Cadaverine and Poems in Which for starters.
For reading more about contemporary poetry culture, I would recommend Clare Pollard’s blog and the website of independent publishers Sidekick Books. The Poetry Society Facebook page is also fantastic for keeping up to date with articles, events and new books.
Try writing in lots of different styles and don’t be discouraged when experiments don’t work or your poems are rejected. It happens to all poets at every stage of their career!
To end I would say, welcome and dive in! Poetry is a friendly, busy world and there is lots to explore and enjoy.