article and interview by Kathy Halliday (Founding Editor)
Abi Curtis is Head of Programme for Creative Writing at York St John University. She writes poetry and fiction. Her latest poetry collection, The Glass Delusion (Salt, 2012), received a Somerset Maugham Award.
Some of our editorial team have experienced first-hand Abi’s appreciation and enthusiasm for poetry, and the extent to which this is shared by her students. She has shown even poetry sceptics how the constraints of the form can produce liberating and often surprising results. Many of her students have now gone on to publish their work, both in print and online, at Turbulence Poetry, The Cadaverine, Black & BLUE Writing and Ink, Sweat and Tears to name a few.
The Glass Delusion is Abi’s latest collection, exploring the strangeness of animals and humans alike. Her poems convey the tenderness of the uncanny, in a way which is both compelling and deeply moving, resonating with the reader. A wondrous collection that is well-worth a Somerset Maugham Award.
Recently we asked Abi a few questions about poetry writing, her inspirations and latest prize:
When/How did you discover poetry? And how did this experience contribute towards shaping your identity as a poet?
I enjoyed poetry when I was young, but I was probably more into short fiction at that time. I read a lot more poetry when I went to University (though I didn’t do a Creative Writing degree, I did English Lit and Cultural Studies). I lived in Brighton, where there was, and is, a vibrant performance poetry scene, so I learnt a lot from that, as well as studying poetry at Uni. When I was 22 I went to the University of Exeter to take a Creative Writing MA and was taught by the poet Andy Brown. He introduced me to a lot more contemporary poetry, and to the pleasures of form. I loved experimenting with form, and though my poetry is now less strictly formal, I think that learning is still there in the way I write.
In terms of identity, I don’t really see ‘being a poet’ as part of my identity, instead it’s something I do and challenge myself to experiment with and be better at.
With two poetry collections and numerous other publications to your name, can you remember your first published work? How do you feel your writing has developed since then?
Yes, I wrote this terribly complicated sonnet sequence called ‘13’. It was a kind of sonnet crown, each sonnet had 13 lines, and the final sonnet was made up of all the missing lines of the other sonnets. It was playing around with different kinds of superstitions. It was in an anthology called Reactions which used to be published by The University of East Anglia. I was absolutely thrilled when I read the letter saying that I had been accepted for publication, I don’t think you forget your first publication.
I still love the sonnet form, it’s so versatile and such a great shape for thinking within. I think, as I say above, that I am perhaps less formal in my writing now. I’m also more economical, less in love with description, than I was then. The sonnet crown was really ambitious, I don’t know if I’ve been that ambitious since! There is a certain, lovely naivety when you are still starting out which can make you braver.
We can only imagine how it felt to win the Crashaw Prize 2008 for your first collection, Unexpected Weather. Now, having won the Somerset Maugham Award for The Glass Delusion, how do you feel the two collections compare?
The first collection was written over a longer period of time, the earliest poems being written in about 2003, though much of it was written much later. There are a lot of formally experimental poems in there, and some of the work is quite dense, I think. The first collection was a great learning experience – working with editors and publishers, learning how to market and get the work out there. The second collection was more focussed in terms of its themes, written over a shorter period, and more polished, I think. With The Glass Delusion I had the goal of making it accessible to a wide readership, maybe not just people who read poetry. I wanted it to be an easier read than the first collection, but still as layered.
For those who are budding poets amongst us, could you tell us a bit more about the Crashaw Prize and Somerset Maugham Award, and how winning or being short/long listed for them can impact upon a poet’s career?
Prizes are great, especially for poets, as they provide much needed publicity. The real kick-start to my writing life was actually the Eric Gregory award I received in 2004. This is a Society of Authors prize, like the Somerset Maugham, and intended for poets under 30. The Gregory has a lot of great publicity around it, a few famous names have won them, and it’s a vote of confidence. I was very young when I received mine, and didn’t really know as much about it as I should, but that got me noticed and got me a pamphlet publication in the Tall-Lighthouse’s Pilot Series.
The Crashaw is Salt Publishing’s poetry prize and the winner gets published. It’s a great way for a publisher to deal with the huge number of new poets that approach them every year. So this was fantastic, as it meant a full book publication, and again, publicity.
The Somerset Maugham is another Society of Author’s Award, again, ageist (though most of their awards aren’t) for writers under 35, intended to encourage them to travel and be inspired by their adventures. The Society is funded by the estates of various benefactors, lots of them writers, and the great thing is that the judges are fellow writers. So winning any of their prizes is an amazing honour. Second poetry collections are hard to market; there’s no ‘debut’ status to them, so awards help to get them noticed.
As a collection, The Glass Delusion blends the uncanny and macabre in a way which is beautiful and compelling for the reader. Are you naturally drawn towards the darker, more elusive side of nature, or does this collection explore a new side to your writing?
I think I am drawn to the ‘uncanny’ and the darker side of things, though I’m not sure why. I think that those things allow you to create atmosphere perhaps. I think that this collection has much more wit and humour than the previous, but that makes sense because I think as you get older you take things a little less seriously…
With such contrasting poems like El Pulpo Paul and Morgellons (both featured in The Glass Delusion), your creative inspirations and influences are obviously very diverse and cover broad subjects. Do you find you write for a particular theme, or do you feel there are things you are continuously inspired by?
I think in this latest collection I was very drawn towards animals, the natural world and our place in the world. I’ve been fascinated by animals since I was a child and you can have some real fun writing about them. Ted Hughes talks about how good poems are like creatures, and I think that’s a wonderful idea. But I also like science, and odd stories and the unexplained. These things are ripe for exploring with language.
Hare on the Road to Malham, the opening poem for The Glass Delusion and arguably my favourite from the collection, has a very genuine feel to it, as though this was an event which happened in your life that you felt deeply moved by. Is this the case? And if so, how important do you feel it is for poets to write from experience?
It was partly inspired by a real event, yes. But it also got me thinking about hares, and their long history of being considered magical – there are lots of myths and legends connected to them. So the real event sparked the idea, but then a foray into the legend of the hare, and also some playing with the language associated with it, resulted in the final poem. The poem is also about those moments where time seems to stop, so it’s also about the strangeness of time. In a way, I think the best poems are about more than one thing.
I don’t think poets have to write from experience, no. I think writing is, first and foremost, about the power of the imagination. So you can write from a strange story you read in the paper, you can imagine yourself as someone else. You will always be drawing, in some way, on your own emotional experience, but writing is about transferring that to something that you don’t know about. At least sometimes it is. And maybe that gives you some insight into the unfamiliar – writing can be a way of investigating the unknown.
For our issues, we accept creative works in all forms, but find our highest numbers to be in poetry. What do you feel the future holds for poetry? Do you believe it will continue to grow and transcend time, as it has done for many years?
It’s clear that people write poetry and read it, but not enough people seem to buy contemporary poetry collections – not in the way they buy novels. But that’s good, in a way, because it means lots of poetry remains unencumbered by commercial pressures and can just do what it likes. Younger writers are loving poetry right now, it’s pretty hip, so that’s brilliant. Poetry will always be around. Maybe one day we’ll have it implanted into a chip in our brain or something, but we’ll still have it.
Your poetry is beautifully crafted, and it is clear to see that a lot of time has gone into choosing the right words, shape and pace of each poem. As both a lecturer and poet, how does your academic career affect your writing? Do you find the two coexist harmoniously, or do you often find conflicts to overcome in order to write?
It’s a bit of both. When I have 100 portfolios to mark, I don’t write much! But I love teaching and being around people, I’m not the kind of writer who likes to be alone too much. I also have to make sure I know what’s going on in contemporary literature in order to be able to teach, so it keeps me on my toes and learning new things. My students never cease to amaze me with their talents, and that is inspiring. There can be time conflicts, but a bit of conflict is not a bad thing – if you feel like you are fighting for time to write, you really use that time.
And finally, what is the best piece of advice you can offer to our readers on writing poetry/becoming a poet?
I think all writers are part of a community of other writers and readers, but especially poets in some ways. It’s a small world. So read contemporary poetry in journals, go to readings, buy the work of living poets you admire. Get your work out there to competitions and magazines and join in that community. Practise a lot, as you would with anything. And don’t worry about whether or not you are a ‘poet’, just make poems.
Where there are writers of contemporary poetry, there will always be readers. Be they part of the community Abi mentions here, or simply appreciators of good writing, poetry will always have a place in our society.
We’d like to thank Abi Curtis for such an enjoyable interview, and for everything else.
Her collections are available to purchase online via the Salt Publishing shop:
Unexpected Weather (Salt, 2011)
The Glass Delusion (Salt, 2012)
To view Abi’s writer profile, click here.