Both reading and writing poetry has always been a form of expression for me, and a way to navigate and process difficult experiences and emotions. It was in sixth form that I discovered Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, prompting my teacher to lend me her copy of Plath’s collected poems – uncovering those words was a turning point for me in realising the full extent of the effect poetry could have on a person, as well as in recognising how badly I wanted to write.
Generally, I look to poems which speak to me somehow, regardless of form, structure or subject. For me, poets should choose their words sparingly, with careful consideration, avoiding cliché and overuse of adverbs – there is a real magic(k) in finding a beautiful line or unique turn of phrase that jolts you as a reader, and sits in your gut far beyond that initial reading. Plath’s ‘soft, feathery turnings’ did this for me – they’ve been part of my core since I first read them at sixteen, even inspiring a short story about a woman who gives birth to a crow, (which will be featured in this summer’s New Welsh Reader.)
Zoë Brigley is a poet I return to often – her third collection Hand and Skull is a tender exploration of gender, cruelty, violence, myth, motherhood and physicality. Misogyny and violence against women are topics I’ve always been interested in exploring, (both factor into my current PhD research), so this collection is particularly poignant for me. In her poetry, Brigley is primed for women to reclaim their power, acknowledging the need to occasionally embrace acts of violence – ‘only a set of sharp teeth will make / me, not a creature, but a human being.’
Brigley also writes of the complicated magic and wonder of motherhood, reclaiming her feminine power through her role as creator of both life and death, which brings me to another favourite collection – Rebecca Goss’ Her Birth. Her Birth is a sequence of poems beginning with the birth of Goss’ daughter, detailing her short life and premature death at just sixteen months old, and culminating with the complex joy of the birth of a second child. Her poetry is tender and haunting, skilfully navigating grief and loss, yet there is hope in this collection, which ultimately remains a celebration of life, motherhood and love. Her poem ‘Grief Goes Jogging,’ a stunning personification of grief, is a particular piece from this collection that has resonated with me for a long time: ‘I find you wretched on the step. / You stink of pity and sweat. / I know you will come back in, // slip your arm around me, / but for now I leave you there.’
The poems ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘Gothel’ which feature in Poetry Wales’ Stay-at-Home special were drawn from a collaborative project between myself and award winning poet Natalie Ann Holborrow. The Wrong Side of the Looking Glass, (due out later this year with Black Rabbit Press & Infinity Books UK), features narrative poems in the voices of myriad marginalised figures from literature, history, fairy tale and myth, from Little Red Riding Hood to Ursula, from King Lear’s Cordelia to the Queen of Hearts. I have always been fascinated by marginalised female figures and stories untold – why were Shakespeare’s Goneril and Regan so hostile towards their father and sister? Was the Hag figure of Hansel and Gretel so lonely, so desperate for children of her own that she was willing to consume the wandering siblings?
On this theme, Ann Carson’s poetry is indispensable – Autobiography of Red is an epic poem which skilfully bridges the gap between poetry and prose, retelling the story of Greek figures Geryon and Herakles in beautiful, contained scenes: ‘They continued to sit […] New moon floating white as a rib at the edge of the sky.’ The story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles, who abruptly leaves him at the peak of infatuation, is at times unsettling, navigated with a mixture of whimsy and sadness.
Fiona Benson’s Vertigo and Ghost is brutal and fierce. As a collection, it knocked me off-kilter with its animalistic fury, its poems unflinchingly exploring the vulnerabilities, sorrows and fears of women and girls, of mothers and daughters. Her series depicting Greek God Zeus’ violent exploits is brave and breathtaking: ‘Rape is rarely / what you think. / Sometimes you are / outside yourself / looking down / thinking slut.’ It’s a vital collection which reminds us that poetry can and must question our world view, even where it may make for uncomfortable reading.
‘Poetry’ can also be found in prose – Carly Holmes and Daisy Johnson write in surreal, gorgeous language, unfurling like poetry line by line in their stories. Holmes’ Figurehead and Johnson’s Fen both had considerable impact on my own poetry and prose, due in part to their sheer beauty and the power contained in their language. Additionally in the world of prose, Natalie Haynes’ The Children of Jocasta, Margaret Atwood’s novella The Penelopiad and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls all explore marginalised female figures from Greek myth and are a definite recommendation for anyone interested in this area.
I find reading poetry published in magazines like Poetry Wales and Mslexia leads to new discoveries, as does reading reviews, and keeping an eye on small, independent presses via social media. Finally, I’d advise reading the work of your peers and letting them read yours – a close circle of trusted poets and writers is invaluable when it comes to redrafting, helping us as writers to engage in ways we may not previously have considered. Working collaboratively with Natalie on The Wrong Side of the Looking Glass has been such an enjoyable and inspiring experience for me, and has pushed my writing to bold new places which I’m increasingly excited about.