Editor Jonathan Edwards interviews former editor Zoë Skoulding whose collection Footnotes to Water (Seren, 2019) is shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year 2020.
JE: Huge congratulations on being shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year. How does it feel to be shortlisted? Is it especially important to you to be recognised in an award for books from Wales?
ZS: I’m absolutely delighted – these are grim times, and it’s wonderful to be reminded in this way of the community that has always sustained my writing.
JE: If you had to introduce your book to readers who are unfamiliar with it, what would you say?
ZS: It revolves around three sets of walks, two of which are urban, one in Bangor and one in Paris following the routes of lost rivers. Between them, there’s a sequence that follows the meanderings of upland sheep. I’m interested in ideas about belonging, and in how to think about locality in a way that includes non-human lives as well as multiple human perspectives.
JE: Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis and process of working on your collection? What sort of experiences, reading and approaches to writing were important to you in generating these poems?
ZS: There were many conversations along the path to this book. The poems about Bangor’s Afon Adda came from a collaboration with the artist Ben Stammers, whose photograph of a gull’s feet on the roof of a bus stop provides the cover image. We went for walks with members of the public in Bangor, during which we talked about their memories of the city and the river in particular, and some of these fed directly into the poems. I also spent time in Bangor University’s archives, where I found, for example, Florence Nightingale’s letters about the Bangor typhoid epidemic in the late nineteenth century.
The sequence about the Bièvre was a result of days in libraries, but also walking around in Paris, watching and making notes. There’s a wealth of historical literature about this river, which is often personified as an unclean feminine outsider, so it led me to think about the contemporary city and its effect on different bodies. Georges Perec’s observations of everyday life were a challenge to pay attention to ordinary detail – and I drew on his techniques in Bangor as well as in Paris.
The sheep poems were written for a project with the artist Miranda Whall from Aberystwyth, who crawled over the mountains with cameras attached to her to get a sheep’s eye view of the landscape. I didn’t directly respond to her journeys, but did my own wandering on the page. Sheep-like activities of browsing and going in circles are quite central to my writing process.
…it’s wonderful to be reminded in this way of the community that has always sustained my writing.Zoë Skoulding
JE: I often think that every poetry book should win an award, because each one is the result of such time, love and care on the part of the writer. Which poetry collections and pamphlets from the writers of Wales, of the past few years, would you especially want to celebrate?
ZS: There are many! However, I’d like to pick out Peter Finch’s The Machineries of Joy; Robert Minhinnick’s Diary of the Last Man; Nia Davies’ All Fours; Ian Davidson’s On the Way to Work; Rhys Trimble’s The Red Book of Hergest Ward, and Ann Matthews’ Home Turf. Fiona Cameron’s The Hen Wife is due out soon and I’m glad to have had a preview. The move of Oystercatcher Press to north Wales is very exciting – I’ve been enjoying Peter Hughes’s Bethesda Constellations and Lee Duggan’s Green.
JE: Is there a poem or extract of your collection that you feel is representative of it and you would allow us to feature here so that people can enjoy a taste of your work? Why are you selecting this piece in particular?
ZS: This is part of the opening sequence, ‘Adda’, and it touches on how listening was involved – whether to stories people told me or to water underground. It has a sonnet-like structure but a seven-syllable line that’s more common in Welsh than English. In English, it breaks the expected pattern, and that tension between moving and tripping up is one that interests me in the collection as a whole.
flowering at the mouth it
speaks its own name on the point
of losing it becoming
public at a safe distance
our mouths flower in a name
becoming distant to us
what’s vibrating underground
echoed in metal lids as
the town dips towards what it’s
forgotten what’s still there on
the tip of the tongue a rush
of kingcup campion bramble
in its stutter is what it’s
saying what it’s saying is
JE: As well as this shortlisting, what other exciting poetry and writing activities and projects do you have forthcoming that you would like to mention?
ZS: A Revolutionary Calendar is coming out from Shearsman Books this autumn – it’s a sequence of 360 poems based on the French Republican Calendar from 1793, which replaced saints’ days with dedications to plants, animals and agricultural implements. I also have a pamphlet coming out with Oystercatcher Press, The Celestial Set-Up. In my other life as a poetry critic, Poetry and Listening: The Noise of Lyric is due out from Liverpool University Press, and I’m about to start a new project on translation.
JE: Do you have any writing tips, hints, tricks or techniques to pass onto aspiring writers? If you have to give one piece of writing advice to those who are keen to write great poems, what would it be?
ZS: Read open-endedly, and think of writing like a continuing conversation with what you read – poetry, of course, but fiction and nonfiction too – whatever sets off new trains of thought. Because a conversation is responsive, it can surprise you and take you to places you weren’t expecting.
Winners will be announced on the BBC Radio Wales Arts Show Friday 31 July 2020 from 6.00 pm.
In Footnotes to Water poet Zoë Skoulding follows two forgotten rivers, the Adda in Bangor and the Bièvre in Paris, and tracks the literary hoofprints of sheep through Welsh mountains. In these journeys she reveals urban and rural locales as sites of lively interconnection, exploring the ways in which place shapes and is shaped by language.
ZOË SKOULDING is primarily a poet, although her work encompasses sound-based vocal performance, collaboration, translation, literary criticism, editing, and teaching creative writing. She is a Reader in the School of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics at Bangor University. She is the author of a number of poetry collections, including The Museum of Disappearing Sounds (Seren) which was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award, and Remains of a Future City (Seren), which was long-listed for Wales Book of the Year.Literature Wales WBOTY Shortlist https://www.literaturewales.org/our-projects/wales-book-year/wales-book-of-the-year-shortlist-2020/