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I hope you enjoy these interviews with the winning and highly commended poets from our 2022 award. Their work appears alongside that of the commended poets in the Spanish/English bilingual anthology Vo(i)ces II, out January 2024.

Sarah Leavesley

Welcome, Sarah, and congratulations on winning joint first prize in the Victorina Press Vo(i)ces Poetry Award for your poem, ‘Overgrown’. Can you tell us where the inspiration came from for this poem?

Thank you! I started writing it at a time when I was feeling a lot of loss, sadness and pain, not least at my own failings, the general messiness of love and it not being enough alone to make everything okay. I love nature, but gardening is something that I’ve never had any success with, though many of those that I love are keen growers – of plants, people and love. These all came together in imagining if only it were possible to grow the perfect heart… Impossible though that is, I do strongly believe that people live on through memory and the love they leave behind. Also, that in returning to the earth and air after we die, we’re present in the world that lives on after us.

You are a successful award-winning poet, and your most recent collection, Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic (Verve Poetry Press), was the winner of the CP Aware Award Prize for Poetry and was highly commended in the Forward Prize – huge congratulations! Are awards important to you, and do you have a personal goal you are striving towards?

The personal goal is probably the simplest part to answer: whatever I’m writing, it’s to make that piece the best it can be.

Awards are important to me. In part, with individual poem competitions where the poet is anonymous, that’s because this feels the nearest it’s possible to get to a response based solely on the poem, rather than outside knowledge about the writer’s background and personality. With collection competitions, it’s because so much is published these days, giving readers a lot to choose between, that it can be hard to stand out. One way of doing this, and helping books to sell well for my publishers, is through a prize; it’s far from the only way though.

For me, this is also all fuelled by my disability. I’ve had type one diabetes from the age of six and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel like I wasn’t good enough. Emotionally, this isn’t something I can shake, even if rationally and objectively I know that the one thing I really need to be good enough – my body – is never going to be so. Most of my writing is influenced by both trying to create beauty out of pain and also striving to create something good enough to make up for the part of me that will never work properly. Competitions are one kind of external evaluation of how well I’m managing that. But rationally, if not emotionally, they aren’t the be all and end all. For any poem that wins a competition, I think there are multiple others that might have won in a different context, with different judges, or even the same judges at a different time, as well as all the stunning poems that poets don’t ever enter into contests.

However, competitions, especially with deadlines and themes, can be a useful tool too in pushing me to focus on editing a poem that I might otherwise forget about, or not get round to working on, if I feel I can always look at it again tomorrow. I have some OCD and perfectionist tendencies, but I don’t believe a poem has one unequivocally finished perfect form. The potential for tweaking and re-slanting etc to create a different version is potentially endless. Success in a competition, like acceptance for publication, is maybe something that helps me to let go, and say, okay, I don’t need to worry about that poem any more, it has done enough – for now, at least!

And, of course, the other aspect of competitions is the prizes. For most poets, making money solely from their writing (as opposed to teaching, performance or an entirely different job or career) is a pipe dream, so every small amount earned or won from that is important!

Your poems have appeared on buses, as part of a café mural, and – my favourite! – Blackpool Illuminations. Tell us more!

I love poetry in unusual places, because of the uniqueness and also the possibilities this offers for passers-by and people who wouldn’t normally read poetry to enjoy it. The poems on Worcestershire buses, accompanied by my art featuring soundwave patterns created from some of the lines, was a local arts commission that I applied for and was lucky enough to get. The café mural was for a new café that was opening in Droitwich. I was approached by the owner, who knew I was a poet, and asked if I had a local poem that he could use. And the Blackpool Illuminations poetryfilm was my prize for winning the Wordpool Festival poetry competition that year. My poem was animated for the illuminations by two artists and I got to turn it on using THE switch used by The Stig, several Doctor Whos and other celebrities who have turned on the main illuminations. That was a very special night!

As well as a poet, you are a fiction writer, journalist, and photographer. Do you find these different creative endeavours overlap, and what do you like the most about each different form?

It’s a cliché but variety is the spice of life, and I think that’s true for me with working across so many types of writing and art forms. Of course, the downside is that there’s an awful lot more to keep up with in terms of publishers, networking, trends etc compared to concentrating on just one area. There are elements that overlap – the artistic eye, what catches people’s attention, the interest-hook, and the literary tools and techniques that can be used etc. At the same time, strengths in one can potentially be a weakness in another. For example, flash is typically the kind of fiction most like poetry in terms of the concision needed and the space left for reading between the lines. But longer fiction, especially traditional novels, typically needs a lot more details and description filling in.

What’s next? Do you have a new poetry collection on the way?

I’m not sure yet. Although my collection Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic was only published by Verve last year, it was mostly written well before that. My entry for the CP Aware Award Prize for Poetry was back in 2020. So, I do now have another poetry collection ready, and I’m also starting to look for an agent/publisher for a novel-in-flash that’s had some success in different awards. Meanwhile, I’m 35,000 words into a potential sequel to this. There’s lots of work still to be done on the latter, of course, but I’m mostly trying to go with the flow and needs of the moment in terms of what I’m focusing on.

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Virginia Ramos Poseck

(Answers translated into English by Valentina Montoya Martinez)

Welcome, Virginia, and congratulations on winning joint first prize in the Victorina Press Vo(i)ces Poetry Award for your poem, ‘The First of November’. Can you tell us where the inspiration came from for this poem?

The source of inspiration for my poem ‘First of November’ is in my hometown’s cemetery, the resting place of my ancestors. At the time, my son’s father – my partner – had passed away. It was September 4th of that year. I did not go to his funeral because I did not have the strength to do so. Many people went to pay their respects, he was a tireless social and political activist, a deputy when he died. We lived apart. His death left me bereft, alone in my hometown, where I live. Back then, I began to feel friendly souls coming to me, joyful, to give me comfort. Look at the green wheat, you can be as light as we are, they said. Be born once more, it is not long before we meet again in a new celebration of life.

And we sat on the edge of the roof of my house, ‘the cornice, cornice’, to bite into the apple of our paradise that was never taken from us. And so, sheltered by my books and utopias, on the shelves behind me, the poem was born.

You were born in Chile, but you have lived and studied in many different countries – France, Italy, Luxembourg and North America. Have these experiences provided inspiration for your poetry and prose, and do you think your writing has a stronger sense of place as a result?

As I began my life, at four years of age, I moved with my parents from my hometown to another city – for their work – and then every year we changed cities. During eleven years of early education, I attended thirteen different schools. This was followed by constant travelling around the world and studying. From a tender age, I excelled in literature. Because of the dictatorship in my country, my partner was imprisoned and tortured. The United Nations in conjunction with the Anglican Church of Luxembourg took us out of Chile and we were welcomed in the home of an English family. My son and I have kept great friends in those countries, right to the present. We returned to Chile in 1981.

I then worked to obtain a means of subsistence. I needed to keep a low political profile in times of persecution, to protect my son’s education and the safety of my family. I have a libertarian spirit, pro equality, social justice, compassion, respect for the dignity of people, animals, and nature in general. I expressed such concerns in the academy and among poet and writer friends. I attended literary workshops alongside my executive work with a Swiss multinational in Chile, for which I continued to travel every year, although I always spent time with my family and with my son.

As well as poetry, you write short stories, memoirs and essays. Which form of writing do you enjoy the most and why?

Poems are my favourite, they spring up on their own. They soothe my soul. They have innate musicality. I’m learning new techniques for editing them. Poems keep me alive.

I have enjoyed writing the research of my thesis, which was highly rated. I have not published the research, which is realistic and sober, for reasons of discretion. I am attracted by the interplay of semiotics and symbolism that connect me to the reader in the stories. My story, ‘The Destiny of a Free Woman’, which won first prize in La Araucanía in 2018, portrays me and my grandmothers. Having used the vehicle of ‘story’, my heart remains there. This is why next year, I want to write a novel, woven together as successive stories.

This is a difficult question, as it is so hard to choose only one, but do you have a favourite poet? If so, can you tell us why you love their work so much?

My favourite poet is one of the so-called French cursed poets, Jacques Prévert. He touches on love and war, like I lived through in my youth.

Two poems by Prévert especially:

‘Alicante’

An orange on the table
Your dress on the rug
And you in my bed
Sweet present of the present
Freshness of the night
Warmth of my life

I transcribe it because my partner recited it to me a little before the bombing of La Moneda, Chile’s Presidential Palace. Prévert’s second poem is ‘Barbara’ (a beautiful image of a woman in war, it says it all). I want to name a surrealist, Vicente Huidobro, as one of my favourite Chilean poets.

As far as Chilean short stories, I want to name Juan Emar, a surrealist writer. My favourite author of novels is Fyodor Dostoevsky and his book The Brothers Karamazov. I first read it when I was seventeen years old. I feel the human souls, in all their depth, portrayed in his characters. For me, he is the father of Christian existentialism.

What are you writing at the moment? Can we expect to see a collection of your poems in the future?

I am compiling my poems into a collection entitled It’s just a glow of rain on my feet. I think I’ll finish my book of poems first. My need to live requires it.

One by one, step by step, I am compiling my stories. Their publication awaits till 2024. And I am editing my two theses, which present the problem of neoliberal ethical language vs. codes of ethics of social responsibility. I think it is a duty to publish them. Possibly in the first half of 2024.

(Answers translated into English by Valentina Montoya Martinez)

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Mark Totterdell

Welcome, Mark, and congratulations on winning third prize in the Victorina Press Vo(i)ces Poetry Award for your poem, ‘Sussex’. Can you tell us where the inspiration came from for this poem?

Thank you. The poem is essentially autobiographical, about a very particular time and place. The title was originally more geographically specific. Somebody who knows the area might recognise the pub names.

Your work has received many previous accolades, and you were shortlisted for the Stare’s Nest Fledgling Award for your collection This Patter of Traces – an award given to the best first collection by a writer over the age of forty. How long had you been writing poetry when you were shortlisted for this award? Do you think there should be more awards for older writers?

I wrote poetry from childhood until my mid-twenties. A few rejections from magazines discouraged me far more than they should have done, and I pretty well gave up writing until I was nearly fifty. Four years after that, This Patter of Traces came out and was shortlisted.

It was good to find an award for older writers. One for over-sixties would be useful now! Having said that, I really enjoy open competitions like this one where the judges know nothing about the poet.

I have read several of your poems, and your writing demonstrates an innate understanding of the landscapes we inhabit and the way they shape us. The way we interact with the world around us is now a burning topic – have you always been interested in the natural world and environmental concerns?

I was always the small child collecting caterpillars. In adult life, during the period I wasn’t writing poetry I was involved in environmental activism. Poetry now provides a focus for my interests and concerns, though sometimes I think nobody would want to read my poems if I poured all my environmental pessimism into them.

What’s happening next? Is there another collection on the way?

I continue to have bursts of writing followed by periods when nothing happens, but I think I do have enough poems for collection four and have started tentatively to think about putting it together.

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Mandy Macdonald

Welcome, Mandy, and congratulations on receiving a Special Mention in the Victorina Press Vo(i)ces Poetry Award for your poem, ‘Three Postcards from Havana’. Can you tell us a little more about where the inspiration came from for this particular poem?

First of all, many thanks to Victorina Press for publishing my work! In the 1980s I lived for a year and a bit in Cuba, working as a translator. The poem came from memories of walking round Havana at night with a person I was in love with at the time. I found Havana a wonderfully romantic place, and fell in love with it – probably more than I did with any particular person there. Back in England, I later translated the poem, originally written in Spanish, in English.

I know you have lived and worked in Cuba and Central America as well as in many other countries. Is a strong sense of place important to you in your poetry?

Yes. To me, memory depends strongly on place. Sometimes, place is just a backdrop, in other poems it’s the subject of the piece. A particular memory from Cuba is of happening upon a huge pile of books – including lots of poetry – that a library couldn’t accommodate and that had been put in the street for anyone to take away. In Central America, where I was usually a temporary ‘consultant’ on human rights and gender equality, there was for many years a strong backdrop of danger, and much of that atmosphere has filtered into my poems from the various countries of the region.

You are a translator and editor as well as a poet and writer. What are the particular challenges when translating someone else’s work? Poetry is such a precise and personal form of writing, so I would imagine it presents extra difficulties?

That’s a question that would take a whole book to answer. The difficulties of being true to the original author are tremendous, and it’s a big responsibility to take on. Translating haiku into English, for instance, requires a whole different set of ‘rules’ and practices from writing them in the original, as well as learning to appreciate a very different sensibility. For that reason I’ve translated very little poetry. As a professional translator I didn’t often get to work on poetry; it was mostly documentation concerned with international development policy and practice. In Havana we got to translate literature once a month, and it was the most fascinating, but at the same time the most difficult, part of our work.

I understand you have an allotment? Does working closely with the land help focus the mind and inspire your writing?

Yes, of course. A garden of any kind is a place of peacefulness and a refuge from urban life, which is so tough, so depressing, so full of hostility and despair at the moment. I have some poems written explicitly about the garden or the allotment or gardening, others where gardening can generate imagery. But sometimes just walking round a garden, saying hello to the plants, or doing a bit of planting or weeding, can give me the head (and heart) space to begin writing or return to it when stuck.

What are you working on right now? You published a poetry pamphlet, The temperature of blue, in 2020. Is there another collection in the pipeline?

Very very slowly slouching towards a second pamphlet. The temperature of blue (available at http://bluesalt.co.uk/the-temperature-of-blue/index.aspx) is now three years old, so it’s time for me to gather material for a second one. No very clear idea of a unifying theme yet – and in the end the collection might not need one. But hoping to have a new publication ready by the end of 2023.

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Lee Nash

Welcome, Lee, and congratulations on receiving a Special Mention in the Victorina Press Vo(i)ces Poetry Award for your poem, ‘Cygnet’. Can you tell us where the inspiration came from for this poem?

Thank you! I’m delighted that the judges made mention of ‘The Cygnet’. The inspiration came from a poignant event, the funeral of a young girl who died of a brain tumour. The parish priest asked me if I could play my flute at the ceremony and I’d prepared ‘The Swan’ by Saint-Saëns, thinking it would be appropriate. In a classic case of Lost in Translation, it turned out that the family had chosen a popular French song, a piece of music that was more meaningful to them, which was totally understandable. What fuelled the poem was this jarring of registers, where piety (or supposed piety) and gritty reality were obliged to cooperate in the face of tragic loss. Mannerisms, ethics, dress code, etc were echoed in the choice of accompaniment, in the rejection of the establishment or ‘high-brow’. I sensed this cry to the Divine for consolation and reassurance and witnessed the response of tradition and Christian rites. Starting with the coffin as the visual hub, I then drew on the stark contrasts: the clergy performing their duties properly yet with professional detachment versus the raw, visceral, unreserved grief of the relatives, and the Catholic ideal or female role model versus the genuine and unaffected nature of a child. This is a fascinating area, I find, i.e. what religion defines as holy and why, and the grace that springs from the heart. I love the way the poet Danusha Laméris asks a similar question in ‘Small Kindnesses’: https://womensvoicesforchange.org/small-kindnesses-by-danusha-lameris.htm (This is one of my favourite poems! AH)

As well as being an award-winning poet, you are also a successful writer of fiction and creative non-fiction. Which writing form is your favourite, and why?

I’m hopeless at making decisions, so I’ll sidestep… Again, it’s a question of registers: writing poetry is an intense, quasi-spiritual experience where these hyper-real moments (such as the funeral) beg me to explore and express them. Fiction is a wild freewheeling adventure–I’m never sure where it will lead. Here, I’m more grounded and can relax into crafting the work in my natural narrative style. CNF is demanding and appeals to my analytical nature as I tend to be hyper-focused and hyper-critical when reflecting and composing. I go through phases, moving from received forms to Japanese ‘hybrids’ to prose poetry to fiction, and enjoy the creative freedom and the learning process. There are some surprising turns in the writing journey: for instance, in 2020 my Fish Lockdown Prize haiku won me a flash fiction course with Mary-Jane Holmes that helped me better understand this genre.

When you first have an idea for a piece, do you set out intending to write a poem or a piece of fiction, or does one sometimes morph into the other as the idea develops?

My fiction and CNF spring from a mental storeroom of ideas and the puzzles and happenstances of life. With poetry, I’m shooting from the gut. The impulsion will be an unusual episode or an emotional incongruence or injustice, someone or something awe-inspiring or awful. Or a perfectly ordinary instant that for some reason has a special ‘resonance’. So there’s a kind of energy or charge that sparks my poetry and there’s a more reasoned, intellectual process with regard to prose. This doesn’t mean that every poem or every prose piece works or does justice to the initial prompt–far from it. As an analogy, if you’re baking a cake certain conditions, timing and skill sets have to cooperate, or the thing fails. I’m aware that once the work ‘sets’ there’s not a lot one can do… There’s occasional morphing but I’m never satisfied with the (flat) results.

Your work has been published in a number of reputable journals, including Ambit and Magma. If a personal dream could be realised with a click of the fingers, and your work could appear in any publication of your choice, which would it be? (Mine is The New Yorker!)

The New Yorker would be fine! I’ve had some success with US journals and competitions and I’m just as likely to submit there or anywhere else as to the UK. My approach is eclectic – Plume, Orca and Brink are on my wishlist and I’d like to get into Rattle although I’m probably not on-theme or edgy enough. But in a way, that’s part of the challenge, to get out of one’s comfort zone, to pitch it just right. I made the top five for a prose poem about a motorised dolphin, so you never know… Tim Green is partial to haiku and haibun, and the monthly Ekphrastic Challenge and weekly Poets Respond are worth a shot.

What’s next? Are you currently working towards a collection of short stories or poetry?

I considered a second poetry pamphlet to follow Ash Keys (Flutter Press, 2017) but realised there wasn’t quite enough material to make a coherent whole. Putting that aside, I focused on a collaboration with my mother, a visual artist. Our haiga project (my haiku paired with her hand-painted acrylic collage) is featured in Tangible Territory (Issue 5) and we’re thrilled to see our creations in several art galleries. Meanwhile, I’m actively promoting Un Rhinocéros en Opération Sauvetage, my French translation of Cleve Hicks’ A Rhino to the Rescue (Éditions Maïa, 2021). My next goal is a novella-in-flash or short story collection. I have a good selection of flash and short fiction in an off-beat/speculative vein, including ‘City Dwellers’ (The TU Dublin Short Story Competition 2020 Winner) and ‘When the Rubber Hits the Road’ (Bath Flash Fiction Award February 2018, Second Prize). So the search is on for contests and/or small presses that can make this dream happen.
@leenashwriting

 

 

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