Kathy Pimlott's delicious pamphlet, Goose Fair Night, is now published by The Emma Press. She talks here about losing and re-finding her connection to writing, the relationship between clear quince jelly and a fine poem, plus why the age of a poet is of the least importance
PJ: You've talked about there being a gap in your reading/writing of poetry - what happened? What was poetry for you before the gap?
KP: I read and wrote poetry consistently between the ages of 9 and 21. It was who I was, how I identified myself. I swam in it. It was how I understood and interpreted the world and myself. I loved the playful, clever silliness of rhyme and rhythm, the electricity of imagery, the nerdy attention to detail, the sexy, swoony tide of language, everything I came across through education and my own explorations, from Chaucer to Plath and the Mersey Poets.
Then I stopped, just like that. The everyday business of living and making a living took over and no-one else I knew was interested. I just lost the habit. I had my head down and my teeth gritted for a long time.
PJ: How/when did you get back into poetry?
KP: I had a false start around 30, thinking I wanted to write a novel. I went to a creative writing class at the City Lit and in the course of that I remembered that I wrote poetry – so I did, and got a couple of poems published. From that class I joined up with four other women poets and we met independently for a while until life intervened again. My proper restart was about ten years ago when I went to another creative writing class at the City Lit and, yes, remembered all over again that I wrote poetry. From then on I went to a series of poetry classes and groups – starting with Clare Pollard, a generous and supportive teacher who wears her considerable learning very lightly as well as being a cracking poet. As I said, I was well behind on my reading and do feel that it is still a great deficiency of both my character and practice.
PJ: Your poems often evoke strong characters - is there, maybe, a fiction writer in you?
KP: I haven’t the stamina, patience or discipline to write long-form fiction and I’m not good at making up stories. I just turn over the little nuggets that I see or hear about.
PJ: Your poem, 'On the Difficulty of Working with Quinces,' is so deft, so subtle, in its move from the domestic, private act, to an implied wider personal and social history - can you say something about writing that poem?
KP: Jelly-making is that much harder than jam-making as you are aiming to achieve a jewel-like clarity. Trying to do it with a clean hanky and a bit of string is really tricky and I was disappointed with my delicious but distinctly cloudy first batch. It’s almost impossible to resist squeezing the fat bag of pulp hanging to drip its juice. That’s the worst thing you can do. You need either an ugly specialist suspension device from Lakeland or to come up with a natty arrangement of coat hangers, which is what I do now, not unlike the Blue Peter Advent candle thingy, but without the tinsel.
And I was thinking about how I have to store all my preserves in a disgusting, mousey, outside cupboard full of miscellaneous crap, which is difficult to get to, especially if it’s rainy or dark. Nowadays larders are quite posh aren’t they? But they used to be commonplace. We had one in our ordinary house in the ‘60s and I remember when the marble slab was smashed up to make room for a fridge. So all those thoughts just swished around together.
The first drafts started with lines about fat prostitutes in the Red Light district of Amsterdam as I was hanging the bosomy bags in my kitchen window. I cut those and quite a lot of other flab after workshopping it in Mimi Khalvati’s fabulous Advanced Poetry Workshop at the Poetry School. I’m pleased to say my quince jelly is now clear. But I still don’t have a larder so I can’t just walk in and admire it when I need a bit of cheering up.
PJ: I enjoyed your pleasure in words as things, objects to be admired, saved etc - can you say something about 'Things We No Longer Need Words For'?
KP: The initial impulse may have been one of those old recordings you occasionally hear – which is how the poem starts - or it might have been an invitation to a launch from a publisher friend who specialises in books in languages that are under threat of extinction. Then there are those details of living which have disappeared, including those from our own pasts. I imagined remote island living – an island with ‘the one hill’ – and the words within a language that would be specific to daily life there. It’s all made up.
In other poems I use a few specific words from my own familial past, part of my idiolect. They’re still used today, just not in the mainstream, words like ‘chelp’ which is insolence, sharper, more reckless and chippy than ‘cheek’. You can hear that difference of meaning between the two words within their different sounds, can’t you?
PJ: The world of Work is in your poems – ‘Apprentice Cutter’ – this is character but also, almost documentary in its detail of the work – can you say something about your interest in the world of work, making visible skills etc that might not always be seen/appreciated.
KP: This is a poem about my mum who was apprenticed at 14 as a cutter in a clothing factory. It’s made up of little snippets of her memories and of the vocabulary of dressmaking which permeated my young life. It’s a quiet praise poem. She was a very skilled dressmaker until her sight began to fail. And she survived, as many working-class women of her generation did, a tough early life, but with a sort of glamour. For me, very ordinary lives are full of extraordinary detail. I want to celebrate them - and work is the dominating factor in working class lives, isn’t it?
PJ: How did you select the poems for your pamphlet? Can you say something about the process of selection and ordering?
KP: The two publishers I tried during their open calls both asked for ten to twelve poems as the initial submission. Aside from the short sequence about Enid, I thought that the poems I’d written didn’t really have a unifying theme as such so I just picked what I liked best. This was basically the 20 minute set I’d read at the Torriano earlier in the year, which had gone down well.
In the gap between submission and hearing that The Emma Press wanted to publish me, I actually forgot that I would need to supply at least as much again. Emma Wright and Rachel Piercy liked the Enid poems, which I had more of, so they formed one thread, woven through. I sent them everything I had that I still liked and we all agreed on what to include without any argy bargy. I did the initial ordering and then we finessed it together, just trying to balance one poem against the next in terms of weight, subject, style, in one case because the poem fell across two pages, bookended by what, for me, are the two key poems. During this process I wrote three more ‘place’ poems which were included so, by the end, the pamphlet was quite coherent.
PJ: Who are the poets that you return to, to read again, and again?
KP: I’m really boring. I return to Keats and Lawrence and Bishop and Heaney. I had such a long break away from poetry that I’m still catching up with everyone from the 70s, 80s and 90s as well as those writing today.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
KP: Mel Pryor’s Small Nuclear Family (Eyewear); Matthew Caley’s new collection Rake (Bloodaxe); and Donald Davie’s Articulate Energy (Carcanet) about syntax….. and seed catalogues because I’m writing what I hope will be my next pamphlet which is loosely based around allotments.
PJ: What would you say to someone who wants to return to writing or maybe start writing poetry with a serious intent later in life?
KP: Find a rigorous and generous workshop group led by someone whom you admire (or, if you’re very lucky like me, worship as a poetry goddess). Also try to work now and again with people who are doing things you don’t understand and which you’re not sure you like. Get over yourself. Read more than I do. Take no notice of the notion that beginners or emerging poets are by definition young. Value your experience. Write, share, write more and better.