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In Conversation with Charlotte Lunn and Sophie Sparham

In an exciting turn of events, we’ve managed to pin down not one but TWO of our amazing Verve Poetry Press poets, Charlotte Lunn and Sophie Sparham to chat to us about their newly published collections Metamorphosis and The Man Who Ate 50,000 Weetabix. Read below for their thoughts on pandemic publishing, getting personal and why they might be spontaneously breaking into dance somwhere near you…

First things first: congratulations to you both on the publication of your collections! How are you feeling?

C: It’s crazy. Bizarre. I’m still processing the fact that there’s an actual physical book that I created out in the world. I can’t get my head around it. How are you feeling, Soph?

S: Yeah, it’s alright innit? I’m pretty level-headed about these things but it’s wicked. Part of me is already saying okay, that’s done now.

You’ve already compartmentalised it?!

C: You’re just completely chill and I’m like an excited fangirl.

Is this because yours is a debut while Sophie’s is a second collection?

S: Oh, I feel like this is my first coherent collection, my first collection that makes sense. I was very young when I published my actual first collection. I was very angry… I feel like this collection is a lot more mature and just a lot more well thought-through compared to baby Sophie’s debut.

C: Aw, I loved your first one though! I thought it was ace!

S: It’s got its place, it’s got its place! But I’m a lot happier with this collection. Maybe it’s a time thing. It’s been a long while since that first book was published. Maybe in another year I’ll look at this on and think oh god! too 😂

How long has it already been for this one? When did the two of you write the poems that went into these collections?

C: I’ve probably been writing these poems for a few years now. Some of them were even written back when I was at Uni from 2011 to 2014 so it’s been a long time coming for me.

S: All my poems for this have been written in the last two years. There are some very recent. The title poem, I think was written two weeks before it was due. I knew I wanted to write that poem and I wrote and deleted and rewrote it so many times because I couldn’t quite say what I wanted to say. It was actually the last poem I wrote of the collection, I think.

C: That’s so interesting you should say that! I really struggled with my title poem as well; it went through so many revisions, and even now I still don’t know if it’s where I want it to be, but I’ve just had to let it go.

S: I think you get to a point where you have to think: I could edit this forever. You either have it as is or remove it—but I guess that’s hard to do with a title poem…

What has it felt like publishing a book without all the accompanying live launch and gigs?

S: I think Lottie’s publication date was very different to mine. She actually made a thing about it whereas I just painted my ceiling.

C: I loved that, it was just so Sophie.

S: It was the ceiling in my library so I feel like it was sort of relevant.

Oh, absolutely. Whereas Charlotte, I think I spotted you in a party hat on Twitter…?

C: Oh, that was such a nice day, because I thought I was just going to casually sign books with people at work, but it turned out my Scarthin family had put together this little surprise celebration for me. They got fizz and cake and flowers and I was like, don’t make me cry! It was nice to do something normal-ish after a very long time of having none of that.

S: It is really odd releasing a book at this time because normally, you think I’m going to release it on that date, yep, then I’ll read at that night, and a feature at that one but this time… the book comes out and you think okay, what do I do? I keep forgetting that it’s real!

C: I know, I know! I’m the same!

The infamous party hat and flowers. Cake and fizz not pictured.

Speaking of gigs: you’re both brilliant performers, and there is so much of that which comes across when you read the collections. Do you write differently for the page vs performance?

S: I personally think – and people might disagree with me – that a poem should work as well in performance as it does on the page. I mean, they are different mediums. When you’re writing for the page you know the person will have more time with the text plus all the added tools of shape and form which can add so much meaning but… I also just love watching people read and perform their poetry. There’s something so special about it.

C: Stuart actually brought this up in our last meeting; he asked me, do you consider yourself a page poet or a performance poet? 

When I was back at uni I would have said hands down I was a page poet, and my lecturers were always telling me that my poetry was too obscure and I needed to consider my audience… it was only when I started performing my work in 2018 that it opened me up to a new way of seeing and writing my work. It sort of unconsciously influenced my work, and I think my rhythm got better from that point on and my work became more accessible. I’d probably say both are really important,  and now when I write work I don’t set the aim to write a page poem or a performance poem it just flows as it is with a bit of both.

Helen Mort, in her forward for Sophie’s collection, writes that her poems ‘speak in their own accent’. I feel like that’s true for both of you.

C: Whenever I read Sophie’s poetry, I always read it in Sophie’s voice. I love it.

S: The book is very Derbyshire and that’s exactly what I wanted. The voices of the people I was writing, I wanted them to be Derbyshire. I actually went to go meet the guy who wrote the Derbyshire Dictionary, very early on in the writing process. We’d talked over email but I think he got a shock when he opened his door to see me. Probably thought who is this ragtag woman? Once we got chatting he was dead nice but I do remember him saying are you a poet? I’ve not heard of you.

C: Cheers, mate. 😂

S: Nothing like it to keep your ego in check.

There are a lot of things about your books that feel like they have some synergy – have you read each other’s collections yet?

C: Not yet!

S: We’re swapping books tomorrow! But we know each other’s work and I’d agree. I’ve seen Charlotte perform many times (every time wonderful, Charlotte) and I can say there’s definitely some crossover. We both discuss mental health issues and we both come under the beautiful LGBT+ spectrum. We’re both very people-focussed.

I read them back to back and spotted that there’s a poem in Metamorphosis called Upbringing and a poem in 50,000 Weetabix called Down Bringing, so there’s defnitely something going on there.

S: That’s so weird!

C: Really weird! That’s magic. Poetry magic.

One thought I had while reading was that the masks in Metamorphosis and the characters in 50,000 Weetabix worked in a similar way. Would you agree?

C: I had to have a long hard think about this one. My collection is so much about my own personal journey with mental health and abuse. I think when I was younger, I did have to almost wear a mask and supress a lot of who I was in order to survive but I think as the poetry collection progresses, the mask starts to lift. The true selves and the anger comes out and the voice gets stronger.

S: For me, a lot of what I wanted to look at was what’s expected of us as people in small towns and villages, what we’re meant to do and how we’re meant to live versus what our actual dreams and desires are. I wanted to talk about the expectations of masculinity – the expectations of anything – and that’s where the mask thing comes into it for me. People have their societal self and their true self and they show different aspects of themselves in different relationships; that’s something that really interests me.

Helen wrote in her forward for you that youlet people and places be themselves instead of using them in the service of art’.

S: Well, there are a lot of people I write about in the collection that I know. They’re people I’ve seen and interacted with. You want to write about people compassionately and with empathy. You don’t want to turn them into characitures. I really don’t want to say this person is good, this person is bad I just want to show what I’ve seen without putting prejudgments on anyone.

You’ve already touched on this a little, Charlotte, but can you tell us a little more about how you navigate the boundaries of personal and public when you put so much of yourself and your experiences into your work?

C: That’s a good question. My work has always been personal, just because I found it so cathartic to write about my own experiences. In terms of the boundary between he public and the private, I don’t think I share anything I don’t want to but at the same time I do try to push that boundary. I talk about things like abuse and mental health and I am really keen to break the stigma around those subjects, and I know the only way I can do that is by talking about my own experiences.

S: My response to that question is: some of it’s my truth, some it’s other people’s truth and you’ll never know which one’s which.

Do you ever have people get overfamiliar with you because they feel they know you through your work?

S: You get people crying and hugging you – my first collection especially connected with a lot of people – but that’s all part of the territory 😅

C: It’s your duty as a poet to give out those free hugs! If you devastate them, you have to make up for it. I’d say, I’ve definitely connected with a lot of people because of my work. I wouldn’t say anybody’s ever gotten too overly familiar but then I’m probably the one being weird and overly friendly, anyway.

That feels like a normal side effect of the atmosphere at poetry nights: Strangers one minute and sobbing in each other’s arms the next.

C: Absolutely.

Sophie signing copies of her book in her local indie bookshop, Bearded Badger Books

That brings us pretty nicely to our next question. Both of you thank your poetry community in the acknowledgments of your collections. Can you say a bit more about the role they’ve had in your work and your life?

S: I mean, poetry community is everything, you know? I don’t think I’d have got to half the places I have without it. It makes such a difference to have someone to share work with, and just to have friends who read poems is amazing. To be able to go to different nights and know that even if you turn up alone, you’ll always find someone to wlecome you in and talk to you… it’s a really beautiful thing. Writing is a very solitary task, so I think it makes a real difference to have a community around you.

C: Absolutely. I totally agree with Sophie. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the poetry community. That’s really where everything started for me,  after uni. I was attending poetry nights for ages before I actually gained the courage to perform but I always got the vibe that everyone was really friendly and really supportive and eventually that made me feel like I could share my work as well. It’s like Sophie says, you can always go to a poetry night on your own and find someone there that’ll be nice and have a chat with you and it’s just really uplifting and it truly helps people grow. I would say I’ve made some lifelong friends from the poetry community, this one being one of them!

S: Thank you, thank you. And the thing about poetry and writing in general which I think is so good is that everyone comes from a different background, culture, wherever it doesn’t matter. The mixes of people that come to poetry nights is beautiful and you meet people that you would maybe never come across or socialise with in any other situation. Which, I mean… that’s got to be good, ent it?

It’s great. We see it at the festival every year.

C: I’m dying to get to one!

S: They are very good.

C: Do you want to come with me next year? 👀

S: Yes! Poetry trip!

Dance break, caught on camera

We will see you then! In the meantime, what will you be up to? Anything coming up you’d like to plug?

C: [Dance break]

Yes! Our double book launch extravaganza is coming up!!

No, really?!

C: It’s going to be a poetry party, I’m getting ready for it now.

S: She’s hyped! And I will be hyped too, closer to the time.

C: I feel like Sophie’s dancing too, on the inside, she’s just trying to keep her composure.

S: Absolutely.

C: I’ve got a few other things coming up too but I’m not sure I can say anything yet.

S: Me too. I’ve got a dentist appointment coming up, that’s pretty much all I can talk about.

Fantastically cryptic, thank you.

A huge thank you to both Charlotte and Sophie for taking the time to sit and chat with us. Tickets are live for their launch event on the 28th of May and of course, their collections Metamorphosis and The Man Who Ate 50,000 Weetabix are available to buy from our bookshop.

Charlotte’s Socials

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Geraldine Clarkson

‘I think possibly that what I write comes out differently for having been suppressed, there’s more of a pressure to it—and, when it does emerge, it’s maybe colliding with a different world from the one in which the material was laid down – in the manner of geological layers, perhaps!’

Geraldine Clarkson is from the UK Midlands, with roots in the West of Ireland. She has three poetry chapbooks, including a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice and a Laureate’s Choice. Her work has  featured in many anthologies including Furies: A Poetry Anthology of Women Warriors (For Books’ Sake, 2014) and Witches, Warriors, Workers: An anthology of contemporary working women’s poetry (Culture Matters, 2020).

She has performed poems at the Royal Albert Hall, broadcast for the Proms Extra Lates on BBC Radio 3, and also at several festivals, the Poetry Society AGM, and at poetry venues in London, New York, Dublin and Edinburgh. Her first full collection was with Monica’s Overcoat of Flesh, Nine Arches Press 2020.

CRUCIFOX

Crucifox is more a state of mind than a particular creature or person. The collection circles rebellion, emergence from disappointment and fasting, new beginnings, recreation following destruction; soulwork; inspiration and the act of writing itself.

There is a focus on female desire and feral impulses behind polite exteriors; assumed responsibilities and pre-packed creeds; the role of women within close-knit community, the silent and marginalised aspects of women, their masking and unveiling and the stilling of their tongues. There is no shortage either of vermin and sleaze, crime, including murder; along with curlicues, cleaners, clowns, gambling, lotteries, and a lot of luck…

SAMPLE POEM

Before the flames came/Encounter 

When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, behold, a smoking firepot
and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the halves of the carcasses.  

—Genesis 15:17   

On a hill, I always thought, I’d have an encounter, woman
to God; or in the candled calm of some huge-statued
basilica, its sparkling dark. Perhaps at a tree-
starved shrine, with pilgrims stretched in crocodile;
or in bed—through the night—like in Psalm 63. 

Maybe via an angel, masquerading 
as a stranger. Or in the bath,
public or private—it’s not unheard of.

But—en la poesía—how could it happen?—
pen and paper prodding to prayer—to prepare.
Just as father Abram—with promise of offspring
plenty as stars—offered sacrifice:

animals caught, blood-let, slaughtered, halved, set out in a line. 

'Geraldine Clarkson's exuberant poems continually delight with their striking originality and linguistic panache. I never know where her often whimsical, at times surreal narratives will take me, but I always enjoy the journey.'
Carrie Etter

MONICA'S OVERCOAT OF FLESH

Geraldine’s debut collection Monica’s Overcoat of Flesh was published by Nine Arches Press in 2020. Richly detailed and formally audacious, the collection is an exploration of enclosure and freedom, of silence and music, and of the impermanence and wonder of the flesh.

These poems contain the uncontainable; spellbound and courageous, they roam from South American monasteries to the shorelines of memory and the truth-towers of the self, surveying matters of faith, being, tragedy, and womanhood.

'Geraldine Clarkson's poems are musical, often playful incantations that delight in the power of words. Formally inventive and vivid with natural imagery.'
Carol Ann Duffy

Geraldine’s poem ‘The Fainting Room’, which features in her pamphlet Crucifox, was performed by Rebecca Hare for Live Canon and shortlisted for the Live Canon International Poetry Prize 2018.

CHAPBOOKS

Declare (Shearsman, 2016)
Dora Incites the Sea-Scirbbler to Lament (Smith|Doorstop, 2016)
No. 25 (Shearsman, 2018)
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Annie Fan

‘I hope, and I think any poet hopes, really, that this pamphlet is playful — with gender, language and inheritance, with things shared and things solitary.’

Annie Fan reads law at Oxford University where she was President of the Poetry Society. Her work has been broadcast by BBC Radio 3 and appears, or will appear, in Poetry London, PN Review and The London Magazine, among others. She is a Barbican Young Poet, a shadow trustee at MPT Magazine and has recently been accepted on the Ledbury Poetry Critics Programme.

WOUNDSONG

Annie Fan’s astonishing debut pamphlet interrogates the wound as a symbol of fertility, girlhood, queerness and immigrant identity: what does it mean to puncture, to cleave another person? Does a wounding have to be violent? In what ways can a wounding be tender? Can we speak to our wounds? Can they speak back? Do we inherit our wounds? Are there male wounds and female wounds? Is gender a wounding? How do we imagine our wounds in our dreams?

These poems feel fresh and inquisitive both formally and in terms of their contents. They herald a wonderful new voice in poetry.

SAMPLE POEM

Self Portrait with Rain
 
1.
These are the things I grew myself,
maddening green from soil, scraping
silt from the backs of wrists
like some sacred deposit. In summer,
I’ll pull away clementines the size
of a fist and spit out pips all over
the lawn, heaving with moss
like thick clumps of hair in the shower.
 
2.
I spend lifetimes washing,
find my hands over and over as I scrub
turnips, the early cherries, potatoes
damp with musk and leave them
on cool counters, open the windows
to each storm. I say: go away,
I do not want your dark water or
men in long coats; I can’t swallow
your measure or find enough
pillboxes to hold the pebbles.
 
3.
Today, I press my chin to the ledge
of the window and unearth
my arms and hands, stained from damson
picking. The rain doesn’t stop. But,
somewhere: dawn and the hum of hollowing
seeds planted in dry weather, like a sigh
or shout or song for when the sky
breaks open and gives out
something kinder than light.
‘Annie Fan’s poems have a rare knack for balancing between vulnerability and assurance as they navigate such diverse histories as Kepler’s discoveries, a faraway famine, or the last days of Empress Wu Zetian. Bravely troubled by questions of difference and desire, they trouble us too – as all the best poems do '
Theophilus Kwek

TOWER POETRY COMPETITION 2018

Annie won the Commended prize in the 2018 Tower Poetry competition with her excellent poem about sisterhood and mathematics,  ‘How to Invert a Hyperbolic Function’ which features in her debut pamphlet Woundsong.

More from Annie!

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Meryl Pugh

‘This long prose poem came out of nowhere, dream-like – but as I shaped it, I found it pointed to what is real and social: Western cisgender womanhood, heterosexual marriage and the negotiations of privilege.’

Meryl Pugh lives in East London and teaches for Poetry School and the University of East Anglia.  Her first full collection, Natural Phenomena (2018, Penned-in-the-Margins) was a Poetry Book Society Spring Guest Choice, a Poetry School Book of the Year, Highly Commended in the Forward Prizes and long-listed for the 2020 Laurel Prize.

WIFE OF ORISIS

Wife of Osiris is a a pamphlet-length prose poem which considers the ambivalent privilege of heterosexual marriage via the Egyptian myth of Osiris. It asks what happens to good intentions in unequal romantic contracts and where loyalty, wonder and tenderness are best placed in misogynist, violent or indifferent environments. This is an exciting new work from Meryl, wonderfully realised.

SAMPLE POEM

She walks in light pyjamas through groups of people holding wine glasses, under arches, over paving, through lobbies and foyers and atria; she is looking for her street, her flat. The concert is about to begin, there are smiles, but she has gone the wrong way and feels stupid. She is not going to the concert.

The wife of Osiris is too bright and hard for this place, she bursts out through the double doors into the night, she begs her god’s fire to come out of the sky and take her. But the street light is still the street light, the young glance nervously, there is no one here who wants her or who she wants. And her husband, who knew it would be this way, is still absent.

PREVIOUS PUBLICATIONS

Relinquish (Arrowhead Press, 2007)
The Bridle (Salt, 2011)
Natural Phenomena (Penned in the Margins, 2018)
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Charlotte Lunn

‘There’s still a large stigma around mental health and emotional abuse. The purpose of Metamophosis is to shift perspectives on these subjects and provide a safe space for people to go on their own healing journey and find their voice.’

Charlotte Lunn

Charlotte is a poet, bookseller and workshop facilitator. After studying creative writing at The University of Derby, she became the Events Co-ordinator at Scarthin Books and has regularly reviewed books for BBC Radio Derby. She has featured at poetry nights across the midlands. When she’s not writing, you can find her in a pile of snacks, on a yoga mat or part way through a cup of tea.

METAMOPHOSIS

Metamorphosis is ‘feeding us to the years we are not yet ready for’, the healing years. A transcendence through abuse which is both about human connection and a connection to nature. Influenced by Plath and spoken word, Charlotte explores her repressed childhood, mental health illness and the journey to recovery.

SAMPLE POEM

Who are you today?  

In front of this mirror,
I am faceless,
different masks hang
on the wall, I

must choose one to
wear for
the rest of the day. 

A piece of scalp
and jawbone are
missing from one face,

   another, its mouth
cleaves to the side
an expression unable

to bear much
at all, I choose the
last face, the one
that is perfect,

the one that has not
yet been harmed,
the one that is not

really mine. 

’Charlotte Lunn’s poetry is powerful, thought-provoking and incredibly honest. A rising star on the spoken word scene in the East Midlands, Charlotte’s work touches on themes of love, loss, the body and the mind, and she writes with warmth and sensitivity that few can replicate. In this dazzling first collection, Charlotte takes the reader to difficult places, but her poems remain hopeful and uplifting at their core. I ’ve been excited for this collection for ages, and it’s every bit as good as I was hoping!’
Leanne Moden

TALES OF DERBY WOMEN PAST

First produced between April and October 2020, Tales of Derby Women Past is a poetry project documenting the unheard and seldom-told stories of women throughout the history of Derbyshire. Charlotte was one of Derbyshire poets commissioned to write and perform a piece under the guidance of She Speaks UK

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Shazea Quraishi

Writing for me is about discovery, and there has to be some truth for it to be meaningful. ‘Authentic’ is a word we hear a lot – but it’s important with writing, especially poetry.

Shazea Quraishi

Shazea Quraishi is a Pakistan-born Canadian poet and translator based in London. An alumni of The Complete Works I, her first pamphlet,The Courtesans Reply, was published by Flipped Eye in 2012 andThe Art of Scratching, her first book-length collection, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2015.Her poems have appeared in UK and US publications including The Financial Time, Poetry Review and most recently The Hudson Review & New England Review.

THE TAXIDERMIST

Brand new and long-awaited poetry from this elegant and meticulous poet.

What has the body of a white mouse to show us?
What is art?
And how can we live with death?

The contemplative and poised poems in this collection tackle the vast questions of life and art. Their simplicity is beguiling, their vocabulary – hypnotic, as tiny details build slowly, calmly, to create a vision as broad as existence itself.

The Taxidermist is Shazea Quraishi’s first published collection of poems since her 2015 debut full collection The Art of Scratching (Bloodaxe Books).

SAMPLE POEM

Day 3  

Sunrise
the highest tree in the garden is the first to be lit
Birds come   one orange-red bellied   another bright-
yellow black-headed   black wings tipped with white
and another   a pair
Sky blue as the bucket by the tap
air cool   an ant crosses her foot
  bees in the lavender bush

A bird perches in a leafless tree
dun-coloured   long-tailed quiet
watches her watching
preens under its wings

Here   the other side of the world grass looks different
earth bleached by sun   flowers blaze
air smells   how to describe it   orange

'There’s so much life buzzing through the pages, I was left in no doubt this is a fascination with life, not only its end.'
Charlotte Gann

THE ART OF SCRATCHING

Taking inspiration from sources including historical and medical texts, curator’s notes and the Complete Kama Sutra, Shazea’s first collection explores love and loss through a range of voices: an Iraqi mother holds her fragile son; under the guise of ardour, a courtesan searches a client for signs of the woman she loves; a wife is unsettled by her husband’s new family…

The Art of Scratching includes The Courtesans Reply, a sequence written in response to the Caturbhani, four plays written around 300 BC on the life of courtesans in India.

Shazea Quraishi’s first collection reveals the poet’s flair for re-imagining and feminising historical texts, and for inventing her own edgy fables of family life and childhood.’
Carol Rumens
The Guardian
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Sophie Sparham

“I gave up everything to write and perform. I gave up my career, my nine-to-five wage and worked three part-time jobs where I had less responsibility so I could have more time to write and trial workshops. I regret nothing!!!!! This is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.”

Sophie Sparham is a writer from Derby. She has written commissions for BBC Radio 4, The V&A and The People’s History Museum. 

Sophie co-hosts the poetry night ‘Word Wise’ which won Best Spoken Word Night at the 2019 Saboteur Awards. Last year she became the first poet to perform at the metal festival Bloodstock Open Air.

THE MAN WHO ATE 50,000 WEETABIX

‘If I was asked to make a film of my life / I’d capture every unextraordinary moment.’

Beth’s astonishing debut collection  takes the umbrella theme of the smile and shares it out – with great generosity and care – among a multiplicity of subjects, moods and meanings. Smiles can be brave, shy, sad, or a lighthouse beam of joy. They can be a mess of countless other things.

This subject seems so appropriate to a poet whose presence, way of reaching out to every member of her audience, and most of all her smile, seem to create smiles all around her. Her leaps of imagination take the breath away. Her use of recurring imagery draws a safety-net of light around her listeners and readers.

Some of the smiles that inspired poems in this collection are contributed by people whom Beth has met on her adventures with The Poetry Machine. These poems are worthy of your great attention. We dare you not to smile as you read.

SAMPLE POEM

Sunrise Over Aldi

It won’t always be like this, somewhere
boys will put down their postcodes and weep
into tracksuits, step over double yellow lines
and loiter with one another. On the south side
of the city a mother will embrace her daughter
for the first time, try on her new name and
find that it fits her lips. Caroline she will say,
Caroline, Caroline, you look beautiful. 
It won’t always be like this, somewhere
a seventy-year-old bird watcher will buy a motorbike
and find that he too can fly, a black woman
will show a mixed-race girl how to tie a headwrap
and something in her heart will leap. Somewhere,
someone will utter the words; I love you,
I miss you,
I’m sorry. 
An atheist will speak Allah and smile at the taste
of honey on his tongue, the dead will climb out of
their graves and shake those standing in line
at the bank. Somewhere, you will look down at the
stars shooting across the duel carriageway and
decide to climb off the iron railings. In the shadow
of the service station, you will wait for dawn.

'I don’t believe there’s anything ordinary, anything commonplace about Sophie. In fact, since reading her poetry, I’ve come to believe that - in the same way that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just unsuitable clothing - there’s no such thing as an ordinary moment, only ordinary ways of looking. Reader: you’re in for a treat'
Helen Mort

SAMPLE VIDEO

More from Sophie!

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In Conversation with Shazea Quraishi

With her pamphlet’s six-month anniversary coming up as well as a guest spot reading at our upcoming launch event, we thought it was about time that we sat down to catch up with Verve Poet Shazea Quraishi. Read below to find out about what she’s been up to, what she’s reading and why climbing out of windows has become part of her daily writing process…

Hello! How are you doing? What have you been up to since we last heard from you?

I’ve been working on my next collection.  And I’ve been translating poems by Susana Chavez, a Mexican poet and journalist who was murdered in 2011.  I spent February in Mexico last year, on an artist residency to work on that.  I’ve also continued to teach with the Poetry School & work as an artist in residence with Living Words.  I’ve been lucky enough to have work to sustain me during this difficult plague year which goes on and on. Without work projects and deadlines, I don’t think I’d have got much done.

Wow! So it’s safe to say you’ve been busy. Have you had time to reflect on your pamphlet in the six months since its publication with us?

When Stuart asked if I might be interested in doing a pamphlet with Verve, it came at the perfect time.  I had been working on my next collection but felt adrift, and The Taxidermist gave me a way to focus on one strand of the story.  It also gave me a form – I used the number of available pages, and spaces on a page, as a constraint to work within.  I used white space to score the poems (3 spaces here, 5 or 10 spaces there) for pace and meaning.  It could have driven another editor mad, but Stuart was 100% with me.

We published Shazea's pamphlet The Taxidermist in October 2020

It’s amazing what a good book can do for you – whether you’re writing it or reading it! What are you reading right now? What inspires the writing you do?

I always have several books on the go (don’t judge me).

Never.

Right now I’m reading Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks to remind me of my time in Mexico early last year, Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole, Do No Harm by Henry Marsh (I have a deep love of medical memoirs), and a Jack Reacher novel as my comfort read. Poetry-wise I’m reading the latest Paris Review, The Book of Endings by Leslie Harrison, Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón, and I continue to dip in and out of Jorie Graham’s Selected Poems. I’m also haunted, in the best way, by Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic which I recently re-read – because of the way it blends story, drama and poetry, and because it is so humane, elegant and skilfully crafted.  I admire and love it.

That’s a gorgeously eclectic library – there’s a few to add to our list there. Speaking of drama and poetry, we know you write both—what would you say distinguishes the two for you?

*silent scream* I’ve been working on my play, The Jasmine Terrace, an adaptation of my flipped eye pamphlet The Courtesans Reply for several years now.  I had a rehearsed reading Upstairs at Soho Theatre in 2014, and had a finished version soon after that, but it’s not right. 

 

With poems, I believe you can’t force or fabricate an ending – it’s more something that you need to find your way to. Otherwise it feels contrived and doesn’t ring true.  I’m still trying to find the ending the play wants – rather than what I want.  I think the play has a question, and it’s not the question I thought it was, so I’m trying to figure that out.

It’s always a good sign when the writing process surprises you, even if it does mean more work. What’s your usual writing M.O?

At some point I realise I’ve been interested/obsessed with something for ages – years perhaps. This is how most of my books begin, as a thread running through the poems. I read widely around the subject, and things are bubbling away in the back of my mind whilst I’m getting on with life. So life and interest/obsession weave together. Research is one of my favourite bits – at some point I have to stop myself. Then it’s a case of getting in the chair and writing around it, through it etc.  Deadlines are the best motivators.

Shazea visited Pakistan to research and develop her play The Jasmine Terrace

It’s sometimes difficult to get that balance between organic inspiration and the necessity of structure to be productive.

Writing for me is about discovery, and there has to be some truth for it to be meaningful. ‘Authentic’ is a word we hear a lot – but it’s important with writing, especially poetry.  I like to get to my desk early in the morning when my brain is fresh, and before family life intervenes.  I write in a small shed which takes up a third of the garden and where I don’t get wi-fi.  Unfortunately our back door is broken at the moment and won’t open, so I have to climb in and out of a window to get to the garden. Luckily it’s not a high window.

Well you know what they say. If one door closes…

One last question: what’s next for you?

My new collection from Bloodaxe is due for publication next year.  The title came to me underwater, swimming at Brockwell lido, which is near my house.  Swimming is my happy place, especially in cold water.

Ooh, sounds exciting! We can’t wait to take a deep dive into that when it comes out. All the best for it and thank you for taking the time to talk with us!

For more from Shazea, check out her pamphlet The Taxidermist or her socials, and remember to join us as she reads alongside Sean Wai Keung, Rushika Wick and Elaine Beckett at the launch event for their collections!

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In Conversation with Sharena Lee Satti

Continuing our series of blog posts getting to know Verve Poets a little better, we put some questions to the wonderful Sharena Lee Satti, whose collection She we published in November 2020. Read below to find out what the collection meant to her as well as all the latest on her community projects in Bradford and beyond…
Hello! How are you doing today? What have you been up to since we last heard from you?

I’m doing okay, a little bit tired. It’s been a busy weekend celebrating International Women’s Day at lots of events. I’ve been working on quite a few commissioned pieces, one being for ODI Leeds — a poem about Data and the importance of accurate data being delivered to people that have very little knowledge about it. I’ve tried to simplify it with poetry.

I’ve been working on a few other commissioned pieces and I’ve presented my own radio show—which is going to be the start of something new and exciting with my new upcoming project that I am one of three founders of called Spoke.

Spoke is a non-profit organisation looking to raise the profile of spoken word and provide opportunities for people of all ages and walks of life to experience spoken word poetry.
 
Founded by Sharena in collaboration with Simon Pickles and Laura Baldwin, Spoke delivers workshops in a multitude of settings as well as running an open mic night on 6th March 2021and have lots more planned for the future…

Tell us about your collection She and what it means to you.

SHE is a very piece of me, of my past and my present, of my struggles and my survival. Its been my lifelong dream, goal, something I was so passionate about seeing, holding, reading, feeling. SHE is my proof that anything is possible if you believe it is. 

That’s beautiful 🥺 Did you have a particular writing process for creating She?

I’m a very free-spirited person, and with my writing also. I don’t really have a set writing process; I write what I feel, what I am inspired to write or what my emotions need to release. She is a mixture of my own experiences. I write with purpose.

The poems in She cover an already long career as an inspiring live poet, host and workshopper – it is obvious straight away that Sharena has produced a formidable body of work. Her collection features new work plus some selected poems from her earlier books.

Her poems are real, raw and honest, addressing issues such as survival, cultural-identity, life’s battles, self-love, body dysmorphia and many other subjects that people struggle to speak about.

Speaking of purpose… we know you’re really invested in fostering community around poetry—could you tell us a little bit about the work you do and why it’s important?

Everything I do is linked to poetry: poetry in schools, facilitating poetry workshops or events, sharing poetry, collaborations of poetry and other art forms.

Poetry once saved my life. It’s that feeling of owning your own words, your own truth, being able to freely express it and to be heard. I have seen the power of poetry and what it can do for one’s mental health and confidence. I’ve seen poetry change people’s lives and seen kids, so quiet, not willing to read one word, stand in front of their whole class sharing a poem they have created.

I heard my friend Abda Khan say: “There is power in words and you don’t know whose life you’re changing by sharing yours.” I’m a firm believer that poetry can change lives and it’s for this reason I’m so passionate about sharing and encouraging people to get involved in this artform.

We heartily agree. So what’s next for you? How are you planning on changing people’s lives next?

I’m not really trying to plan too far ahead, as we never know what’s around the corner (especially now). I’m kinda taking the go-with-the-flow approach, although I do have a few things I’m working on.

One project is Heroes are Teachers; I’m currently working with schools in Bradford, supported by Bradford council, encouraging all schools to get their pupils involved in writing a poem about their teachers. A little thank you to all the incredible teachers that have been so amazing throughout lockdown. They deserve so much.

Also Spoke, as mentioned above. Watch this space; it’s all very exciting!

Indeed it is! A huge thank you to Sharena for talking to us about all of it. For more from her you can check out her author page and for more about She you can visit our bookshop. Follow Sharena on socials below to stay up to date on all of her projects and, while you’re there, you might as well give us a follow too to find out all the latest from us and our poets 😉

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Natalie Whittaker

‘The thing that motivates me to write is a line or a sound or an image that I can’t get out of my head… The need to transform emotion (usually negative emotion) into something approaching comprehension.’

Natalie Whittaker is a poet and secondary school teacher from South East London. Her debut pamphlet Shadow Dogs was published by ignition press in 2018. Natalie is one of the London Library’s emerging writers for 2020 / 2021. Her poems have been widely published in UK magazines and anthologies; she was commended in the Verve poetry competition 2020, and won second place in the Kent and Sussex poetry competition 2020.

TREE

In Tree, Natalie Whittaker is writing about her personal experience of stillbirth and the mental illness that can follow such a traumatic event. It is a subject that is still rarely addressed in poetry, writing or conversation. That she is able to do so here, in eighteen intricate, carefully crafted poems, in a way that is engaging, communicative, distressing and yet also beautiful, is a testament to her abilities as a poet, her strong grasp on the power of language and the power of her imagination.

With these powers, she brings a harrowing subject close up and enables the reader to truly feel, to see, to understand, to share. It is a brave and necessary work, wonderfully and heart-breakingly realised.

SAMPLE POEM

the first week

Interflora deliver
three identical bereavement bouquets
white and green
within a week  the lilies die
their leaves spawn small black flies

in the kitchen  I put away the pans
and a blood clot pushes out of me
like a ragged rotten plum
into maternity tracksuit bottoms

the same night  my milk comes in
breasts are sauna stones  tears are steam
I slide cabbage leaves
into a maternity bra
go to bed  sweat into cabbage leaves
white and green
on the wall  there are small black flies

'‘Tree grows from a place of great pain – the experience of losing a child to stillbirth – but Natalie Whittaker’s brave, unflinching and ultimately redemptive poems find a way to make sense of such a devastating event. Through the poet’s desire to speak directly to her daughter, the poems stand as a memorial to a life that never was; in their preoccupation with time, with the passing of seasons, with the re-entry into the ordinary world after a great personal tragedy, they are ultimately a memorial to the preciousness and precariousness of life. This is a devasting book, but one that needed to be written – it is also one that needs to be read.’
Tamar Yoseloff

SHADOW DOGS

Natalie’s first pamphlet, Shadow Dogs, was published in 2018 by Ignition Press. They describe it as a collection of concise, haunting poems of suburban tales half-told, whose visceral and disturbing images are conveyed with unexpected intrigue. This is an absorbing debut delivered with acute, tender emotion from a writer who genuinely cares for their craft. These twenty-one poems herald a poet coming of age.

The twenty-one poems collected here are often short and restrained but, to steal from the pamphlet’s title, the elegant sentences and striking images cast enormous shadows, conjuring something much bigger than themselves. Because of the care with language and the sense of a lived life in these poems, they have long after-lives, resonating after they have been read.
Jonathan Edwards
Poetry School
More Verve Poetry Press Authors