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In Conversation with Jackie Wills

Posted by Arc, 20th December 2012

As the final post for 2012, I spoke with Jackie Wills, a writer with three Arc titles, about looking back and forward on the year's cusp.

What leads (or drives) you to write poetry?

I have attempted to write poems since I was a teenager, encouraged by my mother who was a great fan of John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins. I was born in 1955 and was 15 in 1970, reading Sylvia Plath, Geoffrey Hill, Dylan Thomas, the Liverpool poets, Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes and St John of the Cross. I had several friends who read poetry and aspired to write. So poetry has always been important in my life but it took me until my early 30s to try and write again after a degree in English and French literature. I was working as a reporter for a news agency in Reading, living in Guildford and there was a poetry workshop series at South Hill Park arts centre in Bracknell, on my way home. It was my treat for a job that had me chasing cruise missile convoys around Berkshire in the early hours of the morning - Greenham Common was on my patch. I signed up, the tutors were Matthew Sweeney and Peter Pegnall, and rediscovered a drive to write poems again, largely as a result of being introduced to the work of many poets I'd not read before. It's been with me ever since, only dipping from time to time for reasons that have nothing to do with poetry. In fact, rediscovering the pleasure of writing was one of the reasons I did an MA course in modern English literature, because I wanted to focus my reading of poetry.

How much do you see it as a having a spiritual or divine role?

The best poems go deep. I'm not religious but I know when I'm writing properly I'm in a different state. I'd never use the terms spiritual or divine to describe that state - meditative comes closest for me. As for reading poems, the good ones remind me of that state too and how important it is to being alive.

Poetry communicates human experience, the experience of the body and relationships. Czeslaw Milosz argued that spiritual questions canstill be dealt with by people who are not religious believers but that we struggle to find images of belief.

I ask that because, in Commandments, your last collection, you seed the 'commandment' poems between seemingly more commonplace subjects. And while you poke fun at the notion of 'commandments', I wonder what you consider the importance of religion and belief in daily life?

I know a number of people who are quietly devout and I respect the importance of their different religions in their lives. I was brought up a Catholic, educated in a convent and I rejected that convention when I was a teenager. However, belief is essential to life. I believe in many things! The commandment poems explore hypocrisy, fundamentalism, the weakness of dogmatic belief as well as alternative moral codes.

When Milosz addressed his belief in life after death, in an interview about the Polish poet Anna Swir, he said, "Personally I feel the dead are present and part of our lives, but being a modern poet, I am unable to put them in any imaginary space."

The Catholic religion, like most major religions, has formed its imagery over centuries. I live in one of the cities that was once defined as the most godless in the UK. Nonsense of course ... but think of all those saints, hell, damnation, purgatory, limbo, devils, the chants and the hymns - all of which I grew up with, infused with the delicious smell of frankincense, then think of the stories they contain. Even people I know who were brought up without a faith, turn to these sources of imagery in their poems, almost enviously. It's powerful, elemental and I wonder if the current return to nature as a source of imagery is the result of godlessness. Are some non-believers rediscovering animism?

What do you think is the role of poet in our society?

There are many poets, many roles. Carolyn Forche has championed the responsibility of poetry to bear witness. I think most poetry does that in its own way. Michael Longley has spoken about poetry shining a light on the lives of ordinary people and I hope my poems do that too.

A plumber fixes pipes and boilers, a poet tries to communicate experience and experiment with words. Perhaps a poet also reminds society of the importance of language.Basically, a poet's role is to write well, keep improving and share with as many people as possible the pleasure and scope of poetry. I hope I'm not misquoting Susan Sontag, but she argued that a poet's role was to create new metaphors for our time. I'll go along with that. Jane Hirshfield has said language discovers and creates itself through metaphor, and connects internal and external worlds. I think poets should be kind to one another, generous with praise, affirmative so we can be more confident in our role, too.

I feel quite strongly that poets should be independent, not too embedded in institutions or movements. But I'm perhaps being unrealistic. Academia has claimed many and put them in highly paid, full-time jobs, given them status and in return has its own expectations.

I guess, though, only an individual can decide what her or his role is and consequently it's probably always changing.I don't like to theorise about it too much.

How has your attitude or approach to your poetry changed over your publications?

I am more conscious of my ignorance, of the brilliant work of the past and the many poems being written now. I'm more critical than I used to be years ago but I trust the process more. I am less anxious if a poem doesn't work since I reached a point when I could barely write a thing and found my way out of it. My poems are becoming shorter, but tend to be more connected to one another. However, I find it hard to stand back and analyse my approach - if anything I take it day by day. I'm grateful if a poem suggests itself.

You were named as one of the top ten women poets of the decade in 2004 by Mslexia. Many of the other poets selected (for example, Deryn Rees-Jones, Pascale Petit, Catherine Smith, Polly Clarke) still mention this in their biographies, what do you think is the significance (or otherwise) of being on this listing?

It was the reason I was asked to be poet in residence at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in 2004 and that was very significant for me. I loved working with the Poetry Trust team. Their generosity and attentiveness gave me a boost at a time when I needed one.

As for the listing itself, I am still honoured to be in the company of excellent poets whose work I admire and whose work is widely read and respected.

You are a writing tutor for many institutions and as freelance. How does this fit with your creative work?

I am working much less as a writing tutor - I have two very part-time posts: associate lecturer for the Open University and visiting tutor at Goldsmiths college, University of London. My freelance work has dropped to almost nothing but I'm hoping I'll pick up some commercial writing and journalism very, very soon. In May 2012 I finished three years of a Royal Literary Fund fellowship at Surrey and Sussex universities. During this time I cut out almost all freelance work because the fellowships gave me a secure income. The moment I started I was able to write again after a significant block. It was bliss to enjoy writing again. Now I have to learn how to live on even less. Like many women, I have always fitted my creative work around paid work and looking after my children.

What are you working on now, creatively? What ambitions do you have for it?

I have finished another collection, Woman's Head as Jug. I'm waiting to hear when/if it will be published. If it isn't, I'll keep on writing more poems. If it is, I'd love it to be read and enjoyed by many people. I'd like people to recommend it to others the way I recommend books and writers to my friends. I'd like someone to be reminded of a poem in it, randomly, just as poems I've read pop into my mind now and again. I'd like people who read it to feel satisfied and surprised and want to re-read it. I'd like readers to get the same pleasure from it as I do from books by writers I love.

At the same time, I'm continuing to work with the artist Jane Fordham. Our collaboration is one of two people approaching the same topic. We don't illustrate one another's work, we use the same sources. We've been documenting our collaboration for several years on a closed blog - it was originally inspired by a collaboration we saw at Avignon between choreographer Josef Nadj and artist Miquel Barcello.

Thank you, Jackie