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In Conversation with Linda France

Posted by Arc, 8th February 2016

"A distinct, muscular and compact lyric power, with breathtaking but smooth transitions between the quotidian and the surreal." - Pascale Petit

Linda France was born in Newcastle upon Tyne. Her poetry collections include The Simultaneous Dress (Bloodaxe 2002) and The Toast of the Kit Cat Club (Bloodaxe 2005), a biography in verse of the 18th century traveller and writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Her two latest books are book of days, a year renga, with ceramic fragments by Sue Dunne (Smokestack Books 2009) and You are Her (Arc Publications 2010). Linda also edited the acclaimed anthology Sixty Women Poets (Bloodaxe 1993). Her latest collection Reading the Flowers, will be published by Arc Publications in late Spring 2016.

Q: As a child your father worked as the foreman of a paint factory. The factory exclusively made blue and yellow paint, yet your first collection was entitled Red. This strikes me as an interesting juxtaposition, possibly indicating rebellion, alienation or detachment. Does this ring true at all for you?

A: How funny! That's not a connection I've ever made...I guess on one level it was an assertion of difference, a conscious desire to look in another direction. But it's also a reflection of how much I was influenced by spending time amongst so much colour, how crucial the visual is in the way I interpret and appreciate the world. As a child I loved poking around this male domain (in a time before Health & Safety etc would have kept me well out of it), examining the greasy machinery and peering into these vats of intense pigment that looked almost good enough to eat. Where did it come from? What was I supposed to do with the knowledge of it? Wasn't my father a magician to make something so strong and beautiful? Of course, there's also a darker side - the chemicals in the paint were probably partly responsible for his early death and he never lived to see 'Red' published. I see now from an early age I was exposed to the 'man-made', what human beings do in relation to nature, to achieve their own ends. I've never stopped being interested in that - nature versus nurture - the difference between what we're born with, what we bring to the world, and what the world and the family we're born into brings to us: a process of cause and effect woven throughout our lives.

Q: In your poem 'North and South' the last three words are 'false compass points'. I love this phrase because it seems to highlight the origins of a poem - the feeling of being powerless over something. Did you feel this poem was a matter of surrendering?

Don't all poems come out of a degree of disorientation and surrender? For me the creative process is a dynamic mixture of freedom and discipline, letting go and taking control. There is a poise required, a balance, the impulse to occupy a place where contradictions are not just possible but necessary. However, 'North and South' is a seminal poem for me - the first time I tried to articulate what is one of my most significant experiences: our family's move from Newcastle to Dorset when I was five. The effect of that linguistic shift made a writer out of me - the shedding of my native tongue and the language of the hearth to try to belong 'elsewhere' snapped a root that could never be mended and kept me, like most writers, on the edge, always the observer, the listener. I wrote this poem after reading John Betjeman's 'Summoned by Bells', whose blank verse form it borrows, particularly the early section where he writes about his own experience of growing up in Highgate, early intimations of the nuances of class, and the importance of place in shaping a writer's ear and eye.

Q: Did you always want to write poetry? What did you want to do when you grew up?

When I was around 16, 17, I couldn't get enough of reading novels from the early years of the 20th century by mavericks like Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster. I thought then, persuaded by Lawrence, that the novel was 'the one bright book of life' - the ultimate form a writer might aspire to. Writing came very naturally to me and I experimented with different forms, but when I attempted prose, it always sounded more like poetry. Even the plays I've been commissioned to write more recently were conceived like poems. So I guess I'm doing what I must - although I keep returning to prose here and there to see if it will allow me to extend myself. Not using too many words has become a habit - whatever I'm writing, I need the touchstone of white space, the counterpoint of silence.

When I was at school I never thought that being a writer was an option. At our all-girls' grammar school we were channelled towards teaching or nursing, suitable occupations for females before the inevitable business of motherhood. It was ridiculously old-fashioned and I was in a constant state of fury and resistance, aware that the world had changed and women could demand greater equality. Although a rebel, I was quite studious (and very grateful for my classical education and some fantastic teachers) and particularly keen on history, so the profession I settled on imagining for myself was an archivist. It's interesting to recall this - being a poet is a version of being an archivist: saving what otherwise might be lost, creating order out of chaos, identifying the provenance of things.

Q: You've mentioned the concept of 'a poet's ear' and 'a poet's eye'. What advice can you give on cultivating these things? Can you be taught them?

These terms come from acknowledging the role of the body -'the one great poem', according to Wallace Stevens. The senses are Blake's 'doors of perception', our teachers. To bypass physical awareness and concentrate instead on the mind's wayward proliferations doesn't lead anywhere helpful - although I am very aware of its seductions. . Do I think it's possible to cultivate an awareness of the senses to bring to one's writing? Yes, but it's a very subjective enterprise, a different process for each individual, heuristic. There are no formulas - which is why Creative Writing is so hard to teach. It requires great motivation and application from a student. Immersing themselves in a poetic apprenticeship, the writer will find their own lines of enquiry to follow. All you can effectively impart are principles of craft - form, rhythm, rhyme, figures of speech etc - even if the writer chooses to reject these once they've gained a solid grounding. Seamus Heaney expanded on Wordsworth's idea that it's what you do in between writing that matters, the manner in which you perceive - that's what's called upon when you write. I've learned a lot from many years of Buddhist practice, the simple encouragement to pay attention and the almost constant failure to do so.

Q: Your first book Red was published in 1992 by Bloodaxe. You've mentioned some of the poems were written during the 1980s. Who was Linda France during the 80s? Where were you living? Were you hoping to get published?

The 1980s started for me living within the highly politicised squatter's movement in Amsterdam. This was where I decided that what I wanted to do with my life was 'be a writer' and have children. When I came back to the UK (London, then Northumberland), it was the children that came along first and the writing, in a new, serious way, second. Being back in the North East felt like a homecoming, a return to my Geordie roots. During this time we lived in a hilltop cottage with no road or electricity, growing our own food, keeping hens and bees. Living such a simple life, though rackety at times, gave me space to think and write, especially when the children were old enough to go to school. In the evenings I'd read and write by the light of a paraffin-fuelled Tilley lamp, always by hand, then type up endless drafts on a manual typewriter. I started off writing fiction as well as poetry but it was the poems that people seemed to want to publish and give me the odd prize for. A poem was easier to carry around in my head as I went about my day so I ended up letting the stories go.

It was an exciting time - poets like Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Jackie Kay and Michael Donaghy were doing the circuit. A different register of poetry was in the air - diverse, energetic and playful, talking about things everyone could recognise and it was a conversation I felt I could be part of.

Q: Can you say a little bit about what your creative process involves? Do you have a routine? A favourite time of day or place to write?

As a busy freelancer, my routine tends to be erratic and unpredictable - every day is different. So I've learned to write when I can, carving out days in my diary when I can engage in the sort of spacious contemplation that poetry seems to require. Living in a field, enclosed by a gate at either end, helps - I'm perfectly capable of creating my own distractions without the world doing it for me. I tend to be fresher in the morning, before the demands of the day and a Protestant work ethic kick in. I keep a notebook (also erratic and unpredictable) but when an unwieldy amount of pressure builds up, I make space to try and start the poem that seems to be being asked to be written. It's only because this fluid rhythm of working is the only pattern I can rely on and spans most of my life that it might be called a process at all. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to anyone else. Everything is so uncertain and liable to change, it's important to me to be able to write anywhere, at any time rather than depend on certain conditions or rituals. I especially enjoy writing outdoors, leaning against a tree or sitting on a bench in a garden.

Q: There is a real intimacy and a tenderness in your poems. Is this something you set out to achieve? Are you concerned with your readers throughout the writing process? Would you like them to identify with some of your narrators/speakers?

Thank you for saying that. I'm not conscious of striving for that effect although I like the sound of it. Quite often, to locate the right tone for a particular poem, I try to address it to a single person in my mind - that helps me focus my attention, stay in touch with what might be worth saying.

It does matter to me - the imagined effect on a reader - although it's impossible to second guess. People often surprise me with different interpretations of a poem from the one I intended. Even though I have my own viewpoint, basically in terms of what's important, I think most of us are pretty similar and can recognise ourselves in each other's stories. At the moment, in a media-hungry society, the critical thing is that, individually and collectively, we make time and space for the very specific depth and resonance of connection that poetry makes possible.

Q: Are there any poets' you particularly admire?

I tend to admire poems rather than poets, but lately, while I've been thinking so much about plants, I've really enjoyed spending more time with Michael Longley, Kathleen Jamie, Sarah Maguire, Vicki Feaver and Louise Gl├╝ck, all of whom write beautifully about looking at flowers.

Q: I've got a little soft spot for your blog 'poetica-botanica'. Has your interest in poetry and botanics been a lifelong one? Is there a meaningful relationship between the two subjects for you?

This is an important question for me - one I've tried to address, if not quite answer, in the new collection and in a prose non-fiction book I've been working on alongside it, called 'Botanical Road'. This charts my relationship with plants since childhood (growing up in a house with no garden and no books), triggered by the cards in the Brooke Bond tea packets. The Wild Flower series, with illustrations by C.F. Tunnicliffe, labelled with all their wonderful traditional names, stayed with me - lying dormant, like seeds, to spring up years later when I made the move to the Northumbrian countryside.

There's a great tradition of poets being interested in botany, from the contemporary poets I've mentioned and back to Marvell and Shakespeare, John Clare, Wordsworth, Erasmus Darwin, Vita Sackville West and D.H. Lawrence, whose poems I now believe are much more interesting than his novels. The pastoral tradition seems to be finding a new, elegiac expression in today's flourishing ecopoetry and powerful nature memoir.

Like food, flowers and trees stand for more than themselves. They are way of speaking about tradition and change, the nature of time, about so many things - love and family, class and privilege, war and imperialism, spiritual life, fragility and impermanence, hope and abundance. The list continues...

Q: We're all really excited for your next collection Reading the Flowers. Without giving too much away, can you tell what first inspired the collection? A thematic thread? A memory? A rattling phrase?

'Reading the Flowers' began life during a Leverhulme Residency at Moorbank, Newcastle University's Botanic Garden - now sadly closed. Spending a year there, outdoors and in the glasshouses, set in motion a Botanical Grand Tour that took me to Italy, Asia and Australia, as well as various points in the UK, to see how other Botanic Gardens worked and what grew there. Like an old-time explorer, I needed to go in search of the words to describe 'alien' plants and their habits, to shed light on ideas of Otherness - at the heart of so much of our current fragmentation and divisiveness it seems to me. Observing plant life, close-up, in diverse conditions, and recording my findings seemed like one small gesture towards conservation. The title is an echo of the linguistic overlap between 'reading' and 'gathering' (as evidenced in our word 'anthology' from the Greek anthos, 'flower' and legein, 'to gather'). In many languages 'reading flowers' has the same meaning as 'picking flowers'. Yet further evidence that poetry and botany are as inextricably linked as we are with the plants upon whom we depend for the very air we breathe.

You can find out more about Linda France on her website here.

Take a look at Linda's blog poeticabotanica.