Interview _ Emma Lee

Leicester is home to some of the most exciting emerging writers in the United Kingdom. One of these is poet, short story writer and novelist Emma Lee, who has had poems nominated in competitions that include the Forward Best Poem Prize. Other poems by Emma Lee have been published in anthologies, magazines and webzines and broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

Her short stories are proving to be just as significant. "Restoration," was runner-up in Writing Magazine's Annual Ghost Story Competition while "First and Last and Always," another of her short stories, is appearing in Extended Play, a new anthology of music-inspired pieces.

Emma Lee talked about her concerns as a writer.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

It chose me. I spent a lot of time alone as a child — I wasn't lonely, it's just a reflection of the circumstances I found myself in — and frequently made up stories as entertainment. Later I filled exercise books writing my stories and branched out into poems. Although I didn't call myself a writer until I reached adulthood and began getting poems and stories published.

Who would you say has influenced you the most?

At school we mostly studied the War Poets, Heaney, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Ted Hughes... which left me with the impression that either women didn't write poetry, which I didn’t believe, or that women's poetry wasn't worth studying - which was discouraging to say the least.

A friend showed me Ted Hughes's "You Hated Spain" and it spoke to me: I identified with the woman who hated Spain. After reading Ariel, Sylvia Plath had me firmly hooked. Here at last was proof women did write and were worth studying.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

Fifteen years of music reviewing have provided a rich seam of inspiration and some of my poems and stories have started from exploring a personal experience - not always directly, sometimes from overhearing or reading a news story.

What would you say are the biggest challenges you face?

Finding time to write around a full-time office job (necessary to pay the bills as writing, especially poetry, doesn't pay) and family commitments.

Poetry magazine editors are so generally overwhelmed with poems most are rejecting 98 percent of submissions, which means increasingly my writing time is spent dealing with submissions rather than writing new material.

How do you deal with these?

Planning ahead so that as much as possible of my writing time is spent actually writing rather than "warming up" and thinking about what needs to be written next. Taking advantage of any "spare" time — lunch breaks, waiting for appointments, etc. Ensuring that as soon as a batch of poems is returned by an editor, they are out again with another editor within a couple of days.

What is your latest book about?

Yellow Torchlight and the Blues is about musicians, the pressures of performing and relationships with fans and general hangers-on. It's also about relationships, loss and what makes people who they are.

How long did it take you to write it?

The publisher approached me with a view to publishing a collection of my poems. The poems within Yellow Torchlight and the Blues actually span 16 years.

Where and when was it published?

By Original Plus in Fall 2004.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?

Deciding which poems to leave out. Poetry collections work best when the poems are inter-linked in some way, perhaps by theme or subject, rather than merely being a collection of loosely gathered poems. So some poems that deserved to be in a collection had [to] fall by the wayside because they didn't fit in this particular collection.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Nothing beats seeing your name on the spine of a book. Giving live performances at, for example, poetry readings are great experiences as the audience give you instant feedback and reassurance. But a book says "you've arrived, you really are a writer."

How did you get there?

Persistence: building up a long list of publishing credits in magazines and competition successes plus a couple of nominations for the Forward Poetry Prizes, giving readings where opportunities presented themselves and establishing a reputation as a reviewer as well as continuing with other writing projects. Success breeds success: you are more likely to get published if you've been published and in poetry it's not unusual for the publisher to approach the poet - many presses won't consider unsolicited work. Initially Yellow Torchlight and the Blues was accepted by another publisher, but the publisher's sad, untimely death meant searching for an alternative publisher.



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