Carol Thistlethwaite is a poet, a book reviewer and the author of Red Paint (Avanti Books, 2006), Painting the Bedroom (Avanti Books, 2006) and The Birthday Present (Avanti Books, 2006) which she wrote for adults who are learning to read.
Her latest book, from the field book, is a collection of poems about British bird species. The collection was written over a four year period and is going to be launched on March 20 and 21, to coincide with Earth Day, World Poetry Day, the First Day of Spring and World Forestry Day.
In this, the first of a two-part interview, Carol Thistlethwaite speaks, among other things, about the challenges she faces as a writer and about how she deals with those challenges.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
It wasn't so much a decision as an epiphany. A college lecturer suggested that I should be doing Writing Studies. I instinctively knew I was hearing something important -- something I hadn’t previously considered. I'd just passed the second year of my BA and consequently changed course to include writing studies. I went on to gain an MA in Writing Studies. I began sending material out to magazines shortly after starting the Writing Studies modules encouraged by my tutor, Robert Sheppard, and other poets such as Alan Corkish.
I've been published in many small magazines such as Envoi and Orbis. I send different subject matters and styles to different editors depending on what I think their preferences are. Fire, Poetry Cornwall and The Journal have been supportive in publishing my bird poems.
How would you describe your writing?
It's in the style that best suits the purpose. from the field book, for example, is exploratory. I enjoy testing the boundaries of language to express the inexpressible -- and still be understood.
The mental leaps we make are accomplished without words but I try to represent them by ordering word-thoughts and by using lexical groupings and multi-layered vocabulary to represent concentric ideas. I position words on pages and use their sounds to represent sensory experiences such as physical and eye movements and the sounds the birds make.
Who has influenced you most?
Hopkins for the way he distorts words to bring out multiple meanings. Heaney for the way he creates layers of meaning by using lexical groupings. Hughes and Pound for selecting words for their associations. Cris Cheek and others for their positioning of words on the page. And Hughes (again) for remembering to place creatures in their habitats.
I admire Colin Simms for his precise images of wildlife movement, innovative use of language, his joy of sound and the sheer excitement and enthusiasm which pervades his work.
Also there's a host of contemporary women writers who are feeding into what I might do next.
How have your own personal experiences influenced your writing?
As a 3 year old, I used to fill pages of paper with lines of squiggles and ask what they said. Always the optimist, when told, 'Rubbish,' I excitedly asked, 'Which bit of it says "rubbish"?' I enjoyed learning to read and loved writing: stories, poems and later diaries and letters. It wasn't until I was a mature undergraduate that I began writing for a wider audience.
I have always lived in Lancashire (in fact I've always lived in the same village) and many of the poems are written from sightings in my local area. There's so much on our doorstep if we only look, listen and cherish it.
I have a deep appreciation for wildlife and wild places. I celebrate wildlife as something 'other' and at the same time part of the 'oneness' of the universe.
I don't consider myself a birding expert. I couldn't have written many of these poems if I was. Some of them articulate that rush of thoughts and mental leaps that occur in the instant between information-in and recognition. Others are about the bird watching experience: the thoughts I have and the imaginative leaps my mind makes.
As a learning support tutor, I'm interested in how people learn -- and that includes me. For example, the first time I saw a green woodpecker flying off I was struck by how colourful (bright yellow) it appears compared to when it's feeding on the ground. My memory scaffolded it to a cabinet unfolding (dark on the outside but still bright on the inside). Quite a lot of the poems share this personal journey as I anchor the unfamiliar to something familiar until it becomes a familiar.
What are the biggest challenges that you face?
Time management. Juggling work and family commitments with making time for walking, writing and keeping an eye on what's happening in the poetry world.
I've developed the habit of making little pockets of time for myself such as taking a couple of minutes to enjoy the flexing necks of the siskin on my bird feeders while I'm having my breakfast coffee or refusing to think about work as I enjoy listening to a song thrush on my way to college. I get up early at weekends to fit in local walks.
Being a reviewer helps because it makes me take time to read and re-read contemporary collections carefully.
What sort of material do you review?
I've been the resident reviewer for Carillon for three and a half years and review mainly poetry. The number of reviews varies depending on what Graham Rippon (the editor) receives and the space available. I reviewed eight books and booklets for the last issue.
The biggest challenge is setting aside the time required to read the books thoroughly -- which means several times. I set personal preferences aside and write a response that is both honest and fair. I do this by switching into analytical mode. That said, I still find humorous books difficult. (Maybe that's because I have a strange sense of humour!) I dislike reading reviews that promote the reviewer rather than the book, and consider it a betrayal of the trust that author and publisher invest in the reviewer. It's stealing someone else's space.
Carol Thistlethwaite [Interview_2], Conversations with Writers, March 11, 2008