Interview _ Kathleen Bell

Kathleen Bell is a lecturer in English and Creative Writing at De Montfort University.

Her poems, micro-fiction and short stories have been published in magazines and journals that include PN Review, New Walk and Under the Radar and in anthologies that include Welcome to Leicester (Dahlia Publishing, 2016); Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) which she co-edited with Emma Lee and Siobhan Logan; and A Speaking Silence (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2013).

Her poem, "Testament: in an Embankment Garden" won the Nottingham Poetry Society’s 2016 Open Competition which was judged by award-winning poet Liz Berry, and her poetry chapbook, at the memory exchange (Oystercatcher, 2014) was shortlisted for the Saboteur awards.

In this interview, Kathleen Bell talks about poetry, micro-fiction and Journeys in Translation.

How would you describe the writing that you do?

I can’t remember a time when I didn't write so I suppose that writing is a way in which I need to respond to the world around me and to interact with it.

I write both poetry and prose fiction and sometimes the border between the two is pretty blurred. For instance, I’m not sure whether "Waiting", in the anthology, Over Land, Over Sea, is poetry or micro-fiction, and the same is true of another piece, "In The Tunnel" which was published as a poem in the Eyewear pamphlet, Refugees Welcome. I've never cared too much for borders so the definition doesn't trouble me much.

Apart from that, I do a huge range of writing.

In poetry, I like working in strict form when it suits the subject but I’m also happy to work in a more allusive and fragmentary way – I like to have a repertoire of methods. And, as well as short stories, I've written two unpublished novels which are still in need of yet another edit. I think novels are more different from short stories than short stories are from poetry, so that’s another kind of writing ... And then there are reviews, academic essays, Facebook statuses (and rants), tweets and other odd forays …

Who has had the most influence on you as a writer?

I assume by this question you mean other writers. As a reader I’m pretty omnivorous and I’m still learning – I hope I never stop.

I wrote my PhD thesis on Auden so of course he influenced me, as did the Greek poet Cavafy, and various Latin and Ancient Greek authors including Sappho whose surviving fragments do so much in so few words. I had a phase in my teens of being influenced by the satires of Alexander Pope.

Another day I might come up with a different list – and I’m carefully avoiding mention of any living writers. There are also many I admire who don’t influence me as a writer because I know that they do something that is very different from the ways in which I write. At most, I might observe a useful technique in a single poem and find it helps me years later.

Kathleen Bell's poems have been featured in anthologies that include Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) and Welcome to Leicester (Dahlia Publishing, 2016).

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

I grew up assuming that writing was a natural and normal way to respond to the world.

My parents encouraged me and my brother to enjoy all kinds of reading and cultural experiences, without the sense of hierarchies that middle- and upper-class people impose. So, we went to the theatre (in the gods, as we called the gallery benches) to see everything from Shakespeare to musicals and read all sorts of things from the popular magazine Tit-Bits to Plato and Borges. This isn't what people expect of working-class families in council estates but it’s what my family was like. I still remember Mum coming home with a Penguin of Borges’ Labyrinths and telling us that we must read it because it was amazing, and my brother and I, both in our teens, loved it. We also shared an enthusiasm for the volume called The Last Days of Socrates and I was very excited when later, at about 17, I found I could struggle through the beginning of Socrates’ speech in his defence in Ancient Greek. So, that kind of learning has infused my writing.

I don’t think of myself as someone who writes directly out of personal experience, on the whole, but of course there are traces of personal experience in my writing. It took me a while after completing it, to realise that my sequence of poems about stage magic was also about ghosts and bereavement.

Even when I do write more directly from personal experience, the experience is changed in the writing.

The fragments in the sequence "They Come For You to Buy and Sell" refers obliquely to events at the time when my father died in London and my mother’s dementia worsened, to the relation I had with memories which surfaced out of those circumstances, and also to a walk in Morpeth when I listened to people’s recollections of the past. I thought at the time I was writing that sequence just because I was compelled to do so and with no thought that anyone would read it so I was surprised when it found its way into my Oystercatcher pamphlet, at the memory exchange.

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

As a writer, I think there are only two achievements that matter. One is when a piece of writing does what you set out to do, and does it as well as possible. And the other is when the writing takes you on a journey and you end up somewhere you didn't expect to be at the end of the writing.

The latter is the one I like best because writing becomes a process of discovery ... in addition to all the important craft considerations, the music of language, the play with words, and so on.

How did you get involved with Journeys in Translation?

That’s all Ambrose Musiyiwa's fault. It started when he suggested a book of poems in response to the refugee crisis in a Facebook post and then posted his poem "The Man Who Ran Through the Tunnel" which made me see a news story differently.

I thought that poems might achieve two things: getting people to see refugee stories differently and raise some useful money. So I volunteered to co-edit what became Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge.

Which were the easiest aspects of the work that went into both Over Land, Over Sea and Journeys in Translation?

The easiest thing was getting the poems for the anthology – because people cared a lot.

There was a lot of goodwill connected to the project. I can’t speak highly enough of Ross Bradshaw and Pippa Hennessey at Five Leaves who put masses of hard professional work into the book: design, type-setting, proofing, etc. Martyn Poliakoff, who wrote the introduction, did so at about 24 hours’ notice and I seem to recall he sent the text to me shortly before midnight so that the volume could get to the printers. And then there were many people who hosted events or invited poets to read.

Journeys in Translation build on or stems from Over Land, Over Sea and encourages people who are bi-lingual or multilingual or who are learning other languages to translate 13 of the 101 poems from the anthology into other languages.

Also, my poem/micro-fiction "Waiting" is one of the 13 poems that is being translated into other languages.

Kathleen Bell's poem, "Waiting" from the anthology, Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) has, so far, been translated into Bengali, Finnish, Italian, Shona and Spanish as part of Journeys in Translation.

Which were the most challenging aspects of the work?

With the anthology we were working in haste in the intervals of our jobs. The roles I took on included sequencing the poems, and sending proofs to poets and responding to their comments.

I’m glad I did this. But I recall staying late in the office trying to work through the proofing amendments and muttering "Bloody poets" under my breath. This is a comment on my tiredness at the time more than anything else because, of course, every poet cares passionately that the layout is correct and that everything, to the last comma, is in the right place. It was therefore very important to get it all right – but very exhausting too.

In retrospect I’m really glad that the poets and I did this work of proofing. But it made for some long days.

It was also sad to reject some pretty good poems for the sake of the anthology overall. We wanted a variety of poems and some were just a little too similar in themes and images. I know that some of the poems we rejected found good homes elsewhere and I was pleased to see that. I think all the poems submitted spoke with real feeling and concern for the situation of refugees.

What would you say is the value of initiatives like Journeys in Translation?

I think that translation is a means of opening the door to new possibilities. Language is a wonderful thing but it’s only ever an approximation to perception, thought and feeling. This means that ideas and impressions work differently in different languages. So, when a poem exists in more than one language, its possible meanings are extended.

My poem/micro-fiction "Waiting" has been translated into several languages so far and I’m not competent in any of them. However, I noticed that the Spanish word for waiting includes the concept of hoping, which I hadn't considered when writing the poem. I rather like that ... though it remains unclear what the woman in the poem waits and hopes for, just as in the original it’s not clear how long she will wait and what will happen in the end.

Of course, the other important thing about Journeys in Translation is that it helps us all move across the borders and barriers of language. Here speakers of different languages are brought together in a shared project. Translation is about finding what we have in common as humans ... and in this project, it’s about sharing a common concern for fellow human beings.

Editor's Note:

Journeys in Translation aims to facilitate cross- and inter-cultural conversations around the themes of home, belonging and refuge.

The project encourages people who are bilingual or multilingual to have a go at translating 13 of the 101 poems from Over Land: Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) from English into other languages and to share the translations, and reflections on the exercise on blogs, in letters and emails to family and friends, and on social media.

So far, the 13 poems that are being used as part of the project have been translated into languages that include Italian, German, Shona, Spanish, Bengali, British Sign Language, Farsi, Finnish, French, Turkish and Welsh. Currently, over 20 people from all over the world are working on the translations. More translations and more languages are on the way.

In Leicester, Journeys in Translation will culminate in an event that is going to be held on September 30 as part of Everybody's Reading 2017. During the event the original poems and translations will be read, discussed and displayed.

Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) was edited by Kathleen Bell, Emma Lee and Siobhan Logan and is being sold to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)Leicester City of Sanctuary and the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum.

Copies of the anthology are available from Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham).

More information on how Over Land, Over Sea came about is available here.


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