Interview _ Deborah Harvey

Deborah Harvey is a Bristol poet and novelist and is Co-director of The Leaping Word poetry consultancy.

Her poems have been widely published in journals and anthologies, and broadcast on Radio 4’s Poetry Please. Her fourth poetry collection, The Shadow Factory, will be published by Indigo Dreams in summer 2019.

In this interview, Deborah talks about her writing:

When did you start writing?

I started writing poems and stories when I was a young child and continued throughout primary school, but at secondary school the emphasis shifted onto learning for the purpose of passing exams, rather than exploring any creativity we might have, and eventually I stopped writing altogether.

Then, decades later, when I was struggling to raise four children and my marriage was falling apart, I had a very vivid, urgent dream, which seemed to me to be saying that unless I found a way of expressing myself, something important in me would die. So there I was, knowing I had to write poetry but not even sure what a poem was.

I started to write what came, though, and to read poetry too, and gradually the process became less agonising.

How and when did you decide you wanted to be a published writer?

My life’s ambition, even during all the years when I wasn’t writing, was to take up an eighth of an inch on a bookshelf somewhere, so being published was always going to be something I would pursue, despite being an introvert by nature.

I also believe that all writing, but especially poems, only really achieve their potential when they are in the mind of the reader; poetry is essentially a collaborative art, so sticking your neck above the poetry parapet is essential for the development of your work.

I found my publishers, Ronnie Goodyer and Dawn Bauling of Indigo Dreams, by winning a competition they were running with publication as its prize, back in 2010. My fourth collection, The Shadow Factory, will be published by them this autumn.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

I love the unique relationship with time that poetry has; how you can be walking along a line in a poem and fall through a hole into a whole new era or universe even. I’m mostly exploring that notion at the moment and it’s a fertile, imaginative place to be.

I write for anyone who feels they are on the edge of things, watching. I’ve always struggled to fit in with the expectations of others, and events in my life have only reinforced that sense of being on the outside of things. It might be painful at times, but I think it’s a useful situation to be in for a writer.

Which authors influenced you most?

Being brought up in the Methodist tradition meant I was exposed to poetic images, language and cadences for several hours every Sunday from a very young age. I used to love the call and response of psalm reading, and hymns were great because I got to stand on the pew and sing words I didn’t understand but which were mysterious and conjured pictures in my head – fiery cloudy pillars, chariots rising into the sky, all that sort of stuff. So the poets of the Old Testament and Charles Wesley have a lot to answer for.

Similarly, my father would take me to the library every week as a child, but left me to my own devices when it came to choosing books, so I often ended up with stories for older children or young adults that I could read but couldn’t fully understand, and that’s when the imagination comes into play. It’s the same approach you need to adopt when you’re reading poetry; a willingness to bring your own experiences to the poem.

As for poets themselves, there’s Alice Oswald, Kathleen Jamie and Stanley Kunitz for the way they capture nature; Charles Simic for his startling imagery; Neruda for always taking the reader with him on his huge associative leaps; Raymond Carver for his story-telling; Heaney and U A Fanthorpe for their unremitting humanity; Carol Ann Duffy for her surety of touch; Tracy K Smith for her startling depth and breadth; Leonard Cohen for sounding like God; I could go on.

How have your own personal experiences influenced your writing?

Most poets I know have led tumultuous lives and write as a means of turning their experiences into stories that make sense to them; finding a way to express yourself creatively is a hugely healing act. I’m no exception.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Are my poems any good? Will anyone want to listen to me wittering on? And when I’m not writing, will I ever write a poem again? ... the usual stuff. Although I think self-doubt is an important part of creativity. If you start getting cocky or churning out poems for the sake of it, that’s the time to really worry.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Time management. Balancing the need to earn a living, and be a mother and a carer, and publicise my work, with actually writing the stuff.

Do you write every day?

The nature of my day jobs means that most days I have no routine. This makes setting aside a length of time to write without interruption difficult. Luckily, I tend to write poems out of the corner of my eye, so as long as I have a notebook and pen to hand, I can still work on them as I go along. In that respect I’m like my grandmother, who also wrote poems; she raised eleven children between the wars, including triplets, and was run off her feet but she always kept a scrap of paper and a pencil in her apron pocket to jot down lines of poems as they came to her.

Even if I can’t write every day, I try to do something that will feed into my writing, whether it’s reading poetry or prose, walking somewhere new or in a place that has resonance for me, doing a bit of research, going to hear another, better poet read, watching starlings in the garden. Then, even if I’m stuck in discouragement, at least I can tell myself I’m cobbling together a ladder to climb out.

How many books have you written so far?

Communion – poetry collection, published in 2011 by Indigo Dreams Publishing

Dart – a historical novel about a family living on Dartmoor during the Black Death, published in 2013 by Tamar Books, an imprint of Indigo Dreams Publishing

Map Reading for Beginners - poetry collection, published in 2014 by Indigo Dreams Publishing

Breadcrumbs – a memoir of a marriage in poetry, published in 2016 by Indigo Dreams Publishing

The Shadow Factory - poetry collection, to be published in autumn 2019 by Indigo Dreams Publishing

What is your latest book about?

My father died last year so quite a few of the poems in The Shadow Factory concern themselves with childhood, the passage of time, the ageing process, and death. I think it’s the poet’s job to be clear-eyed about things we as humans don’t always want to acknowledge and I’ve tried to do this without being depressing. The darker sequences are offset by more surreal poems of the imagination, a sequence based on Leonora Carrington’s portraits, and my poem 'Oystercatchers' which won the 2018 Plough Prize Short Poem competition and is a small redemption all on its own.

When I finish putting the book together, the poems in it will span four or five years, although most of them will have been written in the last two years. This is because if I write a poem that doesn’t quite fit the theme of the collection I’m engaged in writing, I’ll keep it back for inclusion in a later collection, as long as it still holds up.

How did you choose a publisher for the book?

The Shadow Factory will be published in the autumn of this year; I don’t have a date yet but it’s soon.

My publishers have shown me great loyalty, which I am glad to reciprocate. A close and respectful working relationship makes the editing process far less fraught than it might otherwise be, and everyone is happy with the end result.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you enjoy?

I love the whole process of writing, editing and publishing my poems; I also enjoy taking them out into the world, and reading them.

I was about to say that nothing quite beats that moment of inspiration, but actually, that’s not the case; I’m most moved when people tell me that a certain poem of mine touched them or connected with their lives. In a way it stops being your poem at that point and takes its place in the world.

Many poets use their stories to feed their work, and I’m no exception. The important thing is to leave enough space in each poem for the reader to inhabit it with their own personal experiences, because only then does a poem become relevant.

What sets The Shadow Factory apart from other things you've written?

My poems are all in my voice; I also think there’s a certain sensibility that permeates all of them, and sometimes I detect echoes of and responses to earlier work that have come through subconsciously. I like to think my poems are getting better the more I read of other people’s work, the more I go to hear great poets read, and the more I write.

What will your next book be about?

Apart from a doomed attempt to escape in the 80s, I’ve lived in the same city all my life and have amassed stories, family anecdotes and memories, old photos, historical snippets, the voices you hear in the queue at the bus stop, the way places change and people come and go, but the city remembers how it always was and keeps re-creating itself in that image. The past in the present. I want to write all that.

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

I’ve been very fortunate: I’ve won some prizes, I’ve had a poem read on Radio 4’s Poetry Please, and my books take up more than an eighth of an inch on my bookshelf, but the most significant achievement is making connections with people who read my poems and who are kind enough to tell me. I can’t really ask for more than that.

Two of your poems, 'Yes, there will also be singing' and 'So says the owl' are featured in Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction. How did the poems come about? What led you to write the poems and to present them in the form that they take?

I was politicised as a teenager in the 70s, through the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism, and if anything I’ve moved further to the left over the years, not least because of the monumental battles I and my disabled children have had to wage over the years to secure them the education and benefits they need. I’m also fiercely in favour of freedom of movement and multiculturalism, so the thought of being trapped on this island with racists, homophobes and ableists who attack anyone who isn’t like them is appalling.

For a long time I’ve wanted to channel some of my political feeling into my poetry, but I’m not a declamatory poet and I don’t really write invective. With the two poems in Bollocks to Brexit, I found a way of making a political point by referring to earlier historical events in one and a late medieval painting in the other, thus underscoring how progress isn’t linear, and how we are in the process of repeating the mistakes of the past.

Why is it important for poets to speak up on social, political and related matters?

A poem, like a song, a play or a painting, might reach someone when rhetoric fails. I come from Bristol and you can’t deny the political impact Banksy has had. Poetry is our national art form and poets have been given the ability to communicate in an especially resonant way; it’s up to us to rise to the challenge also.

Shelley claimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but in times of crisis all artists have a responsibility to respond as best they can. And this is certainly a time of crisis, and not just because of Brexit. We are reaping what Thatcher sowed, and it’s the younger generation who are suffering the most.


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