Interview _ Emma Lee

Emma Lee was born in South Gloucestershire and now lives in Leicestershire. She is on the committee of Leicester Writers’ Club and the steering group for the Leicester Writers’ Showcase.

Her poems, short stories and articles have appeared in many anthologies and magazines. Some of her poems have been been translated into languages that include Chinese, Farsi, German, Greek, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Romanian.

Emma Lee co-edited Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) and Welcome to Leicester (Dahlia Publishing, 2016). She has four poetry collections, The Significance of a Dress (Arachne Press, 2020), Ghosts in the Desert (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2015), Mimicking a Snowdrop (Thynks, 2014) and Yellow Torchlight and the Blues (Original Plus, 2004).

Her latest collection, The Significance of A Dress, has been described as "Poems informed by, and immersed in politics. Whether investigating the lives of refugees, families or women in crisis, everything has a significance beyond the surface. Beautiful, hair-raising words and form, utterly from the heart."

In this interview, Emma Lee talks about poetry and The Significance of A Dress.

How long did it take you to put the collection together?

The Significance of a Dress started back in 2015 when I was involved in co-editing Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015), an anthology to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and raise funds for refugee charities.

After the anthology's publication, I was involved in the Journeys Poems Pop-up Library where postcards of some of the poems were distributed at Leicester Railway Station during Everybody's Reading 2016. In 2017, the start of Everybody's Reading coincided with International Translation Day so I organised an event where 13 of the poems from Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge were read in their original English and one translation. In turn this led to my setting up Journeys in Translation.

By 2018 I had a collection of refugee-themed poems but hadn't really thought about getting them published as a collection although individual poems had been published in magazines and anthologies.

How did you chose a publisher for the collection? Why this publisher? And, what advantages or disadvantages has this presented?

Arachne Press put a call out for submissions for an anthology in 2018. Arachne like to publish a group of poems by each poet rather than just have one or two poems by each. I submitted some of my refugee poems.

Arachne Press got back and said they didn't want to put my poems in their anthology but were interested in a single author collection. The only sensible response to that request was to ask how many poems they wanted and The Significance of a Dress was born.

I'd been published in some of the anthologies Arachne had produced previously so I knew I was working with a committed, caring publisher.

The disadvantages so far have not been with the publisher but with the Covid-19 pandemic. I was due to hold a Leicester launch on 11 March but the venue was pulled with less than 24 hours' notice. Fortunately I found another and a launch still went ahead on 14 March. However, most poetry books are sold at readings and book fairs and those are all on hold for now.

Who is your target audience?

Anyone with an interest in the themes explored within.

Why does poetry matter?

It's difficult to reduce it to a soundbite. Jean-Claude Juncker said poetry doesn't matter and the focus should be on people's first needs, shelter and food. But that's a very reductive way of looking at humans. Maya Angelou spoke of there being no greater violence than an untold story within you. But refugees aren't always able to tell their stories and, for some, not telling their stories is more important than triggering their trauma by repeating stories. So poetry becomes a way of bearing witness, exploring those stories and raising awareness. Poetry's brevity and structure offer a way of processing strong emotions; we turn to poetry in times of hardship and in times of joy.

With (or in) the collection, what would you say are your main concerns? How do you deal with these concerns?

Themes emerge not only of refugees but violence done to, for example, women, through discrimination and dehumanisation. Through my poems I try to humanise those who have been rendered voiceless.

What influences does The Significance of a Dress draw on? 

I don't think there were any specific influences in The Significance of a Dress. I read and review widely so no doubt readers might pick up influences I wasn't aware of. I do try and indicate positives, even in traumatic subjects, such as those small acts of kindness that can make a huge difference.

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

I didn't conceive of the poems within The Significance of a Dress as a book until Arachne invited me to put a collection together. I was conscious that the main themes would make for hard reading so endeavoured to put in some lighter moments, such as a poem about playing a piano on College Green ("How Rapunzel Ends") or a bank teller struggling to spell a surname ("When Your Name's Not Smith" and the transformative power of music ("Put a Spell on those February Blues").

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

The lack of pressure: because I wasn't selecting sample poems and sending them off to a publisher in the hope they'd consider a collection, the process of selecting and shaping The Significance of a Dress was done when I knew a publisher was interested.

What sets the book apart from other things you've written?

My first collection Yellow Torchlight and the Blues was hugely inspired by my time as a music reviewer. My second Mimicking a Snowdrop drew on a poet's autobiography and aspects of her life, particularly during the Second World War when she used her nurse's training to be a first responder and did voluntary work in a disadvantaged children's playgroup. My third Ghosts in the Desert features a lot of ghosts and contains a sequence about The Matrix.

So, the topics and issues explored in The Significance of a Dress are very different. It's also the first of my books to feature one of my embroideries on the cover.

In what way is it similar to the others?

I think some topics link all four collections, discrimination, feeling like an outsider, explorations of whose voices don't get heard and why that might be.

What will your next book be about?

No idea. I'm always writing poems, stories, reviews, articles so I don't think in terms of focusing on a next book. I keep writing and when I seem to have a body of work, I start arranging poems by theme and see what emerges.

What else are you working on?

I'm now reviews editor for The Blue Nib and still reviewing for other magazines. I have a couple of short stories to edit and am still writing individual poems, one based on Bruce Springsteen's explanation of why he doesn't like wind chimes.

See also:

● Interview _ Emma Lee, Conversations with Writers, 19 April 2017
● Interview _ Emma Lee, Conversations with Writers, 27 April 2007


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