Yesterday we began a new feature to showcase Granta’s New Poets. Emily Berry is our first poet in the series, and here she talks to Rachael Allen about editing a poetry anthology while working on her own collection, and gives some advice to new writers.
RA: Your poems offer surreal interpretations on normal life, and ‘The Old Fuel’ especially twists items of domesticity into a hypersensitive, bizarre and comic study of loss. Where did the inspiration come from?
EB: I don’t set out to make things sound surreal, but I’m glad if it ends up like that. The theme of ‘The Old Fuel’ is fairly autobiographical although the voice is kind of fictionalized. My partner was working in Tanzania for eight months last year, which gave rise to a lot of whiny ‘poor me, when are you coming home’ poems. I was quite taken by the contrasts between his daily life and mine – I was just doing mundane things like listening to Radio 4 whereas he was encountering monkeys on his way home from work. In hindsight I can see that perhaps bringing those things together was a way of enlivening my world, which seemed comparatively dreary at the time; and obviously there was the element of taking control of a difficult situation by dramatizing it.
‘Stingray Fevers’ is your first pamphlet published by Tall Lighthouse, and you’re now working on your first full-length collection. How is the transition from writing a pamphlet to preparing for a full-length book?
I don’t really see it as a transition – I don’t feel like I’m ‘writing a collection’ as opposed to ‘writing a pamphlet’, I’m just writing one poem, and then I’m writing another poem (or, more usually, I’m not writing anything). Conceptually it seems harder, obviously, because a collection is longer and it feels more important and therefore more important to get it right. Trying to decide how poems hang together and if there are types of poems missing and if you are happy with the overall picture, especially when you’ve become so overfamiliar with some of the work, that’s difficult. It’s like packing, unpacking and repacking a suitcase over and over again. I don’t think I thought so much about those things with the pamphlet.
Do you find yourself more worried about how an editor or a reader might view the collection, given that you’ll be asking them to travel for a while with your ‘suitcase’?
I obviously think about those things to some degree but I don’t think it affects me at the level of actually doing the work. I’m mainly concerned with reaching a point of satisfaction with it myself; if I’m not happy with it I don’t expect anyone else to be. Once I’ve got to that point, I hope I’ll feel secure enough to hand it over and wait and see what people make of it.
Our latest edition of Granta focused on women: women and writing, women and power, women and society. Many of your poems examine the idea of what it is to be a woman, a daughter, or a mother. Would you define yourself as a particularly ‘feminist’ poet, or do you prefer to keep politics out of it?
I would say I’m a feminist but I certainly wouldn’t define myself as a feminist poet. I’m not even very comfortable being defined as a female poet. You never hear about ‘male poets’. I understand it’s an attempt to redress the balance but it has the effect of emphasizing femaleness as a marginalized category that needs that bit of extra help to express itself, with the implication that everything a woman writes is in some way representative of being a woman. I’m more interested in the idea of gender as role-play than as something intrinsic, so I think the same may be true when I write about other kinds of roles, like mother, daughter etc. I quite like to subvert those kinds of roles and the power dynamic in different relationships – so mothers become the opposite of nurturing, doctors are more disturbed than their patients, and so on.
You co-edit the poetry anthology series Stop Sharpening Your Knives. How do you find choosing and editing other people’s poetry? What do you look for when publishing your peers within the anthology?
I’m naturally very critical so I tend to assume all submissions are rubbish until they prove otherwise, which probably isn’t a very good starting point! I’ve worked for a few publishers and you become a bit jaded once you get over your excitement at reading the unsolicited manuscripts and realize that it’s not called the ‘slush pile’ for nothing. Having said that, the standard for SSYK submissions is pretty high, and I do really enjoy the editing process once I start to find the pieces I like. I would love to co-edit a book-length anthology some day. It’s good for me to work with other editors because I’m forced to slow down and look at things more carefully. Not all good poems leap off the page on a first reading; in fact a lot of the ones that do turn out to be not as good a few readings later. I don’t exactly have a checklist as to ‘what I’m looking for’ – I suppose it’s just whether something seems to have a life of its own or not.
What advice would you give to someone just starting to write?
The things I have found most helpful are going to workshops, reading lots, and going to poetry readings, which all feed into each other. I think it’s important to get past the initial fear which a lot of people have at the start of sharing your work with other people, so you can get a sense of what is and isn’t working and build up a kind of internal editor. Generally I think it’s good not to put too much pressure on yourself or be too judgmental in the early stages of writing a poem – sometimes the ‘internal editor’ can be too ferocious and ruin a poem before it’s even been written.
Photograph by Madeleine Waller