Following hot on the heels of Joyride, published last year by The Black Light Engine Room, Jessica Mookherjee’s first full-collection, Flood, is published this week by Cultured Llama. Poems within this collection have appeared in a whole host of magazines and journals; Mookherjee is quite a prolific poet and last year a poem published by Sam Smith in The Journal was commended in the Forward Prize. Mookherjee is also part of the Telltale collective.
I haven’t seen a copy yet but can share with you a little bit of blurb, endorsements and a poem… “In these poems, Jessica Mookherjee inhabits several identities in her ‘bone-framed coat’. With overarching themes of migration, otherness, sexual awakening, maternal mental illness, the impact of catastrophe, of loss and being lost, Flood is a debut collection from a genuine virtuoso with a powerful original voice.”
The trick was sewn…
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Thanks to Mark Davidson of The Hedgehog Poetry Press for letting us reproduce the article below that features in the first issue of his press’s new poetry magazine A Restricted View From Under the Hedge (which is a great read and beautifully produced). Here, Mark reviews Sarah’s pamphlet How to Grow Matches and asks her a few questions:
I’m probably a little pre-occupied by the idea of new publishers at the moment for some reason, but one that I have been particularly impressed by is the rather cool Against The Grain Press, put together by Abegail Morley, Karen Dennison and Jessica Mookherjee.
Aiming very high in terms of their attention to detail and the design/production values of the pamphlets they are producing, they haven’t forgotten the most important part of all and have already published two quite gifted poets in Anna Kisby, whose collection helped launch the press toward the end of last year and now S.A. Leavesley with her collection, How To Grow Matches.
From the off, I have to say that I am a big fan of S.A Leavesley, finding her work consistently brave and challenging in all the right ways, with a forensic ability to turn all of your preconceptions on their head with a single syllable. There are quite literally no throwaway or wasted words in this collection, with every one of them considered and placed precisely to engender exactly the response, emotionally, intellectually, that the author requires.
This is powerful stuff, but it is Leavesley’s ability to use the form of the pamphlet as part of the work that is particularly impressive. Because there is a difference between a book-sized collection and a pamphlet that seems to often be overlooked by poets and publishers alike.
For me a pamphlet can either be used like a novella, where compared to a novel it focuses on a single topic, has a single story to tell, or instead it can be a smaller collection of poems, but where repetition – all of the ‘fat’ – is carved away and what you are left with is the real ‘meat’, the genuine source of what the poet has to say without any prelude or development of themes.
It is the latter where Leavesley is the absolute owner of the form, and in How To Grow Matches you have a collection of poems that really wouldn’t work, would lose a lot of its power, if it simply had another twenty poems bolted-on.
I’m pleased to say that I had the opportunity to ask the author a few questions shortly before we went to print –
The collection works beautifully as a set and flows really nicely, do you think in terms of collections or do you collect your poems?
“Thank you! The short answer is both. My first collection Into the Yell (Circaidy Gregory Press) and my fourth plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press) came together afterwards – sifting for the best or most popular pieces and then refining from that. My second and third collections Be[yond] and The Magnetic Diaries (Knives Forks and Spoons Press) had narrative and theme constraints which meant they were written as pamphlet/collections. Likewise with my two earlier pamphlets: Hearth (Mother’s Milk Books) was a commissioned collaboration with Angela Topping and Lampshades & Glass Rivers (Loughborough University), a narrative sequence.
After the publication of my collection plenty-fish, I realised my new writing was falling into three fairly distinct subject areas. One of these was poems with strong female voices, characters and concerns. I created a ‘draft collection’ document with these initial pieces and every time I had a new poem that fitted this, I also copied it into this draft collection.
With How to Grow Matches, I ended up with more than enough poems for a full collection but that meant I could filter out any that covered too similar ground or didn’t contribute to the pamphlet as a whole work in itself.
I love the potential for focus, cohesion and flow with the pamphlet form. I think putting it together in this way means there’s always a small part of the subconscious aware of where an individual piece might fit within the bigger pamphlet-length picture. The ordering certainly felt easier working in this way, though there are always some poems that are harder to place around.”
The collection very much nails the times in terms of #metoo etc. but you widen the scope by making a lot of it feel personal – was this a deliberate approach, to take an observers stance?
“The poems, and the pamphlet itself, actually precede #metoo. But issues of gender, sexism, stereotyping, the portrayal of female characters in myths, conflicting potential role models and societal expectations…these have been around since, well, the year dot.
In terms of the personal, I guess I do feel that people’s lives are where politics is really seen and felt. Also, that this is where my political beliefs stem from, who I am as a person, how I was brought up, what I’ve seen and felt.
In terms of the observer stance, I’ve used the first person a lot in the past, to get close to adopted personas and fictional characters as much as to write about personal experience. But in poetry it can be hard sometimes for readers to know whether to take the first person as the poet’s own life or not. With this pamphlet, I consciously wanted touse the second person (ungendered but personal ) and third person (gendered but potentially more distanced/observational) and the dynamics between the two. With this, simultaneously not claiming the experiences as my own, yet at the same time maybe a sense that women across time may have similar stories and experiences, even within very different settings and across very different backgrounds.”
There seems to be an overlap between imagination, experience and observation across the collection. How easy do you find it to take differing approaches/adopt different perspectives?
“Good question, and not something I’d considered consciously. The fact that I’ve probably partly answered this in the previous question may be a good indication that overlapping and moving between these is something that just happens when I write. I have eclectic tastes in terms of reading but also my other interests – from walking and photography, to surfing and climbing. I’ve worked as a newspaper journalist, I write fiction and creative non-fiction, and I turned one of my poetry collections into a play. Hybrid forms, working at genre- boundaries and overlappings of all sorts is something that I really enjoy. Maybe, subconsciously, I’m just trying to twist Emily Dickinson’s ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ to see if there are any slants that aren’t possible…”
Can you talk a wee bit about a few of the poems – how you came to write them, influences, inspiration
a. Fashion Chains
b. The cow that ate all the plums, and
c. All the women left
“I’m going to work backwards with this list, because it’s reverse chronology on the writing, so it’s easier to remember in that order.
All the women left was written after a visit to Birmingham Symphony Hall, not for a concert, simply passing through the building. At the same time, I was thinking about apocalypses and women-only tribes. The poem title came to me first, wondering what if there were only women left in the world? But I liked that it also had another potential meaning: what if, as a protest, all the women left an event? I don’t want to give too much away about the poem’s eventual narrative. But essentially, it’s a poem imagining the latter happened for a concert. A potential added irony with the scenario is that, if all the women left, half the audience might leave a concert but if all the female musicians left would that only leave half the performers?
The cow that ate all the plums is entirely my dad’s fault. My grandparents were farmers on the Gloucestershire-Wales border. My mum and dad slowly converted one of the family barns into a house, where they lived once my sister and I left home. The house is surrounded by fields and my dad told me the story about the cow that would eatall the plums, not to get drunk as such but presumably because the cow found the tippsiness quite pleasant. (I was conscious of potential fruit and orchard Garden of Eden connotations or that plums, for example, might make readers think of William Carlos William’s This Is Just To Say but these are more part of the general incidental background than necessary elements to the poem.) The final images of the poem arose naturally through thinking about slang use of the word ‘cow’ and similar human scenarios.
Fashion Chains is a three-part sequence influenced both by and against Sylvia Plath. I don’t altogether like or easily read some of Plath’s work. But I admire the boldness. It’s hard to be a female poet, writing about women’s life and mental health issues without feeling Plath there, sometimes in a good way but also as a shadow or a yardstick to be measured against and fail.
Saying this isn’t to ignore many other important female poets, simply that there are too many to list here, and this poem in particular is influenced by Plath. The first part of the sequence imagines fashion-store shop windows at night – a kind of contemporary version of Plath’s The Munich Mannequins. The second part moves focus from the plastic models to the shop-window glass and part-reflections – ghost-like but sunlight sheering off too, like a photographer’s flash- bulb, perhaps.
Also, for me, an awareness of the fast pace and transient/disposable nature of modern life, and how easy it is to not look carefully and to miss things in not doing so, the surface level potentially becoming all there is. The third part then takes the text of Plath’s The Munich Mannequins and strips away some of the words. Symbolically what is left might be rain on glass, sunlight glancing off the shop window, the plastic model without its clothes, the bare bones of society, or… I hope that this sequence, like the other poems, will allow for these possibilities but also be open to other interpretations, personal to each individual reader.
Sarah’s pamphlet is available to buy from our Shop.
Sarah has made some poetryfilms for some of the poems in her pamphlet How to Grow Matches which we are delighted to share below. We hope you enjoy them and head over to our shop and buy a copy of her book.
What a great evening and launch of Sarah Leavesley’s How to Grow Matches at a packed Poetry Cafe last night.
Sarah treated us to a selection of inspiring poems from the pamphlet, including the title poem originally published in Magma, where she asked us in its introduction to ‘imagine a female revolutionary leader in the workplace’ –
How to grow matches
Take the long matchsticks:
those like pink-tipped bulrushes,
those Gretel’s step-mum
might strike to light her oven.
Snap one – like a sharp blow
sideways behind a man’s knees.
Then another and another
for each jibe or slight.
Note how easily the wood splits
after years of hidden anger.
A felled forest at your feet,
and still the pile grows!
Lay the toppled pieces
against each other’s thinness,
rested on crumpled paper.
Now you have a bonfire.
Don’t think of Moses,
not Guy Fawkes or Jeanne d’Arc,
but of waking every day
to stroke your curves
into those clothes,
hip-sways and lip expressions
condoned for your office
as a woman.
London Undercurrents, Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire, entertained us with poems about strong feisty women. A particular highlight was their poem in the voices of the opera-mad Cook sisters, Ida and Louise, whose musical travels took them to Nazi Germany where they were roused to do extraordinary things to help some Jewish families escape.
Linda Black read eloquently from her collection Slant, published by Shearsman books in 2016, taking us into a strange and magical world with a range of poetic techniques, including collage poems where other people’s words are cut up and re-assembled to make something new.