Jemma L King teaches literature and creative writing at Aberystwyth University. She is a founding member of the Centre for Women, Writing and Literary Culture and is a reviewer of contemporary literature for numerous publications. Her debut poetry collection, The Shape of a Forest, is out now and has just been long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize.
Carl Griffin: You’ve been touring for the first time, to promote your début collection. How would you sum-up these audience encounters?
Jemma L King: It’s been a really rewarding and affirming experience actually. I was really nervous about my material taking centre stage because I had an overwhelming realisation that I would be wholly responsible for the audience size. I was lucky and managed to get a healthy audience everywhere that I went, so for that I was grateful! Obviously, that’s what any writer wants, but also I found it heartening in the broader sense. The arts are faced with so much competition in terms of gaining any sort of audience, so seeing near-full rooms (especially for the evenings that were ticketed) made me realise that there are a lot of people out there that are incredibly supportive of writers. My book, The Shape of a Forest, is my début collection, so a lot of people that came to see me read probably didn’t really know the style of my work, etc. but they still came, which is a good sign for the arts generally.
How was the transgression from reading at open mic events to reading as the main event?
There is a flip-side to ‘audience anxiety’. When you read as part of a multiple billing, you (well I) just assume that everyone in the room has turned out to see everybody else read. When you are the only name on the poster you know that, large or small, the audience has come to see you. You lose the safety net of the numbers of performers but you can start to see whether or not people are responding to your work in a really immediate, ticket-purchasing way.
The Shape of a Forest is described as spanning centuries and the continents. Tell us about some of those journeys. Were there any fascinating aspects about your subjects you couldn’t fit in to the collection?
I’ve told a lot of my stories on tour (I tend to be really rather candid. I might need to work on that) so to avoid being repetitive I’ll tell you something that I haven’t spoken of, which is about the process of writing ‘Amelia Earhart’ (probably my best known poem because it won me the Terry Hetherington Young Welsh Writer of the Year Award 2011 and has subsequently been reproduced in quite a few publications). Despite it being one of the longer poems in the collection, it actually took about half an hour to write and was barely edited afterwards. Usually I do an awful lot of research and planning before I commit to the page, and a great deal of moving around and cutting afterwards, but Amelia arrived whole (after I’d read just one article about the discovery of her remains on a remote island).
She didn’t stay whole for long…
And she didn’t demand much of me afterwards. I wish I could reproduce that afternoon more often. It was perfect.
You are working on a book based on antique nude photographs. Which genre will it come under, and how will you avoid a dull preachy tone (re sexism)?
Great question and one that didn’t occur to me until I started working on it! It’s going to be a book of poems (perhaps with one or two short stories) that take their inspiration from a cache of Victorian to early 20th Century nude photographs of women. I’m hoping that the finished article will be one half ‘coffee-table’ photo book, and one half poetry and prose. I’ve spoken about it a lot on tour and it’s funny because people seem to assume that I already have a publisher but I thought I’d let it take shape before I approached anybody. It’s about two-thirds done now, so if any publishers out there are interested…
No doubt the skill will be taking the spirit of the photographs and successfully embedding them into the poems?
I’m trying to somehow reclaim these women’s voices because a lot of them (as women in the sex trade are now – indeed, there are a lot of parallels to modern western society) were not in the most solvent of situations, so the people that they were have been lost to history. I’ve been working with a historian, and a generous grant from Literature Wales, to pick up clues from the pictures to reconstruct their identities. The rest is intuition. Sometimes, these two things match up and sometimes they are poles apart. The historian was fantastic, he’d be like, ‘oh, she’s clearly a Moroccan peasant from the late 1860s, this one is a high society lady – you can tell by the technique used to make the chair behind her…’ A really fascinating process.
But back to your question about the ‘dull preachy tone’. I am desperate to avoid that so my ethos is to approach the photographs with honesty and to say what I see to a certain extent. I’m trying to throw off the PC censorship that’s embedded itself in my thought processes. That’s especially important when trying to find voices for some of the rare men (circus owners, pimps, doctors, etc.) that are given a voice in the collection because they would have spoken about the women in ways that we might, or actually would, find offensive now. The only photograph that gave me such a headache that I temporarily gave up on it was a picture that had been taken of a tribal woman somewhere in the Pacific region. You want to be authentic, but you don’t want to put yourself in a position where you could be read as being illiberal either. Trying to imagine the situation around that (extremely exploitative) photograph, and then to provide a narrative that would have been convincing, felt risky. I think I’ve found a way through it though and I do want to give her a voice because her eyes look so defiant – I want to enable her to say, even posthumously, ‘back off’, but we’ll have to see what comes of that.
You describe yourself as a Plathite. Swansea poet Tony Webb talks, in his poem ‘North Tawton’, of the intrusive obsession many writers, including himself, experience with Hughes and Plath, and how over the top this can get. Where do you think this obsession (for you and others) comes from, and is this really a good thing for poetry?
I’ve been obsessed with Plath and Hughes for a long, long time! There are so many different layers to the cultural obsession with them but obviously the glamorous fatality has a lot to do with it. The story has energy too and poets aren’t usually associated with such fiery vitality. I think society generally imagines poets as sitting under trees or lolling in impoverished surroundings being terribly affected by everything. But Plath and Hughes jumped at each other, jumped on their careers before eventually trying to destroy each other with characteristic fervour. They also managed to make a very decent living out of their craft, which is still unheard of, even today. So I think that this roughly describes the locus of much of the preoccupation with Plath and Hughes, and whether or not this is a good thing for poetry depends heavily on how that interest is utilised and translated. It isn’t a good thing if it results in writers trying to be Plath or Hughes. They were both so uniquely talented that replication is blatant. But if the interest generates a wider enthusiasm for poetry (particularly amongst younger generations who perhaps find it hard to identify with gentle Wordsworthian writings) that can only be a good thing. Personally, I call myself a Plathite because I find that her work resonates on such a specific level. It’s lived in and visceral, animal and urgent. It pays no lip-service to the literary forefathers that everybody else was trying so hard to emulate. I think her writing comes from the same space that meditation aims to go – that space unpolluted by the accrued attitudes, beliefs and experiences of day-to-day life. She was glorious, and so was Hughes. I respect the fact that they were both consummate artists.
You left a poem at Plath’s grave when you last visited? Which poem was it?
The poem? Well, that’s between me and her.