INTERVIEW: Helen Mort
For more information on Helen Mort, click here.
Words by Eloise Pearson.
Helen Mort is one of my favourite contemporary poets – she was shortlisted for the Costa Prize and the TS Eliot Prize, and in 2014 won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize. She was also the youngest ever poet in residence at the Wordsworth trust. Before attending her Laurette event for Durham Book Festival and her event, ‘The Poems that Made Me’ for the university, myself and Chase Miller met up with Helen in The Jumping Bean café to discuss her new collection, No Map Could Show Them.
Eloise: First I should start by saying that we have both read and loved No Map Could Show Them. It’s a highly original work and therefore the first thing that I was going to ask was where did the idea come from? Is it a project that you have been considering for a long time?
Helen: A poem that has always interested me is Eavan Boland, The Science of Cartography is Limited. I have always been fascinated by roads that do not show up on the map and our relationship to these places, I love stories and places that can’t always easily be documented. I was thinking about trying to relate this to my climbing experiences. I was also thinking a lot about how narratives that defined my own climbing early on, were always men’s narratives. I just got more and more interested in researching stories of early female climbers and trying to write about my own experiences in relation to them.
Eloise: Do you have any stories that didn’t quite make it into the book? Any funny climbing anecdotes, or funny, dangerous situations?
Helen: Oh, there were so many. I love a story about a woman who used to climb in trousers to preserve her respectability and she would change into a skirt when she got back down to the bottom. So, one day she climbed all the way up and then back down again and when she got there she realised that she had left her skirt at the top and had to go all the way back up.
Stories like that I wanted to use and incorporate but they were just so good in their own right and I couldn’t bring a certain slant to it. Inevitably a project like this is full of failures as much as success.
Eloise: Is it when you are climbing that you find your best ideas come? Or do you just sit down and think of them after the experience?
Helen: It definitely gives me clarity that I don’t get at other times. My best ideas come like most writers, in situations where I really don’t expect them. Like when I am running for a bus, or walking or driving. I think you should trust in this process; the ideas that survive are the ones that are genuinely memorable rather than the ones that fall by the wayside. However, there does come a time when you do just have to sit down and write and I can be quite a lazy writer.
Eloise: Something I have been asking all the authors I have met is do you have a specific writing playlist that you like the listen to when you’re working?
Helen: No no, maybe I should make one! I can write anywhere, in somewhere like this café, or on a train. Whenever I am writing I block out my surroundings. But maybe now you have said that I will make a climbing playlist
Chase: I often find that poetry is one of the hardest things to write, do you find that your poems just come to you in a moment of inspiration or do you have to think about themes for a long time before you write them down?
Helen: I do spend a long time waiting for ideas to connect to something else, I often have an idea I want to write about but I am waiting for it to connect to something else. Sometimes I don’t just want to write about that thing or simply just describe it. So, sometimes, it can take six months or a year for one idea to connect to another. I have just written a poem called ‘In Defence of Cliché’ I have been working on in my head for over ten years. I write prose as well; I have just written a novel. In some ways that was easier, it required more stamina but it was in some ways nicer. In some ways, I felt less precious writing it, I liked just getting things down and not obsessing about line breaks and word breaks all the time.
Eloise: I was going to ask about that [the novel], I heard you were writing one, so it is finished now? That’s great!
Helen: It’s getting there now! Second draft is done, redrafting a novel is a bit more of a serious time undertaking. It is more like running a marathon.
Chase: I have often heard people say “there’s no money in poetry” – do you think that is fair, do you think it is harder to get published in poetry?
Helen: Well yes, it’s not publishing that is hard, it is making any money from the books. I don’t know many people who survive as a freelance poet, I do lots of other things like teach at university. But I really enjoy that. I am not a prolific writer; if I was writing full time I wouldn’t know how to fill my days. I like to work with students, encourage other people’s work, that’s when I really feel like a creative person. When you get to work with someone who is really really talented that is the best feeling.
Chase: A general question; do you have a favourite poet that inspires you.
Helen: Loads! I tend to have favourite poems rather than favourite poets. I really like Don Patterson, he has been a big influence on me. I like the feel that your favourite poet could be the one you’re about to discover! Hopefully my favourite poet is yet to emerge.