When asked if you could have a pint with one of your heroines, who would you choose? My answer is always Helen Mort. I’m lucky enough to have had a few drinks with Helen in the short time I’ve known her, and I’m sure you’re going to want to do the same after reading this interview and watch her perform.
Get yourself comfortable, poor yourself a pint and meet Queen Ruth’s drinking partner of choice, the brilliant, Helen Mort.
In your 2014 Telegraph interview, you say you felt like an outsider growing up. What advice would you give to someone who wants to be successful, but can find it hard to relate to others?
I’d say try to cherish that feeling of being ‘outside’ things as much as you can – if you’re a creative person, it will teach you how to observe properly, how to listen and look. Think of it as a skill you have. Outsiders have a unique perspective.
I’d also say to anyone who feels that way: you aren’t alone, you aren’t ‘strange’ and you’ll find ‘your kind of people’ in time. Many of the best writers I know were bullied at school. I hated and feared the playground and I used to survive it by pretending I was making a radio or TV documentary about what was going on around me. Years later, I found that way of thinking useful when I started writing poetry.
2. On your Twitter feed you give regular updates on the Lonely Hearts column in The Metro – do you find stories like this inspiring? Do they find themselves into your work?
Well, mostly, I just find those ‘Rush Hour Crush’ messages hilarious:
‘I was eating a baguette the size of my head, you fell down the escalator and lost your shoe. Drink?’.
Underneath my amusement there’s something serious though. I’m a bit obsessed with missed connections, roads-not-taken and bittersweet brief encounters.
When I was a teenager, I remember loving this poem by Douglas Dunn where he talks about strangers seen and long for from a bus window. I’m haunted by a sense of possibility and the ache of lives not lived and it definitely creeps into my poems, some of which imagine other worlds behind the everyday.
I remember interviewing the poet John Burnside once and he told me he thought ‘they all lived happily ever after’ was a rubbish ending for any story because it closes down the possibility of other stories.
As he puts it in his memoir ‘Waking Up in Toytown’:
‘Didn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald say somewhere that the difference between a sentimentalist and a romantic is that the sentimentalist is afraid that things won’t last forever and the romantic is afraid that they will?’
3. In your collection ‘No Map Could Show Them‘ you tell the stories of female pioneers, such as Alison Hargreaves, what kind of women are you drawn to when you write?
I’m really interested in women who did remarkable things but were still vilified for them, or who didn’t get the recognition they deserved.
Alison Hargreaves was one of the greatest mountaineers in the world, but when she died descending from K2, the media savaged her for going on dangerous expeditions as a mother of two.
I also wrote a sequence about Lillian Bilocca, a fishwife from Hull who successfully campaigned to get trawler safety legislation changed after the triple trawler disaster of 1968. Lil was a true pioneer, but she was mocked in the media for her accent and appearance (she weighed 17 stone) and she received death threats.
I admire women who keep doing what they do against the odds, even though their stories also sadden me: Lil died in relative obscurity.
4. The landscape often finds its way into your work as you’re an avid outdoors woman – where are your top places to walk and think in the UK?
I can never get enough of Derbyshire, the landscape I grew up visiting, where I learned to rock climb. Nothing beats a run along Stanage Edge (followed by a pint in The Norfolk Arms) or a walk with dogs on Abney Moor. I think best when I’m on the move, or somewhere high up, looking down.
One of my favourite places in the world is North West Scotland, the area between Gairloch and Ullapool, but I don’t get to go there as much as I’d like. I did start 2017 with a swim in a freezing Scottish loch though!
I love wild swimming and the things it does to my brain – this summer I had my first experience of skinny dipping in a loch in Ireland. I’ve always been a bit shy about my body so I’d never really done any naked swimming before. I got back and immediately wrote a poem about it.
I admire women who keep doing what they do against the odds, even though their stories also sadden me.
5. What have you loved and hated about 2017?
Loved: presenting a radio show for the BBC on poetry in translation; finally learning to accept my body after decades trying; visiting Michigan; looking after two gorgeous dogs; discovering headscarfs; dancing at Bluedot festival; reading ‘The Lesser Bohemians’ by Eimear McBride; Cafe 9 in Sheffield (a small corner of paradise).
Hated: seeing my mum in agony after a hip replacement; Dry January; Definitely-not-dry February; anxiety medication; the reality of Donald Trump; hours on motorways; the Manchester bombing; getting criticised for my buzzcut.
6. You teach as well as write, what is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from teaching others?
One of the best things you can do for another person is listen to them and understand where they’re coming from. All good teaching proceeds from that point. I’ve also learned that students at uni pay more attention when you bring free chocolates.
7. If one of our readers wanted to start writing poetry, what would be your top three tips to them?
- Read more than you write.
- Don’t censor yourself too much early on and don’t be afraid to write about what you know, even if you think the place you come from isn’t very interesting.
- With every topic, ask yourself: ‘why do I care about this? What can I say about this that perhaps nobody else could?’
8. Often, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to someone writing is finding the time – how do you fit in writing, work and your passions?
Helen chilling with John Cooper Clarke.
With enormous difficulty and a lot of caffeine. Seriously, time management is something I struggle with a lot (like many people). I have a tendency to say ‘yes’ to everything and not leave enough time for the things I really want to do.
I’ve always found that poems insist though – even when I’m crazily busy, an idea will come to me when I’m on the bus, or driving, or walking to work, or sitting in a staff meeting (don’t tell my employers!).
If it really needs to be written, it will be.
A lot of writers I know worry about needing to write every single day, but I’ve never been like that really. I like to let my poems mature like a really smelly (but hopefully tasty) cheese, or perhaps a bottle of red wine. Often when I actually have the time to write, I produce rubbish.
9. What are you favourite words? Give us three.
Whippet, lochan, Viognier.
10. You’re one of the judges on The Man Booker Prize – what’s the experience of judging been like?
It was amazing – I read hundreds of translated novels from around the world and got to discuss them in depth with writers I respect. My biggest tip for anyone entering a competition would be not to try and second-guess the judges. When I judge poetry competitions, I’m often drawn to things I know I could never, ever write myself.