At Home with the Hoglets
Beginning with A Restricted View from Under the Hedge to Sticklebacks and on to The Cult of the Spiny Hog, along with a classic collection of inspirational writers, Mark Davidson and his poets are turning hoglets into must-have bookshelf desirables. Over a series of interviews I will ask the same 11 questions to a group of Hedgehog poets and Mark himself, and hopefully we’ll uncover what it takes to put pen to page, poem into print and pamphlet onto that prized position on every reader’s bookshelf.
Today we have with us poet and creative writing and film studies tutor Sue Burge, based in North Norfolk, whose 2nd collection with The Hedgehog Poetry Press collection is entitled The Saltwater Diaries.
Thank you Sue for joining us here and sharing your work and its process with us…
1 Why did you write this collection, what is it about and what would you like the reader to take away after they turn the last page and find that perfectly prized place for it on their bookshelf?
The Saltwater Diaries explores my relationship with the sea. I’ve always been quite obsessed with the sea but hadn’t written about it that much. My first two collections, In the Kingdom of Shadows, and Lumière were influenced by my love of film and are more urban overall. Three years ago we moved to a village just outside Cromer in Norfolk and our house is a seven-minute walk from the sea. It’s fair to say that the poems in The Saltwater Diaries came out in one massive tsunami! As well as poems about seascapes and sea-swimming there are poems about local legends such as Black Shuck, the devil dog who inspired Conan Doyle’s famous Hound, as well as a couple of central poems about a misdiagnosis for a medical condition which I explore via watery images. There are poems inspired by Shakespeare (Ophelia, The Tempest) and others which celebrate the diversity of the local landscape with its fords, saltmarshes and haunting sounds. I would like those who read this collection to feel that they have been taken to a world that is both familiar and alien and to see the sea with new eyes.
2 My chillout time comes from cooking, endless hours lost in the kitchen along with a blaring radio of eclectic tunes and golden oldies, but I can only chill when the cupboards are well stocked with the basic ingredients. Firstly, what is your chillout routine, your escape from the pen and all the pondering and, secondly, what are the basic ingredients you need when it comes to settling down to write- what factors or futons make the best mix for your creations?
Wow, this is a ridiculously hard question because I love writing and teaching creative writing so much that my chillout time seems to be woven in to my non-chillout time! So, I love cooking, reading (poetry, novels and memoir), the cinema (I’m also a film studies tutor as well as a creative writing tutor and sometimes combine the two by teaching “Inspired by Film” poetry courses). I love art galleries, ballet, opera, theatre (really missing that at the moment!) I also love cycling, swimming and long walks. But. While I am doing all this I am usually writing poems in my head! I find I create when I’m having a break from creating. So if I’m swimming or walking then I’ll start to get lines coming into my head. Last week I lay down to do a body scan – a kind of extended yoga relaxation. Forty minutes later I stood up with a poem fully written in my head. One winter I’d been given a commission to write a First World War poem – in the middle of a path alongside the saltmarshes I could be seen with a tiny notebook and pen, held in frozen fingers, and using my tall and long-suffering husband’s back as a table as I shouted “Eureka!” and wrote down the first lines of a poem to fit the commission. I quite like noise when I write and often go to local cafes to scribble away at first drafts.
3 Sticking with the cooking analogy for a moment, do you follow a specific recipe for writing or do you throw all the ingredients into the bowl and see what happens?
I guess the latter – I throw down my ideas and then see what form the poem wants to take.
4 In these days of social media, you’re nothing if you’re not seen and in these unsettling, uncertain days of Covid, seeing, listening and buying has moved online and readings and live launches in libraries and lounges are a rare happening or else there is a limit to the amount of people in attendance. How are you dealing with having new collections coming out right now? What is your way of being seen? How are you coping with the fact that being a writer today also requires a certain amount of spotlight, certainly more than the days of Ms. Dickinson?
I have an extensive mailing list of people who are interested in writing and who have attended my courses, so I’m very lucky in that respect. They are a loyal and open-minded bunch and are always interested in what I’m doing. I think it’s hard to get poetry books into bookshops and it’s also hard to get a reasonable audience for signings and readings, even via open mic evenings. Generally, I haven’t been phased by the fact that I’ve got a pamphlet coming out in these strange times. I’m doing a Zoom launch and I’ve already got a lot of people on my list to send books to as well as nearly 80 coming to the launch. I do a lot of networking, it’s essential as a freelancer, so I’ve got a lot of poetry contacts. I do a lot of courses as a student as I find it essential to put myself in that situation and keep in touch with how my own students might be feeling. I love being taught and have met so many wonderful people through doing poetry courses and going on residentials. I remember my knees literally knocking together the first time I did an open mic slot, but I really enjoy them now and love doing readings and putting together the story I want to tell the audience. Perhaps I’m comfortable in the spotlight because I’ve been teaching for so long. I still get a bit nervous, but that’s a good thing as it keeps you on your toes, keeps that adrenaline pumping and means that you care.
5 Speaking of being seen and getting noticed, how important are acceptances from writing journals and how do you deal with the rejection which comes, no matter how much acclaim you have received? The reality we must learn is that not everyone is going to love our work, which can be heart breaking as we’re basically offering up our poetic babies to be loved, though no one loves a baby as much as the parent. So what keeps you going? Head up and move on or hide out and wait till the hurt passes? What encouragement do you have for others starting out?
I’m quite tough-skinned and resilient so I’ve never really minded rejection. Practically the first poem I sent out was accepted by Mslexia so I thought it was going to be easy to get published. Many rejections later I realised I’d had beginner’s luck, but that luck had given me the confidence to persist. A magazine that rejects you one month may take your poem the next. It’s not easy to be an editor, you have to think of the overall feel of a magazine as well as the quality of the individual poems and there are a lot of brilliant poets out there, all sending to the same magazines. I don’t envy competition judges, it’s so hard to choose and when I’ve done this myself I always end up with loads of commended/honourable mentions as I can’t bear to not let people know how highly I thought of their poems. For anyone starting out I would corrupt the words of the Borg (yes, I’m a Trekkie too!) and say “Persistence is most definitely not futile” – keep going and one day you will find your place – it’s a diverse, warm and welcoming world.
6 If you had to pick one piece of your own writing that most represents you what would it be and why and would you like to share it or part of it here with us?
Most difficult question so far! I think my poetry shows different aspects of myself and my interests so it’s really hard to pin down just one aspect which most represents me. There’s a poem I wrote which is in Lumière called “Blue” in response to Krysztof Kieslowski’s film of the same name. In the film, Juliette Binoche is consumed by guilt and grief having survived the car crash that killed her daughter and husband. After a swim in the Pontoise public pool in Paris she goes for a coffee and this poem describes that moment, which is a haunting one in the film. The poem really seems to chime with people whether they know the context or not and I guess that’s what represents me the most – the need to transmit my passion of the moment in an accessible way to others via the written word:
Your head is full of blue, like cotton wool, as you
draw your body through the pool at Pontoise.
After, in the café, the shadow on your face
takes the shape of a cupped hand,
music bleeds into the stillness around you
as you tilt a sugarcube to the brim
of your coffee, watch the soft seep rise,
a spreading stain, unstoppable, although
the span of your finger and thumb
holds the shape for as long you are able;
now drink, you think, just drink,
this is what normal people do.
7 Writing poetry, more so than any other writing form, is often the art of peeling back, removing the unnecessary, eliminating lines to uncover the hidden truth- how bare does it get for you? How difficult is it, at times, to tell your story within the lines and framework of a poem? How comfortable is it to be naked with so few words to cover over the possible discomfort or is it just a part of the process you get used to?
I think you have to be pretty brave to be a poet and be as emotionally resilient as you can. Most of the time poets are delving into the subconscious and bringing out quite tricky memories and associations. You have to be prepared to share these and for people to assume that a lot of what you write about is part of your autobiography, even if is imagined/embellished. For me, it goes very bare indeed, and I’m happy to share what’s in my poems because I’ve worked through the feelings enough to be able to cope. I write a lot of prose poetry and find that this often gives me the narrative space to explore something more thoroughly and accessibly than I might be able to do in a line poem. I think that’s probably why the poem which deals with my misdiagnosis in The Saltwater Diaries is a prose poem – it needed to be said in that way.
8 When it comes to titles, our pieces as I said, are like children- each needing special consideration and attention- how do you name your poems, short stories, collections or novels- is the name a starting point, a midway consideration or a summation of the theme afterwards? Sometimes I worry when I come up with a really great title it might overpower the poem itself- is there a balance between the two?
I’m very lucky in that I belong to two Stanza groups and also have trusted friends who will look at a poem and sometimes say – great title but it doesn’t fit the poem. It’s so easy to fall in love with a title. They are strange things. For me, the title usually comes part way through the process, or some time afterwards and I change the title more than any other line in the poem – I believe that’s what a title is – it’s your first line – the most important one – the one that hooks the reader. I did keep a list of great titles for a while, but I don’t think I ever wrote the poems for them – perhaps, because, as you say, they were a bit overwhelming. A title has to fit the emotion which drives the poem, its motivating force. I think that’s why they come afterwards as sometimes I don’t know what that driving force is until I look back on the poem after putting it aside for a while.
9 For myself, writing started in childhood as a purely cathartic process, even if I was too young to fully understand this, it was a way of self-analysing and coming to an understanding of the world and my place within it. How did you find your way to writing and what was it about the process that kept you hooked?
I wrote a lot as a child and loved English classes and composition. I had notebooks full of “novels” and poems. My best friend’s mum took us to the Poetry Society’s poetry reading exams when we were around nine and I remember reading one of my own compositions alongside Blake’s The Fly (yes, I still passed!). When I started teaching at the University of East Anglia I didn’t really have time for my own writing so, about twenty years ago I went on some creative writing courses which made me focus and really got me started again. I was still writing quite a lot of prose and it was at this time that I realised I wanted to focus on poetry – that I could still tell stories, but in a way which suited me much more. In 2016 I got an Arts Council grant to write Lumière and spent six weeks in Paris which were just dedicated to my own writing. It was a revelation. I went from producing a poem a month to writing at least three a week and that gush of creativity hasn’t really let up since then.
10 For the most things that fulfil me in life, the surrounding visuals are very important, and over the past few years the relationship between the photograph I take and poem I write becomes integral to the success of both- sometimes I never know which inspired the other more. What is your favourite accompaniment while creating a piece of writing?
I can write anywhere really, in a café, on a train, taking notes while walking. I think I need constant stimulation, lots of triggers, I’ve got a bit of a monkey mind – so activity is my ideal accompaniment. I don’t need a dead quiet place or a blast of Bach, but I probably need some kind of white noise.
11 The more I write, the more it becomes my oxygen, the more my hand shapes itself to the shape of my favourite pen or now my iPhone which has replaced the laptop as the most at-hand instrument to record my thoughts, and these days I have to catch them quick or they are lost forever. As a kid I wanted to be a famous fashion designer and lived in 4 different countries working for various fashion brands, though the writing was always there. Since then, cooking and photography have come more into the forefront. What were your childhood dreams, what were the jobs that followed to fulfil them or just fill time and what, other than writing, would you consider doing in order to express yourself?
Well, boringly, I wanted to be a writer, or a journalist. I quite fancied being an archaeologist at one point. My first proper job was as a secretary/PA at the Royal Academy of Dancing. I loved this job and the people around me as I adore ballet. In fact, my time there is the basis of my second full collection, due out next year with Live Canon. If you are a writer, no job is wasted. I fell into teaching really – I qualified as an English language teacher to international students and then ended up teaching cultural studies, creative writing, film studies, linguistics etc I had a spell of marketing for the University of East Anglia and got to travel all over the world. When I moved to King’s Lynn after having lived twenty years in Norwich, I went freelance and did lots of interesting jobs. I became a director for the King’s Lynn Festival and reviewed many of the events for the regional newspaper, fulfilling my dream of being a journalist. I also volunteered for a few summers at the excavation site at Vindolanda in Northumberland so fulfilled my archaeologist dream too! I can’t imagine doing anything other than writing to express myself – I’m pretty rubbish at art and admire many of my students who are really good artists as well as writers!
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts, insights and mental workings with us. It’s been a pleasure to dive inside your head from the comfort of our own armchairs. Before we depart, if you were to leave us with one line, one phrase, one lyric, a one-liner or a once-in-a-life-time admission, either yours or someone else’s, what would it be?
It has to be Samuel Beckett’s brilliant:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
Followed by The Ramones:
Hey Ho Let’s Go!
which is my mantra when I need to sit down and redraft that poem!
Find Sue Burge here…