THE MINDS BEHIND THE MADNESS- THE HEDGEHOG POETRY PRESS- ANNE MCMASTER

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 are joined by Anne McMaster who runs This Northern Voice and whose collection ‘Walking off the Land’ comes out later this year from The Hedgehog Poetry Press. We are sharing here the runners-up photographs to the book cover but not the actual cover, that reveal is coming soon so readers need to watch out…

Thanks for taking the time to join us Anne, here we go…

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?

I wrote this collection as a way of capturing the memories and history of the land and the old farm where I live. I worked here as a farmer when my dad was injured in an accident; for some years before I went to university, I was rearing animals, driving tractors and keeping the farm going as a working concern. It was only when I returned to Northern Ireland from living in California for a number of years, however, that I began to take a really close look at the organic shape of the farm – its history, the people who worked here generations before me and, of course, the wonderful natural world that shapes everything we do! I’m also deeply grateful to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for a SIAP (Support for the Individual Artist) Award which allowed me to travel Northern Ireland and talk to farmers about their experiences on small farms. That proved an invaluable addition to my own experiences too.

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?

My chill out routine is very simple – I have an old bench outside under a sycamore tree where bird feeders hang! I relax out there with a big mug of coffee and usually a cat or three. During the summer, I’m well sheltered from any sunshine we may get, but even in the winter (when the sycamore’s branches are bare) I’m wrapped up and outside with my cuppa. There’s a real peacefulness at being outside and so close to nature – and you get to notice all the small things. Indoors, my writing space is a little study that gathers afternoon light greedily to itself; I have a small desk (just big enough for my laptop and some books) and the rest of the room is packed with bookcases and thousands of books. It’s a joy to be in there and write.

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 hate to cite technology, but I use my iPhone a great deal for making notes and holding ideas. I don’t own a TV, so I listen to a lot of radio (plays, podcasts, interviews) and I’m always getting inspiration from what I hear. Doing this, I’ve ended up with titles for poems and often opening lines. I begin with those rough notes each week, transfer the ideas to a notebook (this is the handwriting part I really enjoy) and develop it along the way. The next step is to type everything up and see how the poems shape up. I like this organic process and feel it gives me a great deal of freedom to develop my work.

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?

Oh, you’re so right! Yes, Covid has made a huge change to the way we now communicate and promote our work. I have a personal FB page which seems to have gathered quite a number of followers who have become very interested in my work. I’m incredibly grateful to them for their interest and their constant support. I spend some time on Twitter (probably not enough) and have been really delighted to become involved with #TopTweetTuesday which has not only given me a forum in which to share my work but has also introduced me to the loveliest selection of writers – your good self being one of them! I’ve also been really lucky to’ve been asked to read at a number of international poetry forums – and I now do that on a regular basis. It’s quite strange to be sitting in my wee study in the rural north and talking with friends across the USA and Canada! Social media is a difficult beast. You’ve tamed it wonderfully and made it work so well for you, but I’d probably describe myself as an occasional interloper!

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 took a huge step back late last year and part of this year and, apart from submitting to two anthologies, didn’t send any work out at all. I simply wrote. Out of that came the best piece of advice I’ll ever have to pass on to other writers. Find your own voice. There are wonderful poets out there, but there’s no one quite like YOU. When you are alone with that page and your own ideas, you’re forced to dig deep. And when you stick with it, you begin to find that you’re more in touch with your own subject matter and your voice than you ever were. From that awareness comes a confidence that just can’t be beaten. And you need it, definitely, when rejections come in. I used to be really gutted when rejections dropped into my mailbox, but now I trust what I’m writing, so I choose carefully who I’m going to send that part of myself to. Writing journals are wonderful – more often than not they’re populated by the nicest, hardest-working folk who believe in poets and their words. I’m excited to see new journals continuing to appear – even in these straitened times – and I can’t wait to send work out to them! When I get rejections, I take a deep breath, grab another coffee and get stuck in again to sending out more work.

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?

D’you know, this has been one of the single most difficult things to answer! I thought long and hard about this and decided to include a wee couplet that I wrote some years ago. I don’t know why I was hit with this tiny bit of inspiration, but I’m glad I was! When I wrote this, I was just beginning my freelance career and, newly working from home, was coming to understand that I now had a wonderful front-row view of nature. This wee poem takes no more than ten seconds to read, but I hope it captures the sense of seasonal change that the later months bring.

Relay
October races towards November, still like a child at play.
November reaches slowly down and takes its toy away.

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?

Oh, this is a fabulous question! A couple of years ago I was part of a wonderful project called XBorders: Transition and got to work with the fab Maria McManus and Patsy Horton from Blackstaff Press. They taught me so much about stripping back my work and cutting it right to the bone. They gave me a completely new perspective on the lines I shaped and the words I used – and I’ll be forever grateful to them. I also write from what I call a ‘failed visual artist’ point of view! (I know you’ll be referencing photographic images in a later question!) I love visual art, but I don’t possess an artist’s ability to transfer what I see to a sketch book or canvas. What I do, however, is to try and capture the images I perceive through my words. That is a discipline in itself and has tightened a lot of my writing.

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?

You couldn’t have asked me a better question! It’s title, titles, always titles for me. I look on them as the coat hanger that I’m going to arrange a particular swathe of fabric on. If the coat hanger isn’t there, the fabric falls. I know this doesn’t work for everyone – and you make a really excellent point about the possibility of a really good title overwhelming the poem itself – but I find a strong title allows me to focus on what comes next and gives me the impetus to carry the poem through. Ironically, choosing a title for my collection – Walking Off the Land – was probably the most difficult title I’ve had to pin down. Once I remembered the phrase however (it’s a country funeral tradition and a phrase I’ve known all my life) I knew it was the one.

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 know it’s a cliché, but I’ve written since I was old enough to hold a pencil. I’ve always been a compulsive reader, so it seemed natural to write stories and poetry in primary school. I then fell in love with theatre at university and ended up lecturing in Performing Arts for 20+ years while working as a theatre director and playwright. I think that, as writers, we have to be interested in other people as well as in ourselves and playwriting gave me a massive opportunity to do just that. I adapted novels for the stage, devised and toured my own original works while writing pieces for film and radio. I love stories and I’m fascinated by what people tell you about themselves when they share a story. All the while, however, I was writing poems for myself. Poems that never saw the light of day. It wasn’t until 2016 (when I left my lecturing world behind and decided to write full-time) that I began to enter poetry competitions and give readings. That was it. I was hooked. I’m not like Dorothy Parker who said, ‘I hate writing, I love having written.’ I enjoy the process. When I wrote plays, I found myself visualising the various elements of an algebraic equation coming together. I feel the same way about poetry now. That idea of shaping a piece of work around my thoughts keeps me writing!

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?

When I write plays, I immerse myself completely in the music of the era or the situation. Film noir music. Bluegrass for a theatre of the absurd western (don’t ask!). Acres of classical music. Hits from the 70s! I was incredibly fortunate to work with a composer when I was writing a play for voices which captured the experiences of young Irishmen at the Battle of Messines. That was an extraordinary experience. We talked together while I explained the overview of my script, he went away and wrote the most incredibly haunting music and then I fleshed out the words by writing alongside his music – so the phrases spoken echoed the music playing at exactly the same time. Sheer creative synergy. Poems, however, I write in complete silence. I use a lot of my own photographs for ekphrastic purposes, however. Sometimes a shot of the farm will jog my memory; often I’ll try to capture a photograph that expresses an ambience I know I’ll want to draw upon later.

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?

I couldn’t not write. Like you, it’s my oxygen. I have endless notebooks, ideas on my iPhone and files packed full of ideas and inspiration. I was always fascinated by writing and by words and my work has always been linked to that fascination. At university, I fell in love with theatre and started my first theatre company aged 22. That turned into a life-long love affair with theatre – writing for the stage, designing interactive theatre projects for schools and companies and also directing productions. I was truly surprised to tot up a few years ago that I’d worked on over 80 productions and have the scripts of over 30 original plays (and stage adaptations of novels) here with me at home. I’m still doing theatre projects and designing projects but poetry and photography have become complete obsessions for me and one feeds into the other.

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?

If I could stretch that one line a wee bit, it would be a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson. I found this by accident while flicking through a collection of his essays in a second hand bookshop in San Diego and it absolutely floored me. It’s still important to me – and always will be.

‘Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

Thank you so much!

You can find Anne on Twitter as @Rosehill_girl and keep on eye on The Hedgehog Poetry Press for details of her collection release…

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