Sarah Hesketh – poet, wordsmith and lover of animals – speaks to Piers Pereira about the agony of dementia, the joy of seeing your work in print and the curiosity that drives her fantastically touching work.
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Sarah’s writing career has led her to some interesting and painful places. In 2013 she was a poet in residence with Age Concern, where she spent a year working with elderly people with dementia, and in 2014 she published ‘The Hard Box’, a collection of poems and interviews about the experience. Not one to shy away from painful stories, in 2015 she was commissioned by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust to work on a series of poems about a Holocaust survivor.
Now with two collections in print and her work appearing in many other collections, I wanted to know her feelings on the importance of being published.
“It’s so hard to get anything in anywhere when you are first starting. Even with so many more chances to publish in different ways, it just means the gate keepers sitting on it are so twitchy and more concerned about the work they’re putting out there.
“I was up in the loft last weekend in my parents’ house looking through some boxes, and I actually found the first ever poem I had in print, which was in one of these regional anthologies called ‘Rise and Shine: Young Poets From Lancashire’. I remember that I had used this strict rhyming scheme, and when the book finally came out I found that one line ‘wake up sudden’ had been changed by the editor to ‘wake up suddenly’. I was absolutely furious, I thought people would think I was an idiot. That was my first experience of seeing my work in print – being cross. When I dug it out again the other weekend I was so surprised to see it, but pleased. For 14, or however old I was, I like to think it still stands up.
“It shows you how unsatisfiable poets are. But I remember leaving my publisher’s office with my first book and having it sitting on my knees on the train to work, I remember thinking this is mine. That was a lovely feeling.”
Sarah has a large and varied collection of work, but I asked her if she thought any themes existed across her writing.
“My publisher always jokes I only write about women and animals, and I don’t think that’s entirely true. But he’s not far off. People, narrative and stories are some things I am drawn to and are what I want to give voice to. I’m not particularly interested in writing about big themes such as love or death, because what I find myself consistently drawn to is individual life stories. I’m interested in poetry as a form of life writing, mainly other people’s. I think there is so much discussion and quick anger in saying that you can only write out of your own experiences, that you can’t attempt to write from someone else’s point of view. But that’s what I’m quite interested in – writing about people rather than myself. The idea that you don’t have a right to write something is ridiculous: people can put pen to paper and produce any dross they want, and if it’s appalling then as a society we have a duty to say it’s appalling and wrong, or if it isn’t, and instead it’s challenging and different, then we have a duty to think about it.”
In terms of this “right to write” and writing from someone else’s point of view, I was curious about the impact she had on the residents at the care home where she had worked, and how it felt trying to write the story of people who might have forgotten their own.
“In terms of the impact I had on the residents, it’s very hard to say, they were at an advanced stage and everybody there was passed the stage of being able to string a narrative together. None of them would know from week to week who I was, or even remember my name from minute to minute. It was hard to say if they remembered meeting me or not.
“Apart from being somebody to spend some social time with, I can’t make any claims for being any more than that, because I don’t think there is any evidence for it. I’m always very cautious about making claims for what art can do in this kind of context. And I’m yet to see any convincing study that art can have any impact on anybody with dementia.
“As for myself? It was difficult. I was often upset when I finished a day there, but I also got quite attached to some of the personalities, and I got to know their stories as I spent time with them. What I thought I was going to be doing when I got in there was this active archaeology of recovering people’s stories and presenting them to the world. When, in fact, the personal history of the people there became less interesting when placed against the person in front of me, and I became more interested in getting to know those people in the present. Learning that Bill used to be a butcher was of very little use to me, and what I wanted to know was why Bill would walk up and down the corridors and not sit in the day room, or what he was really trying to communicate when he was talking about processes and machinery. It became a lot less about the backstories of people, and instead became about finding a way to communicate to get to know the person they are now.
“The first thing I learned was that everybody is different. If they have a similar form of dementia, say three people with Alzheimer’s, they could each have a completely distinct personality, and what’s more, they might come from completely different backgrounds. It means we are lumping a whole bunch of people together, and it just doesn’t work like that. You have to find a more individualist way of caring for people. I think we have to get a little bit better at it.”
After spending time working in such an emotionally impacting role, I wondered what was left in the world of literature that could draw out such sincere emotions.
“I keep a record of what I’ve read, but it’s been a bad start to the year. Last year I read the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels, but more recently I finished ‘Grief is the Thing with feathers’ by Max Porter, which was absolutely phenomenal. It’s part prose, part poem – it defies classification really. I think it should be winning more prizes.”
My final question was a simple one: what makes you write?
“An interesting story, something which catches my eye, something which makes me go oh I want to explore this a bit more. I think this is why sometimes my writing can be a bit image-led, because my ideas are often prompted by digging around in the backstory of a particular picture. The narrative is out there, and I can find it by figuring out the characters in that image and giving them a backstory. I think that’s my aim when I write; to bring the picture to life.”
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