Have a gander at Open Pen’s recent interview with poet Sarah Perry. Here she talks about her career to date and the opportunities open to new writers.
2014 is turning into a hectic year for young poet, Sarah Perry. Following on from her successes in 2013 – a year in which her first novel was shortlisted for the Mslexia Novel Award for unpublished female authors and she was long listed for the role of London’s Young Poet Laureate – Sarah was announced as Cityread London’s Young Writer in Residence. The residency enables writers to create work inspired by Cityread London’s chosen novel and the unique space that is their location, and in Sarah’s case that was the vibrant area of Soho.
It was on a cool evening in late spring that we were fortunate to sit her down for cup of tea and a chat. Here she answers a few questions, telling us about her career to date, her inspirations and the wonderful opportunities open to new writers.
What started your career as a writer?
I’m wary of introducing myself as “a writer”, because really we all share that identity – we all have something to say. I started life as an actor but, really, I developed my writing as a way to process my thoughts, or, at the time when my writing was really progressing, it was a way of processing anger.
When and where do you write?
With my current residency I’ve been given some great spaces to write. Right here at St Barnabas House [Soho] and at Westminster Reference Library, and they’re both such wonderful places to work. But quite often the urge to write can come absolutely anywhere, and as long as you have a pen and paper to hand you can always write that moment of inspiration down. Of course it’s true that quite often I’ll look back at something later and feel utterly ashamed that I’ve composed that thought and considered it noteworthy in the first place. But every once in a while I’ll find something that sticks, an idea that really sparks into something bigger, because for every good poem I write there are about fifty terrible ones.
When you get an idea do you consciously decide to write it as verse or prose?
The novel was consciously prose, and some poems do start as prose, but I then edit them into verse. Or sometimes I’ve found that, in jotting down an idea, I’ve written a poem when I really haven’t meant to.
What inspires your writing?
It’s different every time. Right now it’s the people in Soho, the history of the area and its buildings. I’m very fortunate to be part of the wonderful Spoken Word Education Programme, and the children I teach are incredible, some of them absolutely amazing. They’re so much braver than I am, and very honest. Of course it can be very scary putting your inspiration down on paper and seeing what comes out, but very rewarding too.
What satisfaction do you get from your creative works?
Writing creatively is incredibly hard work, and when the work is so hard it can be very difficult to achieve satisfaction. I really push myself to achieve the best I can so I’m constantly revising and re-writing, just making improvements. So really what’s the impetus for me? I suppose I strive to communicate honestly. I love that writing and the spoken word can be vehicles for change through protesting and activism, the result of which can see ones words become a device for healing. That opportunity to strive towards something honest and affecting makes me feel really good.
How much do you think where we’re from influences our writing?
It does. Of course it does. But I’ve written more about childhood and memories than I have a place, geographically speaking. But being here [in Soho] shows how much a place can be an influence. And it is a wonderful area to work.
You were long-listed for the Young Poet Laureate. Of those listed beside you who really stood out?
Warsan Shire is just an amazing poet and a beautiful writer. She’s an amazing person too, though I suppose that’s beside the point. But either way Warsan was always going to be the winner.
You’re part of several poetry collectives. How long have you been a part of these, and do you think they’ve shaped your work?
Massively. Working within a writing community is brilliant, and I’d advise anyone to do it. It gives you an impetus to write. I’m a member of ‘The Roundhouse Poetry Collective’ and ‘Burn After Reading’, both of which are great, and very supportive. Feedback is such an important part of writing and really one of the only ways you can learn and grow as a writer, and these collectives can offer that. Plus it’s a great opportunity to read the works of others and to see what others are writing about and what inspires them.
What other support is out there for writers pursuing “success”?
Ha! I suppose that really depends on what you consider the definition of “success” to be. It reminds me of an anecdote about Seamus Heaney – a gentlemen approached him and said “Seamus, do you have any advice? I’m trying to become a poet.” And Seamus replied, “me too!” But honestly, joining a community of writers can be great if only for how very supportive and inspiring it can be. Spoken word nights are great for that too. What’s incredible is that there’s a whole network of support out there, with places like ‘IdeasTap’, which is a kind of LinkedIn for young creatives. Then there’s ‘Spread the Word’ and ‘Apples and Snakes’. I’ve been very lucky to meet some amazing people through these places, all of whom work so hard to help my peers and me. It’s great how many people are getting into poetry – it’s really having a moment.
What can you tell us about your role as Cityread’s Young Writer in Residence?
‘Spread The Word’ manages the residency, which Cityread runs each year throughout April. It’s a great way to encourage engagement within our communities because it’s spread across the city. I’m very fortunate to be based in Soho because of the diversity and character on offer. The residency asks me to create original pieces inspired by Cityread’s chosen novel. Of course there’s a lot of work involved, but it’s exciting to be invited to work on this and to be a part of the whole project. Personally I’m really grateful for the opportunity because it has really helped me grow as a writer and to focus entirely on my creative work.
Cityread London is a celebration of literature that aims to engage Londoners in the written word and to promote reading across the capital. Each April, Cityread asks Londoners to pick up the same book and read it together. Throughout the month a programme of book groups, film screenings and other events takes place across all London boroughs in libraries, bookshops, museums and other venues.
To find out more about Cityread London, their upcoming calendar of events and this year’s book of choice, visit their website at www.cityreadlondon.org.uk
As Sarah Perry’s writing goes from strength to strength, you can follow her on Twitter @sarahperrypoet