We’re back in Sheffield yet again for April’s Fresh Featured poet, Rachel Bower. (Can we help having so many vibrant writers on our literary scene? No.) Rachel is a talented poet, and an important supporter of other artists, so it’s my pleasure to bring you more of Rachel’s poetry, and her thoughtful answers to the interview questions…
KG: Rachel, I first met you at an open mic night, when you were about to start putting on the Verse Matters events in Sheffield [a monthly feminist arts event that gives a platform to a broad range of voices]. Please tell us a little bit about why you started Verse Matters, and how you think poetry can make a difference in a sometimes depressing world.
RB: Thanks Kate. I set up Verse Matters to create a supportive space in which talented people to share their work. Sheffield is an amazing place with amazing people, but I knew lots of talented women who didn’t have the confidence to share their work, or perhaps to go into a pub by themselves. I also was devastated by the election result in May 2015, and felt like we needed to turn up our brilliant northern volume, as nothing in Westminster reflected the reality and the diversity of the debates in Sheffield leading up to the election. I also set up Verse Matters to create a space which might feel a bit safer – so that people could share difficult experiences with others. I often work closely with individual performers to support them to share their work, and I also work with organisations like Arts on the Run, ASSIST and the Archer Project to include voices that we might not usually hear. I also set up Verse Matters up to acknowledge the massive inequalities in society and the arts. I don’t think ‘women’s rights’ makes sense without racial equality and economic justice, and the more we come together in solidarity, in our wonderful diversity, the stronger we are. There’s always a mix of experienced and new performers and the aim is to come together and support each other. Everyone is respected and appreciated. I truly believe that these times call for solidarity and for resistance, and that we need outlets through which to articulate our anger, our sadness, our joy. Verse Matters aims to provide this kind of space.
KG: When did you start writing poetry?
RB: I’ve always written – as long as I can remember. As a child, I used to just sit and write and write and write with a biro until my hand hurt. It hasn’t always been poetry – although I’ve always written lots of silly rhymes. I recently found an epic story which I wrote when I was young, following a little robin – for pages and pages – and I must have finally got tired at the end: ‘and then the Robin landed next to a snake and the snake gobbled her up.’
If she peels back a piece of his face
she can smell the fragrance of the girl
he wants her to be. This girl has no ash
in indigo hair, no stains on her breath.
She is honey chiffon, soft linen, ribbon
streaming through fingers and
she would never bite. Rip it off
completely for a crocus without folds
of skin or creases. This wren does not
twitter. She tries to stick the strip back on
to cover crushed grapes and peach
but it will not graft. She is left with gore.
KG: Do you write anything that isn’t poetry? And if so, what sort of writing gives you the most satisfaction?
RB: I write a lot of non-fictional prose in my role as a researcher. I’ve written a lot of academic writing really, including my PhD which was one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced. But poetry calms me, and inspires me and makes me cry. I’ve been wondering recently about bringing together academic prose and poetry through creative essays, but they still feel very separate things for me.
KG: What moves you to write in general?
RB: I am often driven to write by inequality or by overheard words or tiny things that strike me in my daily life. My recent poem about City Square in Leeds was prompted by the experience of having to walk through the circle of naked female statues (and booted men with books) every day, and the impact that had on me. But that doesn’t mean that my poetry is political – it just often gets inspired by a strong feeling, and many of my strong feelings come from my outrage or utter sadness at things in our society and world systems.
City Square, LS1 2ES
I see her as I leave the station
staring at the pavement unimpressed.
Her bitter peach buttocks
and breasts, unripe and green
fixed under hailstones that
rest hard on bronze flesh.
She is topless. He is suited and booted.
She looks out, he looks down
fingers trapped in a book, legs spread.
He is Priestly, Harrison, Watt and Hook.
Man of steam, wool, church and book.
She is nymph. She is nymph. She is nymph. She is nymph.
She is nymph. She is nymph. She is nymph. She is nymph.
In summer, people dine around his boots
cracking stacks of lobsters and prawns.
Knuckles and chins drip with fishy water.
Sometimes they glance up at bronze buttocks and calves
and my breasts and legs walking past
and I’m walking through the Sun
newspaper, from front to back
tripping over tits and hips
and it cannot be switched
it’s the heart of our city
it’s our culture, it’s tradition
and I limp to Infirmary Street
but it’s no better there
and I’m stumbling through the city tripping over lips and tits and bits of women and hips and a faceless whistle comes from a van and ink gets smudged on my face of creepy texts and ex on the beach sex tape shock and I look at the sky and the stubs of my eight new limbs begin to burn.
I ready myself. She shouts look up
and I look at the sky and hail hits me
in the eye and I cry iced tears, but not for long
for Scylla and Chrybdis were nymphs too
and nobody stays nymph forever.
These bared women
have been standing only a century
barely a hair in the cactus of time
Sea scorpions swam in brine
430 million years ago
and there is nothing natural abut this.
Next time you walk through city square
listen to the low metallic moans of the women
around the edge. Ask them to tell you
their history, that is your history,
ask how they will stretch and fracture the bronze
crack knuckles and stride to the coast
and crash in aquatic water
to wreck ships between the rocks that they are.
Run with them, you are cast in hard metal too.
Go quickly – next time you walk through city square
the nymphs might not be there.
KG: Do you have a favourite word, or least favourite word?
Eeek. I really don’t have a favourite word. I love the things words do when they come together – especially through sound patterns and half-rhymes. I guess the word ‘bumper’ (as in referring to something big) is really irritating me at the moment, but words change for me all the time.
Silk flowers – for Liz
Even the daffodils turn white
when I hear, a day of magnolia street
bright paper, lilies that drip wax
but there is one tree that flares
with the fire from your belly, flame hair
twisted in her branches and she becomes
than winter left her and drops
sparks onto spiders below
to ignite lilac webs with glowing
KG: And finally – leave a bit of advice for us all, whether that’s writing-related or life, and whether it’s something someone else has passed to you, or a conclusion you’ve come to on your own.
RB: ‘We have learned to be less than we really are.’ This was passed to me recently by a very wise woman, and I think it is very true, especially for women, and for many other groups of people in society. I am trying to live this, and make it one of my truths. Eeek. That sounds serious! But we should celebrate ourselves and our potential and try harder not to edit out our wonderful shining brilliance as human individuals!
If you want to know more about Rachel, and stay up to date with her work and performances, please visit her website at https://rachelbowerwrites.wordpress.com/
If you are an emerging or unpublished poet, and would also like to submit work for a weekly Fresh spot (every Thursday), and/or put yourself forward for our monthly poetry profile Fresh: Featured, you can find out how right here!