Interview

UH   Fokkina, congratulations on being short-listed in the Erbaccce International Poetry Competition. I’m delighted that we’ve been able to bring your work to a wider audience through the coveted ‘Featured Poet’ slot in this journal. To start off with, I’d like to ask how long you’ve been writing poetry and whether you’ve published elsewhere?

St Anns Reading  07FM   I’ve written non-fiction related to my work: articles, training manuals and workbooks. Back in the late 80s I actually got first prize in an essay competition and immediately spent the money on an expensive three-piece suit for work – £250 was a lot of money in those days! And then I did an Open University course called ‘Art and Environment’ and that involved some writing assignments. I really enjoyed it so I started writing poetry, although I hadn’t read much poetry at that point. I got a Certificate of Merit in a competition which I put in a clip-frame at the bottom of the staircase as a reminder. So I started writing really in the late 80s, early 90s. I went to workshops with Manchester poets like Steven Waling. Then I went through a very difficult period in my life; I didn’t write for a good 7, 8 years. I got back into it going to workshops – I’m lucky that I can write in a workshop environment – I’ve done quite a lot of sessions with Peter Sansom. I’m currently on the 18-month Writing School which I’m enjoying although I’m way behind with the homework!

UH   The workshop can be a big commitment, can’t it?

FM   Yes! So I’ve really built up from there. I had some successes back in the mid-90s, couple of small prizes, work in magazines and anthologies and I got two cheques from the BBC, one for £2, a poem that was read, one for £5 which was a short story that was read – I cashed them, I didn’t frame them! I suppose over the past 8-9 years I’ve expanded. You go through these phases where you feel a failure because you know what you want to write but technically it doesn’t work and it’s so fragile where you think ‘this is a good poem’ and it gets rejected. I think one of the things to remember is that it is subjective because a poem of mine won a sonnet prize last year but I sent it to other competitions, I sent it to some magazines and nothing…

UH   It’s so important, isn’t it, to remember the subjectivity of placing poems, and try not to take it as a judgement on your work because clearly with your work-shopping and the courses you’ve been on you are dedicated to the craft, you work on technique…

FM   Yes. And the other thing is that I’m at that point now where I’m doing my best to move away from purely autobiographical poems.

UH   That’s something I was going to ask you about. Some of the work that you’re sharing with us seems quite strongly based on specific memory, so I’m very interested when you say that you feel that’s something you’re perhaps moving away from now. Do you think that’s a stage that almost all poets go through?

FM   I remember a book edited by Carrie Etter, Infinite Difference. She said in the introduction she’d been writing autobiographical poems for 10 years and felt that it had become a straitjacket. So that’s the next level, where I’m also looking at other poets and how they combine something that’s personal but not obviously autobiographical with something that happens in the wider world.

UH   Yes, obvious autobiography perhaps has limitations, although what you have here is really effective. But in terms of your own practice you can get a little tired of revisiting…

FM   That’s right. Most of the poems here have come from a workshop environment and there’s one, it’s based on personal experience, the one about the Day and Night in Orihuela, I did visit that place and it’s the birthplace of the Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez. I found that very moving. There has to be for me some emotional connection to what I’m writing – I can’t just write from the head and make a clever poem.

UH   So thinking about that particular poem, ‘In the town of Orihuela’, it’s interesting that it came out of a workshop and I noticed in this poem, and in fact in many of your pieces, that there’s a very strong sense of place – obviously ‘Orihuela’ seems to have been written while you were there…

FM   Yes, in a way. When I visit a place I make notes in the hope that I may be able to use them. That’s the thing that now I’m easier with – oh, well it sits there in the unconscious, and it’ll come out, it’s just waiting. A couple of poems were recently written that way. One was for an anthology with a deadline and I thought ‘oh, what am I going to write?’ and I just woke up at 2am and wrote most of it, then I did some editing and worked until 4am and then, ‘OK, that’s mostly there.’

UH   That’s a very effective working method! So it sounds as though when you are just going through your life experiences, there’s a part of you that is observing and storing away what will eventually come out, hopefully, as poetry.

FM   Yes, I also keep photos from newspapers, postcards, anything that I can go back to. I used that maybe more 4 or 5 years ago to get me started, but now I’ve got more sitting in the head, little pockets of experience…

UH   So it’s all there in storage, just waiting for the moment.

FM   That’s right.

UH   A lot of these poems seem like vignettes of narratives or situations that are much bigger than what we actually see. I suppose you might say like the tip of an iceberg. So I wonder what your drafting and editing processes are, whether you’re conscious of seeking to create this effect?

FM   Good question! I always write by hand. I don’t do anything immediately on the computer. Once I’ve got a reasonable first draft, I will type up because I think it’s important to see the line length and shape on the page – and take feedback from the two small poetry groups I belong to. I will often remove material from the beginning or the end …

UH   Yes! You warm up or you write past the ending, and it’s learning to know when you’ve done that.

FM   Yes. And then I read it aloud a few times.

UH   So that’s to do with the sound and the breath…

FM   Yes. And then I’ll leave it for a while. I have a working folder with 20 or so poems that are typed up and I just keep going through them. I’ve learned it’s better to finish too early than too late. You can get to a point where they’re over-edited. The other thing that I do… one of the people on the course is a poet and an editor and he tries to keep the roles separate. So I sit in a different place for my editing from where I write.

UH   That’s a very good idea because all too often the ‘editor’ comes in when we’re still trying to generate material and then we stifle the creative process.

FM   Oh yeah. And apart from the group feedback, where people will spot things you haven’t noticed, I send them to two poet friends who come back with comments. But sometimes you think, ‘fine, but I’m not going to change it’.

UH   I think it’s important to know what to do with feedback. Sometimes you can acknowledge somebody’s point but decide not to act on it because you can end up with everybody owning the work except you.

FM   I think that’s something I’ve got more confident with.

UH   We’ve talked about all the different places from which you draw inspiration and it does seem evident, this trajectory, where you’re moving away from the obviously autobiographical, that you’re using historical figures, paintings, fairy tales… it seems that you’re drawing from a very broad range of material.

FM.   That’s right. And that’s really exciting. Because anything can start a poem. I’m doing a bit more ‘experimental work’ as well. Some experimental work, I can admire it for being clever or witty, but it doesn’t really do anything for me emotionally, so that comes into my own writing of experimental work. It has to be more than just clever.

UH   I think experiment is a difficult area for lots of writers, certainly for me, because as you say, do you experiment because you can, or because it actually helps you to achieve whatever it is that you’re trying to do? This leads me to ask about the form of your work, which is quite varied, trying different things, and yet what unifies everything is the poise and the precision. So I’m wondering how you decide the shape of a poem? How do you know what it is that’s emerging?

FM   Laughs. Another not so easy question! My first draft is usually just a splurge out and then I look at it and think about the form. So I don’t think, ‘I’m going to write a sestina,’ and then do it. Something comes out and then I think, ‘is it best in couplets?’ or ‘two stanzas?’. That’s part of the editing and it can be tricky then to have to add or delete lines. I have found the sonnet form very enjoyable to work with. It seems to come naturally, just like stories. And then if you don’t make obvious end rhymes, it’s just a natural, easy way to tell the story.

UH   That’s right. In fact I think there is a theory that the human mind works in those units of lines, which may be why the sonnet has evolved, as you say, so organically.

FM   Also, I got into traditional Haiku in the early 90s before I got into mainstream poems. One of the things that I really enjoy is writing a linked sequence with other people. Nowadays it can be done by e-mail, you look in your in-box and think ‘there it is’! The material from the other person sparks off the imagination.

UH   Yes! If you write collaboratively in that way it can take you to places you might never have found on your own.

FM   That’s right. And the experience of haiku got in the way when I first started writing, when I wrote too densely. This can still be a bit of an issue. People say, ‘this needs explaining’ but I’d rather write fewer words than more if that makes sense.

UH   Yes, it feels easier to expand where necessary than to start chipping away at things.

FM   That’s right. We had homework over the summer which was writing a sequence of poems. Now that is a challenge because I write naturally fairly short poems. Writing at length goes against the grain.

UH   It does feel as though your instincts are very much towards condensing rather than expanding. That might be why the traditional Haiku appeals to you? I recognise that kind of aesthetic in your work.

FM   It does. You can take it at two levels. There is a description but also something else underneath, a richness.

UH   Again, it’s almost like the iceberg.

FM   Yes, it’s very interesting you said that. I haven’t thought about my work in that way and it’s not something I aim for consciously, so it’s an interesting comment.

UH   For me, that’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of your work. The final duty I have to bestow on you is, I hope, a pleasurable one: you get to decide the colour of the Erbacce flower on the cover.

FM   Sea green. Because I was born just a couple of miles from the beach in Holland. A lot of the poems are also about that place. Water, the beach, come up quite a bit.

UH   We’ll see what our printers can do. Thank you, Fokkina, it’s been an absolute pleasure.


Interview with Dr Ursula Hurley, Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Salford University, at the Lowry, Salford on 16 September 2013.

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