Isabelle Kenyon is the author of poetry chapbooks: This is not a Spectacle, Digging Holes To Another Continent, Potential, and Growing Pains. She is the editor of Fly on the Wall Press, a socially conscious small press for chapbooks and anthologies. She interviewed Anna Saunders during the height of the COVID-19 crisis in England.
Anna Saunders is the author of poetry collections: Communion, Struck, Kissing the She Bear, Burne Jones and the Fox, Ghosting for Beginners, and Feverfew, published by Indigo Dreams in 2021. She holds a Masters in Creative and Critical Writing from The University of Gloucestershire and is the CEO and founder of Cheltenham Poetry Festival in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England.
IK: I feel as though Feverfew has many tender, personal moments but also occasions when it is packed with subtle rage against our government. Would you describe your work as political, and where do you think the line is between what you consciously set out to write about, and factors of the world around you which filter their way into your work?
AS: My intention has never really been to write the “political poem,” as such, but I think as writers it is becoming harder and harder to turn our gaze from what are quite extreme imbalances in the system. Poverty and wealth often find their way into my work. For example, the fact that whilst we are one of the richest countries in the world, one in three children live in poverty, and foodbanks have become so necessary—in fact, in some places demand for them is so high that they have had to close.
I tried to address these themes “slant,” as Emily Dickinson would say. For example, in my poem “The Wolf Speaks at the Tory Party Conference”:
We aren’t how the novels portray us we are worse than that. You could say we cower from those who are our equals preferring instead to track down the weak the sick, the broken.
In another poem I use the phoenix as metaphor to explore “Eton boy” politics, the symbol comprising the concept that the same group of elites runs the country year after year, rising again and again from the flames.
How wrong we are to think that fire can cauterise corruption. Time after time the same bird is born from the flame. We watch him rise on ash wings singing as he buries the sun.
There are many poets who write potent political poetry and are probably more direct than me. I tend to turn to myth, legend, or dark comedy to talk about the uneven playing field and trickle-up economics.
IK: With so many artists and writers turning to government support systems during the COVID-19 crisis, do you foresee our creative industries adapting, or do you question the resilience possible within our current financial restraints?
AS: The arts enrich our lives, encourage us to be more empathetic to others, have broader perspective; however, artists are currently being judged by how much money they make.
Birdspeed, a superb spoken word artist, spoke of how writing a poem about a garden is a statement—that is, by having time to write a poem about a garden, by affording to have a garden, you are to some extent privileged. Also, if you are working incredibly long hours you probably won’t have time or energy to write.
I do feel economics is having an impact on the range of poetry we hear. I work full time, but I’m fortunate to be able to be flexible about my hours, and if I’m not too tired from work I can find time to write. Not everyone can, and I think we are missing some wonderful work because of that.
I write about this contrast between privilege and poverty in the poem, “Not Quite Raptors,” where I contrast the work of some writers I know in Liverpool, who are creating against a backdrop of poverty and violence, and of more settled, middle-class writers:
Last night in a poor part of the city the words the poets uttered seem punched out by the mic’s clenched fist. Pages flapping white, words spearing our attention. Back home I read feather-light, fluttering poetry, written by glinting Parker pens.
IK: How long did Feverfew take to write, and how did you find the process of editing? Challenging or liberating?
AS: The poems came together quite quickly. I get a lot of ideas and don’t really suffer from writer’s block, as such. Perhaps having studied for a Master’s in Creative Writing has helped me there, as I had to produce several poems a week. I love editing poems—I see it as sculpting, chipping away to get to the final artwork. I find getting the first draft written is the hardest thing. Once something is on the page it’s easier. I run workshops and get my students to get a few first drafts down, so they don’t have to meet the blank page when they start their writing time. I find every aspect of the writing process joyful. I just wish I could find more time to get to the page.
IK: You describe this collection as your “most personal yet.” How have you found sharing this vulnerability with your readers? In your opinion, what does poetry benefit or suffer from when it is based on personal experience?
AS: I wrote the collection within quite a short space of time, and many of the poems are inspired by the same, intense personal experiences: grief, loss, guilt, love, desire. That said, many of the poems that appear to be personal perhaps aren’t, and some of the poems in which I use myth—maybe those are the most telling.
I am drawing on my own experiences in many of these poems, whether in a conversational way:
It's not as if we were together long, I tell my heart, but it isn’t listening.
or in a way that uses masks and myths. In one poem I write (of an intense relationship) by alluding to Leda and the swan:
What was born of it was half holy though it hurt when the cumulus cloud of feather came down, beaked and biting, webbed feet like black fans slapping, which of them was Leda, which was the swan?
I was talking about “lying to tell the truth” (to the wonderful poet Nigel Kent ) recently, that is to appear to be making a candid confession, when perhaps you are creating a fictional setting and persona to explore emotional truths. In this I am very influenced by the confessional poets who appeared to be talking straight to the reader, though, of course, used great artistry to give this impression. I’m talking about the original confessional poets, including Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, and today’s, such as Americans Sharon Olds and Marie Howe.
I do think writing and reading work that is emotionally honest, and reveals the human psyche in all its nakedness, its shared vulnerability, can enable us to be more empathic—and to understand we are not alone is a solace.Anna Saunders
Helen Ivory describes Feverfew as “extremely good medicine,” which delights me. I love the idea of poetry as a healing tool.
IK: 2020 was incredibly difficult for literary festival organizers. Cheltenham poetry Festival chose to hold international online events, and for the first time you programmed performers from the U.S., New Zealand, and further afield. What benefits have you seen from this, and do you think the online events have improved your accessibility?
AS: We were devastated to have to cancel the in-person festival, but we have, to coin the image of the phoenix again, risen from the ashes. We have gone truly global and have been hosting events with some incredible, international names. Our open mics are now made up of some stellar names from as far away as New Zealand, and we aim to continue these events, even when we have gone back to “normal” and are running events in the flesh.
I love American poetry, and we are particularly excited to have some incredible U.S. poets read for us. We have hosted a reading with Joseph Fasano, for example, and recently had Todd Dillard and Lee Potts read. (Lee was the joint winner of our pamphlet competition).
IK: Finally, if you had to describe Feverfew in one sentence, what would it be?
AS: Can I quote Seren poet Paul Deaton? “The poems in Feverfew will make even the deathless Gods jealous of mortal experience.”
by Anna Saunders
£9.50 + P&P UK Indigo Dreams Publishing Ltd.