'Poetry consoled me for many disappointments ... a sudden moment of silence and peace'
In the first of a series of interviews, Neil Leadbeater talks to Sally Evans, an influential figure on the Scottish poetry scene for many years as editor of Poetry Scotland, and as organiser of the Callander Poetry Weekend:
Let’s start at the beginning. Please tell us something about your background and how you first became inspired to write poetry.
I’ve written poems and read them since I was very young. I was disappointed to discover that practically all the poets were men, or so it seemed. I didn’t then see this as something I could challenge. I really liked the sounds and patterns and stories of poems. As I got older poetry consoled me for many disappointments, and gave me something to enjoy and appreciate in life whatever else was going on. I was fortunate to be in a very brilliant family of siblings but we did have some prejudices to work through - it was a long time ago!
What do you see as being the role of a poet and what does poetry mean to you?
It’s very close to being the role of a person. It’s not very highfalutin.
When you write your poems, where do your ideas come from?
Words. That’s what poetry is. But from a silence and peace, too, usually. Perhaps just a sudden moment of silence and peace.
What would you say are the main influences on your poetry?
Landscape. Latin and Greek poetry, which subject I studied first. The romance of Scotland. The love of home, variously Co Durham, Cumbria which I still tend to call the Lake District, Scotland, and London. I was born in London. The main things in my life are the main influences on my poetry. I think reading too: I have met so many people through books and the people we meet have an influence on us and thus on who we are and what we write.
I know that for the last few years you have been working on a PhD at Lancaster University. Please tell us a little bit about that project and what it has been like returning to university?
I had had experience of most sectors of the book and writing world, except for one: the university creative writing courses. I wanted to know what they were like. Lancaster was my home area and Lancaster University has a high reputation for creative writing. It would probably have been the same anywhere, but it has been very, very difficult and until I became properly known to my colleagues I felt some prejudice against my age. I had begun to make friends after about two years when everything shut down for Covid and I am now working ‘remotely’ with meetings via Skype, the wonderful university library out of bounds, and books and other materials only available online. It does help that I live in a bookshop! This would have been a more disastrous event in my first year; I am now writing hard and working towards the final thesis so my way is clearer, but I’m missing the interesting extras, the meetings, events and so on even more now that I know some people enough to call them friends. It was salutary having to start again after being in a close community of poets and writers who knew me well: I was cast out alone. But I have learnt a lot, experienced a lot and I needed a change in some respects. I feel the better for it. The university library was my best social experience. The staff were wonderfully helpful, the collections great and accessible, and it was open 24 hours in term time. It will all end up as a success story, for my novel has been accepted for publication, and the project is nearly complete. It wasn’t easy but that makes it more worthwhile.
Do you think there is a strong poetic movement in Scotland at the moment and, if so, how would you define it?
Oh yes, but I have to some extent retired. I have retired from editing Poetry Scotland because I didn’t know enough about the younger people coming up, and from running the Callander Poetry Weekend because I no longer have the brute strength needed to plan, organise, cater for, and host. It is very important to learn to let things move on. I am delighted that a new series of Poetry Scotland will start very soon under the management of Andy Jackson. There’s a slight hiatus in magazines – they need to know their territories now there are so many writers. The internet is far more active and encourages internationalism, and there’s too much emphasis on competition poetry, which hampers experiment. Things have changed culturally over the last few years and the prominent writers and writing styles will all change. There comes a point where an older person has to stand back and rely on themself!
What collections have you had published to date and what are you working on at present?
I have published almost a dozen books including pamphlets, some of it very good, but little in establishment places. My last publications were four e-books with Firewater Press, which did very well in the Amazon charts, including Tormaukin and Drip Road about the Highlands, and two pamphlets from diehard, Anderson’s Piano and The Bees of Dunblane. I have been busy with my course in the last few years. I tend to post newly written poems on Facebook - enough of my friends and followers can read them there, My novel, about poetry, will probably be my main legacy. I’d have liked to do three novels, but I can’t see that happening in my remaining time.
How are you coping with lockdown?
I don’t like it. I miss driving which is one of my greatest pleasures. I find it negative and can’t write about it, so far. I have been gardening and greenhouse gardening to balance all the writing.
What lessons have you learned from writing poetry? Do you have any piece of advice to pass on to other aspiring poets?
None whatsoever. Poetry is a response to life. It’s a great way of life, I don’t regret my life in the least. By writing a novel about poetry in fairly old age, I took the risk of examining in detail how I had spent my life, and I have survived this experiment. If I was starting today I would do a creative writing course, but with a subject degree as well.
Sally Evans was editor of Poetry Scotland broadsheet 1997-2018, and hosted the popular Callander Poetry Weekends that ran for nearly 20 years. She has published poetry widely in magazines and books, translated Gaelic poetry, and been a poetry editor of the Scots Language Centre's website. At diehard press, she has edited and published books by many other poets. She has read and performed poetry at StAnza, in all the Scottish cities and throughout England, especially the north.