Creativity, Career & Capitalism: Jade Cuttle talks to Sarah Fletcher
Sarah Fletcher is an American-British poet currently living in London who I first met through the incredible Foyle Young Poet of the Year Competition, currently celebrating its twenty year anniversary. After her first pamphlet, Kissing Angles, was shortlisted for a Saboteur Award, she's gone on to publish a second pamphlet with Smith|Doorstop, Typhoid August, as part of the New Poets Prize and so I felt it was time to find out more.
How did the prize help you advance in your writing career?
It's hard to quantify these things, so it's hard to really give a proper answer to the question. Quantify, I clarify, where I'd have to be in life to see something as 'advancement', and what my personal goals are in terms of a 'career' when I think about poetry. I think perhaps I resist the idea that writing is a 'career' because the capitalistic connotations: 'career' seems so far away from the actual creation of poetry in my personal experience. It imposes the idea of having a 'ladder to climb' in ways that ends up almost privileging material events (such as winning a prize) rather than my personal development as a poet.
This is important to me because my most productive times as a writer, where my style changed or new influences were integrated, happened outside the realm of feeling like I was 'advancing' in a poetry scene that is so often a London-centric social scene as well. It was when I took the most time away from submissions, readings, social media and the like that my poetry bloomed in new and surprising ways. I felt less pressured to appeal to certain tastes and less self-conscious in experimenting. I also, vitally, read more, and read widely.
I think prizes that help and mentor young writers are important — so I'm not meaning to slam them as useless or oppressive institutions at all — I primarily want to reject a rigid trajectory that a 'career' can imply. I also want to add, at this point, that what really advanced my writing the most from winning the prize was the time my editors were able to give to me, and the process of putting together a pamphlet. Being able to work with them was a privilege.
Can you tell us about Typhoid August, the collection that won the prize? What themes does it explore?
The collection that was submitted ended up being very different than the collection that was published. Even the titles changed: it started off as 'Something Blue' and ended up as the shockingly orange covered 'Typhoid August'. It's probably the single thing that I'm most proud of in my life, so my first impulse is to tell any reader of this to buy it, so they can experience it, without me having to tell too much about it. It's hard to explain your own work, often because, if these things were explainable, the work wouldn't need to exist! I now see it as a collection that deals primarily with grief. When I was writing it, I thought it was more about love, or jealousy, or fidelity. But I now see these poems as grief poems primarily. The only other thing I'd add is that while it's not strictly a sequence of poem, there is a narrative arch to the pamphlet, that should bear on how a reader understands it.
In your opinion as a British-American poet, how does the poetry scene differ between the UK and USA?
I've lived in the UK since I was 14 and hence all my poetry has been published in primarily UK journals, so it's difficult to say with any sort of confidence. The first difference that comes to mind is likely a geographical one. I was very lucky to live in London and, by virtue of that, have many events available and many poets generally larking about. Whenever I visit America again, I'm always a bit shaken by its vastness, and how someone could wilfully live a very isolating experience that isn't necessarily possible in the U.K. Even if you live in one of the more remote areas in the U.K., it's unlikely you'd have to drive six hours straight to find a poetry reading. Because of this, it seems like there's more of an emphasis on social media and personal branding in the U.S., though the U.K. is increasingly getting more like that as well.
I think having dual citizenship though has given me a certain affinity with both poetic traditions, though. And a particular interest in poets who, like me, were American but moved to the U.K.: Sylvia Plath and T.S. Eliot in particular come to mind.
The Foyle Young Poet competition is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. How did winning the prize at such a young age influence your writing ambitions?
That was almost 6 years ago now, which is a bit mad to think about! It definitely encouraged me to be more confident in my writing, and I've kept in close contact with many of the people I met during the Arvon course. It was really an exciting time and the excitement is all compounded by the fact it's often your first time encountering so much poetry. I remember just the sheer excitement of reading certain poems for the first time. Of course, with the best ones, it always feels as if it's your first time reading it, many years later. Two from that time that still get me in that way are 'They Flee From Me' by Wyatt and 'Man and Wife' by Robert Lowell. Also most of Plath, but her brilliance seems almost as a given.
Have you strayed into other forms of writing? (Prose, plays, music..etc etc)
I've started writing songs again, which I've enjoyed doing. I've found it clarifies how I relate to poetry as well: more scrapped lines can be fed into lyrics. My favourite part about it has been being able to stray away though from narrative and lyrical sense and more into the structural territory of music. I'm fascinated by how good songs are put together, from which chords sound interesting together to how many times to repeat certain sequences of sound. That's where I see the most similarity between poem-writing and song-writing. It's almost like writing poems in form and it forces you to be inventive.
At the moment, I'm half of a duo named Positive Child Negative Child with Sam Quill. I can't say too much more about the exciting project, but watch out for future shows in London.