Slanted Light and Shadow Sides: Interview with Sarah Westcott

Posted on: 15 October 2016 by Sam Solnick in Poetry and Science: Two Cultures

Interview with the poet Sarah Westcott

Sarah Westcott discusses poetric influences, data and journalism with Sam Solnick

SS: Can you say a bit more about the title of your collection ‘Slant  Light’? To me it recalls Emily Dickinson: “Tell the truth but tell it slant” and “there is a certain slant of light”.

SW: There are many reasons why the title Slant Light works for me. I like the idea of approaching ideas obliquely, in the way you can sometimes see more clearly in murky light from the corner of your eye.  I’m also interested in observation - both the actual process of looking hard but also the effect observation can have on the observer and the observed. Perhaps some of the most interesting artistic and scientific gazes or observations can be compared to light entering a space at an angle or through a boundary, illuminating unusual or less-seen things and perspectives. Sometimes the brightest light can obliterate, including the impulse to explore. Perhaps it can give only one version of the ‘truth’. Also I am interested in the shadow-side of creatures, including humans, and the under-bellies of language. Telling something ’slant’ offers more than a single point of reference which is surely one of the points of poetry. Emily Dickinson herself was not in my mind when I wrote Bats, which has the phrase ‘slant light’ in its first line and opens the book. So Slant Light seemed apt as a title although it was among the last parts of the book to be finalised.

SS: You studied science as an undergraduate before completing an MA in poetry - what was that transition like? Had you been writing much poetry as an undergraduate or were you a late starter?

SW: I’ve always been writing poetry, if you can call it that. Using words to sketch a creature, crudely but with a sense of reverence. I recently found a spider poem I wrote when I was six or seven. I compare it to a butterbean. I wrote a lot of adolescent stuff and enjoyed studying some Ted Hughes and the war poets at GCSE but I went down the science route for A-levels so that was when my formal English education ended. I remember finding a copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury in my twenties and swooning in Manley Hopkin’s language and music. I really enjoyed the poems printed in The Independent too.

It wasn't until I had young children that I turned to writing more seriously and did an introductory OU course - that was around ten years ago. In terms of the transition from science to arts, I’m not sure there was any logical segue but in a sense they both arose from parts of me and were artificially separated by the education system at that time when you had to choose between one or the other - perhaps only now are they beginning to inform each other in my writing and this is something I am working to develop. I did a degree called Human Sciences and gravitated towards anthropology. My favourite course was a classic Sussex university one called Shamanic Consciousness and I can see now that exploring archetypes and ideas of non-linearity of time were interesting sources.

SS: What sciences tend to inform your work and are there any particular scientists on research projects that you are following at the moment?

SW: I am a magpie, really. For example, I’ve been reading about the anatomy of the common skate for a poem I want to write. On a macro-scale I’m interested in the idea of landscape having memory or landscape as memory with its own consciousness. I’m fascinated in the idea of places with strata and palimpsests of compressed history. I’ve recently read Raptor by James Macdonald Lockhart which introduced the idea of peat bogs, particularly the Flow Country, as a living, moving brain. I’m also trying (and currently struggling) to write about a moor in this sense and get into it, literally.

Another intriguing area is plant intelligence and the mycorrhizal network of fungi and plants in woods, and how they communicate with each other. This has recently been given the (somewhat clumsy) term the wood wide web. The idea is that when you walk through a wood you are only seeing the visible part - there is a great network of metres of hyphae under your feet and running up inside the trees, all communicating to  each other intricacies of light and shade and nutrient pathways. Work by the mycologist Paul Stamets is interesting in this field.

I am also interested in how nature was conceptualised in the past and how it was used as a moral instrument (you can see this in my introduction to ‘The Vegetable Lamb’ in the book).

SS: I wonder if you could tell us a little more about how your writing residencies and journalism have shaped the book.

SW: I had the opportunity to be a writer in residence at the Bethnal Green nature reserve in East London last summer. The land has been re-cultivated into a meadow planted with herbs and plants renowned forvarious healing properties and it was fascinating to research the botanical and medical intersections. There are several poems in the book which were written as metrical charms using the properties of the plants as a kind of incantation and exploration of faith. The type of journalism I do to earn a living uses a very different part of my self. However there are definite links between journalism and poetry - particularly an awareness of an audience - of how the poem or article must be put together properly - crafted well, if you like, so there are no weak joins. There is also no room for preciousness in journalism - things are cut, slashed, discarded and that is a good discipline when it comes to writing poetry.  A lot of the journalism I do involves condensing complicated stories (I think it is interesting even the driest, dullest news reports are called stories in a newsroom) into a small box on the page and for that you have to feel the weight and cost of each word, each clause or quote, and whether it goes towards making a coherent whole. There is also, weirdly, a certain sprung rhythm in the best-written tabloid stories, particularly the
intros (the first paragraph) but I have yet to analyse exactly what it is.

SS: What about particular poetic or literary influences? I have heard you mention Ted Hughes, - a poet with an interesting relationship to the sciences, and to folklore, which is another aspect of the book - but who else?

SW: Poets who write deep into the stuff of flora or fauna most inspire me. Alice Oswald makes whatever she writes of come alive and voices it profoundly without gimmick or fluster. Her sense of listening for the poem before it is written means the reader can be almost mind-blown. Les Murray also manages to get into the matter of living things and the way he writes about plants is often incredible - his poem Cockspur Bush is a fine example. I love Kathleen Jamie’s clean, keen prose particularly. And I find the way Sharon Olds writes in long lines, particularly about the female body, liberating and exciting. I admire the way Ruby Robinson and Pascale Petit write about deep trauma and the inner life whilst also being entirely, exquisitely in the outer world. I love Liz Berry’s use of dialect and joy in language itself.

I also go back to RS Thomas and Larkin for their beautiful poetry and sometimes for solace.

SS: Several poems in the collection highlight your interest in ecology. How do you negotiate the tension between the close observation of the flora and fauna that is central to many pieces in Slant Light and these insidious, global environmental concerns that you allude to in poems such as ‘The great Pacific Garbage Patch’?

I don’t find that one precludes the other - indeed, they can be enhanced. As in science with the ability to zoom in and pan out, a successful poem can travel a long way, bringing the reader’s awareness in and out of focus.

A metaphor I suppose would be to go to a river, turn a stone and look at the wriggling, translucent larvae, stand back, observe the stretch of river, stand back again and see, at a remove, how the flow has altered over the season, trace it to its source, and its end on a map or in your mind, measure its contents from the largest fauna though to the bacterial content - all this can be done scientifically and poetically and yet the river itself still remains separate and other from human inquisition.

SS: You said that, partly because of your educational background, you are ‘not scared’ of drawing on the sciences. Are there topics or discourses that you are anxious about addressing in your poetry?

SW: Firstly, I would be afraid to write about science if there was a danger I would treat it too crudely or clumsily.  There’s a massive difference between being an amateur enthusiast and being qualified to write about concepts or use them as metaphors or poetic tools or portals. So that is something I am very aware of.

As a privileged white woman, there are other areas I hesitate not exactly to write about, but to share. Who am I to write about immigration and prejudice? Am I qualified to write about human trafficking from my privileged position? Should that matter at all? There is a risk of exploiting peoples’ misery. So I try to approach these subjects with that awareness. I am writing about the definition of weeds -  plants in the wrong places, and how that might apply to people.

SS: The collection closes with ‘Cloud’, a poem about data centres and what might be described as the materiality of the internet. One line in it - ‘we over-write our lines’ got me thinking about the ways in which the internet shapes both the reading and writing of poetry. Do you feel that the internet shapes your relationship with literature?

SW: On a personal level, yes. My son came home the other day from school and said the average attention span is now eight seconds. There is something about reading text on a screen that encourages people to skim the glassy surface, to race to the end of the block of text. It takes more effort to slow down and inhabit the words.

There is an interesting relationship between the transitory and the permanent online. Once a poem, or a tweet, is posted it is never quite free and is almost severed from the living thought that first generated it. There’s a kind of frightening potential for asexual reproduction and permanence.  There are ‘pages’ of data generated by each of us, already, and the internet has only been around for a few decades. It is like we are all trailing a cloak of versions of ourselves behind us.

I also wrote Cloud thinking about the way we present ourselves, airbrushing ‘imperfections’ into a different reality. The data cloud is arguably more important to our day-to-day lives than real cloud. What does that mean for the future? Do people notice the changing patterns in the clouds above them, and the composition of rain?

Sarah Westcott’s debut pamphlet Inklings was the Poetry Book Society’s Pamphlet Choice for Winter 2013. Her poems have been published in journals including Poetry Review, Magma and Poetry Wales and in anthologies including Best British Poetry 2014 (Salt). Sarah grew up in north Devon, on the edge of Exmoor, and has a keen interest in the natural world. She holds a science degree and an MA in poetry from Royal Holloway, University of London. Sarah lives on the London/Kent borders with her family and, after a spell teaching English abroad, works as a news journalist. Her first full collection Slant Light is published by Pavilion Poetry/Liverpool University Press.