Jo Brandon gets to chat with poet, short story writer, Editor, workshop leader and puppeteer: Sarah Hymas. Topics up for discussion are sailing, working prisons and publishing a debut poetry collection.
Sarah, your debut poetry collection Host is coming out this year published by Waterloo Press. Can you tell us about the collection and what the process of putting it all together was like for you?
Host is preoccupied with heritage, our familial, social and environmental heritage. The poems in it explore notions of territory, and the interconnectivity of ourselves with the natural world, how we are part of it and disconnected from it. I hope the poems unpeel the stratas we occupy and those around us. It has two sections, the first is a sequence considering the institution of family, the second explores the wider, less familiar world.
Putting it together was fairly straight-forward once I’d got over myself and chucked out the weak poems that had seemed absolutely essential. Although I did struggle over the second section, which is much broader in scope of subject and tone than the first, but ultimately I think counterbalances the more claustrophobic first sequence. Fortunately I had the invaluable help of Naomi Foyle, one of the editors at Waterloo, to keep the book on track.
As well as being a poet, short story and scriptwriter you are also an editor for Flax. (The publishing imprint of Lancaster Literature Festival). How different are the two roles of writer and editor? Do you find they feed into each other or that you have to keep them very separate?
I see editing a more sculptural craft. It’s like having a block of wood already in front of you and the job is to sand or carve the piece into something more coherent, or free-standing. Does this suggest I find the writing, the growing of the wood, more difficult? There is a freedom in the initial stage, you know it’s not going to be the end product so you can afford to be more playful, take risks.
Of course as a writer I employ myself as editor of my work; and am glad for the experience of editing other people’s work. I love working with other writers, particularly when it becomes collaborative. Flax publishes a wide range of writers at different points of their careers, and they all illuminate different aspects of the craft, through their preoccupations, applications or working practices. This gives never-ending grist for my mill, as well as a broad based community in which to write. And, I hope, for them too.
So, yes, I do keep them separate, in that I hope the anthologies I edit extend beyond my own personal tastes and interests. Inevitably, ideas I am exploring or dabbling with in my poetry are always bubbling under the surface and colour my perceptions or actions. But I try to keep a check on that in regard to more objective work.
From what I know of your work it appears you’ve done quite a lot of community based writing and workshops. Could you tell us about some of your projects?
I really valued working in prisons, which I did as a short term writer in residence in four different prisons in the North West of England, ranging from Category B to a Young Offenders Institute to an Open Prison, over five or so years. All the projects were very demanding – more so dealing with the institution than the inmates, although there was an intensity to working the men, especially the younger men, that both challenged and fuelled the workshops. Without exception, the work that came out of those projects was urgent and powerful. The end of project buzz was immense, whether we had a CD, booklets, pamphlet or postcards for the men to give to their families, or use as roaches, whichever they saw fit.
The greatest power in each process was the growth of confidence in the writers. I won’t say I saw lives change, but the articulation and validation of experience, and perception gained through writing about it, the opportunity to make connections, to expand an understanding of oneself, one’s world, the safe engagement with emotions and the thrill of imagination, well, as you know, is enriching and hugely important in our own development, and that of our relationships.
Back in the early noughties, when there was funding for wide-ranging mental health provision, I worked in the mental health sector, at day centres and in residential homes for the elderly. Again, the power of expression and imagination was evident, and its effects rewarding for both me and the other writers. There’s a democratisation in pencil and paper, which shines a light into people and their well-being.
More recently I’ve facilitated life writing workshops. The sequence on the family in Host was sparked by the death of my father and all those questions it was then too late to ask. It’s great to support people in the writing down of their experiences for their children before it’s too late, and most importantly in a way that their children/grandchildren would want to read! Plus, of course, it’s absolutely fascinating what some people have done with their lives.
More’s the pity that funding for adult education is also drying up, so curtailing these workshops, that clearly offer huge personal benefits in terms of self-esteem, good mental health and a sense of achievement and social interaction.
Are there any writers/poets/musicians that you would cite as major influences on your work?
It’s tricky working out influences, I suspect I’m still unaware of the depth some have influenced my writing. However, I do know my poetry light was switched on by Eliot, although Lewis Carroll and Christina Rossetti had already alerted me to its existence. When I studied Eliot I was thrilled by his metaphors, even though I didn’t understand many of them, particularly the classical references. Despite that, I saw in it the rubbing up of history with the present – back to that interconnectivity – and heard the music of language transcend its sense, or at least present a different meaning. Then Ted Hughes, also at school, offered me a physical, visceral dimension to that.
ee cummings followed soon after. And I still admire how he short-circuits the intellectual inevitability of language (as signifier). I suspect Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop liberated me massively with their autobiographical honesty, and more recently Alice Oswald for her whole-hearted engagement with nature. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Spain over the years and was introduced to Lorca and Celaya there. Their exuberance and atmospheric sensuality found their way into my expression, perhaps not always for the best …
As for other writers, Emily Bronte, Margaret Atwood, Luisa Valenzuela, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tolstoy and Chekhov all spring to mind for telling intelligent, timeless stories I read voraciously. I began writing by writing short stories and still am very much interested in narrative. These writers all engage with how environment affects character, and, perhaps more interestingly, how the stories are told.
Artists such as Kandinsky, Hepworth and Goya, all intensely spiritual in their work, have the capacity to open me up and turn me inside out, which sustains my commitment to the arts as integral to society and the individual.
As for musicians, well, if I could write like Theolonious Monk plays piano I’d be content.
During 2003-2005 you were Poet in Residence for Calderdale libraries. How did you get involved with this and what was your role?
I answered an advert! It was an astonishing job. I felt very lucky. Working alongside library staff, I was responsible for developing the reading of poetry in the libraries around Halifax, West Yorkshire. I set up reading groups (that are still meeting), organised poetry events, upped the poetry stock in the libraries and generally talked to people about poetry.
There was a Reader in Residence too, Craig Bradley, and between us we generated a great energy throughout the libraries for reading, talk about reading and live literature events.
The libraries have continued reading events, buying new poetry and hold an annual festival. So, I’d say not only did we have fun, we also spread the word!
I read on your blog that among other things you enjoy sailing. Is this one of your inspirations? What else do you use to get the creative juices flowing?
Everything is so physical on a boat. It is a world of practical engineering, of cause and effect, of science and rationality. And I love how it reminds me of the scale the world. Our insignificance. Boat time is like writing time; forcing a relocation, rather than dislocation, to another aspect of myself. It’s an inspiration, in that I can’t stop myself from writing about it once I’m home; and yet I relish how it prevents me from writing when on board.
I nurture my creative self by watching films, going to art exhibitions, theatre – particularly puppet shows, reading and listening to music. Going for a walk or cycling is when ideas often fall into place.
What stimulates me is what I see or hear is happening in the world around me. I process it by engaging with other artists, talking with friends.
Do you have any writing habits or a routine?
It’s more obsessive than habitual. My routine is to get on with it unless I have a good reason not to (which varies from earning money, washing up, cycling, reading, emailing, or sleeping). If it’s urgent, I’ll try to write it.
Your poem Wise Man is featured in the British Council New Writing Anthology. Could you tell us about the poem and what inspired it?
It’s part of the family sequence, ‘Bedrock’, in Host, which features seven characters. This one, Harold, is a lay preacher. The title is a quote from the Bible. He uses it to persuade his wife to move house. Set just after WWI when their building business is expanding, he’s convinced their son can become independent, and this certainty grows into a sermon.
I’m interested here in the interplay of religious and social need, and of course, love. Love, in all its peculiarities, holds and agitates this sequence. I am very fond of Harold, although he does come across as a bit of a zealot, he isn’t as confident as he seems. He’s a loving man, the ‘head’ of this family, the lineage I’ve written about.
Sarah, you’ve got a fantastic blog (http://sarahhymas.blogspot.com/). Do you feel it’s important to create a web presence as a modern writer? Also any blogging tips?
Thanks. I really enjoy the blog. I started it as an alternative website for myself, one I could update with readings, new work and projects etc. It did seem like a good way to actively promote my work. Then I discovered how stimulating it was. I use it as a creative projects diary, which is a helpful place to stop and evaluate what I’m doing. I like having anonymous witnesses for this, it forces a more rigorous process.
There are two kinds of web presence: static, informative and active, engaged. If you’re interested in other people on the web, and belonging to that virtual community, it needs investment from you, and blogging is a good way in; it’s a massive ongoing conversation you dip in and out of. I’ve made connections with people I never would have. I thoroughly enjoy that sociability.
Blogging tips: Decide on a focus for the blog, and how regularly you’d like to write it. Read other blogs. Talk to other bloggers. Make sure you continue to enjoy writing it. If it becomes a chore, reassess.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re excited about?
Well, getting Host out into the world is my main focus for the first half of the year. I’m buzzing around small associated projects, making a film of a poem from the collection, and trying to orchestrate collaborative photographic sequences for the poems, and some audio interpretations; which all is part of hearing what other people make of the work. A little unnerving, but ultimately why I wrote it.
I’m currently working with a musician Steve Lewis and singer Beth Allen. Steve and I have performed together before, building soundscapes for live performance. Steve and Beth worked on an improvised opera (for which I wrote the lyrics – not as contradictory as it sounds). The three of us have been mucking about for the past year on improvisational voice work. Our first performance is in February. It’s a very liberating trio, while playing to our individual strengths. We laugh a lot and whatever we do seems to plump up my (and I’m sure their) individual work.
Also, I made a puppet last year and really want to get him on stage with me at a reading sometime. He needs something written for him, but my hope is that by the end of the year he’ll get his live debut.
Which is plenty enough to keep me going for the immediate future …
Sarah Hymas lives in Lancaster. As a writer, she has collaborated with other writers and artists. Her work has appeared in single collections, anthologies, magazines, multimedia exhibits, dance videos, improvised operas and theatre brochures. Her first collection of poetry, Host, is due out in summer 2010.
She also works as an editor and coach for Lancaster’s Literature Festival and their publishing imprint, Flax. She facilitates writing workshops in the community for adults and in schools with children.
More information at:
Sarah's blog – Echo Soundings