In the autumn of 2011 David Tait had the privilege of interviewing Melissa Lee-Houghton, a young poet from Blackburn who has recently published her first collection 'A Body Made of You' with Penned in the Margins. Here is that interview in full!
DT: I enjoyed reading your debut collection "A Body Made of You" – a collection which takes a series of individuals and seems to paint their 'portrai't with words. As I was reading through I found myself wondering where your ideas came from and wondered whether you could tell us about what made the book come about?
MLH: I had this idea, probably a 4 am kind of idea though I can’t recall when it began. I wanted to try to write portraits, in a similar way I would visually paint someone; to piece together a complex visual and psychological image of a person. But more than that I wanted to involve the person, and so I began interviewing people. I had this idea because I wanted to write portraits for other people as opposed to merely of them, that with any luck they would enjoy, engage with and possibly even recognise themselves in.
I used photographs and in some cases self portraits and other paintings by the sitters as something to refer to visually and the interviews helped develop a further dimension; that of the memories, wants, desires, tragedies, longings and disappointments of the portrait sitter. People were extremely forthcoming and I treated all the information with great respect and care. I only use the forename of the sitter as title and in most cases this is a pseudonym. The interview process allowed me a window into another world- I could literally still be writing about them now they were so interesting. I am always fascinated in the inner worlds of other people.
In writing to me and in my writing back there was also a sense of the shared world of the poem, which quite often divulged a great deal about me too. The ‘book’ in its original state was about 108 poems long, more than half of which have been cut to form A Body Made of You. I sent it off to all the sitters when I had finished that full draft and felt my main objective had been met; and that was the moment when I started to think that maybe it was something I could send out if I edited it right down and worked hard on revising. I remember sitting and looking through the manuscript and thinking surely someone would take an interest in this, though I knew it was rough and needed a lot of work. That was two years ago and it has been quite an arduous journey.
DT: Did any of the people whose portrait you were taking challenge you more than others? If so, what were the challenges? Are there any poems among the 108 that you'd seek to publish elsewhere? How did you make the decisions as to which ones to keep?
MLH: Some of the people I wrote about/for were total strangers to me besides correspondence and having read their own work. It’s strange, but I felt completely connected to them and I wrote drafts very naturally and fluently. It was actually far harder to write poems for the ones I knew well, or intimately. I didn’t want our relationship to be the only thing I concentrated on, so I had to try to get to the root of them as a person not just them as a person in a world according to me.
There was plenty of raw emotion to be worked with, and I had to let that in and not shy from it. I wrote about miscarriages, deaths, sex, drugs, childbirth, rejection, love, heartache, obsession, mental illness…none of it was especially easy. I began to see myself as a sort of medium for channelling other people’s stories and emotions and a lot of my own experience came along with it. I put a great deal of myself into the work, and at times it was painful; some of the things I’d written I’d even shocked myself with. The challenge of being so open is vulnerability. Putting work out there you put your all into is terrifying.
I don’t know what I’ll do with the remaining poems. They will probably haunt me forever. A few were published recently but they work best as full sequences. They will hopefully mean something to the people I wrote for, and that is enough for me.
I really don’t know how I arrived at the final thirty for A Body Made of You. I went through the manuscript and edited just instinctively until I reached a manageable number and then I spent a great deal of time poring over it. There were many poems I could have used for the final draft; it wasn’t just a case of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ poems it was merely a case of creating a coherent manuscript. The title came much later; it was a great challenge to put the book together.
DT: How much of an editoral role did Penned in the Margins play? Indeed, what made you decide that they were the publisher for you?
MLH: I wanted to be a part of Penned in the Margins because they largely publish work by my own generation and peers; people I can relate to whose work I have enjoyed reading and want to read. I admire them, and I wanted to be a part of that collective. I never expected them to take me on; I mean, they are a vibrant independent London-based publisher and I am a shy twenty something living in a small town in Lancashire. But I had a vague hope my work might appeal to them or add something new to their diverse publishing list. I really didn’t anticipate them wanting to publish my book, it was a wonderful surprise!
I got the manuscript down to around 35 poems I think; and then I went through the editorial suggestions and notes and carefully reworked lines that weren’t working and then we mutually agreed on the 30 poems that were the most successful and ran with it. The publisher was wonderful; once I had looked at the manuscript for such a great length of time I couldn’t see anything anymore, where its weaknesses were, or its strengths. They were there to guide the way objectively. They were really great (exacting, but supportive too).
DT: The most natural question to ask after someone has brought out a first book then is "what's next?" How are you finding life after book one? Are you writing? Are you reading? If so, what?
MLH: I try to write every day, so I have loads of work stacked up from the past couple of years but very little of it I really have much hope for. I am putting together a collection now, and I have no fixed idea about how long it will take or what might happen to it at this stage. It will take as long as it takes. My work has become more conversational in tone and it seems to sweep through ideas and emotions rather than record meticulously. It’s looser and maybe even more assured. Life after book one has been frustrating as A Body Made of You was intense and I had more ideas than I could possibly ever put down. Now I am diligent and I have to look for inspiration and write more mechanically. It’s all a bit more controlled, I find that I have set time to sit down and write, whereas with the first book I wrote all over the place, late at night, early in the morning, stayed up all night on occasion. Things now are calmer, and my work doesn’t feel pressured.
I am always reading, but I go through phases of all novels and all poetry, depending on what I’m writing; I find it impossible to read poetry collections whilst I’m working on something significant in my poetry. I’m currently in an all novels phase, I have just re-read a few classics because they’re favourites of mine; The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I’ve just finished reading The Plague by Albert Camus and have started on Lee Rourke’s The Canal just for something contemporary as I tend to neglect newer novels and I’ve heard good things about this one. In my last poetry phase I read Lucie Brock-Broido’s Soul Keeping Company, which thrilled me and inspired me and made me doubt myself all at the same time. I loved Faber Poets pamphlet 2 by Toby Martinez de Las Rivas, there is a stand out poem that invokes this insane mysticism, in the same way that Lucie Brock-Broido does in some of her more mysterious poems. I think that it is one of the best poems I have read for a long time. Somewhere nightmarish and consoling at the same time, like a kind of bittersweet dream you don’t want to wake from. I also read the Changeling by Clare Pollard, which impressed me, I always love her work; and The Suitable Girl by Michelle McGrane which exists on another plane entirely. I’m also reading Knots by R.D Laing. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Laing. It takes patience to read and absorb, and it’s tough and it’s beguiling.
DT: Finally – we have a lot of readers get in touch with us asking advice about publication. Having gone through the experience yourself, what would your tips be?
MLH: I suppose first and foremost that publication is of the highest priority for writers. For some it is the ‘point’ of writing in the first place. I can only say that you should always write for yourself first, before embarking on a bid for publication. This is because working under the duress of having your writing in print does not create your best work. Enjoy your writing. If you work hard, your writing will eventually naturally find a way to make itself known. Try not to submit work prematurely, everyone has done it at some point, but patience is key. Make sure if you are submitting to a publisher, you understand what that publisher likes. Research is important. Allow yourself the space and time to make mistakes in your work, and learn from them. Of course, seeing your work in print is a glorious feeling, and to imagine that another person might read your words and ascribe meaning to them is magical.
The only advice I can offer to someone going through the process of publishing a volume of poetry is to enjoy the experience and proofread extremely carefully and thoroughly. And celebrate it!
Melissa Lee-Houghton is the author of A Body Made Of You, a collection of poetic portraits of writers, artists, strangers and friends. Published by Penned In The Margins. She blogs here!