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Bookcase Focus: An Interview with Katherine Stansfield
Wales Literature Exchange interviewed our Bookcase author Katherine Stansfield, about her writing and her influences.
1. What first inspired you to be an author and where do your ideas come from?
I grew up in a house where the act of reading was venerated. Books, of whatever kind, were precious. The Friday afternoon trip to the local library was a high point of every week, for my parents as well as my sister and I. This value of reading meant that, from an early age, I knew writing my own stories and poems meant something. It connected me to all the books in our house, to those at the library, and that meant I was connected to the world beyond the small rural community where I grew up. I think of all writing as a conversation, one that’s been going on for a very long time, and when I write, I join in that conversation and in small ways I add to it, take it in new directions, I hope. My ideas spring from ‘conversation’, from exchange: the intricacies of small talk, the ideology lurking in political rhetoric, how advertising communicates and controls, how journalism speaks our world back to us, the connections and distances between languages. I find a great deal of creative energy in the historical record, too; I am often in conversation with the past as I try to speak to the present, particularly about the position of women in society.
2. How would you describe your writing?
My poetry is rooted in the everyday, drawing on the overheard and the loudly proclaimed. It’s littered with things scavenged from the real, tangible world around me: trains, mobile phones, crisp packets, photocopiers, supermarkets, Twitter. I’m interested in bringing to light things that are concealed – intentionally or accidently – and often that involves dissecting ‘small things’, the over-looked. I also enjoy making people laugh! My poems are funny, or at least they are to me, and they gain humour from looking askance, dead-pan investigation, showing the oddness of life that often hides in seemingly ‘ordinary’ language, when language, of course, is anything but ordinary.
3. Which authors have influenced you the most?
When I was a teenager I was obsessed with the work of Sylvia Plath: her poems, fiction, letters, journals. Everything she wrote. Her ability to show me things in a new light while at the same time delivering a shock of familiarity is incredible – I was, and still am, astonished by her work. I also greatly admire the Irish poet Dorothy Molloy who used rhyme so deftly in her work which taught me a great deal about the slyness of sound. Welsh poet Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch remains an important voice for me. Her use of humour as well as how she engages with historical material in a very modern fashion is inspiring.
4. In your opinion what are the biggest challenges that writers face today – and do you think these challenges have changed since you started writing?
I think the biggest challenge for writers is being relevant in a world where every day there is more bad news across a range of ongoing disasters: climate catastrophe, a global pandemic, racial injustice, gender inequality, the growing dominance of right wing
ideology, rejection of scientific knowledge. Intolerance is as ubiquitous as oxygen and it feels harder and harder to have conversations between people with different views. Conversation becomes argument, becomes noise rather than dialogue. How do we move forward when we can’t talk to one another? It’s easy to say that this is where writers and artists step in, that we can be the voice, the bridge, the dialogue. Or that we have the tools to help others understand or articulate their anxieties, to find comfort. That is a very hard task but if writers don’t attempt this in some way, what are we really here for? What’s our purpose? Is there still ‘value’ in personal lyric poetry about ‘small moments’ when the world is on fire? I don’t know. But I’m still writing.
5. What are the hardest and easiest parts of being a writer?
The hardest part of part of being a writer, for me, is committing to the page. Something seems good in my head: an image, a phrase, a motif, a joke. But if I write it down, will it lose that power? Every time it’s a gamble and every poem feels like the first poem I have ever written. The easiest part is performing. I love readings and having new material to share with audiences. I form a new relationship with my work once it’s out in the world and often understand it in a different way.
6. Which writer from Wales would you recommend to readers and why?
The writer from Wales I would recommend to readers is Abeer Ameer whose debut collection Inhale / Exhile will be published by Welsh press Seren Books in early 2021. Ameer’s work explores the history of Iraq – history that is personal as well as public, ancient and contemporary. She tells the stories of those who stood up to the regime of Saddam Hussein, the ‘small’ acts of heroism that went on, undocumented, day by day, and shows how faith ensures survival. It’s poetry that manages to be both devastating and life-affirming which is a significant achievement.