About Siobhan Logan
Siobhan Logan's poetry/prose collections Firebridge to Skyshore and Mad, Hopeless and Possible are published by Original Plus. They have been performed at Ledbury Poetry Festival, the British Science Museum and National Space Centre. Her digital narrative Philae's Book of Hours was published by the European Space Agency in 2016. She led a WW1 residency for 14-18 NOW and co-edited a Five Leaves Books' anthology for refugee solidarity, Over Land, Over Sea. Her short fiction has won prizes and appeared in appears in various anthologies and literary magazines. She lectures in Creative Writing at De Montfort University, Leicester. In addition, she co-runs The Writers' Shed, an on-line service for writers. http://siobhanlogan.blogspot.co.uk/
Interview with Lee Wright
LW: Orwell proposed that 'good prose is like a window pane.' In your own writing, have you ever been tempted to smash all the windows?
SL: Not for the sake of it. But I'll refer you to my thoughts on locating 'the voice of the story' below. This can sometimes lead to wrenching grammar, disrupting word-formation, dislocating the tidy order of a stanza or natural line-break – but only when that comes organically out of the story itself. In whatever form, I think of myself as a storyteller. Poetry, short fiction, digital narrative, blog etc. Let that speak, first and foremost.
LW: It has been said that writers cannot begin their work until they have a voice of their own. How did you discover the voice for your Antarctic expedition piece, Mad, Hopeless & Possible?
SL: I've just finished delivering a workshop on Narrative Voice – which I feel is as important in a poem as it is in a novel or story. But I would re-frame that concept. I find authors seeking 'a voice of their own' to be rather misleading. I mean, we all have our own idioms and preoccupations and linguistics tics, whether in speech or on the page. It's easy to get rather self-conscious about 'our own unique voice' as a writer and feel we need to show off with language or strike a pose somehow. But what I think we need to pay attention to is finding the voice of the story – whatever medium that's in. I've never thought one register or 'voice' could possibly encompass the range of writing I do, even within one collection. Instead I'm listening for and refining a voice that works for each story or poem.
In my Antarctic expedition sequence of 25 poems, Mad, Hopeless & Possible, my research led me to books including Shackleton's own about the 1914-17 expedition. Shackleton issued diaries to every crew member and required the men to fill them in and hand them over at its end. So, his book is full of those intimate, diverse voices, across classes and occupations, all articulating their own experience of the gruelling voyage. This was a real gift to me as a poet. I enjoyed channelling those voices, playing with Edwardian idioms and naval slang. The viewpoint is frequently that of an unnamed crew member but the plural pronoun 'we' is most often used, suggesting a collective experience: 'we pass our days rotting / in blubber smoke'. Their identity as a group was a powerful thing, welding them together through quite grim circumstances.
Elsewhere a singular voice articulates the loneliness and despair of being lost in those vast wildernesses. I was probing the psychological pressure on individuals like the 27-year-old finance clerk, Victor Hayward, writing to his fiancée: 'I'm a laggard pulled out the team / Snow is white treacle. Rotten stuff / What will you think of me?'
But there are also poems in an omniscient voice, taking more of an authorial retrospective view, that questions the values and drivers of that mission. And poems where the voice is that of a landscape or ice-scape: 'the vast disarranged jigsaw / jammed with pancakes and floes, / fields and hedgerows of sea-ice...'
Then again, in each of my collections, there are prose 'chapters' too, written here in a voice that one reviewer found 'at once efficiently informative and dramatically powerful: smooth, economic prose offset against haunting poetic soliloquies.' So even within this chapbook, there are different voices at play, though given cohesion by the focus on a distinctive landscape of Antarctica.
LW: Can knowing too much be a hindrance to the writer?
SL: You often hear the adage 'write about what you know'. I can only say I've found the opposite approach results in far more sparky writing that really takes me somewhere and stretches my writing voice/s in the process. I always seem to write about what I don't know, about worlds and people quite alien to my own experience. But they fire up my curiosity. I think that's really something for a writer, to set off into the Unknown in someone else's shoes. Of course, you always discover yourself along the way, which is a bonus. But it's the energy of that curiosity and discovery that transmits itself in the poetry or narrative, that a reader picks up on.
I'm also taking this to be a question about research, which can certainly press too heavily on the writing sometimes. I like to immerse myself obsessively in research about a period or story – and then let it settle in my mind before the creative writing. I wait until I can't not start the writing – and then the raw material can come out quite quickly. Most of the Mad, Hopeless & Possible poems were written in first draft form over one heady week in my sister's front room where I retreated with my notebooks to embark on the voyage. I had about 18 poems then. Then I have to leave the material to 'settle' again and when I come back to editing, there'll be fresh bouts of research to sharpen the focus and texture of specific detail, even to sharpen the language of a place or story.
LW: Dylan Thomas said that he used everything and anything to make his poems work. Is this true of your own poetry? And if so, where do you find your everything and anything?
SL: Hmm, I wish I knew what he meant. Thomas always seems to be hurling words into a forge to bash them about. He's very vigorous in this hammering. Well I've looked up the quotation and he's talking about using every figure of speech and linguistic trick in the book. And then some. I love what his process produced. But it isn't mine. For me, it's about listening to the work and letting the language come organically out of the story. That's when I find myself being most inventive with form or imagery, because it seems the only way, the natural way, for that particular poem or series. I'd like the voice to be clean in that way, no fussier than it needs to be, even when it's tone is rapturous or horrified. That doesn't mean that I can't succumb to over-writing but I will try to excise that in editing.
LW: Have you ever seen struck by the despair of writing nothing and having nothing to write?
SL: I can't remember 'having nothing to write'. But sometimes I haven't been in the right place, energy-wise, to write, for months on end. Life, work, family, health; sometimes these things smother the energy you need. And it's no bad thing to retreat and hibernate at times. The back-brain is still doing its thing.
But I did once have a novel die from under me. Or more precisely, my passion for it died. At the time, I kept thinking of the Australian author Thomas Kineally, saying that sometimes a novel just died right under you, like a horse. I'd spent at least five years by then working on this novel. I'd been focusing on it for an MA course I was doing. But after several drafts, I just knew it wasn't 'the one'. I'd learnt a lot trying to fix it. And I had a few agents interested in seeing what I wrote next. But I didn't have that belief in it to sell it to an agent – so I could hardly expect them to go out and sell it for me. I put it aside and started notes for a new novel. But while I was dealing with that novel-lag, I got ambushed by poetry and a project that turned into my first published collection, Firebridge to Skyshore: A Northern Nights Journey. Ten years later, the same thing is happening in reverse. I have a poetry project on the Space Race, waiting for me to finish it – but I've been ambushed by a novel instead.
LW: Whether writing poetry or prose, how important is it to ‘write without fear?’
SL: Write with fear. And doubt. And all manner of anxieties pursuing you like banshees. I once heard an Australian author say that all of these emotions are just like the weather. They surround us, they're an inevitable ever-changing part of the landscape of writing. Look out of the window, then proceed to ignore them and get on with the work. Tomorrow, just as unaccountably, there'll be sunshine or a sparkling frost. Equally irrelevant.
If you mean write up against taboos and the dangerous stuff, that's another matter. I think in creative writing, you often don't know what you're writing up against because you're in the thick of it. But write where the energy is, write where you are somewhat out of your depth but happily obsessed. This is too uncertain a business to do it any other way than because you have to. Then whatever the sheer hard slog of it, there will be joy in it too.
LW: You’re currently in the process of writing a novel. How has the experience been for you thus far?
SL: Well, exactly as above. I'm out of my comfort zone, writing in a genre that's totally different to anything I've written before. Dystopian fantasy, probably for a Young Adult readership. Heaven knows what I'm doing here. But this story did ambush me, one foggy weekend at the seaside, and would not let me alone. That's a rare thing, so I'm going with it and doing what I'm told. In my mind, the gods of story have dropped this in my lap and my job is not to mess it up too badly. That remains to be seen. But I am really enjoying the world-building, writing action scenes and sweary dialogue. Whatever else, getting the pace and narrative momentum to work for this will be a huge stretch for me and that challenge can only do me good.
LW: You teach creative writing at De Montfort University. At the risk of biting the hand that feeds you, can good creative writing actually be taught?
SL: No risk involved. I find it an odd question really. We don't think to ask this about teaching dance or acting or music or film-making. Of course, there are distinct skills and craft issues that can be taught with writing. Some authors have taught themselves by sitting down and assiduously studying successful works in their genre to figure out why and how. But none of us have to re-invent the wheel. There are strategies that we can learn from experienced authors – though it helps if they have some skills for communicating those too. Confidence and motivation mean we can be patient with ourselves through the hard graft of it.
Certainly, some writers will have an instinctual flair for certain aspects of storytelling or plotting or using language etc. Just as some of us are tone-deaf and can only get so far with music etc. But I did hear a radio programme talk once about child prodigies such as Mozart and how there was a correlation between the sheer number of hours of study or immersion in their craft and the extraordinary 'gifts' that emerged. After all, the human brain is extremely plastic. And being a writer also involves a certain way of paying attention and tuning into the world which is naturally full of stories if we but hear them.
About the interviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.