How did you become a writer?  Did you come from a literary background?

Not at all.  I was brought up on a small farm in a remote part of the United Kingdom – many of the local people had never been more than 30 miles away from home in their entire lives.  Apart from breeding sheep, nothing much else went on.  We didn’t have electricity or television at home, but my parents had lots of books.  I read and read and then began to write.  When I was about 9 years old, one of my teachers sent off a poem to a magazine and it was published.  I knew then that I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t have a clue how you became one.


Katherine Mansfield felt she had to leave New Zealand to become a writer. Was that why you left home as a teenager to go to London?

Absolutely.  I loved the landscape and the isolation of the Lake District, so it was difficult to leave, but I knew I had to go if I wanted to succeed.  Like Katherine,  I had the romantic idea that London was where it all happened!


Would you do it again?

Yes. I think you need to get away to get some perspective on your own life.  You also need ‘input’.   If you stay in a small community there’s always a danger that you become a big fish in a little pond and never really achieve what you’re capable of. And you need to find your way around the world of books so that people know who you are. The days when you could write and keep a low profile, relying on publishers and bookshops to sell the product are over – publishers expect you to go out and network to publicise your books.  We have to learn to be ambassadors for our own work.  The shy, reclusive author is at a disadvantage.


Your previous biographies have all been about women writers, including Margaret Cavendish, Christina Rossetti and Catherine Cookson.  What drew you to Katherine Mansfield as the subject for a biography?

I’ve loved her work and been fascinated by her life story since I was a teenager.  I found the John Middleton Murry edition of her Journal in a second hand book bin when I was 17, and I’ve carried it around everywhere even though it’s in pieces now.  Even then I was aware that there was a lot of myth-making, and everything I read about her just made me more determined to find out what really happened. There were mysteries, and Katherine herself was portrayed as either a rather waspish good-time girl, or a sentimental heroine wasting away like someone in a Victorian novel.  I wanted to know what she was really like.


Katherine Mansfield is a major figure in 20th century literature and has been the subject of a lot of biographies and other non-fiction books. If someone asked “Why should I read your Katherine Mansfield biography rather than one of the others?” what would you say to them?

I would say:  Read mine because it’s the only biography to be written since all the documents relating to Katherine and her husband John Middleton Murry became available in the public domain.  Katherine’s letters and notebooks have all been transcribed and printed and the diaries and letters of John Middleton Murry are now also in the Alexander Turnbull library in New Zealand.  Additionally I’ve had the help of the family who still have quite a lot of material relating to both Mansfield and Murry. There’s a lot of new information.  It’s significant that most of the leading figures in the story are now dead, so information is less likely to be withheld to protect people.  I’ve also tried to write a book that’s good to read.  I want my characters to live in the mind of the reader and come off the page as vividly as they would in a novel.


Why do you like writing biographies?

I’m fascinated by people’s lives.  You could say that biography is a kind of up-market ‘Hello!’ magazine – there’s an element of voyeurism, literary lace-curtain twitching about it however scholarly you are. But nothing beats the buzz you get, sitting in an archive, reading a love letter – perhaps Wordsworth to his wife – or turning the pages of Katherine Mansfield’s journals.  You’re touching the same paper they touched, reading the words they inked on the page all those years ago.


You write poetry and fiction as well as non-fiction. Which gives you most satisfaction?

I like all the different genres, though I’d probably have been more successful if I’d stuck to only one.  What I choose to write depends on the idea – some ideas are only suitable for a poem, other will stretch to a short story, non-fiction projects demand a much greater investment in time and research and have to be chosen quite carefully.  If you’re going to write a biography you have to like someone enough to spend a couple of years in their company.


Which writers have influenced your own writing, and which ones are your personal favourites?

Apart from Katherine Mansfield’s Journal, I also read Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ as a teenager and it taught me a lot about getting away from traditional narrative.  The other really influential book was Italo Calvino’s ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller…..’  and for the same reason.  They taught me a lot about multiple narrative threads and parallel texts.  If you put two – or more – stories together in the right way they can double up on the meaning in the same way that poetry does.  It will sound a bit weird, but the other book that influenced me was ‘Chaos’, by James Gleick  because it demolished the  traditional way we thought about the universe and how it’s ordered.  I suddenly realised that everything – absolutely everything – is made out of beautiful numerical patterns that keep evolving and changing because they are Imperfect and Incomplete.  It seemed to offer ideas about the patterning of words in poetry and prose –  and it reinforced the conviction that a narrative or a poem has to be open ended with a sense of evolving, not rounded off and complete in a dead-end sort of way that offers the reader no way of carrying the story on. It taught me that creativity comes out of chaos.  Does this make any sense?


What are you working on at the moment?

The Mansfield biography has been very hard work – so I’m taking a rest and concentrating on fiction for a while.   I would like to publish more fiction – it’s too easy to become ‘pigeon-holed’ in a particular genre.   Just now I’ve got a couple of plots burning away at the back of my head and I need to see if I can get either of them to work.



Most of your poems are metrical and rhymed. Why? Do you see 21st-century metrical verse as a rejection of Modernism?

No, I don’t see using meter and rhyme as a rejection of anything. The opposite, in fact. It’s an affirmation of what drew me to poetry as a reader when I was young—the love of poems that lend themselves to being memorized, for example. I started writing verses for pleasure when I was 12 or 13, and it seemed natural to use the verse techniques of the poets I loved to read—Dickinson, Frost, Yeats and Millay were poets I fell for early and hard. Hopkins and Auden a few years later. I wrote bad imitations of all of them, too. But that’s part of learning to write poems and finding what you have to say.

One of the biggest advantages of rhyme for a poet is the way it brings randomness (via the arbitrary similarity of sounds) into the writing process. I often surprise myself, looking for rhymes, by coming up with an image or metaphor I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise or having a poem take a turn I couldn’t have predicted. Creative constraints can be freeing. But the short answer is that I write in rhyme and meter because doing so gives me pleasure. It’s not part of any program of opposition—to modernism or postmodernism or feminism or any other ism.

But why would a woman poet in 2010 want to use old-fashioned, patriarchal forms like the sonnet? Why not make up your own?

Forms don’t belong to anybody. Why cede a long-lived, flexible form like the sonnet to men? Or to Caucasians, or Christians, or Europeans? Take them and make them your own, I say. And sometimes I do invent my own forms. “Experimental” verse isn’t necessarily free verse.

Do you ever write free verse?

A poet I know who uses meter and rhyme exclusively says that he tried to write free verse once, and it nearly gave him a nervous breakdown. (Maybe he should be featured here.) I’m not quite as extreme as that, but to write free verse I seem to need a model or template of some kind. I’m paralyzed by total freedom, where every line can be broken anywhere. A few years ago I wrote a free verse poem that borrowed the basic structure and some of the rhetorical devices of “My Cat Geoffrey” by Christopher Smart. That poem, which is about Guinea Worm Disease of all things, originally was in an elaborate stanza form. It lay dead on the page until rereading Smart showed me what I needed to do—two or three years after I put the draft in a drawer.

Who are some of your poetic loves and influences?

Loves and influences aren’t necessarily the same thing. I love Whitman, but I don’t think his poems have influenced mine much. I love the Metaphysical poets, especially Herbert and Donne. I used to think that Dickinson wasn’t much of an influence, but as I’ve gotten more and more interested in verse riddles and in shorter meters than iambic pentameter, I think she’s there. Frost, Wilbur, and Larkin, definitely. Christina Rossetti, Elinor Wylie, and Louise Bogan, too, though I discovered them later than the others.

Among contemporary poets, I’ve been lucky to have generous mentors who encouraged and challenged me to do my best work, both directly and by example—among them Dick Davis, Carl Dennis, Rhina Espaillat, Dana Gioia, Sam (R.S.) Gwynn, and Timothy Steele. Among poets of my own generation, I feel an especially deep affinity with Joshua Mehigan, A.E. Stallings, and Greg Williamson, all of whom I admire and have influenced me.

It can be misleading to talk about poets as influences, though. More often it’s individual poems influencing other poems. And poets influence themselves, too, if only in the effort to avoid repeating themselves.

The main thing is to read deeply and widely and not worry too much about influences. In graduate school, I once invited a poet in the MFA program for coffee. I was thinking then of switching from the Ph.D. to the MFA program, mainly because reading literary theory was making me miserable. She seemed like (and was) a nice person, and I was eager to talk poetry, so I asked her which poets she read for pleasure. She named one contemporary American poet, and then said, “But I don’t like to read much poetry. I don’t want to be over-influenced.” I was stunned into silence. I doubt her attitude was typical—at least I hope it wasn’t. But I decided to finish my Ph.D.

Say a little about “Aubade.” What inspired it?

It came out of the experience of new motherhood. Those first weeks and months are so all-consuming, and you sleepwalk through them in a haze of sleep deprivation, a sort of timeless time. You’re up crazy hours, and the days and nights blur together. We were living in Brooklyn then, and I’d run into other mothers at the park with their toddlers or older kids, and often they’d say, “Oh, it seems like you’ll never forget the time when they’re tiny babies, but you do.” I remember vaguely thinking there might be a poem in that (everything I thought was vague at the time!). And of course my daughter wouldn’t remember any of what we did together in those early days—that struck me too. I scribbled one line from what became the poem in a notebook when she was a few months old—“You will remember none of this.” That’s where it stayed for… well, I didn’t get the poem on paper until the form finally revealed itself, about six years later.

Revealed itself?

That’s the way it feels—that the poem discovers its form. You have to be very patient sometimes, or you force it into being before it’s ready and ruin it. On the other hand, you can’t give up on the failed drafts and partial drafts if you think they have potential. You have to exhume the bodies now and then and check them for signs of life.

What’s the form of “Aubade”?

It’s in 8-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter, each stanza having two rhyme-endings, with the seventh and eighth lines identical to the first and third.

Never heard of that.

I made it up—at least I think I did. But the form was inspired by a Louis MacNeice poem called “Meeting Point,” about two people having a love affair who share the illusion that their love can make time stop. That poem, also tetrameter, uses five-line stanzas in which the last line repeats the first. It’s a wonderful poem. I’d come across it a long time before, in college maybe, and then a few years ago I encountered it again and was fascinated with the music it made. I memorized it and carried it around for awhile. And that one little line of my own germinated.

Why the generic title? Isn’t it like calling a villanelle “Villanelle”?

Not quite, I think. A bigger strike against it is that Larkin used it for one of his greatest poems. But titling it “Aubade” let me frame the poem as a conversation with the many other poets who have written aubades, in various cultures and over centuries. I could participate in that tradition in my own way. That early, all-consuming bond between a mother and an infant is like the early stages of a love affair, and even as you suffer sleeplessness and mood swings and feel completely overwhelmed, like someone in love you want that time to last forever. And you know that it can’t. I could say a lot with the title without having to say it outright.

Is it typical for you to take years to finish a poem?

Unfortunately, yes. It seems to take me ten years, more or less, to collect enough poems for a book.

So we can expect the next one in 2014?

Maybe. If I’m as lucky with finding a publisher as I was the last time, which is a big if.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing or working (or taking your daughter to play rehearsals and softball practice)?

My husband and I just finished watching an excellent Brit TV series called Foyle’s War, about a police detective (played by Michael Kitchen) investigating murders in Hastings during World War II. We felt bereft when we’d watched the last one. Another of our recent enthusiasms is Breaking Bad. Right now our recommendations on Netflix are divided into two categories: “Understated British Dramas” and “Critically-acclaimed, Violent TV Shows.”

I started studying piano a year and a half ago. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. Getting your hands to do different things simultaneously is not an easy skill for a middle-aged person to pick up, so I have to be patient with myself. My favorite genre is blues, which sounds good even when arranged for a beginner. I take lessons every other week, and my piano teacher and I exchange “words of the day” at the end of each one. My word of the day last week was “opsimath”—somebody who learns something new later in life.

Why have you been putting off doing this interview for months? Why have you stood me up and screened my calls?

I don’t know. Sorry! I couldn’t sit down and do it until the deadline was bearing down on me. I guess I have a horror of coming off as self-centered and self-indulgent.

But you’re a poet!

Right. It comes with the territory! Might as well embrace it.

Anything else you’d like to say?

That I’m really jazzed about being featured on TNB, especially now that I’m done with this interview. Please tell Uche thanks!