View Full Version : Guest Interviet with Sheenagh Pugh

The Fantastical
April 2nd, 2017, 08:34 AM

Sheenagh Pugh is a poet, novelist, and translator. She studied German and Russian at Bristol University and until her retirement in 2008 she taught Creative Writing at the University of Glamorgan and she has published over a dozen volumes of poetry.

Her collection of poetry The Beautiful Lie (Seren, 2002) was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitbread_Prize) and The Movement of Bodies (Seren, 2005) was selected as a Poetry Book Society recommendation and also shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T_S_Eliot_Prize). She has won the Bridport Prize (https://www.bridportprize.org.uk/content/2003-winners) and Cardiff International Poetry Prize. (http://www.literaturewales.org/cipc/i/130812/) Her collection of poetry, Stonelight (1999) won the Wales Book of the Year award (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wales_Book_of_the_Year) in 2000.

Hello and thank you for doing this interview with us this Poetry Month.

In an interview in 2014 you said : I'm not sure persona suggests a fiction writer's eye? Or rather, I think a poet IS a fiction writer, as much as a novelist. I've no time for the notion that poetry is All True, comes from the heart (yuk) and somehow needs to reflect the writer's experience rather than his/her imagination. I make things up, it's my trade, and I like the freedom of being other people.

Do you still feel this way about using poetry as another medium of storytelling?

I don't use it solely for that. I certainly still feel that poems are as essentially fictional and imaginative as novels; I am not remotely interested in telling the Pure Unadorned Truth about anything - dull, dull, dull....

I have noticed that you prefer writing in third person rather than first person, is the reason for that to put the story first?

No, not really. I used to write a great deal in first person, though almost always in persona, because let's face it, other people's lives are so much more interesting. I still do write in persona sometimes, but have lately gone more to third person for various reasons, but two in particular. One is that it feels more universal; the other is that too many people don't know how to read, and assume "I" , instead of being the lie it generally is in poetry, is the poet telling the truth about his/her own life. I had a discussion about this with the poet Paul Henry, when I interviewed him on my blog (see LINK (http://sheenaghpugh.livejournal.com/60657.html)). In his Selected Poems, "The Brittle Sea", he had left out several poems I liked and I asked why. He replied "I did so in the awareness that many readers, and even critics, completely buy into the first person. They read literally. As I tend to write out of my own experience it can lead to huge assumptions about my life". His answer to this was to leave the poems out of his Selected; mine is to stop using "I" except where it's historical and therefore obvious even to an idiot that it can't be me.

What do you think about the modern idea that poetry is about self, that the connection between story and reader is the poet's self, self experience? Rather than simply the content of the poem.

Not a lot. There's a story I like about Degas and Mallarmé. Degas had observed that he didn't seem to be able to write poems, though he had plenty of ideas. "But Degas," replied Mallarmé, "you can't make a poem with ideas. … You make it with words." This is so true. Poems are about what you can do with words, with language. I'm not hugely interested in a poet's "self" but am fascinated by his/her relationship with language.

I find that your poetry is very open and easy to read. Do you think that writing in third person creates writing that is more “open” poetry and is easier to relate to? Is the openness and relatability of your poems something that you aim for?

​I don't think third person/first person makes any difference at all in that regard. As for aiming for it, not really. I write the way I naturally write, and if I don't do difficult​ and abstruse, that's because my mind doesn't work that way. Though actually you'd be surprised how often school students have complained that this or that poem of mine that they are studying is too hard! I think people who read poems habitually have often very little notion how "hard" they can seem to those who don't.

You write about very universal themes in your poetry. Do you feel that all themes are universal or do you deliberately try to find universal “universal” themes?

I don't think one chooses themes so much as gets chosen by them, and I have always written a lot about mortality. That's universal, can't help being, as it's the one thing that applies to all humans. But there are other "universal" themes, like romantic love and childbirth, that I have never or hardly ever written about.

I have noticed that one of the elements that is strongly drawn on in your poetry is local scenery. How do you feel this impacts readers unfamiliar with the settings and imagery that results from those? Do you think that a layer of meaning can be lost to a reader unfamiliar with the places? Or do you think that the setting does not take away from the universality of the theme of the poem?

T​hat has only been true since I moved to Shetland. I used to be very much an urban poet and couldn't write about landscape unless there were people in it. ​Now the human element doesn't feel so all-important to me. I don't know if meaning can be lost to those unfamiliar with the places in a poem, I would think people probably substitute their own similar experiences. I think if you do it right, you can expect that readers will in effect substitute their own particular experience for that of the poem so that, if you like, the scenery is particular but its effect universal. I have a poem called "Times Like Places", which was in The Movement of Bodies and also in my Later Selected. It is about how particular places and events become emblematic for a relationship, and judging by how it goes down at readings, it had the effect I'd hoped it would, namely that listeners tend to substitute their own experiences for those in the poem.

But I can't think of anything much more boring than poems that don't tell you anything you didn't already know or take you anywhere you haven't already been. Don't readers want a bit of adventure in their lives? Anyway, whether they do or not, that's what I am currently moved to write about.

How do you choose which aspect of a poem can be lost in translation without losing the important bits? Is it a matter of experience?

​It's a matter of careful reading and to some extent, empathy with what the original poet ​was trying to achieve.

In your article German Clothes Pegs, where you talk about translating and the difficulties of accurately translating works you say this about translating poetry : Of course there is an extra complication with poetry, in that its meaning is conveyed on the level of sound as well as that of sense. It may sometimes be as important to convey into the new language the rhythms, rhymes, assonances and alliterations of poetry as the mere sense of the words. In fact, arguably the first thing any translator must decide is, given that something will inevitably be lost in translation, which element of the work in question is the most essential, the most vital not to lose.

Your poems have been translated into a many other languages (German, French, Italian, Russian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch). How do you feel your poems have fared in their translation? Has there ever been a “Shelley” like moment when reading one of the translations of your poems?

​I don't know most of those languages well enough to judge the translations.

​Has studying and translating from other languages changed how you portray a theme or an idea in your poetry?

I​t has probably altered the way I see language and its relationship with the things it represents. ​

There are many different kinds, forms, themes, aspects to poetry (more than I know about!), what is your best/favourite part of poetry?

The revising, the working ​on the original draft.

I don’t know if one can write poetry without reading it, it is certainly true on the prose side of things, do you have any favourite poets?

N​obody can be a good writer of any kind without being an avid reader.​ My favourite living poets are - Louise Glück, ​Rosie Shepperd​ and Paul Henry.

Going into the realms of the dead, Sorley MacLean, ​Edwin Morgan, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Walter Ralegh. Going beyond English, Stefan George, Andreas Gryphius, the Greek epigrammatists.

How do you compile your books? Do they have a narrative, a shape, a theme before you start to write? Or do you write and then compile? What inspires a particular compilation?

I​ don't start off with particular ideas in mind. As the poems accumulate, sometimes a theme begins to emerge but I never feel the whole book has to be themed. Deciding the order is usually a matter of trying not to put a whole load of 14-liners or terza rimas next to each other, varying long and short etc. Some poets spend ages trying to ensure that if a poem goes over one page, they start it on a left-hand page so it can be all read without turning over. I can't be bothered.

What advice you have for those wanting to publish a book of poetry?

B​e aware, firstly, that​ the market's crowded and getting accepted is hard, secondly that if you are accepted there'll probably be a 2 or 3-year period before it can be fitted into the schedule, and thirdly, that when it does come out, unless you are very lucky, hardly anyone will notice.

If you could share only one piece of advice with new poets, what would it be?

D​on't be like the poet I met at a festival once, who told me that he wanted to write on religious themes but wouldn't do so because it "wasn't cool" and would harm his image. ​

What would you say to someone who has never written poetry but wants to start?

​If they are adult already, and never made up songs or rhymes for fun as children, I'd say it probably isn't in them. If they did, then they need to read a lot of contemporary poetry, really steep themselves in it, and see what rubs off.

You can find Sheenagh Pugh's books and poetry collections at Seren Books (https://www.serenbooks.com/author/sheenagh-pugh)or on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Sheenagh-Pugh/e/B001K85MLI/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1). You can also find more information about her on her Blog (http://sheenaghpugh.livejournal.com/) or Website (http://sheenagh.wixsite.com/sheenaghpugh).

April 2nd, 2017, 07:56 PM
Interesting interview, FT. Thank you!

I find the response to this question interesting ...

What would you say to someone who has never written poetry but wants to start?

​If they are adult already, and never made up songs or rhymes for fun as children, I'd say it probably isn't in them. If they did, then they need to read a lot of contemporary poetry, really steep themselves in it, and see what rubs off.

Not sure I agree with this. I say: never say never. You either have talent or you don't.

The Fantastical
April 2nd, 2017, 09:19 PM
Interesting interview, FT. Thank you!

I find the response to this question interesting ...

Not sure I agree with this. I say: never say never. You either have talent or you don't.

Pugh is just a very interesting women. Her opinions on many things are really interesting, if you read her blog or even the two papers she wrote, on of Fan Fiction as a literary form are just fascinating!

I don't know if I disagree with her really. Writing is like any art form, it is something that is either in your soul or not. Even me... I have been drawing my whole life, even in those dry years when life has taken other turns and I haven't actually created anything; I have still doodled on my arm or in the corners of note pads and done silly little cartoon figures. I can't not draw. Same with writing. To be honest I have always written, or thought up stories. If a person hasn't always had that connection to the art of writing or poetry then....They will reach a certain level of competence but I just don't think that they will ever reach any level of skill beyond that.

The music and love just ins't in their soul. It isn't a part of them.

April 3rd, 2017, 01:26 PM
What would you say to someone who has never written poetry but wants to start?

​If they are adult already, and never made up songs or rhymes for fun as children, I'd say it probably isn't in them. If they did, then they need to read a lot of contemporary poetry, really steep themselves in it, and see what rubs off.

As a reader, a little bit of an issue with this. To get a well round picture of poetry, more particulary rhyming, rhythm, and classic forms, it helps to read the gamut, not just limit it to 'contemporary' poets. And while linguistics have evolved, the scope of vocabulary has redacted to be more efficient and less diverse. The profoundity and inherent musicality of classic poets is a lost art in the construct that is modern poetry.

People mimic what resonates with them and age is not a delineating factor. The process and products are unique to the individual. To discount potential due to age or reading preference is akin to saying, 'Why start now?'

I started young, but I will be the first to admit, I'm a hack but it doesn't diminish my love of writing poetry.

To this day, I write on both sides of the fence, poetry and prose, but I started in poetry much later. Yet I was a reader before all of it. Reading, writing, the two go hand in hand, and I've read far more classic poetry than modern quite simply because I like the old stuff. Modern poetry, meh...I don't hate it, but it has never left me breathless the way poets like Tennyson and Wordsworth have. And more often than not, if one enjoys something, they are far inclined to learn more from the experience and push further than they normally might.

It was an interesting read.


- D. the T.

The Fantastical
April 3rd, 2017, 04:10 PM
Eh... It would depend on what you want to do with your poetry. If you want to sell in a modern market, you have to write what the market wants. There is a reason that poetry has changed, regardless of your opinion about which is better.

So if you are wanting to be serious about what you are putting out, you need to find your niche in the modern market. Which involves reading a lot of what is being put out there, seeing what sells, how the styles work, the rhythms people like.

I also get what she is saying about starting late. If you haven't had the urge before now, it just isn't in your soul, a part of you.