Lockdown interviews: No3 Shamini Sriskandarajah interviews Sarah Lawson

Third in a series of author-to-author interviews to distract them, and you, from lockdown torpor.


Shamini Sriskandarajah

Shamini Sriskandarajah (Story Cities) interviews Sarah Lawson (Vindication, The Other Side of Sleep, Departures.)

Sarah Lawson

Sarah Lawson

Shamini:      I met you at the beginning of March at a reading in Greenwich for International Women’s Day. You read out poems you had contributed to Arachne Press’s collection, Vindication. What does feminism mean to you?

Sarah:    Feminism takes me back to Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, which I read in about 1970. I didn’t always identify with the strictures Greer described, but I understood and had encountered the bias against women. It is always surprising when some members of a disadvantaged group somehow identify with the “oppressors” and oppose a movement. I’m thinking of Phyllis Schafley here, who started a movement to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment in the US. This amendment was on the point of being ratified by the right number of states to become an amendment to the Constitution, but for some reason she thought it was a bad idea and mobilised enough people to defeat it! Things have improved in spite of everything. Girls can be more ambitious now; there are good role models for them; “sexism” has been identified and is a word now for what was experienced but hadn’t been named before. Even men began to understand that some of their thoughtless actions were no longer acceptable. This is an ongoing process! I wrote an article in about 1971 that was printed in The Guardian. I had a list of employment opportunities from the Glasgow University careers office, and lots of the jobs stipulated “no women”. I wrote to a number of these companies and asked why exactly women weren’t welcome to apply for these jobs. The answers were very interesting. Some said “Oh, did it say ‘No women’? Well, they can apply if they want to.” Others offered fascinating excuses, like they had to be part of a team and women wouldn’t fit in, or the job required people to load crates of things in a warehouse and required physical strength. (This for a white-collar management job.) Later I wrote a few things for Spare Rib. SR took such a gloomy view of things that I tried to find positive things to report—I remember a woman who had swum the length of Lake Windermere at an amazing average speed. (I was a qualified swimming teacher by then and thought her achievement should be acknowledged.)

Shamini:       I loved the timbre of your voice and the warmth of your words as you read out your poem about visiting your mother-in-law. How do you find reading your work out in public? I connected with the gentle sense of a loss and the new memories about life after the loss. Could you tell me a little bit more about your poems?

Sarah:        I’m so pleased that you liked Driving up to Renfrew! It is unusual in that I wrote it very near the time it describes. Usually I let an experience wait until I “recollect it in tranquillity”, as Wordsworth said. My husband died by his own hand in September 1992. His mother had come down for the funeral in October, and now I was going to her for Christmas. Between Christmas and New Year we scattered his ashes in The Trossachs. It was all a very sad business, as you may imagine. My mother-in-law and I became quite close over the next 15 years or so. She died at 100 in 2006. Toward the end of her life and afterwards I wrote a series of 20 poems about her and about our relationship. Some of them have been published but they should be in a pamphlet. I also wrote some poems about the death of my mother in 1981, but most of my poems are more light-hearted. They are very visual. I have always liked to describe the look of things in some arresting way. I am attracted to haiku for this reason, I think.

Shamini:       It’s strange to think we only met a month ago. Our lives have all changed since then because of Covid 19. What is life like for you now?

Sarah:         Golly yes! It was only about three weeks ago, but it seems like three months, doesn’t it? Actually, life isn’t all that different in some ways, because if you write you spend a lot of time “in isolation” anyway. I would usually be going out to the theatre or literary events, and I would certainly be shopping for groceries. I was going to treat this time like a writer’s retreat, but so far I have busied myself with sorting through some old letters and papers and throwing out a lot of stuff. It is a little hard to concentrate with the news being non-stop death reports about the virus! I was going to keep a diary, too, but I haven’t started it yet. Really, I think we should all be keeping diaries of this crisis because they will be as important as Mass Observation during the War. If anything I am a bit busier now because everybody is getting in touch to explain what they are doing and to ask what I am doing. I am unlikely ever to be bored just because I am alone.

Shamini:       I see many writers and creatives are having the same problem now: plenty of time to create while there’s a lockdown, but difficulty sustaining their motivation to write. Are you finding that, too? How do you get out of a writing rut?

Sarah:         Well, it is early days, and I am hoping that when things get into a routine we will be able to concentrate on writing. But will there be a routine, will life become less alarming? I have at least two new projects to think about: compiling a collection of my essays and book reviews, and editing my grandmother’s diaries from 1920-40. That doesn’t require much creative writing. There is also a novel I have often tried to start. Then there are some translations. Somehow poems don’t seem to be coming, but that is not too surprising. When I have a writer’s block, I like to try to write some haiku. That seems to clear up the block and get me thinking and observing in a way that stimulates the poetry muscle.

Shamini:        Does a situation like this inspire new writing or is that a cliché? Were there other occasions in your life that inspired you to write?

Sarah:         You would think that such a bizarre situation like the present one with COVID-19 would certainly inspire people to write. I wonder if there will be a spate of novels about these times. I wonder if it will turn into a minor genre. A change of place often inspires me to write because I want to describe it and because novelty is stimulating. I have written poems about various places, a poetry pamphlet about Holland (Dutch Interiors, 1988), a whole collection about China (All the Tea in China, 2005), a memoir about Poland (The Ripple Effect, 2009), and a memoir partly about Portugal (A Fado for my Mother, 1996).
Now I have found that some childhood memories have inspired me to write; I like to try to recapture the sensations of the memory and communicate them in words. One of them, “Revenant”, appears in Arachne’s The Other Side of Sleep, and is an evocation of a scene from early childhood that I revisit and now think of the adults in the scene and see it from two points of view in the past plus my point of view in the present. It is a long poem, and I found it interesting to write and to explore a certain vivid memory. That may be a one-off; I’m not sure I could find interesting ways of analysing  any other memories.

Shamini:      At difficult times, I think some people turn to art for comfort, hope, or to feel less alone with their upsetting feelings. What gives you comfort or hope? Whose writing do you feel a connection with? And what do you think or hope readers will get from your writing?

Sarah:         The first poet I felt a connection to must have been Edna St. Vincent Millay. We read her at school, and the first poetry book I ever bought was her Collected Lyrics. I was about 15 and hadn’t started writing poetry yet. (I knew I wanted to write, but I was focusing more on prose and I wasn’t completely sure what poetry even was!) A few years later I found her matching Collected Sonnets. I admired her lyricism and her effortless rhymes. Most of her poetry is quite formal, although she wrote some free verse too. I think her sonnets are really remarkable. Other poets I have admired, now that I come to think of it, have written in forms rather than free verse—Robert Frost, A.E. Housman. I think an early influence was also Robert Browning, especially the monologues.
As for my readers, I hope they will like my poems because they are entertaining or cause them to see things in a different way. I would like them to smile at some, be touched by some, and be surprised by some.

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