Lockdown Interviews: No13 Emma Lee interviewed by Michelle Penn

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Emma Lee (The Significance of a Dress, The Other Side of Sleep, Story Cities, Time and Tide, No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book)

Interviewed by Michelle Penn, (Dusk, Noon, Time and Tide)

Photograph by Andrew Tobin/Tobinators Ltd

Michelle:     You wear a lot of hats: teacher, reviewer, flash fiction writer, poet, film-poet creator… (feel free to add more). How do these various roles feed your creative work? 

Emma:     The best way to learn something is to teach someone else: it makes you realise where the gaps in your knowledge are and having to think about explaining a technique or aspect of craft in a way that makes sense to someone else gives you a deeper understanding. I always recommend that people read as widely as possible. Prose writers can learn about brevity and musicality from poets and poets can learn narrative techniques from prose. Reviewing also exposes you to books you wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to read. It’s easy to say ‘I only write x so I’ll only read x,’ but you’re closing yourself off to diverse experiences and new ideas that can stretch your own creativity.
Around ten years ago there was a trend for book trailers, a short film advertising a book. Most poetry publishing is done on a shoestring with little budget for marketing so I thought I’d give making a trailer or some film-poems a go. I’m not really a visual person – I once wrote a poem because I couldn’t be bothered to rummage through a rucksack to find a camera to take a photo – so the film-poems have been very low-tech and few and far between. I started blogging in 2007 and my blog has been regularly updated ever since. I like being busy.
My day job, the one that pays the bills, is copy writing. It’s a mix of disciplines, the brevity of poetry, the creativity of fiction and factual needs of non-fiction. The form I come back to is always poetry, but occasionally I’ll have an idea or a set of characters that won’t be strait-jacketed into a poem so I’m forced to write a story. I think poetry’s advantage is its musicality, that idea that a poem can communicate even if it’s not fully understood, and you can still pick up an image or a mood if you don’t fully follow what’s being said.

Michelle:     What role does politics play in your writing?

Emma:     That’s an interesting question, because I don’t see myself as a political poet. However, I do explore the effects of imbalances of power and wealth. Many of my poems bear witness to domestic and sexual violence and the situations of refugees who’ve not only fled traumatic experiences but are experiencing ongoing trauma while stuck waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.

Michelle:     What’s the most surprising thing you learned or discovered while writing The Significance of a Dress?

Emma:     That occasionally I can do humour; or at least a dry, wry look at a situation. The poems in ‘The Significance of a Dress’ aren’t all about the refugee situation. I had a moment of panic when Cherry Potts asked if I had some ‘happy’ poems. I didn’t think I wrote any (my excuse is that if I write miserable poems I can be happy but if I write happy poems, I might end up miserable). But I found How Rapunzel Ends about a jilted boyfriend who thought he could win his girlfriend back by setting up a piano in a busy city centre (he was a professional musician) and serenading passers-by and When Your Name’s not Smith about a bank teller who confidently tells a customer he knows how to spell her name until she comes to sign the form he’s completed, and it turns out he can’t.

Michelle:     What’s your most interesting quirk as a writer?

Emma:     This is a difficult one to answer, because writing to me is as natural as breathing and I tend not to think of breathing as quirky and you don’t tend to watch yourself writing. To different people, it might be different things such as my ability to sit and write in a crowded, noisy room, that I’m willing to try different types of writing or that I always read a piece aloud. Reading aloud enables you to hear things you miss when you read silently from a page, such that tongue-twisting second sentence or accidental rhyme in stanza three or that the rhythm changes when you get to stanza four.

Michelle:     What’s the most challenging aspect of your writing practise?

Emma:     I don’t really have a writing practice. If a poem or story needs to be written, it gets written. I used to tell stories and write them down as a child but was too scared to share them, so I tended to sneak off to a spare classroom during break times or keep a low profile during class so I could think through a story’s plot. This habit hass carried over into adulthood so I can write pretty much anywhere on any device, whether that’s a laptop, phone or paper notebook and can write in the morning before work, in lunch breaks, in a cafe or in my car because I’m good at being early and often find myself sitting in my parked car waiting for the right time or for somewhere to open. I think the trickiest thing is interruption: as a parent, you don’t get a solid block of time to write or plan, so you have to find ways of making the most of smaller chunks of time.
Michelle:     We’re living through difficult days. Do you have a go-to book that helps you through tough times?

Emma:     I do still keep going back to Sylvia Plath’s poems. I know her death overshadows most people’s reading of her poetry but she had some excellent maternity poems and the sheer joy and exuberance of You’re always brings a smile.

Michelle:     What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

Emma:     I am taking part in NaProWriMo so trying to draft a poem a day for April. I’m also reviewing. Some of the readings and events around the launch of The Significance of a Dress were cancelled, so I’m making plans for replacement events for (hopefully) later in the year, when restrictions due to the coronavirus are lifted.

You can buy all the Arachne books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.

Preorder No Spider Harmed… – out 8th August for our eighth anniversary!

If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer. we recommend Hive for ePub.

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