Kelly Davis (Dusk) and Elizabeth Stott (We/She) in Conversation
Elizabeth: You and I were introduced over a decade ago by a writer friend, who said something along the lines of: ‘Kelly is a very clever Oxford graduate, and editor.’ I was a little daunted but found you to be a warm and open person. I remember us both taking our then teenage sons for a guitar masterclass at Maryport Blues Festival. Mum’s taxi service! If I were asked to describe you now, I might say (teasingly): ‘Kelly is a girly swot with passion and principles. And she is an excellent poet!’ And I have been fortunate to see you grow as a writer of poetry.
Kelly: Thank you so much, Elizabeth. I remember first seeing you read one of your beautifully crafted, slightly chilling short stories at a literary event in Cockermouth, and later bumping into you at the Words by the Water Festival in Keswick, where we both chair sessions. The Cumbrian literary scene is very lively and in 2017 our mutual friend Kathleen Jones (along with Jacci Bulman and Nicola Jackson) edited Write to Be Counted, a poetry anthology to uphold human rights and raise money for PEN. We both had poems in this anthology and enjoyed reading together at several events, including a launch at the Poetry Café in London. In 2018, we were both placed in the Magma magazine subscribers’ poetry competition. Now we are also connected through our involvement with Arachne Press. In my case, this came about through Barbara Renel, who lives in Wigton. Barbara is a writer of short stories and flash fiction and a long-time friend of Arachne. She asked for Solstice Shorts contributions from people who attend the SpeakEasy sessions in Carlisle and that was how I ended up submitting poems to Arachne.
Elizabeth: Your Dusk poem ‘Calling Them In’, with its echoing lines, is haunting and deeply unsettling. The form is unusual. Perhaps you could unpack it for me?
Kelly: ‘Calling Them In’ started simply as a response to Arachne’s call-out. I Googled the word ‘dusk’ and found references to children being called in from play and that made me remember my sons playing in the school grounds near our house. I used to call ‘Come home for your tea!’ over the back fence. But on one occasion, they were nowhere to be found – and I had that feeling of dread that all mothers of young children get when they suddenly slip out of sight. In fact they were just playing in some other part of the grounds, out of earshot, but the poem developed into a meditation on time stealing our children. The repetition occurs because I originally wrote it as a valanga (which means ‘avalanche’). This little-known poetic form was invented by Cumbrian author and poet Mike Smith (aka Brindley Hallam Dennis) in around 2007 and it suddenly went viral in Cumbrian writing circles 10 years later. Cherry edited the poem down a bit for the Dusk anthology but some of the repetition remains and I think it creates a sense of threat, which is amplified as the poem goes on.
Elizabeth: When you write poetry, do you have to stop the editor in you from getting in the way? It seems to me that you are able to let your imagination and feelings out, without a leash, and bring them back with a light hand to form your work.
Kelly: That’s a very good question, Elizabeth. My day job involves editing non-fiction where everything has to be crystal clear so it’s easy for me to fall into traps such as explaining too much at the beginning or end of a poem, or trying to manipulate the reader’s response. My poems tend to come very quickly, in a burst of inspiration, often triggered by personal experiences or memories. I then need to revisit them repeatedly, at intervals, to edit them effectively. This process can take a long time and may involve happenstance. For instance, I once wrote a poem called ‘White Gladioli’ that ended very abruptly and I put it aside, as I had no idea how to complete it. I later saw that Mslexia magazine were asking for specular poems. The specular form gave me the ‘other half’ of the poem and I was overjoyed when Mslexia published it in 2017.
Elizabeth, I know you write novels, short stories, flash fiction and poetry. How has your writing developed and what makes you choose a particular form?
Elizabeth: I had a lifelong notion that I should ‘write’, but didn’t take the idea seriously until mid-life, when I had a young family and needed an intellectual outlet. I had been used to writing in a business context, where work-related reports had to be concise, precise and structured. When I started writing fiction, I began to relate what I had learned about technical writing to so-called ‘creative writing’. My writing style in fiction has always been on the lean side, so my stories are often under 3000 words or so. Flash throws down a gauntlet and makes you ask yourself: ‘Why are you writing this?’ It’s a good way to find out what matters in a narrative. I am still in an early relationship with flash. It exposes a concept and it takes a bit of courage from the writer to recognise weaknesses.
Regarding poetry; years ago, I attended a local creative writing class where my notions of fiction were challenged, and I was introduced to the idea that I could also have a go at writing poetry. Experimenting with poetry made me re-engage with language and seemed to open out my prose.
What I start to write at any given time depends very much on my mood. For fiction, I like it best when I have a clear sense of a character. If I start with an idea, I find it harder to bring the piece to life. Writing a poem can help to evoke something. Even if the poem itself is not successful, it allows a rhythm and voice to emerge that gives a sense of where a prose piece may lead. I am very sound driven.
Kelly, you studied English Literature at Oxford. Did this encourage you to write creatively or did you find it inhibiting? Why did you choose poetry as your medium, and have you tried other forms?
Kelly: I loved writing poems as a child and a teenager but, sadly, studying Eng Lit at Oxford did stifle my creativity. Poetry became something to be pulled apart and analysed, and I no longer dared to write my own. It was only when I came to live in Cumbria in 1989 that I started tentatively writing again. And finally, about ten years ago, I started taking my own writing a bit more seriously. Like you, I value clarity and brevity. Perhaps that’s why I find poets like Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver particularly appealing. Poetry can be very intense – packing a great deal of thought and emotion into relatively few words. There’s something magical about the idea of writing a few lines that can stay in someone’s memory for ever. I have tried writing flash fiction and I have a few pages of an abandoned historical novel – but poetry seems to be my natural mode of expression.
A lot of writers study English Literature as I did, but you made a more unusual choice when you decided to do a physics degree. How do you think your interest in science has influenced your writing?
Elizabeth: My experience is that physics graduates end up doing all kinds of things. But I think it is more to do with having a mosaic mind in my case. I was pretty good at a variety of subjects at school, including languages, and I loved writing long essays for my English homework When my kids were small, I took a career break and needed something to call my own so I started writing articles and stories. I bought a typewriter in Boots whilst my two-year-old daughter demolished the stationery counter.
Studying science requires you to think in a structured, logical way and helps you develop a sense of pattern and a feeling for the direction of an argument. It also introduces fundamental ideas about what lies beneath everyday life and develops a sense of the scale of things, and the place of humankind in the immensity of ‘what is’. I was particularly interested in cosmology, and ideas about life elsewhere in the universe. This led me to marvel at how human beings can contemplate the vastness of existence with leaps of scale that dwarf our lives into insignificance. Our awareness is like a tiny flash of light in the immense darkness!
Kelly, on this subject – the fragility of individual lives – some of your poetry deals with your Jewish ancestry and the impact of the Holocaust on your family. Perhaps you could share how you think about these themes, and how it brings you to write about them in poetry, rather than another form.
Kelly: I am haunted by my grandfather’s story, and I’ve written several poems about him. He was a Lithuanian Jew and his family sent him to South Africa in the late 1930s, in the hope that he would make his fortune and send for them. But in 1941, before he had earned enough to pay their passage, he received a letter via the Red Cross from a good friend, telling him that his entire family had been shot into a mass grave. His friend crawled out from under the bodies, escaped and survived. But when the friend returned to his hometown after the war, his ex-neighbours (who had taken his house) murdered him. I don’t feel able to write about these events in any medium other than poetry. It enables me to distil the emotion and try to find a universal resonance. Of course these terrible stories are still happening all over the world – in Syria and many other countries.
To get back to your writing, Elizabeth, I very much enjoyed your story ‘One Beautiful Day’, published in the 2018 We/She Arachne Press anthology. I wondered what made you think of writing about a pair of aging married opera singers on a provincial tour? The story is written in the third person and entirely from the woman’s perspective. What made you decide to write it like that?
Elizabeth: I was inspired by an unusual event organised by a local arts society, which took place on a dark winter evening at a Cumbrian village hall more frequently used to host Brownies, playgroups and WI meetings. It was billed as an evening of opera, with a dinner prepared by a local chef. Two professional opera singers and a pianist, who had all performed at leading international venues, delivered a remarkable evening of music. They wore full evening dress and performed from a makeshift stage, amidst the children’s dangling Christmas snowflakes, surrounded by stacks of plastic chairs. The pianist, more used to a grand piano, played an electronic keyboard, perched (probably uncomfortably) on two of the stacked chairs, his evening tails hanging down behind him. The performers delivered their music as if from a London stage, with much grace and humour, whilst we ate our dinner on fold-out tables. There was a raffle, of course, mostly for alcoholic beverages. It was a remarkable insight into the life of touring musicians, performing largely for love, and little money. (Much like the life of a writer really!) My characters were fiction, I must add.
On the question of point of view for the story. You have to start somewhere. Sometimes, as the story progresses, it seems that it would work better from the first person, or in another tense. If I am not getting the right vibe, then I will try another perspective. A story must seem natural, even if it is clearly an artifact. There must always be a gap for the reader to inhabit. Grounding it too much will make the story fall flat. With this story, there is a little distance, and a formality, a wry humour, but we can still hear Reneé’s voice through the narrator. I kept the third person to allow me to pull away from the immediacy, and avoid the more obvious aspects of first person, which can be a little too ‘up close and personal’. I wanted to keep a wry perspective and allow the sensibilities of others to cast a light back, and Reneé’s misery could have dominated in the first person. I do use first person and I often play with tenses. Even second person, sometimes. Variety is one of the reasons why I like short fiction, both as a writer and reader.
Kelly, tell me about your plans to get more of your poetry published. It seems that independent presses, such as Arachne, play an important part in bringing new writers to light.
Kelly: I feel I’ve developed my own voice as a poet, and I have a reasonable body of work so I would love to get a pamphlet (or maybe even a collection) published. I am submitting where I see opportunities to do so. However, there are so many talented poets competing for airtime/publishing contracts that one has to be both patient and determined. I often get very warm responses from audience members when I read at poetry events – and that encourages me to keep writing and submitting. What are your writing plans, Elizabeth?
Elizabeth: I hope one of these days to finish a novel. I have a few that, for various reasons, I have not finished. And I’d like to get together new collections of my stories. I have also toyed with the idea of writing a play. I enjoyed watching actors engage with my Liars’ League stories in live readings. Of course, Arachne collects and publishes selected Liars’ League stories in its anthologies, and that’s where my story for We/She came from.
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