Photograph by Andrew Tobin/Tobinators Ltd
Michelle Penn (Noon, Time and Tide, Dusk) interviewed by fellow Solstice Shorts poet, Claire Booker, (Time and Tide)
Claire: I was very taken by your poem ‘The Sinking of Mrs Margaret Brown’ in Arachne Press’s ‘Time & Tide’ anthology. Can you tell me what inspired you to write about the Titanic? Is history something that particularly interests you? And how did you decide on the tone of the poem?
Michelle: I spent most of my childhood in Denver (Colorado), where Margaret Brown had been a 19th century socialite, philanthropist and early feminist – although she was most famous for surviving the Titanic disaster. ’The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ character appeared in one particular advert and somehow embodied the image of the tough pioneer woman. (By the way, the Denver I knew – and even Margaret Brown knew – was a proper city. Not exactly the untamed frontier!) From a young age, I was interested in her character and how her ‘unsinkability’ had eclipsed the rest of her life – right down to her name. Although history in general is always a draw for me, it was was the creation of the mythical ‘Unsinkable Molly Brown’ that wouldn’t let me go. By the time I put myself in the mindset of ‘Margaret Brown,’ the tone of the poem seemed to follow naturally: the voice and thoughts of a woman who is aware of the trappings of wealth – yet refuses to simply be taken to safety and leave the less fortunate to their fates.
Claire: As a veteran of three Solstice Shorts festivals, have you been able to attend any of the performances of your work, and what, if anything, do simultaneous performances bring to an audience or writer?
Michelle: I’ve attended each of the past three festivals and have both read my own work and seen it performed by actors. I find it fascinating to be part of an audience (live or video) when different actors interpret my poems: it’s a glimpse into how someone who doesn’t know you ‘hears’ your lines and ‘sees’ your images. I suppose it’s akin to hearing a piece of music played by several bands or orchestras – each version has its own flavour and becomes its own unique experience.
Claire: What function do you consider poetry to have in society today, and how do you see it developing (or not) in the future?
Michelle: For me, poetry seems more than ever to ask Why. It doesn’t necessarily offer answers but provides different lenses for examining the question. Whether it’s printed on the page or performed in front of an audience, poetry makes us think about language, meaning, irony, ambiguity. It opens our minds to others’ experiences, emotions and ideas – how they might consider the Why.
I think more hybrid/collaborative/cross-genre projects will keep poetry developing in new ways. I’m looking forward to seeing how poets continue to use emerging technologies to add new dimensions to poetry.
Claire: E-book or hard copy – which do you prefer, and why?
Michelle: Definitely hard copy. I love reading paper books, love the physical act of turning pages, folding them, holding a book in my hands. I also love seeing my books on shelves. I can’t imagine the emptiness I’d feel if my entire library were on a single device. Convenient, yes, but not the same, at all.
Claire: In this current lock-down, what have you been reading?
Michelle: The Divine Comedy. I’ve dipped in and out over the years but haven’t journeyed all the way from Hell to Heaven. I’m currently still in Purgatory but hope to enter Paradiso soon.
Claire: What qualities do you look for in a poem?
Michelle: I’m attracted to poems that show a real love of language, that try to push it further without getting too flowery or overwrought. I like experimentation and risk-taking, both with words and with the appearance of a poem on the page. I appreciate a bit of mystery at the heart of a poem, as well as ambiguity. For me, a successful poem is one that draws me in (especially on a visceral level) on the first reading but only reveals its secrets slowly. I like a poem that sticks with me and keeps me coming back for more.
Claire: How have you developed as a creative writer since you first started? Did you find your voice early, or are you still exploring?
Michelle: While I’ve been writing for many years, I wasn’t one of those people who found a single voice early on. I’m not sure I have a single voice now. I tend to experiment with lots of voices and an ‘I’ that may or may not be related to me in an autobiographical sense. I’m also interested in stretching those different voices in terms of tone, register, language, syntax… you name it. I hope I never stop creating new voices and developing.
Claire: Any collections or pamphlets out, or forthcoming?
Michelle: My debut pamphlet – Self-portrait as a diviner, failing – was published in 2018 by Paper Swans Press. I have a few projects in the works, so I hope to add to the ‘forthcoming’ soon.
Claire: Paper? Rock? Scissors?
Michelle: Paper. I’m a writer, after all!
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