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.

You can buy all the Arachne books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.
If you would prefer eBooks, Departures and Story Cities  are available from your usual retailer.
The Other Side of Sleep and Vindication is being converted and should be available by 24th April.

IWD video Shamini Sriskandarajah


On 8th March we held an International Women’s Day of readings from female authors and poets, surrounded by the  Tatty Divine exhibition at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery. Many thanks to Greenwich University Gallleries for hosting.

Here is Shamini Sriskandarajah reading her flash from Story Cities, Coffee.


#IWD2020- Photos

Until I get round to editing the video files, here are some photos from Sunday’s event, where we launched Emma Lee‘s new collection, The Significance of a Dress, and thoroughly celebrated International Women’s Day with poems and flash from Laila Sumpton, Claire Booker, Sarah Lawson, Jenny Mitchell, Julie Easley, Cherry Potts, Michelle Penn, Shamini Sriskandarajah, and Emma Lee!

Women on the Move: Poetry and Flash for International Women’s Day

To celebrate the launch of Emma Lee‘s new poetry collection The Significance of a Dress, we are holding an event at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, University of Greenwich, 10 Stockwell Street, Greenwich SE10 9BD on the actual day SUNDAY 8TH MARCH 2pm.

Emma will be joined by Jenny Mitchell (Time and Tide, whose idea it was). Michelle Penn (Dusk, Noon, Time and Tide), Shamini Sriskandarajah (Story Cities), Claire Booker (Time and Tide), Laila Sumpton (Dusk, Noon) and Sarah Lawson (The Other Side of Sleep, Vindication, Departures), and there will be an open mic session, and very possibly cake.

The notional theme is women on the move, but this is being widely interpreted.

If you would like to take part in the open mic with on-theme poetry or flash fiction, please contact us, or sign up on arrival, there are a maximum of 6 500-word-limit slots.

Tickets by donation to cover travel expenses for the readers.

Story Cities at Old Royal Naval College day 2

Rather delayed (by crowdfunding mainly) here is audio of our second outing at ORNC’s bowling alley. A little echoey!

Readings from Nic Vine, Rosamund Davies, Cherry Potts, Shamini Sriskandarajah of their own stories and some by other people too – Catherine Jones, David Mathews, Rob Walton and Steven Wingate.

Rosamund reads You Stand in the Secret Place by Steve Wingate

Cherry Reads Backwater by David Mathews

Shamini reads Coffee

Nic reads Go Directly to Go by Rob Walton

Cherry Reads Lost and Found by Catherine Jones

Rosamund reads The Right Place

Cherry reads Foundation Myth

Nic reads Tech Down

Sunday in the Storytelling Chair

More readings from the Storytelling Chair, in the skittles alley, under the Painted Hall, in the Old Royal Naval College, in Greenwich. That sounds a bit like we are sending you on a treasure hunt…

Rosamund Davies introducing the book

And reading from Steven Wingate‘s story You Stand in the Secret Place

Shamini Sriskandarajah reading Coffee Nic Vine reading Tech Down

full audio later…

Story Cities at Old Royal Naval College

Story Cities writers were invited to read from the Storytelling Chair made by Matt Nicholls, at the launch of London Design Festival at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich last night. Here are recordings of our stories read there. (We are back on Sunday! see below)

Shamini Sriskandarajah reads Coffee

Cherry Potts reads Foundation Myth

Annabel Banks reads Other Signals

Evleen Towey reads School Bus

Roland Denning reads Seeing in the Dark

Nic Vine reads Tech Down

Rosamund Davies reads Today’s Arrivals and Departures

You can catch more (some different) stories on Sunday, When Cherry, Nic and Rosamund will be reading their own stories, and others by Steven Wingate, David Mathews, Rob Walton and Catherine Jones.

The Story Cities book is for sale in the bookshop under the Painted Hall, and in the visitor centre for the duration of the festival which includes next weekend Open House festival so you can get in and see everything free!

Or you can buy it from us, or any really good bookshop.


London Design Festival

UNESCO world heritage site, the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, joins London Design Festival for the first time this year with a free exhibition showcasing local artists and makers.

What does that have to do with books, I hear you mutter.

We’ve had a bit to do with ORNC via Greenwich University and the Greenwich Book Festival, which are both on their site, and it turns out someone from ORNC came to our GBF session on Story Cities and enjoyed it so much she asked us to get involved in their event for London Design Festival.

Inside the Painted Hall (open to ticket-holders Adults £12, Kids under 16  free, includes a free tour of the Old Royal Naval College. https://ornc.digitickets.co.uk/tickets) in the Victorian Skittle Alley, is The Storytelling Chair made by Matt Nicholls Designs from recycled wood.

You can see where this is going.

We will be making use of the storytelling chair during the festival, with a couple of pop-up sessions. The first session is this Friday and is an invitation only event, where Annabel Banks, Evleen Towey, Nic Vine, Shamini Sriskandarajah, Roland Denning, Rosamund Davies and Cherry Potts are reading but…

On Sunday 15th September at 3pm we’ll be popping up again, for about 15 minutes, with Nic Vine, Rosamund Davies, Matthew Pountney and Cherry Potts and maybe Shamini Sriskandarajah reading our own and other stories from Story Cities in or beside the chair. It is very brief, so if you want to catch it, allow time to find us! (dont forget you need a painted hall ticket) The book will be on sale in the Painted Hall bookshop (no ticket required) throughout the festival, which runs 14th-22nd September.

more info about the greenwich part of the festival

more info about the festival in general

Video – Greenwich Launch Story Cities Shamini Sriskandarajah

Here is another Story Cities Greenwich launch videos, Shamini Sriskandarajah reads her flash, coffee, which is one of the transport stories: a relationship in micro detail.


Your next chance to catch live readings from the book is at Blackwells Manchester this Thursday 27th June at 7pm, free but ticketed

Story Cities Launch Party Tomorrow

Very excited about the launch party tomorrow for Story Cities… Kam has been busy decorating the Stephen Lawrence Gallery

and I’m currently baking a cake that will NOT be big enough for 100+ people.

There are 20 tickets left for this free event, so if you were dithering, get a move on.

I forsee lots of selfies in front of that wall…

And we have lots of readings and refreshments, in fact we have so much to get through that you really need to be on time!

7pm open, 7.15 introductions

7.30 first set of readings, Annabel Banks, Evleen Towey, Jasmin Kirkbride, Shamini Sriskandarajah , Jayne Buxton, Rosamund Davies

8pm CAKE and book sales (you can buy books before then but, you know, this is the perfect opportunity);

8.30 second set of readings, Máire Malone, Roland Denning, Maja Bodenstein, Cherry Potts, Nic Vine, Miriam Sorrentino

9pm close.