I recently met up with Elisabeth Sennitt Clough at The Cambridge Blue on Gwydir Street for a chat before her CB1 reading around the corner at The Blue Moon on Norfolk Street. She read alongside the unique and wonderful John Lyons, who I will make the subject of a separate post.
Liz has been a friend since we completed our online MAs at Manchester Metropolitan University together. She has over the last few years won and come highly placed in several competitions, been published in countless magazines and been named a Poetry Society Recommendation for the most recent of her two full collections At or Below Sea Level.
It was an informal sort of interview and I didn’t want to risk creating a stilted atmosphere by recording what we were saying. We agreed that we would just chat and I would pass my write-up by her before I published it on the blog, to give her the chance to correct anything I had misremembered. So, that’s what we did.
I was keen to know how she thought MMU had helped get her started on what has been a relatively meteoric rise. Her response was interesting because it was not what I had expected: as online students she felt we had missed out on an important part of ‘being there’ and experiencing the face-to-face dialogues that are part of a physical university presence. We had, I think, all enjoyed and got a lot out of our ‘virtual classroom’ workshops, but it may well be that online students of creative courses miss something ‘organic’ that comes from seeing peoples expressions, and reading their bodily reactions (a subtle smile here, an involuntary grimace there!). Anyway, perhaps as a result of this perceived limitation of the online aspect of the course Liz threw herself into taking advantage of modules that allowed her to travel to Manchester, entered the university competitions (such the Rosamond Prize, which she won for a piece called ‘Samson’ in 2016 in collaboration with BBC Young Composer of the Year Grace Mason) and supplemented her university writing by travelling to poetry residentials and workshops up and down the country.
Overall, we agreed, Liz had grasped, far more than I have even now, the importance of poetry as collaboration. For me, even working on our MMU workshops felt a little like ‘cheating’, and I still fight advice to an unreasonable degree, but by embracing the community of experienced and skilful poets, she has been able to learn from them, build on their advice and shape her (I use the word although I dislike it) ‘craft’. Liz still takes advantage of mentor schemes, which she says allow for far more dialogue and nuanced discussion than the editing process involves, and she made a point of mentioning and praising her present mentor Rebecca Goss (Her Birth, Girl – both Carcanet) in this respect.
Anyone who has read Liz’s work knows the importance the Fens plays in her poetry and I mentioned to her that she sometimes seems to almost get inside the land itself (particularly in some of the poems from At or Below Sea Level) and I felt that in one particular poem in her pamphlet Glass, ‘Fallen’ – a traumatic evocation of a sexual assault – the speaker almost appears pressed into the earth by her abuser, and I wondered if for her the flatness of the Fens and the positioning of her ‘poet’s-eye’ so close to the ground represents the oppression, the physical pressing down of women under the weight of patriarchy. She took it further and replied that the Fens are an ‘abused’ landscape, almost literally beaten into submission over hundreds of years of drainage. So, yes, they are the perfect landscape to symbolise female subjugation.
I think of Liz as a ‘poet who uses nature’ rather than a Nature Poet (as I would call someone like Alice Oswald, another writer who keeps her eye very close to the ground) because her use of her immediate surroundings seems to emphasise the symbolic / atmospheric over the mythic / organic; and so her Fenland narratives and characters (including her ‘I’) are steeped in their surroundings’ history and shape in the present just as individuals are surrounded by their symbolic selves (man v Man; woman v Woman etc.).
Liz’s work shows a fascination with unusual, interesting and foreign words, but not, so far as I have noticed, Fenland dialect words; and so it was interesting to notice her use later in the evening, during her reading, of the word ‘dyke’ to mean ‘ditch’. I noted that my grandfather in the North East used to use the word to mean ‘hedge’ which I believe is a more northern and Scottish use of the word, but this prompted me to ask Liz if she had thought about using more dialect words in her work – as these often seem to me to form a bridge between language, history and landscape. She had been made more aware, she said, of the power that dialect words have on a poem after reading Liz Berry’s Black Country, and it is true that the Fenland of East Anglia, like the west Midlands, is very rich in dialect potential. But Liz has spent years away from the local dialect, living in Cambridge, the Netherlands and the US, and so she does not feel linked to the local language in a way that has allowed its use to feel natural in her poems so far. Having said that, she acknowledges it may be a rich seam of inspiration and so does not rule out using dialect words in poems in the future. I’d be fascinated to see what the results would look/sound like.
I asked Liz what direction her new work was taking and particularly whether she felt she had ‘written out’ the traumas in her past which have informed some of her previous work. To a certain extent, she said, she had, and for that reason her most recent work (for her forthcoming collection The Cold Store), while retaining the Fens as a central theme, casts its net wider and looks at more global, environmental issues. The work she read later in the evening, which is destined for the new book but still going through the process of being honed, certainly bore this out. And if you have read Liz’s previous work, the pamphlet Glass, through her first collection Sightings to her recent At or Below Sea Level you will have seen her themes broadening, her risks (and their pay-offs) increasing, and her thematic reach being stretched ever-further, and so this movement towards a more overtly political eco-poetry will seem both a natural and an exciting progression.
By way of finishing off, I include here a poem from At or Below Sea Level, ‘The Fens as Post-Apocalyptic Region’ (previously published in The Lighthouse Literary Review) as it is a lovely example of how Liz pulls the Fenland landscape’s history into the present and works it for its symbolic value.
Whatever she does next, poems like this show that Liz is likely to remain worth watching…
The Fens as Post-Apocalyptic Region
By the beginning of the 20th Century,
only one acre of true Fenland remained.
The Apocalypse arrived five centuries ago
as fire in the belly of a Dutch engineer.
Now elderly ladies wear The Apocalypse
between their brows, as they pursue
the earliest Early River plums on Ely Market.
Traces of the apocalypse can be detected
in the arsenic-green signage of the two
Poundlands in Wisbech town centre.
Teenagers carry snakes of The Apocalypse
in their eyes, as they loiter between
fog and shadow in Whittlesea bus shelters.
A doctor’s surgery in Boston prescribes
apocalyptic pills instead of HRT.
Cash machines in Fenland banks spit
apocalyptic saliva instead of notes.
Local playgroups nurture toddlers
with apocalyptic tantrums. In Earith,
bakers bake apocalyptic loaves
and in Haddenham, butchers string strings
of plump apocalyptic sausages together.
And, all the while, the Fen Blow blows
apocalyptic dust over its people.
The Apocalypse has come, a Fenland pastor tells us.
We know, say the Fen people and fill their cans
of petrol to fuel the apocalyptic flames.
You can read my analysis of Liz’s poem ‘Pages You Lose to the River’, here.