clare e. potter is a poet, playwright, collaborator and educator, originally harking from Blackwood, South Wales. She taught and lived for several years in New Orleans, where she was a consultant for the New Orleans Writing Project. Her collection, ‘spilling histories’ (Cinnamon, 2006), is based around the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
These days clare lives and works in South Wales, where – in addition to her many other responsibilities – she also acts a board member for the Welsh Writer’s Trust.
This week, she kindly let us quiz her about her work, her thoughts on poetry, and her upcoming projects. Enjoy:
Your collection ‘spilling histories’ was written in and about the aftermath of the New Orleans disaster. Do you find that creative writing can help reconcile the trauma of such disasters?
I don’t think there can ever be reconciliation after such a disaster, especially when there is still so much anger over the fact that a problem with the levees (a man-made failure) was largely to blame. And recently, almost ten years after writing my poetry collection, I wrote a piece where I revisited all that emotion. I hadn’t realised that the grief would still be so raw. Writing it allowed me to join that community again, to reach out and be reached out to. My friends in New Orleans read it and seemed glad to see in writing that which is so difficult to comprehend, let alone express. We were united on that again.
New Orleans has obviously highly influenced your writing. How important is place, generally, in your writing, especially now that you have moved back to Wales?
Place has always figured largely for me, whether it was my grandmother’s garden which I have written about consistently, or America, when I was trying to sort all my new experiences by focusing on the new place I was in, but paradoxically started becoming more connected to Wales and an idea of Welshness. Now I seem to hearken back to the Deep South, which seems like a dream; a ghost life I had, or didn’t have. I’m also writing more about place in terms of who-am-I in this new space of motherhood, newly middle-aged, my writing self quietly re-emerging. It’s all new territory.
You have won the John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry and been known to incorporate elements such as singing into performances of your work. What elements distinguish a performance for you, both in your own and in others?
I try to let the poem voice itself on the page and off. I don’t have any poems that are exclusively ‘performance’ poems; they have to work on the page for someone who doesn’t know for instance that a line needs singing. There should be enough energy and enough of a ‘song’ in there for the piece to work like that. But, I do find that in playing with elements of performance, i.e. timing, pause, intonation, accent, e.t.c. I often take the poem and my experience of it to a different level. There’s a lot of enjoyment to be had in connecting words in a space with other people. That makes the poem complete for me.
Do you prefer to write poetry of a more autobiographical nature, or write about characters, real or invented? Whichever one, what do you consider its advantages and disadvantages?
I mostly write autobiographically; there is a lot I am trying to figure out. Of course I might change tense, sex, place, e.t.c. but what I am attempting to shape is something that I need to make sense of. Often I write fictional memoir, or creative non-fiction. I don’t feel the need to hide anything, but perhaps my writing would benefit from being wholly fictional. I’ve often thought of it. There are advantages of course to writing autobiographically; the disadvantages are that it can be limiting and, well, boring for other people. One has to be conscious of that while writing.
Was poetry a career you knew you would pursue early on in life, or an occupation that took you (by surprise) later on in life?
I was singing and making up words and poems before I could write. A Mother’s Day poem of mine was used in all the cards in school when I was at infants. So yes, it was never a consideration, I just did it. I was surrounded by a family that put a lot of emphasis on narrative and playfulness with language. I put it away for the ‘serious’ stuff – academics – but when I was studying in Mississippi and homesick, I found myself returning to the pen and then a 1950s type writer I found in a garage sale. It was my life-line.
Are there any other genres you write in – we heard you wrote a play recently, and if so, could you tell us something about that?
I write articles, stories, and plays. I collaborate a great deal with other artists. I’m hoping to write a drama for television (that’s the dream).
My play, Sound Zero, is about a woman who is faced to come to terms with the grief of losing her baby in the bath when she (the mother) suffers an epileptic seizure. She has a son who is following a Buddhist path, also dealing with the fall out of living with a mother carrying excruciating guilt. The mother never sits still or pauses for breath, to distract herself of course, until a thunder storm renders her silent and in the dark. The heart of the play is what happens when she is forced to confront herself.
The two characters are two sides of me. I was trying to put myself to rest, I suppose. To allow myself the thunder storm in the writing, that might make me pause and face things and let go, emerging more like the son, centred, able to sit with myself in silence mindfully, without guilt and anguish. Through Sherman Cymru the play was picked with two others for a script-in-hand reading. The actors were phenomenal. I sobbed when I finished writing it and when it was performed, someone in the audience sobbed too. I felt that the cycle was complete. It was a public and metaphorical letting go.
You have taught writing to young people within the community and schools before, both in New Orleans and in Wales. How important do you feel encouraging young people to write is?
I’m not someone who subscribes to the idea that only a talented, gifted few can write. I know plenty of talented, gifted poets who have never written in their lives. I hear them on the bus. My father, for example, it’s in the way he sees the world and speaks what he sees. Interestingly he has started writing since I have been telling him he should get this stuff down. And it’s quite beautiful.
Any young person should be encouraged to express themselves, not only because it gives them a sense of achievement – because of course it is a craft and it is hard work – but also it gives them the opportunity to say, ‘hey, I’ve got this thing to say and I’m worth listening to.’ It’s so humbling to listen to young people write their stories and share them.
Of late I have been working exclusively with disadvantaged writers. It is hard work getting the children engaged but something magical happens when, given the tools and the ears that will listen, they do it; they shape something out of the chaos they are in or have experienced. I feel honoured to be witness to it. A few months ago a young lad in an offenders’ unit said ‘I done better than the original bloke that wrote one [a poem by Dylan Thomas]’.
It reminds me that when I am at home struggling to write, feeling I have no right because I am not as proficient as this writer or that writer, that my language is flabby, that I should probably get a different job, that I am just messing around here, well then I think back to the workshop where I am telling these youngsters that they do have the right to do it, and I mean it. So then I have to try to convince myself that I do too. It’s so much hard work negotiating with the ego. I’m getting better at ignoring it.
How differently do you approach teaching writing, to writing? Do you have to develop different traits within yourself?
It slows me down, makes me question what I think I know because I have to get that across to others. I can enjoy a poem and not know why and get inspired by it, but to a certain degree I have to study it in order to use it in a seminar/class. Though I often tell the students that sometimes they should respond to the feeling a poem evokes, rather than cerebrally trying to analyse all of it. I think teaching creative writing makes me a more disciplined writer, and a wider reader than I ordinarily would be. Also, I get so much insight by learning from the students, particularly when you have one who can really write! And you think, well, how did she/he do that?
Do you try and focus in on certain themes within your writing? Or do you find certain themes and ideas recur naturally?
There are things I have been lugging around for years and I need a way to dump them. So it’s usually about pain/grief and the letting go, the witnessing of that. Also I find that as I practise mindfulness more, I am able to observe such beauty in the everyday. So that is a theme for me, and mothering and the little/big wisdom that comes from my children. Today, my four year old took the leaves off my lucky four leaf clover. I thought the world would cave in Chicken Licken style. But she was teaching me something, wasn’t she. . .
What new projects have you got coming up?
The piece I wrote on Katrina for the Wales Arts Review is one. I’m working with a hugely talented jazz musician/composer – Gareth Roberts – to create something for next year, as it will be the ten year anniversary of the hurricane. We’re not sure what it will be yet, a performance piece of language, song, music, pictures, e.t.c. I’m very excited.
I’m also involved in an ongoing collaboration with artist Julia Thomas about what happens when you don’t/can’t express your story (whatever that means) and what happens to the internal narrative and the power it has over you when you find a way to express it indirectly. We are thinking of doing something in Cefn Onn Park. I’m also acting in a film which is a bit of a departure for me, but in truth, always what I wanted to do. So that’s exciting too.
We have heard you are planning a collection in Welsh. Do you find writing in Welsh prompts you toward a different style or set of ideas? What, if any, other differences are there from writing in English?
This is a huge question and really, is what the book will set to find out. When I have read a poem or two in Welsh, people have said they have more resonance than my poems in English, that my voice changes timbre. So, I will be learning more about this as I walk the path of it.
Finally, recommend us some stuff! What are you enjoying at the moment?
Buddhism for Mothers by Sarah Napthali, Gwyn Thomas’ The Dark Philosophers, and Mark Doty’s memoir Dog Years and Jemma King’s The Shape of a Forest. I’ve always got loads of books on the go and I keep them in bed with me. That’s probably weird, right?