Inky Interview Special: Poet Laura Potts

Laura Potts is a writer from West Yorkshire. A recipient of the Foyle Young Poets Award, her work has been published by Aesthetica, The Moth and The Poetry Business. Having worked at The Dylan Thomas Birthplace in Swansea, Laura became one of the BBC’s New Voices in 2017. She received a commendation from The Poetry Society in 2018 and was shortlisted for The Edward Thomas Fellowship in 2020.

How long have you been writing poetry?

The precise age is unremembered, but I was fairly young. Six or seven perhaps. That’s fifteen years ago now. It’s helped that I’ve always been a reader – I love to feel the gravity of a book in my hand – and my writing has grown quite naturally from that. One fed the other, and that’s still the case today. I suppose I was lucky as a child. I benefited from having grandparents who were already in their eighties when I was born. Their idea of a good time was settling down in the armchair with a good book, and I’ve inherited that.

My grandmother lurched from illness to illness and had endless time for me. She taught me to read and write. She would take me on her knee and read to me, often for hours into the evening, until I fell asleep. She loved ‘the greats’ – Tennyson, Keats, Chaucer, Walter Scott. Her voice had been broken by smoke in the war, and she could read with fabulous gravity. It was gorgeous and gravelly. I learnt to love poetry then, all because of the way she would read it. It’s the only voice which has ever done justice to verse for me.

What got you into sharing/performing your poetry?

I had joined a local writing group by the age of fifteen. We would meet once a month in the upstairs room of a musty pub in Wakefield. Old men dribbled verse into their pints and bemoaned the state of the nation. It was a bright, good time.

I was encouraged to share my work for the first time by two local writers who went to these meetings. With gentle advice, John Irving Clarke and Jimmy Andrex taught me the value of reading to a room on my own terms. They helped me realise that confidence and poise would come with time, and that I don’t have to shout to be heard. In that sense, I’ve always rejected performance. I read my poetry. It isn’t an act or a drama, and it isn’t memorised or scripted. I read it. That’s all. There’s pleasure enough in that.

How did you feel before and after your first performance?

Nervous! My first reading was at The Red Shed in Wakefield. I’d been asked to support Ian McMillan. I was fifteen, starstruck after meeting Helen Mort in the train station with her whippets the day before. It was winter, and I remember thinking that this Ian guy must be a big deal because people had travelled all the way from Harrogate in the snow to listen to him. I also remember having learnt my poems by heart and worrying about forgetting them. This is something I’ve since dropped. A book is part of a writer’s oeuvre and should play its own part in the performance.

Afterwards, I felt a small sense of achievement. I had stood in a dark room of strangers and read my little poems to them. What was more, Ian was there. And that was a big deal.

What kind of things are you writing about at the moment? Have the subjects of your poetry changed over time?

I’m doing the dreaming on a few poems about Anthony Burgess at the moment. It’s my way of making a small homage to one of my favourite writers. At times like this – when I’m not on commission – I tend to write in response to whatever I’m reading. Sometimes it’s a conscious response and sometimes it isn’t. This time it is.

But at other times, when I read my work, I’ll hear the faint ghosts of writers I’d been reading at the time. There might be a scrap of Plath here or a scrap of Ted there. Their presence was unintended at the time of writing. These are, unconsciously, the voices I write back to.

I’d say the subjects have changed over time. I’ve learnt to write with discipline – in the sense that I let myself write whatever I want to these days. There was a time when I used to write prescriptively. I’d read a love poem and decide to write one too. I’d read a verse about sex and set out on a mission to write my own. I suppose it works for some, but in the end I knew that I was writing myself into feelings which were forced rather than organic. It was like standing outside on a winter’s night, looking into a scene I wished I were part of.

And if I continued like that, I’d only ever be a dark watcher.

Do you think living in West Yorkshire shapes the type of poems you write?

Yes, of course. My place is as present as my politics, my ethics and my class. Every poem I write – every word I write- is a product of my place in the world. How can it be different?

I’ve read many papers which argue that creativity is inherent, is separate, is ‘disinterested’ (to quote Matthew Arnold). It supposedly exists in some alternate reality, untouched by the vagaries of everyday sexism, racism, the political climate, the calamity of war and human suffering. It’s a divine stream which we channel to escape our bleak realities. It’s manna from heaven. It’s crap.

I live in West Yorkshire and I always have. I think about this every day. My poems are the result of the books I’ve read, from The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle to The History Boys; the songs I’ve heard and the films I’ve watched; the marks that are made on voting cards; the (diminishing) forest on the distant moor; my grandfather’s medals which hang in the hall; the closing of Kellingley Colliery; Sylvia Plath Hughes at Heptonstall; my mother’s accent and my father’s lack of it; my single-sex education; the Miner’s Strike (yes, families are still not speaking to each other about that one here) and the endless endless endless endless endless endless news. There’s more, but we’ll leave it at that.

Who inspires your writing and why? Do you have any favourite poets or writers?

I’d have to say Dylan, but most people know that already. It’s his music that gets me. I love him on the page and on the ear. His intonation – that faux-Homeric bass voice – was just made to read poetry. And I like Sylvia Plath too. Mostly because she teaches me new vocabulary, and that’s always a good thing. My copy of Ariel is full of footnotes and definitions I’ve scribbled in the margins. But I’ve found that she stays with me for a long time after I’ve finished reading. Rather like a haunting.

The best collection I’ve read belongs to Peter Riley. Hushings, published by Calder Valley Poetry. I’d go so far as to say it’s the best book I’ve ever read. My copy has been on various ventures and was briefly lost for a frantic hour on Table Mountain in Cape Town when the wind blew it out of my hands.

In terms of music (because why can’t songs be poems too?), I like Leonard Cohen and The Cranberries. Dolores O’Riordan and her broken throat – the way her note will always break at the height of emotion – hurts a little every time I hear it. In a good way. Like Sylvia Plath all over again.

What is next for you? What are your plans?

I’m going to be taking a short break soon. Every now and then, the world’s white noise grows too loud and I can’t hear my own voice above the crowd. That’s when I know it’s time for a break. My first collection is almost finished, and I’d like to spend some time reading and writing before it goes out to the world. I’ll still be around – I’ve just finished a commission for The International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, and that’s still ongoing this year. And there’s another announcement to come, but I’ll have to wait a while for that one.

Really, I’d like to promote that attitude in itself. It’s alright to be selfish sometimes. Read some good books, read some bad books, watch movies you love but know you shouldn’t. It’s okay to take some time off sometimes. Writing is hard. And it’s even harder when you have bills to pay and a reality to live in. Be kind to yourself. That’s my only secret. Your best work will come when you take your time.

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