Trusting the Process

Linda Black won this year's New Writing Ventures Poetry Award. Here she tells Janet Phillips about her life as an artist and her introduction to poetry

When Linda Black won the New Writing Ventures Poetry Award, she had been writing poetry for ten years. But writing is very much her second career: the first half of her professional life was spent as a visual artist.

After studying Fine Art at Leeds Art College and etching at the Slade School she ran an etching studio in North London and has exhibited her work widely. In fact, an etching of hers appears on the cover of her pamphlet, The Beating of Wings (Hearing Eye, 2006). Several of the poems in this pamphlet spark off from the etching technique. 'Never a (moment)' describes both the abandoned paraphernalia of the etching studio – "stacked prints slide / on bowed shelves, tapers / lie limp..." – and a vision which could have become an etching (but instead became a poem): "Then – from the garden / – an arc, a line / with pegs attached, a brightness / cast. She rises / but the moment's past". Is there any connection between her etching technique and her writing technique? "There's quite a lot of analogy in my writing to the way I work in etching", she explains. "[In visual art] I approached my work by beginning. I might, for example, start with a bow and then from the bow I'd get the hair, and so on. It was always done with care – it wasn't a throwaway thing – and as I worked I got ideas. I trusted that process. It's taken me a while to trust it with the writing."

You can see the connection more clearly in what Linda describes as her "collage poems". In The Beating of Wings there are two, one made from lines taken from the letters of Elizabeth Bishop, another from Keats's letters. This is not just cutting and pasting, however: there's a lot of work in them. "I find it a very exciting process", she explains. "I'll have all these words, cut out and spread over the table and I know there's something there but I have to extrapolate it from whatever I've got." Two of her collage poems appear in a new Poetry School anthology; one is from Ruskin's The Seven Lamps of Architecture which she happened to find in a booksale. And she's working on a new collection of collage poems, called Lines of Observation, based on a 1930s drawing manual. "It enables me to use language which I wouldn't normally use," she says. "Certainly in the Ruskin there's what I think of as archaic language, which I find quite liberating. The challenge is to make it your own".

The other poetic form which has proved to be a key to Linda's writing is the prose poem. In fact she submitted only prose poems to the New Writing Ventures Award – a decision she made at the last minute, having heard that one of the judges, Roddy Lumsden, had recently given a talk to his class about them. This kind of invaluable information, gleaned from a friendly chat with a fellow poet, guest or classmate is something that gets passed on often to Linda. You can see why. She is very easy to talk to, relaxed and open about her own life but also genuinely interested in what you have to say. She is kind enough to take an interest in the events happening at the Poetry Café (where we are meeting), even though she is already very familiar with the venue, and has read here herself.

When she first started to write – after a divorce – she got chatting to a woman at a New Year's Eve party who turned out to be running a creative writing group. Linda went along and got her first taste of the creative writing workshop. Later, she made a crucial connection with the Poetry School by keeping in touch with classmates on an Arvon Course and meeting up with them at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. Here she got talking to Jane Duran who in turn invited her to a workshop she was running with Mimi Khalvati at the Torriano Meeting House, in the days before the Poetry School was set up. Linda went along to that too, and has been involved in the Poetry School ever since (she was the recipient of the Poetry School Scholarship, 2004-5). And finally, she met her future editor, John Rety, at the Torriano Meeting House, when she was exhibiting her etchings there. They kept in touch and though he was initially resistant to the idea of her becoming a poet (he told her she was an etcher, and she couldn't do both), he ended up publishing The Beating of Wings.

It was Mimi who first introduced Linda to the prose poem, but not before Linda had written one herself. "I'd written something about a door. It was a little paragraph, I suppose. I took it along to a workshop and Mimi said it was the perfect example of a prose poem. And at the time I hadn't actually read any prose poems." The poems which won the New Writing Ventures Award are all from a prose poem collection entitled Inventory. "Years ago I had the idea that I'd like to make an inventory of the contents of my house, including the history of the objects and so on", she says, "so that became the framework for these pieces. It has all the furniture and some characters make an appearance". The prose poem, too, relates back to her technique as an artist. "One of the things that appeals to me about the prose poem is that you have an ending which is not an ending. I don't believe in this idea of closure. That also relates to artwork. In my etchings I was interested in the degrees of darkness around the image so that there was a sense of things that aren't quite there in the shadows".

This is one of the most intriguing aspects of her writing. In 'The Yellow Chair' she describes, from memory, her grandmother's wooden chair, in some detail, before ending with the line, "I do look later. About some things I am completely wrong". In 'Pebbledash' she attempts to remember a childhood house through rooms and objects, but again she undermines her portrait: "Who's to say I was there, / when there's only me to ask?". It's a way of staying truthful to the workings of the mind, the way it's possible to have any number of thoughts at the same time. It also empowers the reader: "I'm interested in the idea of the partnership between the reader and the writer, so that the reader construes meaning", she explains. "I like the idea of a kind of disrupted logic, or syntax. I like the idea of giving clues".

As part of the award Linda will receive mentoring sessions from one of the judges, Esther Morgan, as well as attending a residential course with the other shortlisted writers and having the opportunity to spend her £5,000 prize money (on a laptop and more subscriptions to poetry magazines, so far). It will be fascinating to see what comes next.
www.newwritingpartnership.org.uk

The Beating of Wings is available from Hearing Eye.