Hooked, (Brick, 2009) by Carolyn Smart, intricately explores the worlds of seven women and the journeys their addictive personalities take them on. These seven long poems plumb the intimate lives of Myra Hindley, Unity Mitford, Zelda Fitzgerald, Dora Carrington, Carson McCullers, Jane Bowles, and Elizabeth Smart. Although the outcome of their life decisions is often disheartening, and perhaps disenchanting, Smart’s colloquial and engaging voices are compelling to read. Hooked is addictive, seven times over!
1. In Hooked, you bring to life the characters of seven women who were all born before or during the Second World War. How important was the time to your choice of subject? How did you choose which women you were going to write about?
I didn’t choose a specific time from which to draw these characters, frankly – it just seems to have worked out that way by chance. The period of time between the wars has always been one of my favourites as I have been passionate about the work of Virginia Woolf (and by extension all of the Bloomsbury Group) as well as the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and many of the poets of that period. I suppose my fascination with that time period is what led to the discovery of some of these women, but certainly not all.
2. Most recently as my MA thesis, I have been writing poetry about the Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele and his mistress/model Valerie Neuzil. Part of the attraction of writing the narrative in poetry, and not in a novel or other non-fiction prose, was that poetry allowed me to move deeper into the complex emotional relationship that existed between the characters. What enticed you to write poetry about these women?
I had been working with prose for nearly 10 years by the time I got around to this project. First, my memoir At the End of the Day (Penumbra Press, 2001) was a transitional point; I was at first writing what appear to be prose poems but then the book becomes more journalistic in tone and style as it continues. After that I started work on a novel which I still tinker with from time to time. The novel is set in the 1920s in Europe, and I wrote it to explore the lives of my maternal grandparents who I know next to nothing about. I invented them for my own amusement, I suppose. After ten years working in prose it was narrative that brought me back to poems. I wanted to tell the stories of these women as I’d told stories in fiction.
3. Which of the long poems (and consequently characters) did you begin writing first and why did you feel it was important to give her (or any of them) a voice? (I have my suspicions that you started with Myra Hindley.)
I did indeed start with Myra Hindley. The book is actually chronological in that the poems are placed in the order in which I wrote them. Myra had been a figure of fascination for me since I was a young girl. My father used to read articles about her aloud from the Times of London. He found her compelling, especially the fact that even after she was found guilty and imprisoned she managed to charm and seduce several of her warders. I had always pictured her the way she is most often presented: platinum blonde, heavily made -up, brutally flat expression. But her obituary in the Manchester Guardian showed a very different, very plain woman, and I was intrigued to explore that range, and to imagine what went on inside her head and how she came to do what she did.
4. How did you engage the colloquial aspects of each character in the long poem? Did biographical research provide you with an insight into personality and did your research lead you to writing poetry differently?
It wasn’t just the written research that gave me entry to these women, it was the photographs (and in the case of Jane Bowles, a film) that really offered insights. Photographs can show so much character. And yes, research wasn’t something I was familiar with for previous poems, and it did lead to a new procedure for me. I’ve written long poems before (I’m thinking of “The Sound of the Birds” in my previous book The Way to Come Home) but I’d never told whole life stories before and I didn’t want the poems to appear too much like “this is your life”. I wanted a sense of imaginative leaping as well as a sense of the women’s individual voices, formed by class as well as geography.
5. Do you believe that each of these women took risks with their own lives in the quest to be different from society’s expectations of women’s lives? Do you think risk taking is a part of their addictive personalities? If so, how important were/are these risks to the women?
This is a very intriguing question: I think it is precisely the risk-taking that drew me to these women in the first place. I used to think that I chose them because they were not victims, and that is certainly part of it, but it’s the courage (in some cases) as well as the utterly irrational risk-taking that appealed to me. In some cases these women didn’t define themselves through gender but purely through action and art.
6. Did you perceive these women, especially the artists, as becoming so addicted to living the life they had created for themselves, however harmful to their existence, that they were never able to fully escape their own creations?
Yes! And that’s why I rejoice as well as mourn.
7. Do you see your book as a celebration of their strengths? If yes, how so, if not, why?
I didn’t consciously write the poems with that in mind, although as I suggested earlier I didn’t want to dwell on a subject who I perceived as a victim. The closest I got to that was “Rickety Rackety”, as Zelda Fitzgerald was, I believe, creatively and personally destroyed.
8. I’m curious to know that if by taking risks on a new style of writing, pulling out of the addictive comfort of the confessional, you’re able to creatively evolve your craft in a new and challenging way? Do you feel change is essential to your growth as an artist? Do you see creative risk as another form of addiction?
I was weary of my own story and wanted to tell other stories, to involve myself in other lives. I was also drawn to a more performance-oriented style as that really intrigues me these days. And yes, change is essential to me as an artist. I suppose creative risk is just part of the life I’ve led in the last several decades. I’m never one to shy away from risk, personally or professionally. I got married for the second time after knowing my husband for six weeks. We’re still married after 25 years. That pretty well sums up my life story.
9. Who would you consider your influences in poetry? Which poets do you read on a regular basis?
I fell in love with the poetry of Leonard Cohen and ee cummings when I was a teenager. In my 20s I was heavily influenced by Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds, Anne Sexton, Robert Bly, W.S. Merwin, Michael Ondaatje, Anna Akhmatova, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Carolyn Forché, Cesar Vallejo and Pablo Neruda. Since then I’ve also gone through obsessions with Carol Ann Duffy, Jane Kenyon, Marie Howe, Selima Hill, Laurie Sheck, Lynn Crosbie, Lynda Hull and Elizabeth Bishop.
10. How did you begin to write poetry? Did you have any mentors that helped you or that continue to provide you with ongoing support in your writing?
I began writing poetry when I started copying the style of Leonard Cohen. I was 16 and it was a perfect fit. My family had always been a very verbal, highly literary group. My mother read aloud to me from ee cummings’ poems when I was young. My father studied with Robert Frost at Harvard and wrote his own formal lyrics, mostly occasional poems. He and my mother strongly encouraged my writing.
My mentors have been wonderful, especially Bronwen Wallace, who was my close friend for many years until her fatal illness at the age of 44. My sister-in-law, the South African poet Ingrid de Kok, is someone I show my new work to whenever I can. In my 20s I was part of a writing group that included Mary di Michele, Pier Giorgio di Cicco, Roo Borson, Kim Maltman, Barry Dempster and Al Moritz. All of these people had a huge influence on my first published poems.
11. Could you describe a bit of your writing process? Do you seclude yourself to write, or do your words thrive in a noisy cafe?
I require complete silence and separateness – I cannot write with music or the sound of someone moving around in the house. I live in the country, and the only sound I hear most days when I’m writing is the sound of birds outside and the wind in the trees.
12. What are your future writing plans? Do you have any projects/manuscripts on the go?
I have a few minor things on the go: some strange biographical prose pieces as well as the novel that rears its head from time to time. But there’s no big project that has grabbed my full attention yet. I’m looking forward to the end of the academic year when I can spend my time writing, when I have a break from the teaching that I love and the marking that I loathe.