Interview with Sharon Black
Originally from Glasgow, poet, editor and publisher, Sharon Black, now lives in the Cévennes mountains of southern France. Previously Sharon worked as a journalist and taught English in France and Japan. She now works, it seems, tirelessly, running a writing retreat, organising yoga and other events. Her poetry is published widely in UK magazines and journals. Sharon has won first prizes in Ilkley Literature Festival Poetry Competition, Sentinel Annual Poetry Competition, The Frogmore Prize, Envoi International Poetry Prize, Manchester Cathedral Prize, Manchester Poets & Players, and The London Magazine. To Know Bedrock is her first collection. Her second, The Art of Egg, was published in 2015 by Two Ravens Press (available directly from Sharon, via her website.
“I find working with other poets is one of the keys to creating new work, I love writing in the company of other writers”
“ I remember the thrill of the possibility of getting lost, that maybe I really would end up struggling to find my way back home! I mention this because I think writing poetry is a bit like that – there’s something almost exhilarating in starting out and not knowing where you’re going to end up. That you might lose yourself and discover something new or unexpected along the way.”
“It’s extremely beautiful in a rugged, untamed way – and not at all touristy, which is how we like it. Our house is on the floor of the valley, beside a river, and the mountains round about feel like wise ancient beings looking after us. ”
Maria Isakova-Bennett: Sharon, it’s wonderful to have this opportunity to talk to you about your work. I think that we ‘met’ online 10 years ago in 2009, and for the first time face-to-face in Manchester in 2017. I’m full of admiration for all you achieve: you’re an accomplished poet and the winner of many prizes, a publisher and editor, and you run a Writing Retreat Centre in the Cévennes mountains of the Languedoc.
I wonder if you can tell me a little about how you manage to cordon-off time to write and go deeply into that precious writing space where you create your arresting poetry amid such a busy life.
Sharon Black: I’m so glad to have this chance to chat with you, Maria. The last time we met was in Aldeburgh during the poetry festival, wasn’t it, when you and Michael Brown took over the lookout tower with your wonderful stitched poetry translations as part of your artist residency.
I find working with other poets is one of the keys to creating new work, actually. I love writing in the company of other writers – either as part of an online group, for example the wonderful online Poetry Clinic run twice a year by Bill Greenwell, or in the flesh. I make a point of going away on retreat each spring to the Hebridean island of Iona, with a group of other poets under the expert facilitation of Roselle Angwin. We write to prompts, and sit together in silence for an hour each day with a pen and paper – so there’s not much to do but write! Or sometimes a couple of writer friends and I will set ourselves a deadline and a theme in order to generate new work. I’m a terrible procrastinator, and easily distracted, so I find taking on a writing project with other people is a brilliant way to get started – and to keep going.
I am busy in my professional life, it’s true, but I’m in the fortunate position of not having a 9–5 job, so I can make my own hours and take time out. Because a lot of my work is seasonal, I tend to have periods where I’m extremely busy and other periods – like winter – which are relatively quiet.
Having said that, I think if you need to write, you find the time to fit it in somehow – no matter how busy you are in your professional and family life. A lot can be achieved by a half-hour’s concentrated writing every day before the household wakes up and the school run and work day begins.
MIB: Despite living in France for many years now, Scotland features in many of your poems, can tell me something about growing up in Scotland and your first poetic influences.
SB: I grew up in Glasgow, not the city centre but a suburb surrounded by fields and country lanes – most of which have now been swallowed up by housing estates. Neither of my parents were especially literary, but I remember my dad often reaching for the volume of Robbie Burns on the shelf to locate a quote or a poem. Address to a Haggis on Burns Night, for example, or To A Mouseor Tam O’Shanter at any other time of year! So I suppose from that point of view there was always a sense that poetry – Burns at least! – was a part of ordinary life. I remember being taken as a child to visit Burns Cottage in Ayrshire and being amazed at the low height of the doors and the shortness of the beds.
MIB: You mentioned how valuable the Hebrides are, and you live in a rural / mountainous region of France; did the fact that the area of Glasgow was more rural have an influence on your writing in any way?
SB: On weekends I would often get on my bike and go out cycling for hours trying to get lost. I remember the thrill of the possibility of getting lost, that maybe I really would end up struggling to find my way back home! I mention this because I think writing poetry is a bit like that – there’s something almost exhilarating in starting out and not knowing where you’re going to end up. That you might lose yourself and discover something new or unexpected along the way. And I suppose to extend that metaphor, the attempt to find your way back is a little like standing back and looking objectively at a scribbled draft and trying to find a way to make something whole out of the scrambled route on the page.
MIB: Although your father obviously had an influence regarding poetry, your parents weren’t especially literary. I relate to that too. Did education have an influence on you as a poet?’
SB: I always had wonderful English teachers at school – or at least I always loved English and by extension the teachers. Something I remembered only very recently was that in Primary Seven (the final year of primary school) I was editor of the school’s first magazine. The details are hazy, but I know I was in charge of getting other pupils to submit articles and drawings and jokes and stories – and poetry! We didn’t have access to a printer so it really was literally just one school magazine! I remember laying out all the contributions on a huge table in the corridor, and gluing the bits of paper down onto the pages and stapling them together. At that age I was always writing, so I think much of the content was probably my own! It’s funny to think of that now in light of having recently taken over Pindrop Press.
After Burns, we must have studied poetry in school but I don’t recall what. Probably the classics and the war poets – dusty old men with an archaic vocabulary and no relevance to my life, as I would have viewed them then. It wasn’t until a boyfriend at university gave me a copy of The Mersey Sound – Adrian Henri, Brian Patten, and Roger McGough – that I really fell for poetry. Here were poems in my language, about stuff I could relate to. I spent the summer of ’88 with a copy of Summer with Monika in my back pocket. Other influences around that time were the French poets I was studying for my degree course – Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud... I lapped them up. Partly I think because I associated their language with the sexy exoticism of the country.
MIB: A lovely range of influences! Maybe a clue to how you ended up living in France. You mention on your website that you wrote some poetry as a teenager, and later worked as a journalist. Can you tell me something about your journey (back to) poetry?
SB: I started as a journalist when I was about 22, at which point my creative writing stopped. Not that journalism isn’t creative, especially feature writing, but the poetry, the odd piece of short fiction dried up. Looking back I think the very formulaic nature of writing for newspapers and magazines didn’t allow space for the freer, more lateral mindset required for writing poetry. The two are almost polar opposites and I don’t think the brain, mine at least, was able to accommodate both.
I came back to poetry when my second daughter started school full-time. I vividly remember the sense of freedom as I drove back to the house after dropping her off at maternelle. I think I may even have picked up my notebook at the kitchen table over my cup of tea that morning! It’s not that it was impossible for me to write before my children were out of the house, it’s that the thought didn’t even occur to me. I need solitude and silence to write – all credit to those parents who manage to squeeze out a draft or a stanza between feeds or while the children are playing in the garden. I need to be able to switch off completely, know that I’m not going to be disturbed.
That was definitely a turning point on my journey back to poetry. Another was being introduced to the work of Billy Collins by a friend. Like discovering Roger McGough all those years before, it was a light switching on. Casual, conversational, irreverent, with exquisite unlaboured imagery – his poetry excited me and pulled me to my own notebook and pen.
MIB: It’s fascinating how our creativity can lie in an almost dormant state and spring to life when the opportunities arise. Can you tell us something about your two collections and how you ‘know’ when it’s time to start gathering poems for a collection.
SB: My first collection, To Know Bedrock (Pindrop, 2011) was written over a period of about 3–5 years, culminating in a very creatively rich time of my life which was when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent treatment. There’s a sequence in the book about the whole experience which, perverse as it might sound, was not a dark time. On the contrary, I felt absolutely awake and almost superhuman. It’s a strange thing being suddenly confronted with your mortality. The effect on everyone is different and I felt exhilarated, as if I’d been given a new lease of life rather than a possible death sentence. In the event I was extremely lucky, and my prognosis was good. But throughout those months of treatment, I wrote more prolifically and more deeply than ever before.
My second collection, The Art of Egg (Two Ravens, 2015) came together more quickly. It also has a sequence, this time about an affair. In both books, the sequences felt like the ‘spine’ of the collection, on which the other poems rested. In neither case was there an, ‘Ahh’ moment, when I knew I had written a collection: the poems just kept coming, more and more of them, until eventually I felt I might have enough for a book. At that point it’s all about looking for a coherent shape, some way to group poems together, thematically or stylistically or in some other way. A lot don’t make the cut of course. I’m quite a prolific writer so a lot of my poems go into my own slush pile for recycling or binning completely.
MIB: It’s interesting how your diagnosis affected your writing. I suppose we don’t know how we will react until we’re in the situation, and I’ve been thinking about your response when spending time with a friend who is facing the end of his life and who amazes me with how much he’s able to write despite tiredness. Great to know your prognosis is good. I see you very much as a poet moving between Scotland and the South of France (and many places in between!), and would love to hear more about the area where you live at present and wonder if you can tell us about it, and reference any poems you’ve created inspired by the area?
SB: My husband and I live in a converted farmhouse in the Cévennes mountains of France, a mile from a tiny village and an hour from the nearest city. It’s a very wild, remote and sparsely populated region, with literally more goats than people. Everyone knows of the Alps and the Pyrenees but many people have never heard of the Cévennes. It’s extremely beautiful in a rugged, untamed way – and not at all touristy, which is how we like it. Our house is on the floor of the valley, beside a river, and the mountains round about feel like wise ancient beings looking after us. The landscape reminds me of parts of the north of Scotland.
One of the massif’s claims to fame is that Robert Louis Stevenson crossed it in 1878 with his donkey Modestine, and wrote the book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes about his adventures. Stevenson’s journey only lasted 12 days and covered 120 miles and I don’t know you would call the book a classic, but you’d be amazed how far the Stevenson name reaches as a result – hotels, restaurants, bistros, landmarks all named after him… I feel quite proud that as a fellow Scot I was drawn to the same mountains he was. We even have donkeys! Though none of them are called Modestine.
MIB: The geography sounds enticing and, for you, there’s something of home in it. Does the history / do the people make it easy for you to feel at home, either as a Scot or as a writer?
SB: Another thing that marks out the Cévennes is the religious uprisings of the 17th and 18th centuries. The Cévennes have always had a large Protestant population and when the king tried to enforce Catholicism here, the Huguenots were having none of it and held back his armies for longer and more successfully than anyone imagined. This independence of spirit and bolshiness I think is partly what gives the Cévennes its unique character today. And it’s not a million miles removed from Scotland’s own history, defending its land from incoming troops and English rule.
Over the years – we’ve been here for 17 years now – the Cévennes have appeared as a backdrop for many of my poems. But they’ve never taken centre stage – until now. At the moment I’m working on a collection of poems inspired by Cévenol history and traditions. One of the first poems I wrote was Song for the Cévennes which ended up being highly commended in last year’s Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry. I felt very proud of that one because it is a poem so close to my heart.
MIB: Despite your comment on your website that you’ve had a few poems published, you seem to have an amazing gift for creating prize-winning poems. Do you have an advice for others?
SB: Well I have been very lucky in that respect but I think that’s partly because I enter so many competitions! I like to support poetry contests, as they’re a way of supporting the poetry community. They are often a vital source of income, by way of entry fees, for the organizing body. And of course a win does carry kudos and gets your name and your work around. Not to mention that it’s a nice feeling of course to be awarded a prize and recognized by the wider poetry community. So maybe my advice for winning poetry prizes would simply be: enter them.
MIB: Can you talk a little about your press, Pindrop, and your role as an editor there. I know from experience sharing work with you online that you are an amazingly supportive and generous close-reader and wonder how you manage time for intensive reading while writing and running your retreat centre.
SB: I took over Pindrop Press from the wonderful Jo Hemmant in March 2016, for a number of reasons. First, I wanted a fresh challenge in my life: my children were in their late teens and I felt I had the time and space in my life to take on a new venture. Second, I felt this was something I could do. I’d been involved a number of times in putting together anthologies for workshops or for writers’ groups. I’d also been very active for a number of years in the Poetry Clinic I mentioned earlier, critiquing a wide range of work, and I felt I had developed an understanding of what makes a good poem. Third, Jo had published my first collection and had recently confided that she was looking to move onto other things. So when she asked me if I’d like to take it on, I jumped at the chance.
It was also a way for me to put something back into the poetry community. I’ve benefited so often from input from more experienced writers that here was an opportunity to pay something forward. You know, you get to a certain age and you look back at what you’ve achieved in life and ask yourself if you’re happy with it so far. Of course there’s the pleasure of raising children and building a family. But professionally I felt I could give more. Now, running a small poetry press isn’t exactly building a well for a drought-stricken village or organizing peace talks, but it’s something. And it was something I could do. It doesn’t make any money, that’s a given, but it does allow me to put out into the world fabulous poetry by a small number of extremely talented writers who I believe in, whose work I believe matters.
That was almost three years ago and I’m extremely proud of the books Pindrop has published so far – ten to date, with 2 more due out over the next couple of months. As a one-woman business (my husband Alex comes on board for the technical side of cover design and the website) I do everything – I’m editor, copy-editor, designer, proofreader, publisher – but I love the diversity. And you’re right, I do work very closely with authors in the editing process. I love this stage of the creation of a book – the gentle to-ing and fro-ing of ideas that bring a book up to the highest standard it can be. I’m a real stickler for detail and I like getting down to the nitty gritty of why a poem works or doesn’t, and how to make it work even better.
MIB: I certainly admire your editing skills and stamina for work, Sharon! Do you have any guiding principles about how you want to fulfill your role as editor?
SB: Two things I’m very firm on with Pindrop: one is response time – I never keep authors waiting long to hear back from me. As a poet myself, I know how frustrating it can be to wait for months, sometimes up to a year, sometimes forever, for a response to submitted work. This is one of the reasons I ask to see just a small sample of a collection at the outset. I don’t want to keep anyone waiting longer than 2-3 weeks max. to know if I’m interested or if they can try elsewhere.
The other thing I’m firm on is cover design. The look and feel of a book is hugely important to me, and while I need to love the cover of a book I’m about to publish, it’s also vital that the author loves it! That may seem obvious but I’ve had the unfortunate experience myself of being told to like it or lump it for the cover of one of my books (I walked away from the deal), and I know it happens to others. As far as I’m concerned, a book is the love-child of both author and publisher, and there’s no point in creating a book unless the author is 100% on board. So I will never insist on a cover design that an author doesn’t want.
As for making the time, it’s the same for my own writing – I fit in it. I’m lucky to have a relatively quiet winter period, so this is when I tend to focus on Pindrop. At the moment I’m putting out 4 books a year and in practice this equates to roughly 2 from Oct. - Dec. and 2 from Jan. – April.
Pindrop is “based between Scotland and France” as it says on all the literature: it is a UK company with a UK directorship, whose editor just happens to be based in France. I’m often across in Scotland, and I try to attend as many poetry events as possible in the UK to spread the Pindrop name. I was at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in October, have been to StAnza a couple of times, and recognize the importance of being involved in the British poetry scene. In this peri-Brexit period I think it’s vital to be forging and nurturing relationships, literary and otherwise, that reach outside Britain’s borders. I’m not saying Pindrop, or other UK/European small presses for that matter, are going to keep Britain unified with the rest of Europe. But perhaps they are connecting threads. And as any weaver knows, if you connect enough threads in the right way you can make a pretty strong fabric.