Interview with Di Slaney
Di Slaney’s second publication, and first full collection, Reward for Winter, tells the story of her move from an urban existence to life as custodian of an ancient farmhouse in Nottinghamshire. I can recommend the moving book for its precise poetry insight into life on the farm and what comes across as great eye for the details of history. I wanted to interview Di to find out a little more about her writing and her unconventional and demanding lifestyle, which includes being owner of Candlestick Press.
“It took a couple of surgical operations in my early forties to force me to evaluate what was missing in my life.”
“I know that I’m very drawn to composition, texture and colour in looking at the world. I think my dad’s technical leanings also influenced my early interest in exploring form as a structure within which I could find freedom as a writer. ”
“Land, community and our place in both; the natural world and its workings on us as participants not just spectators – these things are important to me, but not in an ethereal or conceptual way. I’m a robust individual with a very solid connection to the earth as my smallholding life attests, so I like strong writers who deal with the raw and unpalatable as well as the wonder and the beauty.”
“I write down fragments before sleeping at night in a notepad by my bed, knowing that they will otherwise be gone by morning. Most of my productive writing/typing time is very late at night – midnight to 3am – when I’m loosened up mentally by feeling physically tired but I don’t have any other distractions to knock my focus.”
Maria Isakova Bennett: Di, I’ve been listening to your interviews, rereading your work and thinking about all you’re doing for poetry with Candlestick Press. I'm fascinated to know more about how your writing has developed since the smallholding became a significant part of your life. I enjoyed listening to your interview on Woman’s Hour, and on Radio Oxford. The recordings provide a wonderful context for your present poetry, but it would be great to focus on when you first started writing. I wonder, can you talk a little about what drew you to writing and to writing poetry in particular?
Di Slaney: I first started writing poetry as an undergraduate at Warwick, where I was fortunate to have the prodigious screenwriter Andrew Davies as my Creative Writing tutor. He didn’t teach poetry but his unusual way of looking at the world and encouraging individual voices to emerge was very stimulating, and I found poetry to be my best mode of expression. I loved all the poetry modules on that degree course and have always been grateful for the thorough grounding in classical poetry that I received there. After graduating, I carried on writing sporadically through my twenties and did a few local readings wherever I found myself, but then when I started a marketing business in Nottingham in my early thirties, all my creative energies were channelled into that. From 1998-2008 I wrote very little – other than for client briefs! It took a couple of surgical operations in my early forties to force me to evaluate what was missing in my life and that – coupled with a move to live in the countryside in our wonderful old farmhouse – was the kick up the bum I needed to return to poetry. Six weeks after leaving hospital I signed up for the MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent, knowing that I would need total immersion, discipline and tasks to get going properly. And that’s exactly what happened. My poetry tutor at Nottingham Trent was Mahendra Solanki who has this amazing encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary poetry which was the best catalyst for me. I was captivated by reading different writers and new work – it was like being in a sweet shop with so many goodies to choose from, and it perfectly bridged the gap after Warwick.
MIB: Thanks for that Di. Mahendra Solanki is a poet I knew little about but I was interested to read about his work with patients in a medium secure unit. I’m amazed that you can combine what seem to be disparate activities, and I’ll come back to how you keep your writing flowing later. I’ve read feedback on your writing from Mimi Khalvati and John Lucas with interest. They admire the wonderful musicality of your work. Mimi Khalvati says that ‘Nottinghamshire Sheet XXIX N.W.’ is, ‘rhythmical, beautifully anchored in vowel sounds, ending in a rush of rhymes… in the best tradition of the English nature lyric.’ She also says that ‘West of Dolgellau’, has ‘… subtlety of the theme, the hidden narrative and the combination, in the voice, of humility and vision, solitariness and desire.’Reading her comments I couldn’t help thinking of artists such as Samuel Palmer. Can you tell us something of the influences on your writing; the writers or artists you’re inspired by and admire that have helped you to develop these beautiful qualities in your work?
DS: I wouldn’t say that any particular artists have inspired me, but given the visual requirements of my job in leading a creative marketing business – and having a draughtsman and photographer for a father – I know that I’m very drawn to composition, texture and colour in looking at the world. I think my dad’s technical leanings also influenced my early interest in exploring form as a structure within which I could find freedom as a writer. I find photographs inspiring and often the catalyst for poems, although the photographs don’t have to be great works of art – they just need to capture the emotional truth of a moment in time, or highlight something missing that should have been there. The absences can be more interesting than what’s present. Scratchy old photographs work best in that way – create a distance in time as well as the distance created from the subject by the lens. There are many poets I admire but my key influences have probably been Tony Harrison, Dylan Thomas, RS Thomas and Norman MacCaig. Interestingly, all male poets although I hadn’t realised that until now. Very different writers but some common preoccupations which also preoccupy me, and of course strong rhythmic voices which make such an impression on the ear as well as the mind.
MIB: Could you tell us something about what you perceive as the preoccupations of these poets and your preoccupations. It would be lovely to hear a little bit about the starting points for your first collection, Dad’s Slideshow, too.
DS: Land, community and our place in both; the natural world and its workings on us as participants not just spectators – these things are important to me, but not in an ethereal or conceptual way. I’m a robust individual with a very solid connection to the earth as my smallholding life attests, so I like strong writers who deal with the raw and unpalatable as well as the wonder and the beauty. I admire clarity of expression and authentic idiom, and particularly the judicious use of humour when looking at bruising aspects of human relationships within family groups and tight communities. The disappointments and disasters of those relationships – the missed moments and regrets. And often those small, sometimes celebratory, moments that otherwise go unnoticed and unrecorded. Someone said to me that Reward for Winter was a kind of poetic archaeology of a place and its people, and I think that’s true – similarly, Dad’s Slideshow was a way of uncovering my own personal family history and examining the effect of memory and shared experience within one small family group. The starting point for that sequence was a Christmas slideshow of old family holidays in Wales, where three generations of us sat watching the flash and click of dad’s projector in rapt silence. I borrowed dad’s slides and had them scanned as jpg files, then set about writing a poem for each one, experimenting with different voices of different family members as well as different poetic forms. The title poem is a pantoum which seemed to fit the iterative nature of the process of visual memory.
MIB: I think that it must have been so rewarding to take those photographs and to work on each to create a poem. So much of a person comes back in the memory of a photograph being taken. One of my first pieces of writing linked to the image of my dad’s finger as he pressed the button on a Kodak Instamatic camera during one of our Sunday walks in the 1970s. I love the description of Reward for Winter as poetic archaeology and would like to finish the interview with a reference to a poem from your first collection, but firstly, could you tell us something about the poems you’re working on at the moment?
DS: I’ve just finished a short online course at the Poetry School – Folklore Studio, tutored by Miriam Nash. I love the Poetry School online courses – this one has been my sixth – because they’re perfect for people like me who find it difficult to physically get away to study but who will lap up the online contact at all times of day and night. Folklore Studio was a brilliant course and I’ve three new and very different poems to finish tweaking as a result. I’ve also just completed an exciting departure into the world of song via Leeds Lieder Poets and Composers Forum. I was paired with a composer to create a new song on the subject of travel, with my part being the poem to form the lyrics. It’s been a great experience and I’m excited to hear the finished result (this Saturday 22nd April) when the song will be performed in public as part of Leeds Lieder Festival. I’m signed up for another (longer) Poetry School online course in May which will explore a very different aspect of my writing so I’m keen to get going with that. With being so busy in other areas of my life, I find that the deadlines and tasks of courses help me stick to some kind of writing routine, and of course the contact and feedback with other poets is invaluable. This doesn’t sound very directed or strategic as an answer to your question about new writing and this is deliberate: so many people asked about my next collection as soon as Reward for Winter came out that I found it really disconcerting. Although my natural inclination is to work to task, I’d much rather create new poems naturally and organically, and then see how I might piece things together afterwards as a collection. ‘Second album syndrome’ seems to be a very real thing for poets and I’d like to avoid that way of thinking if I can.
MIB: I enjoy your response for the fact that it isn’t too direct, but it’s wonderful to see how your choice of course seems fitting given what you have written about in your first two books. The link with song sounds exciting and again given your strengths in relation to lyric, rhythm and rhyme this seems so natural a progression for you. I can’t speak in relation to second book syndrome, but from experience of commissions (when I become afraid the poem will never come as time draws closer to submission), I agree that second book syndrome must exist! It’s refreshing to hear about your pace of work too. I think that in some social media circles there can sometimes be an expectation to produce almost ‘a poem a day’. Just returning to your Press, I love the idea of poems instead of a card and have admired Candlestick Press pamphlets (http://www.candlestickpress.co.uk) over the past few years since receiving my first copy, ‘Ten Poems about Tea.’ I wonder if you could talk a little about the conception of the press and about how you see it developing?
DS: Candlestick’s founder Jenny Swann had the brilliant idea for the ‘instead of a card’ pamphlet gift pack back in 2008, and when I joined her as co-owner of the press in 2010 I knew that we had to fully develop the potential of the range in both the gift and book trade. A horrible marketing phrase but basically a strategy to ‘increase basket size’. We set about expanding the title list in a way that seemed organic and interesting to us – themes like Mothers, Fathers, Cats, Dogs were obvious choices that we knew people would find popular and also draw people who weren’t already familiar with poetry to an easy entry point for some great work. The Candlestick mission has always been to bring poetry into the lives of as many people as possible, so wide distribution and engaging themes are a must – as well as the given of wonderful poetry, of course. Our guest editors work hard to make sure that within each capsule collection of just ten poems, we cover different styles and tones of poetry, poets of different gender and ethnicity and a mix of historical and modern work. It’s a tricky task to do as editor but when done well, the titles sell themselves. Since taking sole ownership of the press last year, I’ve focused on upweighting the visual element of the pamphlet with more full images to covers, from both established and emerging illustrators. We were thrilled that Alice Maher allowed us to use her fabulous illustration ‘Born Seeing’ for the fully illustrated cover of Ten Poems from Ireland which we launched in January. We’re bringing out at least 12 new titles this year, and we’re also going to be doing more prose pamphlets which is exciting. And then if I’m still standing, and still able to find some space for my own writing, as well as the ever-expanding menagerie at home, it will be time to expand the team to give me some of my life back and also make a concerted effort at international sales which is something that’s long overdue.
MIB: Life was busy in marketing, but it must be as busy (and harder to schedule?), revolving around animals. I’m wondering, given that you are managing two businesses as well as your writing, how you ensure writing time? By this I mean not only whether you set time aside but also, if an idea comes to you, how you ensure you keep hold of the idea and maybe the mood?
DS: Apart from creating writing ‘anchor points’ through courses, I make sure that I keep an eye on competition and journal deadlines to act as a focus for new work. I often carry an idea for a poem – just a line, or something I want to convey – around in my head for a good while before writing anything down. I replay that line or idea over and over when I’m outside with the animals, and I write down fragments before sleeping at night in a notepad by my bed, knowing that they will otherwise be gone by morning. Most of my productive writing/typing time is very late at night – midnight to 3am – when I’m loosened up mentally by feeling physically tired but I don’t have any other distractions to knock my focus. It is very difficult to keep time set aside for writing – it only takes one limping goat or a prolapsed hen and my working day implodes like a soufflé – and it’s certainly become more difficult since taking sole ownership of Candlestick Press. Time will tell whether I can continue to trade these different demands, or if something has to give.
MIB: Di, thank you for your insightful responses. I wonder when you have time to sleep, but it’s wonderful to sense the energy and enthusiasm for all you do. I’m sure your ideas will give hope to other busy writers. I’d like to finish the interview by quoting a poem from your collection, Reward for Winter. This is a poem that attracted me the first time I heard it and which in addition to the fascination of how you were able to combine all aspects of your life, made me hold you in mind as a poet I wanted to interview. The poem (after RS Thomas, a poet you cited earlier) reveals your skills with form, rhymes and rhythm. Thanks again for generously sharing your thoughts.
View from her window
after R.S. Thomas
It could have been a painting rather
than a photo; the way the colours of
the hillside softly beckoned her to love
this view the distant way her father
would always love her. The pink blush
of her nightie darkens in the shadows
to a fading purple; evening throws
a hazy pall into the room, dims the flush
of rosy cheeks from bath time, suggests
that this was just a pause to renew
acquaintance, part of his work. Who
would know how this moment’s rest
lifted his heart, his draughtsman’s eye
to the lens hot with tears, not cool and dry.
Di’s first book, Dad’s Slideshow, is published by Stonewood Press (2015) Reward for Winter, is published by Valley Press (2016) Candlestick Press publications can be browsed and purchased at Candlestick Press.