This a new series where I interview poets about their process and writing in reference to a single poem. Today we have Pauline Sewards, a fantastic poet I met through her night Satellite of Love. I’d urge you to buy *Today we are discussing one of the poems from her debut collection. Spirograph, published by Burning Eye books.
Mary says she didn’t know what a rainbow flag was
until a woman with a glorious voice raised one at the Albert Hall.
She said she was just a fat queer from Kansas, Mary says
with love and wonder in her voice.
Like all of Mary’s conversations this is repeated a lot,
like turns of a hamster wheel over and over
She couples it with the comments that made her feel sick,
complaints of bias by ‘appalled’, ‘outraged’ and ‘offended’
who hated the way jingoism at the Prom was tempered
by music titled ‘Woke’ and ‘For Democracy’
hated most that tiny smiling woman who enunciated every syllable
and opened her scarlet mouth to let her voice out on wings.
Mary says she knows what Blake meant when he wrote ‘Jerusalem’
that it isn’t for the Union Jacks and the Brexiters
She calls him William Morris by mistake, but she’s utterly sincere.
Repeats herself so much, can hardly get out of her sitting room,
where not a lot happens except on TV.
Mary’s granddaughter thinks she repeats her stories
because they are telling something she can’t directly say.
A memory of when news was whispered adult conversations,
valve radios broadcasting sonorous voices,
rumours of Kristallnacht and jackboots, gas masks, blackout curtains,
screeching sirens, spitfires crossing miles of sky.
As leaves fall from the trees,
Mary watches the Prom with her granddaughter.
A vase of gladioli comes into bloom like lipstick flowers,
and Jamie Barton hits that high note,
somewhere over the rainbow.
** *D- This poem is a vivid portrait of Mary. What inspired you to write about her?
P- She is an older person who doesn’t conform to stereotypes. I liked her ability to be moved by the singer’s voice and to be curious about the rainbow flag.
D- Yes and the poem is full of detail about her. How long did you take from meeting her to writing about her- was it an instant idea or did it take a bit longer?
P- Fairly instant, I redrafted the poem a few times and took it to the stanza group I belong to for comments. The group is always helpful and perceptive.
D- What changed when you were redrafting?
P- In this poem it was mainly the syntax. Trying to express the ideas in a less clumsy way. Issues such as tenses, time and punctuation are definitely my weak points and it helps to discuss with others.
D- Did you know it was going to be part of your collection when you wrote it?
P- I think so. But it was mainly written to celebrate Mary and a particular time in her life.
D- It definitely does that! Has Mary read or heard it?
P- Interesting question. I haven’t shown it to her. She is less fictionalised than some of the people I’ve written about. I may show her one day.
I always think that when I write about people I’m actually writing about my reaction to them, which makes it acceptable. I hope so. When I write about people I’ve met through work it is never a direct account and it would be a mixture of several people, so a fictional creation.
D- That’s really interesting and a different approach. Is writing this poem different to your usual process then, as you didn’t fictionalise her as much?
P- I think there is a continuum of writing about real people and keeping it more distant. Redrafting is often part of that. An important aspect of Mary that I haven’t mentioned yet is her sense of history and the uncomfortable parallels between her childhood and the rise of the far right today. I think that’s buried in the poem.
D- Yes I can see that, especially with the title which could be either the pride flag or the right wing nationalism, and the echoes of the way in that penultimate stanza.
Have any other interpretations come up since you wrote it, especially in the different context of your collection?
P- Mainly that the rainbow flag became a popular symbol in 2020 whereas in 2019 it was primarily a powerful symbol of queerness. I like that I couldn’t have predicted that when I wrote the poem. Sadly the concerns re right wing nationalism haven’t changed, although Mary will be jubilant about US election result.
D- Thanks so much for your answers and attention! It’s been really great
P- Thanks David for your great questions and giving me this space to chat! *** Pauline is a Bristol based poet currently relocated to the Lincolnshire coast. Before the lockdown she was part of the team that ran Satellite of Love poetry and spoken word events in Easton, Bristol. Her second collection Spirograph was published by Burning Eye Books in September 2020 and is available direct from Burning Eye website or for signed copies go to Pauline’s Big cartel site - psewards.co.uk.
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