An interview by Shelley Timms
Photo by Michael Reynolds
Firstly, tell us a bit about your book!
How To Be Held is my debut poetry collection. It’s pretty vulnerable, to be honest. The dedication is to my teenage self, and all the ways she was resilient without even realising it. The book is meant to not so much be a letter to my past self but be an embracing of who I was, and who I am, and all the parts of me that I felt were too soft, too vulnerable, or too emotional to display publicly. I feel like it’s a manifesto to softness and vulnerability and to tenderness and resilience.
At what point did you want to take it from a manuscript to a published piece?
I don’t really remember that moment and I really wish I did. I was in America last year for the Women of the World Poetry Slam in Dallas, and that was a month I spent traveling by myself. It was a pretty formative month, I became really okay with loneliness and being alone in my own company and all the facets of that you get as a woman traveling alone. While I was in LA there was [an opportunity] to submit to Burning Eye Books. I went to a café and spent the whole day putting together a collection of poems that I had written over the past three years. At that point it was just a collection of poems that I felt had been significant in my career. I was ready for a book, and I was ready for something to exist outside of me performing [poetry]. I wanted to put my work in a place that didn’t rely on my physical presence.
Was it different writing poetry for your book as compared to writing a piece for slam poetry?
Absolutely. I’m really lucky that my publisher specialises in spoken word poetry. One of the things that I’ve learned from being an editor as well as a performance poet is to let the words on the page speak, and there’s really an art to it. There’s things I’m still learning and will always be learning. I think that all poems regardless of [their format] should be able to be read. Kate Tempest, at the beginning of her poetry books, has a note that says these poems should be read aloud and heard. I like to think that all poetry has a rhythm and a resonance that works when it is verbalised.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start performing their poetry?
It’s a controversial opinion but I think that every poem is a slam poem. I think any poet can be a slam poet if they entered a slam. In terms of getting better at performance I think it’s a matter of rehearsal and repetition and understanding how your voice sounds. What I recommend poets to do is record themselves and then listen to it back, which is what I do. That way I can hear where I’m rushing, mumbling or not breathing properly. I can identify the parts that may sound awkward or clunky.
I was ready for a book, and I was ready for something to exist outside of me performing [poetry]. I wanted to put my work in a place that didn’t rely on my physical presence.
Do you think being able to understand the way you perform poetry has helped you with public speaking?
So much. Even doing a phone interview would have scared the shit out of me [before]. One of the questions I get asked a lot is “do you still get nervous?”. In some ways I do and in some ways I don’t. Someone said to me on this tour that if you’re nervous it means you care. I never want to become desensitised to what I’m doing and get on stage and do the same set that I’ve done every other gig. This book tour and the public speaking [that goes along with it] has constituted a moment where I have stepped back and realised how much I’ve grown as a public speaker and with the ways I express myself. I think it’s mostly about trust. I’ve learned to trust myself. It’s not so much about skill, I think it’s more about self-belief. Being gentle with myself and being okay if I do stumble or make a mistake and [knowing] that it doesn’t diminish my capacity to say something worthwhile. This is my advice to all performance poets as well. If you’re sharing a poem and reading it like it’s something that you don’t feel is important, then no one else is going to care about it. Whatever you’re saying, if you don’t say it like it is important, other people won’t pay attention.
What was the promotion process like for your book? Did you learn anything about marketing strategies?
One of my best and worst habits is that I work very independently. I am very much a one-person operation. It’s tough because my publisher is [based in] the UK, but they do a lot. They’ve got me in UK bookstores, and they’re so supportive. But they can’t do as much over here. I organised the book tour all by myself, and in terms of book promotion there’s been a lot of groundwork and a lot of phone calls and walking into bookstores and being like “hello, I’m important!”. The whole publicity route has been so unusual because I’ve never done it before, and I felt quite ignorant, but I’ve had a lot of amazing support. It really has been quite a steep learning process and I’ve felt overwhelmed but I’m really proud of my capacity to keep going.
Was there anything you would do differently the next time around?
I’m a complete perfectionist. Even if I put out the most perfect book in the world, I would still be nit-picking, because that’s who I am as an artist. Although, as of right now I am incredibly happy with the book and wouldn’t change anything. I have no doubt in the work I’ve produced. In terms of things I would do differently, I think I would give myself more space around the book. This time I was on tour before the book had even be released, which meant that I was on tour while simultaneously doing distribution, orders and marketing. I think if anything I would be more gentle with myself in the process and just enjoy it, rather than having to hustle so hard.
Lastly, we ask all of our interviewees for some book recommendations – what are your current favourite books?
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Instinct to Ruin by Lora Mathis
A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett