An interview with Sally Goldsmith

Here's another of our occasional interviews with upcoming poets.

Before that, a poem taken from Sally's collection Are We There Yet?


Sally GoldsmithA field snapped with frost and stitched with brittle docks,
a metal gate where I hung, still, like the horses there 

the grey standing gentle over the bay mare, held
inside their listening: wick-wick of a pigeon,

the chat of a jackdaw flock. Each second was a frozen bead,
but lovely to the touch. Once, he barely whisked his tail;

I watched. Then shifting my weight against the gate,
both turned and the mare lifted, nut-bright, out of her dream

then came slowly, and again on, slowly; the sky stretched
drum-skin, the sun low and sucked to a thin sweet.

She looked to the grey as if to say, should I? and a man
came, walking his dog. The mare whickered. Grand!

said the man. It is, I said, some strange thing thawing,
and she brought me her breath, timid to my hand.

[Reprinted with permission]


Antiphon: Thanks for agreeing to the interview and congratulations on Are We There Yet?

You’ve published it with the Smith/Doorstop, after your pamphlet Singer  was one of the winners in the 2008/9 Poetry Business competition. Can you tell us something about how that win led to Are We There Yet?

Sally: Getting that first win and publication for Singer told me I was on the road, getting better at my writing. But crucially it gave me wonderful publishers who encouraged my writing and were interested in what I was doing next.

Some editors are very hands-off, leaving all the decisions to the poet, and some have very detailed things to say about every poem and the structure and layout and so on. Can you tell us something about what it’s been like working with Smith/Doorstop? Were there any things you found unexpected or enlightening in the process of getting your first collection out into the world? What was the editing process like?

As in the story of the Three Bears (except there are two in the Poetry Business) Ann and Peter Sansom were ‘just right.’ Ann worked with me while Peter occasionally put in his two pennorth. Ann read the manuscript carefully. She was encouraging and respectful throughout the process of looking at it with me, giving the impression they had all the time in the world. (They certainly haven’t.) Ann trusted me, my ordering of the book, but worked with me on specifics. She had a tremendous feel for the balance and focus of the whole thing, and on what I should leave out, was spot on. It wasn’t at all a forensic thing, but I knew they were helping to make it the best book it could possibly be.

How did you go about the business of choosing which poems to include in your collection? And how did you decide which to leave out? How did this compare with putting “Singer” together?

Having had a pamphlet out in the world for a while, I had a sense of which poems from that book were the strong ones, which would work in the context of later work. But any book, however long, has to work as a whole so really I had to start again. The first and last poems were the bookends. Hare Ghazal, the last piece in Singer (literally a signing off poem because traditionally you have to put your own name in the last line of a ghazal) became instead, a signing in poem. It was a link from that book to the next. The last poem in the book, Thaw comes sort of full circle. Both 14 line poems (though not sonnets) they both also connect me with an animal spirit, if that doesn’t sound too new agey. And I knew Thaw was a strong poem, only recently validated by being commended in the National Poetry Competition. Between these bookends I had to stack poems intuitively. There isn’t a formula for this I think. I found I had to physically print out the poems, lay them out, try them in different combinations to see which worked together, get a feel not only for the flow of the whole but also how individual poems spoke to each other. Sometimes a sequence was obvious as in the section of poems about the death of my mother. Some of the more autobiographical ones were roughly sequenced chronologically. Others just seemed to belong together in their language – ones that are more demotic and vernacular out of real or imagined speech for instance or ones that are more exuberant or reflective about the natural world.

You’re a singer, songwriter and performer, and you also write for radio, as well as writing poetry. How do you think these other creative activities influence your poems?  Does being a songwriter lead to certain kinds of poetry or perhaps particular concerns or ways of working?  Or do you see poetry as offering different kinds of activity or satisfactions?

Writing poetry is different. Songs are both simpler in their lyrics, but also more complicated in that they have to work with music, indeed are only complete with music. That’s why I think all that debate about whether Dylan is a poet or not is beside the point. For all his wonderful way with words, the songs only really work with the music too.

A poem doesn’t have a melody to carry it along though it does have its own sound world -  it can flow or chatter, bring you up short, use rhyme and refrain or more subtle echoing and slant rhyming. I want sound to be as important, if not more important than image or perhaps to work with images. I do hope that my poems are interesting sonically - people do comment on their ‘music.’ I want them to work read out aloud. I want the line endings, the stanza breaks to serve as a sort of score to how they should be read. And I do mutter to myself a lot when writing.

Your collection is a beautiful object, with one of the best covers I’ve ever seen on a poetry book. You must be very proud of it. It may be hard to follow. So, what happens next? Are you thinking about a second collection? Are there other writing projects in hand? Or, now the book is here, is it harder to find new directions for your writing? And, if so, what’s your thinking about how to find those directions?

Yes I love the cover. The image is from Sheffield based artist Tracey Holland. I love the sumptuous autumnal colour, the real heart.

I’m not sure what comes next though I have some thread ends for new directions – a sequence based on my time living in a commune, some pieces which are song/poem hybrids in collaboration with musician Val Regan, some play scripts in verse – I’ve had two of those performed recently and I want to do more.

I’ve been thinking about how better to get myself into the sort of space where these things can happen. There’s always the need to earn money – and of course to be out in the world as well as writing. But the balance is difficult as other things seem to demand my attention too much – that might be a woman thing. And getting older I get more tired. So I’m trying to shed some stuff, make more time for the writing and make the sort of space which helps me to focus. Virginia Woolf was right except my room needs to be a caravan in a field. Or maybe an allotment shed. Anywhere I can’t be got at by email or the phone. All offers gratefully received.

Finally, do you have any advice for the very many poets whose work is good, who are finding publication in magazines and anthologies, but have not yet found a press to publish their collections?

It’s hard in the current economic climate to find a publisher, so maybe we all need to be more creative – go into collaborations with visual artists, musicians, actors, self publish beautiful books or sound pieces with them, engage in projects which are internet based or are site specific. I’ve had a certain amount of luck but you can’t rely any more on the usual poetry career of poetry magazines, pamphlet, first collection. Most of all, keep writing, reading, listening to the advice of your poetry peers, getting better. 

Are We There Yet? is reviewed in this issue of Antiphon and Smith/Doorstop are here:

 Are We There Yet?



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