In conversation with Susannah Dickey

When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?

I’m chastened to have never had that very chic stage of writing adolescent poetry. Or no, I did have it, but I had it when I was 23, when it was decidedly unchic. I had no real artistic sensibility as a teenager, and was also just blissfully unaware that poetry was something anyone still alive was still writing (by some statistical anomaly I was in quite possibly the only English Literature class in Derry that didn’t study Heaney – we studied Donne, whose frisky dichotomy of spiritual horniness and terminal neuroticism certainly appealed to me). In the first year of my English degree, we had a mandatory creative writing module, and it was there that I had my first go at writing a poem – it was in ABAB quatrains, and it was all about how young people these days are ideological homunculi because we love our phones so much. I rhymed ‘qualified’ with ‘unmollified’. It’s a miracle, frankly, that I wasn’t put in a burlap sack, loaded into a cannon, and fired into the sun, but I suppose Queen’s had had its cannons decommissioned by then.

What drew me to poetry immediately as a form was its power – how a well-crafted poem’s ideas burst its formal banks. No other form felt to me so capable of reveling in its own precision, while also revealing a complete disdain for it.

 

Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.

I had my first poems published when I was 24 – they were prose poems, because it was prose poetry that helped me slough off the terrible cod-Plath, cod-Donne, sad sanctimoniousness I’d started with. Prose poetry taught me to write poetry. I love ‘The Bench’ by Mary Ruefle and ‘Lantau’ by Marilyn Chin. I remember one night reading a poem about a duck, and Kant’s theory of universalizability (I know), at an open mic night in Bookfinders (RIP), a bookshop across the way from Queen’s. At that point I didn’t really know anyone writing poetry outside of my workshop group, but that night I got inducted into a group of inimitable Belfast poets, all of whom were somersaulting within poetry’s potential. Despite the myriad problems with my work, despite how nascent and green and poorly read I was, they took my work seriously. They taught me to take myself seriously. Two of the poets at that open mic were Manuela Moser and Stephen Connolly, who run The Lifeboat Press. They published my first pamphlet the following year.

 

What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?

It’s all a bit nutso butso. If I was permitted to answer this question a few months down the line, I might have a better answer, but I only got the news two days ago, so I’ll stick with nutso butso. I’m very, very happy about it.

Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?

In 2018 I started trying to write poems about the Isdal Woman. About a year, and many bad poems, later, I realized this was a failed endeavour. The poems were bad and the thinking that was going into writing them was increasingly making me uncomfortable. Frustrated, I asked myself why it was that I even wanted to write about the Isdal Woman, why I was so fixated with her, with consuming material about her, and it was from that question that the book emerged. The book is one long attempt to explore that question.

Maybe, as a woman, there’s a self-protective element to ravenously consuming the images and details of other women’s deaths. If you choose to view it as entertainment, and allow it to entertain you, then you’re about as psychologically removed from the victim as it’s possible to be; you become voyeur, not victim, and as long as you’re not like the victim, the pervasive and frightening violence that exists around you can’t touch you. It’s not a mode of thinking that is useful or generative, but it makes sense.

It was when I started to think about critiquing the means of depicting the Isdal Woman, rather than writing about her, that the book began to take shape.

In terms of individual poems, I love ‘When the armchair was out she was in when the armchair was in she was out’, ‘Prologue: You know that riddle’ and ‘Epilogue: You know that riddle (reopening)’, and also ‘Whenever you feel sad you enjoy the smooth refreshing taste of Diet Coke with Lemon’. I think those poems are good indicators of what the collection is trying to do more broadly.

 

Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?

There are so many poets whose work influenced how I approached writing this book, and writing poetry more generally.

I wrote the first draft of the rhyming couplets over a 4-day period, after being locked in my bedroom in Lewisham for two weeks with Covid in January 2021. I had no other poetry collections in my room apart from Tony Harrison’s A Kumquat for John Keats, and Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems. Lyrics from ‘Bounce Back’ by Little Mix – ‘Baby keep me wetter than a bayou / If you don’t, I’ma walk right by you’ – and Nicki Minaj’s verse in ‘Side to Side’ by Ariana Grande – ‘Wrist icicle, ride dick bicycle’ – also played a part.

Claudia Rankine’s 4-dimensional-chess levels of genius and ambition when it comes to exploiting and exploding the ties between form and content is something that will always influence how I write. Anne Carson and Saki made me think about character and wit and drama in poetics. Russell Edson, likewise. Then there’s Kenneth Koch’s sprawling, unfurling behemoths of cuteness, obliqueness, imagistic dexterity. I love Han Kang’s episodic, gnomic approach, and Medbh McGuckian is a ludic magician with etymology.

Spring and All by Walt Whitman is a favourite, as is Garbage by A.R. Ammons. Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson and Precarious Life by Judith Butler and Enduring Time by Lisa Baraitser and In The Wake by Christina Sharpe and Impersonal Passion by Denise Riley all taught me ways of thinking. ‘A Story About Water’ by Gboyega Odubanjo showed me how to write a fabulist, koan-style poem. ‘For Such a Widely Used Material, Glass Sure Does Have Some Downsides’ by Joey Connolly taught me how to create an engine for a poem and then revolve within it in perpetuity. ‘Interrupted Meditation’ by Robert Haas taught me how shame can perforate the poem’s film. ‘On Disappearing’ by Major Jackson, ‘Did John’s Music Kill Him’ by A.B. Spellman, and ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’ by Elizabeth Bishop, all made me think about the power of temporal collapse and the dissolution of the self in modern elegy.

 

What is next for you as a poet?

As I understand it, at the ceremony the shortlistees are expected to fight one another, so poetry will probably have to take a back seat for the next few months while I’m rigorously training. On the night, I’m going to go up to the biggest, scariest poet and bite them on the ear.

 

What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

Seek Susannah Dickey out at the earliest opportunity and give her a £20 Pizza Hut voucher.

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