This year's National Poetry Competition winner, Allison McVety, won the prize with a poem about her attempt to take an English A-level without bothering to read the set text, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, and the circumstances around her eventually reading the book. Allison won the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition 2006 with her first collection, The Night Trotsky Came to Stay, and is now writing her third collection. We caught up with her to talk a little bit more about her winning poem, parenthesis and 'little lives'.
Could you tell me a bit about the back story to your National Poetry winning poem ‘To the Lighthouse’?I’m not very good with set books and reading lists, so in blind panic and on the eve of my exam, I tried to get a sense of the novel as a whole from just the last paragraph of each chapter and, of course, this proved disastrous: the textures and contours of the whole text were missing, as indeed was Woolf herself. And then there were the parens, those bracketed subtexts each encapsulating a complete story of its own – yet held distant from the rest:
[Mr Ramsey stumbling along a passage stretched his arms out one dark morning, but Mrs Ramsey having died rather suddenly the night before, he stretched his arms out. They remained empty.]
When I finally got round to reading the book it was after my mother had died suddenly in hospital. As often happens when we lose someone, time, in all its otherwise lovely elasticity, snaps, raps us across the knuckles. And so there were these three women who had all died off-stage, and they were shadowing my writing, niggling.
But the real nub of the poem came quite accidentally in a Writing School workshop. My train to Sheffield was late and I’d arrived as the class were doing a warm-up exercise. Peter (Sansom) disappeared to make me some tea and Ann said I was to write about reading a novel. I chose to write about not reading To the Lighthouse and spookily Peter returned with my tea in a Virginia Woolf mug! The writing was meant to loosen the words for other exercises but it was a rather insistent presence in my notebook and a year later it became a series of drafts and then a working poem.
Have you found workshopping and class environments like those you attended at the Poetry School helpful to the progress of your poetry?Undoubtedly. I am a serving apprentice and I’ve been on a range of wonderful courses from Arvon, Jerwood Aldebrough, the Poetry Business, the Poetry School, Smiths Knoll and Ty Newydd to a local Continuing Education course where my writing began. Each has been vital in broadening my reading, in stimulating new work and in the learning of my trade.
Through many workshops and classes I have been able to articulate the contours, the details of an idea. With the Poetry School I’ve taken classes with poets including Jane Draycott, Catherine Smith and Mimi Khalvati and often these courses don’t just shape an immediate difference, sometimes it’s months or even years later when a particular penny drops. And when it comes to revising poems, a good workshop can give a glimpse through someone else’s eyes, at what a poem might be.
Your first collection ‘When Trotsky Came to Stay’ was published through the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition in 2006. How long did your first collection take to write?
In one sense it feels like it took a long time to write and in a literal sense, perhaps three years or so. I’d entered the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet competition before and this was third time lucky. The poems were stronger, and yielded to the beady editorship of Peter Sansom. As I recall there was no struggle, the poems became better as a result of a series of conversations around half a line, or the need for an alternative verb; some poems were easily jettisoned altogether while others stepped comfortably into the frame (and this returns me to your previous question about workshopping and how it prepares the writer for these editorial conversations).
The dedication in Trotsky is For Louise and Arthur and from a very early stage in the writing I wanted the energy in the poems to come not from the lives of parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents, but from the lives of those men and women in their own rights and in the contexts of their own histories. Removing me from centre stage was difficult - cognitively speaking, we often place our families as satellites around our own bright stars, but I think distance is necessary. After all, in order to be able to say look at these remarkable people! you have first to look at them and marvel yourself.
It seems you enjoy writing about snippets in historical or cultural memory and manage to combine a great sense of the personal alongside this. How do you balance the two within your poetry?I’m not sure if I can build on my previous answer, but what I can add is that I’m especially interested in the little lives that sit within the parens I mentioned earlier, little lives that seem to have had scant impact on our historical text as a whole. For example, we are about to mark the largest maritime disaster to have occurred in peacetime and for most of the people on board Titanic, their lives and deaths seem only to have contributed to the scale of loss; their individual stories are irrelevant and, if they hadn’t existed at all, their absence wouldn’t’ve been missed within the larger narrative of that night. And yet here we are a hundred years on and choosing to look, not at the big heroes and villains, but at those little lives.
What are you working on now?Well, I’m pacing out the perimeter of a third collection at the moment knowing full well that it’s an elastic boundary that changes as new poems are made. Once the footings are down though, I’ll be alright.
Yet separate to this, I’ve also been exploring aspects of form and translation in modern languages – the truly modern languages of programming code – and what might be said about the poetics of our natural languages as a result of looking into the monochrome dialects of the digital ones. I hope it might lead to a piece of work that aligns itself with both – incorporating the form of case statements and conditional loops, clauses and protocols and set within a human context. But I’m not holding my breath!