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Editor interview: Helen Mort, Waymaking

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Enchantment Larches by Nikki Frumkin, featured in Waymaking.

Vertebrate's Director Jon Barton interviews Helen Mort, one of the editors of Waymaking – a new anthology of women's adventure writing, poetry and art due out this autumn.

Helen Mort is one of those high achieving super people. She’ll be in a room reading her poetry and the crowd will acknowledge she’s one of the brightest poets working today, she’ll be running a cross country race and most if not all the field will be behind her, she’ll be judging literary prizes, she’ll be writing novels, she even has a job, lecturing at Leeds University. She’s won numerous awards. That’s just what I know about. Her climbing is, thankfully, merely average.

I wanted to talk to Helen about a project called Waymaking, An anthology of women’s adventure writing, poetry and art which she conceived and has gone on to edit, but before that I’d like to get up to speed on Helen’s own writing.

Helen, I do all my thinking when out running, all my decision making, and compose all my best blogs and emails while jogging along, usually in that first light of morning. I also speak to the animals, I say hello to the owls, shoo the squirrels out the way, chat to the flocks of finches. You once talked about how a poem just comes to you, I’m thinking about a few of your poems here, but particularly that poem about the morning fox you met while out running. Does running form an important part of your creative soul? Or, is running an exercise, an exertion, to ease the time spent being creative? Oh, and do you have time to talk to the creatures in the morning half-light?

Helen: It is interesting that you mention that poem Fox Miles, with the animals link, because that was a double whammy. I do think running is part of my creative soul, it is essential to be able to think clearly, but also if I ever have an encounter with an animal that is often enough to just make a poem happen, so when you get both at the same time it is such a bonus. It is not that I write something in my head every time I go out running there are days when everything is just blank, or other life things get in the way, but if I take an idea out with me, a germ of a creative piece, I can guarantee running will sort it out, in a way that sitting at a desk wouldn’t. I think it is something to do with distracting yourself both ways. You distract yourself from the pain of running by letting your mind go somewhere else, and you distract yourself from the pressure we all put on ourselves to be creative or to be a structured writer or to get something right. I always know I can solve problem if I run.

But no, I don’t talk to animals, I think that is just you.

I was once sat in the offices of Faber and Faber, listening to a marketing man from some company or other talk about the future of publishing. He cheekily said, ‘and we all know poetry doesn’t sell’. That is not the case these days, there is a very vibrant, productive and accessible scene. Is this very welcome resurgence in poetry something to do with the bite-size delivery that social media gives us? Do you think acclaimed poets like yourself will be able to quit the day job and move to the suburbs?

Helen: For me I wouldn’t want to quit the day job. I spend very little time writing poems, they happen intermittently, there will be a moment when I am compelled to write something down, if I was to be a full-time poet I have no idea what I would do most of the time, I’d probably go mad, or become obsessed with something like climbing.

I think you are completely right though, there is a poetry resurgence, sales of poetry have been consistently increasing over the past few years, there are authors like Rupi Kaur, who has been criticised a lot, and Hollie McNish, who are really popular and have been able to quit the day job. I don’t see that engagement with social media as any sort of threat, I see it as an overwhelming positive thing, because if someone encounters poetry through an accessible medium, they are hopefully going to explore it more.

I understand you’ve written a novel, Black Car Burning. At first I thought it was about a climb at Stanage Edge, that was named in honour of a few young climbers’ ownership and unofficial racing of black GTI cars with the inevitable results, but I presume it has a far more profound and deep meaning. Tell us about the book?

Helen: It is about the climb, the climb you mentioned, basically it is a novel about trust; it is set in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. One of the story lines is about the police in Sheffield post-Hillsborough disaster and trust in some of the communities, and another story line is the trust that exists, or doesn’t in some cases, between yourself and the person you climb with. It has a climbing storyline, it’s about relationships, so one of the main characters has an obsession to climb this route, Black Car Burning. She is also quite a chaotic person and one of the other characters is getting dragged more and more into her world and agrees to belay her when she goes to try the climb. The route is at the heart of the book in many ways as a symbol of ambition, and something somebody wants to do. I won’t say what happens in the end, that would give it away, but it definitely isn’t a narrative about people getting what they want.

Of your other publications, and editing, you’ve kind of broken ranks and written a guidebook to trail running to the Lake District. Do your poetry fans and peers simply ignore this digression, have they forgiven you for a moment of simple, plain writing, or do they long for hidden meaning? ‘The descent from Place Fell is quite steep and is paved with stones in places’. Should we take the directions literally? Or are you telling us something else here?

Helen: The thing I found most interesting about writing a trail running guide is it is a brilliant challenge for someone used to writing poetry. I think of my poetry as being at the more matter of factish end of the poetry writing scale. It isn’t as off the wall as a lot of stuff. A lot of the time a poet gets away with being ambiguous, and a lot of the time in poetry you are using words that could mean more than one thing and you play on that meaning. But writing a trail running guide is the opposite, you don’t want any ambiguity in there at all. I remember talking about some of the routes with my dad when I was doing the research, and saying things like ‘I’d turn left at the trees’ and my dad would say ‘which trees? That’s not precise enough. I think it has made me a better poet. You want ambiguity but you also want precision. There is only a very small overlap, as you will have gathered, between the worlds of poetry and running so there is not much of a crossover audience.

Yet all my poet friends go running?

Helen: That’s true we do, maybe it’s bigger than we think, maybe they’re not all out, in one way or another – I don’t know which they’d be more embarrassed about. I’ve enjoyed hearing peoples’ responses to routes, in a way you don’t get with poems, they can’t take a poem out with them in a way that they can take a guidebook, people tell you about what they saw while they were doing the route which is of course different to what you saw, which is great. Much preferred writing the guidebook.

Priya Khaira-Hanks writing about poet Rupi Kaur in the Guardian recently concluded that, ‘Frankly, the literary world is saturated with white male voices of dubious quality’. If that is the case, then mountaineering literature should be ashamed of its gender demographics, the top 100 Kindle mountaineering titles on Amazon, typically, have only one or two books written by women, maybe three on a good day, and on a bad day there might not be a single book in that top 100 about women climbing. The Waymaking project is an anthology of women’s writing and art on the outdoors, adventure, mountaineering, running … all sorts of activities. This is Vertebrate Publishing’s motivation to publish, but what attracted you to the project and how is it coming along? 

Helen: It is a bit bleak when you look at an overview like that. But it takes time to catch up I guess. When I first started going into the mountains all the books I read or saw were pretty much exclusively by men. I wrote a collection of poems a few years ago called No Map Could Show Them, and that was inspired from those women’s stories from I suppose the 1800s onwards, were definitely there, I just had to dig a little bit deeper to find them. I like to think we are just catching up with ourselves a little. There are a lot more woman climbing in a day to day hobby sort of way than there were twenty years ago. There has been a shift in those who feel they are entitled to call themselves a climber or a mountaineer or an outdoors person. The world of publishing is catching up and there will be more and more stories coming through.

So what attracted me to Waymaking was to try to give that writing inspired by women’s adventures a bit of a push. People are likely to do things if they see themselves reflected in what is already there and so hopefully if you have role models, if you have books to look at, and say, here are stories of women in adventure, then brilliant if that makes people say ‘maybe I could contribute to that, maybe I could do something like that’. Of course Waymaking isn’t an exhaustive book, it is just a sample of women who are writing about the outdoors. But I think it is really going to help give permission to people, and I often think that is what people sometimes need, permission to do something, permission to go somewhere. I think the idea behind Waymakingis to give that, and inspiration to do stuff outdoors. ‘Yeah she did that, I can do that’.

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