Interview:

ROSEMARY McLEISH: A romantic at heart 

Rosemary McLeish is a writer and artist whose debut full-length poetry collection is published by Wordsmithery. Confluence managing editor Sam Hall spoke to her about poetry and more.

 

Rosemary McLeish’s writing career has had many stops and starts as life kept intervening along the way. Confluence editor Barry Fentiman Hall first encountered her at a Burns Night event in Faversham just over two years ago at an event he hosts, and was blown away by her poetry. Since then Rosemary has become a firm fixture on the Kent live lit scene, has been published in magazines and anthologies and also took part in our Confluence Writers’ Development Scheme last year.

 

She was runner up in the MsLexia/Poetry Book Society Women’s Poetry Competition 2018, and just won second prize in the Bedford International Writing Competition for her poem ‘New Wine’. Her debut collection I am a field was recently published by Wordsmithery.

 

“I didn’t read Sylvia Plath until I was 70...”

I remember Barry coming home from Burns Night a couple of years ago, and saying that an old lady had got up, read her poems and completely owned the event. He said he really hoped I'd get a chance to see her at Roundabout Nights. Fortunately I did. And as we got to know Rosie we quickly realised Barry was wrong about one thing, Rosie is not an old lady in attitude or writing. She’s one of the most widely-read people I know, and as an artist of considerable repute too, she’s also knowledgeable and passionate about art and music. This background knowledge is interwoven into her poetry – in the titles of her work, their allusions and the subject of pieces such as ‘Arabesque’, a meditation on a favourite piece of music, in Issue 6 of Confluence:

“I am trying to ignore the thousands of times I have heard this piano piece and recover what it meant to me when I first heard it as a child.”   

Although she wanted to be a journalist when a child, it wasn’t till she was nearly 40 that she began properly writing, after colleagues told her she was a born storyteller. A degree in Psychology as a mature student had a mysterious effect: after the course her hands wouldn’t stop moving; perhaps her body’s way of telling her that she needed to create; so she bought a piano, and started writing and making art. Rosie mostly focussed on art during the time she lived in Glasgow and has become a well-respected Outsider Artist – one of her artworks is on permanent display in Korea!

It was not until 2004 that she took a creative writing course, it was here that she was ‘branded the poet’ by the other students who were mostly novelists. But Rosie found the whole experience disappointing; I suggest that maybe creative writing degrees aren’t for everyone and she laughs and suggests they’re not for anyone! We unpick this a bit and come to the conclusion that writers aren’t always very good at teaching what they do, as maybe sometimes they don’t understand it fully themselves.

Rosemary does however think that writing workshops where the workshop leader is more of a facilitator, giving a very loose inspiration then allowing the attendee to write whatever they like, can be fruitful and bring up unexpected gems, (and when she teaches creative writing this is what she does.)   

 

“The reason I write like I do is because of Beowulf.”

 

Rosemary translated Beowulf  from Old English when she was 21, and says that it’s affected her since then. She uses assonance and enjambment a lot, which she tells me are major techniques in Old English poetry.  Racine is another influence regarding the use of enjambment. Shelley is an early influence; “Shelley taught me that you can write about politics, about people having an ordinary conversation, plus write beautiful poems about skylarks”.

 

Other influences and likes include Walt Whitman, Ted Hughes, who she finds ‘a stunning writer’, and Sharon Olds. Rosemary tells me that Shakespeare is another of her influences and inspirations; “Where would any of us be without Shakespeare?”;

 

“I first heard the word Aleppo when
reading Macbeth at school. Shakespeare’s
unforgettable lines lodged like an
earworm, a nursery rhyme in my brain.
My imagination, at fourteen, sat up
and paid attention. Aleppo sounded
mysterious, alluring, exotic;” From ‘Aleppo’ Confluence issue 8

She compares writing poetry to the act of translating feelings. Through her French to English translation work, she says she learned to write poetry.

“Edit, edit, edit. Write, write, write.”

I ask Rosie what her advice to writers is. As well as encouraging people to spend time writing and editing, Rosie is also very passionate that writers should read writers from the past. Not only will this enable you to know if your ‘brand new’ idea actually isn’t all that new, but it will give your writing more depth. “My study of German, French and English poets was the making of me as a writer.” She adds that writers from the past are remembered for a reason; you don’t have to like it, you don’t have to emulate it, but if you know your poetic heritage, your writing will have a better foundation.

That Rosemary knows her poetic heritage is obvious in her poems; ‘Red Rebecca’, the poem that Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy awarded second place in the MsLexia/Poetry Book Society 2018 competition was praised for its “archaic authenticity”. Her poem ‘New Wine’ about a family situation, just won second prize in the Bedford International Writing Competition. I ask Rosie how important she thinks it is to enter competitions. “If you don’t want to just write for yourself you have to be brave and send your work out.”

Rosemary had actually got quite discouraged from sending work out, as although the audience’s reception was great when she read it out loud, her written work was not being published much. She says the Confluence Writer Development Scheme really helped with this – after one of our mentoring sessions, one piece of the homework I gave her was to send poems out to at least 10 magazines. (And several of those published her poems...) Just getting into the habit of sending your work out, getting some rejections, but then also starting to get magazines which want to publish your work is an important part of a writer’s development. It can be frustrating and crushing to not get a positive response, but sending your work out into the world is what it’s about, after all, and the more you do it, the more likely you are is that somebody will like what you’ve sent them.

 

“I am a field”

I am a field is a poetic memoir, and a musing on a lifetime’s deep connection with nature. Rosemary says that she has "always been in love with the natural world, and feel so much part of it that these poems are where you will find me." 

 

Joy Howard, of Grey Hen Press, who has published many of Rosie’s poems over the years in anthologies, says of the book:

“McLeish takes us on a voyage of discovery around the UK, Europe and America, but also on a metaphysical exploration of place and time. The mood of the second and third parts of the book changes, and we are asked to take a look at the obverse – in particular the grim prospect of a world and its species enduring climate change and the possibility of extinction. Here the powerful and fearless McLeish voice is manifest once more. But she manages to maintain her lyrical touch throughout, so that the collection as a whole remains cohesive and utterly compelling.”

 

Joy talks of Rosemary’s poetry being ‘darkly humorous, taking fear by the throat, telling it how it is’ and I think that is what makes it stand out from other poets writing at the moment. In person, and in poems, she does ‘tell it like it is’. In her poems you have the confessional, autobiographical detail, but unlike many poets currently lauded today, it’s not just about that. For me, Rosemary’s poetry has something which takes it above just being confessional, makes it relatable. It can be funny and she has revealed a wicked sense of humour (read her poem ‘Cupboard Lust’ on the Spilling Cocoa Over Martin Amis  website or ‘Red Rebecca’),  it can also be sad, like the final poem in the book ‘Wolf in the Kootenays’, reducing me to tears on more than one occasion, or an angry cry as in the titular poem ‘I am a field’;

 

“I am growing into
a clapped-out old woman;
and I am angry.
I never complained before
and now you won’t listen.”  

 

Or it can be a beautiful combination of all of the above – which is why I think Rosemary’s poetry is so skilful.

 

Rosemary’s two favourites in the book are ‘Clurabhig sonata in a minor key’, published also in Confluence issue 5. It’s a long poem, and tells a deeply personal story about ageing, illness and a long relationship, all embedded within the Scottish landscape.

“Everything moves in this neighbourhood.
The patterns in the grey water of the loch
change so constantly it’s a living thing;”

 

Rosemary’s poems are often over 40 lines long, and she feels this is a constriction placed upon poets by a lot of editors who just want a poem that fits nicely on one page in their magazine. The poems in I am a field are often two or even three pages long. Her other favourite is ‘At Wickaninnish’;

 

“Walking at Wickaninnish
in the clear sunny air
of this warm first day of March,
with not a soul in all the wide
expanse of beach but me,
my being stretches, shakes itself,

finds itself at home.”

 

Of these two favourite poems, she says that they “feel like an exact translation of an idea into words – that allow the reader to have that experience. These two poems are the best translations of my experience that I’ve written.”

 

One of the poems is called ‘I want to go there’, and in this astounding collection of a lifetime’s poetic memories about places and nature, Rosemary McLeish makes us want to go there with her. 

Find out more:  

Buy I am a field

Rosemary's website

Rosemary will be launching I am a field in London at The Poetry Cafe on 21 February, and in Medway at Breaking Bread on 9 February.

Rosemary performing at The Royal Engineers Museum, April 2018

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