SM JENKIN: Spit and Spindrift
Angela Dye talks to SM Jenkin and soft sifts through silt and salt to shore-up the wisdom of the deep.
SM Jenkin's first poetry collection Fire in the head was published by Wordsmithery in 2018.
Hello Sarah. Would you like to tell us about yourself: a potted biography please, or more like Sarah in a nut-shell (or a sea-shell).
SMJ: Hello Angela! I’m a second -generation Irish writer, I was born and raised in Medway. My mother worked as a nurse at Medway Maritime hospital, and my father was a fitter at Chatham Dockyard. I attended the St Mary’s catholic school, then Upbury Manor. I was chair, and one of the founding members of the Medway St. Patrick’s day committee. I am a regular performer on the Kent Live lit scene and have performed at poetry gigs and at music and literature festivals in America, Ireland, Portugal and all over the UK. How did I begin? Oh, I started to write after an evening class, then gave up. Then a few years ago I started again once the open mics began again locally! I’m very glad that I did too!
I have had quite a lot of work published and am so pleased you have read and enjoyed it. In case people want to explore my other material, (yes Angela, especially the one about the sex life of a snail), I am published in various literary anthologies and magazines including: Anti-Heroin Chic, An Assemblance of Judicious Heretics, All Sorts, Blithe Spirit, Boyne Berries, City Without a Head, Confluence, Dissonance Magazine, The Interpreter's House, Letters Home, The Mermaid, Medway Messenger, Please Hear What I Am Not Saying, Sea Shanties and Siren Songs and the Wandering Words project.
You want five words that describe my work? "Mystical Medway Mermaid unearthing treasures." Five words that describe me? "Melancholic, directionally challenged, geeky cheese-fiend." Will that do?
I am one of the editorial advisors for Confluence, and former chair of the Medway Mermaids writing group. My new book Fire in the Head was recently released!
Hurrah! Impressive! Mermaids and cheese? Have you been watching my dreams? I love how your book opens and closes with teeth, as if you are playing with us, daring us, but also warning us! Your work has elements of classical form, is very skilful and weighted with sensory delights. You are obviously well versed. I am so glad you never gave up! What inspires you to write now?
SMJ: Thank you very much. I’m influenced by my education. I am the only one in my family to get to university. I currently work as a librarian. I am also influenced by sci-fi. I really adore it, especially an odd TV series called The Prisoner. I’m inspired by the desire to explore an idea, location, sensibility or an event. Sometimes I am surprised by events, and I process what I’ve learnt by writing about it. It’s like a form of active learning for me. I also write to bring attention to voices and experiences that have been forgotten or erased from history. The story of Anne Pratt, for example, a fascinating woman who was born in Strood and educated at Eastgate House in Rochester. She was a massively successful botanical illustrator. I was so astonished when I found out about her and her work, I just had to write about her. I was impressed by how she managed to continue her work and become such a success despite being sidelined by the scientific establishment. I feel that by writing about these people and places, I get to know a little more about them, and I enjoy sharing that with others.
I think it’s particularly pertinent that Wordsmithery launched my book at the end of the 20th anniversary of the formation of Medway as an authority. There is, as you observe, some exploration of what it means to come from Medway, within the book. It’s especially important to me as I always wondered what it may mean once the dockyard closed. What stories do we choose to tell about a place, and what does it mean for it? How do these stories shape how we think of the place? I’d love to have included something about Thomas Waghorn maybe, Mary Stagpole or William Cuffay but there’s only so much that you can fit in. My book was launched on November 28th, the birth date of William Blake. I’ve included a piece about James McCudden the WW1 ace pilot from Gillingham. It’s also the 100 year anniversary of women being allowed to be voted into parliament as MPs, the first of which was of course Constance Georgine Markievicz, but I’ll be writing about her another day. I knew you’d be pleased to hear that!
The themes I like to explore? Mythology, local and forgotten histories, and my memories of my family. In this collection I write a lot about my dad. He was born in Gillingham, apprenticed at Chatham Dockyard and worked there until it closed in 1984. He had a lot of tattoos and that fascinated me. I’m hoping to write a collection about my mother and Irish heritage sometime, something I am only now learning about. It could be sad, haunting and fascinating simultaneously. My mother never talks about it, and there are all sorts of complicated reasons why. Like you, I am fascinated by the spirit of a place, not just the history but the stories too: the smell of the soil, the stone in the soil that catches my toe, beer suds popping on my tongue. I am pleased you say it is so rich, colourful, visual and sensory. My favourite poem is ‘Ourstory’ by Carole Sutyamurti. It’s a beautifully sensual poem illustrating how we are all connected and part of a wider family, no matter where we originate from. If you go back far enough we are all family. It’s a beautiful direct meditation on how much we owe our mothers, all of our mothers. No matter what people try to tell us they never really fitted into the small space reserved for them, and neither should we. One day we will be buried together beneath the same soil.
You note where I write about the ghost sitting with me, yes, I do reference my mother a lot, I am glad you are looking forward to people perhaps discovering her in my works, this and future ones. I am happy that you are intrigued by the silences I mention and that you like the exploration of relationship in the line “chewed your way out”, yes I do start with teeth and end with teeth as you say, baring them at the beginning and sharpening them at the end. I like how you say the whole book is about me opening the curtains and saying hey this is my story and what are you going to do about it, a vulnerable belligerence...
It is my favourite of my own poems too: Medway Mermaid. I love its brevity, but also its teeth. You love the playful bite, the tease and the menace. I love that it explores the power of a sacred feminine symbol, and gives her voice centre stage. The river features in this book too. I know and love the Medway area well, but the consequence of spending more time here as an adult has led to me learning a lot more about it.
I had no idea for example that William Blake visited back in the day and was arrested on suspicion of being a French spy. The Blake society re-enacted this a few years ago. I came across this information completely by accident. I was so cross about not being able to attend the re-enactment that I wrote a poem (yeah that’ll show them ha-ha). Other poems were inspired by other things learnt about the area. I’m having it published as a riposte to the people who only know about Charles Dickens in Medway - there had been other interesting stories and people here too!
You seem to marry the realities of place with the mythical too, so that the two merge and the real seems enchanted and the unreal manifest. If there is any strange, dream-thing, it gets given wings, shells, feet, voices. Mermaids, snails, dockers - there are repeating motifs that will be wonderful to keep going back to - colours, especially blue, and curves and lines to read between... I am looking forward to diving into the shiny oil and disturbing the water and trying to dig up these treasures. Whom and what else influences your writing?
SMJ: Vonda McIntyre, the writer. She wrote many of the Star Trek novelizations, and I devoured these growing up before I read her work Fireflood and other stories. It was unlike anything I’d ever come across at the time.
I would say that many other writers inspire me, Angela Carter for her sheer audacity, Margaret Atwood for her precision. The music of Kate Bush with her startling and fluid imagery, and again her sheer audacity. Carol Ann Duffy and John Wilmot for their smart, sensual imagery, their ability to examine taboos. John Wilmot is an inspired writer, with more substance to his words than he is given credit for. The Brontes, for their attention to detail, honesty and desire to speak truth to power. I had no idea how subversive they were until I read them. I’d written them off as cosy. Absurd!
I’m inspired by mystics like Matthew Fox and William Blake, by the Pre-Raphaelites and their re-imagining of classical and Arthurian mythology. I’m inspired by academics such as Caitlin and John Matthews who have done so much to research native British and Celtic spirituality and mythology. I’m inspired a lot by the mythology, language and buried histories of my Irish heritage, and the wild Celtic mythologies of Ireland and Britain.
I’m inspired by my mother’s silences. There are many stories that she could tell me about the time she spent as a nurse, but that generation doesn’t really like to talk about their experiences. It’s a pity really, because she’s fascinating. She and my sisters left Ireland in the 1950s and travelled to England to train as nurses, and in the 1960s she travelled out to Africa. Northern Rhodesia as it was then called, had just gained its independence.
I’m inspired by people who have integrity, who have a vision of something and refuse to compromise the important aspects of it. Patrick McGoohan who created The Prisoner was a man of integrity, who trusted the audience to engage with the material he and his team produced.
Sarah, I sense that in you when I see you perform - a real powerful but sensitive engagement with the material and audience. Some of your own lines from your book, Fire in the Head sum up how I feel watching you - ‘the wind nudged by wings, slaps my face.’ Then we have, ‘she dreams and slowly spreads my dreams with her’ and then should we slip under the waves or dare to get romantic or nostalgic or too sentimental, you show us that ‘heft of the world’, the ‘monuments of pain’ till we are finally ‘anchored in sediment.’
SMJ: Thank you Angel. I do like performing but I prefer to write, as it’s an intimate time I have with the material. It’s one on one and I don’t have to worry about getting lost on my way to the gig, forgetting my lines, breathing wrong, tripping over the cables, getting lost on my way to the gig (did I mention that twice? I need to, yeah it happens a lot ha-ha, so thank goodness for smartphones...) I am part of a touring collaborative which arose as a consequence of wanting to spend more time with my friends! But also, I was quite self conscious about performing. Sam Rapp, Barry Fentiman Hall and Matt Chamberlain are part of the group. Matt, Sam and Barry can be marvellously supportive but they also challenge me to step outside of my comfort zone and to push myself in terms of what I can produce. But then we have a beer and its essentially just us having a laugh together.
I’ve found a lot of comfort in the company of other poets: we can be tremendously supportive of each other. We performed together as Invicted in London recently and it was lovely to travel together on the train and chat. We are all so different in style, but find a common bond being from or based in Medway. I’m biased I know but I think overall the standard of poetry in Medway rivals that of any other place.
An audience member and fellow performer told me straight after your book launch performance that you were wonderful - ‘she performed right out of her skin.’ I love that as it gives credence to the idea of you really being a Seal-Skin Woman or a Mermaid, and just coming onto the stage to do your thing. Perhaps that is why you trip on the cables, you are more used to wings and fins!
SMJ: I had a terrific time at the launch. Everything flowed so smoothly. If I am a mermaid then I definitely have a shoal of friends to swim out on the tide with. I love performing at Roundabout Nights, it attracts a warm and supportive crowd. It was standing room only, even on a dreary rainy night in November! With that kind of support, you can’t help but perform your very best. I think that everyone who shared their work was at the top of their game. I love how as a creative community we can come together and encourage one another to become the very best that we can. I think that this is only the beginning. There is so much more we can achieve.
I agree, Medway poetry is pretty inspired and magnificent. I would love to create some opportunities to specially showcase the Invicted poets. No doubt after watching that performance and reading your tremendous book, people are going to want to know more about you. Where does one find and track a Mermaid with magical metre and flowing hair?
SMJ: People can catch me at many literary events in Kent and the South East. I also perform nationally and internationally.
This season, I can be heard on the Mind the Gap audio anthologies, including the Confluence Audio Anthology.
Find out more:
Watch 'Medway Mermaid', a video produced by Thanet Writers
To quote a slightly insouciant mermaid, ‘So Long.’
It has been lovely chatting with you.
Gosh! Those awesome teeth!
(c) Interview by Angela C Dye, November 2018.
SM Jenkin performing at Fire in the Head launch, 28 November 2018