TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK – 7: SUSAN UTTING
Susan Utting was born in South London, moved twenty times in forty years, then settled, after a fashion, in Berkshire. Notions of home, identity and where she comes from frequently feature in her writing, and are explored in her most recent work, along with the shifting lives of other women. After a patchy education (she failed the 11+) and a series of undemanding jobs, she was persuaded by an employer to apply to Reading University to read English. She gained a first-class degree, went on to study Creative Writing at Sussex University, which she then taught at Reading for more than 17 years.
Susan’s awards include an Arts Council Laureateship, a Poetry Business Prize, The Berkshire Poetry Prize, The Peterloo Prize, and a writing fellowship at Reading’s School of English and American Literature. Last year she was a winner in the Bristol International Short Story Competition. Her poems have been widely published, including in The Times, TLS, The Independent, Forward Book of Poetry, The Poetry Review and Poems on the Underground. Her work was selected by the London Poetry Library to be recorded for Poetry International at the South Bank Centre, where it was broadcast with various international poets’ work. Her latest Two Rivers Press collection, Half the Human Race, follows and includes selections from three earlier books: Striptease (Smith/Doorstop), Houses Without Walls and Fair’s Fair (Two Rivers Press).
Susan Utting writes:
Some time ago I was asked to say in no more than twenty words, where my poems came from. I said: ‘from an itch at the solar-plexus, a corner of my mind’s eye, or in through my ear like insistent music’. A lot has happened to me and my writing since then, but the answer still stands. A poem’s imminent generation is physical: an itch, a glimpse; and I have always had a love of the sounds of words, their musicality. As a pre-reading child I would repeat in my head like a chant a new word or phrase I liked the sound of cylinder, Hollander, colander kiosk for example, as quoted in my poem Catechism. When I began to learn the meanings of words, that a word could have more than one meaning, it felt like magic. I did live ‘in a place with beech in its name’ and the fact that that word (all this before I knew about spelling) could be a tree as well as a stony place by the sea at Brighton where my grandparents lived, was a revelation.
My poems have to sound good, out loud and in my head, and be rhythmical too. Rhythm is natural to me: it’s simply the way words emerge. I grew up with the rhythms of dance – my parents taught ballroom dancing. My mother was a talented all-round dancer – which I think may explain this.
I was delighted when the poet-reviewer Philip Gross wrote: ‘Utting unashamedly loves language…’ I do. I love the meanings and subtleties of language, the varieties of what words really mean, have come to mean, can mean and also mean – all those correlations and resonances. One of my most treasured reference books is a dictionary of etymology. I enjoy finding and making new connections between disparate words, ideas and narratives. E. M. Forster’s ‘only connect’ is a phrase frequently in my mind.
I have always striven for clarity in all my writing, but I think we can respond to a poem on an emotional level without necessarily understanding every word, every notion or image. If it engages us on first reading, intrigues or moves us in some way, we will read and re-read it, live with its language, imagery, rhythms and cadences. I believe that all poetry should be accessible, eventually.
Over the years my work has explored many areas of experience, many topics of fascination. When I first began performing my poetry I was described as a feminist poet. Though I would prefer the term ‘womanist’, I think engaging with, examining and showing the lives and situations of women has been a constant in my work. That became clear while putting together a New & Selected: ‘the lives of women, particularly those who are too often overlooked, unseen, hidden or silenced’. I want to make those all-important connections, to understand the lives of others while examining my own. I write poems in an effort to unpick the tangle of ideas and memories, of emotions and preoccupations in my head. Making patterns of words on a page is the best and most pleasurable way I know of doing it.
REPORT TO THE DEPARTMENT OF AUDIOLOGY
My skin is glass paper, a gravelly rub, the tips
of my fingers are match heads; my leg-bones
click-clack, syncopate to the floorboards, their
whiplash and skitter. Stairs are a tap-dance,
metal-tipped; there’s a hum I’d forgotten,
a knock I can’t place, music I don’t remember.
I swallow; there’s an echo, liquid as liquid,
then high at the back, the plumbing’s hi-hatting,
tom-tomming. And my voice! It’s a reedy song
– hush-hush it, girl, save it for later –
For now, plastic bags are maracas, tap water’s
Niagara, the plughole’s a Looney Toons glug.
Outside, I’m eavesdropping the world,
its chirrup and whoosh, its overhead roar,
its ten o’clock wail, tittle-tattle, its holler
and clank. A single magpie: its dirty croak
is a joy. I scratch an itch and my fingernails
thrill, I’m alight with the noise of myself.
At the flick of a switch I was wired.
Now I’ve fallen, coup de foudre, a sucker
– go on, say it, girl! out loud! – a lover
of sound, head-over-heels with cacophony.
[from Half the Human Race: New & Selected Poems]
HOW TO BE INVISIBLE
Wear a headscarf, long wool skirt, solid boots.
Sit on a folding canvas stool in the precinct
where the people flow and spend; unfold
a blanket like a river over your knees.
Bear the fine rain, horizontal wind, smile,
drift, be here but elsewhere: stretch a blanket
like an ocean over your sleeping daughters,
your one son, hum the song that soothes,
keep the words you know by heart, inside,
synchronise your breath with theirs, soft,
softer still, tuck the blanket tighter, closer;
dare to daydream home.
[First published in Poetry & All that Jazz (2019)]