Author and poet Sophie Hannah on poetry and dealing with the dark side

A couple years ago, when I was still working at O, The Oprah Magazine SA, I was lucky enough to interview the British psychological crime writer and poet Sophie Hannah about the books that made a difference to her life. In this transcript of unused material, she discusses writing about the dark side, and the poetry collection that made her decide to write poems about contemporary issues of the heart…

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I’ve always written both mystery fiction and poetry. The two were always side by side; I’d write poetry one day, fiction the next. But I got published as a poet first. And I think my poetry became mature much sooner than my fiction did. I mean, I remember a moment when I wrote a poem and thought, ‘That’s significantly better than anything I’ve written before. I’ve turned a corner.’ And from that moment onwards my poetry was on a certain level. At that point, my fiction was certainly nowhere near. Perhaps it’s because you need to write a certain number of bad poems and novels before you can write a good one. And it just takes so much longer to write a novel than a poem.

Wendy Cope is my favourite living poet. When I read her poetry for the first time, it really was a eureka moment, because I’d been studying poets like TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, DH Lawrence and Ted Hughes at university. They wrote serious nature poems or serious fragmented modernist poems. While I could see there was literary merit in it, I could also see that it was not the sort of thing I would ever read for fun. I would never take The Waste Land and lie on a beach reading it. Round the same time, my mum bought me Wendy Cope’s first collection, which was called Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, and was full of poems about relationships and the urban modern world. I mean, she writes about things like the difficulty of finding the perfect parking space and what to do if your boyfriend turns up without a bunch of flowers, saying he nearly bought you a bunch of flowers but decided not to… all these kind of things that I identified to and related to real life. All this other poetry I’d been reading didn’t have anything to do with my life, and it didn’t seem particularly enjoyable to read. So this collection made me realise that I could actually be a poet, writing the kinds of things I was actually interested in. Previously, I’d imagined that if I wanted to be a poet I would have to stop writing what I wanted to write about and instead write about windswept moors and dead sheep… that sort of thing.

At the same time, I discovered the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. She’s probably my favourite dead poet. I discovered her collected sonnets in the library, and it was a huge eye-opener. Her poems are all about love and broken hearts and dodgy boyfriends, basically. It felt such a coincidence, because I’d always written poems about my love life. The Edna St. Vincent Millay Collected Poems was a hugely significant book for me, and I kept it out from the uni library for the three years I was there. I just kept renewing it. Nobody wanted to take it out other than me because she wasn’t on the poetry course. She wasn’t considered high-brow enough, because she writes rhyming metrical poetry about love. At the time I studied, it was about the most unfashionable type of poem you could write. The sonnets are all 14 lines and they’re brilliant. There’s one that begins. “Time does not being relief; you all have lied…” Basically someone has told her that it she gives it time, she’ll get over a man. But she’s given it time, and has avoided all the places that remind her of him. Yet every time she goes to a place that has nothing to do with him, she stands there and thinks ‘This has nothing to do with him,’ and then thinks of him anyway. That’s paraphrasing, but it’s an absolutely brilliant poem. All her poems, although they’re written in slightly archaic language, are about emotions that everyone recognises. I think she’s much better than TS Eliot.

For me, a poem has to be musical. It has to work in the same way that a song works. Think of a piece of music: You hear the beginning and it creates that expectation, so you want to hear the rest. You get hooked at the level of melody or music. For me, the most important thing when it comes to writing a poem is ensuring there’s as much music in it as there can be. That’s where the bestselling album at any given time will sell millions of copies, because music is something you wouldn’t want to live without. Now, a lot more people will quite happily live without poetry, and I think that’s because so much poetry that is being written now doesn’t have that kind of melody. Rhyme is quite unfashionable, traditional metrical forms are unfashionable. But why can’t you use rhyme and metre in a non-old-fashioned way? I mean, you can. I do. Wendy Cope does, as well as a few others, so it can be done. But a lot of people think there’s that danger that a rhyming poem will be “Thou art my one true love, sent to me from heaven above.” They throw the baby out with the water, thinking that rhyme and metre have to mean that kind of archaic poetry. They don’t at all. So I tell new poets to try and make sure there is music within their poems. It’s quite hard to do, because poetry isn’t a musical form. How do you do it? Well, that’s the key. I can’t explain how you do, but if you try to do it…you will write a better poem.

A poem I wrote that I’m rather attached to is called ‘In the Chill’. It’s a love poem, and the rhyme and metre is very traditional. It’s made up of four verses of four lines, so 16 lines in total. It looks like an old-fashioned poem and it even uses seasonal imagery to talk about love blossoming and so on, but it is absolutely a contemporary poem and it expresses exactly what I wanted to express about my feelings at that time. It came out almost fully formed; I didn’t need to labour over it. And you don’t have to be a poetry person to love it.

There are some people, who, as long as their lives continue to be safe and happy and reasonably normal, just don’t think of the dark side, as if it doesn’t exist. But I’ve always been quite aware that all the good stuff in life is sitting very close to all the bad stuff. You can be sitting on the train and reading a novel on your way to meet friends for lunch, and next to you the person could have lost their whole family in a house fire. Or someone commits a crime and all the neighbours say, “Oh, he seemed so lovely and polite.” That dark side and the danger of people who aren’t quite who they seem to be is always there. My preferred response is to tackle the darkness in books, because I can’t pretend it’s not there. And once I’ve got it out of my system, then I can be jolly and happy. People are often surprised when they meet me: While my books are quite sinister and dark, I’m happy and chatty. They say, “How can you write those books?” A lot of it is a kind of therapy, a way of processing the negative things that comes up in life.

Funnily enough I don’t, I don’t creep myself when writing my novels. I find other people’s books scary, but with my own, I’m usually thinking, ‘Should I say silver or should I say silvery,’ in terms of the glint that is coming off the psychopath’s knife. If you’re focusing on that level, it’s hard to find it scary. Plus, you know you’re making it all up.

I never get scared when doing background research, either; it’s just so fascinating. For the scary parts of novels or films to be scary, you have to be caught up in the pretence; pretend that it’s all real. The creator of the work can never be caught up in that, because they are creating it.

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Sophie Hannah’s latest novel, The Narrow Bed (Hodder & Stoughton) was released in the UK this week.

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