‘I’m a scientist for goodness sake.’ | Interview with Char March

'I’m a scientist for goodness sake.' | Interview with Char March

Char March grew up in Scotland’s run-down industrial belt in the 1960s, lived in West Yorkshire for decades, and now divides her time between Loughborough and Lochaber.

She is a multi-award-winning author, with five poetry collections, six BBC Radio 4 dramas, eight stage plays, a screenplay and a short story collection to her name, as well as creative non-fiction. She lectures at universities throughout the north, and has served as a writer-in-residence across the UK and Europe.

Her new collection, Full Stops in Winter Branches, was published by Valley Press in November 2018.

Who are your biggest poetic influences, and how do they influence your own work?

Oh crikey, I should have anticipated that question, and now I feel like a rabbit in the headlights! Caroline Bird, Ian Duhig, Valerie Laws, Gaia Holmes, Carole Bromley – I admire their poetry. I don’t try and emulate them, or write on similar themes, or styles – more often, it’s that I’ll read something of theirs that re-excites my interest in poetry. Their work makes me think “Yes, this is worth doing!” I’m currently reading Gaia Holmes latest collection, ‘Where The Road Runs Out’ and I find myself astonished, delighted and moved every time I turn a page.

Ian Duhig set up a poetry booth in Bradford library where I regularly attended an open mic – this must have been 25 years ago or so. He invited people to bring one poem along and get critique, so I went along. As soon as I got into the booth he astonished me by saying, “I love your work, and I’ve been meaning to invite you along to this poetry group I’m in for ages.” I didn’t think anybody would have read anything of mine! Let alone Ian Duhig to be coming out with this! I was absolutely astonished, and very grateful. He invited me to join a group of English lecturers at the University of Leeds, and we met every month. We’d take along one poem and get criticism from the others on the poem. I was absolutely poo-ing myself when I first went along. I just thought, “Who am I to be going along to this?! I know nothing!” I’m a scientist for goodness sake, I have a science degree! I came into creative writing completely by chance, and here are all these people who’ve read everything, and lecture in English Literature! I was the only woman, and they were all a bit older than me. It was completely terrifying! I thought they would laugh me out, but they never did! So I always held Ian close in my heart after that. I attended that group in Leeds for years. That was a big influence, someone as impressive as Ian, who had seen my work and knew who I was, I couldn’t believe it. It really showed me the power of someone who is well-known taking someone like myself under their wing. I’ve tried to emulate that with other poets over the years.  I think you should give something back.

Your most recent collection ‘Full Stops In Winter Branches’ was published in December last year by Valley Press, how did the process for that collection come about?

My previous collection, ‘The Thousand Natural Shocks’ definitely had a theme. It was about looking at different types of disability. I was born disabled, and I have worked on disability rights throughout my life. So I’ve been in contact with lots of people with different disabilities, hence the title. Whereas ‘Full Stops’ wasn’t themed. I had written a lot, had a lot of commissions, and had a lot published in anthologies, litmags, etc since ‘TTNS’. So I had a large and diverse body of work sitting there that I knew was good quality but I dragged my feet over bringing out another collection. So it was bullying by friends – nice bullying! ‘For goodness sake Char you haven’t had a collection out in ages – put a collection together!” To be honest, I was reluctant because, being disabled, I only have a limited amount of energy. And I know how hard it is to take a collection on the road and do all the gigs to plug it. Travelling around the literature circuit, even setting up the gigs in the first place, takes a lot of effort. I thought, I’ve been there done that, and do I really want to go through all that again? ‘Full stops’ is my fifth collection after all. But of course, if you have a collection published, you have to do all that stuff to promote it. I’m sounding really ungrateful, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful at all! ?

I think it’s a beautiful production – we really are lucky to have so many really good, committed, small poetry publishers and they’re all realising that you’ve got to make a very good job of the visuals and design of the books – as well as the superb poems inside of course! – to enable them to sell. 

It is funny though, when I’m talking to new writers they all seem to think I’ve got it made! One, that I will be rich, which is laughable! You don’t make any money with poetry! Second, that I’ll constantly be approached by people all over the world asking me to read my stuff, but of course you’re not! There are so many writers out there, all wanting to be heard, and you have to work at it. You have to do a lot of self-promotion. I have to be good at that. I hate it, but I have to be good at it. So I eventually bowed to pressure from my friends and gathered together a whole heap of possible poems for a new collection.

I found the task of deciding what should go into ‘Full Stops’ a bit overwhelming. I asked a few trusted poet friends to read the heap of possibles, and to put them into Definitely, Maybe and No piles. But then of course, each poet’s piles were different! And my own piles were different from theirs! So there’s always a juggling act in that initial sort through.

My publisher – Valley Press – asked whom I’d like as my editor, and I asked for Carole Bromley, a poet whose work I really admire, and she’s also very business-like, and I mean this in the nicest possible way. She doesn’t take any prisoners and she takes the work very seriously. She doesn’t go all poetic on you. I really appreciate that as I’m a very practical down-to-earth person. I approached Carole to see if she was prepared to be my editor for ‘Full Stops’. She was delighted, which I was amazed at!

I went over to her house and I was shaking like a leaf when I was knocking on her door, thinking, “Who do I think I am?” I just thought Carole would say, “You could possibly get a pamphlet out from these poems”. But the first thing she said when she opened the door was “That’s been an absolute pleasure reading them” or something like that. We sat down at her dining table – I hadn’t stopped shaking at this point, and was trying to appear all professional! Carole started going through my poems, and I thought, “Here we go, here’s the great big No pile” but she just kept going through saying, “This is fantastic” etc.

I work with a lot of writers one-to-one as a mentor, and I always try to find positives within work that needs a lot more work on it. I’m forever writing, Great; Triple Tick; I love this line; etc. And that’s how Carole treated me. It’s always very heartening when somebody else uses your techniques on you! It felt like I am doing something right with the people I am mentoring. She was also very, very straightforward. She had a small pile, six or seven, and she said “These have let you down”. She pushed them over to me and I glanced through them and thought, “Yes absolutely!” 

The most important thing was that Carole took my work seriously, and really liked it. That was massive! The next most important thing, which I have to admit, I’ve never paid any attention to previously, is the order in which she put the poems. I did change the order a fair amount after Carole worked on it because of various different things… but she chose the first poem ‘An enthusiasm’, and I would never in a million years have chosen to put that first. And yet – since it’s been published – I’ve had no end of people writing to me saying that they love that first poem and that it set them reading (and buying) the whole thing. Carole said, “I think this poem sets the tone for the rest of the book. It’s very well structured and full of humour”. She went on, “There’s some dark stuff in here, but you always have an edge to allow people in, and to let readers know that you’re being a bit wry about things.” That was really fascinating, to see how she thought things could go together. She went through it page by page. I never paid attention to the order of poems in my previous collections, because I don’t read collections like that, from beginning to end. I tend to dip in randomly. Also I’ll look at the contents list and see which titles I like the sound of and read those first. So I said to Carole, “I don’t think the order really matters”, and she said “Yes it does! Readers take it seriously, and critics take it seriously. It shows you are taking your poetry seriously, it forms a satisfying read from beginning to end.” She forced me to step up, which was really good. It was fascinating, and I’ll definitely take it seriously in the future – with my own work, and in my editing and mentoring work with other writers.

You studied Environmental Sciences, has that foregrounded your work in any way? Have the two things come together?

I was Writer-in-Residence for the Pennine Watershed – a huge and complex 3-year Lottery-funded Landscape Project. It was lovely that my office for the year was the moors behind where I lived in Hebden Bridge. I was able to see the moors not just from a poet’s point of view but also from hydrological, botanical, geological, soil chemistry points of view. I knew the types of vegetation and peat land. That’s what I studied all those years before. 

Science is definitely a thread that runs through my work. When I’m working with my poets who are writing, for instance, nature poetry, I find it so irritating when they are talk about plants or animals and set them in particular month, for example, when you would never see those particular plants or animals! I think, “Do your bloody research!” OK, it might be a poem, but anybody reading it with any knowledge of the natural world, will dismiss your poem, because you’ve not bothered finding out that cowslips aren’t in bloom in September. I was editing a poetry collection for a young writer a few months ago, and she’d got fireflies in Scotland. Scotland has midges, but no fireflies. I said, if you really want fireflies in poem, then set it in America where the fireflies are. And if you want to set your poem in Scotland, talk about the midges, or the clegs. She kept going on and on about, “It’s just poetic!”. I’m sorry, no, it’s not! It’s wrong and inaccurate! Maybe you could talk about the sunlight catching the midges to make them look like fireflies, but why introduce a species that isn’t there? I’m a bit practical about that sort of thing. Hence the rat poem, the pigeon poem, the salmon and dragonfly poem in ‘Full Stops’. I sincerely hope they are all very accurate! Someone will probably write in after your article and say, “There’s so many mistakes!”

You do a lot of work with schools, universities, and residencies in places that poets don’t always venture like a business school. Does that have an effect on your writing process? Do you like taking a challenge and going to places that are slightly unusual?

I don’t actually work in schools very much, I love working with children, but I hated school. I was bullied very badly and I really dislike working in schools. I think they are dreadful places and that the system crushes the creativity out of anyone there. I love working with kids, I love their enthusiasm, their preparedness to do anything, to try anything, to come up with mad ideas, to be creative or be damned! That is fabulous. So if I’m asked to work with children, I insist that it isn’t in the school itself – I love taking them out into a country park, an art gallery, a market, just get them out of school and away from all those bells and that strait-jacket of a curriculum.

I’ve done all sorts of residences, including the University of Hull Business School. As a result of that I went to work in Latvia, at Riga Business School, and in Brussels. I also had some work at a Slovakian business school. But sadly my partner was diagnosed with breast cancer, so I had to cancel going there. What I love is opening people’s minds to how creativity might work for them. 

When I worked at Hull University Business School, I created this rather pompous title for myself, ‘Creative Coach’. I thought, “That’s what I’m doing, I’m not doing creative writing as such.” For instance, I worked with their PR department to look at how they could make their brochure entice students from all over the world, and be more interesting to reflect what the business school was doing. The whole university and business school were doing incredibly innovative things. I got them to design it as if all the potential students were four years old. They came up with a scratch and sniff brochure, with lots of bright pictures in, with different textures and textiles, and pages that made daft noises when you opened them. They had an absolute ball working on it, and learnt a huge amount about themselves, their organisation and how to communicate more creatively. They were never going to produce that exact brochure – it would never have got through the strict university system! What it did was break up their thinking and make them think “Yes, of course, there’s a much better way of presenting that idea.” We looked at lots of other universities’ brochures, and they were all the same, so our work together was a way of them acknowledging that they were already being creative, and that they could show that by making their public face non-standard, creative and fun. 

I also did things like taking the very pompous mission statement from the business school. I cut out all these words that kept recurring, all this gobbledy-gook, and laid them all out, like fridge sets of Shakespeare’s words. Then I set the lecturers the task of writing a love poem, using almost nothing but these words. It could be a love poem to the business school, to their secretary (not a sexual love poem – a thank-you love poem!), to their students… whatever they wanted to do, but it had to be a love poem. Then they had to perform it. We videoed it, and the videos were shown around the university. They even made posters of the poems and put them up along the corridors. It improved relationships a lot between academics and students, and academics and admin staff, and it got people talking – and writing – in new ways, and thinking about what creativity is, and how it can help.

What are you reading at the minute?

That’s easy! I’m reading Gaia Holmes’s poetry collection ‘Where the road runs out’ and Ian Humphrey’s debut collection ‘Zebra’ which is also great. I’m also reading, ‘Prisoners of Geography: ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics. And I’m gobbling down the Martin Beck series of Swedish detective novels written in the 1960s by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – I’ve no idea why they’re so addictive, but they are! I’m always reading at least a couple of poetry collections or anthologies, a non-fiction book, and a novel at any one time. And I also listen to audio books every night cos I’m not a great sleeper.

Where can readers find your work?

Facebook – Here

Website – here

Char March’s latest collection can be purchased here or direct from her – contact her via her website.

Due to an increase in submissions we are now closed for new submissions for the Poem of the week, Unbound and New Voices section of the website. We will still accepting interview, essay and article proposals. Check out the website for future updates.

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