Interview with Bethany W. Pope, by Barbara O’Donnell

Bethany W Pope has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, for 2015 and 2016. She is an LBA Novel Competition winner, and a finalist for the Faulkner-Wisdom Awards, the Cinnamon Press Novel competition, and the Ink, Sweat and Tears poetry commission. She has been highly commended in the Poetry London Competition and placed in several other major poetry prizes. She has published three collections of poetry, A Radiance, Crown of Thorns and Undisturbed Circles, in addition to a chapbook, Gospel of Flies. Her work has been extensively published online, and in print, including in several anthologies. Her first novel, Masque, is forthcoming from Seren in 2016.

Bethany read at the Smock Alley Theatre on October 14th 2015, as part of the Tionscadal an Phreachain/Trickster Bird: The Crow Project – a multi-media IMRAM show featuring songs and poems in Irish, Scots and English.

What age were you when you began to write and what did you write?

When I was six years old I tried to dictate a novel to my father who typed it up on his ridiculously ancient computer. It was ancient even by the standards of 1989. We got into an argument over the font (I did not like the look of the spacing between the letters, but the computer was so primitive that it was impossible to change it) and both of us became frustrated and quit. It was my first editorial dispute. A few years after, I taught myself to type on a half-broken typewriter that I found at a garage sale for $2.50. I had to fill in several of the letters by hand (notably ‘e’ and ‘s’), but it got the job done. Over Christmas this year, my mother showed me my first ‘book’ of poems which she’d kept in her jewellery box for twenty-six years. I wrote it at about the same time as the aborted novel. The poems are all either overtly sexual (I was fixated on the shape of ladies bottoms) or highly religious (with a special emphasis on crucifixions). The poems were illustrated with drawings in coloured pencil. I also experimented with rhyme. Later, when I was twelve or thirteen, I wrote a great deal of poetry, partly as a means of escaping from and dealing with trauma. I sent one poem to the American fantasy author Piers Anthony and he was kind enough to write back and compliment me on it. He provided my first professional encouragement. After that point I wrote continuously, if secretly, until beginning my MA in Creative Writing.

You had a particularly traumatic childhood; at one point, your family voluntarily put you into an orphanage.  Do you get on with your family now? Have you been able to forgive them?

My parents sent me to the orphanage because my mother was very sick (she suffers from arachnoiditis; a chronic, continuously worsening neurological disease) and I was suffering from extreme anxiety as a result of PTSD and OCD. Our family situation was very bad, but there were other options. While I was in care, I was raped, and I witnessed some terrible, unforgettable acts of violence which darkened my own inner landscape. Forgiveness is a funny thing. I think that it is a process that is more beneficial to the person doing the forgiving than it is to the person or people who have enacted the wrong. I am working towards forgiveness so that I will not become bitter. I don’t believe that it is possible to be an artist and (at the same time) shrivelled with rage. It helps that my parents love me, and did not intend harm. They have expressed remorse. They support my vocation. We talk now. Not as frequently as most ‘normal’ families, and according to my own schedule and emotional state, but our relationships are improving as each of us grope our way towards self-awareness.

Your father is a practising minister in the Presbyterian church. Your own faith remains strong. How does it inform your writing?

Prayer can be described as the act of losing oneself in contemplation of (and surrender to) the spirit of the divine. I achieve that state through the composition of poetry. It is how I talk to God – even when the subjects of my poem are seemingly ungodly. When I write about the mythology of crows, or sex, or my time in the orphanage, I am engaging in the contemplation of the divine in the world. I am communicating with God. People with OCD tend to see patterns in the world around them. Most are nonsensical (it is a mental illness, after all) but sometimes the patterns are real, and sometimes I perceive them. People tend to follow mythical patterns in their behaviours and their lives. Some men re-enact Oedipus; some people live through the rape of Persephone. The myths rise up through the skin of the world, and when they do they illuminate the meaning in the mundane, seemingly chaotic, occasionally brutal events of our lives. I see God as a weaver, or a novelist, creating patterns (telling stories) that we glimpse in part but which we are too close to see as a whole. My use of formal, narrative acrostics is intended to reflect (in a small way) the deliberate complexity of the universe. I understand (and respect) that other people do not share this cosmic view, but it has enriched my work, my spiritual life, and given me more than a measure of joy, so it stands.

How do you think that young people can engage with faith in a way that is relevant to them today?

There are many roads to enlightenment. I’m trekking up one of them. I believe that finding a purpose (everyone has one, and none is too small to be discounted) is the first step. Search for personal meaning, then pursue the thing that brings it. My pursuit is single-minded, and that increases my fear and my doubt. That isn’t a bad thing. Fear and doubt are useful tools. Sniff around the roots of the question; test its strengths and weaknesses. If it topples under the pressure of your testing move along. The Presbyterian church toppled, for me. Southern culture toppled, for me. I found things to replace them. I have found that structure helps, in poetry and in worship. I attend high church Anglican services. I write formal poetry. As an aside, I am astonished at how frequently those two facts bring people to suspect that I am a political conservative instead of the raving liberal that I am in fact. Basically, everything in my life flows out of my metaphysical seeking. So the seeking (if a person is interested in seeking) should come first.

You thought about a career in Medicine at one point. What changed your mind and do you sometimes wonder if you made the right choice?

I started out in the pre-med course when I was an undergraduate. I worked for a veterinarian, performing surgeries on dogs while other people my age were attending high school or earning their GCSE’s. I had a knack for dissection and anatomy. I could neuter a dog in under three minutes (not including the time it took to administer the anaesthesia) and I enjoyed every aspect of that work, but although I was good at it, I was not challenged. I was bored by lab-work. In university, my professors told me that lab reports were not the place for poetic description. That was a pretty big clue. My family is fairly concerned with social status, and being an MD would have reflected well on them, but that has never been my priority. I can contribute more to the world through the work I am doing now. It is the duty of every person to try to push the edge of human knowledge forward, just a little. That attempt is a great source of joy. No, I don’t regret leaving a false field for one that is, for me, more fruitful. I do miss seeing the insides of things, though. I do spend a bit too much time on Manchester road, conversing with the halal butchers and parsing the innards of sheep.

The language of medicine shows up consistently in your writing. Is the nomenclature/perception of order that medical language can offer, what appeals?

I do not trust emotions, in poetry. I find that they can often be used clumsily, in a way that is meant to be overtly manipulative. I also love accuracy, precision, and I love the often Latinate words that accompany scientific descriptions. Image, narrative, and form are my primary interests and the occasional medical term can help crystalize those traits.

Your poetry collections show a progression from free form through to sonnet crowns and acrostic sestinas. What is the attraction of form for you?

I can see the entropic pattern of the universe repeated in formal poetry. I am attracted to cyclical forms, slowly shifting circles (the circle is one of mankind’s earliest, universal images of God) and I am interested in reflecting the complexity of the world around us. We look up and see galactic spirals (the larger form of the sonnet crowns which compose the books) we look down and see the double-helix spirals of our DNA (the acrostics framing the individual poems). I haven’t perfected my structures yet, but I’m working on it. Every book brings me just a little closer to creating a viable image of the visible world.

Why acrostic sestinas, over and above other forms?

Acrostic sestinas are the latest in a series of formal interests. I am trying to create the most formally complex work possible, which reads as easily as a novel. I would like to form stories that can be read straight, on a superficial examination, but which reveal more of themselves to the people who choose to look. Right now, I am combining deconstructed acrostic sestina-cycles with double-acrostic sonnet cycles, focusing on mythological themes. After a while, a new form will catch my eye. I will practice writing it in the traditional way until I can do so with confidence and without structural flaws. Then, I will experiment. I don’t know what that form will be, yet, or how it will contribute to my work as a whole. I have a few ideas.

Do you have a favourite form overall? 

No. Not yet. They are all so interesting. Right now, I’m working on acrostic sestinas. I don’t know what I will try tomorrow, or in the next couple of weeks.

What advice do you give to young writers starting out?

Keep writing, keep working. Keep trying to see your work objectively, so that you can understand its flaws and (hopefully) repair them. Rejection is painful, but it happens to everybody. Keep sending out those submissions. The acceptances will eventually start coming, and they make up for a lot of struggle. The quality of the work that you are producing must always come first, over and above your own ego, or your own view of what you deserve just for being yourself. Emotions can be generated by poetry, but they have no place in the writing of poetry. If you weep while you write, come back and try again when your eyes are dry and your brain is cool. You are writing the poems for the sake of the poem, not for the sake of your reputation. And finally, read constantly. Read fifty pages for every page that you write. Read five-hundred lines of poetry for every one of yours. Read widely, and don’t neglect books that are outside of ‘your’ genre. I read poetry, insatiably, and traditional literary novels. But I also read biology text books, psychology, fantasy, art history, physics and horror. You need fuel for the pump, grist for the mill, and the whole printed world is out there to provide it for you. Pick it up.

More about Bethany, including some of her work, here.