The scalpel design for Women in Horror Month may be an apt logo for my next guest. You will see how Zoe Mitchell deftly wields the charge edge of language to expose another layer of meaning.
When did you discover poetry and who/what influenced you?
I was quite young when I started reading poetry, I loved Roger McGough when I was little – I was obsessed with a book of his called Mr Noselighter about a man with a candle for a nose which, looking back, is mildly horrific but at the time I just loved the sound and rhythm of the words and what they added to the story. When I was a teenager I went through a phase where I would read Ted Hughes’ Crow poems over and over, and later I loved listening to Simon Armitage on the Mark and Lard show on Radio One. Other teenagers go through phases with bands, I did it with poets – and I’ve never looked back.
Why do you write poetry?
I write poetry to make sense of myself and the world. The creativity and various forms give me different ways to explore ideas, process experiences and communicate something that seems difficult to share in other ways.
Some women are born to work with knives.
Just as some must sing or stir their words, you
will stand behind them in the dark, their guilty
secret. They need the smallest eye you can cut
from a creature, they need the bloody shanks
to fill their blackened pots with magic.
They’ll say your arched back lacks music.
Your shoulder rotates to penetrate an innocent
or petty accuser on their behalf but they will not
let you dance. They can’t cauterize their disgust
at the ominous shapes you offer up to moonlight.
Your liberty lives only in the darkest corners
everyone else wilfully ignores. You’ll live your life
forever behind a half-open cupboard door –
everyone knows you’re there but no one wants
to acknowledge your steel. The words of women
cut deeper than the most pitiless dagger. And yet,
while men fret over herbs and muttered curses,
you can shatter bone. You will know your sisters
from the blood under their fingernails. Like you,
they have the soul of a surgeon, the eyes of a butcher.
Imagine the stealth of a mother with a sleeping child:
if you unearth our stories to anyone, she will advance
from her kitchen and cut out your tongue.
What do you think is the most difficult aspect in writing poetry?
Finding the form for each poem can be a challenge – although it’s always a joy when it emerges. When I start writing I never have any idea of the form or even of where I want the poem to go, so the first stage I just have a mass of scribbled text and then as I start editing and refining I usually get a sense of what the poem is really about and from there, the form starts to become clearer and I can start chipping away.
Do you explore particular themes? What are they and why?
I am fascinated by folklore and mythology, so that comes up a lot. I think those old stories have so much to teach us still. My debut poetry collection, Hag, features stories from Roman and Celtic mythology as well as witches and ghosts. I’m not quite sure of the “why” other than it is what interests me and what sparks my imagination. I think the overall theme of my book is survival – through heartbreak, destruction or despair – and it connects those ancient stories to modern lives as a way to express resilience. Although the poems often speak in the voices of supernatural creatures, my focus in the end is on what that tells us about our humanity.
What is it about dark (speculative) poetry that you think attracts people to read it?
I think it’s for the same reason that people write it – to make sense of the world. The element of fantasy provides a way to explore feelings and challenges that are otherwise difficult to address. After my Dad died, I wrote a long poem about an evil ghost train designer who made a ghost train to another dimension – if you’d asked me to write directly about my grief, I don’t think I could have faced it but I felt safer exploring those ideas in a fantasy world. In fact, at the time I didn’t realise how much I was processing my loss through the poem, I thought I was giving myself an escape and it was only later that I could see what I was doing. For readers, myself included, I think it’s the same thing – an escape in some ways, but also a chance to consider subjects and emotions that can be challenging to face head on. I think also there’s just the love of stories and language, how that sparks the imagination, and poetry can intensify that.
What projects (publications) are you working on or have coming up?
At the moment I’m working on a creative PhD about witches in women’s poetry. I’m studying female poets who have written as or about witches and I’m creating my second collection which is all about witches and powerful women. As a female writer, it’s a liberating topic and it gives you a huge breadth of subjects and scope to explore everything from politics to love. I love the mischievous quality of witches, which allows me to play with form and language. I have a year to go before I finish my PhD so that’s my primary focus, and in the meantime I keep sending out the poems I write to magazines to see if I can get my witches to wreak a little havoc!
You carry all the eyes
that ever saw a horror
or glanced upon a mirror
and bristle with ears
to catch every whisper
that insists it is about you.
You scent the trail
of smoke, lick the grit
of something rotten.
Everything that goes inside
your mouth is stirred
with sex and violence –
simmering chastity too.
Everything that touches
your insides follows you.
Each stained organ
is accumulating infection,
proof that you are animal.
You are made of skin
and trapped within,
pulled apart and screaming
for someone to rip out
the gristle of your heart.
Your body is a hex bag
and all the things inside
make up this curse:
you, wherever you go
Is there anything else you would like to mention about poetry and horror?
I have long kicked against this idea that horror – and any genre fiction or poetry – is somehow lesser than other literary forms. I like to think things are changing for the better now, and I think perhaps horror is finally getting the recognition it deserves because the themes are so appropriate for the sometimes terrifying times in which we live. I would say to anyone who was thinking of studying creative writing but afraid that they can’t write what they love, or that horror wouldn’t be taken seriously by a university, that it’s not been my experience at all. In more than one instance, my tutor has pushed me to make my poems darker and creepier, so you won’t be expected to write in a certain style or genre. I don’t think you need any qualifications to write, but it’s certainly helped me gain some confidence and the experience has transformed and improved my writing to the point where it’s now a career.
Zoe Mitchell is a widely-published poet whose work has been featured in a number of magazines including The Rialto, The London Magazine and The Moth. She graduated from the University of Chichester with an MA in Creative Writing and was awarded a Distinction and the Kate Betts Memorial Prize. She is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester, examining witches in women’s poetry. Her first collection, Hag, won the Indigo-First collection competition; it was published in 2019 by Indigo Dreams Publishing and is on the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker Award for superior achievement in a poetry collection.
You can order Zoe’s collection here: https://www.indigodreams.co.uk/zoe-mitchell/4594569914
Find out more about her writing on her website: www.writingbyzoe.com
Or drop her a line on twitter and say hello: @writingbyzoe