Tell Tell Poetry discusses the Project Book and Submissions with Martha Sprackland
Martha Sprackland’s debut poetry collection explores the life of the 16th century queen, Juana of Castille and moves between central Spain hundreds of years ago and a contemporary northwest coast of England. Ilya Kaminsky raved about the collection, saying, “so much fire comes to life in snapshots on these pages . . . The images are electrifying.”
Martha Sprackland is a writer, editor and translator from Merseyside. She was co-founder and poetry editor of Cake magazine, was assistant poetry editor for Faber & Faber, and is one of the founding editors of multilingual arts magazine La Errante which is based in Madrid. From 2018 to 2021 she was an editor for Poetry London. Her poetry, essays and reviews have appeared in Poetry Review, London Review of Books, Five Dials, the Guardian, New Humanist, Magma, Poetry London and many other places. Martha’s debut chapbook, Glass As Broken Glass, was published by Rack Press in 2017; a second chapbook, Milk Tooth, was published by Rough Trade Books in 2018 and shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award. Her debut collection, Citadel, was published by Pavilion Poetry in 2020, and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Costa Poetry Award.
Tell Tell Poetry Interview Transcript with Marth Sprackland
Layla Benitez-James: Hey there, this is Layla Benitez-James for Tell Tell Poetry and today we are talking with Martha Sprackland. Martha Sprackland is a writer, editor, and translator from Merseyside. She was co-founder and poetry editor of Cake Magazine, was assistant poetry editor for Faber and Faber, and is one of the founding editors of the multi-lingual arts magazine La Errante, which is based in Madrid. From 2018 to 2021 she was an editor for Poetry London. And her own poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Poetry Review, Poetry Review of Books, Five Dials, The Guardian, New Humanist, Magma, Poetry London, and many other places. Martha’s debut chapbook, Glass as Broken Glass was published by Rack Press in 2017 and a second chapbook, Milk Tooth was published by Rough Trade Books in 2018 and shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award. Her debut collection, Citadel which we’ll be talking about today and I have here, was published by Pavilion Poetry in 2020 and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Costa Poetry Award. Martha, thank you so much for joining Tell Tell Poetry today.
Martha Sprackland: Oh, thanks for having me, Layla, it’s such fun.
LBJ: So, I loved Citadel and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what we might call a project book or research-driven books and collections that have that really strong narrative thread running through them and pull from history. And in another interview, you mentioned that Juana, this main character, one of the characters, for many years occupied a room in your mind. And so I would just love to start by asking you about the mechanics of writing this kind of book and how it obsessed you or how did you start with this project?
MS: So, as I must’ve mentioned I suppose several times elsewhere, Juana’s life has always captured me and obsessed me and, in many ways, you know, disturbed me as well, she had a very painful and difficult life. And one that I don’t sort of claim to identify with in any particular way, more, you know, this is a woman whose voice I long wanted to hear and who left almost no writing of her own. So, hearing that voice felt very difficult and I just wanted to enter into some conversation with her, really. You know, not to ventriloquize her or to take that voice as my own, but just to dialogue with her, just to meet her, you know? And I suppose, so Juana was alive in the 16th century, she was a 16th century queen. And there were moments where it was very tempting to go very deep into research, to do the kind of research that I would’ve done if I were writing what I think of as a serious book, a serious non-fiction book perhaps. In which I think I would have felt a far greater responsibility to fact. To the fact of the people around Juana and the dates and times and places and verifiable information. And really what I wanted to do here was to imagine and to create some alternatives for Juana, in the imagination that she could’ve lived into, you know, she was imprisoned for half of her life. And in some small ways, with some small gesture, I think I was trying to give her some other options, you know? To give her some other imaginings.
LBJ: And what did that process look like? When you were researching, did you write too much and pare it back or was it pretty easy to find that balance? I mean, we have the Martha in the collection and Juana having these almost telephone conversations, how did you strike that balance? Was there a lot of cutting and rearranging that you had to do?
MS: Yes, it was a slightly strange process, actually. Originally I had a manuscript for a first book, for a debut, under contract. And it looked very different to, or it looked quite different, to Citadel as it eventually emerged. I was working with my wonderful editor Deryn at Pavilion Poetry. And she, as is the way, gave me some feedback and asked me to go away and finish off the writing, and to resubmit my final version a couple of months later. And in that couple of months I was in Madrid. And I was really struggling to write. I was struggling to write personally, personal poems, I was struggling to write anything particularly close to me, and I was a bit frustrated by that. I felt like I was holding things at a remove and performing something quite surface in some way. And I don’t think that I succeeded in writing more personal poems, but the attempt to do that part of this dialogue with Juana, this imagined dialogue meant that suddenly I was able to talk about, I suppose fear and memory and place and trauma and ideas of entrapment and release. I was able to talk about all of these things with much greater ease through talking them through with Juana. And I wrote forty or fifty poems in very quick succession in about two months. And it very quickly became obvious to me that this was going to be the book. And that I was going to have to persuade Pavilion and persuade my editor that this is what I wanted to do. So in the end only a small handful of poems from that original manuscript came through into Citadel as it now stands. And the heart of the work, the core of the book is all Juana and that all happened in a very, very short period of time about two years ago in Madrid.
LBJ: Yeah, that seems like an incredible output. You know, it’s National Poetry Month in the US and so a lot of people are doing a poem a day, but yeah that seems like a really condensed period of output.
MS: Yeah. I mean, you know, I don’t want to give the impression that that’s how I usually write. You know, I’m not at all that prolific, it was a strange and sort of extraordinary thing to happen that hasn’t happened since.
LBJ: Well yeah, I mean, if somebody has a story, some outside person’s story, do you have any advice if they get obsessed of how to write into somebody’s story and then still have that balance? Or do you think that it’s a bit, everyone has to have that fire lit and just have those condensed two months?
MS: Ooh, that’s a difficult question, isn’t it? I think it depends on what that blockage is, perhaps? You know, on what the reason is. The reasons that we might not be writing about something, about something close to us or something difficult for us. It could be for a number of reasons. It could be related to shame or, some sort of fear of judgment, or it might be politically difficult or, we might just be struggling to find the right form to say it. And so it’s hard to know whether there is sort of a trick to it. If there is a trick to it, it’s one that’s only worked once for me so far. But I do think there was something particular in the nature of the project, which was this attempt to imagine what it might be like to communicate that, once I had this interlocutor in Juana that I trusted and . . . Trusted, yeah, I suppose that’s an interesting way of putting it. I suppose there was something in it that gave me another channel. It wasn’t as if I was writing this book for publication anymore or trying to say things that were true even necessarily because, you know, it’s not necessarily autobiographical, this book, you know? I think it just offered another channel for that speech that previously I’d found blocked. I don’t know. Gosh, that’s not a very helpful answer.
LBJ: No, it’s good, I mean, I think sometimes people just have to find their own way and their own obsessions. I mean, what you were just saying made me think of the poem “Juana and Martha in Therapy” where you talk about the string and about the cord a lot. And there’s one line where you say, “it stretches five centuries and is desperate to forget but the two must stay on the line, must work together thereto escape and write this.” And so there’s an idea that it’s the Martha in the book and this person have to work together to be able to tell their collective story even if it ends up being fragmented. I was going to mention writing about trauma. And yeah, I wanted to ask you about the mechanical choices. I think in this book in particular it seems like the fragment is a big part of how to write into trauma. But also the image, there’s a lot of cords and a lot of eggs. And it seems like having an image move through the whole collection is one of the things that you’re playing with. I don’t know if that was a conscious thing that happened later or if you were aware of that the whole time.
MS: Probably a little bit of both, I think. Yeah, I agree with you. There are some sort of obsessive motifs, the cord and eggs and blood and things like that. And I think part of that is just that, I mean, you know, I’m a very obsessive person and a very anxious person, and I think I’m fascinated by the ways in which trauma creates obsessions. Particularly the ways in which trauma creates forgetting, you know? It may erase an event, it may erase everything at the epicenter of a traumatic moment, and it’s this incredible impulse on the part of the mind, isn’t it? That sometimes something terrible that happens is sort of expunged from the conscious memory in this incredible act of self-preservation. And it works, you know? It allows the person in some cases to walk free of that moment without having to carry it on the surface all the time. But I think it’s impossible for the mind to eradicate every scrap, you know? And it leaves behind these traces. And they’re often words or images. And I think, the mind being the obsessive thing it is, you circle back and you circle back and you circle back. And I think that’s so much of what we do as poets, something captures our attention and it’s often something quite visual something quite tactile, something you can taste or smell, and in writing a poem you sort of circle back again and again, we loop back and we try again to fit it. We try again to explain what we mean. We have another go, we keep trying. And that’s all that this sort of buildup of metaphor and simile and comparison and bringing together of things is, it’s a sort of attempt to say, an attempt to ask, you know, what is this thing? Where does it come from? What does it mean? There’s a trace of something else, and I want to dig and find what else is, what it connects to underground. I want to find out what’s underground when all I can see is this small part on the surface. So yeah, there are these images that recur. And I didn’t insert them after the event. I didn’t add them in later, intentionally in order to pull the pieces together. But as I was laying everything out, of course I noticed. I noticed these, found these repetitions and at that stage, once that first surge of intense, productive writing time was over and I was editing and thinking more carefully, I did try and do some work to clarify where I thought they connected and to sort of clear the ground around those images a little bit in order to let them run through. Run through the poems and recur, you know? I want them to be noticeable because they’ve mattered to me, I suppose.
LBJ: Yeah, and what does that process look like for you physically? Are you more editing, can you see the big picture if it’s all on your computer? Or are you physically printing everything out and shuffling it around or pasting it on the wall?
MS: Yeah, I’m very, maybe old school, I don’t know, but certainly visual, I’m very visual. I tend to write on paper in the first instance anyway. And then only move into computer drafts after that. But yeah, when it comes time to curate, you know, to create a narrative out of disparate poems, disparate pieces, I think I’d find it very difficult to do that without some floor space, you know? So I would print them out and, when I’m editing, actually, that’s how I tend to work. It will go through a couple of drafts on the computer and then I need to print it out on paper and work over the lines with pencil and type it up again. It’s quite a laborious way of doing it but I think otherwise, yeah, I’m a bit sluggish. I need that very determined process, but yeah. Then I will literally lay the pieces out on the floor, and I’m sure lots of poets do this and sort of loom over them horribly, moving things around and scribbling arrows and bits of connective material. And often, I remember with “Citadel” actually, just as I was in the very final stages of it, and I had all of the pieces laid out on the floor on bits of A4 paper. And I could see that there were three or four gaps. You know, there were places where I felt that there should be a poem and it just didn’t exist, you know? So I had blank pieces of paper in two or three places. And I think writing those last poems was actually, it synthesized the whole thing. Once I had the overview, I could tell what was missing and I was able to fill in those three gaps. And I think I would’ve found that a lot harder to do if I’d been working on the computer. Yeah, I think I needed to see it, to see the line running left to right.
LBJ: And did you mean that you typed them up again, like you print them out, make notes, and then type them up from fresh or do you go in and make the corrections?
MS: Oh. It depends how extensive they are. I mean, in the early stages of the poem I’ll rewrite the entire thing from scratch. I think there’s something about the iterative process of writing a line out, you know, whether that’s by hand or on a computer, it doesn’t really matter, I don’t think, that is editing. I think even if I’d only made perhaps five or ten small marks on a poem, I would be inclined to start again with the typing from the beginning.
LBJ: That’s great, yeah.
MS: Because you will make changes, you know? Even if you haven’t written them down on the paper, you’re going to make changes just by reiterating and retelling and resaying the lines. So I think the more times you can write a poem out even if you think you’re just copying it from one piece of paper to another, I think that can be quite a useful little gentle exercise.
LBJ: Yeah. No, no, no, totally. When you said that, I was thinking like, I hope that’s what she means, because sometimes I do that and I’m surprised by it, by just this instinctual thing that will happen and it’s not really a conscious decision.
MS: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It leaves room for it, doesn’t it? If you’re copying out again, something can slip through, and it should.
LBJ: Yeah! And I’d love to chat a little bit too about the fact that you’re both a poet and an editor. You’ve had a lot of different editor hats on from founding Cake Magazine and working on founding La Errante, and then of course Poetry London is huge. And so I wonder how that editing work affects your poetry practice. Is it strengthening it, does it kind of distract from it? Can you put those hats on and take them off?
MS: Well, it’s a good question to be asking me right at this moment, because I’m just taking all of them off at the moment to take some time off and write my own stuff. I’ve been asked this question just a couple of times before and I’ve always said, I find it difficult to edit my own work when I’m editing other people’s. But I don’t know whether that’s changed or whether it wasn’t quite accurate to begin with. But I think… There is a sort of focus of editing somebody’s work that you need to be able to get into their voice and get into their mind, you know, borrow their ear. Get into their particular cadences that I think does require you to set aside your own voice for a minute. But the sheer volume of work of poetry that has come my way over the last 10 years as an editor I think just means that my reading eye has always been kept quite fresh. You know, I’ve seen millions of poems coming into the inbox, whether that’s at Faber or Poetry London or La Errante, as you say, or Cake or whatever. The volume of work that I’ve been lucky enough to be exposed to, without any selective action on my part, I think means that… That I’ve been kept interested by poetry, I suppose. And I think increasingly, as I have been slowly stopping these jobs over the last year, you know, I’ve left several jobs in order to have this time. This time to write. And I’m having to quite intentionally and quite actively make sure that I maintain that same diversity and breadth of reading I think. You know, it could so easily narrow to quite a thin stream. And I think that would have a negative impact on my writing, I think. I’m quite aware of the richness that that offers me, you know? Ideas, other people’s ideas are undeniably useful and brilliant, and I’m not talking about plagiarism or lifting, but just to be shown what’s possible in different voices and different contexts and different forms and different ideas, you know. I think it’s a lucky and good thing that I’ve probably benefited from.
LBJ: For sure. And I always like to ask too, if somebody’s also an editor as well as a poet, I’m sure it’s different with every submission you come across and love, but is there something that you think, and maybe in terms of cover letter as well, is there something that you think you would do as well? Now that you’ve been in that editing role, when you’re sending your own work out, what is something that you’re sure to do now?
MS: In terms of a small selection that I’d be presenting to a—
LBJ: Yeah. Yeah, if you were submitting your own work out to a magazine that you really wanted to impress.
MS: So I’m always really interested, I mean, it’s usually somewhere between three and ten poems that you send, isn’t it? It’s a punt a lot of the time, you know? You want to capture the editor’s attention and you have just this brief chance to do so. I always think it’s really fascinating in the cover letter when the author says something, some little sentence, some little paragraph about their wider obsessions at that moment. You know, their wider interests at that moment and how these poems emerge from that or feed into that.
MS: You know, I love to hear what people have been reading. Because I like being able to see influence I think in somebody’s poem, if they say that they love, oh, I don’t, Rachael Allen’s poetry, then I like to be able to look at it and say, Oh, well look, yeah maybe I can hear a little bit of that. And that says to me that they’re somebody who reads and is absorbing things and synthesizing things. And I like that, you know? There’s a balance of course to be struck between admiring and emulating a writer and sort of copying their style exactly, but I do like to hear about people’s lives outside of these few poems, I think it puts them in context. I think something that I wanted to see more of over the last couple of years and sort of hunted for over the last couple of years is rhyme. And I sort of surprise myself when I say that because for a long time, just when I was emerging from school and college, and to an extent the early years of university, I was a bit like, you know, it doesn’t have to rhyme, come on. It felt sing song and a little bit, I don’t know, something not very modern to my ear. And now I love it. You know, I want to see people doing really strange things with rhyme and euphony and sound patterning of other sorts. I love to see that done with a musical touch you know, with a musical ear. With some real skill for listening to the sounds of words. And I think when I come across a poem in a submission that does that, that’s sort of bound to take my fancy.
LBJ: Yeah, I love that. And then actually kind of going into that and to wrap up a little bit, even, we’d love to hear about some of your favorite books and maybe even about poets who people don’t talk about enough and certainly, we’re more US-based. And so if there are people from the UK that you think that we just need to absolutely be reading, I’d love to hear whose poetry is giving you life right now.
MS: Sure. Ooh. What have I read recently that I’ve loved? Over the past year or so I’ve loved Caroline Bird’s book The Air Year, which I think is wonderful. I’ve been reading her for years and to my mind she just gets better and better. She does something that I find near impossible in poetry, which is to be funny. To be funny in a good poem I think is just, you know. That’s the dream. So yeah, I would recommend The Air Year. And also Comic Timing by Holly Pester. I had one of Holly Pester’s poems in the last issue that I did of Poetry London. And I’m just fascinated by what she’s doing, what she’s writing about, sort of about work and the body, and function in some strange and sometimes quite sad ways. She’s got a beautiful new book out with Granta. What else? Oh, also from the pages of Poetry London, from the Spring Issue, I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but I think pieces have been appearing in various journals of Nicole Sealey’s “Erasure” poem, long “Erasure” poem, based on the Ferguson Report, which…
LBJ: Yeah, some of it was in The Paris Review as well, yeah.
MS: Just incredible, I thought. You know, this was in my inbox at Poetry London when I was still editor there and we published six pages of it through the middle of the issue. I just think it’s sort of stunning, flaming stuff. So I’ll be looking out for the rest of those pieces. And then in terms of more emerging poets from over here. Oh, a poet who I really admire is Sarah Fletcher. Whose poem we had a couple of issues ago in Poetry London, who I’ve known for a few years. And she’s, I think putting together her first collection right now so there isn’t one that I can direct you towards, but she has had a pamphlet out a couple of years ago through The Poetry Business called Typhoid August. And I believe that she has another one coming out next year or the year after with Outspoken Press I think. So that’s Sarah Fletcher, I would say one to watch.
LBJ: Alright well, Martha, thank you so much. And I’m excited to read more of your work soon.
MS: Well, thank you. This has been such fun, Layla, thank you.
Bookshop Recommendations from Martha Sprackland