Interview by Press Literary Editor Jo Ely:
Salena Godden is a performer, poet, short story writer, playwright and author. She’s appeared on television and radio, including Channel 4, the BBC’s Verse Illustrated series and Loose Ends. She’s also made regular appearances on the BBC’s The Verb and Bespoken Word, and is resident poet for Click Radio on the BBC World Service. She has performed at the Bush Theatre in London, and is a popular act with festivals including Hay-on-Wye, Latitude, Festival No.6 and Edinburgh Festival. Her list of publications is too long to fully cover here, but some highlights include: Penguin’s IC3, Canongate’s Fire People, Serpent Tail’s Croatian Nights, Picador’s Punk Fiction and The Bookslam anthology Too Much Too Young. Coming up in 2016, new work will be published in The Unreliable Guide To London published by Influx Press. Also in 2016 The Good Immigrant, a crowdfunded anthology of essays discussing race and identity by twenty BAME authors, will be published by Unbound in September.
Fishing in the Aftermath Poems 1994-2014, a poetry collection by Salena Godden, is published by Burning Eye Books and Springfield Road, her memoir, is published by Unbound. www.salenagodden.com
JO ELY: Salena, I know you have a lot of commitments, all of which being an established writer has brought to your door. I was wondering how you go about making the space in your life for your writing?
SALENA GODDEN: Currently I am making brand new work so I’m excited about that. I am an early bird and start most days at 4am. The waking up to write at 4am thing started when I was writing Springfield Road and I never lost that habit. Most days I like to watch the day break and I love the silence, the first light. Somehow I have grown up to become a morning writer.
Truth is, as writers we all do about ten jobs – presently I juggle management, admin, bookings, chasing contracts, invoices, promotion, travel and gig organization, pitching and hustling, rehearsals, recording, archiving, blogging, social media etc … so I have to get all those things out the way so I can do what I really want and that is to write the new stuff. I know I’m lucky to be busy. I know these things are important, I know I have to do gigs, radio jobs and workshops, but lately I’d rather be home, hibernating and writing, than out drinking cocktails. It’s winter and that has always been writing time. I like me when I’m writing.
ELY: Do you have a special place to write in, and could you set the scene for us a little? What is it about this setting that gets you in the right frame of mind for your work?
GODDEN: I love my desk. It is the first and only expensive piece of antique furniture I ever bought. It’s got hidden secret drawers and compartments. I love my desk so much that I started writing about it, from the beginning, about the tree that it once was and the first person that wrote on it and the lives of everyone that must have sat here, at this very desk where I write this to you now. It is a powerful chunk of wood, this desk. I easily imagine still sitting and writing here when I am an octogenarian. I think I will be a fabulous old lady writer, wild white curly hair and a hip flask of rum hidden in my book bag.
I have my own writing room, we call it my Ladies Chamber. I like my room, one wall is all floor to ceiling bookshelves. For an experiment I recently changed the way my books are presented, they are now separated by gender; I have books written by men in one section of shelves and women’s literature and poetry in another. I am glad there are an equal number of books in both sections and glad to read girls and boys equally. When I was a young poet I used to read mostly men, Bukowski, Brautigan and John Fante, but it is more even now. Nowadays many of my favourite books are by women, Jean Rhys, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Muriel Spark and Deborah Delano. I tend not to read the same book that anyone else is reading or tweeting about; my worst nightmare would be to sit on a tube and the whole carriage is all reading the same popular book as me. Almost all of my books are from second-hand book shops. My friend has a beautiful book shop specializing in early editions and Penguin classics in Camden Market. It’s called Books Iconica, lots of my treasures have come from there.
On the walls of my room are two prints of Klimt, a poster of my favourite poem by Bukowski entitled Roll The Dice, “If you are going to try go all the way…” and lots of artwork by various friends. There is a shelf that serves as a shrine to people I love, pictures of my dead and my living, adorned with sea shells and beads laid in a particular pattern that only makes sense to me. I have Buddha and Ganesh and a battered statue of Jesus. My brother’s gay-action men sit arms around each other, modelled in an embrace. Out of the window I can see our backyard, we have a pair of tall Holly Trees covered in red berries, a family of tiny birds chatter and live in its dense branches. The daffodils are here now in window boxes, in the summer I love to grow tomatoes.
ELY: You’re not only a writer, you’re also a very experienced (and successful) performer. Do you find that, removed from the stage, and when it’s just you and your notebook and your laptop, that the sense of your audience stays with you? You must be acutely aware of where the laugh will come, and the thoughtful silence, and of where you might need to tighten up to hold the room’s attention? Where people will be moved. It must bring a discipline and a heightened understanding to your work. Do you feel that you are writing for a single reader, or for a room full of people?
GODDEN: Sometimes I write like I’m a spirit whispering in your ear in the dark and other times like I’m screaming into a hurricane. It depends on the piece.
Truth is, I try not to write with an audience in mind. When I write with a certain person in mind it can come out corny, like when I’m asked to write for a friend’s wedding or funeral, pandering to the heartstrings, I mean the love, love is the intention, I feel the love, but that can come across a little earnest or eager.
I love the challenge when I write for the BBC, a radio programme and a set theme. But that can also come across as disingenuous, because I am not necessarily passionate about that theme but writing a poem to order. It is weird/funny writing poems to set themes, it’s like ordering pizza, ordering a poem, ‘Hey, I want a poem with extra sauce, hold the baloney!’ There’s a crafty art to getting enough of my sauce, spice and truth into a poem, without it being cut or censored.
My writing all starts with a feeling and a line, and I often don’t know what it will end up being. I’ll start an idea and then change the line endings and see it is becoming the shape of a poem, or it has a melody and it’s a song. Or the idea blossoms and reveals to me it is a story and needs more colour, more depth, narration or other voices.
The thing I am working on now is compelling. I keep thinking about it and the woman I am writing about. I am daydreaming about her and waking up thinking about her. Even when people are trying to talk to me I am glazing over thinking about this woman and the world in this writing and this glazing over is very rude of me. Cloud bothering, I think Baudelaire called it, that glazed look. Being here in the present but your head is miles away in the book-world you’ve been making.
Sometimes, when I write something, I don’t know it’s funny until I share it and read it to someone. I read a new piece to my fiancé, Dickie. It is supposed to be a cold, hard piece about death. I have been working on it for about two months, I think it’s quite brutal. I mean, it’s not meant to be a comedy. I read it to Dickie and he suddenly burst out laughing. And I laughed because he laughed. We both fell about the kitchen laughing. It’s serious, it is about death and getting old and dying. I think this poem will be a good one, that’s how I test my poems, drinking wine at the kitchen table while dinner simmers.
ELY: At the risk of pinning the butterfly, and perhaps letting in a little too much light on magic, does your audience affect how you perform your poem? Do you work to read the mood of the room or theatre, or do you just bravely sally forth and make the tone your own? Do you ever get stage fright or nerves and, if so, how do you work around that?
GODDEN: I am very nervous before every gig, twitchy and jumpy, nervous, belly aches and butterflies, always and every time. Often I am really unhappy before a show, borderline miserable. A gig isn’t the minutes you are on stage, it is all day, from the moment you wake up, you are like “Okay, tonight I have to do that thing again.” You know you must be brave again and reveal something, let that thing out of the box again, wake up the monster, put on the mask and the armour. I always expect the worst. That there will be nobody there. That they’ll all hate me.
By the time it’s time to go on stage I have gone through every worst case scenario and often made myself quite unhappy. Sometimes walking on stage feels like I have a fight, like a boxer. Fists up to protect myself. I don’t know why but I feel like that sometimes. I always thought being a writer was a bit like being a boxer. I reckon I made that connection when I was very young, my brother had boxing classes and I was envious of him and it stayed with me. As a boxer you have to be disciplined, to train every day, to know when to attack and when to defend, to be strong and determined, to hit precisely where it hurts, to appear to be flying and to make magic happen.
As for gigs, I have some litmus test poems and they tell me which way we are going. Audiences can be very tricksy, you think it’s a room of squares and they guffaw the loudest at the rude stuff. And the opposite of that is a room of young groovers all gasping and acting shocked over a swear word. You just never know. I like my shows to be like a roller coaster of emotions, laughter and tears. It never works to do nothing but laughs, I feel empty after that. And the opposite is a disaster, to do all page poems. There is nothing weirder than a whole room in tears. A bit of something for everyone usually works, my set list is: something old, something new, something tender and something blue.
ELY: It is a real act of courage, to perform your own work. When the audience senses that, something really special happens. But most writers can’t do what you can do, both write and perform, and you’ve got me thinking: The experience of performing your poetry must be very different from the feeling of sitting quietly with just your pen or your laptop and your own mind. I wondered which you prefer, writing or performing?
GODDEN: Writing. I love performing, but writing is where I am happiest.
We are all many people and I am at least two women. I am that blonde busty broad on stage, a moxie. Swaggering in heels and sipping cocktails, filthy laugh. Selling the books and soaking up the applause. I am also the shy bookish brunette in the pyjamas and spectacles at home, doing all the actual work. I am picturing myself as a sort of Dolly Parton of poetry here. I heard she lives a double life, a split of her personalities. That’s me right now, happy at home scribbling poems and making apple pie and then having to get my heels on and back into ‘Dolly’ character for my live shows…hahaha
But I feel very happy writing right now. I feel freer because I have been saying no to things and this year I cut the number of gigs I will be doing by half. And by doing this I have (in theory) gifted myself time to write, to work on the new work, new poems and new dreams and ambitions. This year I will probably be super poor but much happier and more creative.
ELY: I am very interested in the sense of commitment to the work, which you’ve spoken about in your memoir, and elsewhere I think. How did that sense of having a vocation manifest itself? And at what stage did you really know that this was absolutely what you should be doing with your life? Did you ever have any real doubts or come close to giving up and, if so, how did you get past that?
GODDEN: The notion of giving up is something I gave up years ago. In my twenties I travelled a lot and tested myself, the writing thing, the poetry life. I found that no matter where I ran away to, I was there when I got there. And I love books and writing and performing. Even without pen and paper, my head was documenting everything, my travels and the strange places and people I was meeting. Constantly making stories and internalised diary entries. I was more obsessive then. I’d write on everything, menu’s and beer mats and train tickets. I remember travelling around the states. In particular I remember Santa Cruz, and arriving penniless in that strange city and sitting in the sunshine selling my chapbooks down on the boardwalk, selling poems for a dollar. I went into a bar and had a few drinks and larks and before I knew it my mouth betrayed me and I recited a poem to the bar man, to make him laugh and get a free drink. Next thing I knew he gave me a gig in the bar. And after that show they passed around a jug to pay me. I remember that particular night so vividly and how it made me feel, I realised that this was my life, and it wasn’t cemented in London, and it was always going to be a hustle and equal measures of hard work, determination and good luck. But going back even further, I can remember hustling as a teenager, writing Valentines poems in exchange for cigarettes at school.
Writing Springfield Road was a challenge because it didn’t fit anywhere. It isn’t a misery memoir and it isn’t a celebrity memoir and so I was tested and I battled with doubt and fear. I am so glad I found the courage to listen to myself and dig my heels in and make it happen. I was very lucky to meet the Unbound team who believed in me and that book. I wanted to capture the late seventies, early eighties, and a black British childhood. Us kids before the internet. I wanted to write about my father’s suicide and how it felt to be brought up on Thatcher’s breadline.
But, since the book has been published, people have written letters to me which tell me why I wrote it. They have written to tell me that I have told their stories, shared their memories, their mourning and their joys too. I didn’t realise how this book would affect people until it was read by complete strangers on the other side of the world. The letters still arrive, now and then, and each time these letters move me, they mean everything to me. Because they come from my comrades, from other women, mixed race and mixed up kids like me. Kids who know the shame of having free school dinners and hand-me-down clothes. It makes all that hard work, heart ache and doubt worth it.
If you are feeling doubt then that is brilliant. You’d have to be an egomaniac to think everything you write is genius. All I can do is urge you to keep going, just keep on keeping on, listen to your own voice, nobody knows all the answers. Many of the people you may have to deal with, or pitch to, have never had holes in the soles of their shoes. They work office hours and get a real weekend and a regular salary. You don’t have these things, you probably have no regular wage, you have no guarantees. You have nothing but your passion, your dreams, your gumption, your hunger and your work. So only you know how to tell your own story and only you know where you have been and where you want to go. So be sure to follow your own path and your own heart and never, ever, quit.
Some days, watching the publishing cogs turning, I have felt like an outsider running my finger on the playground railings and not being permitted in to play. That illusion that the grass is greener on the other side, on the mainstream side. Often prizes and lists seem to enforce these gates. The lack of diversity, the snobbery, exclusion and elitism that unfortunately attaches itself to poetry and books. But the fact remains, it isn’t very punk to ask for permission. Or to wait for an invite. So be punk and keep on keeping on. May your every win be nourishment, and every fail be like a shot of petrol to fuel your fire. Focus on your highs and don’t be so harsh on yourself in your lows, and never compare yourself to anyone else’s books and journey. They are following their own path too … but above all switch off the internet. The internet feeds doubt. The internet is oozing with bad news, negativity and schadenfreude.
ELY: I loved your memoir, Springfield Road. I found it very moving and I could really feel the influence of both poetry and performance in the writing too, it was like a roller-coaster at times. How did writing about your life compare to writing poetry and short story, for you, and do you think you’ll ever do it again? Maybe to write the next chapter of your life?
GODDEN: Springfield Road took almost eight years to complete, from first draft to final draft to crowdfund and publication. It makes you a special kind of weird to live and write about the past for so long, and to surround yourself with ghosts.
I probably will write another memoir later, but I know it will take a big chunk out of me and I need to write other things and grow a little older first. I have boxes of diaries, poems scribbled on beer mats and napkins, and using those I’d like to write about the 1990’s, illegal raves, travelling and one-night stands. The freedom, the idealism and the hedonism. I’d like to write about the turn of the century and 2001, the year I feel I changed, and the world changed and we all changed. Someone said a writer lives twice, and memoir is exactly that. You live the life and then you have to re-live it to write it all down. My next memoir will be hardcore to re-live, I am not ready for that today. I am enjoying living in the present right now. This present is the best place I have ever been, I like it here.
ELY: Some writers talk about writer’s block almost the way a runner talks about an injury which stops them pounding the pavements for a while. They get antsy and uncomfortable, or worse, when they stop. Others talk about needing writing to help them process difficult experiences, or to help them to really see, to really think. I wondered what writing does for you?
GODDEN: When I haven’t done any writing for a bit there is a bit of a traffic jam in my brain and my head feels full up. I stopped writing everything down, I don’t obsessively write on beer mats and menus and napkins anymore, so my head gets full up and I stare into space a lot, writing in my head … Someone told me The Rolling Stones chose their songs depending on which tune the cleaner was humming the next morning. That’s how I work, the poem or story the cleaner in my head keeps humming is the writing I type up, persevere with and finish.
ELY: What are you working on right now?
GODDEN: It’s top secret … cannot tell anyone about it. But the cleaner in my head is drumming and banging on and singing and yelling about it all day every day.
ELY: Thank you so much, Salena, for allowing us a peek inside your creative life.
GODDEN: Thank you!