Martha Sprackland: Well, this will be fun, I think! I’d like to start off by congratulating you again on your triumph – well done! I know the judge, Sasha Dugdale, was impressed by the winners, and it’s exciting that we’ll be publishing your winning poem in Poetry London. I’d like to know more about Molly Leigh, the subject of your poem, who was accused of witchcraft in the seventeenth century. What is it about her story that captured your attention?
Roger Bloor: Growing up in North Staffordshire the story of Molly Leigh, The Witch of Burslem, was one I knew as a child, but only as a rather vague tale. My interest in her was renewed by the purchase at an antique store in Hudson, Wisconsin, of a small wooden token produced in 1937 by the ‘Hampton Beach Society for the Apprehension of Those Falsely Accusing Eunice (Goody) Cole of Having Familiarity With the Devil’. That small disk of wood was the basis for a long poem I wrote on Goody Cole. This prompted me to look further into Molly Leigh who, unlike Goody Cole, had not been openly accused until after her death, and was a voiceless victim of the fears about witchcraft. Molly, who lived on her own, didn’t mix with her neighbours and was blamed for incidents such as the parson’s beer turning sour. Visiting her burial place, at St John’s Church in Burslem, the sight of the enormous slab that was placed on her grave to stop her from emerging gave a sense of the strength of the fear that arose after her death. The idea of giving Molly a voice to use against her accusers was the starting point for writing this poem.
MS: That’s fascinating. I love those local histories – legends, sometimes – that flow into the imaginative world of childhood in that way. What else do you retain, from your childhood, that you find creeping into your work? Are you affected by the physical landscape of that place, as well as the personal histories?
RB: My family came from a small hilltop mining village which has an almost 360-degree panorama view over the plains of Cheshire and Shropshire and away in the distance to the Welsh hills. As I was growing up the view was still punctuated with the effects of the mining industry, the spoil tips, wheels and chimney stacks. Some of my poems reflect the impact of industry on the local area, and the inheritance of both prosperity and poverty that came from the exploitation of the natural geography and geology of the land, the clay and water and coal. The mining disasters of the area are still commemorated here in memorials, art and literature. North Staffordshire retains a strong social memory that mourns the sacrifice and loss of the miners who died in explosions and fires and floods, and I often sense those memories weaving their way into my poems.
MS: And that’s clear from the poem – that connection to Staffordshire is in evidence. It’s interesting that you talk about the way the history of a place – its stories – seep into the bones, can be felt decades or centuries later. I’m intrigued by your last line, containing Molly Leigh’s veiled threat to those who condemn her: ‘When I come back two centuries hence / As Sybil Leek the Staffordshire Seer’ . . . How do you read that connection between Leek and Leigh? Is there anything in the idea of possession, of embodying or reincarnation or channelling, that you think speaks to poetry?
RB: Sybil Leek was an excellent publicist who used her status as a witch to create a successful career in America. I imagine she saw that by using her Staffordshire connections she could invoke the spirit of Molly Leigh as part of her profile, but in doing so, by association, reinforced the image of Molly as a witch. What I do hope is that the spirit of Molly Leigh’s pet bird was somehow reincarnated and able to fly free as Sybil Leek’s marvellously named bird companion ‘Mr Hotfoot Jackson’. I guess there is a spectrum of meaning for ‘channelling’, from the extreme of James Merrill and ‘The Changing Light at Sandover’ through to those ideas and phrases that float in uninvited and unexpectedly and become incorporated in poetry. Whether these are from the spirit world, the subconscious, remnants of collective memory or half-remembered experiences is in a way a side issue. When they happen and they work, then whatever their origins, I just feel grateful and carry on writing.
MS: You mention James Merrill – is he a particular influence on your work? Which poets find their way into your head most often when you’re writing? Who do you go back to most often for pleasure?
RB: I gain a certain intellectual satisfaction from working my way through the poems of writers such as Merrill and Prynne, with their complex and intriguing structures and subtexts; but they are not poets I fall back on for reading for pleasure. I find that when I’m writing, structures and forms emerge as the poem develops, and then as I get a sense of the direction that the poem is taking I may find a particular poet helping with the steering, whether that’s William Carlos Williams with some of my stripped-down triadic line poems or Geoffrey Hill with his epic clashes of time frames and locations in some of my more complicated poems. My ‘go-to’ poets for reading for leisure, and inspiration and guidance, are probably MacNeice, William Stafford, Marilyn Hacker and for the sheer joy of sounds and images, and interwoven history, it has to be Basil Bunting.
MS: Ah, then I’d like to pick you up on form. I think lots of poets make obsessive return to a particular shape or structure (I’m instinctively drawn to the sonnet, and to certain Spanish syllabic rhythms). You mention your triadic line structure – are there other modes you feel your line, your poem, slipping into instinctively? Can you link anything of that to the speech-patterns of Staffordshire accents?
RB: A number of my poems are in free verse even if they were originally in a more structured form. I enjoy the process of revision and rewriting of poems; what Mona Arshi termed ‘a conversation with form’. I do find that some forms such as sonnets or terza rima may be the default starting point, or indeed the final ending point of writing, but it is that process of asking ‘why this line break?’ ‘Why those triadic lines?’ ‘Why those indents?’ that helps to tune the poem to a form which feels right and does justice to the content. When I write poems in North Staffordshire dialect they do seem to default to an approximation to a ballad form. I think that is partly because they are storytelling, and the content often relates to a period when the ballad was a common form; but also the nature of the dialect speech pattern sometimes lends itself to that form, and of course, unlike standard English, writing in dialect opens up a new set of exciting rhyming possibilities to experiment with.
MS: Yes, and in that sense your winning poem does follow its subject with its form – taking a sort of interior call-and-response to answer the case of Molly Leigh’s voicelessness. It’s interesting that interest in witchcraft seems to have moved back to the fore of the conversation in the last couple of years. In fact, in the forthcoming issue of Poetry London, in which your Molly Leigh poem appears, we’ll be carrying an article exploring books of poetry that deal with the occult, with witchcraft, with the various interactions of magic and power.
RB: As I look at my bookshelves I see rather a mixed collection of books including those by C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Alan Garner, J. K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Susanna Clarke, Camille Ralph and Arthur Miller; there are probably even more which deal with the occult and witchcraft if I search. Could there be a generational effect on writers who grew up with characters like Gandalf, Merlin, The White Witch of the North, and the stories of the Pendle Witches and Salem and the generation who were initially influenced by the ‘Harry Potter effect’ on literature? I wonder if the emergence amongst writers of an interest in exploring the reality of the effects of belief in witchcraft be a reaction against the rather homely and unthreatening descriptions, seen in many popular fictional accounts of witchcraft, of a symbiotic relationship between the community of magic and the others in the world?
MS: There are a number of younger poets energetically exploring that intersection between poetry and the occult, I think. Do you have any particular favourites, among early career poets?
RB: I find that my ‘favourites’ change over time; I tend to view poets more as ‘new to me’ rather than focusing on their career stage. Sometimes my interest in a poet can arise from a single poem; reading Wayne Holloway-Smith’s poem ‘The posh mums are boxing in the square’ led me to read and enjoy his other work, but it was a review of WITCH that first started me reading Rebecca Tamás and drew me into the power-filled and complex world of her poems that I am reading at present. I enjoy the experience of finding and exploring work that is new to me but equally, there is a great satisfaction to be had from taking an old friend down from the bookshelf and renewing our acquaintance.
MS: And speaking of new work – where are you with your own poetry, besides winning prizes? Are you working on a collection?
RB: This month sees the end of my two-year MA course with Newcastle University based at the Poetry School, so at present I am focused on the final revisions to my portfolio ‘Moloch Songs’, which is due to be handed in next week. It is a set of thirty poems that explore the impact of the industrial revolution on the people of North Staffordshire. In it I use voices from history to contrast the lives of the workers, faced with a constant background of deprivation and disasters, with the lives of the fortunate few who used their creative skills to escape their destinies as industrial fodder to become successful artists, poets, musicians and writers.
MS: Good luck with it! Thanks for chatting with me, Roger. I’m sure we’ll talk more at the launch of the Autumn issue on 23rd October, at King’s Place, where you’ll be reading your poem onstage – I can’t wait. Congratulations, again, on winning the Poetry London Clore Prize.
Roger will be reading his winning poem at the Autumn launch of Poetry London at King’s Place on 23rd October, along with the second- and third-place winners of the prize, plus Lucy Mercer, Mona Arshi, Clore Prize judge Sasha Dugdale, and Poet Laureate Simon Armitage.