Helen Mort - Derbyshire's Poet Laureate
PUBLISHED: 09:58 20 July 2015 | UPDATED: 09:58 20 July 2015
Helen Mort's two-year tenure as the county's Poet Laureate ends this September. Derbyshire Life meets the Sheffield-based wordsmith
Many of the best lines in Helen Mort’s poetry were composed when she was on the move. Some were created when the Derbyshire Poet Laureate’s mind was roaming freely as she rambled, ran or climbed in the Peak District. Others were compiled as she wandered lonely as a cloud among the Cumbrian fells during her year as a Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. And her imagination has often scaled new heights during climbing expeditions in the Highlands of Scotland.
Some of those lines that grew out of the poet’s fertile imagination when she was on the move were used almost immediately, but others were allowed to float freely in her mind until they found anchorage in poems composed many months later. When I talked with Helen at her home in Sheffield, she said: ‘You don’t necessarily need to write down a line as soon as you have thought of it. If a phrase is strong enough, you will remember it and use it when you need it.’
For Helen, the urge to write can be triggered by many things. The reminiscences of local people are a frequent source of inspiration and news stories can often launch her mind into free flight. After reading about a piano being carried to the top of Scotland’s highest mountain, she wrote a poem called ‘Items carried up Ben Nevis’, which opens with the lines: ‘The piano, that was easiest, despite the keys / rattling like dice beneath the lid, so next / I strapped a coffee-coloured horse across my back, / ferried a coffin with the body still inside / pitching from left to right with every move.’
When I told Helen that this surreal flight of fancy had remained in my mind because of that great line about the coffee-coloured horse, she said: ‘What I love about poetry is that it is like a net in which you can capture anything, including impossible things such as carrying a horse on your back.’
Helen had known from a young age that she wanted to be a writer. Her parents had played a big part in giving her an early appreciation of literature, but it was the freedom offered by poetic expression that made her opt for poetry rather than prose. After completing her schooling at two comprehensive schools in Chesterfield, she gained a place at Cambridge, where she read Social and Political Science. Explaining her reasons for opting for this particular course of study rather than a degree in English, she said: ‘I wanted to read books for pleasure instead of being confined by an academic reading list. Also, I felt that studying the way people behave could help me in my poetry.’
At first, Helen had difficulty in adjusting to the antiquated rituals of life at the university, particularly those governing formal dinners. In one of her poems, she has written about the anxiety of choosing the right cutlery, passing the port in the approved manner and the need to say Latin grace ‘not knowing if it’s thanks or blasphemy’. However, she loved Cambridge as a city and chose to stay there after graduating. Despite gaining first-class honours, she deliberately took on an undemanding job for a few years so that she would have sufficient free time in which to write poetry.
The time that Helen had set aside for writing proved to be very well spent. Her poems were published in a dozen different magazines and she collected several prizes, including the Eric Gregory Award and the Manchester Young Writer Prize, and she was awarded the Foyle Young Poets Prize on so many occasions that she ended up being a judge for the competition. In 2010, at the age 25, she became the youngest writer to be chosen as a Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. During her one-year residency, she compiled a collection of poems entitled ‘The Lie of the Land’ and made a film based on the boat-stealing episode in Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’.
In 2013, Chatto & Windus published ‘Division Street’, a collection of about 50 of Helen’s poems. The book was shortlisted for the Costa Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize and prompted Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy to describe Helen as ‘being among the brightest stars in the sparkling new constellation of British poets’. This stellar poetry collection covers many topics, ranging from the drastic effects of pit closures to the impact of web sites featuring ‘thinspiration’ images that encourage young women to adopt anorexia as a lifestyle choice.
‘Scab’, the longest poem in the collection, describes the battle between police and picketing miners at the Orgreave coking plant. It opens with the line: ‘A stone is lobbed in ‘84, hangs like a star over Orgreave.’ Explaining why she had written about an event that took place before she was born, Helen said: ‘I wanted to show that someone from the younger generation could understand that the legacy of the strike is still being felt. When I read my poem at the Spinning Wheel in Chesterfield, I was more nervous than I had ever been at a reading, but I was relieved when people expressed their delight that a young person wanted to write about something that had affected their lives so much.’
Given the success of ‘Division Street’, it is not surprising to learn that Chatto & Windus will be publishing a further collection of Helen’s work in 2016. Entitled ‘No Map Could Show Them’, the book will include several poems written during her two years as Derbyshire Poet Laureate.
Helen’s tenure as the Laureate has seen her listening to groups of people in local libraries and immediately converting their memories into poems, a process she describes as ‘speed poetry’. She has also participated in the Chatsworth Road Fair by giving a series of readings in all the local cafés, where she ‘surprised customers by serving a sonnet with their morning coffee’.
Recalling one commission for a poem about Chesterfield Football Club, Helen said, ‘I enjoyed the task, even though I knew almost nothing about football, because it made me write about something that I wouldn’t normally choose as a subject.’ Another project saw her collaborating with sculptor Andrew Tebbs on a design for a standing stone at Newton. When local people suggested a locally-born cotton manufacturer as a suitable subject for an inscription on the stone, she wrote a poem that opens with the lines: ‘Who goes there, who goes there? Jedediah Strutt with loom-spun hair’.
Aside from her Laureate work, Helen has applied her creative and enquiring mind to many other projects, including a PhD about neuroscience and poetry, in which she draws parallels between electrical connections in the brain and the use of metaphor in poetry. She is also the current Douglas Caster Cultural Fellow at Leeds University, where she teaches creative writing and is working with guitarist Samuel Moore on a joint performance that will match poems with flamenco rhythms.
Accustomed to receiving prizes for her work, the poet, who often comes up with her best lines when she is on the move, was awarded a prize of a different sort when she won the female race in the inaugural Chesterfield Marathon. Her triumphant sprint to the finishing line was ‘poetry in motion’.
Helen Mort will be reading from a selection of her poems and talking about her role as Derbyshire Poet Laureate when she appears at the Buxton Festival. The event will be held Upstairs at the Old Clubhouse on 25th July, 9am to 10am. Tickets: £10.50. Tickets can be booked online: buxtonfestival.co.uk, or by ringing the festival box office on 01298 72190 / 0845 127 2190.
Division Street by Helen Mort is published by Chatto & Windus, priced at £12.