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In Conversation with poet Sarah Lasoye (Part 2)

Roar writer Dania Quadri talks to Sarah Lasoye about her new poetry collection, “Fovea / Ages Ago”.

Roar: How was your experience of revisiting school/childhood memories? Did you find anything challenging about it?

Sarah Lasoye: I don’t have a visceral emotional connection to a lot of the memories anymore because I’ve written about them… [so now they are] a bit further away from me. I can think of them as things that are floating around me, and I can tap into a poem about a specific incident and remember, but I don’t hold it in my body anymore, so it was okay.

There was one poem called “an angel laughing herself out of the sky,” where a lot of people have said,  “Wow, that really reminds me of being in primary school” or doing something that is a bit bad or a bit mean, you’re happy about it, though, because you get what you want, and you don’t really care enough to think about the impact this has on another kid, and you keep moving.

I was a kid who prided myself on the very performative [things like] being a good kid, being very sensible, being well liked by teachers. [The poem was based on an incident where] there is a girl who is not responding to me in the way that I would like to be responded to, and so I decide that my mission is now to ruin you. And the rest of the day I’m just orchestrating a social isolation for this person, and I’m making all their friends turn against them, and when [I was] thinking about that poem, I [thought], “Wow, you really had some stuff going on,” and I did. But then a lot of kids do think like that, and it made me feel less hard on myself because I was writing about it from now being twenty-four, rather than being eight or nine.

I’ve seen other eight- and nine-year-olds, and they are spiteful, and they are malicious, and they are mean for no reason sometimes. It is a part of your learning and growing and forming relationships with other people, to correct yourself and realise what harm does to other people… and why it’s not really something you should forgive yourself for doing. I had a lot of reflection, and thinking about childhood differently, but it wasn’t painful in anyway.

R: Can you tell me a bit more about the process of putting the actual collection together?

SL: The poems, as said in the author’s note, are written when I am out and about, jotting down memories when they come back to me in the notes of my phone or wherever, and then trying to work on them more independently, or in workshops. A lot of it is quite collaborative, I’m really lucky I’m part of a few collectives and workshops. I did the Barbican [Young Poets] when I was an undergraduate and then joined a collective for Women of Colour poets, and at the end of 2019 I did a writing room run by Apples and Snakes. It was good to be in a room full of writers and receive an impetus to edit in a certain way, so that’s what my writing process is.

Compiling this chapbook happened relatively quickly. Hajar [Press] emailed me in April right after the 1st lockdown, and said, “We’d love to commission a chapbook from you,” so I thought about the theme for it when I was making the initial proposal, and how I wanted it to be, how I wanted the project to look. Then for about a whole year, end of April – January, I was working on piecing together the poems I had, and seeing which one I wanted to go in the chapbook.

It was the case of printing them all and then looking back at them, and trying to draw connections between them and looking at it collectively, then looking at each piece individually and asking people’s opinions. I’m really blessed to know great poets whom I deeply admire. I’d send the early drafts of the chapbooks to my poet friends, about three or four people, and say, “Let me know what you feel,” and then go back to another stage of redrafting.

I realised that so much of my editing process usually happens at live readings. You can just feel from the energy of the room – pre-covid, obviously – about how people would relate to your poems, and then you go away and think about it differently. For me, how it sounds in a room and how people react to it is the most important thing.

But you must be certain about what you want the poem to look like. When I got to that point with every poem, then I thought ok, it’s done now. I don’t need to give this to anybody else and this is the best version of the poem. It’s not a very clear process, it’s very messy.

R: What advice do you have for students who are aspiring poets? What role do you think, if any, do universities play in nurturing aspiring poets?

SL: First, stop calling yourself ‘aspiring’ and just call yourself a poet. Any person can call themselves a poet, a lot of people call themselves poets, and a lot of them really are, so you should just claim that identity. Even if you haven’t written a poem in two years, you’re still a poet if that’s what you do. There is no one way to be a poet, and you’re more than deserving of claiming that title.

Community is the second thing that is important. Being around writers or readers who are interested in poetry, reading people’s collections, accessing your uni library… We went to a uni for undergrad that was healthcare focused and the library did not have literature at the bounds, so I went to the poetry library at Southbank Centre a lot. I’d be reading the journals, going in for a specific collection, speaking to people at an open mic. Sometimes you can get really isolated or competitive about how many journal publications people have or what the arbitrary markers of success are. And the most important thing is just to be excited about what poetry makes possible.

And then, practically seeking out any collectives, workshops, or programs in the city that you’re in, going to online readings and being unafraid of sharing your work. Now that we’re re-entering the world, we can do socially distanced open mics again and be open to that. Sharing your work doesn’t have to be in guarded and formal structures of journals, publications and prizes. You can make your own markers of success.

Also, don’t be afraid to e-mail people you love. If you’re a fan of anybody, just DM them and say, “I really loved your collection, and if you’re ever free to talk I’d love to learn…” That’s a big thing, especially now that since we’re mostly still inside, people will respond and that could be good!

Finally, the uni has a role in giving people space and time to write. The neo-liberalised marketised university is a huge problem. It hinders a lot of young poets, especially those from marginalised identities who are working class / black / queer or have caring responsibilities. The best thing that universities can do is to step-up and relax a bit.

What advice I would have given to myself is valuing the time I put into poetry as opposed to the time I put into anything else that I didn’t care about. There are material reasons to get good grades and a good degree, I don’t want to negate that in any way. But also know that things are possible beyond whatever you are studying. If what you’re studying doesn’t feel like it is contributing to the life you want to live as a writer or artist, then just hold on to that. Hold firm to your craft and your art and your practice, and you’ll be fine.

Sarah is a poet and writer from London. She is an alumna of the Barbican Young Poets and a current member of Octavia – Poetry Collective for Women of Colour. Her debut chapbook, Fovea / Ages Ago, was published by Hajar Press in April 2021. The first part of this interview was published on the 22nd of October, and can be found here.

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