For over six years Jane Lovell has been winning prizes for her work focusing on our relationship with the vulnerable earth. I was first attracted to Jane’s work when she was a winner of Coast to Coast to Coast’s first Individual Poet Competition in 2018. At the time, I described Jane’s hand-stitched journal, Forbidden, as containing tightly eddying works of ekphrasis. The sequence of poems drew me to see something of Jane’s attentiveness and unique voice. Jane, in much of her work, is writing of what concerns many at present but her observations are acute, her voice fresh and confident and imbued with a curiosity and obvious fascination with, and love for, the natural world.
Jane’s work has been described [by among others, Helen Mort, and naturalist Mark Cocker] as A meditation on the bones and breath of the natural world; the bold pursuit of difficult themes; language …spare and simple yet dazzingly original; a series of hauntings; writing [that] charts mysterious, unsettling trajectories; poems [that] unmoor us, find beauty and strangeness in the everyday…’
Jane is Writer-in-Residence at Rye Harbour and has won The Flambard Prize, Wigtown Poetry Competition, Mslexia Pamphlet Competition, the Geoff Stevens Memorial Poetry Prize leading to her first collection, The God of Lost Ways, and just this month was winner of The Ginkgo Prize
Jane’s Website: https://janelovellpoetry.co.uk
Maria Isakova Bennett: Jane, it’s lovely to see your well-deserved continued success, and to have this chance to talk to you about your writing. I wonder if we could start by talking about your absorbing, recently published first collection. It was wonderful to hear you read at your launch. Your poetry is precise and powerful, never flinching from the disturbing aspects of nature and our relationships with wildlife. Poems such as Funeral for an Owl stay in mind long after reading. I’m always taken by the strength of your observations and description. Your love of, and respect for, the natural world pervades your work.
Can you tell us a little about how you came to bring together this first collection, how different that was to creating your smaller publications? Were there poems that were a starting point and around which others developed? How do you go about your intense observation of the natural world?
Jane Lovell: The God of Lost Ways was probably the easiest collection I've ever put together! It's a gathering of stories and observations from different places I've lived, the wildlife and landscapes I've encountered. I wanted to write about our interaction with nature and wildlife without being overtly judgemental. The lack of regard we have for our environment is there, of course, but written between the lines, like shadows between leaves. It's in the owl that died in the chimney flue, the roadside pheasant, the hornets blocked in the chimney. It's not pretty but it's life.
MIB: Regarding This Tilting Earth, Metastatic and your collection, The God of Lost Ways: how do you write such consistently observant work? Do you have a structured writing routine for instance or are you gathering notes continuously? It would be lovely to hear about your practice.
JL: No structured writing routine, no. I'd love one of those! I'm usually set off by an image or a story, something quirky, or an unexpected glimpse of beauty or wildness that has some particular significance. I try to capture exactly what I've encountered using very precise language but hopefully in a lyrical manner. I don't gather notes although I do collect all the scraps I've edited out of poems in case they work somewhere else. Instead, I gather screenshots and links to websites and images from the internet. I work solely on my laptop and find the ease with which I can locate scientific or geographical information hugely liberating.
MIB: Yes. The internet has freed up research enormously. Your first mentioned success was for the Flambard Prize. I wonder if you can tell us something about your writing before winning the Prize and the kind of work you submitted to the that competition?
JL: I'd had a measure of success in my twenties but poetry went on a back burner as teaching became more and more time-consuming. I continued to write but had little time to submit or promote my work. I suppose the upside of this is I have literally hundreds of poems squirrelled away for possible future collections! The Flambard Prize caught my eye as it was for unpublished poets. I felt more confident in my work than I had for a long time and thought I'd chance my arm. The poems related to a very difficult period in my life but were almost completely hidden in metaphor, using natural imagery. One poem 'Equivocal' was a word used by a medical specialist but it led to a poem about an owl hunting while a weasel crept to her nest. A naturalist will tell you that female barn owls do not hunt but stay on their eggs but that was my point. She had to; the poem describes 'in the hedge/ something woven from air and tats of down/is staring, its flyblown carcass stirring as if waking.'
MIB: I love the connections you mention here between human and animal, and those made between the human body and the earth in Metastatic – dark and light, life and death so vividly portrayed and held taut. Can you tell us a little about how this pamphlet was brought together – it’s been described as necessary, urgent and intense by Patricia McCarthy, all of which describe the work so accurately.
JL: This was a sequence of poems written during the very difficult time I've mentioned. The poems are in the order I wrote them and chart a dark journey into almost complete blackness and then emerging slowly on the other side. There is solace in nature throughout - the vixen and the song thrush, particularly. Other symbols include the owl, fireflies and crows. The book came out of nowhere and is almost too painful for me to read now although, beyond the poems, there was an unexpectedly happy ending.
MIB: Despite the darkness you mention, when I see your posts on social media, I’m taken by how your poetry and life are so beautifully connected: the walks near where you live, your pets, the foods you cook. I think, this – apologies, an overused word – authenticity, resonates through your work. I really sense that your writing comes from a very deep source. Can you talk a little about where you live and how location has affected what you create?
JL: I've always loved the outdoors. We had an amazing garden when I was small with secret areas and places I could grow things. I was allowed to use tools in the workshop from a frighteningly young age and make dens and climb trees. One of my earliest memories was writing with a crayon on an upturned bucket 'FOR YOU BIRD' and putting pieces of bread outside for the thrush... oh, and keeping a dead starling in an old shoebox because I wanted its skeleton! It was in those times where, as long as you turned up for meals, you could pretty much do what you wanted. We used to go on long walks in the fens at weekends and I was told about John Clare, later reading his poems. All this has stayed with me: deep countryside, birds, paths and bridleways. I love foraging and my other passion you mentioned, cooking! I'd never want to live in the city.
MIB: What wonderful grounding for your work! Although the pandemic has altered so much for us, I know that you’re Writer-in-Residence for Rye Harbour and would love to know more about your work there, pre-pandemic, and how the work is continuing at present.
JL: Rye Harbour Nature Reserve is a place of transient landscapes and huge horizons: a perfect place for poetry workshops. And that's essentially what I was doing pre-pandemic. We would spend half the session outside, responding to prompts relating to some aspect of the environment, then we would finish the workshop in the Avocet Gallery where Morgan would supply the most wonderful cakes and tea. I continued to provide writing prompts and challenges through much of the pandemic and we are now due to restart using Zoom to bring people back together, sharing work and ideas.
A beautiful anthology of poetry and artwork relating to the Reserve is just about to be published which will be on sale as soon as the new Visitors' Centre can be opened to the public.
MIB: Can you tell us a little about how your work has altered over the past six years? Are there facets of your writing that have fallen away/ are there new areas opening up to you? It would be lovely to hear about any new projects you’re working on.
JL: I've been exploring the use of film to present my poetry. People are increasingly caught by images rather than the printed word. It's also an opportunity to add atmosphere through sound and there's the imagery of photography which can enhance the poem. I try to not to pin the visuals too tightly to the words, however. It's important to allow the imagination to make its own associations.
As far as new projects are concerned, I'm working on three collections at the moment. One, which I've called 'Milk', explores adoption, childhood and, essentially, forgiveness. Another is based on the Hereford Mappa Mundi and its biblical and mythical stories. The third, 'Gallery of the Sea', explores wayfinding and early exploration of the Arctic. My aim was to contrast the approach of the indigenous people to their environment with those that came to explore and, later, to exploit. As well as landscape, wildlife and eco-poems, there are quirky stories, some quite macabre. I would love this to be illustrated in some way. In any case, I hope this is my next publication. Fingers crossed!
MIB: Thank you so much for sharing so generously, Jane. It’s been wonderful and enlightening to talk to you. Many congratulations again on your recent well deserved success winning The Ginkgo Prize.
Links to Jane’s work
One Tree http://nightriverwood.com/pamphlets/
This Tilting Earth https://www.serenbooks.com/productdisplay/this-tilting-earth
The God of Lost Ways https://www.indigodreams.co.uk/jane-lovell/4595074651