Dr Pam Thompson is a prize-winning poet, reviewer and educator based in Leicester. Her list of poetry successes and publications are impressive. In 2005, Pam was a winner of The Poetry Business competition with her pamphlet, Show Date and Time, (Smith-Doorstop, 2006), she won the Judge’s Prize in the Magma Poetry Competition, (March, 2015) and was placed third by Michael Symmons Roberts in the Poets and Players Competition, 2017. She also was placed second in the Ledbury Poetry Competition, 2019 and is a 2019 Hawthornden Fellow. Her publications are, Spin (Waldean Press1998); Parting the Ghosts of Salt (Redbeck Press, 2000), Hologram (Sunk-Island Publishing, 2009), The Japan Quiz’ (Redbeck Press, 2009), Strange Fashion (Pindrop Press, 2017)
Pam is one of the organisers of Word!, a spoken-word, open-mic night at Attenborough Arts Centre in Leicester. Her PhD research makes links between the science of holography and writing poetry. Tammy Yoseloff said that in her poetry Pam Thompson shows small epiphanies, each word like a pebble we can roll in our fingers or place in our pocket to take out later, and that she is full of love for place and people.
Maria Isakova-Bennett: Pam, it’s lovely to have this chance to talk to you about your work and direction. I was trying to recall when we first met as I feel I’ve known you a long time. I recall a course I loved with Nuar Alsadir and I think that you were part of her mind-opening sessions, and of course you were part of my first Coast to Coast to Coast litany – it was so good to have your writing from Ireland as part of that.
I looked back at some interviews you did in which you mentioned courses, and have been thinking about isolation and so many other aspects of the past two years. I wonder if you could tell us something about the Poetry School courses that you participated in during the pandemic and in what direction you think they might be leading you? Did they open up new doors of creativity?
Dr. Pam Thompson: It’s a real pleasure to talk to you too, Maria. Yes, I was part of the course with Nuar – on the Lyric Essay. It was mind-opening for me as this was an entirely new form which enabled us to think of poetry and prose together and to expand our pre-conceptions of what constituted poetry. Nuar is an inspirational teacher and I know you too really love her work. Being part of your Coast to Coast to Coast projects has also been one of my definite highlights of the past few years – to be included in your fabulous journal more than once and to take part in the first litany with part of a poem which arose from a course based in Carnlough on the Antrim Coast and led by Anne-Marie Fyfe and Cahal Dallat. I practise visual art but not to any professional level and I know that bringing art and poetry together is important for you too. A highlight for me at Aldeburgh in 2019 was your translation of our lines of poetry into textile landscapes. I did participate in courses during the pandemic – they were a lifeline really, as was my Saturday morning workshop group. I suppose the main courses were those run by The Poetry Business, their Writing Together workshops and residentials. I’ve attended Peter and Ann Sansom’s workshops in Huddersfield and Sheffield for many years so it was really good to be able to continue to do so during the pandemic, not only with Peter and Ann but with guest tutors such as Cliff Yates, Michael Laskey, Liz Berry and Mimi Khalvati. Different tutors have different ways of working and I really like the variety – also, they bring a range of different prompts, often based on poems and that’s always a good thing. Of course, I have notebooks full of scribbles which never make it into poems but that’s all part of the process. I can’t pretend it’s not frustrating sometimes though. I’ve also enjoyed Miriam Nash’s courses, for example with themes of ‘Shapeshifting’, ‘Songs’ and ‘Letters’, and an actual Poetry School course, towards the end of lockdown, led by Paul Stephenson and based on contemporary French Poetry. Paul’s materials were so rich and the assignments too. I’m not a linguist, not that you had to be, but I did wish I had more French and/or experiences of living in France and really admired the poets who did and could bring it into their work so well. Ekphrasis, writing in some kind of dialogue with art, particularly appeals though, as I know it does for you, and that’s why Steven J. Fowler’s courses sparked my interest and helped me not only to understand broader definitions of poetry but to experiment with work that intersected art and poetry e.g. photo and poster poetry, asemic writing, collage. Steven encourages collaboration and is an incredibly supportive and generous tutor. Via the course blogs I have met a range of interesting poet-artists and been exposed to an excellent range of poetic work in different media. I’ve learnt about journals which specialise in visual poetry but haven’t got round to sending any of my work to them yet.
MIB: This all sounds wonderfully creative and I love how so much of your practice is open-ended and process led. Do you have poems/ a poem that you’ve written recently that surprised you, whether that be in language or direction, or any other facet? I can think of poems myself that have done this recently, and working alone, as many of us have over the past two years, I’m aware that you can wonder how a new direction might be read by others. I wonder if you could talk a little about finding new directions in your work.
PT: Yes. I should mention that I have had serious health issues involving chemotherapy during lockdown, and beyond, as well as some ongoing family concerns, and at one point, couldn’t write or create in any way at all. That’s not the case now, although resulting peripheral neuropathy and anxiety has slowed me down. I’m not too good at being kind to myself and just accepting where I am, always wanting to be doing more.
Therefore, I’ve been pleased to get anything and most of my poems have been shortish, around 14- 20 lines, often in a loose sonnet form. This has felt do-able although I’ve always admired those who can write long poems. I wrote a poem called ‘The Lovers’ based on Marina Abramovic’s walk along the Great Wall of China, with her lover Ulay, walking it from the opposite direction. They intended to get married when they met in the middle but actually split up. It wasn’t a long poem, exactly, but longish for me, and in short sections. I based it on research from Marina’s biography and was thrilled that it was a runner-up in the recent Mslexia competition, judged by Pascale Petit. I had feedback on a draft of this poem from two trusted poet friends and each only suggested minimal changes. New directions in my work would be in my attempts to bring art and poetry together more formally. ‘The Lovers’ is an ekphrastic poem, based on a performance but I suppose I would like to be even more adventurous with my choices of language and layouts of words on the page, and in combining art forms. How might my new directions be read by others? Mostly positively I think. I suppose I am trying to expose my work to different readers and audiences. You can’t perform visual poetry as such but you have control of how it might be received. I was exposed to sound and video poetry on Steven J. Fowler’s courses – so fascinating but out of my comfort zone. This is partly due to not knowing enough about various technologies so the work I have produced has been relatively low-tech.
MIB: Congratulations on your Mslexia success. It’s always good to have an accolade from a writer who has skill in an area you’re interested in and I know Pascale is an artist as well as a writer. Something I’ve been thinking about with reference to my own writing is the issue of feedback and whether feedback on writing too soon after creation might stifle possible direction. I wonder what your thoughts are about this?
PT: Feedback is important but I suppose you can get it too soon. Confidence is all really. I am full of self-doubts and my self-belief is easily hijacked. I’ve been writing long enough to know that the poet can always do what they want in the end but I’m probably too quick to discard a poem that has had quite a few suggested alterations. I’m always trying to learn to give feedback better myself. The best kind I like to receive is when someone has considered the poem as a whole; what I might be trying to achieve and has offered constructive comments for development rather than just focusing on worries about meaning or odd items of syntax – this is not to say that those things aren’t important though.
MIB: For your PhD research, you undertook a fascinating enquiry: looking at holography as a context for writing ekphrastic poetry. I wonder if you could tell us a little about writing holopoems (maybe giving us an example), and I wonder too whether this is something you’re still interested in developing or where it has led/ is leading you.
PT: Holopoems are poems made via the medium of holography – 3D imaging – invented in 1983 by Brazilian artist, Eduardo Kac. I was investigating ways that holography/holopoetry might inform new ekphrastic poetry for me. I started by looking closely at Kac’s original holopoems which can be found here https://ekac.org/holopoetry.html and learning about how he made them. I was also inspired by holograms made by made by my former colleague at De Montfort University, Professor Martin Richardson. These were of the famous sea-clock made by John Harrison and which solved the longitude problem. At that time, the holograms, along with the timepiece, were kept at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Greenwich became an important place for my research because of this. One of the features of a hologram is that if you cut up the hologram when it is on the holographic plate, each part contains the whole. That was the conceptual idea behind a few of my poems, including this one, ‘Through the Hologram’, which gained second prize in the Ledbury Festival Poetry Competition in 2019.
Through the Hologram
Azimuth. Sunwatcher. Its house. She holds out her arm. Stretches.
Horse’s tail. Take it. Forget them. A baton. A torch. A flame.
Smell of tea on deck. Wool Clipper. 1883. Australian wool. Fastest.
New York. Cargo of coal. 1916. Repaired. Table Bay. Cutty Sark. 1922.
Nothing is known. Lallah Rookh. Back from Shanghai. Wrecked.
Kashmiri Princess. Maud. February. Unseasonal spring. Cyclorama.
Old behaviours. Fan museum. Tonight’s sky. Denem. Vega. Altair.
Summer Triangle. As if a real city sky. He switches it on. Now it’s July.
Dirty work. Up late. Sweeping. Maintaining. Last of the £5 glass
of wine. Emergency. Woke up. In ambulance. So sorry. Red painted toes.
Sextant. Almanac. Chronometer. H4. Bi-metallic strip.
Switch phone camera to panoramic. Sweep across park. The river.
“Visions of the Universe”. “Earth like a blue pea”. Apollo 2. “I hid it
with my thumb.” Neil Armstrong. Other side of the moon. Not dark.
Only sometimes. Sugar lump rocks. Watching the vehicle cross Mars. Forever Lodestone.
Magnetic ore. Ships struck feldstone edges. Isles of Scilly.
“Ship wrecked in a storm off a rocky Coast”. Pieter Muller the Younger.
Late 17c. Harrison’s clocks. Simulacra in hidden rooms. The future.
There are fragments of various visits/ experiences in Greenwich. It’s a strange, disjointed poem and I was greatly surprised but greatly pleased of course that it stood out to gain 2nd place. The judge of the completion was Nia Davies who I knew wrote quite experimentally herself and her comments showed an understanding of what I was trying to achieve. I’ve left this idea alone for a while but as I answer your question it makes me want to return to the work. I’ve often wondered if I could bring in both some of the poems and poetics of the PhD into one or more short lyric essays. I worked on the PhD collection when I was fortunate to gain a Fellowship for a month’s writing at Hawthornden castle in Scotland in 2019. I suppose events intervened and I haven’t returned to it. Maybe I should try to recapture some of what now seems like a kind of dreamtime, and add some new material. We’ll see.
MIB: Congratulations again, Pam. It’s always a great feeling when experimental work is acknowledged and validated. The whole process is fascinating. I visited Greenwich recently, and reading you poem conjures up aspects of looking at the Cutty Sark I certainly think you should return to the work with a sort of attitude of ‘where was I before I was interrupted by global and personal life events?’. I recall that one of our assignments with Nuar was to create a short experimental film poem. I failed to create one! Noting your interest in mixed-media work and movement, albeit limited in a hologram, is this something that interests you and have you pursued any work in this area?
PT: It does interest me and there was a time a few years ago when I was experimenting more with film poems after attending a course with Claire Trévien in Oxford. Claire introduced various film-making software and examples of videos. I used a free version of a software called Filmora where you incorporate photographs, text and speech into a film. The film poem I made for Nuar’s course, Another Place, was made this way, which involved several shots of Antony Gormley sculptures in various locations, words from a written poem which I spoke as well. I know you know some of those sculptures very well – the statues on Crosby beach, and after which the film takes its title. Claire made video films of two of my own poems from Strange Fashion, ‘Gibbous Sonnet’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDa82TQHqQQ and ‘Stop/Start’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjqkId2_WVk using various techniques, and they are little gems. I am attracted to the form. I see some of the film poems made, for example, by Helen Dewbury, Lucy English and Josephine Corcoran, and I do feel inspired but sometimes it’s hard enough just getting words on the page.
MIB: I fully appreciate what you mean about the complexity of even getting words on the page, but I’m sure that over the next months you won’t be able to help exploring other aspects of your creativity. You’re so creative. Michael Simmons Roberts said of your poem, My Life As A Bat, This is a smart, witty poem with a real edge and a sting in the tail. It is formally ambitious and adept, built around an abecedarian structure, but manages to maintain its fluency and energy throughout. I know that you have written other abecedarian poems such as Abecedarian for Liam (p. 40, Strange Fashion, Pindrop Press, 2017). Is this a form you enjoy? Can you tell us of its attraction and of some other forms you enjoy in your writing?
PT: I treasure that comment and it was a thrill to win 3rd place with that poem in the Poets and Players competition that year. I also wrote an abecedarian for my daughter Derry for her 27th birthday. It’s an old form, isn’t it? I think that’s part of the attraction for me but I particularly like the fact it imposes the constraint of starting each line with a letter of the alphabet, something which propels the poem in unexpected directions. I like using forms, and constraints, which all forms are, for this reason. So I might take an Oulipean N+7 approach where you substitute each noun in a poem for one seven places away from it in the dictionary. Of course, there has to be some flexibility! My poem ‘Wedding Reception at the Brill and Grouse’- in One for the Road: An Anthology of Pubs and Poetry, 2017, Smith|Doorstop, takes this approach. Here’s the first stanza:
Raise a toast for the bride and groom
Rake a tobacconist for the bridge and groper
Rally a toccata for the bridle and gross
Ramble a toddler for the briefs and grotto
I learnt about the aperture poem from Kirsten Irving on a course that she was running. This is a poem in the shape of a square where the words of the poem are arranged as if they are being glimpsed through a window giving the impression that that we are only getting a partial view of something larger. This seemed a fitting form at a time when we were confined to our houses, and, if we were lucky, gardens, and so I used it for my poem ‘The Fence’, written in March/ April 2020. It was published on the New Boots and Pantisocracies site, which, at that time, was featuring pandemic poems.
Other forms? I enjoy the sestina, sonnet and pantoum, and variations on them. Then, more recently, I suppose, I’ve experimented with the golden shovel, a form devised by Terrance Hayes after a poem by Gwendolen Brooks. The idea is that you take a line from an existing poem by another poet and make each consecutive word of the line an end-word for each line of your own poem. I don’t think I’ve ever had one published but they are fun to write.
MIB: In a recent interview you mentioned mixed-media and collage and how some of your writing has a collage-like feel. Can you tell us about some of these poems and maybe cite something from them and how the art you’re interested in interacts with this kind of writing?
PT: I enjoy looking at and making art work that uses a variety of media, for example, paint, collage and various linework, text, including asemic writing – writing that has pattern but no semantic meaning. Someone commented that my poetry has a ‘mixed-media feel’ and it made me reflect more closely on connections between my art practice and my writing in a way I hadn’t done so before. I was interested in artist Kurt Schwitters’ concept of ‘Merz’ to describe his assemblages which were made of scraps of random materials like pieces of cardboard, bus tickets, paper bags and so on – salvaged materials. I have painted on cardboard and wallpaper lining paper, so I like the idea of the makeshift and haphazard. My poem, ‘Postcards from Belfast’ – which Jo Shapcott awarded the Magma Judge’s Prize in 2015 and, also to my great surprise and pleasure, was Highly Commended in Forward Prizes and published in the 2016 anthology – is a sestina which has a collage approach. Each stanza represents a ‘postcard’ comprising places/ scenes from a visit to Belfast. I like to think it is a poem where I bring in different visual and verbal materials and that the sestina form prompts me towards unexpected juxtapositions. Here is one of those ‘postcards’:
Black cab parked in a street
where Orangemen march. The driver lists
numbers of police, armoured cars. ‘Picture’,
he says, ‘August 15th 1969’. Catholic houses burned, blue
smoke. That house, re-built without windows.
Closed, cold. Turned into ice.
Lately, I’ve enjoyed Sarah Doyle’s pamphlet from V Press, ‘Something so wild and new in this feeling’ in which she creates striking new poems from lines in Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals. It would be a really interesting project to take a body of work and make it new through collage. Not easy to do of course, but Sarah pulls it off magnificently!
Have I answered your question? I’m not entirely sure – the art I’m interested in tends towards the abstract or semi-abstract, or, shall we say, art which leaves the reader space to move around in and use their imagination. I like to think my poems do this too. Thank you, Maria, for such well-researched and thought-provoking questions.
MIB: Yes, you’ve certainly answered my questions, and so generously. Please rest assured, Pam, your poems do leave room to move around in. It’s been a pleasure and very thought-provoking to ‘talk’ and catch up with all of your creativity. I’m sure you’ve been inspiring for other artists and writers too, and I wish you all the very best and wish you also continuing success with the amazing processes you work through.