Pauline Rowe

An Interview

Maria Isakova Bennett

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Pauline Rowe is a freelance poet, writer, researcher and tutor. I interviewed Pauline in 2016 shortly after she started research for her doctorate at Liverpool University, and we discussed her pamphlet Voices of the Benares (Lapwing Press). I wanted to catch up with Pauline who has now completed her research, been awarded her doctorate, published new writing, and started worked in several new roles including collaborative work with photographers.

Pauline Blogs at: She can be found on Facebook and Twitter @PaulineRowe_

Maria Isakova Bennett: It’s lovely to have a chance to talk to you especially after isolation due to the pandemic. You completed your doctorate just before the first lockdown. I wonder if you can talk a little about your research?

Pauline Rowe: There were two aspects to the PhD: a study about Frank Bidart’s early dramatic monologue poems – ‘Herbert White’, ‘Ellen West’, ‘The War of Vaslav Nijinsky’ – and an original collection of my own poetry. In his poems Bidart demonstrates meticulous use of source materials, including transformations of his own life, to explore the existential experience of three versions of madness: criminal insanity, suicidality through anorexia and the madness of the artist (the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky). In Bidart’s world, madness is an emotional, bodily and unavoidable part of the human condition and his engagement with it enables him to consider what it means to suffer and to experience the self as divided. I started the research thinking I was going to do a study of creative writing practice in mental health settings, but this changed. Once I’d read Frank Bidart’s work I wanted to stick with that and it informed my approach to new writing. I don’t mean I imitated him – it would be difficult to do so – but I tried to emulate his immersion in character. In my new (PhD) poems I explored themes of madness through the life of nineteenth century American journalist Nellie Bly who spent ten days in an asylum on Blackwell Island posing as a patient: the ‘Ten Days in a Madhouse’ poems were contrasted with character poems inspired by the work of psychologist David Rosenhan and his pioneering study ‘Being Sane in Insane Places.’ There is a lot of troubling stuff in the Bly and Rosenhan stories – including questions of truth, who speaks for us, ethics and experience.

MIB: It’s really interesting to hear how your plans altered during the initial stages of your research, and it’s heartening that you could go along with the shift in focus. I often hear people comment on how their writing / pace of writing alters during PhD research. Looking back, what advice would you give a poet who is considering a PhD?

PR: This is a really difficult one. You need to have a good reason to do it. A deep, unshakeable, personal reason. My motivation was in part the exorcising of old ghosts and failures.  I’d say be cautious especially if you don’t have funding and don’t have money. Also, Universities are not necessarily the most nurturing places in the world. I found it very hard to think in the critical ways demanded now in university study. I struggle with post-structural concepts of language and spent much more time wrestling with Julia Kristeva’s interpretations of Lacan than writing. The creative side of the PhD lost out to the critical in terms of time. I have such an ambivalent relationship with study. I went straight from College at 18 to the University of York to study English Literature and lasted 6 weeks. I got a cleaning job at Clifton Hospital so stayed in York for a year then came back to Liverpool and studied Law instead. I was 50 when I started the PhD. I couldn’t have stuck it when I was younger because it is a bit of a trial by fire both emotionally and intellectually. I wanted to learn and make sense of my relationship with writing. I had great supervisors and fine examiners and met some good people. But caution is the main thing. Universities need students to do post-graduate research and you need to go into it aware that it’s most unlikely you’ll get the opportunity to work in Higher Education yourself (if that’s part of your motivation). The most important thing is to write and keep writing.

MIB: I think that desire – to learn and make sense of your relationship with writing – is a powerful one, and it seems vital if writing is to be more than prescriptive, formulaic or tricksy. Since the publication of Voices of the Benares you’ve had two further poetry publications, (The Weight of Snow; The Ghost Hospital) with Maytree Press and created poetry as part of collaborative projects. How did the creation of these later books differ from the creation of Voices of the Benares which I recall you discussing as a publication which had ‘quite a wandering life before it became a book.’

PR: The poems in ‘The Ghost Hospital’ were all poems written during the time I was studying but it’s funny – there’s only one poem in that pamphlet that came from the Nellie Bly story. The others were personal, lyrical, still working with the theme of madness but more intimately connected with my own life and experience. So these 17 poems were written in the few years before the pamphlet was published and seven had been published in magazines. I suppose I think voice is one of the most important aspects of a poem. I don’t just mean tone but actual, embodied voice so you feel the vivid sense of the real person in the poem.  That’s where the emotion of language is located, I think. ‘The Weight of Snow’ is a pamphlet where every poem in it was written out of necessity. I’m grateful it was published. It feels like a debt paid to my working class roots and upbringing, and the heritage of grief that runs through my family. One poem ‘Delivery Room’ was written over a decade ago and this is the first time it’s been published. 

MIB: I agree with what you say about ‘embodied voice’. It’s such a potent aspect of writing. You recently won a Saboteur award for The Weight of Snow— many congratulations. I wonder, from your perspective, how do awards such as this benefit a writer?  In your interview for Saboteur Awards you mentioned ideas for ‘a stage play’. I certainly felt The Weight of Snow read like a stage play. The book explores the effects of loss and the way we search for understanding. The voices and parade of characters are powerful. I imagined the work as a play, each poem a small scene or voice-over. Could you tell us a little more about your development in this direction?

PR: I’ve started working with my younger sister who is a dramatist and teacher. We’re working on something through women’s voices about isolation and silencing. We envisaged it as a stage play but think it will work better through its sounds so may move more towards radio. I’m also considering re-setting the Nellie Bly and David Rosenhan poems as a radio play. I’m hoping to develop this work over the next 6 months. I have prose projects as well.

MIB: These radio projects sound really fitting for your work and for what you’ve talked about. I look forward to them. So much has happened over the past five years since we last spoke here: completion of research, family growing up, change in work for instance. I wonder how all of this has impacted on your writing and whether you find all these changes give you a sense of opening out as an author?

PR: Well, in the last 5 years I’ve worked as the first Writer-in-Residence with Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, from 2016 –19. That was as a direct result of a PhD placement and it gave me a new direction for creative collaboration and a keen interest in photography and writing, not just for poets but also in community practice. I had the chance this year to do some further work with Open Eye Gallery and the Joseph Paxton Campus through a MaxLiteracy Award, working with students at Wirral Hospitals’ School on a project called ‘Writing Photography.’ We’re developing the resources at the moment and they’ll be shared through MaxLiteracy in 2022. This has been a wonderful project working with fantastic students.  

I think I have had opportunities as a result of doing the PhD that have helped me as a writer. I remain anxious, like many writers, about earnings. The words will come or not. I have a duty to listen for them and do what I can. I am much more at peace with myself and my work. Surviving Covid may have something to do with that too. 

MIB: Thank you for this, Pauline. It’s been lovely to talk again and it’s been so good to hear of your wide range of experiences and deepening in terms of focus: your concern with voice, isolation, silencing and the potential outcome of your work for radio.

Sabotage Reviews Winner

Reviews of The Weight of Snow:

Reviews of The Ghost Hospital:

Previous Interview with Pauline Rowe in The Honest Ulsterman