JO REED INTERVIEW
One of Britain’s finest poets, Jo Reed is the author of two stunning collections of work, “Stone Venus” and “Life Class.” Here, in an interview with “Pulse” author Steve Rudd, Jo opens up about what inspires her to pen such affecting poetry, her “other life” as a printmaker, and why she’s fallen head over heels for Scarborough…
Hi Jo, how are things, and how has 2016 treated you so far?
After a rather shaky start, 2016 has become an interesting year. I returned in spring from visiting my family, who live abroad, and was invited to attend the last few sessions of the Creative Writing courses run by Hull University, met many old writing friends, and contributed to “The Plotting Shed,” a writers’ group swansong. At about the same time, “Carte Blanche,” a distinguished group of women writers in NCL, reminded a few stragglers that submissions for another anthology were due. I forwarded an appropriate poem, which I’d begun in Newcastle a year before as a few notes, but completed in Paphos, Cyprus, in the New Year. I also designed the front cover of “White Card,” its title.
You recently released your second collection of poetry with “Valley Press.” What inspired you to call it “Life Class”? Have you ever done any Life Modelling, or does the title refer to something else completely?
“Life Class” is so-called for its connections with my Cambridge Art School education. Ken Vail, an art school friend, drew the cover illustration during a Life Class break, probably in 1959. It has strong connections with a previous poem about Henrietta Moraes, which was published in “Stone Venus.” And yes, I was an occasional model to supplement my rather meagre student grant. I still regularly attend life-drawing classes in Scarborough, as I feel it is one of the greatest drawing disciplines there is. I use these studies to inform my printmaking activities at “The Ropewalk” in Barton-upon-Humber, where much of my work is allied to women and their lives. Although I have had an interesting life so far, I am still learning in every respect.
Did you write all of the poems contained in “Life Class” after “Stone Venus” came out, or have some of your “newest” poems been around for a lot longer?
Most of the poems in “Life Class” were written after “Stone Venus” was published, though some of them have had other beginnings, with longer roots, having taken a few years to complete and flourish. Even the shortest poem, “Turtle Song,” took a couple of years to finalise. “Kitchen Sink Painting,” however, was written in the Laing Gallery, Newcastle, in less than an hour, though crafting and editing took longer.
What process led to your work being published with “Valley Press”?
I knew Jamie McGarry, “VP” founder, through the SPW in Scarborough. He knew I was working towards an MA specialising in poetry. Although he had to ask to see my work several times due to my reticence, I am very pleased that he did ask. I think it was quite brave of him to take on the challenge of an older unpublished poet in the early days of “VP.”
Do you enjoy doing poetry readings?
I have begun to enjoy them. In my “other life,” I have shown my printmaking at Private Views, and always felt a little nervous. With poetry, it’s much more personal. At least one third of my work is based on memoir, some of it very personal, and I come from a generation of women that don’t really discuss such personal matters. I am, however, much bolder and braver after talking to Jackie Kay, one of the many gifted writers I worked with in Newcastle, about her writing in “Adoption Papers,” in which she describes what it is like to undergo the process that she did in her early life.
Of all the amazing poems that grace “Stone Venus,” which one is your favourite?
“Memory of Venus” is still the most telling piece for me. It’s obviously very personal indeed, and describes that moment in many people’s lives… the one where you choose to sink or swim. I’m so pleased that I decided to do the latter; I’ve become the oldest mermaid in town! I had work published in the early SPW anthologies, along with “Carte Blanche,” various student magazines, and “Diamond Twig,” an online venture by Ellen Phethean. One of the best things about working with “Valley Press” is that Jamie really enjoys putting a book together. We have several meetings during the process, arguing our point of view over any oddities. Any poems that have not made it into the collections will find other ways onto the page. I am currently working on a long-term self-published project called “The Soho Sequence” in which I’m exploring Soho life in the sixties through a series of interconnected pieces. The final pamphlet, “Blokes,” will be published this autumn.
Are you a writer so disciplined as to write something every single day, or are you more casual in the sense of writing simply when the mood takes you?
Daily writing is very important to me, even if it is just a sentence about an incident in that day. I attend as many writing workshops as possible; they take me out of my own normality and comfort-zone. I often find myself writing something that I didn’t know that I knew until it arrived on the page, and that then encourages me to do some research: one of the great delights of writing. I run poetry and art workshops occasionally. In their planning, I often find the research itself will lead to further writing. I regularly set aside editing periods, usually when I’m away on holiday, when I work through recent writings, and begin to put together individual pieces. When I’ve collected enough work together, I invite a group of friends, nicknamed the Acharavi beach-babes, to a long outdoor lunch. Their input helps me to take certain pieces to publication-point.
Your poetry aside, have you ever written prose?
I write prose with great enjoyment, particularly short fiction and short stories, which already have such strong affinities with poetry. I have two short novels for children that I’m working on: one set in North Norfolk after WWII, the other set near Flamborough in Viking times. I am also in the throes of producing a Graphic Novel in which identity and survival in an ancient landscape are examined. It’s almost complete, bar the illustrations. More recently, I have taken up scriptwriting with a very inspiring group of SJT community-writers, led by the amazing Ali Watt. In their company, I’ve had a piece read at SJT. Also, I’ve been asked by “The Beach Hut Theatre Company” to write a short play for a November production.
Born in Durham, a Londoner in the sixties, and now resident in Scarborough, you’ve lived all over the UK. What is it about Scarborough that’s made you stay?
It has actually taken me quite a while to make Scarborough my home, the greatest pull being the fact that my lovely young grandsons live here. I have met some wonderful people associated with the creative arts, particularly the art and writing communities. I started visiting when my oldest son undertook a Science degree at the Scarborough campus of York University. I found it to be a town of surprises, with all sorts of nooks and crannies, architectural splendours, and interesting communities, all of which invited exploration.
Finally, how can people find out more about you and your writing?
You can find my work on the “Valley Press” and “Electric Angels” websites, along with the “Studio Gallery” website.
Want to buy a copy of “Life Class”? Simply click here