An interview with Sophia Blackwell
“Family is very important and the older you get, the more you come to realise that in one way or another. It’s natural to want to break away from that when you’re young, to carve something out for yourself, but I’ve got to the point where I want to share that with others, and share the life I’ve made with the family I owe so much to.”
Sophia Blackwell’s writing is strongly infused with the influence of family and personal histories. Hailing from Newcastle, she acknowledges the importance of “the great spoken word tradition in the North East” of her childhood. “I grew up with Geordie poems, sailor’s rhymes and music-hall songs. My mother pointed out the other day that I’ve lived almost exactly half of my life away from the North, but it’s very much a part of me and it comes up a lot in the new poems.”
But here’s the bridge too soon, a coal-deep shiver
filling my bloodstream as I stand and stare,
air growing cold, bag hefted on my shoulders,
mouthing, like always, Still me, Still here,
to the black, backlit, breathing, indifferent river.
North, from The Fire Eater’s Lover
Blackwell’s poetry is peppered with fond references to her family, in particular her mother. She is among countless other strong female figures who feature in her most recent collection The Fire Eater’s Lover, including Amy Winehouse, Patti Smith and Frida Kahlo.
It was important for Sophia Blackwell that the first poem in her forthcoming collection (the final draft of which she handed in just a week before meeting us) features not only her own mother, who grew up in Zimbabwe and returned to the UK as a teenager, but her wife Heleana’s mother too.
“Both of us come from families of immigrants in one way or another – on my mother’s side, I’m descended from Italians who made their way to England. Heleana’s mother was of the Windrush generation, journeying from Barbados, coming to the UK as a nurse, and raising her children as a single parent – she was heroic, and I wanted to start my new collection with these shared histories. It seems more appropriate now than ever to be celebrating her.
“There is so much division and infighting and brokenness in the climate at the moment, and I wanted the themes of identity and journeying to be featured in my new collection – to say: this is already happening. We’ve got white people and black people getting married, we’ve got people of the same gender getting married – you can repeal laws, you can cause divisions, but we are creating new people and new families, and you can’t undo that.”
Her forthcoming collection is something that Sophia feels is written in the context of “the urgency and the seriousness of the times we’re living in now”, but that isn’t to say that there aren’t positives. “The context is also one of changes that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. I never thought I would be able to marry someone of the same gender as me.”
Sleepwalking through relentless gaslamp grey,
breathless voices clamouring of rage
and nothing letting up, the papers braying
five more years of this, the headlines savage,
you realise anger is not hot but cold, and lasts.
People are praying, hands clasped to their chests
in dark streets. Sing for the ones they mourn,
welcome them home, watch blue flames lick upwards
like unheard prayers as you prepare supper,
listen to your lover pottering in the bathroom.
Lucent, from The Fire Eater’s Lover
Blackwell also describes the positive surprise that is the “uprising of female rage in the past year – I never thought it would happen like this. There’s just so much other bad news to digest I thought we’d never be able to rise up from under it, but we did. I thought we’d just continue with being groped and patronised and assaulted and lectured at, and now there’s all these women fighting back, which is amazing.” In her spare time, Blackwell does voluntary work for the anti-bullying charity Diversity Role Models and speaks at Villiers Park Educational Trust, encouraging young people from different backgrounds to enter the creative industries. “Young people today fill me with so much hope, and it’s unfortunate that we so often have to go one step forward just to take two steps back.”
Is there a gender bias in the poetry world? “There is a gender bias but it’s not specific to poetry, it’s a reflection of the gender bias in literature in general where you just get more men on panels and reviews pages. You’ve seen some of the controversy lately around so-called ‘Instagram poets’, which is frustrating for many of us. In my opinion, ‘page vs stage’ is a media construct, and does not reflect our lived experience. Poets who’ve been around and who used to support punk bands in the 1980s are sick of hearing it – I’ve been performing for nearly fifteen years and I’m sick of hearing it too. We hear ‘page vs stage,’ all the time but we can’t relate to it. It’s a controversy that doesn’t really exist.”
Sophia agrees that there are numerous differences between performing and writing poetry now, and when she first started performing back in the mid-noughties, particularly in the context of contested borders and contested bodies. And the differences are accompanied by numerous difficulties.
“There is a lot more cleansing, righteous anger in it now –a lot of the political correctness that I grew up with was about language and content warnings, and while some people find that useful, I think we’re now more engaged with the issues and better at talking about them, rather than focusing on the language used to describe them. When you have an artist talking about sex and anything non-consensual comes up, there is a real risk that this might upset people in the audience and force them to re-live their own traumas. As a promoter, host and programmer, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to want to protect both the artist and audience. However, abuse and the abuse of power works itself into every corner of our lives, so it’s important to reflect that in the art we create. I don’t always make the right calls about how to programme that sort of content – I’m still learning – but we’re all on the journey together and it’s important that we keep talking and listening to each other on the way.”
Her upcoming, as-yet-unnamed poetry collection is the most autobiographical and, Sophia says, the most reflective.
“It’s always interesting with a poetry book that the themes emerge as you’re writing it – it’s still in progress. It’s about trying to capture the moment and the immediacy of it – and that is the process of performing it too.”
As she’s cutting the ties of a life that precedes you
you can trust her enough to close your eyes as she leads you.
you’re the book as she reads you, she’s the lesson that feeds you,
there is nothing like the feeling that somebody needs you.
An extract from Christmas in July from The Fire Eater’s Lover
In her early career when she first started out, she never used to write anything down, as she didn’t really think that that’s what performance poets ‘did’. Now as a published poet and author, performing is still a crucial part of her work, and she does it without anything between her and the audience. “It is completely exposing because there is nothing to hide behind – this is completely me. I rarely read from the books or off the page. I feel like I have to embody the work as much as possible.”
“One thing I’d say to performers who are starting out – the most important thing is to be yourself and do what you feel like doing in that moment. Don’t try to second-guess the audience. The audience is always complex and always surprising. I’ve learnt the most from people and from audience members who are not like me, or who come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives. And it’s the people who are not like me who make the most effort to reach across to me. I am constantly being surprised by the generosity of people and the openness of people – that’s what keeps me going.”
Sophia Blackwell is a performance poet, author and host. She grew up in Newcastle and moved to study at the University of Oxford. She began performing there in 2004, and moved to London in 2008. In the mid-noughties, she was one of the group to take Hammer and Tongue from Oxford to its first permanent London spot in Camden, hosting with Michelle Madsen and Sam Berkson. She is ‘a relatively newly married person’, having tied the knot with Heleana Blackwell in 2016.
Her first collection of poetry, Into Temptation, was published in 2009 and her most recent collection, The Fire Eater’s Lover, was published in May 2016 by Burning Eye Books. She is also the author of one novel, After My Own Heart (2012) and her poetry has been anthologised by Bloodaxe, Nine Arches, and The Emma Press among others. She hosts Below Stairs, the monthly literary salon at Blacks Club, Soho.
Sophia’s new collection will be published by Burning Eye Books in September 2018.