“Get into the pit with me”: Cat Woodward talks to Flo Reynolds

There’s just over a week left to send us your submissions for issue 1 of Vessel, and we thought a podcast with some more info about what Vessel is and what our editors are looking for could be useful. So we’re really happy to share this conversation between editor Flo Reynolds and guest editor of issue 1 Cat Woodward. Listen here, or read the transcript below.

We talk about Cat’s practice and the “capaciousness” of poems, poems we love, cracking words open and seeing what comes out, the spirit of Ursula K Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory, and the different associations our theme of “vessel” has for us.

We apologise for the audio quality – Cat briefly breaks up in a few places, and Flo was trying to be heard over a thunderstorm.

Our submissions window closes at a minute to midnight BST on Friday 28th August, and you can find out more how to send us your poems here.


Transcript

You’re listening to the first in an occasional podcast from Vessel. Vessel is a new independent magazine exploring poems as vessels.

What can a poem hold? What might slip through it, or rest outside of it? How might a poem create, become, or embody a container? These are just some of the questions we hope to explore both formally and thematically across each issue of Vessel.

I’m founder editor Flo Reynolds, and I’m joined by our guest editor for issue one.

Cat Woodward is a socialist feminist lyric poet and academic. She is a Lecturer in creative writing at the University of Cumbria, and her first collection, Sphinx, was publishing in 2017 by Salo Press. Her second collection Blood. Flower. Joy! was published by Knives, Forks and Spoons press in 2019. In 2018 she won the Ivan Juritz Prize for a collection of short lyrics. Cat’s poems have been published in The White Review, Butcher’s Dog, Hotel, Blackbox Manifold, Datableed, And Other Poems, Adjacent Pineapple, Lighthouse, The Literateur and others.

FR: Cat, that is such a list of publication credits you’ve got. I totally messed up my words there, but I’m impressed. I wonder if you can – perhaps to kick us off in this first podcast, whether you as guest editor would tell us a bit about your practice?

CW: My practice! Well, we’ve talked a bit about this before in another podcast we did for the National Centre for Writing, and I remember that I said it was assemblage, in that I seem to just aquire an enormous amount of notes on the back of receipts, in notebooks, on anything I can get my hands on. And my notebooks kind of look like this terrible hellscape of pencil lead, full of arrows and asterisks. And normally what I do is I will… I never really sit down to write something on purpose. Usually it will just sort of happen, but it will be maybe like three words at a time, and I’ll write it down. And then maybe a week later: four words, and I’ll write it down. And then maybe after three months I have enough material to make a poem, and then I will brutally cut and saw and rearrange and edit until I have something that I’m happy with. But lately that’s started changing, because I’ve really been focussing on project writing where I’ll start with a concept and I will write in that vein. And I’ve been writing really, really long poems for the first time in my life. And I’ve realised that given the room and the capaciousness of the long poem and the chance to develop and just put one thing next to another… I’ve just started writing line after line after line and they’ll come out. And then I have to go back in and take out all the crap pieces. But I’ve really amazed myself at how much will flow if I let it. And so I guess at the moment I’d say that my practice is always changing. I’m surprising myself with this.

FR: That’s so great to hear and I’m so pleased that you’ve used words like writing about a ‘concept’ and ‘capaciousness’ of the long poem because that really feels like it ties in with Vessel. I started Vessel in July 2020. For several years now I have had a kind of personal research question about the ways in which poems can be like containers or like pots, and I thought that this would actually be a fantastic question to explore with other people. And one way to do that would be through a small, DIY magazine published twice a year, inviting open submissions and edited in tandem with a guest editor in a kind of collaborative model. And do to hear you using words like ‘capaciousness’ – I really resonate with that and think that’s a brilliant example of what I hope we can explore through Vessel magazine as we come to edit the first issue together.

CW: I think I got bitten by the Vessel bug!

FR: Yeah? Great, I’m glad! I’m really glad. I wondered if, as we build towards the closure of the submissions window whether we could talk a little bit about the contemporary poetry that inspires you to start off with, and then we’ll turn towards what you as guest editor will be looking for as we come to edit the magazine. So if we start with the poets that you love and the poetry that inspires you – could you say a little bit about that?

CW: Well I tend to go through phases, and I’ll have a kick of reading one type of thing, and then I’ll move onto the other thing. And at the moment I am reading Geraldine Monk, Maggie O’Sullivan, and Denise Riley and Veronica Forrest-Thomson, and all these poets who play with languages in this really innovative, surprising, often shocking way. And so at the moment, I’m really interested in things that play with both visuals – visual arrangement and space on the page – but also phonics, and semantics, and that try to blend all of those levels together. I’m constantly surprised by the things that Geraldine Monk does. She’ll find this crack in a word, and open it, and make you realise all of the things that are hiding in that word, in an arrangement with other words like that word. You find in the space of four lines she’s told you an epic.

FR: Yeah, that’s brilliant. And actually you’ve taken it a step further, from ‘poem as vessel’ into ‘word as vessel’. A single word is something that you can break open and look inside and have a dig around in, and find what it contains, which is really fantastic. I think there’s definitely a lot in what you say that I resonate with as well – kind of, poetry that is bold and that takes a risk in how it is presented on the page in a visual manner and what it’s doing sonically and musically as well. There’s definitely some stuff in there that I hope we’ll see in the submissions we receive to issue one.

CW: Me too. The kind of things that I’m interested in reading are the ones that give me more every time I read them. I want to read a poem that involves me in the reading of it as well, like a poem that says, “get into the pit with me.” And I want to read a poem that is endlessly open. There’s always going to be a new way that I can interact with it and a new joy that I can get out of it, a new thing in it that I can share with somebody else. I’m forever bored by the kind of poetry that… I think, like, the distinction we get taught in university classes is between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ poems, just to use those two words. A ‘closed’ poem is typically the kind of thing that has a neat little paraphrasable meaning in it, which is usually quite some pithy thing about the world, which can be very compelling in itself but, as great as that is, once the poem’s done it’s done. I think I’d rather do the O’Hara thing and call someone up on the telephone if I wanted to know that. But a poem is… Like, to me a good open poem is something that will keep giving and that I feel I can always have another connection with, and another, and another.

FR: Absolutely, I totally agree with you there and I think I feel the same. I always love a poem that is… you know, maybe a bit messy around the edges but is taking risks and jumping to places that I’ve never thought about before, rather than something that is incredibly polished and brilliantly wrought, but maybe isn’t taking me anywhere new. So I’m hoping that we’ll be surprised and excited. One of the inspirations behind Vessel for me as well as an interest in material culture and studio pottery and The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction by Ursula K. Le Guin…

CW: I love it so much. I’ve got the Ignota Books version with the introduction by Donna Haraway. It’s so good!

FR: It’s a lovely little edition. I’m so glad that they’ve republished this essay in the UK recently. And for listeners who might not have read it yet, it’s an essay by Ursula Le Guin, the science fiction writer and essayist and amazing thinker. And the essay is about how one of the foundational myths of our culture tends to be that the first technology was a pointy stick wielded by a heroic man and that actually different kinds of stories become possible if we think of maybe somebody who is not a heroic man and they might be carrying a net or a bag or a gourd or a shell or a leaf that’s a container for other things. And so Ursula Le Guin was really interested in how the container as a trope or as a form or as a theme opens up the possibility for other stories. Jumping off from her, and taking inspiration from lots of other people as well, I’m hoping that we’ll be taken to some other worlds in poetry form.

CW: I just want to say as well, I was so surprised at how much fun that essay is. It’s hilarious! You should definitely read it if you haven’t read it.

FR: Highly recommended and as you say, a beautiful little edition from Ignota Books. We’re open to submissions until a minute before midnight British Summer Time on the 28th August. We’re really open in terms of form, subject matter, style… Although Cat and I want to be surprised, we have broad tastes as well.

CW: Honest to God, I’m a big fan of Keats, and Swinburne, and Shakespeare… All of that!

FR: Yup, absolutely. We’re also particularly open to work by Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities and caring duties, working class people and women. As I say, we want to be as inclusive and open as possible and although each gues editor brings their own concerns and approach, we really welcome people to submit to us. If you’re thinking about it and you’re not sure Vessel is for you, please don’t hesitate. We’d love to hear from you and receive your submissions, and the only requirement really is that you’re thinking about what a poem can hold, and how it can hold it, and what the idea of poetry as a vessel means to you. So you can submit by email to vesselpoetry@gmail.com by midnight on the 28th August.

We welcome poems that are primarily or mainly in English, but we’re not limiting ourselves to English. I know myself, as a speaker of European languages – I’m quite limited in that sense – I know the wordplay that working in multiple languages can open up. So, just thinking about the word ‘vessel’ for me is such a word rich with meaning and different associations. Instantly it takes me into French, with ‘vaisseau’, which means ‘boat’, ‘vase’ which means a vessel… kind of sediment-y stuff, ‘verseau’ which is the star sign Aquarius, and ‘ la vaiselle’ which is the dishes. So instantly I’m taken to the domestic sphere, the celestial sphere, the maritime sphere. Likewise in my mother tongue of English, ‘vessel’ makes me think ‘blood vessel’, I think ships and boats again, I think of pots and jugs – for me it tends to be studio pottery and the wonderful pots of Magdalene Odundo, for example – but we can also think of ourselves as vessels of a higher power. I think also of wassailing, going out and singing to apple trees to ensure a good harvest. So there are so many rich associations in just one word to explore this idea of poems as containers, and I’m sure listeners, readers, writers out there will have so many, more brilliant ideas about where to take our theme.

So, Cat, is there anything else Vessel-wise or poetry-wise that you want to talk about?

CW: I do. I’m afraid I accidentally talked over you a little bit and it’s just that I’m so excited about the Ursula Le Guin essay. I just wanted to talk about the thing that I took from that essay most of all, which is, I guess the meta-point about the image of the bag. For me reading that essay the main point wasn’t just to propagate this alternative figure of the bag for human stories. It was the fact that multiple stories can exist all at the same time, all jumbled up together. That essay for me is really trying to get out from under the domination of that single narrative, you know, the phallic stick-tool killing-weapon long pointy hard thing that we’ve taken for granted for so long as this central figure in the human mind. The bag in that essay is not intended to replace it, it’s intended to sit next to it. And then something else can sit next to that bag. And something else, and something else. And to me that’s the essence of The Bag Theory, is that so many things can jumble together all at once, and we can find our own way in them. And there’s going to be so much meaning and significance in those new arrangements that we can make, and I’m excited to see everything and anything that gets thrown my way with this project, just in the spirit of The Bag Theory.

OPEN CALL: Submissions for issue 1

The submissions window for issue 1 of Vessel is now open until 23:59 BST on 28th August 2020.

Send us up to 4 poems and/or images for consideration to vesselpoetry@gmail.com. Please read our full submissions guidelines before sending. You can also read more about our editorial process here.

We particularly welcome work by Black, Indigenous and people of Colour, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, carers, working class people, and women.

Our tastes are broad, and each guest editor brings their own concerns and approach. There is no preferred style or theme for each issue – just show us your interpretation of the idea of poem as vessel.

Issue 1 is edited by Flo Reynolds and Cat Woodward.

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