Janet Lees is one our fantastic team of judges for the Hysteria 2017 poetry category. She has numerous awards to her name including: One of 10 poets shortlisted for the National Memory Day competition 2017, an open international call on the theme of ‘Memory’. A poem selected in Guernsey International Poetry Prize 2017 for the Poems on the Move exhibition on the buses and various venues in Guernsey this year. She was the 2nd prize-winner in the Poetry School and Soda Pictures Instagram poetry competition . And finally a poem selected for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2017.
Which writers or poets inspire you and why?
I’m inspired by so many, it’s difficult to pick just a few. But thinking about poetry specifically and even more specifically poetry that really sets me alight, I always remember the first time I read Vasko Popa, whose name I’d come across when reading a ‘how to’ book on poetry by Ted Hughes. I ordered a massive volume of Popa’s collected poems and devoured them. I was blown away by their darkness and savagery and momentous humanity. The same thing happened for me when I read Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds and Selima Hill for the first time. And again recently when I read Ted Hughes’ Crow in its entirety. There is a burning intensity running through the work of all these poets – and in the case of Hughes’ ‘Crow’ and Hill’s ‘Bunny’ a jubilant, indefatigable black humour – that speaks straight to my heart, darkness and all, without anything getting in the way.
If you are a writer or poet, how did you get started?
I loved writing as a child and must have started writing poetry when I was very young, because I can’t remember starting – it feels like something I just always did. In my twenties I experienced depression, and stopped writing poetry for a long time. It wasn’t until my forties that I started again. It happened on a retreat holiday in Greece. I think it was a combination of meditation and long solitary sea-swims that brought the poet in me back to life. It was incredibly powerful; as if the words were coming up into me from the sea. When I got back home I realised I had to do something with this raging need to write. There was so much I felt needed to come out and I didn’t feel even half up to expressing it. So I enrolled on a Creative Writing MA course at Lancaster University – part-time, juggling studying with work – and eventually graduated in 2013.
What are you reading currently?
I’m a shockingly disorganised reader and always have several books on the go, some of which I let drift for months before picking them up again. At the moment my three favourites are Jacob Polley’s darkly dazzling poetry collection Jackself, Angela Readman’s beautiful collection The Book of Tides, and How to be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman. The latter is really out of character for me; my husband is an avid reader of non-fiction books and he persuaded me to give it a try. I’m surprised by how much I’m enjoying it – it’s so vivid, down-to-earth and full of life.
What advice would you give to your younger writing self?
The same advice that I’d give to my present writing self: write! I always feel better when I write, because writing helps me to know myself better. I really do find out what I think about a subject through writing a poem; as well as being an act of creation it’s an act of integration. I’d also tell her that the most important thing in life is kindness, and not to worry about being afraid; that the fear underneath all fears is the fear of not being able to handle it (whatever it is), but that she always will.
Do you have a favourite writing or reading resource to recommend?
The Poetry School is a brilliant resource. They run face-to-face and online courses with a fantastically diverse range of themes, for everyone from beginners to established poets. I’m now on my third online course and as always I’m getting a lot from it – I definitely write more and better when I’m given prompts and deadlines, and am writing alongside other poets.