Never quite at home
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OCA tutor Liz Cashdan’s most recent collection of poems ‘Things of Substance: New and Selected Poems’ was published in April by Five Leaves Publications, and launched at the Sheffield Poetry Festival and the Sticky Bun Club in June. Creative writing student Lindsay Peaston talks to Liz about the influences on her poetry of home, travel, Judaism and family.
In ‘Things of Substance’ there are references to Judaism, for example ‘Tel Hashomer: Israel’, ‘Happenings’. What effect has this aspect of your background had on your poetry writing?
The fact that I am Jewish is important to me. I am not religious, indeed I would call myself an atheist, so my Judaism refers to history, tradition, culture, language, the call of Israel. I am torn about Israel – I have family living there but I do not support the Israeli government in its dealings with the Palestinians. All these things obviously lie behind a lot of my poems.
There are references to other countries in the poems in this collection eg South Africa, Russia, Finland and Israel, and you have published work from time spent in Iceland. How important is the experience of travelling and living abroad to you as a writer?
I love travelling and staying with people who live in other countries, not just being a tourist. At the same time I am conscious that although I am English, I am never quite at home in England. My parents came from Russia as refugees via Finland so those places have an emotional pull.
To what extent is your own sense of place within the landscape, home and abroad, reflected in your writing?
Sense of place is important to me and I love the British landscape – I enjoy walking and feeling the ground beneath my feet as I walk. So that all gets into my poetry too.
Many of the poems in this collection draw on events and relationships within your family. How easy or difficult was it to write from such a personal perspective?
Not always easy because I don’t want to make family issues public. So I try to fictionalise and say ‘what if?’.
Your poems often allow the reader to share in the emotions of your family experiences and enable them to recognise similar incidents in their own lives – ‘Swimming to the Wreck’ and ‘Naming Day’ for example. Is the ability to find the commonality in our lives something you have always been able to do or is it a skill you have learnt?
One of the skills I have always tried to practise and to get across to students is to write about the particular, to anchor a poem in a real/imagined event with people, place and detail; never to name an emotion, but let the reader find the emotion in the detail of the writing.
Although you have a background in history and literature you have written poems which have a strong scientific basis such as ‘Salt’, ‘Chalk’ and ‘Carbon’. How much research did you do as part of the writing process for these poems?
I couldn’t manage without Google and Wikipedia for science, history, geography, politics, people, everything.
In ‘The Tyre-Cairo Letters’ and ‘Anne Barnard’s South Africa’ you give a voice to characters from the past. How did you balance known fact with your imagination?
In the two poetry sequences you mention, I was lucky to find actual material in the voices of the people concerned: a scrap of an eleventh century letter from the Cairo Synagogue documents for the Tyre-Cairo Letters, and some of Anne Barnard’s own writings. When there is no actual historic document, I search for parallel evidence and then just use my imagination.
How did you decide on the title of this collection and how important is the cover design?
I was thinking about substances with the poems on carbon, chalk and salt. And then I realised the layered meanings of the word, and I think there is a reference to things of substance in Proverbs, so although not religious, I liked the idea of a biblical resonance. The photo featured on the cover is one I took myself on Bridlington beach in Yorkshire. It wasn’t until I trawled through my photo card that I decided it had interesting suggestions about land, water, tides, time, space and place.
There are over one hundred poems in ‘Things of Substance’. How long did it take you to complete the whole writing process before publication?
My last poetry book came out in 2006 so I suppose you could say seven years.
What made you choose the particular poems from ‘Laughing All the Way’ and ‘The Same Country’ for inclusion in this collection?
Those two poetry collections are out of print though you can find second hand copies on the internet (there is a copy of ‘Laughing All the Way’ on Canadian Amazon for something like 200 dollars!). I would have liked to include even more from those two collections but I chose poems that had been well received and ones that had a special meaning for me.
Ted Hughes thought of poems as ‘….a sort of animal. They seem to have their own life….’. Do you ever feel that your poems have a life of their own?
Yes, I like Ted Hughes‘ idea in ‘The Thought Fox’ that the poet is both the hunter and the hunted. But there are so many excellent images for poetry-writing. Another poet whose image for poetry I find helpful is Wisława Szymborska, who called poetry a ‘hand-rail’. So like Szymborska I shall continue to hang on.