Poet Jenny Mitchell interviewed by Leela Soma


BW: Hi Jenny, Welcome to Bearsden Writers. Congratulations on winning The Geoff Stevens Memorial Prize for your Debut Collection Her Lost Language. And the Fosseway Poetry Competition.

BW: Could you start with a few words telling us about yourself?

I’m a London-based poet and writer, interested in finding creative ways to examine the legacies of British transatlantic enslavement on all of us. I believe the UK (world) is suffering the aftermath of enslavement, and that it impacts every arena from the family to politics, the economy, education and housing.

My main aim is to use poetry to open up conversations between people of all ‘races’ about this history. I believe that the lack of deep ownership/healing around this massive, emotive subject is the cause of collective trauma and dysfunction.

BW: Do you remember the first poem you wrote?

I think I paraphrased a Pablo Neruda poem and showed it to a teacher (I might have been twelve). Her positive reaction no doubt spurred me on as I’ve always reacted positively to praise.

BW: How long have you been writing poetry? Why poetry and not prose or did it choose you?

I wrote a lot of poetry until I went to university at eighteen when I stopped completely. I think this was self-protective as the academy, I think, can do a lot of damage to the creative spirit.

I started to write prose after I left university and had a couple of articles published in national newspapers about my travels alone through six countries in Africa. I wrote a few short stories and had a play, English Rose, on Radio 4.

About fifteen years ago, I decided to research the history of British transatlantic enslavement. I spent five years doing the research, which I turned into lots of prose/two draft novels. I went back to poetry about three years ago.

BW: Which poets have influenced your style of writing?

I don’t analyse my style too much, and I think I have wide-ranging taste in poets, although I tend to like individual poems rather than all of a poet’s work. I really liked Emily Dickinson when I was younger, and My Last Duchess by Robert Browning remains a favourite because of its storytelling technique. The Sea is History by Derek Walcott is outstanding, and I like some poems by Patricia Smith. There are lots of others but no one writer that stands out.

BW: How would you describe your poems? Radical poems with a political message?

I think I write strongly narrative poems that aim to look at enslavement and trauma, using the most interesting language I can. I don’t think my message is that radical. I aim to give voice to those who suffered so that some sort of healing can take place.

BW:  The theme of your debut collection is obviously close to your heart. The British transatlantic enslavement of black people. Even as I read the poems, I felt the pain and cruelty inflicted on the people. How did you approach writing such a difficult theme?

First, I’d like to stress that British transatlantic enslavement is exactly that, British. Black people did not enslave themselves or suffer the history alone. I’m as interested in the impact on white people’s psyche as anyone else, especially because this impact is not spoken about much. The difficult themes of my poems are grounded in the historical research I did, or at least I feel supported by that research. I think this helps me to process a lot of the horror in a way that feels healthy.

BW: Do you have a routine for writing each day?

I do but I think I’d like to keep that private if you don’t mind.

BW: What inspires your poems?

I’ve always had a strong imagination and writing is as natural to me as breathing.

BW: Have you done any podcasts, reading your poems out loud?

I’ve performed a lot over the last two years but haven’t taken part in any podcasts yet.

BW: How did you go about getting your poems published?

The usual way: I sent work to magazines, including Sarasvati (Indigo Dreams Publishing). The acceptances encouraged me to send out more work, and I’ve continued ever since. Twitter is invaluable when it comes to finding out where to submit, especially when you hear that a magazine answers quickly and is polite.

BW: Are you working on a collection now?

Yes, but I don’t want to say too much about it yet.

BW: Do you have any other creative interests as well as writing poems?

I read lots of big biographers and I love films, especially ones made in the forties and fifties. Basically, I’m always searching for stories.

BW: Has the pandemic affected your work?

I was due to perform quite a lot but I’m using the time to write as solidly as I can.

BW: Finally, any advice or tips for the poets in our group?

The advice is obvious – read lots of poems by a wide range of writers. Think deeply about what you like/don’t like and why. Write loads. Try to listen to feedback without becoming defensive. Perhaps think in terms of ‘themes’ so that poems build on each other.

I’m not an expert on writing poetry – I just try to do my best.