Janet Lees at neo:writers

British poet Janet Lees is featured as September’s neo:anthology Project poet. Janet talks to neo: about her work, her collaborations and how her influences affect her work. Please see Janet’s poem and interview below.


First Circle

I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.’

Dante’s Inferno, Canto I

Janet Lees


In the dark months the sea shows its hand,

dumping stones as big as cannonballs

at the doors of The Trafalgar. Inside


a fibreglass Viking guards the flat screen TV

and Ida Kelly leads a sing-song on her squeezebox –

a gift from the last accordion factory in France.


Less than half your blood belongs here.

Past and future run through you

like blurred words in seaside rock.


Every August you drown in carnival crowds

that disperse at dusk, leaving you stood

before a Punch & Judy stall on the beach.


Looking out past its candy-stripe curtains,

you watch the fins of a basking shark glide by,

pointing towards other bodies of land.


To listen to ‘First Circle’ please click below



Having worked as a freelance writer for many years, Janet Lees has just completed an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. She was recently one of 12 poets shortlisted for the inaugural Poetry School & Pighog Press pamphlet competition, has had collaborative video poems selected for both the Aesthetica and Neo Art prizes this year, and was a runner-up in the 2012 Cannon Poets ‘Sonnet or Not’ competition. Two video poems produced in collaboration with the photographer/videographer Rooney will also feature in Liberated Words II, a day of digital moving poetry at the Bristol Poetry Festival next month.




SD.      Hello, Janet. Wonderful to be speaking to you today, and thank you for joining us here on the neo:blog.


JL.       Thank you Scott, I’m delighted to be here.


SD.      The poem neo: has published this month, ‘First Circle’ speaks to me very much of endings that are in fact beginnings. You preface the poem with a quote from Dante, which also speaks of Dante losing his way, the ending of one journey which is in fact the beginning of his true journey, the one into hell and back. Would you agree that your poem also contains this form of duality?


JL.       Yes, the poem is all about being in limbo between two worlds. Another thing that sparked it was something else I read – to the effect that many people spend their whole lives waiting to start living. I was struck by this fundamental duality: living but not living, stuck in an uncomfortable comfort zone, hooked by desire and pulled back by fear, again and again.


SD.      And is that type of duality a steady thematic throughout your work?


JL.       Definitely. Doing a quick mental inventory, it crops up in pretty much all of my work in one form or another.


SD.      I also notice that within your poem you have created a set of circles, if you will, by using repetition. I call them circles because the re-appearance of the image makes me think of closing the loop. For example, you say in stanza three like blurred words in seaside rock, and then in the final stanza you write its candy-stripe curtains. Can you tell us a little about why you have chosen to repeat the images here; is it to give them greater emphasis or to re-invent them by changing the text that surrounds them?


JL.       It wasn’t really a conscious process, with the repeated images – not at first anyway. But I did have in mind the seasons and the tides, and how these are endlessly repeated cycles: another winter of heavy duty seas, another summer, another carnival – another failed attempt to drown in the crowds. With these universal loops as a backdrop, I think the specific images naturally wanted to repeat themselves.

I was lucky enough to attend a workshop recently with Paul Muldoon and one of the many things he spoke eloquently about was valorising the unknowing part of what you do as a writer. Having worked as a copywriter for a lot of years – a job where pretty much every piece of text has a pre-determined outcome – this is something I find thrilling about poetry; being of service to the words rather than the other way around.


SD.      Now as well as the written form of poetry, you also work in the medium of film and photography. Do you find that this diversity enriches and deepens your understanding of your words, or do you see the different mediums as individual packets with each one being unique to its own strengths?


JL.       That’s a good question. I originally did an integrated arts course and my undergraduate thesis was on the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, who collaborated widely with other artists. So although I do believe that a good piece of writing has to stand on its own, the idea of integration and how it might be beneficial has always been there simmering away.

Where I find the mix of words and images especially exciting at the moment is with found text and digital imagery. I love how open to interpretation found text is – I’ve been hugely inspired by the prose poems of Harryette Mullen for example. When you add still or moving imagery to the mix it brings in a whole other layer of meaning, resulting in new work that’s surprisingly lucid and much more than the sum of its parts. I love this mysterious alchemy!


SD.      And can you tell us about any collaborations you’ve been involved in?


JL.       For the past eighteen months or so, I’ve been collaborating with the photographer and videographer Rooney on a project called ‘Snatch’ – poster poems and video poems made from text snatched from ads and other forms of mass communication. We set the resulting text pieces to Rooney’s short films and photographs, with new music or sounds. It’s really exciting what happens in the process – some of them come out very dark, some funny, some deeply sad, but typically the new pieces reveal a sort of shadow narrative to the consumerist dream.

We’ve had video poems selected for the Aesthetica and neo: art prizes this year, and two have been chosen to feature in Liberated Words II – a digital moving poetry day at the Bristol Poetry Festival next month. I’m also at various different stages with three other collaborative projects – with a painter, a photographer and a textile artist.


SD.      Do you feel that collaborating with other mediums or artists who work in different areas, film, photography, sculpture etc, enhances your work or is it purely a journey into other areas?


JL        In my experience collaborating always enhances the work in any given collaboration project. Working with Rooney for instance – we’ve worked together in the past as an advertising creative team, so are used to bouncing ideas off each other. With the digital poetry work, it’s like this process has been intensified – partly, probably, because we’ve been let off the leash of any sort of brief. He gets inspired by the words, sparking off images and films that inspire me to find and rework more words.


SD.      You’re also currently doing your MA in Creative Writing, how big a catalyst do you think that being in that intense academic world is for your writing?


JL.       It’s been life-changing for me. Maybe because I came to it twenty years later than I should have done and so had a very large pent-up appetite for it. When I started the MA, I’d only just rediscovered poetry after all that time in the wilderness and I knew next to nothing about writing or reading it. In two years of part-time study my writing has changed almost beyond recognition and I’ve absorbed an enormous amount of knowledge thanks to my tutors and fellow students.

The MA at Lancaster is unique in that there are no set modules and you work in mixed groups – poets, novelists, creative non-fiction writers all together. Actually I think this absence of a rigid structure would have terrified me as a young graduate, but at this point in my life has been exactly what I needed. It’s impossible to quantify the benefits of the course; all I can say is that the weekly workshops were priceless in seeing what I was doing right and wrong and how to go about fixing the things that weren’t working – you learn real discernment in that whole process. I can’t see that this would have been possible without doing the MA.


SD.      I ask because this poem strikes me as a very contemporary piece, which has its roots, at least in part, set in the traditions of traditional poetry. Regular stanzas, Dante quote, etc. Are you inspired by both contemporary and classical poetry, or does one have a greater pull on you than the other?


JL.       I’m inspired by many different types of different poetry and I do sometimes write in form as well as free verse, but it’s contemporary poetry that I’m more drawn to – at the moment for instance I’m reading Dorianne Laux, Selima Hill and Kimiko Hahn, and finding them all wildly inspiring in different ways.


SD.      Wonderful. So, are you working on anything at the moment? Is there a collaboration in the pipeline, or a solo collection?


JL.       Well I’ve only been writing poetry seriously now for a couple of years and it’s been a very steep learning curve. Being shortlisted for the pamphlet competition was really encouraging. The MA has enabled me to get together quite a body of work, so now I’ve completed the course I’ll start submitting to magazines – and just keep on writing poetry and collaborating with like-minded people.


SD.      Excellent, well I very much look forward to seeing it, as I’m sure there is still a great deal to come from you, Janet. Thank you for speaking with us.


JL.       Thank you Scott, it’s been a pleasure.


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