Penny Boxall holds an MA with distinction in Creative Writing (Poetry) from the University of East Anglia. She won the 2016 Edwin Morgan Poetry Award with her debut collection, Ship of the Line. She has held residencies at Gladstone’s Library, Hawthornden Castle and Chateau de Lavigny. Her poetry has appeared in The Sunday Times, Rialto, The North and Mslexia. Her second collection, Who Goes There?, is out in September from Valley Press. She is currently working on a third collection and her first novel for children.
– Penny, when did you first want to write? Do you remember the moment? And when did you actually start writing?
I remember writing my first ‘proper’ poem when I was 14. The poem was a kind of reworking of the story of Sleeping Beauty, and I remember thinking ‘I can make this story turn out however I want’. That was a great feeling. So in my version of the story the prince can’t get through the forest to Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and she just goes on sleeping for centuries, perfectly happy.
– Why poetry? Why did you choose this writing form?
I have a short attention span, and poems tend to be short! I like exploring the narrative possibilities of poems, and wrapping things up within the space of a single page. It feels very satisfying. I also like the fact that poems seem to be bigger than they really are – they open a sort of trapdoor beneath you, and suddenly you’re in this huge space you hadn’t guessed existed. I am also drawn to rhythm and, increasingly, rhyme. I love listening to the sound of words and hearing what fits. You can get some pretty odd word-combinations that way, and I think that’s what is my favourite thing in poetry – the element of surprise.
The King’s Bed
Tradition holds that on a wet starless night
in 1665 the King slept in this bed, or one quite like it.
He lay his head, or might have, upon a facsimile
of this pillow. And in the morning, that probably
fresh pleasant morning in 1665 or thereabouts,
servants, in befitting manner, brought him the sort
of breakfast popular in those days, dressed him
in the garments that would have been the fashion.
What is known is that he was the monarch
living in those times, and so slept somewhere.
Nearby houses will make their own claims.
By reading this you have brought him to this bed.
– Have you tried to write prose? Would you like to write more prose in the future?
Late last year I wrote my first piece of fiction – a historical novel for children. I was amazed at how difficult it was – I’d carefully planned out the plot beforehand, but once I started writing the story kept doing exactly what it wanted, and wouldn’t listen to what I wanted. It was sort of fun, though, trying to steer the characters and the settings into the direction I had planned for them.
– What, for you, is the main difference between writing poetry and prose?
Poetry is like painting miniature portraits, while writing the novel felt to me like an oil painting. I realised I needed to use a bigger brush for the novel, and not obsess so much over tiny things like word-choice and the sound of sentences. At least, not in a first draft – in subsequent drafts I’ve been tidying the words up a bit.
We drive past the sign at first,
swerve, spin back.
with skin, the crown of some
wrecked animal topping it all.
They sell scented candles
and the recent dead –
a baby bear sits on a stool
as if for a lesson,
his giant paw missing nothing
but a crayon.
There’s a pornographic hush
towards the back, the pelts
strung in moneyed lines,
shining like polished wood.
Leopards maul the walls.
And a fawn/not fawn,
hauled from its mother,
is frozen in a pose it never struck,
its eyes filmy.
Outside is the Wild
which we only know about
because we know too of outposts
filled with fur. And look:
here is a chipmunk
paddling a canoe, his little fist
just like yours.
– Where do you get your ideas for poetry?
I like weird things. So trips to odd museums, eccentric historical characters, Wikipedia – I keep my eye open for anything that strikes me as funny or strange. Usually it’s placing one unexpected thing next to another that sparks the initial idea, and then I work out what my thoughts are while I write. Poetry, for me, is a way of working out what I think about certain things. I very rarely know where a poem is going to end before I start work on it.
– I know you like to travel. Which countries have you visited? Which are the most exciting for you? Which countries would you like to visit in the near future?
I have been travelling in Europe for a few months. I started in Lisbon in December, and then avoided the British winter by going to the south of Spain in January. We were a month in Seville, then worked our way up to Valencia, flew to Naples and headed north. Lake Como was particularly memorable – swimming in the lake with the snowy alps behind. It was excellent, and there were many odd things to provide inspiration for writing. And Switzerland has been amazing. I’ve wanted to visit since I was about 12, and now I’m here it’s even more beautiful than I imagined. Next, I’d like to visit Eastern European countries; the Baltic; and I’d love to visit Japan, but that will be sometime a long way off in the future. My sister lives in the United States, and I’ll be visiting her in the autumn.
I have never been to Norway:
never stood on the needle of jetty
and split the lake’s quick skin
with an incisive flint. Forests,
sheltering in gloom, are alien to me;
I cannot say that I have hiked
through thick-sapped trees and broken
at the top to sun and air. Low mists
have never touched me.
I have been to Sweden, though,
which, I imagine, is much the same.
– Why do you think residences are important for artists? At which art residences have you worked? Which was the most unusual?
They are completely wonderful. I’ve been lucky enough to have three residencies during the past year. In August 2017 I was at Gladstone’s Library in Wales, which is one of the only residential libraries in the world. It’s a beautiful wooden library full of intriguing books, and you sleep just down the corridor, so there’s nothing to distract you from work. The countryside in that area is very beautiful, too – mountains and heather and sea, all very close to each other. Then Hawthornden Castle in Scotland last winter, which is wonderfully Gothic (it’s on a crag over a river, and there are all sorts of little ancient nooks and corners in the castle itself); and now the Château de Lavigny. Having food brought to you is pretty great, and I love meeting other writers. Perhaps most important is the dedicated, focused reading time. I read much better on residencies than I usually do. So they’ve all been unusual, and all great!