As part of her June digital residency, poet Hannah Hodgson interviews Smith|Doorstop author Wendy Pratt about her collection When I Think of My Body as a Horse, the writing process, and reading reviews of your own work. A full transcript is included beneath the video.
HANNAH HODGSON: I’ve got the fabulous Wendy Pratt with me. Wendy, can you give me a brief overview of your most recent book, and its themes?
WENDY PRATT: Well, my most recent book is called When I Think of My Body as a Horse and it recently was one of the winners in the Poetry Business’ Book & Pamphlet award. it was a book that took years and years and years to write. I was writing it for a long time, but I didn’t realise I was writing it to start with. It’s a book that is a little bit like a journey through an experience – it’s quite narrative, and it’s quite linear in that journey.
At the crux of it, I guess, is my experience of infertility and the loss of my daughter- I had a baby in 2010 and she died during an emergency delivery. So that was a really, really difficult time. But it was also an extended period of grief, because it was accompanied by continued IVF treatment (my daughter, Matilda, was an IVF baby.) So, the book is really about that. But I didn’t want it to be a sort of poor me expression of grief, I wanted to take the experience and do something with it. I wanted to create. I guess I wanted to create a piece of art, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious, that explored grief, and explored the experience, and was more about the animal instincts around motherhood and grief and the way that they interacted during this time.
I wanted to write a little bit about how we own our bodies and how we give our bodies up. Especially women: how we give our bodies up to society, and to other people, and to motherhood, and what happens when we have to let go have to re-own our bodies. And because there was no, I’m almost tempted to say because there was no happy ending to my story, but there was a happy ending because here I am, living my life. And I love my life, and I exist, and my life is entirely valid. But there was no “rainbow baby” after Matilda. We had two miscarriages. And then at the end of the day, we reached a point with the IVF, where we decided not to continue, and not to adopt, and not to foster, or go down any of those routes, and instead to embrace being childless and just being as two. So, it was about that as well. It’s quite a lot more complex than it seems on the surface.
HANNAH HODGSON: Yeah, very personal. I was going to ask about how you’ve found people have responded to it? Has it been the head-tilt-y Oh I’m really sorry that you’ve been through that? And how have you navigated that? I guess it’s been quite different because we’ve all been in our houses [because of the COVID pandemic], so it’s not your usual going to readings, etc.
WENDY PRATT: I think being reliant on zoom has been a bit of a godsend really, because I have real problems with anxiety as well. To get up in front of a massive crowd of people and read these poems and then take questions about them afterwards is quite terrifying. And when you add to that things like, because I live rurally, I’m reasonably isolated, I’m not in the middle of nowhere, but to get anywhere to get to York, for example, I have to get a bus into town and then get onto a train. And the last train doesn’t, you know… So I’ve got all of the anxiety about travelling or travelling at night along the roads, and zoom has been brilliant because I can just finish the reading, switch my computer off and go downstairs and it’s done. I get more of a chance to relax. So in a way, zoom has been brilliant.
How has it been? How’s it gone out into society, the book? It’s a quite a weird thing because a lot people just haven’t touched it with a bargepole because of the content of it. So you get people who almost don’t want to talk to me about it, even though I’ve got this book out. And it’s a weird thing. Any writing and in the poetry world, you have to really promote your own book. So I’m in this strange situation where I’ve got this book that is essentially about my dead daughter. And I’m hawking it about, I’m doing posters for it, and pitching with it. I’m on Twitter talking about it and talking to people saying I’ve got this book out, come and buy my book. And at this it seems quite unnatural to do that about this subject. But at the same time, one of the reasons I wanted to publish this book was so that we could have a conversation about this in society. And so that people who have had pregnancies and lost their babies are able to talk about it not just in an oh, no, this awful thing has happened way. But also the joyful part of it, because being pregnant with my daughter was a joyful experience. And I loved my daughter, I loved her so much. And I’m wanting to express that as well. So, some people have just not approached it at all.
On the whole people have been just incredibly lovely about it. And whenever I do readings I always say at the beginning that I want the poems to be taken as artworks in their own right. I want to talk about the process and the art and the poetry as well as the experience. This isn’t just about the experience, this is poetry. This is what I do for a living. I’m a poet. And this is my art. This is my medium for exploring different subjects. So yeah, mostly, it’s been taken really, really well. There’s been a few people that… Friends, actually, mainly people not in the poetry world, where I’ve sat down with them, and they’ve been like, how’s the, errr? and I’m like the book? Yeah, yeah. Because obviously, we know what happened. But if you don’t want to talk about… and I’m like, I’m happy to talk about my book, I’m happy to talk about my poetry!
So yeah, on the whole, good, positive. A few people, like I said, don’t want to go near it really, which is their choice, I suppose at the end of the day, and it’s reached a lot of people who have had shared experiences, so a lot of people have been in contact to say thank you for writing this. And that sort of connection, that’s very, very important to me, that it does reach these people. Because the infertility community is a silent community, we’re sort of judged on our choices. Iin the same way that pregnant women are sort of the property of society with people making judgments on their condition and their bodies and trying to take the autonomy of the body away from them. I think infertility is a similar sort of thing, because people think they can have an opinion on it. But unless you’ve actually been there, you have no idea what it’s like, or what the instinctive drives are like within you.
That was a rambling answer!
HANNAH HODGSON: No, you covered a lot of things! It’s definitely a tribute. And you shouldn’t feel embarrassed about promoting it, because it is a celebration, as well as being very very sad. It’s both at the same time.
And also, on that that point you made about people outside of the poetry community, there are poems I’ve published that I wouldn’t show my family, but have been published. It’s quite an interesting thing within poetry, that there is kind of this emotional truth to it, that we almost don’t like to admit to those close to us, and they don’t really want to know about it either. Poetry needs that. And your book’s just brilliant at being brilliant, it’s good at what it does. I wouldn’t worry about having to promote it. It needs to be read, and I think it will change people’s minds. Like you said, is a supportive work also, for other people. Because it is a taboo, it’s something that’s not discussed.
Moving on from that, this is more of a curiosity question, and the second half is the actual question! Do you keep a diary or a journal? And how do you begin to tackle this topic? When you started writing these poems, how did you begin? How did you go Oh, gosh, right. I’m going to rugby, tackle this thing. And put it in a poem? How did you go about that?
WENDY PRATT: I do keep a journal. Strangely enough, I have always been quite a keen diary keeper. And when the COVID started to kick off, and how strange it was, and how terrifying it was, and I thought Oh, well, finally! I’m going to have something in my diary that’s relevant to society. And then about halfway through the whole lockdown and all of that constant anxiety, I just stopped writing in my diary because I couldn’t bear to talk about it anymore, even to myself. And now we’re reaching this point where things are changing again, and there’s this feeling of rejuvenation. And I’m like, Oh, I wish I kept my diary now! So I’m starting writing in it again. But I’ve always kept a diary. I think it’s a really good way, from a writing perspective, to keep that creative part of the brain open and functioning. Because your brain is so much like an animal that needs to be trained, and you have to train it. If you want a creative life, then you’ve got to be creative a lot. I think you’ve got to keep those channels open, therwise they close up. So yeah, I do keep a journal. It’s something I’ve always done. Weirdly, I still feel a bit self-conscious, keeping a journal and my voice in my journals changes. When I look back, it changes all the time from year to year, especially if I’ve read other people’s diaries and things. I start speaking like them, [silly accent] Dear Diary and carrying on.
What was the other part of the question? I’ve forgotten already!
HANNAH HODGSON: I’ll just pick up on something you said. It’s just so interesting. I think part of it is that we were living in a collective trauma. And I don’t know many, if any, other jobs where we are like, I should be writing this down. Right now. We’re in this really stressful thing, this terrible thing has happened, I need to get this on paper. I just find that fascinating. I think that was what I was trying to say before, it’s really interesting about poets in general that while something is happening like that, we’re all like hmm maybe I’ll just keep a note. It’s really strange.
WENDY PRATT: You asked about how I tackled the subject, how I tackled this big experience. But I think part of it is that this is how I translate any event in my life and in the wider world. This is how I translate life, this is how I handle life. All things end up in poems really with me. Or creative nonfiction, I do a lot of creative nonfiction as well. Very occasionally fiction, but mostly poetry. And that’s my means by which I translate the world. So when this big event, this big, long event that went on over years and years and years was happening, I was constantly translating it.
I was writing it while I was doing my Masters with Manchester, distance learning. And I submitted a thesis at the end that had some of these poems, and it was an entirely different collection at that point. And then it was only when I finished my degree and was going into the world of writing and thinking about what I would do that I decided that actually, I don’t want these poems to just be my poems, I want them to go out and do something and do some work.
I talked about the journey, and the end of that journey in the acceptance of life without children and accepting that my daughter had died, and that this wasn’t now going to be my life, I wasn’t now going to live this life that I’d been waiting to happen. It was at that point, that I got these poems out and I looked at them, and I wasn’t happy with them, and I changed them. And I got a bit depressed. And I went a bit mad, basically, and during a few weeks of absolute insanity, where I wasn’t really sleeping, in fact I wasn’t sleeping. I cut a third of the poems out and deleted them, moved them to trash, and then just rewrote it. And that was the book, that was the poems. It was like they were just waiting. I spent 13 years writing the poems in my head, and they were all there ready to come out. It was just giving them permission, giving me permission to be completely wild, and completely mad, and just express that in the poetry. And those were the really strong poems in the collection.
And then, of course, once I’ve made the decision that I wanted to put a collection together, there was the editing. And that’s a long process of building a conversation with a reader because it can’t just be an expression of yourself. It can’t just be an expression of recounting an experience. There’s two people in this conversation. There’s the writer and the reader, and I needed to make these poems connect to the reader in ways that they could understand, not just in my head. So then there was quite a long process of editing and crafting, and all of those things, which is why I’m quite keen that the poems are read as poetry not just experience, because there was a lot of work that went into them. And I want them to be, you know, good poems, which I think there they are.
HANNAH HODGSON: Yeah, they are!
WENDY PRATT: And then I sent the book out, and it did the rounds. Originally it was with another publisher and then they struggled to get the Arts Council funding that they needed – and I’m so pleased to see that they’re back on the feet now! But at the time we had a discussion and I decided because it had taken me such a long time to write the book, I would try it somewhere else, which I felt awful about. But they were very, very supportive about that. And then I peddled it about and it got rejected and rejected and rejected. And then on a whim, because I’d entered before and not done very well, I entered the Poetry Business competition. And it won. And that was just the most amazing experience. And it was the most amazing experience working with them. Because they were kind and gentle, but also forensic with their editing. It felt like being trusted as a writer, which I think is really important. Sorry, that was a ramble as well!
HANNAH HODGSON: No! I think it’s important that people respect your work, as they obviously did. Sometimes when it’s around heavy subjects, people kind of go, oh don’t really want to touch this as an editor. I certainly have found with some of my things that some people have been like, I’ll just leave it be. And actually no, you want it to be treated as a poem. I just found it really interesting that you brought that up, because instead of pussyfooting around, it’s a poem and it’s the art, at the end of the day.
WENDY PRATT: Yep.
HANNAH HODGSON: Did you have any concerns about misconceptions that people may have had? When I was gonna sign with somebody they said to me, we’re worried that you won’t be able to separate your personal experience, and your attachment to that, and being reviewed in a journal and someone potentially being brutal. How would you navigate that? And I guess how do you navigate that?
WENDY PRATT: It’s really, really tough. It’s really, really tough. But one of the things I set out with when I started sending it out as a collection, was I thought to myself even if this doesn’t do anything, if it doesn’t go anywhere, if it doesn’t get published, I have done what I needed to do as a creative act. I have contained this story, made this as a tribute to my daughter. And to that love. I’ve done what I needed to do with it. So that was part of the process.
In terms of how you let that go and allow people to interpret it in their own ways.? You’ve got to just allow it to happen. And people will always, always interpret it differently. Reviewers are there for a reason, it would be absolutely awful if everyone just only gave positive reviews all the time and didn’t mention any of the things that didn’t work for them. But again, it’s still subjective, this is just their opinion. So the book goes out, and people review it. And a lot of reviewers haven’t touched it with a bargepole, again, because of the content in it and the experience. I think as a writer, it’s an awful thing, but it’s also a brilliant thing because that’s what poetry is about, you have to accept that people are going to take it and interpret it differently. In fact, there’s one poem in the book that has been interpreted in so many different ways. And I’m reluctant to clarify to anyone.
This is one of the things that I teach in when I run creative writing workshops: there’s a conversation going on, a poem isn’t a static thing. When you write a poem, and somebody else reads it, they are using the filter of their own experiences to interpret that poem. So in a way, that poem goes into their heads, and becomes a different poem. And that’s a beautiful thing. It’s like seeding flowers, it goes out and becomes something else and grows and evolves. And that is a gorgeous thing. But it’s also really, really hard. If someone’s glib with it, or slightly dismissive of it, that stings a little bit, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to just allow that to happen. And you have to have that sort of inner strength to say, I’ve done my job. I know what these poems are about. I know these poems are good. These are the best poems I could write on this subject. These are the best poems I’ve written. And I keep that inside me, it’s in a lovely little cage inside my heart, and nobody can touch that. That’s mine, and I own it. That’s really how I go about it.
Sometimes if I’m more fragile, it’s a bit harder. In a previous collection that I wrote, a pamphlet that had similar themes to it – I was just starting to explore the subject. Somebody reviewed it, and called my daughter a miscarriage. And it was just a really strange thing because I’ve always said that she died during her delivery, she’s a stillbirth but she died during the delivery. And I’ve never referred to her as a miscarriage. And I don’t know why that upset me so much. She didn’t name her either. So it was just this review in which she not quite got the crux of what was happening. I think about that quite a lot. But again, at the end of the day, people are entitled to their opinion, you can’t fight it, you can’t do anything. But you can’t go to everybody who has read the book and say, actually, this is how you should have interpreted it, because people are going to interpret it in their own way.
HANNAH HODGSON: I think people like to distance themselves from the trauma. I think that is possibly part of it. Possibly with that review you mentioned, what an awful awful thing to say, I think part of it is this kind of this didn’t happen to me, and I can look at it. And it’s interesting how people turn.
WENDY PRATT: Yeah, it felt very clinical. It felt like this person who was reviewing it was being quite clinical about it. And the person picked up on quite a lot of things that in hindsight, I think possibly they were right about. But they didn’t really get the book. And that’s always quite hard.
When a reviewer gets what the book is about and writes a review, and you can just see that they’ve understood it and understood what you’re trying to do with it. That is just the best feeling in the world. The best thing in the world. I had one in the Yorkshire Times recently, and it was just the best review I’ve ever had, the person went through it and looked at the poems as poems, and also at the content as well, it was just a great review. So when reviewers get the work and understand it and are able to give this wide ranging review, it’s just it’s so welcome. It’s when people don’t quite get it, and you have to accept that they haven’t quite got it, and they’ve interpreted it differently. You have to accept that and move on. There’s no point ever, in going back to a reviewer and saying you didn’t understand this, because that’s just terrible. It’s a terrible thing. I’ve watched poets do that, and it’s just an awful, cringeworthy thing to do. So my biggest advice to poets starting out and just getting reviews, is just let it go. You got to just let it go.
HANNAH HODGSON: Sowing seeds, I think that’s just the perfect thing to end on. I love that. I’m going to think about that all afternoon: sowing seeds and just letting them grow. Thank you so much.
WENDY PRATT: Thank you. It’s been lovely chatting to you, Hannah. And congratulations on your own book, books plural! They’re absolutely brilliant. And I love watching your ll rise up the poetry world. I was so pleased to see you win the Poetry Business’ New Poets Prize. Congratulations. What a fantastic, fantastic thing.
HANNAH HODGSON: And thank you. you were instrumental in my development, because you gave me free [workshop] places and things and so thank you, thank you!
WENDY PRATT: It is so important to have access though, isn’t it?
HANNAH HODGSON: It is yeah. You were saying about gigs in the pandemic, and it has meant I can actually work. It has been a quite a good thing. Anyway, thank you. Thank you.
WENDY PRATT: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my book, always appreciated.