Annie Clarkson is a poet, fiction writer and social worker who was born in Kendal in 1973, grew up in an East Lancashire mill town, and now lives in Manchester with her cat. Her first chapbook of poems, Winter Hands, was published in 2007 by Shadowtrain Books. She has short stories and prose poems published in Brace (Comma Press), Unsaid Undone (Flax Books) and in various magazines and online journals: Dreamcatcher, Pygmy Giant, Mslexia, Succour, Transmission and Tears in the Fence. She is currently working on a collection of ‘short shorts’. Annie blogs at forgetting the time.
Annie, tell me something of your family origins and what you were like as a child. will you describe growing up in an East Lancashire mill town?
My family is from North West England. I lived in Cumbria until the early 80s. It was a strange mix of experiences: beautiful mountains in the Lake District, an affluent town, spending time with mum’s hippy friends, hanging out in my grandparents’ guest house, digging vegetables in the garden, and then all the lodgers that were taken in by the family: old blokes who were alcoholics, on probation or homeless, and one young lodger who was a drug addict.
When we moved to Lancashire, it was a big change. More working class: rows of red brick terraces, cotton mills in the valley (one of them still working, the others abandoned), a CND camp of travellers on the hillside, working men’s clubs, cobbled streets. There were more social problems, and even at age eleven I noticed the vast difference in the way people lived their lives. I spent most of my time either out of the house, walking in the river, hanging around the mill yards, playgrounds, wasteland, fields on the edge of town, or in my room hiding away with books and writing stories.
Would you talk about your career as a social worker? Does your work inform your writing?
I’m drawn to certain issues in my work and in my writing: difficult relationships, dysfunction, violence, mental ill-health, loss, abuse. I never write directly about my work. My characters are imagined. Their situations are imagined. But, I’ve been exposed in my work to a lot of situations that hopefully help me to write in a more emotionally authentic way.
Have you considered creative writing tutoring and running writing workshops?
I hope to branch out into running workshops and classes later this year. I have hundreds of ideas of how to prompt and inspire good writing, for beginners and more experienced writers.
I’m working on an idea with an artist friend of mine to run a regular workshop in Manchester incorporating art and poetry, so creative-minded people can work on developing handmade books, posters, and other things that combine image and text. It’s in the early stages of development. I hope it might lead to work as a tutor or perhaps more workshops.
Will you describe your creative space?
I write anywhere. I often write in bed in one of many notebooks. I write on the settee in my pyjamas. I write at the table while I eat dinner. Sometimes I write straight onto my laptop. Other times I scrawl on a random piece of paper, an envelope, the back of a cinema ticket, a napkin.
I often write in cafes, or in a gallery, or on a bench in the park, in my car in a lay-by, or at writing workshops. Writing is a creative place where I can disappear and enter into another life or lives for a short time.
In 2007, Shadowtrain Books published Winter Hands. Tell me about the book’s themes and how you settled on the title.
Winter Hands is a short little book. It’s a glimpse; a starting point for me as a poet. The poems in the chapbook are trying to make sense of certain things: relationships, dysfunctions, breakdowns, illness, the small nuances of life that are not easy to understand. These are my first explorations into the spaces between prose and poetry, the boundaries, the grey areas.
I played with a number of titles. Winter Hands seemed the most apt to me at the time. There is something that connects in these poems between the sensuality of touch and the cruelty and barrenness of winter.
What feeling would you like readers to experience after reading your collection?
Hmm, that’s a difficult question. If a reader experiences any kind of feeling after reading these poems, then wow. It is difficult for me as a writer to imagine how a reader might respond. I hope readers might find at least one poem that they can relate to on a personal level.
To be honest, I’ve been overawed by the few comments people have made. One reviewer wrote: “Her writing makes you ache long after you have closed the book”. I had to pinch myself that someone had written that about my writing.
Would you talk about the ‘short shorts’ or micro-fiction collection on which you are working?
Ooh, yes. I’m working on a collection of short shorts (short fiction of less than 1,500 words, but mostly less than 300 words).
When I say working on a collection, I mean I’m busy writing short shorts hoping that at some point later this year they might be gathered into a collection that is loosely concerned with loneliness. It is a theme that has started emerging in my writing. Actually, perhaps it has been in my writing for a long time. It’s definitely present in Winter Hands.
My short shorts tend to be glimpses into the lives of different characters. Many of these characters could be described as lonely, or disconnected, or experiencing moments in which they are utterly alone (in an existential sense) – and I don’t mean this is a dark, painful, isolated way. I think being lonely can also be humorous or comforting for instance.
What do you enjoy and find challenging about working within different genres?
That’s an interesting question. I write short fiction (in the widely understood meaning of the term), and I write free verse that most people would agree is poetry. But mainly I inhabit the space in between these two genres by writing what has been described as prose poetry, flash fiction, micro-fiction, sudden fiction, versets, vignettes, short shorts.
I think people mistakenly use of these terms interchangeably. I see flash fiction as being quite different to prose poetry. (I use the term short shorts for both.)
I write some pieces that are condensed narrative fictions that follow (or subvert) generally accepted rules about storytelling (flash fiction, micro-fiction). I also write prose poems, which seem to confuse people even though there is a long tradition of poets writing prose poems.
There are some wonderful definitions of prose poetry, which I have started collecting on my blog. Have I answered your question? Hmm, not really. I guess my answer is that I love working between genres rather than within them.
Which writers have inspired you?
Many writers have inspired me. Ones that immediately spring to mind are: Raymond Carver, Charles Simic, Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatjie, Pascale Petit, Anne Donovan, Joyce Carol Oates, Lorrie Moore, Anais Nin, Angela Carter and Tove Jansson.
Would you name a few of your favourite books? Why are they important to you?
I have a dog-eared copy of Wuthering Heights, which is falling to pieces. I first read it as a teenager. It’s important to me because it was one of the first books I read that explores the taboos of human passion and emotion, and it is set in a very familiar landscape.
I have Pablo Neruda’s The Collected Odes. I visit these poems often as I love the sense of wonder and awe he creates around ordinary objects such as socks, a tomato, or a bicycle.
I have a copy of L’Etranger by Albert Camus with all my A-Level notes in it. It was the first book I read in French, and it captures an existential loneliness similar to that which I’m now exploring in my own writing.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading a gorgeous collection of very short fiction called East of Here, Close to Water by an Australian writer called Josephine Rowe. I mostly read short fiction. It is one of my loves.