An Interview with Lindsey Holland

-In Conversation with Claire Trévien

As regular readers of Sabotage know, Lindsey Holland has been covering my role as poetry editor for the last six months and is therefore my personal hero. Her tenure ends on 15th June, so here is a spotlight on Lindsey’s many projects and her own creative process. Lindsey finished an MA in Writing at the University of Warwick several years ago. Her poetry and reviews have appeared in various magazines and anthologies and her first collection, Particle Soup, is due out later this year with the Knives, Forks, and Spoons Press. She’s the chair and founder member of North West Poets and is currently co-editing its anthology of poetry. She is also one of the poets involved in the Penning Perfumes project. To read more about the project, check out this companion interview with Tim Wells.

1.    What made you decide to take part in the Penning Perfumes project? Were you interested in scents prior to the project?

I was keen to be involved as soon as heard about the project. For some time, I’ve been interested in how we choose to convey multisensory experiences through language. ‘Write about all five senses’ is a common poetry prompt. Every time I’ve encountered it I’ve found myself wondering ‘Why not actually evoke and utilise the senses? Could this be done? What’s left to be said when the senses are already speaking for themselves?’.

My interest in perfume prior to working on the project was rather minimal in that I rarely used it. I’d often bought perfume whilst on holiday and I was aware of how my memory of those places was often closely connected to scents: the perfumes that were popular at the time but also the cuisine, flora, even the buildings. I visited Prague in 2003 and bought Sensi by Georgio Armani simply because it felt like bringing the city home in a bottle. The scent had seemed to be everywhere. The girl at the Marionette Theatre box office was wearing it and I got her to write the name down for me. Now, when I smell it, I think of Don Giovani (the puppet version), smiling twenty-somethings with natural tans (including myself), yellow buildings and my first reading of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, amongst other things. I suppose I’ve been aware of how powerful scent can be for a very long time.

2.    You’ve been writing a poem inspired by an anonymous scent you were given, can you tell me a little bit about your first reaction to the scent?

When it arrived, I left it in the envelope for a day before I opened it. This was partly because I wanted to focus on it with few distractions but also, I think, because I liked the mystery of it. I almost didn’t want to smell it. I was a frightened, I think, that it’d remind me of lace doilies and fake teak furniture. When I did first sniff it, I immediately jotted down every word that came to mind. It initially seemed fruity, sharp and floral. As those notes subsided, I found the perfume much more attractive: rounder, sweeter, still floral but earthier, and a lot more intriguing. There was a moment when it smelt exactly, almost violently, like a medieval hall I used to visit when I was young. It was quite a physical experience.

3.    How was the process of writing this poem for you? I hate the term ‘comfort zone’, but do you feel that it took you away from your usual writing practice, or did you find a way to make it adapt to your style?

It was a combination of these. It definitely took me away from my usual style at first and I had many failed attempts at writing a poem from it. I wanted to be accurate to the scent; there was an element of approaching it like a puzzle and trying to find the ‘right’ answers. I also wanted to move away from that and be true to my experience of the scent. It took me on a journey. I used it in my car, tried it on my daughter, wore it to meetings and sprayed it on my notebook. It never seemed the same twice. After a week, I’d reached a point at which I felt haunted by it. I visited the medieval hall that had suggested itself so strongly and talked to the guides about the smell there. One room in particular, the Great Hall, has a unique scent. In the end, I tried to forget about it for a week or two before writing more failed attempts. The final poem came in a gush of inspiration. Everything I’d been thinking came together and found shape in the way that some of my other poems do. I allowed myself to forget the initial fruity notes in the scent because the other experiences seemed to outweigh them and the body of the perfume was so intriguing.

4.    Did finding out what the perfume was [Ruth Mastenbroek’s Eau de Parfum] change your interpretation of it?

Not really, although I did wonder whether I should have pursued the tropical elements a little more. Some of my aborted attempts had drawn on my experiences in Southeast Asia: palm trees, sand, flip flops and mango (I mistook the perfume’s pineapple for this). I found it hard to compromise these images with the roses, wood, a medieval hall and my feeling of being haunted by the fragrance. Because the tropical notes were more fleeting, I decided not to include them. I suppose this comes down to a desire for narrative. Mangos don’t belong in old English houses. In a way, I prioritised sense and atmosphere over absolute accuracy. The perfume didn’t feel abstract to me — I became quite close to it and almost felt as though it were telling me something — so I ruled out that approach. It made me very aware that there are always going to be compromises when you rely on language to convey a sense.

5.    Tell me about your perfume-partner, Kate Williams at Seven Scent, what was that process like?

Kate was amazing. I was struck by her intuition and by the speed at which she works. Her process is different to mine in that she writes very little down, certainly initially. It’s more of a physical process: pulling bottles from shelves, imagining which scents will be needed and trying them together. Or at least, that’s the impression I came away with. I think we both work with images though, whether visual or olfactory. At their essence, poems and perfumes both emerge from thoughts, senses and experiences so I suppose there’s an overlap in the processes of creating them.

I was delighted to learn that Kate creates what we might think of as unpleasant scents. It’s not all about bouquets; she also works with mosh pits. This definitely appeals to me! She sees a lot of subtleties in both language and scents. We talked about the words ‘crumbled’ and ‘coil’ and how, just as there are layers of meaning to each of them, there are also layers of scent.

6.    You’re just about to launch an online magazine. Can you tell me a little bit about this project?

I’m working on this with Melissa Lee-Houghton. It’ll be called ‘Conspirator Magazine’ and we’ll be asking for submissions fairly soon. The focus is on poetry that’s bold and vibrant, that has something to say and doesn’t hold back. It can be inventive, political, scientific, tender or playful but the common factor is that it has to really speak; there has to be a voice.

7.    You’re editing an anthology of poetry about the North West and you’ve also been editing the poetry reviews for Sabotage. What prompted you to make the leap from writer to editor? Does the ‘other side’ give you a new perspective on your own writing?

In my case, I’m not sure that it’s much of a leap. Like a lot of poets, I find it far harder to edit my own poems than I do to edit other people’s. I’ve always felt comfortable discussing writing, and critiquing keeps me mentally active. Poets are often told that in order to write, they must read. I also think they must edit, and not only their own work. It’s all about practise. I suppose I’m also a little addicted to having projects on the go. I like to see ideas come together and to make things happen. In some circumstances, when I see potential, I find it hard to sit back and just watch. The anthology in particular has been a learning curve though. I have renewed respect for editors who spend months trying to correct formatting issues and removing inconsistencies; and that’s before you’ve even considered distribution and marketing. If there’s any leap between editor and writer, I think it’s here. I enjoy the challenge though and it brings variety to my days. I’m excited about it.

8.    When did you first call yourself a poet and to whom?

Perhaps pathetically, I can’t remember, but it was probably on a form of some sort. In conversation, I sometimes still opt for ‘writer’ rather than ‘poet’. Telling people you’re a poet seems to either a) provoke a similar response to the one you might receive if you said you have the plague (concern mixed with a desire to hastily retreat) or b) it results in a discussion of Wordsworth and/or how poor you are. I should probably approach this head-on but I’m usually too flummoxed by the question.

9.    How has the experience of editing the poetry reviews for Sabotage been for you so far? Is it preparing you adequately for reactions to your first collection do you think (tell us about it!)?

It’s been fantastic. I’ve enjoyed not only reading the reviews but spending time going into them in detail: checking grammar and punctuation, searching for photographs of book covers, reading online magazines who’ve requested reviews, all the extra bits of work that most people probably don’t see. I think it’s prepared me for reactions to my own collection quite well. The reviewers I’ve worked with have all been fair, in my opinion, but I know that’s not always the case. I think even the most hardened of editors must dread a very negative, or worse, ignorant review of their own work. 

10.  What projects are in the pipeline for you?

My main project at the moment is the anthology I’m editing, along with Angela Topping and a board of editors, for North West Poets. It’s provisionally titled Sculpted: Poetry of the North West and we have some amazing poets involved in it, of whom I can’t yet say too much. The poems will look at the North West as a region, from its geological beginnings to our contemporary experiences of it, in both urban and rural areas. We’re hoping to be able to fund a series of readings and events throughout the region and we’re working on a lot of exciting partnerships.

I’m also hoping to begin a Creative Writing PhD in September, for which I’ll ‘translate and contemporise’ dragons, witches, giants and other beasts from folklore. I’ll also look at Czech poets (particularly Miroslav Holub), surrealism, archetypes, contemporary events, existentialism and eclecticism.

I do have a few other ideas for projects. They’re currently set to simmer because they’re not quite ready yet. We’ll have to wait and see.

2 thoughts on “An Interview with Lindsey Holland

  • June 9, 2012 at 11:13 am

    My gosh, Lindsey!! I’m going to have to print this interview, so I have half a chance of keeping up with your whereabouts and doabouts. All the best with your projects. Interesting for me to hear about your writing process for the perfume poem.

    Elly x

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