Aisha Phoenix interviews Jacquline Haskell about her writing journey, inspiration and new collection Stroking Cerberus: Poems from the Afterlife.
Jacqueline Haskell won the Spotlight Books competition and her new poetry collection, Stroking Cerberus: Poems from the Afterlife, was published by Myriad Editions in January. She discusses the collection and the inspiration she draws from Greek mythology.
For logistical reasons, the interview was conducted via email.
When did you know that you wanted to become a writer?
I have always known I was a writer – aged 3, so even before I could read and write properly, my mother found me scribbling semi-coherent phrases all over her best notepaper, and when she asked me what I was doing, I apparently told her I was writing a book.
How do you finance your life as a writer?
I had to retire early a few years ago (I am nearly 60 now) due to ill-health and I do some permitted work – I am an energy healer.
Do you think there is enough support for writers seeking to establish themselves?
I do think there is a lot of support out there, if you know where to look. However, much of it is of variable quality, and not always the appropriate intervention for that moment in the writing journey. The most valuable would be more feedback from agents. (“We loved your writing but it wasn’t for us.” Why wasn’t it?) Support can be expensive – courses, competitions, editing and mentoring services all cost money.
With Spotlight it was really valuable that this particular competition was free to enter, and also that the prize included free mentoring.
Despite the rise in self-publishing, the industry is still very agent-driven. With many agents not having the time to nurture emerging writers as they might have done in the past, being picked up, even if you are extremely promising, is increasingly hard. Often there’s a huge element of luck, and it can depend on who you meet. My deafness means that attending events and meeting people is difficult, so networking in the publishing world and making the right contacts is more limited for me than if I were part of the hearing community.
Do you have any suggestions for ways to improve the industry so that more writers can earn a living from their work?
Opening up information regarding different pathways to publication – both traditional and otherwise – and how one can work with words in many ways – both online and with physical print. Self-publishing and the internet have meant that whilst some areas have opened up – print on demand, blogs, online journals etc. – others have become less accessible. In particular, traditional publishing is now about commercially-driven decisions, with the industry less willing to take a chance on the ‘quieter’ novels.
I think writers have their part to play as well, understanding that in most cases, you are in it for the long game.
What led you to take the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck?
Initially, the excellent support for students with disabilities combined with flexible learning; I had also just completed the Certificate in Creative Writing there and totally loved it! I had an amazing tutor on this Certificate course who changed the way I thought about writers and writing. I looked around at other offerings, but I’d had several bad experiences at universities in the past, where I had been forced to give up the course due to lack of accessibility. I was also attracted by the high quality of tutors for the various modules – all well-known in the writing world: so the chance to learn from the best.
What did you find most valuable about the MA?
I’m still learning from the MA, all these years on, and I graduated in 2009. The Genre & Narrative module has been the most helpful in the long-term, namely the sections on structure and synopsis, and also the Publishing module; although this was a lot of work and extended far beyond the reach of the MA in terms of time and commitment, it showed me what to look for in a story, in outstanding writing, how to edit and evaluate critically, whilst at the same time supporting the writer to be their very best, and thus, in turn, how to improve my own work.
Were there any challenges?
I was living in Somerset and so purely from a practical point of view, it was a lot of time on the train late at night. I also did the MA in a year, which in retrospect was perhaps not the best choice for me personally, as I did not have the necessary time to keep up with the reading lists, as well as the workshopping, and lectures. I had not allowed for the fact that I would need ‘thinking’ time to work creatively as well as to keep to the deadlines of academic essay assignments.
Was any special provision made for you as a deaf poet and novelist?
Yes, I had a lot of practical support on the MA, both for the work itself, and the lectures. I had a full-time speech to text reporter at all lectures and workshops – this assistant translated speech to text in real time so that I could follow. Tutors also provided me with written notes on the lectures beforehand. I received Disabled Student Allowance and this was topped up with various charitable grants as the support I needed came in at over £1,000 a week. However, the support did not extend to the social side of the MA. I found socialising difficult, as I could not communicate easily with my fellow students, and so felt that I missed out on that interaction – no drinks in the pub for me sadly! Despite this, I do have several lifelong friends from the MA course and we still meet regularly to discuss old times and new writing.
Has the Birkbeck MA helped to open any doors for you as a writer?
Definitely – I always mention the MA in my pitches to agents, and on my writing CV. I believe that it shows my dedication to my writing, and that I have achieved an advanced level of knowledge in writing theory. Plus, I made some very worthwhile professional connections while on the course, and these novelists have continued to support and encourage me over the years. At the same time, I don’t think an MA is necessarily a ‘must’ in order to be an amazing writer – good writing can be nurtured, all writers can be improved (and the MA does this), but great writing comes from within.
Are you in any writing groups or collectives?
I don’t belong to any writing groups at the moment. I am a fairly solitary writer. Though I have in the past had bursaries to participate in online poetry workshop groups through The Poetry School, in particular trans-reading courses.
Which poets and writers inspire you, and why?
It is always about the quality of the prose for me, so Jeremy Page (in particular his novel The Wake, which was a great inspiration for my debut novel), and pretty much all of Andrew Miller’s books. Also, Idaho by Emily Ruskovich, a debut novel which won the International Dublin Literary Award. In terms of poetry, Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds, and Charles Bukowski (his poem “Everything” from The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems 1946-1966 was the starting point of my collection), all give me considerable ‘poet envy’. I adore both the poetry and fiction of Vikram Seth, who writes movingly on deafness in his novel An Equal Music.
What is ‘Everything’ about and how was it the starting point for your collection?
Broadly it is about what the dead might – or might not – need once they have crossed to the afterlife, and how this might relate to those of us still living. The sheer rhythm and beauty of it and the quirkiness of approach was what originally appealed. Also, I first read the poem the week that my dog died, so it had personal significance – I lay awake at night wondering if he needed his basket and blankets, wherever he was. I had already written a few of the poems, but after reading ‘Everything’, the collection itself took shape.
Where would you situate your work?
The novels are somewhere between Alice Hoffman, Anita Shreve and Barbara Kingsolver (especially Animal Dreams) – with a bit of Thomas Hardy (The Return of the Native) thrown in for good measure. However, I have tried and failed to situate the poetry, which is either a good or a bad sign – I haven’t yet worked out which!
You have won awards for both your poetry and your fiction. How do you divide up your time between writing poetry and working on novels and short fiction?
I don’t make a conscious decision about this. I can go for a couple of years without writing a single poem – and indeed during such periods, I truly believe that I won’t ever write one of any merit again – and then I hit upon an idea, and work on it non-stop. However, I love writing prose poetry and flash fiction, so there is something of an overlap between these forms. It also depends on the project in which I am immersed at the time – and, of course, which area is currently bringing me the most success, the most opportunities, the best chance of being published. Writing is primarily a solitary occupation, so we all need positive feedback to keep us going in a specific direction.
In the future, I would like to do more ‘cross-over’ work. I greatly admire The Rivered Earth which contains four libretti written by Vikram Seth, to be set to music by Alec Roth – inside, there’s also a delightful account of the pleasures and pains of working with other artists in different forms.
Is your poetry informed by your experiences as a deaf writer?
I would say not, or at least not consciously; I never set out to write about my experiences of deafness or disability (I have a physical disability as well as being deaf). Although several Stroking Cerberus reviewers have pointed out to me the constant themes of (mis)communication – between the living and the dead, and vice versa – I was not aware of this myself, as I work at an intuitive, instinctive level.
Is your poetry ever performed with sign-language interpreters? Or do you ever perform in British Sign Language (BSL)?
I am not a native BSL user myself, although I can sign at a fairly basic level, so no, but I would be open to hearing from anyone who is and who might be interested in doing this. I think a signed performance would be amazing.
What inspired your new collection, Stroking Cerberus: Poems from the Afterlife? And how did you choose the title for the collection?
I am a healer (of both animals and humans) and a few years ago I had a series of conversations with a client who was being visited by spirits asking for help to cross to the other side. I began to research this – in the first instance to assist him, and then, very quickly, for my own interest: I was hooked. The original, much more light-hearted collection was entitled Titbits from the afterlife, which, over a period of time, metamorphosed into Stroking Cerberus, as the direction of the work itself became darker and more complex. Cerberus (the three-headed dog of the Underworld) appears in the poem Orpheus and sets the tone for the final narrative section of the collection.
What led you to enter the Spotlight Books competition?
I’ve been entering both fiction and poetry competitions for years, with some success. I was eligible to enter this one due to my disability and social circumstance, and I passionately believe in the values these organisations stand for:
Spotlight Books is a collaboration between Creative Future, New Writing South and Myriad Editions to discover, guide and support writers who are under-represented due to mental or physical health issues, disability, race, class, gender identity or social circumstance.
What did winning the Spotlight Books competition mean to you and how has it helped to advance your career?
This win led to my first full-length poetry collection being published, which these days is so hard to achieve for an unknown poet – I have had some competition wins and single poems published in magazines, but no pamphlet. That meant everything to me in terms of advancing my career, as being published in this way means I can apply to a wider range of presses, and opportunities that were previously closed to me are now within my grasp. The book has only recently been published, so longer term, it is too early to say, but I know I have only just started to reap the rewards. I was also introduced to amazing organisations and individuals who all continue to support me.
Did you find an agent?
I did not need an agent for this, but I am still seeking representation for my debut novel, The Auspice, which was a finalist in the 2018 Bath Novel Award. I have since worked on it with a professional editor, but am finding getting agent representation to be very, very tough – the toughest part of the writing process. I have had several very near misses with top agents expressing keen interest in my work, reading the full manuscript, but as yet, no one has taken me on. Ultimately, it must be commercially viable, and I think literary fiction is often less so than more commercial work, such as crime and psychological thrillers, for example, but I hope that I will soon find the right agent who will take a chance on it.
I have a first draft of a second poetry collection (working title The Short Shelf Life of Hearts), and the presses I’d most like to work with next all require agented approaches, so this is next on my wish list.
What themes does your second poetry collection explore? And what inspired it?
The collection follows the journey of a transplanted heart – both literally and metaphorically – and all those who are in any way touched by it. I watched a documentary on the BBC about the history of heart transplants, and as a healer I had already researched the concept of muscle memory, and how we have a memory centre within our heart as well as our head. There are a lot of stories about people whose tastes and personalities change post-transplant – taking on the characteristics of their donors. On a personal level, I have systemic lupus, which can affect the heart and lungs, especially in later life.
Running through Stroking Cerberus: Poems from the Afterlife there are themes of loneliness, alienation and loss. Does this relate to experiences or feelings you have had to navigate?
As a writer, I have always felt as though I am on the outside of life, an observer, looking in, somewhat dissociated from the experience. This relates to my perception of being a loner (for reasons not entirely related to my deafness!), an omniscient narrator if you like, and using everything around me to feed my creativity. There’s an element of having been outside the circle of ‘popular girls’ at school, and that feeling translates into my protagonists in both poetry and prose.
Some of the poems in your collection were poignant, haunting and painful to read, for example, Balloon Child, and Amelie. What inspired these poems? And what do you hope readers will take from them?
These were some of the earliest poems I wrote, and they arose from my research concerning how ghosts/demons/spirits are attracted to water – a theme developed in other poems in the collection – ranging from the baby in its amniotic fluid to the small child in the back garden swimming pool. I wanted to evoke images of grief – both collective and individual – recovery and hope.
I was particularly taken by Static, about trying to capture spirit voices on a wire recorder, and Unexpected Contact, your poem about the dead trying to make contact with the living. What drives your interest in writing about failed attempts at communication?
Whilst the power of the written word is undeniable, I am most interested in the space between words, and what is communicated – or misunderstood – within these lacunas. You might call the space between the words the ‘Zen zone’, the transition between what is and what isn’t, between the external, and the internal. White space to me is that external, arresting the thought process and driving the reader to the heart of the poem.
Unexpected Contact felt like it could inspire a longer speculative fiction work, perhaps a short story. Have you written fiction on this theme?
Actually, no I haven’t, but it is an excellent idea! It is a while since I wrote a short story come to think of it …
What is your favourite poem in the collection?
Orpheus, which is in many ways the title poem, because it is such a total reframe of a classic myth – and I’m a sucker for the dog!
For those unfamiliar with Cerberus and Orpheus, can you summarise their story in Greek mythology?
On the day Orpheus married Eurydice, she was bitten by a viper and died of its venom. Distraught with grief, Orpheus descended into the underworld determined to restore her to mortality. He pleaded with Pluto and Proserpine for her return and his eloquence won them over. Even Cerberus, the fierce three-headed dog that guarded the gates of Hell, was silenced.
The gods agreed to Eurydice’s return, with the caveat that Orpheus must not glance back at Eurydice until she was safely ensconced in the upper world. If he broke his word, she would descend once again into Hell.
On leaving the underworld, an anxious Orpheus looked behind for his bride, thus causing her death, and subsequent return to the underworld.
Thank you so much for taking the time to participate in this interview. Before we finish, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Have faith in your work, and never, ever give up, whatever anyone else tells you! A month or so before I won this competition I received a rejection letter from another small press advising me to consign the collection to the bin – just as well I didn’t follow this particular piece of advice – well-meaning though I am sure it was.
Stroking Cereberus: Poems from the Afterlife by Jacqueline Haskell is available to buy now.