We talk to Cheryl Pearson, Neon alumni and author of the poetry collection Oysterlight (Pindrop Press) about writing myths and legends, and organising poetry collections.
Oysterlight is a rich collection of poems underpinned by a variety of themes. Myth, legend and nature seemed to me to be powerful elements throughout. What would you say was the main theme or unifying idea behind the collection?
Myth, legend and nature are definitely recurring themes throughout the collection. The unifying theme, I think, is that of transformation. I wanted to explore how things change, how we change – because of time, or love, or weather, or what have you. I’ve always been fascinated by mythology, particularly Greek/Roman mythology, where women are turned into swans, or trees, or spiders in a snap, and the undead can be resurrected, albeit changed. I wanted to explore that, and touch on the consequences of transformation, both “good” and “bad”.
Although there are narrative threads and recurring images running throughout Oysterlight, I felt as though it was a collection that could be picked up and opened at any page. This made me wonder about how you read poetry collections. Do you tend to read from cover to cover, or dip in and out?
I’m so glad you picked up on that as it was exactly what I wanted to do with the collection! When I was putting the collection together, I remember having a very clear image of it as a necklace – where something cohesive was made of a connected string of individual but similar pieces. Where each poem was its own pearl, if you like, and it didn’t matter which one you looked at first. Having said all that, as a reader, I do usually read cover to cover rather than dipping in and out, if only so I don’t miss anything.
Can you tell us a bit about the process of assembling the collection? Were there poems that didn’t make the cut? How much did the shape of the collection change during editing? How did you go about ordering and arranging the poems?
There were definitely poems that didn’t make the cut. Some of the poems I originally included just didn’t stand up under scrutiny, and others didn’t quite hang together with the rest of the collection, so out they went. The shape of the collection didn’t change too much during the editing process – I had assembled the poems originally depending on tone and length rather than along a theme, although I always knew I wanted Railway Station, Platform Two to be the last poem in the book for those who would, like me, read a collection in order. I wanted to end the book with a note of magic, and a sense of changing, of rising out of the ordinary – the darkness becoming a fox, the girl’s breath turning into a hummingbird. I like that it’s not a poem with a definitive ending. I didn’t want a poem that acted like a full-stop.
This is your first full-length collection of poetry. What did you learn from working on a manuscript of this length? What was the editorial process like, and did you spend more time refining individual poems or shaping the collection as a whole?
In terms of editing, the focus with Oysterlight was definitely more on individual poems rather than the shape of the collection as a whole. I was really lucky to be able to work with Sharon Black at Pindrop Press for my first collection. Sharon is a poet herself as well as an editor, so she’s not just looking at the mechanics of a poem but the heart of it. She really worked hard to make the poems as strong as they could be, and a lot of the changes she suggested were ones I hadn’t even realised the poems needed. I was really grateful for that guidance. I hadn’t expected to enjoy the editing process – I thought I’d find it hard to make changes as the poems were all really precious to me. But when you have a good editor, you come to see really quickly that it’s invaluable to have that critical eye. My poems definitely came out of the editing process stronger for it.
How did you settle on “Oysterlight” as a title? Oysters crop up again and again throughout the manuscript, but they’re one of several recurring images. What made you identify them as central, and where did the word “oysterlight” come from?
Once I’d identified transformation as the underlying theme of the book, I knew I wanted a title that would reflect that. I’d been to the beach with my partner just before I sent the manuscript to Pindrop – we were strolling along, picking up shells and bits of pebble as you do, when he found one perfect half of an oyster shell. He was tilting it in his hand to catch the light, and it was gleaming with that lovely, pearly wash of colour – pinks, and blues, and lavenders, and golds. And the word “oysterlight” came to me, then, and when we got home afterwards, I wrote the poem, “Beachcombers”, which is included in the collection. Although the word “oysterlight” didn’t end up in the finished poem, I knew I wanted it for the title of the book. Oysters are the ultimate symbol of transformation for me – an irritant gets in, usually a grain of sand or a parasite, and the oyster defends itself by producing a fluid to coat the irritant. This builds up, layer on layer, until a pearl is formed. I love that – and it’s exactly like how I build a poem! A thought or a word starts niggling away, and then I start adding other bits to it, and layering sentences over that, and eventually (hopefully!) I end up with something beautiful.
Several of your poems revolve around myths, legends or historical figures of some renown. I wondered if you had any advice or thoughts about writing about existing characters like this? Do you find it easier or more difficult than poems which have no footing in history or legend?
I sometimes have to temper my urge to write about mythological and historical figures, because otherwise that’s ALL I’d write. I wouldn’t say they were easier or more difficult to write about than anything else, but they’re very different. A lot of my poems are based on personal experience, or real-world news, so with the mythological and historical ones, I get to put on a different hat. It’s that storytelling aspect I love, where I get to take an existing character or figure and imagine myself into them. I think my only advice when writing this sort of poem is to find something new to write about, or let us see a well-known character from a different angle. In my Medusa poem, for example, Medusa isn’t this monstrous woman who turns men to stone – she’s lonely, and her heart hurts, and she wants what we all want, which is to be loved. I like to humanise characters like that – I want to empathise with them, and find common ground. I like to make them real, I suppose. I actually just wrote a new poem, about the emperor from the old fairytale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Only in my version he isn’t vain and silly, but a man who is tired of his responsibilities and all the trappings and fineries that come with it. And so he chooses his nakedness, he chooses his freedom.
Do you have a favourite poem from the collection, and – if so – what is the story behind it, and why is it your particular favourite?
Ohhh, tough question. I love all the poems for different reasons, but if I had to choose a favourite, it would probably be “Mam Tor”, which is the first poem in the collection. I like the poem itself, but it’s special to me for the memory that inspired it as well. I hadn’t been dating Chris very long then, and we’d gone camping for the weekend, pretty much in the shadow of Mam Tor. It was also the first poem I wrote to ever win a prize (it placed third in Bare Fiction magazine’s 2016 poetry competition), which gave me such a boost of confidence. I don’t think I’d imagined until then that I could do this seriously, and I still credit that poem and that prize for setting me on the path that would eventually lead to Oysterlight.
Who are your poetic inspirations? What poetry do you tend to read, and did any of these influences help create and define Oysterlight?
Ohhh, so many! I have my staples, like Alice Oswald, and Jean Sprackland, and Ted Hughes, and Sylvia Plath, but I love finding new poets and poems. I read constantly, and subscribe to four or five poetry journals. Twitter is an amazing platform for finding new poets, particularly American poets – writers like Kaveh Akbar, Paige Lewis, Nicole Sealey, Ruth Madievsky, and Lindsay Lusby are doing amazing things with language. I’m completely obsessed with Ocean Vuong, and have followed his posts on Tumblr for years, so it’s lovely to see him now getting the recognition he deserves. In terms of UK poetry, there are SO many poets I’m obsessed with. Helen Mort, Kim Moore, Judy Brown, Liz Berry (who is probably my favourite poet to see read live, she’s just mesmerising)… I could go on and on. I think every poem I read, even the ones I don’t like for whatever reason, influences how I write. I’m interested in what makes a poem work, so untangling a particular poem definitely affects and shapes how I’m thinking when I come back to write myself. I love that about poetry – how it’s perpetually shifting and changing, and how every poet feeds into its evolution. It’s a beautiful thing.
Cheryl Pearson lives and writes in Manchester. Her poems have appeared in publications including 14 Magazine, Tincture, and Skylark Press. She won third prize in the Bare Fiction Poetry Contest in 2016. Oysterlight is her first full-length poetry collection, published by Pindrop Press.