Emma Purshouse simply thrills. The wildly entertaining poet and novelist's untamed wit is more than a match for the archetypal Eton Rifles of the poetry world. Her awe inspiring collection of poems, 'Close' - loosely regarding the residents and lives of the residents of a fictional(?) street, or Close, was shortlisted for the Rubery book award. Her 2021 novel, the irascibly cheery, and astringently laconic, 'Dogged' was published by Ignite books to rave reviews. Emma's performance poetry has seen her onstage at The Cheltenham Literature Festival, Ledbury Poetry Festival, Much Wenlock Poetry Festival, Shambala, Womad, Latitude and Solfest and way more besides. Emma is the poet laureate of her hometown, Wolverhampton.
We've wanted to feature Emma forever, or at least since we saw her at one of the final pre-lockdown events over a year back, so here we go...
OUTSIDELEFT: Let’s begin with your collection, Close, how amazing is that? You already know! Both beautiful and wholly accessible, which I add because I do think the mere term poetry can be daunting for some people, before they’d pick up a book or decide where to go for a night out…
Emma Purshouse: I’m glad you thought it was accessible. I think poetry is about communication, so it’s great to hear that.
OL: In any way, did you decide to lean on dialect to reach people? Was it a conscious decision at all? I love it, like my ears prick up when I hear a working class voice on Women’s Hour. Like that. And because I think there is a distrust of poets and that is borne of the notion that, who the fuck can afford to be a poet? Like no one on the Close is telling their kids to be a poet when they grow up. What’s wrong with this world?
Emma Purshouse: I don’t think I leant on dialect/accent to reach people. In some respects that shortens your reach. Some people can be very dismissive of dialect and accent. I just write what I hear around me. It’s the words/language that me and some of my family and many of my friends use. I’m writing about where I’m from in a way that considers language to be as much a part of place as the physical landscape.
Hah…you’re right I don’t think anybody from a working-class background suggests poetry as a career choice to their kids. Having said that I manage, I’ve been making a living from writing for about 10 years now. Although, that said, if I had kids or a mortgage I might have been taking on other jobs to prop things up!
OL: How do you choose which poems make good bedfellows and were there poems you loved, but just didn’t fit the collection?
Emma Purshouse: Sometimes I might be working to a theme. In a previous collection (which I had a third of the space in) I focussed upon work related poems so that was fairly easy to know what to put in. With ‘Close’ my publisher wanted to include poems that I didn’t really want to include (mostly because I thought they were too different in style or tone), but then I came up with the idea that I would set everything around an imagined Black Country street and the poems started to hang together more effectively. I also had a brilliant editor in Jane Seabourne, who was so helpful in making the decisions on what to leave in and what to leave out and where to put stuff. In the end I managed to please the publisher and be happy myself with what I’d produced.
OL: When I saw you perform, I really loved ‘The Art School Annual Picnic.’ Funny and pointed too. What do you like about poetry, why do you like poetry?
Emma Purshouse: ‘The Art School Annual Picnic’ is a poem that I often put in my set as it’s very performancy. It’s a humorous way of pointing out that there are a lot of over-looked women in the world by way of focussing on the arts… Humour is sometimes a more effective vehicle for making a point than a rant might be.
I love poetry’s capacity to be everything from laugh out loud, to thoughtful and thought provoking. Poetry is no different to music. Saying I hate poetry is like saying I hate music. I maintain that there is something there for everyone if they have a look.
OL: Recently you’ve published a novel, Dogged, spikey real world characters. What made you decide to go towards a longer piece of writing?
Emma Purshouse: I’ve been attempting to write novels since I was in my 20s. My first novel ‘Scratters’ was shortlisted for the Mslexia unpublished novel prize a few years ago. But it didn’t get picked up by a publisher. I had a few agents and publishers read it, but it was suggested that I took the accent and dialect out of it. I didn’t want to. So my recently published novel ‘Dogged’ is actually my second completed novel. It’s much better for my having written that first one. I learned a lot in the process. One of the main protagonists in ‘Dogged’ is a character that has occurred in my poetry a fair bit. She’s a voice that’s been hovering around in my work for years, so it’s been nice to bring her to the forefront.
Here’s the blurb off the back of Dogged...
“Marilyn is a little bit scared of Nancy, but then everyone is. Nancy may be seventy-nine, but she’s a force to be reckoned with, and even the local dealers tread warily round her. Who better to look after Marilyn’s tartan shopping trolley when she needs to keep it hidden away?
Nancy’s got a lot on her mind, though, and a cough that’s getting worse. Is she really going be able to keep the trolley and its contents safe? What will the old goat have to say about it all? And what will happen to Toby, Marilyn’s little white dog?”
And the prologue
Nancy stands on the step. Her shoulders have been aching all night. Years of scrubbing quarry tiles up at the Dartmouth are taking their toll. She rolls her shoulders forward and twists her head to peer over towards her back. A lump has started to form under her overall. “What now? If it’s not one thing it’s something else.” As she watches the lump starts to bulge, move and rupture the skin. She hears Mr Maddox’s voice.
“If God’d uv meant uz to fly e’d uv given uz wings.” The voice is punctuated by the sound of a trickle of whisky being poured into a glass.
Her emerging wing, just the one, unfurls itself in a grand gesture and then flails against her back. It is large and black. It is oily, tarry, nicotine-stained and the feathers are stuck together. It hangs like wet washing in a back yard on a windless day. “Sort of bost,” says Nancy. “Shit,” she thinks as Marilyn comes out onto her step and waves. Nancy tries to wave back without showing her new wing.
“Is that….?” says Marilyn screwing up her orange lips into the shape of a cat’s arse.
“No!” says Nancy, cutting her off in mid question. “It ay!” The conversation is ended.
“Bloody dreamin agen,” she thinks as she awakes.
(available now from Ignite Books)
OL: And the Constitutional the thing you did with your dad! Where your dad took an image eachday on his state mandated (as Frankie Boyle said) Lockdown walk and you wrote a poem to accompany his photos. Quite exciting! I loved how it morphed from maybe, virtually, keeping your dad company on his walks to a book where the proceeds help the community. That is so great. Once things got underway, did you ever think, when he sent you an image, that sometimes maybe he’d thought about it and thought… Well, let’s see what Emma can do with this!
Emma Purshouse: It was a way of ‘virtually’ keeping him company on his walks, as it was started at the very beginning of the first lockdown when we couldn’t actually meet up. Not that I’ve been in my mum and dad’s house since last March! The photo/tanka combination was a great way of having something to focus on together. My dad likes a good landscape, so sometimes my mum would get involved and tell him to ‘do one of next door’s cat’ or ‘take one of the letter box’, stuff like that really which brought in another element to the images. When I posted the poem and photo on Facebook each day my dad enjoyed seeing all the comments that people made. We managed to raise a bit of money for Friends of Bantock Park and our local foodbank too by selling copies of the book that we’d produced. My friend Graham Peet very generously put that together for us.
OL: I once saw a brilliant and very entertaining poet from New Zealand, in an upstairs room, possibly full of poets. Poets often perform to other poets it seems. Whereas I’d like to have seen this woman in a full up soccer stadium, like one of those Klaus Kinski tours. Her poems were about Leonardo Da Vinci padding around, Courtney Cox and her Friends. Afterwards, she was asked something like... Whether pop cultural references have any place in poetry? Is there a problem there? Who makes the poetry rules? I worry because maybe that is where it all went wrong for me, childhood poems about Slade and Rod Stewart having days out without their outfits. And sometimes with them.
Emma Purshouse: I don’t think there are any rules about what should be in a poem. If there are then I’m all for ignoring them. For me it’s about crafting whatever I write to the best of my ability. I write what I want to write and try and find the best vehicle possible for it. I guess popular culture stuff might sometimes have a shelf life, but not if the focus is widely known to the audience. (I’d like to hear your Slade poems...). Political poetry can have a short time span of relevance of course, but social media means you can get it out into the world quickly before it passes its sell by date.
You are right, there are a lot of events where poets perform to poets. A regular poetry night will often attract other poets because they have a shared interest, but there are events where that isn’t the case. Poetry slams can attract good sized audiences who aren’t poets, as do spoken word tents at festivals.
Because I work at a grass roots level, I’m often invited to perform in places that aren’t traditional for poetry. I’ve performed stuff outdoors, online, in shopping centres, on boats, at conferences, in schools, on festival stages, over the phone even, and I sometimes write poetry on demand for folk at events which is great fun. For me it’s about sharing poetry with people who might not think it’s for them.
And of course there are other platforms now, such as Soundcloud, Youtube, Twitter, where people can share poetry with big audiences, and have the potential to get a much wider reach with their words. A recent poem of mine was made into a film by regional TV news people, and it has had 122 thousand views so far. Which is amazing when I think about it. I’m pretty sure they aren’t all poets â˜º
OL: Recently I’d read this line in a poem and I loved it, the writer was writing about, writing about sex and romance, rather than being part of it. “It’s like getting three wishes and wishing for less wishes.” This feels like an excellent maxim for how I live now, I can apply it to so many things… So… And I know this is a bit like Nile Rogers on Desert Island Discs where most if not all of his favorite discs were written and recorded by him (excellent!)... But, in all of the hundreds of thousands of lines you’ve written, what is your favorite line, of yours, of all time
Emma Purshouse: Alice Cooper always plays a couple of his own tracks on his own show on Planet Rock too. Perhaps the Americans are better at self promotion than us. A favourite line…from one of my own poems….oh god… errr…. ‘The giant tortoise from Galapagos turned out to be a wok’ yeah…that’ll do..it’s as good as any other... Thinking about it, that might also be a maxim for life right about now.
Thanks for inviting me to do this. It’s been lovely.
OL: Thanks Emma, love this!