I first met Anna Saunders in 2016 at Cheltenham Poetry Festival, which she founded in 2011. At that time Indigo Dreams had just published her collection, Burne Jones and the Fox. Two years on, the festival is still going from strength to strength and Anna has just published her latest book, Ghosting for Beginners, again with Indigo Dreams.
I had the pleasure of hearing Anna read from Ghosting at Berkeley Square Poetry Revue in Bristol recently, and we exchanged books. It’s a compelling and beguiling collection, as rooted in the supernatural and ancient mythology as it is in the here and now.
I enjoyed the book so much that I immediately want to find out more, so here’s an interview Anna kindly did for me via email.
Ben Banyard (BB): How did Ghosting for Beginners take shape? Did you start with one or two poems and slowly flesh it out from there?
Anna Saunders (AS): My poems are often the result of a haunting and sparked by being spooked by certain recurring themes and obsessions; lost loves, memories, grief, places, guilt, desires, even political and environmental concerns. I was writing poems about the things that gave me goose pimples and the collection shaped itself that way. There are also ghost stories in the collection; ones I’ve been told or read; some of which are, I hope, darkly funny.
BB: Do you have a particular interest or belief in the supernatural?
AS: I love the ghost stories of MR James – they are so subtle, and chilling. I like to believe in the supernatural, and in other illogical, mysterious narratives – but I have to admit I have never seen a ghost.
BB: There are also poems in the collection which feature characters (and monsters!) from Greek mythology, folk tales and of course the magic of nature. Is that something you often look to for inspiration?
AS: Yes, folk and legend has always been inspiring to me. I like the power and depth of many myths, they are full of insight into human nature, and electrifying drama. One of the books that I keep returning to is The Golden Bough – which is full of pagan wisdom and reverence for nature –and intense Wickerman-esque narratives!
BB: You also aren’t afraid to include modern references – I particularly liked ‘lumber sexual’! Do you listen out for these new types of phrases?
AS: Ha ha, yes I like to fuse modern diction and more classical. The expression Lumber sexual is in a poem called ‘The Prophet is Mistaken for A Faredodging Hipster on the London Overground’ – in it I envision the fate of a messenger from the gods who looks too hip for his own good. Lumber Sexual is a style of dressing – and refers to hipsters wearing lumberjack clothes!
BB: Was ‘Ghosting for Beginners’ always going to be the title poem?
AS: Yes – but the poem took a long time to be finished. It’s about the internet dating phenomena of ghosting – where you go absent on line by defriending someone, stopping following them – it’s an elegy for the spirits who can’t use this tactic as they don’t have real fingers. It’s a tongue in cheek poem but inspired by the pathos and pain of rejection.
BB: You also include poems about politics and environmental issues – but always things which are dying (Brexit), endangered or gone forever. Would you say you’re a political poet?
AS: I am becoming more so. Certainly more so in Ghosting for Beginners. I am finding it harder than ever to avoid certain subjects as the world stumbles into crisis and the right wing develop a stranglehold on politics.
My recent work has been inspired by events on the world stage, politics and the crisis of austerity – but I try use dark humour and some aesthetic beauty to address these subjects.
I am working on a new book which uses figures from Greek and Roman myth to explore contemporary issues – in one of the poems Persephone goes on Question Time to interrogate Hades, who has abducted her and taken her into the underworld to starve – a metaphor for the punitive measures of austerity. It will be published by Indigo Dreams in 2020
BB: When did you start writing?
AS: I started with prose – I have a few half finished novels hidden under the bed. I have been writing poetry seriously since about 2005 I think – I now have 5 books in print.
BB: Your mother is a writer – did she encourage or dissuade you when you were starting to write?
AS: My mum has been a writer all her life – she was a journalist and has written some cracking short stories. She took to poetry recently and hit the ground running. Her work is really strong.
She used to joke about having a poet in the family and roll her eyes – but now I have to remind her she is one too.
BB: How did the relationship with Indigo Dream come about?
AS: I had books with Wild Converstations Press and Pindrop Press but always had my eye on Indigo Dreams – they have an incredible list with poets including Penelope Shuttle, Jennie Farley, Bethany Pope, Hannah Stone and of course, ahem, the very talented Ben Banyard (loved your book Ben!).
BB: You’re the founder and CEO of Cheltenham Poetry Festival – tell me about that. It must be incredibly rewarding.
AS: Yes it is ! The Guardian put it perfectly when they described the Festival as ‘a poetry party with a healthy dose of anarchy’ and I love creating this arty party every year.
We have a lot of fun at the festival, whilst taking poetry very seriously – there’s a real buzz when the festival runs which some of our greatest living poets taking to the stage.
Since the festival kicked off in 2011 we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy performances by some stellar names– they include John Cooper Clarke, Fiona Sampson, Owen Sheers, John Hegley, Hollie McNish, Don Patterson, Clare Pollard, Matthew Sweeney, Murray Lachlan Young, Jacob Polley– to name just a few.
BB: The festival has grown from strength to strength in a short space of time and regularly attracts big names. Whose performances have you enjoyed most?
AS: Oh, tough question – I have loved the readings we’ve had from the likes of Wayne Holloway Smith, Sasha Dugdale, Don Patterson, Fiona Sampson, Hilda Sheehan, Elaine Feinstein, Jo Bell, Jane Commane, Matthew Sweeney to name just a few …
I’ve also found the huge slams we run every year really exhilarating and the new drama we have showcased – it’s also been very exciting to book bands such as The Courtesy Group with Al Hutchins, Little Machine who set poetry to music, Vinny Peculiar who has been described as ‘ a national treasure’ alongside hip hop performers such as the 5 Mics, and the hilarious Professor Elemental. I am working on the programme for next year already and have some exciting names lined up.
BB: To what extent do you use social media? I’m interested in how you promote your own work here, as much as the festival and particularly in how you don’t have a personal presence on Facebook – the title poem touches on this.
AS: Unlike the ghosts in my collection I DO embrace social media – though largely to spread the words about the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, fellow poets activities and my own books. I came off Facebook as I accepted too many friend requests and had a few unnerving and unwelcome social media encounters. I do have a page for the Festival though – and hope people enjoy reading about our events.
I’ve worked in communications for a variety of organisations including the Information Management Department of British Energy and an arts centre.
BB: How do you choose poems for a reading?
AS: I try to take my audience on a journey – and pick the poems as if shaping a narrative arc for a novel – beginning with something approachable, moving through more dramatic and edgy poems then ending with a more lyrical work.
Though sometimes I walk in – look at the audience and change my set completely!
Some of my poems are autobiographical but if they include something that I don’t wish my mum to know about, and she is in the audience, I say the poem is about my sister.
BB: What’s next?
AS: Well I am working on Persephone Goes on Question Time for Indigo Dreams, a project about Dylan Thomas and a new artists residency – I’ll share more about this very soon.
Ghosting for Beginners is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing for £8.99 (plus P&P).
Anna Saunders is the author of Communion (Wild Conversations Press), Struck (Pindrop Press), Kissing the She Bear (Wild Conversations Press) and Burne Jones and the Fox (Indigo Dreams).
She has had poems published in numerous journals and anthologies. Anna holds a Masters in Creative and Critical Writing from The University of Gloucestershire and is the CEO and founder of Cheltenham Poetry Festival.
A selection of poems from Ghosting for Beginners:
Ghosting for Beginners
Having only the suggestion of fingers, ghosts
are unable to embrace the internet.
The impotent deceased instead resort
to rustling papers, slamming doors
photo bombing family portraits,
haloing the living with a nebulous haze.
You, however have all the tools to hand.
There’s no need to hang around graveyards
with malevolent intent
or hex the air with an ominous waft.
Simply disappear from her twitter feed,
become invisible on her wall,
leave vast gaps between texts.
Imagine how the ghouls will envy you
when you become a spectre on social media.
You can imagine why they are irked,
absence is their Calling Card.
Oh gauzy digits
hovering over the keys,
unable to make impression.
Oh ethereal fingers
unable to click in ‘un-friend’.
On how ghosts take the moral high ground
A week after he’s hanged himself he’s back,
returned to the house of his fickle lover
shroud-bound, glassy faced, righteous, hovering above her bed
like a see-through falcon, ready to drop on prey.
The noose that did for him is lank as a shed snake’s skin
and his tracing-paper fingers claw the air,
and he moans each time she kisses her new paramour
until they split apart, startled.
In life he was licentious,
but after death he’s immaculate as a saint
scrubbed clean as if the Spiritual Realm
were a rough sponge brandished by a fierce hand.
All his sins are exfoliated now, his new skin
light as bible paper, lucent as rain.
Pity the poor woman who lies under him
too guilt-struck to enjoy another’s embrace.
Imagine if each time you kissed a new lover
you were haunted by the one you betrayed.
Imagine if your sin was sent back – fingered,
pale hands holding a candle,
the flame a halo around the shaft
so your darkness was broken by their pure white light.
first published on Algebra of Owls
To The Naturalist On Valentine’s Day
The rose stands in the thin vase,
its stem is like a amputated tail
in a fluid reserve.
Go and apologise to the trees
for what we have done.
Lopped them down for lumber
crushed their pulp for cards.
When you reach into the split bark
there is a faint pulse.
This one must be a hundred years old
it wears a heavy necklace of stalky green.
That one looks like Ted Hughes
impossibly lofty, swarthy,
with thick arms.
Later, lying in bed alone
you hear the rasping screech of the owl
the scream of something
that flies all night, exhilarated
by the dark, yet terrified
of its own appetite.
first published on Amaryllis Poetry
William Blake Draws The Ghost of a Flea
Blake says the flea complains of a haunting.
He says he will draw the ghost within the flea.
From the darkness of the mahogany board,
Blake exhumes a body.
Not a pinprick creature that could be crushed under the thumb,
but a figure pulvinated with muscle,
a self- vaunting bruiser
standing between two curtain as if on stage.
it is stocky as an ox, pugnacious ,
posed menacingly under the starry heavens
of Blake’s gold brush.
The flea’s ghost has insect eyes, piercing and hard,
a reptilian tongue
encased in a herculean form.
The ghost in the flea laps at a small bowl awash with red.
The ghost of man cannot inhabit a horse
Blake tells the critics.
Imagine the troughs of blood needed
to slake our avid thirst.
After William Blake’s painting The Ghost of a Flea – which depicts a monstrous man, the spirit of whom is trapped within an insect.
first published on Ink, Sweat & Tears