Q. Congratulations, Zoe, on the publication of your debut poetry collection HAG, can you tell us how it has been brought to life?
With regard to the individual poems, each one has their own story. Some of the poems were written whilst studying for my MA at the University of Chichester, some emerged from my current PhD research and others were written simply because they demanded to be written, for one reason or another. I wish I could tell you that I have a meticulous and fool-proof process for writing poetry, but I don’t really have one. The poems are inspired by things I’ve read or seen and blended with the real world, both in terms of news stories and my own personal experience. I have a particular interest in mythology and folklore, and I think some of those ancient stories hold great wisdom which still applies to our lives today.
The collection itself came about thanks to . I entered a selection of the poems found in Hag to the Indigo-First Collection Competition last year, and first of all I was excited and honoured just to have reached the shortlist. The prize was announced on National Poetry Day last year, and for me it took a while to really sink in that I had won. Even when I was working on the proofs for the book and discussing the cover with the Indigo team, I still couldn’t really wrap my head around it. Ronnie and Dawn at Indigo are a pleasure to work with, they helped me through every step of the process and I learned a lot about how collections are put together. I am very proud of the final collection, and a lot of that is due to their care and attention. Indigo Dreams really nurtures and supports writers, through their magazines as well as pamphlets and books, and it’s run by creative and caring people who understand poetry and poets so it was an honour and a privilege to work with them to bring Hag into the world.
Q. I understand for the collection and your PhD you have been immersing yourself in some interesting research. Tarot readings and witch summer school for example. You have to tell us more …
My PhD is focused on examining witches in women’s poetry. It’s a creative PhD, which means that alongside an analysis of major female poets who have written on the subject, I am compiling a collection of poems inspired by witches. As part of that, I’ve read a lot of history and mythology and visited various exhibitions and heritage sites, but I’ve also considered the value and practice of witchcraft in the modern world. I attended the WitchFest conference, taught myself to read the tarot and learned various simple spells, which I have since reflected on in poetry.
Recently, I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to attend a ‘Witch Summer School’ in Tuebingen, Germany. The weekend brought together academics from a wide range of fields to discuss the significance of the witch in culture. I met some brilliant and fascinating people, including a practising witch who had some excellent insights into the role of the witch in the modern world and in her life. I think perhaps my niece and nephew were a little disappointed that witch summer school didn’t turn out to be anything like Hogwarts – and honestly, I’m probably more Mildred Hubble than Hermione Grainger anyway – but I found the whole weekend very inspiring.
One of the things I really love about creative research is that it gives me a good excuse to explore the world and have adventures. Maybe no one really needs an excuse, but life so easily gets in the way of things and booking trips, whether that’s to a witch summer school or a visit to a historic site like Hadrian’s Wall, really help me with writing poetry. I think it’s because when we’re somewhere new, or with different people, we pay attention in a different way and poetry benefits from that close attention.
Q. What and who inspires your work? Do you have particular favourite poets or poems you always return to?
Is it too vague to say that the whole world inspires my work?! As I said, I am a very curious person and I love learning new things. I read a lot and also listen to a lot of podcasts – not just poetry podcasts but also factual podcasts like HistoryHit or Radio 4’s The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry – and I horde all the facts that fire my imagination and blend them for poems. The poem The Scarlet Mark from my collection came from a programme about the history and science behind red hair, for example. I am also a bit of a word collector, when I learn a new word, I make a note of it so that I can use it in a poem. Sometimes it might take years before the right poem emerges, but they all get used in the end.
Most recently, I’ve been writing poems which integrate the real world more closely with the mythological one. I doubt I’ll ever let go of my love of mythology, but we are living in strange and uncertain times and I think it would be impossible to ignore the political dimension at the moment. Sometimes I think it’s rather depressing that my work on witches is so relevant, but the truth is that women and particularly powerful women, are still treated with suspicion in the world. Poetry is a way for me to express my frustration and rage at the current situation, but also it’s a way for me to reflect on more personal aspects of my life.
In terms of favourite poets and poems, that is a very long list! My first ever favourite poet was Roger McGough because my Dad used to read me one of his books as a bedtime story and I used to request it over and over until he could recite the whole thing from memory, so he has a very special place in my heart for awaking my love of language and poetry. In my teenage years, I was very immersed in the work of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and they’re still among my favourites. I love the work of Audre Lorde and I would recommend that alongside her poetry, everyone should read her essays, especially Poetry is not a Luxury and The Uses of Anger. With regard to poets working today, I am in absolute awe of Glyn Maxwell, he has a delicacy and tenderness to his writing that is breath taking and however many times I re-read his work, I can’t quite see how he’s done it. I loved Helen Mort’s collection No Map Could Show Them about pioneering female climbers, and I would also recommend checking out the work of Kate Garrett, who is a bit of a magical pixie in the poetry world, editing poetry magazines filled with magic, folklore and mythology as well as writing her own unique and very striking work.
I have spent a very long time thinking about which poems to recommend – I have decided to compile some from poets working today to narrow the field but that still makes it very difficult to make choices because there are so many poets working today and producing exceptional work.
The poem has haunted me ever since I read it, and I admire the quiet tenderness and insight.
often re-circulates on the internet when a tragedy occurs and for good reason; it holds the very delicate balance between sad realism and hope.
is so vivid and exact you feel like you’re right with him in his childhood memory.
And I know I said I would pick from poets working today, but I feel that the list wouldn’t be complete without including the poem by the late, great Mary Oliver because it has saved me more than once. There is such comfort in that opening line, “You do not have to be good.”
Q. Do you have any events/readings planned to promote collection so LitPig can put them in his diary?
I am speaking at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic conference on 18th May, and I currently have readings booked for Loose Muse in London in September, Gloucester Poetry Festival in October and Loose Muse in Winchester in December. I keep a full list of my and I’m always happy to have the excuse to read my work and talk poetry with other writers and readers, so I can also be contacted through my site if anyone wishes me to read at an event.
HAG is available to buy HERE from Indigo Dreams.
It’s also worth noting that Indigo Dreams are running a great offer again this year; if you buy four books from them throughout the year, you can choose a fifth one free. You don’t have to buy them all at once, you can buy them throughout the year and it all counts to a free book… which means that buying more books is saving money, which I feel is excellent news for anyone trying to decide if they need more books! (Although, and I am sure you will agree with me, LitPig, the answer is yes, you ALWAYS need more books.)
Thank you, Zoe, for such an interesting and informative interview.
If you love mythology, folklore and ancient history then I highly recommend HAG by Zoe Mitchell. Her poetry is infused with energy and jumps off the page. The writing is equally vivid, visceral and incredibly lyrical. Her classical knowledge is woven seamlessly with the everyday, her characters will linger in your dreams and often inspire you to go search out more details on what lies behind their stories. The natural world appears in several poems, one of my particular favourites is ‘Sycamore Gap’ featuring an argument between the famous sycamore and Hadrian's Wall. ‘Lullaby’ really is the stuff of nightmares and ‘A Matter of Common Talk’ will make you either laugh out loud or cringe (depending on your gender). There are goddesses, Ancient Britons, lovers and the lovelorn, along with the forgotten voices of women doomed for simply being women. Once read and devoured, then this collection is one to read again and out loud so you can savour the delicious rhythms and joy of words that Mitchell has crafted.
HAG is endorsed by dragons.