Tamsin Hopkins is the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2020 Poetry Winner. We caught up with her to discuss the winning work, if you’re being followed.
A: When did you begin writing if you’re being followed, and where did you get the idea? How many times did you draft the piece before submitting; how did it change in the process?
TH: I began writing if you’re being followed about two months before entering the Aesthetica competition. I was working with ideas of intertextuality at the time. This poem arose out of the conflux of three things – the recent death of my mother (with whom I had a turbulent relationship), being in lockdown, and the discovery of Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ poem Chosen Family, which I used as a prompt. It’s a wonderful poem, striking for its urgency and honesty. If you’re being followed incorporates some text from Chosen Family, then takes it in a different direction with different thematic concerns.
The basic sense of the poem came in one go, but the poem underwent many re-writes almost to the point of obsession. I knew I was making something new and different from the prompt poem. In the drafting process, I was trying to be clear about what my ground was, how much grief for the difficult relationship with my mother I wanted to allow into this poem. Of course, in life as in poetry, we all stand on the shoulders of others. Sometimes those influences are stronger and it’s hard to clear their voices and allow your own for a while. I’m not always conscious of this battle, but I was in writing this poem.
A: The judge, Oz Hardwick, commented on the use of the long line; how did you decide the form of the poem?
TH: Looking back at my early drafts, I think I abandoned shorter lines early on after some unsuccessful versions with four-beat lines. I remember thinking I should stop imposing some vague idea of how it should look on the page and let it do its own thing. Which it then did. The longer lines seem to be the right container for what each line has to say, the emotional weight is allowed to run on through and beyond individual images. Also, you can get a sort of pulsing rhythm building up through the long line which I particularly like. One of my favourite poems for this is Momtaza Mehri’s poem Oiled Legs Have Their Own Subtext.
A: What poets are you most inspired by?
TH: This changes all the time as I tend to circle certain ground for a while and then move on. Old favourites are Caroline Bird and Pascale Petit, I know their work reasonably well. Both of them have exciting new collections at the moment which I am carrying around with me everywhere. Recently I have been very interested in the hermetic writing partnership between US poets Ada Limón and Natalie Diaz, and a new discovery for me is Lisa Robertson who is amazing for the way she uses the body in her eco-poetics. I’m also catching up on my knowledge of Louise Glück.
A: For you, what role do awards play in the career of a writer?
TH: That’s a tricky one. In some ways it’s tempting to say awards shouldn’t play a significant role in a writer’s career but that’s not really true. Like being accepted for publication, any external validation can be a relief, if only because it lets you know you are communicating. Writing poetry can feel like making handprints in a dark cave nobody will ever find. Or shouting in cupboards. You know you exist creatively when somebody reaches out to you. It’s wonderful. Also, a tax free cash prize is often extremely helpful to most writers.
A: What does it mean to win the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award?
TH: I’ve never won anything before, although I’ve been shortlisted a few times. So the first effect of winning such a respected award is that I can’t stop grinning. I suppose going forward, I’m hoping winning the Aesthetica Award might strengthen my bio when I submit work in the future. Maybe an award like this is a helpful boost to emerging poets in overcoming the burden of anonymity when you don’t yet have a full collection out there.
A: What projects do you have planned for 2021? What are you working on?
TH: I have recently started a part time Creative Writing MA which takes up a certain amount of time. I’m concentrating on producing new work at the moment after a couple of years hiatus. Ideally a second pamphlet or a collection will come together at some point. I’ve also had another fiction project on the back burner for a while and I ought to do something about that before long too.
Image: Fazlulloh Shamit Musavi,The Edge of Emotions, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.