“It’s Friday, and I want to hold
the day down by its neck to keep it still.”
—from ‘Clock-watching’, in Kissing Angles (Dead Ink Books, 2015).
I am one hundred feet beneath central London and gripping fanatically onto a dangling piece of rubber to avoid violating the personal boundaries of my fellow passengers. I feel very far from the cropped greens and high, tightly thatched barn roofs of the village where I live, and in which I woke up less than two hours ago. It is half past eight on a Friday morning and the tube is a can of human worms. Resting it on a commuter’s rucksack, which serves for an improvised lectern, I am re-reading Kissing Angles, a newly published pamphlet containing twenty poems by Sarah Fletcher. I am attempting to think of intelligent questions to put to her when we meet later this morning. We have arranged to conduct the interview in Regent’s Park during the solar eclipse – a venue which, showing reckless disregard for the early start, the cramped train, and the overcast weather, was my suggestion.
It’s the morning of Kissing Angles’s official launch party, and when we sit down in a café in Regent’s Park, the poet is ebullient and talkative. She sips her coffee as we talk and answers my hurriedly scrawled questions freely and, for the most part, enthusiastically. Her answers are invariably preceded with a polite, and earnestly American, “That’s a really good question,” or “How interesting!” Throughout our conversation, she gives off the energising air of someone whose career may be just about to take off. Every so often she glances out of the window in the ostensible direction of the sun, but the heavy cloud cover makes these looks less and less frequent until they stop altogether.
At twenty years old, Sarah Fletcher, a student at Durham University, has already enjoyed remarkable successes as a poet. Her poetry was first published in the prestigious London Magazine when she was just fourteen. Since then, she has won the two largest competitions for young poets in the UK: the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award (with the elegant mood-piece ‘Brighton’) and the Tower Poetry Prize (with ‘Papa’s Epilogue’, a darkly sexual character sketch inspired by Ernest Hemingway). Born in America, she has lived in London for six years and received her British Citizenship only four days before our interview. I ask her what she, as someone whose past straddles the Atlantic, feels about the perceived differences between American and British poetry. “When I started out writing poetry,” she says, “I didn’t really know there were any differences. My big influences when I was younger were poets who did both traditions – I did the normal fourteen-year-old thing, I read Plath, Sexton, things like that.” Sylvia Plath – a fellow transatlantic poet? “Exactly.” She goes on to describe some of the differences she sees between the two ‘traditions’. “In some places in America, you’re taught that rhyme and metre are redundant. There’s so much focus on reading your peers rather than reading from history; but my poetry benefitted so much when I started reading more poetry from the past.” Though she cites influences from Edna St Vincent Millay to the Book of Genesis, she says “I definitely write in a UK tradition now. I don’t think I would get published in the US. I’ve been reviewed in the US, and someone told me that they were reviewing it as if it were a work in translation.”
The poems in Kissing Angles take up rhyme and metre, but – with the exception of the strictly regular ‘A Villanelle with Two Endings’ – these formal aspects have an ad hoc, improvised feel, emerging from the free verse so naturally that it is easy not to notice them. Relationships between men and women are the central focus of the collection, whose poems each present a vignette of an actual or possible love. Some poems, like ‘The Wrestler and the Sailor’s Daughter’, are crashingly physically immediate: “He arches on her like a wave / and, like a wave, above her, breaks.” Others are more speculative, conditional. ‘Our Daughter’ imagines living in domestic bliss and raising a little girl, but undercuts itself by dwelling on a negative pregnancy test. “The hypotheticals throughout the collection are a way of escaping reality,” Fletcher explains, “because my characters don’t want to be in the now. They give a sense of hope, or just general speculation: What if this could exist? I quite like those poems, because the entire time you’re reading ‘if only this happened’, you’re wondering: what is the now, what’s the basis that this ‘if’ is coming off of?” So when the speaker in ‘Our Daughter’ speculates about becoming someone who “doesn’t / worry about old loves / bumping into you on city streets / and stealing you from me”, she only underscores her own present anxieties.
The poems mostly share a common dynamic. There is the powerful, emotionally inaccessible man, whose motivations are obscure and self-destructive; there is the self-conscious and self-sacrificing woman, a perpetual victim of her lover or her own anxiety, whose disappointment manifests itself as despondency, hope, or simply exhaustion. Fletcher explains her method in the collection: “I want to do a kind of cubism on romantic and sexual relationships. Different angles of looking at them, different ways of getting the same thing.” The women in the poems, she says, are all “a singular woman,” even though she is a Dutch newlywed here, a sailor’s daughter there, here Eva Braun and here the mother of a boxer in Hull. And the men, too, are “the same man all the time” – “even when”, in the pamphlet’s most courageous and successful poem, “he’s Hitler.” Kissing Angles’s model of a relationship, which reappears in so many different times and places, is a theme that the poet admits has “obsessed” her: “I continued going back to that dynamic, over and over and over.”
An exception to this pattern is ‘Sex Education’. The poem is a darkly subversive account of school sex education classes, in which the girls “imagine / being dressed like butcher’s meat”, while the boys are “told they are / gods if they want to be.” It feels powerfully political, but Fletcher seems slightly put out when I say so. “I don’t want to be political or to take sides,” she insists. “I’ve never yet gone into it saying ‘I’m going to write a political poem.’ I can’t imagine myself doing something like that.” But she does identify as a feminist, and whether or not she is willing to say so, ‘Sex Education’ offers a profound and intelligent criticism of patriarchal stigmas and norms. Fletcher also expresses her frustration at how some readers have insisted on seeing ‘Sex Education’ as autobiographical. “A lot of people – even in recent reviews – read an ‘I’ into my poems that isn’t the ‘I’ of the dramatic monologue and conflate them with my own life. Anyone who knows me will know that these characters don’t represent me or my views.” She goes on: “If I do write a poem about my life – a ‘confessional poem’ – it’s just not a good poem. I need to give myself the freedom of another voice or a dramatic monologue. That’s where I think my poems sound most honest. They don’t sound honest if I’m speaking as myself.”
In another poem, ‘The Judgement’, Fletcher writes about a situation that often defies description: rape. The poem is almost painfully distressing to read. But it is written with such sharpness and severity that it defies misunderstanding or trivialisation. In it, Fletcher achieves the extraordinary feat of using deftly controlled language to portray a loss of control, an inability to put a stop to unfolding events. It’s a poem that demands to be reproduced in its entirety; I do so below. And while it only depicts one particular situation and does not claim to encompass all people’s experience of sexual violence, it is a powerful antidote to those who have always accused rape victims of “embellishing / it all.”
If Fletcher does not want to be seen as a political poet, it is probably because she is far from a crusading propagandist. She scrupulously humanises even her most repugnant characters. With reference to the two Nazi men in the pamphlet, the poet explains: “In showing that Nazis are people, I don’t make them good people. By humanising them, I make the situations sympathetic, but there is never any excuse for their being awful. What I am trying to do is show that horrifying acts are not done by sociopathic monsters with no consciousness, but real people with complicated inner lives, who do things like fall in love and have complex relationships, and we ignore a big part of humanity by displaying them as one-dimensional ‘bad guys’ . I think humanising them actually shows how truly horrifying their actions are.” This nuanced approach lets her portraits become sympathetic but not exculpatory. This means that, for example, her characterisation of the often-abstracted phenomenon of ‘Lads’, in a poem of the same name, is one of the most sensitive and perceptive that has yet been made.
Kissing Angles resists being easily characterised. Its poems are as varied in tone, mood and form as they are monolithic in subject matter. Above all, they are marked by sensitivity: to nuanced emotional states, tiny miscommunications, shades of hope and disappointment, intricate and subtle sound-patterning. Several of the poems are dizzyingly successful. All of them display a technical skill and an imagination that undoubtedly make Sarah Fletcher a poet to watch in the years to come.
It is ten thirty, and the interview is almost finished. The allotted time has been and gone with no perceptible change in the sun’s luminosity. “What’s next for Sarah Fletcher?”, I ask the poet predictably. She is predictably good-natured. “Ooh, good question.” She is still writing, she says, with such conviction that it sounds like the fullest answer she could possibly have given. “Still writing.”
by Sarah Fletcher
‘It’s not supposed to be like that’ he said
and then accused me of embellishing
it all. But I swore I told him nothing
more or less than how it really felt.
‘Embellishing’s for dresses’ I explained;
holding my ground.
————————-‘Dresses’, he repeated,
looking down, ‘then what are you?
I told him how I felt like rotting fruit,
which is to say too sticky
and browned-over at the edges;
how my lips became a pith to be peeled off.
And how we moved like we were
drowning, but in the way a horse
may drown, which is to say,
showing resistance. Which is to say,
still looking for some ground,
some anything, something
to stand on and start galloping.
He sighed and said that I sounded all wrong;
it should be different, that with him, it would be different.
‘How’s it supposed to feel, then, sir?’ I asked.
He smirked and pulled me in, administering
the Bible-black conviction of his kiss,
the hands-in-hair pull of his love.
I felt my body pulp; my legs go weightless once again.
He whispered in my ear ‘like this.’
—Previously published in The Rialto, issue 82.
You can order a copy of Kissing Angles here.