Feature Poet:
Sarah Law

Soul-Lit co-founding editor,Waune-Daniel Berard, conducted this interview with feature poet, Sarah Law:

Soul-Lit: Your bio references the influence of Julian of Norwich, the medieval mystic, on your own life and poetry. Please tell us a bit more about that influence?

SL:Yes, Julian of Norwich (1342 – c. 1416) was an extraordinary figure. As far as we know the first woman to write a book in English, Julian was an anchoress at St Julian’s church in Norwich. We know very little about her life, and we don’t even know her real name – she took the name Julian from the church beside her anchorhold (hermitage). She had a series of visions at the age of thirty, when she was seriously ill, and seems to have spent the rest of her life pondering their significance. Her Revelations of Divine Love explores their meaning in striking and poetic language. She envisages the divine as maternal, and describes how after wrestling with the concept of sin, she is told, mysteriously and resonantly, that ‘sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ Julian has been something of a touchstone for me in terms of her life-long dedication to both writing and spirituality, though I can’t pretend to emulate her wisdom or insight.

Soul-Lit: I know you are interested in the links between mysticism, spirituality, and gender, especially as they pertain to writing. Can you elaborate on those links, especially as they inform your own poetry?

SL: Well this is a good question. On the level of subject matter, I’m often drawn to female mystics and visionaries. I’ve written poems (in my 2004 collection The Lady Chapel) about Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, imagined mystics and troubadours, and more recently, medieval visionary Margery Kempe of Lyn, who was a contemporary of Julian of Norwich – very different in temperament though! Margery was excitable and insecure, but an extraordinarily strong character too. My 2014 collection Ink’s Wish was written about Margery Kempe, with some poems in her imagined voice. This collection was originally published by Gatehouse Press and was shortlisted for the East Anglian Book Awards in 2014. I have the copyright and have since made it available as an e-book. Very different in temperament and in time period is nineteenth-century Carmelite saint Thérèse of Lisieux. I was writing some fiction inspired by her world (a project still in progress) and found myself instead creating poem after poem for her. The complete manuscript of Thérèse will hopefully be published in due course and I have been fortunate to place quite a few of those poems already. Thérèse lived a hidden life and died very young, at 24. There is something about her story which catches at the heart. I still can’t quite explain why. I don’t confine myself to saints and mystics though – not by any means. On a linguistic level, mysticism (in the classic sense of an ineffable, unitive experience of the divine) is almost impossible to express in a straightforward way, and that elusive quality makes it very compelling for a poet – for this poet, anyway. Arguably (very arguably) our traditional gendered thinking might suggest a feminine route to the mystical; if we think of a feminine approach as something neither clear-cut nor hierarchical; but resonant, subversive, linguistically fluid and hidden. I’m not sure how far I understand or accept all the ideas of, for example, French critical theorists Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, but as a writer, these concepts intrigue me. Not that I regard myself as an exclusively or even primarily experimental poet – I was perhaps more committedly ‘experimental’ in the past. But I like to reflect on a wide range of ideas about language and writing.

Soul-Lit: The online journal which you edit, Amethyst Review, like Soul-Lit, is a publication for spiritual creative writing. I must say that we were thrilled to find that we had a sister-publication across the pond!  Could you speak a little about why you founded Amethyst, and what you hope to make happen with it?

SL: I was very pleased to come across Soul-Lit too! With Amethyst Review, I wanted to contribute to the flourishing world of online poetry journals, and in particular, to create a space for new writing that looks in some way at the spiritual and the sacred, while also engaging in contemporary poetics or other contemporary literary contexts. While there are a lot of wonderful journals that showcase great new writing, and many writers and poets publishing spiritually-enquiring pieces, I didn’t find many journals that looked specifically for both of those things, especially run from the UK. So I wanted to create an online place of thought-provoking reading and also build up a sort of dialogue between individual pieces, and an international community of contributors and readers. A spirit of respectful dialogue and exchange is important to me with Amethyst, as is a high standard of writing, whether mainstream or experimental. I’m happy to feature work inspired by aspects of all major and minor faiths, and by ‘honest doubt’ too. Amethyst Review is on Facebook and Twitter (@AmethystReview) – and has a lot of engaged and insightful Twitter followers in particular, for which I’m very grateful. In the future I’d also like to create some chapbooks of individual poets’ work, even if just as online PDFs, to give poets more exposure and readers more access to a particular poet’s voice and approach.

Soul-Lit: Along with Julian, who have been your poets of influence? And what have they taught you?

SL: This is always a hard question, because there are so many wonderful poets out there, and I’m always discovering more. I greatly admire Denise Levertov who wrote poetry about Julian of Norwich herself, and many other themes, encompassing the spiritual, the human and the political. Her concept of organic form still feels very fresh and significant. I also like very much Lyn Hejinian for her innovative work, and Irish poet Brendan Kennelly for his wit and craft. There are many contemporary poets I admire. UK poet Gillian Allnutt is wonderful, with a very distinct approach to spirituality and language. Interestingly, a number of contemporary women poets have alluded to Julian of Norwich in their work; for example Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, US poet Lisa Samuels and UK innovative poet Frances Presley (I have an essay on how these poets write about Julian in Literature and Theology, [v25 no.1] if anyone is interested!)

I have to say too it’s such a privilege to read submissions for Amethyst Review. I have discovered some fine poets this way and hope to help grow their own readership.

Soul-Lit: We at Soul-Lit are often asked what we mean by "spiritual poetry."  It feels wonderful to be able to ask another editor the same question! Please share what "spiritual poetry" is for you?

SL: Yes, another good question! In a way, I am reluctant to give too specific an answer, because it’s so interesting and enlightening to see how other writers interpret the term when they submit work to Amethyst. It’s also a difficult term to define precisely, but for me, spiritual poetry acknowledges or engages in a sense of mystery, and sometimes of awe. There is the sense of a deeper meaning at work in the events of language of such a poem. However, this is perhaps the case with all good poetry, which is why spirituality and poetry have such strong connections, I think. I am also interested in prose writing – fiction and creative nonfiction- which engages with these ideas and I am keen to include these genres in Amethyst Review too. In addition to ‘spiritual’ I use the term ‘the sacred’ which is even more open to interpretation, but could include a poet drawing on, for example, the religious attributes of a place, person, or activity without specific exploration of the faith involved. It also might include a writer considering his or her own ideas about what is sacred, for example a ritual or hallowed place that doesn’t necessarily have religious connotations for other people or other faiths. 

Soul-Lit: Lastly, what advise can you offer to younger poets? Are there ideas that perhaps someone shared with you at one point -- or that you wish they had -- about the process of being a poet?

SL: The main advice doesn’t ever change much: keep reading, keep writing. Also, new poets might not be young in age, but that can even be an advantage as you are then able to draw on so much experience and perhaps reading too. Be as poetically devoted and consistent as you can, although don’t get stuck in one particular way of writing or range of reading. It’s fine to feel uncertain when you start a poem – it’s probably a good sign: ‘leap before you look’, as a significant poet once said to me! But you need to balance that initial creative leap with a sense of poetic craft too; an attention to the connotations of words and the musicality of phrases.

On a practical level, when I first started out, it was much harder to make contact with like-minded poets, and to get a sense of what publication outlets were available. Now, with so many excellent online sites and services such as Duotrope which allow you to browse and search for publications (I recommend you subscribe and support journals that seem particularly interesting to you) and keep track of submissions, life is much more exciting as a poet. I do think it’s easier to get distracted as well though, so self-discipline is still called for. I think it’s a good plan to send work out on a regular basis, and certainly not to lose heart at rejections. Be honest with yourself about whether a poem might still need work, or whether you believe in it enough to keep trying to place it. Some rejections are inevitable, but keep going: your poem may be just what someone needs to read to restore their faith in life, art – and maybe faith itself.