5 Questions for: Jessica Mookherjee

Paper Swans Press and Jessica MookherjeeJessica Mookherjee

Jessica Mookherjee’s poems, Red and Dawn Chorus were published in The Chronicles of Eve.


Jessica Mookherjee is originally from Wales, now living in Kent. She has been widely published in Agenda, Prole, The Journal, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Obsessed With Pipework, Antiphon, Gold Dust, Lampeter Review, Clear, Paper Swans and Interpreter’s House, Tears in the Fence among others. She was shortlisted for Fair Acre First Pamphlet Competition 2016. Her first pamphlet, The Swell, will be published by Telltale Press in the Autumn.


When did you first start writing poetry and why?

I wrote poetry as a very small child, I seemed to take to it easily, all the rhymes and metaphors. I also loved stories and remember being asked – I think I was seven – to go and tell my stories and read my poems to every class in the school. So I probably got hooked from that early attention. I always wrote – I can’t ever remember not writing or reading poetry. My parents were great poetry lovers so I grew up with Tagore and also some very exciting sixties and seventies poets like Michael Hamburger. Growing up in Swansea – I was never far from poetry; I went to hear R.S Thomas read in the 1980’s and grew up on Dylan Thomas. The pub we went to as sixth formers was called Dylan’s – poetry was everywhere really. I never did the Keats and Yeats thing really – I was always much more interested in what American Poets were doing. I loved the expansiveness of them and their bravery in how they used language.

I was quite a prolific writer in my early twenties too – looking back it was very derivative and terrible, trying to be a cross between Tagore and T.S Eliot! I did send away poems to one or two publishers who sent me really kind letters. Then inexplicably – although I kept writing –  I seemed to take myself less seriously and twenty years of education and career seemed to overtake me in a flash. When I moved to Tunbridge Wells from London in 2010 I suddenly felt I had space and time to write and became more and more focused on improving. I suppose the catalyst was in 2013 when I fulfilled an ambition to film poets’ speaking lips in a project called Lipshtick, which is still on the internet somewhere. Then I gave spoken word poetry a go and went to local Slam and won it, and then I found the Kent and Sussex Poetry society and realised that there were lots of amazing poets living close by – all of whom could help me improve. I think I was just bitten by a strange poetry bug somewhere on Tunbridge Wells Common perhaps.


You seem to be enjoying a lot of publishing successes recently! Tell us what they are and how you got there.

Thank you, I think once I got off the bench i.e started sending my stuff out – it just got easier. It is a lovely feeling to see poems in print – either on line or in magazines. I just love sharing them. I think there is a wonderful community of poets out there who are all really supportive of each other – so just as people are reading my poetry now – I’m reading theirs too. I think – like lots of people – I just didn’t know where to start with sending poems out or even if my poems were any good really. I got some kind feedback from Susan Wicks and Sarah Salaway who gave me confidence and also told me to work hard.

I have degrees in social and biological sciences so I haven’t had any really education in writing or poetry so my writing was very instinctive and probably sounded quite strange to many people. I really wanted to study with writers and poets who were much better then me and who would push me. I think the stanza groups, studying with great writers has really made me pull my poetry socks up. So I think that is why when I started sending poems away – I was quite confident they were OK poems. It is though a massive matter of taste so I only sent away to magazines that I just loved reading. I sent off to Agenda and Interpreters House and the Journal first – because I loved their selections. I adore Antiphon, where I had my first poem, Nineteen Sixty Seven, published. I have been trying to get Rosemary to publish me ever since with no success – but I still love her! So yes, since mid 2015 I have had 26 poems published. Each poem is a little snapshot of life experience so I’m in love with all these little creations. I have had pretty much all my first tranche of poems published somewhere now – Tears in the Fence have just accepted my poem called Milk, and another called Amrita is going to be in High Windows – so I feel I have found homes for poems that mean a lot to me.

In terms of how to do it – I think you need to love and believe in your poem. Someone will love it if you do and send them off of course. I tend to have much better luck in sending poems for magazine publication rather then competitions. I am very half hearted in entering them and never seem to send my best poems off – perhaps I’m too eager to see them magazines – so that could be a goal for next year. I did get short listed for the Fairacre new pamphlet competition this year though, close but no cigar. However, the very wonderful Telltale Press Collective is publishing my first pamphlet called “The Swell” in October. I came to their attention via Clear Poetry which is run by Ben Banyard. I sent him 6 poems and he wrote me a lovely email saying they just were not very clear, undaunted I promptly sent him 6 more and he published 4 of them, and he has said they were in the top ten most read poems on his site. So just persevere. All of those poems will be in my new pamphlet. It is all great fun.


If you had to save just one poetry book from your bookshelf, what would it be and why?

Most poetry can be downloaded online luckily! One of my all time best poetry things ever is “No Diamonds, No Hat, No Honey” by Andrew Harvey. I have had it on my poetry shelf since 1987. It is wonderful, a poetic discourse between two lovers, who interchange roles – through space and time, so one minute she is the Sphinx and he is Oedipus, in the next poem he is a lawyer accusing her of murder and so they go dancing through their relationship. Andrew Harvey – I learned much later is a Buddhist monk, and the book is about the trials of the soul! But it works on so many levels. I love that book. Another book – if I could sneak it in is “Lowballer” by my Canadian poet friend Kim Goodliffe. It’s a whole mini novel in poetry – about her experience of going logging with a boyfriend. It’s also obviously about the journey of the soul! Everyone should read it.


How do you see the roles of spoken-word and page poetry in the poetry world. Friends or enemies?

Wow, Sarah, what a question. I think that is like asking what is the relationship between folk music and classical music or something like that. Definitely friends – most definitely. Our top poet – William Shakespeare – was a performance poet. Poetry comes from the oral tradition, it must honour those roots. Also poetry is delicious when it is spoken aloud. Also you get so many people loving performance poetry that it brings people into the rest of the poetry and it’s a brilliant night out.

I think page poetry is for something else, it’s to be held in your hand, clutched to your chest, read over and over again, in private perhaps, spoken to lovers. It’s like the difference between a novel and a film. Both are great ways to tell a story. I think where it get’s contentious is the argument over what is accessible or not and whether people feel excluded from page poetry. I think this is more to do with how poetry is taught – like a puzzle to be solved rather then a beautiful thing to be experienced and set free. Also accessible can also be dreadful. It’s a matter of taste and there is so much for people to have – I’m for more of everything. One of my favourite poets is a guy in his early 20’s called Tommy Sissons, his new collection is out now called “Goodnight Son”. he is a wonderful performance poet with the depth of a young Shakespeare.


You won a place on a course with Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke last year. What benefits do residential poetry courses bring?

I was so greedy, I went on two Masterclasses, one with Gillian Clark and Maura Dooley in Spring and with Gillian and Carol Ann Duffy in the Autumn, both at Ty Newydd in North Wales. I was so pleased to be selected for them, to think two poet laureates had read my poems! At the first one I was mainly star struck as Gillian Clark was a childhood hero. Also the other poets there were seasoned pro’s with a ton of publications, competition winners and collections so I was in awe of them too. However – I did think – well I can do that. They also told me I could, which was great. One the first masterclass I got a lot of help from Jane Clarke (author of The River), she told me discipline was key. We all still stay in touch and are supportive of each other. The second masterclass was quite different actually, and its a lot about what you bring and who is on the course. Carol Ann is very keen on poetry communities and camaraderie and encouraging people to join together to form small presses – one of the reasons I love Robin Houghton (Telltale). Also that masterclass reminded me that it’s actually quite hard to teach anything more once you get to a certain point, it’s more about hothousing your creative process, seeing how you create and editing editing editing. So the main benefits of a residential course is the immersion into your own work, the ideas and the space to percolate them. The hard work happens after the course. Also Ty Newedd is amazing and I urge everyone to go there, the river speaks in a strange river language and sounds like Gillian Clark! Honest.


And, finally. Which poem would you like to share with us?

The poem I will share with you is the title poem of my new Pamphlet, called The Swell.


The Swell  

Drum tight, she looked about to burst.
He made a fuss of her for a change,
waded in wearing galoshes
as her waters broke, flooding
the house. We were left to stay with strangers,
up to our necks in silt. He tapped his hard hat,
made milk-dribble jokes for cameras,
said storms with girls names were the deadliest.
Then she emerged, fresh with her slake
of new flesh as the whole town lugged sandbags,
trying to stop her.


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