Bethany W Pope

Bethany W Pope

On Writing

Every writer that I have ever spoken to has had either a bad or an isolated childhood. Some have had childhoods that were both at once. Some self-isolated, withdrawing into worlds of their own creation where exciting things happened that they could understand, unlike the dull-seeming emotional complexity of the adult world. In any case, a writer must always be a reader first and nothing in the world gets children to read like removing all other entertainment options.

My family was always on the move. I left the town of my birth (Waynesville, North Carolina) a few weeks after a surgeon carved me from my mother’s womb. I was taken to Edinburgh where I lived in an underground flat (beside St Giles Church) and lingered there long enough to learn to speak and pick up a warped version of the local accent. When I was two, my father joined the navy as a chaplain and we moved to Subic Bay in the Philippines. While we were there, my parents met the lady who would become my foster-mother, my sister was adopted, and my brother was born. At seven (nearly eight) I returned to the states and spent the next five years sloshing about in swamps and switching schools (from the semi-posh private that expelled me for re-animating a cow’s heart with a car battery, to the insane Seventh Day Adventist venture whose principal prayed over me in existential despair because I ate a ham sandwich) before my mother’s health and my father’s finances collapsed to the point where I had to be placed in a South Carolina orphanage. When I emerged, I was fifteen, silent, and emotionally scarred. But I had grown into a poet.

I left school, worked for a veterinarian (performing more than a few illicit surgeries) and wrote poems, in secret, which I buried in the yard.

I ran away from home as a young teenager and went off to university. While I never graduated from high school, my test scores were high enough to earn a full scholarship. While I was there, I made the kind of friends who noticed when the irritable urge to write was on me and who said things like, ‘You’re being a bitch, Bethany. Go write and don’t come back until you’ve finished something you’re willing to show us.’ When I finished, they read it, and offered helpful, loving criticism. I started studying my art openly, and seriously. I had very good teachers. I went on to get my masters at Trinity, Carmarthen and my PhD at Aberystwyth University where I met my husband, and greatest supporter, Matthew David Clarke.

Writing makes me feel like a real person, for as long as I am doing it, and not like something somebody made up. Writing is fun, but it is not something that I do primarily for enjoyment. You know you are a writer if it is what you have to do in order to live. You know that you are a writer if you will forgo sleep, food, or career advancement in order to get it done. You write in order to please God, please yourself, or advance the horizon of human knowledge one small fraction of a centimetre. You write because to do otherwise is a kind of spiritual suicide.

If you want to write well, you must read everything. Read fifty pages of prose for every one that you write. Read fifty poems for every line of yours. Read old things. Read new things. Read for, at least, five hours a day. It’s not impossible. Sleep less. Stop watching television. I work on my writing for a total of eight to twelve hours a day. I read (and write) at the gym. My favourite writing place is on the stepper. I set that machine to high and then let her rip. This enables me to sink into my work, to lose myself totally. Sometimes, I forget where I am and look up, inky and confused; wondering where all that time went. Then I go home and get to work editing. I’ve drafted all of my books at my local gym. It takes me less time to draft than it does to edit. I read one novel and one collection a day. Text books take me a little bit longer, but I read them too. I favour psychology, art history, and biology.

Lately, I’ve become very interested in forms. My last two books (Crown of Thorns, Oneiros Books 2013, and Undisturbed Circles, Lapwing 2014) are composed of sonnet crowns with acrostics. The sonnets in Crown of Thorns are very loose in terms of structure. They vary from eleven to fourteen syllables per line and are augmented by an acrostic that runs the length of the left margin. They are autobiographical and deal with my family life and my time in the orphanage. The crowns in Undisturbed circles are much more structurally complex. Here is an example, taken from the form key at the beginning of the book:

The Labyrinth is a heroic sonnet crown. This piece is technically intricate. Each sonnet is prefaced by a brief narrative prose-poem that I used to set the tone for the grouping. The sonnets themselves are enhanced by 28-character double-acrostics that runs down the left hand margin and continues down the right hand side of the lines. There are fifteen acrostics for fifteen sections and, taken together, they form a poem that contributes to the narrative. The first fourteen poems end with the same line, drawing the reader further into the story. Since this is a heroic crown of sonnets, the final sonnet is constructed of the first lines of the previous sonnets, laid out in order. Each sonnet is followed by a 5×5 (five lines of five syllables) that tells a dreamlike parallel narrative. ‘The Labyrinth’ is a map of my mind; not all of it, of course, but it hits a few of the highlights. A poem from Undisturbed Circles can be found here.

I am interested in form because I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and a pretty bad case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Both conditions are very ritualistic, in terms of symptoms, very structured and limiting, but they shape my thoughts in such a way that I can see things about the world that other people seem to miss. I am interested in the odd freedom that can be found inside of a prison. We are limited by our brains, our histories, and our cultures, but somehow, as a species, we manage to bring beauty out of those rusty old traps. Strict adherence to form allows me to generate a sense of myth, and an intensity that my free-verse poems never allowed. I do not think that poetry can ever be ‘safe’ or conventionally acceptable and still remain true. Truth is dangerous. Form is dangerous; the temptation is to allow the form to overwhelm the narrative. The goal is to create a narrative that disguises the form, so that deeper levels of meaning are present for those who want to dig them out, but are not necessary in order to read or enjoy the text. Challenge is a thrill for some people – myself included.

Lately, I have been working on a series of acrostic sestinas and acrostic sestina crowns. The acrostics run down the left hand margin. I am interested in the obsessive tone that the sestina demands, and I would very much like to use one to create a working, fluid narrative. Currently, my pet project is an acrostic sestina cycle that re-tells the story of Job. You can see an example of one of my acrostic sestinas on Ink, Sweat, and Tears. 

More examples of my work are available, should you be interested, on my website:

About the Autor

Bethany W Pope is an LBA winning author, and a finalist for the Faulkner-Wisdom Awards, the Cinnamon Press Novel competition, and the Ink, Sweat and Tears poetry commission, placed third in the Bare Fiction Poetry Competition and she was recently highly commended in this year’s Poetry London Competition. She was recently nominated for the 2014 Pushcart Prize. She received her PhD from Aberystwyth University’s Creative Writing program, and her MA from the University of Wales Trinity St David. She has published several collections of poetry: A Radiance (Cultured Llama, 2012) Crown of Thorns, (Oneiros Books, 2013), and The Gospel of Flies (Writing Knights Press 2014), and Undisturbed Circles (Lapwing, 2014). Her first novel, Masque, shall be published by Seren in 2016. Her work has appeared in: Anon; Art Times; Ampersand; The Galway Review; The Prague Review; Sentinel Quarterly; The Delinquent; De/Tached; The Writer’s Hub; The Blue Max Review; Envoi; Poetry London; New Welsh Review; Poetry Review Salzburg; Sentinel Literary Quarterly; Every Day Poems; The Brooklyn Voice; And Other Poems; Magma; The Prague Review; Words & Music; Music & Literature; The Coffin Factory; The Quarterly Conversation; Tribe; Turbulence; Tears in the Fence; Ink, Sweat and Tears; Bone Orchard; Acumen, The Antigonish Review, Bare Fiction, The Broadsheet, Ariadne’s Thread, The Black Light Engine Room, The Lampeter Review London Grip and Planet. Her work is due to appear in the following anthologies: The Poet’s Quest for God (Eyewear), Gothic Anthology (Parthian Books), and Raving Beauties (Bloodaxe Books).