Linda France is a poet of great sensuous energy who finds that her life is balanced by the spare rigour and simplicity of a monastery she attends in Northumberland. Satyagandhi asked her about her work and practice as a poet.
Linda France was born in 1958 in Newcastle and after living in Dorset, Leeds, London and Amsterdam, returned to the North East permanently in 1981. She has won numerous poetry awards including the Arts Foundation's first Poetry Fellowship in 1993. She edited the anthology Sixty Women Poets for Bloodaxe and has published three books of her own poetry, Red (1992), The Gentleness of the Very Tall (1994) and Storyville (1997). Currently the Poet in Residence at Mowbray Park in Sunderland, France is working on three new book projects, one of them a poetry collection, The Simultaneous Dress, due out this year (see all Poetry Collections)
Carol Rumens celebrates France's poetry for 'responding with compassion to the realities of life' whilst taking 'much sensuous pleasure in the "skin" of things and in language itself'. She tells us stories, her own and other peoples. Some are fast and funny, others achingly sad, like 'The Empress's New Clothes' which charts the decline of an anorexic girl; some are full of blessing such as the gentle sestina 'Elementary' for her son. Her language dances, never missing a beat, scooping you up in its rhythm. Perhaps this comes from her love of jazz, which is apparent from the start:
If love was jazz
I'd always want more,
I'd be a regular
On that smoky dancefloor
('If Love was Jazz', Red)
In her third book, jazz is celebrated in the poem series 'Storyville' which uses the forms and rhythms of jazz to echo its changing moods. For France jazz is an expression of the raw energy of life, both human and nonhuman. It is something that will 'score your belly with gorgeous claws' or 'a secret for anyone with ears/ an inkling to dance like an oyster / with a black pearl heart.', ('Mess with it', Storyville.)
'Storyville' was one of a number of multimedia collaborations France has undertaken, in this case working with artist Birtley Aris and musicians Keith Morris and Lewis Watson. She enjoys collaboration with artists in other media for 'the opportunity it gives to create something new, something greater than the sum of its parts'.
'I have done a lot of work in the Field of Text in Public Art, writing on stone, bronze and iron in the landscape… One of my interests at the moment is an open-ended exploration of flowers with a photographer. I see flowers as powerful symbols of so many intriguing concepts – beauty, transience, aspiration and love. I am trying to communicate some of my wonder and appreciation through the poems.'
Linda France speaks of her deepening commitment to Buddhism and the effect it has on her writing:
‘I regularly attend the Theravadin Monastery at Harnham. The simplicity suits me, the spare rigour of the place, the no-need for words. My practice feels like a natural development of what I was doing with my writing all those years – watching my thoughts, trying to understand what made me 'me', wanting to live a better life. I'd like to think my work is becoming clearer, more balanced, less striving for effect.'
For France, writing brings her close to a meditative state. Describing her creative process, she says: 'Writing has always been where I am at my most authentic, most fully engaged with my imagination, dancing in and out of pleasure and pain, coaxing language to celebrate and transform. When I am working at my best I am thoroughly absorbed in the world of a particular poem. Everything else recedes. I experience waves of adrenaline, my stomach becomes taut, my skin incredibly sensitive, all my senses heightened. It’s almost erotic, slightly intoxicating, deeply satisfying.'
France has enjoyed success in the poetry world and expresses gratitude that she is able to live by writing, workshops, commissions etc. but what makes it worthwhile, she says, is the process of her own unfolding, rather than getting work published. When asked for her aspiration she comments:
It was always my big dream to have a book of poems with my name on the cover. When it happened, it didn’t exactly change my life – no one else really cared very much. I still had to cook the dinner, do the washing; I missed having a dream too. Now I’m more concerned with witnessing my process, responding to what arises, wanting to be a conduit for the best words in the best order. Ajahn Sumedho talks about ‘keeping on keeping on’. That’s what I want to do. It seems like enough.
The Pebble Trick
We’ve even started dreaming about boats,
the sound of the sea salting our lips
as we breathe. By day we test the accident
of tamarisk, sea urchin, fig.
The church bell is a white song in a white bed
on a soft evening made for nothing but this –
letting everything blow away
in the wind, holding everything
by the hand like a friend. That’s what I wish for,
glimpsing it on the horizon, an island
we can visit, stay as long as we like.
You say you want to be a pebble
on the beach or a bird eating the blue
of the sky. Behind my turquoise eyes
you’re already there. I can see you flying,
your back glinting in the sunlight like wet stone.
This full moon the marguerites are blooming
like stars with sulphur hearts. They stare at me
with their yellow eyes so full of looking.
They tease me with the secret of their seeds,
their grace in falling into tomorrow.
I bring one home in my hand like a wand
to catch its Cyclops trick of not blinking.
I want to be this wide awake, to keep
trying, failing, flowering, day and night,
sun and moon shining together in the sky.