It Chose Me: An interview with writer Emma Lee

Leicestershire writer Emma Lee says she did not choose or make a conscious decision to become a writer.“It chose me,” she explains. “I spent a lot of time alone as a child – I wasn’t lonely, it’s just a reflection of the circumstances I found myself in – and frequently made up stories as entertainment.”

Her poems have been published in anthologies, magazines and ezines. Some of them have won prizes in poetry competitions while others have been broadcast on BBC Radio.

Her debut poetry collection, Yellow Torchlight and the Blues (Original Plus, 2004) is about musicians, the pressures of performing and relationships with fans and general hangers-on. It’s also about relationships, loss and what makes people who they are.

One reviewer says in Yellow Torchlight and the Blues, Emma Lee’s writing evokes “the smoky, energy-charged ambiguous world of gigs – jazz, blues, rock – where vanity vies with raw talent, and characters yearn for intimacy, communication.”

Another reviewer finds Emma Lee’s ability to tackle difficult subjects striking.

“Many of the best poems are moving and memorable character studies,” Juliet Wilson writes. “The collection gives glimpses into parts of life where many of us would prefer not to go and poets are not encouraged these days to lead us there. It is not always an easy journey, but it is reassuring to find someone with undeniable talent writing about these topics.”

Emma Lee wrote the poems that make up Yellow Torchlight and the Blues over a period of 16 years and the compilation was published after the publisher approached her with a view to publishing a collection of her poems.

She says the most difficult aspect of the work that went into the collection was deciding which poems to leave out.

“Poetry collections work best when the poems are inter-linked in some way, perhaps by theme or subject, rather than merely being a collection of loosely-gathered poems. So some poems that deserved to be in a collection had fall by the wayside because they didn’t fit in this particular collection,” she says.

She remembers studying poetry at school.

The War Poets, Heaney, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Ted Hughes … which left me with the impression that either women didn’t write poetry – which I didn’t believe – or that women’s poetry wasn’t worth studying – which was discouraging to say the least.”

A friend showed her Ted Hughes’ “You Hated Spain” and the poem spoke to her.

“I identified with the women who hated Spain. After reading “Ariel”, Sylvia Plath had me firmly hooked. Here at last was proof women did write and were worth studying.”

Emma Lee adds that fifteen years of music reviewing have provided a rich seam of inspiration.

“Some of my poems and stories have started from exploring a personal experience – not always directly, sometimes from overhearing or reading a news story,” she says.

She finds that, as a writer, her biggest challenges are finding time to write and finding outlets for her poems. She has got family commitments and works full-time in order to be able to pay her bill.

“Writing, especially poetry, doesn’t pay,” she explains. “Poetry magazine editors are so generally overwhelmed with poems most are rejecting 98% of submissions, which means increasingly my writing time is spent dealing with submissions rather than writing new material.”

She deals with these challenges by planning ahead so that as much as possible of her writing time is spent actually writing rather than ‘warming up’ and thinking about what needs to be written next. She also takes advantage of any ‘spare’ time – lunch breaks, waiting for appointments, to write. And she tries to ensure that as soon as an editor returns a batch of poems, it is out again with another editor within a couple of days.

“Nothing beats seeing your name on the spine of a book. Giving live performances at, for example, poetry readings are great experiences as the audience give you instant feedback and reassurance. But a book says, ‘you’ve arrived, you really are a writer,’” she says.

And to get there, writers need persistence.

“Success breeds success: you are more likely to get published if you’ve been published and in poetry it’s not unusual for the publisher to approach the poet: many presses won’t consider unsolicited work,” Emma Lee says.

Emma Lee has just finished writing a novel and one of her short stories, “First and Last and Always”, is appearing in Extended Play, an anthology of music-inspired stories published by Elastic Press that will be launched at The Arts Theatre Club in London (November 4).

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