Author Spotlight: Isabelle James

Isabelle is currently a 24-year-old PGCE English student at the University of Cambridge. She studied English and Theatre at the University of Sheffield from 2015-2018 and specialised in Poetry, Immersive Theatre and Contemporary Literature. Her Poetry has been shortlisted for the South Yorkshire Young Writers’ Competition 2018.

‘my current project is just healing and making sure I maintain a happy self…’

Many thanks for finding the time to do the spotlight, Isabelle. Could you tell us a little bit about you, your writing background, and your current projects?

Thank you for asking me!

I graduated with a BA in English and Theatre at Sheffield, where I had spent the absolute best and wildest, and eye-opening three years of my life, and then went, now what? So, after a year of working in different sectors I decided my skills fitted the role of an English teacher and I am now currently intermitting from studying a PGCE in Secondary English at Cambridge.

I started writing songs from the age of nine on my piano and singing, which I still love to do now. Writing poetry started when I was around fifteen because my eldest sister encouraged me to read this beautiful contemporary anthology with all the usual suspects in, and she spurred me on to write how I truly felt. This was when my depression and anxiety were starting to make their presence known and writing was a way to deal with, control and creatively craft these overwhelming emotions: it was a way of healing for me, and it still is.

I am currently trying to build up my IG page, which I initially made as a platform to just sound off a few ideas, but because I now have more time, I am trying to post pretty much every day. It’s obviously a great distraction, taking the photos and editing them, and then I always try and write something off the cuff that the image inspires. I’ve been having a lot of fun trying to get creative with each shot with that process in mind. Due to quarantine, my current models are flowers in my back garden and ones I find on walks, and this thing I call myself.

To be honest though, my current project is just healing and making sure I maintain a happy self. I am recovering from chronic pain and trying to manage my anxiety as best as I can. A lot of truly painful and traumatic events have happened this past year and luckily, I am now out of a stressful environment that at the time, my exhausted emotional and physical capacity just couldn’t handle on top of studying an intense course. So, the physical side is pretty much fully back to normal, if not better, as I run every other day and stretch, and hula hoop – yes, it’s weighted and fabulous! Unfortunately, the mental side is just a lot harder to master. Trying to maintain a routine and am such an advocate for a positive mindset, like mentally rewarding myself for even getting out of bed, going outside and even eating something. Such small things we take for granted and don’t recognise most of the time. I think I’m grieving a life I thought I was supposed to be living and it’s getting over that idea, and not letting comparison be the thief of joy. But anyway, the poetry is pouring out of me as I sit with my emotions, so that’s great as an author and such a relief as a human being. Wahey!

What influences your style? Which poets do you admire?

I said earlier that writing is a way of healing and I think that is attributed to my utter adoration and blatant obsession with Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Love after love’, which I remember copying down on a piece of paper, and then ripping it up into segments and sticking it to my bedroom wall right at the end of my bed, so I could read it before I went to sleep and then when I woke up. I actually recited it like it was my mantra for self-care before “self-care” was even a big thing, you know? Walcott even acknowledges that “the process of poetry is one of excavation and of self-discovery” and the reader joins him in that process in this poem. The gentle, yet direct tone of Walcott’s voice is just heartbreakingly perfect. It’s just such a classic and it saved my life.

I then discovered Sharon Olds and Kim Addonizio when studying A Level Literature and have been in love with them ever since. Both female poets who linger in the moment and tell it how it is. I really try to replicate Olds’ stunning and simplistic poignancy combined with Addonizio’s striking passion about love and relationships that’s so gut-wrenchingly raw and honest. You can really taste their poems and it’s just exquisite – you almost have to wait for the words to settle on your tongue, like popping candy before you can read onto the next. Kate Tempest is right up there for performance poetry and listening to her, as well as reading Addonizio’s poem ‘For Desire’, I really tried to write a poem that replicated Tempest’s immense rap-like rhythm with Addonizio’s potent and pungent language. I don’t know whether it’s because I have a musical background, but it was a lot easier than I thought and I always have to perform it to myself whenever I am flicking through my writing book. I am yet to perform it in front of people properly, but I will send it your way to hopefully get published…Wink wink, nudge nudge!

‘the process of poetry is one of excavation and of self-discovery’

Derek Walcott

What are your aims as a writer and a poet? Do you have any specific artistic concerns that you seek to address through your work?

My aims are simple – tell an honest story in a moment and let people take from it what they will. I really try to relish in moments because that’s what life is, isn’t it? Little moments that add up to make this greater picture and people have different impressions and thoughts, and some are beautiful and others are distressing and then you get the in between, where you find that reading the words in certain phrases sit comfortably in your chest: you just feel centred again. So yes, the devil is always in the detail, or as far as I’m concerned, a poem is.

The artistic concerns I seek to address in my work are ironically the words. Well, the sound of the words is so important to me, that I am constantly tweaking older poems by just changing the consonance to a sibilance to an assonance – you get the gist. I am constantly reading poetry out loud, as that’s how it should be read, and so the sound of the words should have these melodies that then dictate the rhythm and pace of the piece, which then subsequently dictate the overall tone and structure. Words in poetry, to me, make up parts of an orchestra – some words are so in your face that they’re the loud brass section punching out a fat noise and then you get other gentler words that are more like the string section coursing through with a sensational legato. So, it’s like being a composer when you write and then the conductor when you read.

As a current trainee teacher, what are your thoughts on how poetry and literature generally is taught in the UK curriculum? Are there any angles or texts you think have been neglected?

Ah! Did you steal this from one of my assignment questions? One must admit… No, I think the GCSE Poetry Anthology, in particular, has some really fantastic poems in and are fairly varied, albeit within the realms of ‘Western’ culture. The issue the exam boards have is that they have to cater to a wide population of young British students with, let’s face it, a niche medium such as poetry, and make it accessible for them to revise completely new and, quite frankly, alien terminology and categorised themes to take only one exam after two years. So, of course it’s going to always have its challenges and neglect some important works from across the globe, such as the poets A.K. Ramanujan, Sakutarō Hagiwara and the magnificent Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. You have the momentary lapse into American Literature at A Level and some schools may dabble in that at GCSE, but it’s still limited in the curriculum.

As a teacher, you try your hardest to promote wider reading alongside teaching a massive amount of content, but I think you have to rely on the students to do all the leg work in their own time and discover these writers for themselves. The usual on-going debates in the English departments I’ve worked in, and most definitely whilst studying at faculty, have been based on how the majority of the literature curriculum prohibits the students to study works beyond the British isles or indeed general ‘Western’ culture. I will spare you the Gove rant and just say that I feel really sorry for the current students not having any access to at least controlled coursework as a break from the immense stress of having final exams after two years of studying alongside an average of eight other subjects. Studying Literature isn’t solely to engage in a hassling hegemonic discourse or a patriotic agenda: texts are meant to be diverse, dissected, evaluated and, most importantly, enjoyed throughout. 

‘try to have some fun with your writing, with your form and rhythm, and rhyme, and general pace of your work’

Your work is deeply personal, and many of your poems offer small vignettes of your life and inner thoughts. Have you had reservations about putting these details online for the world?

The long and the short of it is unnaturally yes, but naturally no. My initial reaction before I post anything online is based off of this socially constructed anxiety that I should, either only show the best bits, or withhold information entirely. Of course, I then get over it and go, well, this needs to be said and talked about, so just embrace it. Yes, it’s possibly risqué, but most people comment on how “brave” I am to publish my work, or just generally comment with their impressions. There’s never been a comment on “ooh, I wouldn’t have posted that” (you watch, I’ll get one now, won’t I?). The comments I’ve received have always been of encouragement and praise for opening up and showcasing the various completely natural complexities of life and trauma we have or will all experience. The more you talk about something considered taboo the less power you feed the stigma surrounding it. I understand from my professional position, it’s potentially going to put me in an uncomfortable place, but it’s just a part of who I am and my enthusiasm for potent language, and telling the truth about mental health, in particular, and, if anything, it’s surely encouraging for students keen on literature to write and expand their reading more, and not be afraid of their own voice in writing and sharing their own stories.

Performance poet Kate Tempest

If you could impart some advice on any new or emerging writers, what would it be?

Try to not force yourself to write, if you don’t have to – just let it come to you, you’ll know when that time comes because it will just pour out of you! I know this because I was in one of my GCSE Maths exams and suddenly wrote a song on some tracing paper! It was fine, I still got a B and that’ll do. Also, try to have some fun with your writing, with your form and rhythm, and rhyme, and general pace of your work. This may be conflicting advice, but play around with the aesthetics, images and words – just don’t take it so seriously, but also always bear in mind the concept behind your decisions to write in a particular way. I always think, what is the purpose of me writing this? What am I trying to convey?’

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