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Q&A: Salena Godden Tells Us Why Pessimism Is For Lightweights

Image: Portrait of Salena Godden at Shakepeare and Co. by Olivia Rutherford.

Salena Godden is one of the UK’s foremost poets, regularly anthologised and headlining festivals nationally and internationally. Her latest collection, Pessimism is for Lightweights is published by Rough Trade Books (with a launch event at The Social on 23 July). We spoke to Salena ahead of a summer filled with protest and poetry.

Eli Goldstone: You’re performing at Just Say No: Artists Against Trump and War. Tell us about the evening.

Salena Godden: It’s already selling out so get your tickets! Quick! An amazing line up of actors, authors and artists: Mark Rylance, Vanessa Redgrave, Johnny Flynn, Kika Markham, Nadine Shah, Alexei Sayle, Andy De La Tour and Grace Petrie and myself. A night of performances against Trump and against his military aggression. Trump’s visit is planned for July 13th and there will be a mass protest of people who reject Trump’s bigotry, hatred and warmongering. I’ll be there, I'm reading a poem in Parliament Square with the Women's March.

Eli: In terms of writing in response to world issues as well as personal, how does that affect your work? Do you separate the material or amalgamate the two?

Salena: I think the days of the inner world and the outer world being two clean and separate states of creativity are over for me. I wear my heart on my sleeve, all of my feeling and writing is on my front page, the diary, the letter, the poem, the social media post. The world is constantly twisting and turning, we find ourselves responding, internalising and then writing in response to a response to a response, even if it is just on social media, or at a poetry gig, it’s an ongoing conversation, all interweaved and knotted together. We live in an era of performative cruelty, so to perform with kindness, to show empathy and to have courage is more vital now than ever.

When you read the news it is impossible to tell how much of it is fact and fiction, it merges with images that are poetry or theatre, work that is intended to be entertainment. What I mean is this, if I had written a play and the 'bad lady' in the story wore a jacket with ‘I really don’t care, do you?’ scrawled on it, editors would tell me to erase it, that I have an over-active imagination with unbelievable evil characters. I’m honoured to be the poet laureate for Byline Festival. Byline work hard to support factual journalism and to uncover fake news. It's happening 24-26 August in Sussex. Follow @bylinefest on twitter, it’s the first festival whose key focus is celebrating freedom of press, freedom of speech.

Image: ‘Pessimism is for Lightweights’ by Salena Godden at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol.

Eli: Tell us about your new collection for Rough Trade Books, Pessimism is for Lightweights - what does the title refer to?

Salena: 'Pessimism is for Lightweights’ - Ok the line originally comes from the fantastic author John Higgs. I love John’s work and I was delighted when he asked me to write a poem for the podcast for his latest book Watling Street. The line comes from a talk John gave at Cosmic Trigger. The road I am referring to in the poem is Watling Street. The poem is currently on display on the wall outside the Arnolfini Gallery, harbourside, Bristol. Have a look at the tag #pessimismisforlightweights and add your pics if you happen to be in Bristol.

Eli: Do you have any suggestions for channelling, and being inspired rather than reduced by, anger at injustice?

Salena: Oh gosh. Switch off the news. Take all social media off your phone. Read books. Take a walk. Listen to great music. Listen to the world never changing unless you change. Look at the sky and watch a sunset or sunrise. Engage in film and theatre. Support your artists. Use your library. Share petitions. Keep the pressure on. Volunteer for Refugee Community Kitchen in Calais. Be useful. Share positive stories that never make the headlines if you can instead of the horror stories and click bait articles. Take better care of yourself. Dare to dream of a better world. Clean your teeth. Go swimming. Make a phone call to someone who misses you. You are no good to anyone if you are reduced by anger, use it to push against, go against the tide. Everyone is so much more powerful than they realise. When a group of people pull in the same direction beautiful things can happen, oh dear, listen to me, haha, you may say I'm a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

Eli: You are touring all over the UK this summer: how do audiences differ at festivals compared to purely literary events? How do you alter your performances depending on the venue?

Salena: I don’t really, I just do my thing. I am gigging and touring most of the year. I don’t really do the same set twice. I hardly ever do a poem the same way twice either. I’m a bit like a jazz musician, I improvise inside the poems all the time, rewriting things, adding things, repeating things like a chorus. If something has happened to me on the way to the gig or happened in the news that day I’ll throw it in there. I have always read my poetry like that, always with the text in front of me, but not sticking to my own poem. If you buy the books it’s there solid in black and white but I use the paper in my hand as an anchor and often go off page.

Eli: You’re also working on an album I believe - how did that come about?

Salena: Ah, you mean Mrs Death Misses Death. One day this will be a beautiful book-album. It is a fiction, a story about the life of death as a woman with a soundtrack composed by Peter Coyte. Peter and I have been making albums, and performing and collaborating for twenty-one years now. Time flies, and time is a trickster! Mrs Death Misses Death is all about human connection. I’m finding the more I write about death the more I am really writing about life. Early drafts of this work were shared at Last Word Festival at the Roundhouse and also Blah’s Big Weekend at The Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol. A BBC documentary about Mrs Death Misses Death is scheduled for broadcast later in 2018. We have some performances at festivals and theatres planned for the autumn and winter too. People are scared to talk about death but I believe in the bone marrow of this work, it won’t let me go.

Eli: You read at the iconic Shakespeare & Co (Paris) recently. What are some of your favourite bookshops, in London and further afield?

Salena: My favourite bookshop for ever will be Shakespeare & Co. What a magical place! This was my first time there and everybody was so warm and kind, and Oh! what a beautiful feeling there. Ahhh - it was a dream! I am also a big fan of its sister shop City Lights in San Francisco but I haven’t visited there since the turn of the century, maybe 2001, so I’m well overdue a visit. In London my favourite little hideaway bookshop is Iconica in Camden Market. It's run by a very lovely friend of mine and I love rummaging through her second hand books and Penguin classics.

Pessimism is for Lightweights
available now from

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