Salena Godden is a poet, performer and author of multiple books, who has been performing poetry since 1994. Originally from Hastings, last year she was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for new work in poetry, and also featured in the excellent collection of essays The Good Immigrant. With her new collection, Pessimism is For Lightweights, coming out on Rough Trade Books very soon, we caught up with her before her performance at Stoke Newington Literary Festival.
Hi Salena! Can you tell us about the writer's residency in Ireland you recently stayed at?
I was staying in Bill Drummond’s Curfew Tower in the north of Ireland in order to work on a book that I’ve been writing called Mrs Death Misses Death. It was amazing, and terrifying, and beautiful.
Is that a residency people can apply for? How did that happen?
Bill has different groups curating it, and the people curating it this year are Neu! Reekie! So I wrote a letter to Bill Drummond, but by coincidence I was on the Neu! Reekie! list as well. The night before I left I was like, 'oh god, no backing out now', but once I got there it was so lovely!
It was just in this tiny village, there were people of course, but you could be as isolated as you wanted to be… So I went from being completely isolated for the first few weeks, to relaxing a bit more and drinking some Guinness in the local pub and having a laugh. It was a good mix of loneliness, productivity and local laughs. I got a tambourine solo in the local folk pub too, so that was a big moment, I felt very proud.
Sounds like quite an initiation rite. So the book you were writing there - Mrs Death Misses Death - does that have anything to do with the book you’re about to bring out through Rough Trade?
No and Yes. Very different things. But both with a strong message of hope. The book coming out with Rough Trade is called Pessimism Is For Lightweights, which is a series of protest poems, 13 pieces of courage and resistance. Mrs Death Misses Death is a novel about ritual and mourning and love. I’ve also been writing songs for it with Peter Coyte, because a lot of the writing seemed to me to be so lyrical, so eventually it will be an album, a soundtrack and a book. In the book the character Mrs Death is in a tower, so I was very keen to go to this tower in Ireland to explore and get into the character.
Did it work?
Yes, very well.
Great. You’ve been performing and publishing since 1994. How has the publishing and poetry landscape changed since then? Has it become more open?
Do you mean as in more people being able to get in?
Yeah, there seems like there are a lot more voices being heard now, and it’s much easier to get hold of the means of production.
Well the most important and consistent thing for me has been to try and stay optimistic. To do something with the same enthusiasm at 45 that I did when I was 20… to me that is a kind of success, and everything else is peripheral.
But in terms of that landscape of publishing and poetry, it comes down to being generous with your time, and being excited about other people’s work rather than just your own work. It’s so important to have each others back, particularly in indie and working class and people of colour and LGBT, and generally “outsider” circles… it’s so, so important to have each others back and support one another, it always has been. I guess the only thing that has really changed is that with the internet it’s much easier to communicate support and to tweet it. The camaraderie in poetry is so important I think.
You touched earlier on the subject of optimism. I absolutely love your poem Pessimism Is For Lightweights, and your poem Can’t Be Bovvered.
I think my biggest pet hate is apathy.
Well what I wanted to ask is… what gives you optimism?
I have no idea! I think I was probably born with it. I remember in the 90s, Ape magazine called me ‘the sweet ranting idealist’. I always have had this ideal within myself, but none of the things that surround me are ideal, nothing that is happening now is ideal, so until it is I won’t stop being idealistic, I won’t stop dreaming of a better ideal world.
I think there’s a lot of good in people as well, people are basically good, just maybe sometimes they need to read the right books, or find more love in their lives. I really love the life story of that guy, the actor, who was wrongly imprisoned who then became a socialist activist after reading The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist. Ricky Tomlinson. Phenomenal life story. Books can change lives. If you’re not constantly learning and growing and changing your mind then you’re not living, you’re just in a state of repetition.
I wanted to ask you about the poem RED, and the film that you made for it last year.
RED talks about what it’s like to have a really painful heavy period, and then what it would be like if men had periods. It then talks about the unfairness of the tampon tax, period poverty and the shame that comes with periods. I’m going to perform it tonight, and I have a donations box for the charity The Red Box Project, which is a charity to make free sanitary projects available in schools. When I originally wrote RED I donated it to Nasty Women in September last year, and we made a film for it. RED is published in the new collection too. It’s an issue very close to my heart. And pants.
What would you like to see change in society?
Oh god there’s too much! I don’t know if there’s one thing I could say that I would change, but I think really Pessimism is For Lightweights is my message… the idea that nothing can change makes all of that negativity expand and grow, and we should fight that. As long as people feed the negativity and fear, ignorance and intolerance, then love is going hungry. Even just doing small acts of kindness and positivity every day can help.
What do you have planned coming up?
I’m getting ready to do lots of festivals and lots of gigs with Pessimism is For Lightweights this summer. When I'm not on the road or in a field somewhere, I’m hoping to finish the Mrs Death Misses Death book and album, and then I’ll be doing more gigs around that in the autumn. Mrs Death Misses Death is also being made into a BBC documentary, they’ve been kind of following me around and following the process which has been quite a strange experiment. That will be broadcast in the autumn too. Coming up I’m reading in Sheffield at the Festival of Debate with Helen Pankhurst and Hollie McNish. Plus Edinburgh Festival, Port Eliot, Green Gathering and Byline Festival. I’m the Byline Festival poet laureate and will be curating a crew of protest poets to do a LIVEwire and Nymphs & Thugs show with me there. That’s gonna be awesome fun. Pussy Riot are playing this year, I’m really looking forward to seeing them live!
For more information visit www.salenagodden.co.uk.