By Tereza Walsbergerová
“The secret me is a boy. / He takes girlness off like a sealskin: / something that never sat right on his shoulders.” Those are the first three lines of the poem “Selkie” by Scottish poet Rachel Plummer who was recently commissioned by LGBT Youth Scotland to write a collection of children’s poems based around LGBT retellings of traditional Scottish myths and stories. In Spring 2018, Rachel accepted ESCape’s invitation to visit our department. She presented a lecture titled Seeing Ourselves: LGBT Representation in Children’s Literature, ran two creative writing workshops, and helped me announce the winners of KAA’s Creative Writing Contest (which she also helped judge for a second time in a row). Although she has been really busy moving into her new house and publishing her book, I have managed to conduct a short e-mail interview with her. Amongst the topics we touched on are her personal and artistic relationship with England and Scotland, Brexit, home education, the role of literature in children’s development, and the canonicity of LGBT literature.
You live in Scotland, but you were born in England. How much is your identity as an Englishwoman important to you? Is it reflected in your work?
I don’t identify much at all with Englishness. My family on my mum’s side are from Belgium, and on my dad’s side from Scotland, and my dad lived in France throughout my childhood so I spent weekends and school holidays there. With the political climate being what it is, England now feels to me like something petty and small, the xenophobia and rudeness that says it’s fine for us to go to mainland Europe speaking English and demanding English food, but not okay for people from other countries to come to England and do the same. And what can I even say about Brexit, and the Tories. Honestly, I’m embarrassed to be English.
In Scotland, it feels possible to take your own writing seriously.
How did your life in Scotland shape your career as a writer and poet?
Scotland is a country that prioritises literature. And it’s not just lip service, it’s something ingrained in the culture. Edinburgh was the world’s first international City of Literature, we have the largest monument to a literary figure, our parliament is engraved with poetry, we’re home to the Scottish Book Trust which champions writing and reading across Scotland in countless ways, including giving bags of free books to all children in Scotland at various points in their lives and paying authors to visit schools, and we have an absolutely thriving literary scene and community. There are literary events and performances on almost every day of the year, often several to choose from. We have the Edinburgh International Book Fair, Stanza Poetry Festival, the Radical Book Fair. We’re home to the Scottish Poetry Library, which is more than just a building but a hub for the community and an organisation working to promote and encourage Scottish poetry and spoken word. In Scotland, it feels possible to take your own writing seriously.
What would you say are the biggest socio-cultural differences between Scotland and England from your point of view as an author? Are these differences reflected in today’s literatures of these nations?
Scotland is a more liberal, tolerant place in general (obviously this doesn’t hold true for everyone), so I’ve had support for my more controversial projects such as my book of LGBT poems for kids. In fact, the only negativity I’ve had with regards to that project has been from people in England.
In literature and poetry in particular there is a big focus on London, and it can often feel like anyone outside of London is somewhat ignored. In response I think Scottish writers have created their own thriving literary community, with its own awards (such as the Saltire Awards, the Edwin Morgan prize) and events. We’re often in solidarity with Northern English writers who feel similarly sidelined.
In literature and poetry in particular there is a big focus on London, and it can often feel like anyone outside of London is somewhat ignored.
There has also been a lot of writing about Scotland from Scottish writers in the last few years, perhaps as a response to the independence campaign.
How did Brexit influence the British literary world? Were there any negative impacts? Has it impacted you personally?
We joke at poetry readings that everyone now has a Brexit poem. It’s a huge preoccupation for British writers. Poet Sean O’Brien’s award winning new collection, Europa, is an entire book exploring the subject. In a practical way it has affected residencies in Europe, funding for the arts, and the general ability to survive on an unpredictable, low income, which is the reality for most artists. I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t feel poorer for it. We’re collectively appalled and trying to process it, I think. It will have an impact on our book festivals, who will find it harder to bring in international authors. And, of course, it most profoundly affects the writers who are or are perceived to be immigrants to the UK. Important literary figures like poet Pascale Petit, who claims her future in the UK is now uncertain. It’s such a loss to us all.
You studied nuclear astrophysics at university. How has this influenced you as an author?
I think science and poetry often come from the same place – that sense of wonder at the universe, and a desire to describe it, to talk about it and try to work it out. When you’re talking about something that can’t easily be put into words, and that deals with the big questions of life: why are we here? what is life? what is our place in the universe? Well, then poetry can happen.
I write a lot of science poems and sci-fi poems. I love poets like Edwin Morgan and Vicki Husband, who write about astronomy. It’s a niche thing, but there is an audience for it.
Speaking of education – you are a huge advocate for homeschooling and the right of every parent to choose what is best for their child in terms of education. What do you see as some of the greatest advantages of home education?
In the UK children are often sent off to nursery at a very young age, and then into school at four or five. It’s ridiculously young to be sat in a classroom getting drilled in phonics. They talk a good talk about “play based learning”, but actually at this age what kids need is a lot of unstructured, rather than managed, play time, and time outdoors. When you read articles about how people in prison get more outdoor time than the average school child, you know there is something deeply wrong with the system. Children in the Scandinavian system don’t start formal lessons until age seven, and yet by secondary school age they have caught up and even surpassed UK kids in terms of literacy. So we’re pushing all this on four year olds for no benefit at all, and in the meantime we have consternation over children not getting enough exercise, or the word “sparrow” being removed from the junior dictionary.
For older kids, so much time is wasted on classroom crowd control. The stress of exams, the long days combined with hours of homework. Enough is enough.
Let children read, read to them a lot. Let them be playful with language. Give them space to write and to read their writing aloud to people who are really listening. Give them a voice and they will feel heard.
The first thing people worry about with home education is always socialisation, but I think a school is often a very unnatural and unhealthy social environment. Your peers are defined as the 30 or so other children with your birth year and postcode. There is bullying and an emphasis on conformity. In the home ed community we have friends of all ages and backgrounds, and attend many groups and events together.
What kind of role can literature and poetry in particular play in the education and development of young children?
Literature is essential, but the way we teach it is often terrible and off-putting. Children have an instinctive understanding of what a poem is and what it’s for, until we drill it out of them by teaching them that poems are complicated codes you have to decipher to get the right answer in a test. Let children read, read to them a lot. Let them be playful with language. Give them space to write and to read their writing aloud to people who are really listening. Give them a voice and they will feel heard. For god’s sake, don’t pester them about spelling and grammar. Who cares. Who cares. Let them love language, rather than feel constrained by it.
Staying on the topic of children – when it comes to children’s literature, what are the aspects that any children’s book shouldn’t be missing? What do you reach for in a bookshop when you’re buying children’s books?
I think the important thing for children’s books is that they be child-led. Children should be the main characters driving the story, not adults. In a bookshop I find myself reaching for beautifully made books – books that are lovely objects to own. So many children’s books have great illustrations and are of a good quality, and it makes them feel like something precious and collectable. Story-wise, I’m always looking for adventure stories with girls as main characters. Even better if the story is science-themed!
What were your favourite books as a child? Do you still think about them in adulthood? Do they influence your writing?
As a child I was often reading grown up books – I really loved Jane Eyre, for instance. As an adult I’m returning now to children’s books, and my very favourite is The Wind in the Willows, which I re-read every year. I loved the Faraway Tree books as a child, by Enid Blyton. I read a lot of poetry as a child, which obviously has had a huge impact on my writing. The first poem I ever learned by heart was “Lochinvar” by Sir Walter Scott, and I can still recite it word for word.
We know that you are currently working on a collection of children’s poems based around LGBT retellings of traditional Scottish myths and stories. What has been the biggest challenge related to this project so far?
The poems themselves were the easiest part of the project. The rest of the work involved in publishing (finding a publisher, and illustrator, marketing, proof-reading, admin) has been much more challenging! It was hard to find a publisher willing to take the project on, as the LGBT themes made it too “risky” for many.
What do you think about the current state of LGBT children’s literature in English-speaking countries?
There is not a lot of LGBT children’s literature, and what there is tends to be a sort of instructional guide for not-LGBT families about what LGBT is and how to interact with LGBT people. I think what we’re missing is stories that have LGBT characters and families in them incidentally, where the story isn’t about their gender or sexuality.
We need to correct this idea that straight and cis are the default, or that LGBT literature is necessarily inferior to any other literature.
There are those who believe that certain literary works should not be allowed to enter the literary canon merely on the basis of being the works of an author from an underrepresented minority rather than their quality and resonance through time. Do you think LGBT literature should be studied more widely in schools regardless of their “canonicity”?
For a very long time, just being queer was illegal. The thought of openly writing about it was unthinkable. I think that there are almost certainly authors within the “canon” that were queer and unable to be open about it. I think there are authors who never had the chance because of their identity. We need to work to correct this imbalance in so many areas of life and society, not just in literature. We need to correct this idea that straight and cis are the default, or that LGBT literature is necessarily inferior to any other literature.
Finally, what are some of your favourite things about being a poet?
Poetry is something I can’t help doing. It’s like saying “what are some of your favourite things about breathing in and out?” It’s just essential to my life. But I will say that it has brought me so many great friends, and the opportunity to meet and talk with some of my greatest literary heroes. It’s a priceless thing.
Rachel Plummer was born in London, grew up in Cambridgeshire and Paris, and has lived for the last eleven years in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she runs creative writing groups for children and teenagers. She is married with two young children, Audrey and Robin. A former student of nuclear astrophysics, Rachel’s poems explore themes of science, mythology and trauma, with a particular focus on the roles and stories of women.