Meet a member: Susannah Hart

On 26 March (spooky, I know) The Poetry Society announced Susannah Hart’s poem Reading the Safeguarding and Child Protection Policy as the winner of this year’s National Poetry Competition. I caught up with Susannah, fresh from her win, to hear more about her writing.

Photo by Ged Equi

Tell us a bit about yourself – where are you from and what do you do?

I grew up in London and have always lived there, apart from my university years in Cambridge and a two-year stint in Singapore. My first job was as a brand name creator with Interbrand. I started work in January 1989 – back then Interbrand was a small, energetic and idiosyncratic agency, and a huge amount of fun. I made great friends there and also met my husband, Andy Milligan (another 26er).  After leaving Interbrand in 2004 and a brief spell looking after my children, I became a freelance brand consultant and writer.  And, of course, I also write poetry.  I started writing seriously about 14 years ago after going on one of the early Dark Angels courses. I’m on the board of the poetry magazine Magma and my first collection, Out of True, won the 2018 Live Canon First Collection Competition.

Where did your love of words come from?

Does anyone know? I’ve always loved words and as a child read voraciously and learned poetry off by heart for fun. I love words for themselves, for their sounds and connections, and for their meanings. I studied Russian and French at university and am always trying to learn another language – at the moment it’s Japanese and Dutch. Though I love languages and poetry, I resist translation; I can’t feel the meaning of poetry in any language other than English as I’m just not good enough, and I know that no translation can replicate the complexities of sound, denotation and connotation in another language.

What made you join 26? And how long have you been a member?

I’ve known John Simmons since Interbrand and Newell and Sorrell merged in 1998, and so was invited to join pretty near the start. I was working as a freelancer by then so was interested in the networking potential but also wanted to be part of and support an interesting project.

Have you been involved in any 26 projects?

I’ve been involved in a few 26 projects, including 26 Exchanges with PEN International, 26 Writers Norwich, 26 Treasures of Childhood with the Museum of Childhood and the Armistice project.

What’s your ideal scenario for writing? (A coffee shop? Quiet retreat? With or without music? What do you do to get yourself in the right frame of mind?)

I don’t have an ideal scenario or location. If I’m writing for work and facing a block, I usually force myself to begin any old how by setting a timer for 30 minutes. And sometimes I do the same for my poetry. I go to a weekly workshop group where we set homework themes and often if I can’t think of what to write, I set a timer for 5 minutes and start ‘automatic writing’ in the hope that inspiration will arrive. Sometimes I have a phrase in my head and I worry away at that on walks and train journeys until the rest of the poem arrives.

What are you working on at the moment?

I suppose I’m building up to a second collection but I’m in no hurry. It took me 10 years to get to my first! 

Could you tell us about a piece of writing you’re particularly proud of?

I guess I would have to say the poem that’s just won the National Poetry Competition, Reading the Safeguarding and Child Protection Policy. I’ve been asked so many questions about the poem after winning that I’ve thought more deeply about it than probably any piece of writing. And it’s the only poem I’ve ever been interviewed about on Radio 4!

Where do you get your inspiration?

Sometimes from unpromising places, like the Safeguarding Policy at my local primary school where I’ve been governor for 14 years. Sometimes from homeworks set by my writing group. Sometimes from writing workshops. And of course sometimes from family or real life situations – I’m writing a series of poems, for example, about my stepfather’s dementia.

– Susannah Hart, interviewed by Sophie Gordon

We’ll be meeting a new 26 member each month. If you’d like to feature, or nominate another member, drop me a line at Don’t be shy.

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