Author Interview – Pamela Crowe, The Bell Tower

An abridged version of this interview can be found on The Emma Press website.

Could you tell our readers a little about yourself and your background?

I’m an artist and writer. My practice centres on words. I’m interested in how we say things, either written, verbally, silently; by occupying a space together, by being apart. I love love stories but I’m also deeply circumspect and private so films, books and art are great spaces to explore these themes! I grew up in Stockport, south of Manchester. I went to a large state school, our year was the last intake of all girls; after that it became mixed. I’ve always felt inequality because of my gender and I’m horrified by it. It makes no sense. You can detect this same horror and confusion in the work of so many women artists and writers. I always wanted to be a writer and make art but it seemed something others did, until whatever was stopping me fell away. Books have been the anchor throughout my life, going to the library as a child was complete heaven, both safe and exciting. For many years I worked in the arts facilitating other artists’ practice. Now I propel my own too.

Your work as an artist is visual and interdisciplinary, how do the creative processes behind your art compare with writing poetry? Where does your poetry sit in relation to your wider work?

Writing is firmly blended with the visual arts for me; it’s just another way of depicting scenes and emotions. I think writing, acting, film making are all working around the same premise, of what would happen if we put these two people together here, or here, or then, or there. I love artists and writers such as Jenny Holzer and Virginia Woolf who see text and writing as the most plastic of art forms. If you write words, then it feels natural to me to want to speak them. And film them. And exhibit them. I don’t see why words just belong in books, in type. (Although I’m obsessed with books and love them more than anything!). My art practice is eventually all about power and how two humans can occupy a space together: can it be occupied evenly, with compassion and respect, or do we always have to give way to someone else’s needs? This is what drives my work and I make it in whatever form suits the idea. I’m a conceptual artist at core. The idea is what interests me and I suppose writing down an idea is the next step – so that’s where poetry comes in. It’s an idea, written.

I’m also fascinated by the extent to which words don’t work. So performance comes into my work. And the unspoken. Performance and live art seem an effective way to largely dematerialise art. You can speak or move and afterwards, there may be little trace of it apart from the witnessing and memory. I’m blown away by that. It seems an astonishing thing to me. What could be more exciting than standing with someone and sharing a moment. I studied theatre and English at University but it’s only now that I really understand the connection between the two.

How would you describe THE BELL TOWER in a few sentences? 

It’s a book about loneliness, desire and love played out across a semi-fictional year – woven through the home and everyday life and all the ways I find people, and myself, ridiculous. It’s funny! The central voice is mine. The poems draw on themes and feelings that recur throughout my life – and writers who have influenced me: Austen, Cope, Forster, Plath, Woolf. There’s a lot of anger in it! That’s where the humour comes in! In my head, it’s Motherland meets Fleabag.

Do you have a favourite poem from your collection and, if so, why?

I think my favourite poem is the work that stretches through the book, 150 words as I wait for a tree to grow back. It’s a work (or series of works) that I don’t know what to do with when thinking about submitting poems to journals or competitions because, although they’re designed to stand alone, if feels wrong to send them off into the world on their own somehow. I’ve started writing a novel and it’s a much more difficult process than writing poetry (for me) but that need to tell a longer story is already there in the ‘fence’ poems. They’re essentially about a dance, a dialogue, a relationship. Relationships can’t be contained, they leak and spill over. They continue. I always love how chapters in Jane Austen’s books work like film scenes and only end when she, the writer, exits the room. But the action continues. I try to evoke that in my writing. All the stories continue. I direct the reader in and out of the narrative. I choreograph.

Do you have any writing rituals? How did the collection materialise?

I have none really. I write daily. I make notes on my phone, email myself, text myself. Sit up in the night and type. If I don’t, then I miss poems, they won’t get written. So my ritual, if I have one, is honouring the instinct to write and always noting things immediately. I often write poems in one go, straight to the page. I see the images or films in my head and I describe them. Many of my poems are written like that with few or no edits. Others require some tuning, the rhyming ones! I’m interested in long stories, lifetimes. With the fence poems, I wrote two immediately, so there was always a pair from the beginning and it felt natural and fun to write more. I’m interested in how formulaic writing and the literary world can be. Poetry tries to innovate but it’s constantly defeating itself! I think Wendy Cope knew this. I love episodic, letter novels. They’re not popular but used to be. The fence poems are epistolatory really. A series of love letters. The collection isn’t themed. I reject that collections need to be. The writer’s voice is the theme.

Can you explain the meaning behind the collection’s title, THE BELL TOWER?

The Bell Tower references a campanile (or bell tower) in the remote mountain village of Carbini, Corsica that I visited after reading about it in Granite Island by Dorothy Carrington. I fell in love with the island like she did. The village of Carbini has a tragic, violent past connected to a community who, despite appearing to have quite progressive communal values, were falsely maligned as dangerous heretics and killed. The Carbini tale illustrates how power resides with those who control the narrative, not necessarily with good acts or truth. Metaphorically, the title of the book is about being a woman writer and occupying a safe, high place from which to write, have a great view and make a lot of noise. My voice rings through the book, the book is The Bell Tower.

Throughout the collection, you allude to writers such as Wendy Cope, Jane Austen and Sylvia Plath. What do these writers mean to you?

They’re extremely funny, clever writers. They make me howl with laughter. I adore them and I exist because of them. I don’t think they care what people think and they laugh at themselves as much as they laugh at others. They notice things and enjoy absurdity. They write with freedom and their voices ring out. I aspire to have their courage and to make people laugh! I adore Helen Fielding too. The day I read Bridget Jones Diary my life changed. It liberated me to behave more freely, to not worry about other people’s judgement or approval. And to hold out for respect.

The poems in the collection explore intimacy, loss and personal power, exploring domestic spaces and who we share them with. What do these themes mean to you?

I think they ultimately spotlight the intense loneliness of our lives. You can have people around you but you can still feel very alone. The poems also explore the extent to which love is a delusion ­­– a very glorious and important one. But it’s based on projected and often imagined aspects of a person. And desire too of course. These feelings are wonderful but they’re brittle and can end suddenly. They’re what we long for and form our lives around. I’m obsessed with love. Love is the ultimate negotiation of power, it really matters who we end up with. I strongly identify with other writers who have this fascination: Proust, Barthes, Stendhal, Calvino – and Austen of course. Meanwhile, we have to hang the laundry out and fix fences…

A unifying central poem runs through the collection; it follows a neighbourly dispute surrounding a garden fence. What was your inspiration for this poem and how did it develop?

The poem is about desire ­and human connection, the need to connect – and about privacy, the need for boundaries and safe places. It’s also about the need for respect. Respect is probably the quality I desire above all else. It feels impossible to live without it. Love is nice too of course. And heat, and food, and books.

The poem charts the real-life events of my neighbours’ fences blowing over and falling down over the course of a year. It brought me into contact with people that I’d had no relationship with before then. The first poem was a response to when my neighbour chopped down a tree and I could suddenly see into his study ­and he into my bedroom. It angered me. I lost a deeply private space. I could see him everyday and had to change where I sat when I blowed dry my hair. To turn the anger into something, and to both laugh at and amuse myself, I imagined we were in an awkward situation and started to play with how ridiculous this loss of privacy was. So the poems are all about boundaries, the importance of them and the loss of them, both physical and emotional. As the year went on I had a challenging situation happen so in many ways, my boundaries continued to be trespassed and ultimately, the poems are once again, back to that space I assert as a woman and as a writer: a safe, private space with a good view, a space of my own, a room with a view. My writing asserts this, the Bell Tower. ­­­­­­­­­­­