Star Interview: Why Sheffield writer Helen Mort thinks reading a poem is just like enjoying a pint

Helen Mort. Picture: Dean Atkins

“Poetry is for everyone. You can read a poem in the way that you can go and have a pint. It can be an event, it can be fun, and anyone can do it. Listening to a poem, or taking five minutes out of your day to read something - it could change your mood.”

The poet Helen Mort is explaining the appeal of her favourite form - which, as well as being read silently from the printed page, she believes has an in-built need to be performed aloud, publicly, and enjoyed collectively.

Others would disagree - Philip Larkin was famously reluctant to do readings, calling the practice ‘pretending to be me’, but clearly Helen’s a less curmudgeonly sort of writer.

“It can be private but poetry has its origins in spoken traditions and oral history and storytelling. I think a lot of poems are like the story someone might tell you in a pub late at night - a weird anecdote or a strange moment that’s captured in time.”

She hopes her latest project will bear this out. One for the Road is an anthology compiled alongside the broadcaster and author Stuart Maconie, a ‘literary bar hop’ that celebrates the pub through a selection of contemporary verse, interspersed with bits of historical prose.

“I’m really pleased with how it turned out. It’s an idea I had maybe five or six years ago, and it’s taken a long time to get it to actually happen,” says Helen at her book-lined flat. She’s sporting striking cropped hair and 10-hole Dr Martens boots.

We meet in the morning, making a rendezvous over a pint slightly inappropriate, but any closer to lunchtime and she could have been tempted. She once worked in pubs and nightclubs so has experience both sides of the bar, so to speak.

“I really like pubs! I realised a while ago that pubs feature quite heavily in my work. I’ve always been really interested in them as being theatres where things happen.”

Helen, aged 32, has a list of achievements under her belt that have marked her out as one of British poetry’s ‘brightest stars’ - a compliment once ascribed to her by laureate Carol Ann Duffy, no less.

An only child, she was born in Sheffield and spent much of her childhood in North Derbyshire. Her father was a high school English teacher, her mother taught in a primary school and her uncle, Graham Mort, is also a poet and writer. She’s previously admitted avoiding his work until relatively recently, worrying she might be influenced by his style.

Helen grew up without a television in the house, and showed signs of possessing a vivid imagination early on. Before she could put pen to paper, she would recite poems about the world around her, made up in her head.

She went on to win the Foyle Young Poets competition five times, and was the first person in her school to attend Cambridge University, studying social and political sciences, before gaining a PhD at Sheffield University.

Her first collection, Division Street, was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the TS Eliot Prize, and its follow-up No Map Could Show Them was published last year. Helen’s preoccupations include politics and nature - Division Street encompassed poems about the Battle of Orgreave, and a herd of deer ‘with pound-coin coloured hooves’.

But she’s been branching out. Earlier this year she presented Mother Tongue, a globe-trotting poetry programme on Radio 4, staged her first play, Medusa, at Cast in Doncaster, and has a book of short stories on the way.

Her first novel, Black Car Burning, is due next year too and is set in Sheffield. Parts of the story deal with the long-term aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, as well as following a PCSO working in Page Hall, a plotline inspired by a TV documentary about the challenge of policing the suburb.

It does have a poetic edge, Helen says - namely sections, less than a page long, where the local landscape speaks. Readers will ‘hear’ the imagined voices of Hillsborough, Page Hall, Abbeydale Road and a drunken West Street on a Friday night.

“I’d not really had an ambition to write a novel as such, I didn’t think I’d got the stamina. But once I’d started it became something to prove to myself. You need much more time.

“Every time I finish something I like to take the pressure off myself by knowing the next thing I do is going to be different in some way.”

She’s uncomfortable with the idea that diversifying could be a sign a writer is chasing acclaim or money.

“Many writers are quite insecure people. They want success, but they’re not really sure what success means.

“I don’t always pay that much attention to prizes because I know it’s down to luck and fairly arbitrary. Success for me is when someone comes up to me at a reading and says ‘That poem got me through a difficult time’, or shares one of their experiences. Poems, novels and plays have entered my life and have been a reference point I always go back to. They help me to understand things about myself, and the world. There is nothing better than feeling you might have done that for somebody else, however briefly.”

Helen is living back in Chesterfield for a year, but used to live in Greystones - “I used to see Richard Hawley walking his dog” - and finished her novel while house-sitting in Nether Edge, a place she ‘completely fell in love with’. She juggles writing with a full-time job lecturing at Manchester Metropolitan University, has a pet whippet and is a keen climber and runner. On top of her bookshelf is a huge trophy, testament to her winning the Chesterfield Marathon in 2014.

Maconie has been a ‘tremendous support’ with One for the Road, she says, and got involved at the suggestion of the book’s publisher Smith/Doorstop.

“I love Stuart’s work – his writing about the north especially is incredible. We’ve had a lot of conversations about what pubs mean and why they’re significant.”

One For The Road is out now, priced £12. Helen and Stuart will be speaking at The Leadmill on October 12 at 8pm as part of Off The Shelf. Tickets £7-£9.50, visit www.offtheshelf.org.uk for details.

‘Poetry is like breathing - it’s the one thing I hold on to’

Helen Mort will always regard herself as a poet first and foremost, despite her work in theatre, radio, and prose.

"Poetry is like breathing,” she says. “The one thing I hold on to about myself is that I write poems - I don’t think I’m really good at anything else.

“With other forms of writing, I sit down and will them into existence, but poems aren’t like that for me - they ambush me.

“I was driving the other night and suddenly I was thinking obsessively about a line that had come into my head, something about an apple tree and a plum tree.

“It wouldn’t go away, and all of a sudden the poem is writing itself. That’s always how it happens. I do feel like there’s something strange about a poem, almost like it’s a visitation or a haunting.

“It’s not so much a flash of inspiration, because it’s worked on and worked on, but a lot of that for me happens before I get to the paper. You’re always looking for something that’s going to make a poem stick in someone’s brain, whether it’s through the ideas, language, or the music of it.”

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