An Interview with Sophia Argyris
Up the Staircase Quarterly: How long have you been writing? What made you want to be a poet? What do you do besides write?
Sophia Argyris: I remember writing when I was a child, (the usual sort of thing, poems about bears and dolphins), but really I didn’t start writing with an idea of publishing any of it until about three years ago. Before that I had studied devised theatre, and it wasn’t until after I came to the conclusion that I enjoyed the process of creating the performance, thinking up the concept and bringing it all together, but not actually being on stage, that I started writing instead. Also a collection of poetry my mother had written not long before really inspired me to write. The first poems from that time just seemed to come naturally so I carried on from there.
I work full time for a publisher, so I have to fit my writing around my job. Aside from that, I live in London, which has its good points like the friends I have here and the fact there is always something to do, but I still spend a lot of time wishing I lived somewhere else, somewhere with less people and less pollution preferably.
UTSQ: What poets inspire you most? Do you have any favorite modern poets?
SA: I could list the published poets I read here, like Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Molloy, Edwin Morgan and all the rest of them, but I think I would prefer to mention some as yet not so established poets and writer’s whose work I have been reading, and who I can only hope will soon have books published and in the shops. Firstly, Mercedes Dawson, whose poetry never ceases to amaze me, and Tom Gant who writes stories and poetry which are all equally brilliant, and Nick James, who posts some really great and unusual writings and reviews at www.myspace.com/thefullbodydrunk . And of course (am I allowed to say this?) the two editors of Up the Staircase both of whom write some of the best poetry I’ve read recently which I come back to again and again.
UTSQ: What do you do to change your direction if you hit a “writing slump”?
SA: I read as much as I can. It’s the only thing I’ve found that helps.
UTSQ: Has any poem gotten rejected when you submitted it to a publisher? If so, how did you feel the first time it happened? What is your advice to less experienced writers when looking for publication?
SA: Yes, I have had lots of rejections, it’s all part of the process. Funnily enough I don’t remember the first one, I must have blocked it from my memory! Every time I get a rejection I remind myself of something I read about Sylvia Plath; that each time poems were sent back to her because they hadn’t been accepted, she would put them straight into a new envelope and send them out again. That’s pretty much what I try to do. I think you just have to see it as something everyone goes through at some point, even writers who are now really famous, and not take it too personally. The other important things to do before submitting work are to make sure you read submission guidelines carefully and to read previous issues of any magazine to see if your work would suit them.
UTSQ: What does poetry mean to you? What does your poetry, in particular, mean to you? As a writer do you ever feel that poetry is pointless, in the fact that you feel so small? How do you remind yourself that what you are doing is important?
SA: I think one of the reasons I love poetry so much, both to write and to read, is because the language used for poetry, the way words are strung together, can be so different to any other form of writing. You have to search for exactly the right selection of words to paint the picture you want without resorting to the obvious way of saying it, and without disturbing the flow or rhythm of the piece, so the image becomes fresher somehow through this process. And because poetry is often all about the ‘less is more’ idea, you have to encapsulate everything within a short space, and that can make it more intense.
A few years ago I spent a lot of time questioning the validity of art in any form; whether it really meant anything or could ever change anything. I never did manage to work out the answer, so now I just write because I love it, and if some one reads something I’ve written and it makes them think, or touches them, or just gives them pleasure, then that is enough to make me happy. It can be disheartening if you start to think poetry is only read by a small minority these days and hardly any of the big publishing houses publish books by new poets, but on the other hand when you know where to look poetry is thriving, and there are lots of magazines and small presses who are supporting that.
UTSQ: You are in the midst of writing a novel, how is that going? When did you start writing it? How do you prepare yourself for that? How do you shape your characters?
SA: I didn’t set out to write a novel. I just decided at some point last year to write something that wasn’t poetry and the first part came from that. Then I didn’t write any more of it until this year, and I have only very recently started to actually think of it as a novel, so I wasn’t really prepared for it! Originally the protagonist was very much like me, and she still has elements to her character which I recognize in myself, but she has also become very separate now. It’s difficult to say how I shape the characters because it’s the first time I’ve done it, and so far it has just happened. None of the characters are based on real people, but often the way they react to a situation, or some small characteristic they have, comes from observing real people.
UTSQ: There is a lot of motion in your poetry, as in “Crow” - the way you describe your hand flapping like the wings of a crow to your side.
“My hand flutters for a moment / in weak imitation then falls / limp to my hip and hangs
mute, / I await, without anticipation / the next movement to lift…”
How does movement inspire you to write? When does a normal action become poetic to you?
SA: Maybe because I used to work in theatre I tend to think in quite a visual way, which probably means I mention movement, colour and shape quite a lot. I picture something as I write it and then try to describe it. I think anything can become poetic if it’s written or spoken in the right way. For example, someone once told me he had not slept well, had woken up on and off during the night, but the words he used to describe this were: ‘I slept in pockets’ which sounded very poetic to me so I stole it for a poem.
UTSQ: You write in a very universal way, even when speaking of something very personal, as in the poem “How we Stay Alive” addressed to your sister. These lines from the poem speak of your sister’s strength while encouraging, and reminding, others of their own:
"In your shoes I would be helpless,
fumbling, retreating into books
and too much sleep, living in my
air raid shelter off leftover rations
dim lit stale hours
until the bombs stopped falling.
Yet every day awakes to find you
fighting, fists up, unafraid."
What do you hope readers will take from your writing?
SA: I always love it when you find out that someone read your poem and saw something in it you didn’t know was there. With the poem you mention I had never thought of it as universal because it was so much about one thing, but the fact people can interpret it that way makes me very happy. Really I just hope people who read my poetry take whatever they want or need from it, and that perhaps sometimes it will touch on something they can relate to, and describe it in a way that maybe they wouldn’t have thought of but that clarifies it for them. That’s what I often find in the poetry I love best.