An Interview with Caroline Smith

Today we are joined by Caroline Smith, whose new poetry collection The Immigration Handbook weaves together stories of hope, frustration and pain, drawn from Smith’s experience as an Immigration Caseworker.

CarolineSmith CropCaroline Smith was born in Ilford and grew up in Hertfordshire. She originally trained as a sculptor at Goldsmith’s College. Her first publication was a 30-page narrative poem, ‘Edith’. Smith’s first full collection, The Thistles of the Hesperides (Flambard), is about the community of West Pilton in Scotland where Caroline lived in the 1980s when it was one of the most deprived housing estates in Europe. Using imagery and structure from Greek mythology, and direct stories from observed lives, the poet weaves a dense and dramatic tension between the harshness of reality and the lyricism of myth. Published widely in journals like Poetry Wales, Poetry Review, Staple, Orbis and Stand, she has twice won prizes in the Troubadour Poetry Competition.  Smith has had work set to music, broadcast on the BBC and is also the author of a musical play, The Bedseller’s Tale, that was performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  She lives in London with her family.

 The Immigration Handbook Caroline SmithYour new poetry collection, The Immigration Handbook, brings to life the stories from migrants and refugees that you hear every day in your work as an Immigration Caseworker. What made you choose to transcribe these deeply affecting stories, and was the process cathartic?

Writing thousands of letters to the Home Office over the years, I think about language, what turns a letter into a poem, the different functions of language and how by changing the angle or perspective on a subject you can show it afresh. My book is another way of contributing to the immigration debate, but it is primarily a book of poetry. It’s the stuff of my life so it’s what I make art out of.

When I was younger I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be a priest or a sculptor – so I campaigned for women’s equality and ended up as a poet! But in a sense these twin strands have come together in my poetry; my interest in social justice and my training as a sculptor who needs always to recreate the world in a different way.

I’ve never found writing cathartic. When I am most upset about something I want it to stop, I don’t write my way out of it. I see my work as an Immigration Caseworker and my poetry as separate. I get angry and try to change the system, but for poetry I need distance and reflection and I enjoy the creative process; the juxtaposition of odd fragments, creating something new, although I suppose it is cathartic in a Nietzschean way….. ‘Every art and every philosophy may be regarded as a healing… in that respect maybe.

Your poems are often (unsurprisingly) rather bleak, as they describe characters who have lost hope, who feel abused by the system, who don’t know where to turn. Do you hope the collection inspires people to see beyond the statistics and recognise the humanity of those seeking citizenship?

Yes that is exactly what I am hoping people will find in my poems – despite the bleakness, a celebration of humanity. My poetry contributes to the immigration debate; not by putting forward a set of arguments like I do in my letters to the Home Office, but by showing the humanity of people trapped in the system. Not every asylum seeker or refugee is a hero or angel. I have painted people as they are – with both frailties and resilience. We all have the same longings and desires to make something of our lives, it’s just that the people I see in our immigration surgery have a much tougher journey than most of us have ever had to bear.

You have a knack for finding humour in surprising places, for instance in your poem ‘Judgements’, which cleverly and comically portrays the bureaucracy behind judgements made on applications:

“… if the appellant claimed
that relevant matters did not happen I should not
exclude the possibility that they did not happen
(although believing that they probably did)”

Is humour an important part of poetry writing for you? And does it follow you into the workplace, and other aspects of your life?

Tragedy and comedy sit very close to each other. I’ve received so many misspelt letters…’I have been arrested by six uninformed guards’…with wormiest regards’‘I love your cuntry’!

Satire and the use of comedy is important in art. Slapstick and the absurd sharpen the truth of a situation. The most wildly improbable stories, can actually accentuate pathos and provide a break in the bleakness. Humour is also a great tool for showing up the absurdity and dysfunctionality of the Home Office which cruelly traps people without status and documents for years. It is the startling and unbelievable that is often true; whereas the predictable stories are most likely to be fabricated.

The Immigration Handbook was written over a number of years. Were these poems always destined to be released as a collection, or did the idea to publish these stories together come much later?

I always intended them to be a sequence of poems on the subject. I remember the night I started writing this collection. I filled a book with scrawling notes of incidents, characters and injustices. But it is one thing to have an idea for a poem, but then you have to wait for all the elements to come together and it often ends up going off in a completely different direction. Because I have so many stories fermenting in my head, unexpected elements mesh together.

Both my previous collections included sequences of poems. I’ve never been interested in writing a novel, but I love the opportunities presented by writing a number of individual poems that can work together and spark off each other to come at an idea from different angles and perspectives. Although I don’t write formally, the form of the poems are critical to me. I used to approach a sculpture from all angles as once.  I would use different materials and found objects set against each other to break up the surface, juxtaposing different textures. And I think I do the same with poems using different intensities; some highly worked, some quick ‘line drawings’, some found reports. The difference today is that I’m carrying my studio of scraps and fragments and found objects around in my head!

And finally, tell us about your plans for the future- where will we see your name next, and are there any festival or events appearances you can tell us about?

I had a great time reading at the Ledbury Festival earlier this summer and my book launch at the Nehru Centre in London was just fantastic – courtesy of the Indian High Commissioner! I have a whole series of readings lined up for the autumn in Cardiff, London, Aberystwyth and I’m doing a couple of Festivals in Bristol and Chorleywood as well as a special event with Waterstones in Berkhamsted for National Poetry Day.

I am really enjoying giving readings and talking about my book but already the restlessness to create and my dissatisfaction with the world as it is, is pushing me back to my writing desk. When I have lots of ideas in my head I find it distracting to read. Now The Immigration Handbook is out I’m reading as much as I can, going to lots of poetry events and every play that I can get tickets for.

17th September: Free Verse, The London Poetry Book Fair.
rd October: Poetry Can Festival, Bristol.
th October: National Poetry Day, Waterstones Berkhamsted, Herts.
th October: Chorleywood LitFest, 12 noon The Junction, Chorleywood, Herts.
th October: Lumen Poetry Series, 19:00 Tavistock Place, London.
th October: Aberystwyth University, English & Creative Writing Society.
th October: Waterstones Aberystwyth.
30th October: Cardiff Book Festival.
th November: 19:30 Waterstones Piccadilly.

The Immigration Handbook is available on our website. Buy your copy now: £9.99
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