Voices: Varied, Various and Vocal

Sarah James - writer and photographerA Guest Post written by poet and photographer Sarah James, musing on the theme of ‘the writer’s voice’…

If I admit to having, or hearing, several voices, people might diagnose a medical condition. But as a writer in a busy and often cacophonous 21st century western society, hearing voices means something entirely different.

Traditionally, people often talk of experienced writers having found ‘their voice’. Some authors may still choose to focus on a specific subject matter and style… But in terms of literature mirroring zeitgeist and culture, I suspect that multiple voices with common characteristics might be more natural than one voice for many writing today.

I’m a journalist, fiction writer (flash and novellas), poet and occasional creative non-fiction, playwright and essay writer. Although I might be rare in straddling quite so many genres, I’m certainly not unusual in working in more than one.

There are themes (and techniques) that I return to: such as women’s experience, nature, environmental concerns, quirky or troubled characters… However, my natural inclination as a writer is varied voices, styles and approaches, even within one genre.

My poems, for example, vary from almost avant-garde to much more mainstream lyrical pieces. This can be seen in the contrasts between my experimental collection, Be[yond], my experimental narrative in The Magnetic Diaries (adapted also to a touring play) and my more mainstream (with experimental touches) plenty-fish.

My natural voice is a patchwork that’s continuously evolving out of / in reaction to the vast range of constantly changing influences around me. I don’t just mean other writers. This also includes film, television, radio, art, advertising, politicians, social media, people I know or meet… I may not hear these as actual voices in my head when I’m writing, but in essence that is what they are. This leads naturally to an in-flux writing style that manifests as if multiple voices.

Matryoshka - by Sarah JamesVoices – family/societal expectation, potential female role models and modern life’s often conflicting ideals – became an explicit pre-occupation in my most recent poetry pamphlet How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Press, 2018). Matryoshka, nesting dolls or ‘little matrons / mothers’, are a motif across my work generally as well as in this pamphlet, because of how one generation’s values (and voices) may be passed onto the next.

Writing ‘Family Trees’, which was first published by Oxford Poetry, I wanted to explore how ‘inherited’ beliefs might slowly change in a positive way. By the last part of this sequence, earlier advice from the ‘matriarch’ and ‘Aunt Meg’ has been distilled to:

First, I chose the right man.
His muscle span and broad views,
the spike and sauce of our banter,
his prophecies for sweetness.

With him, my pebble eyes are pearls,
our lips crackle with lightning.
His words are Chinese lanterns filled
with sirocco breaths, the sea’s pull, wise worlds.

(First two stanzas from ‘What the Granddaughter Thinks’)

Often, I feel overwhelmed by the bad news, politics and statistics from across the world. In my poem ‘Facts of/for/against survival’, I wanted to explore my own small responsibilities as a mother, woman and human being in this bigger world. I’m one person, playing many roles. But my scope isn’t just about my identity, it’s also the values that I pass on to others.

Facts of/for/against survival

Everything has an unsteady centre of mass,
though dead elephants may stay standing,
unlike humans. A cockroach can live
for up to nine days after losing its head.

Al Jazeera finds 1000 Palestinians murdered
by Israelis misleading. Across the globe,
scientists reckon there are 400,000 flowering plants,
and 19 major religions. A grandmother in Gaza
tells a young woman, Be grateful you lost
just five – 14 of mine are gone. Jews attacked
in Britain, France, Germany… In Luhansk,
225,000 flee Ukraine-rained bombs.

99.9% of all animals that have ever lived
are now extinct. Bulletproof vests, windshield wipers
and laser printers were invented by women.

A woman’s son asks why the orchids he’s not looked after
are dying. His fingers stroke the dead leaves;
she turns on their tap. At this instant, God knows
how many different nations and beliefs
are praying. She tells him to take care of their roots.
As she does so, thousands of mothers
across the world are holding their child’s hand
and using their tongues’ same words –
our land, our ways, our rights, above all others.

(First published in International Times. Using information from The Sunday Times, www.aljazeera.com, Kew Gardens, www.religioustolerance.org and the amazing true facts collection (The Lagoon Group) in 2014)

Visit Sarah’s website to see more of her work.