This month Something Rhymed eavesdrops on a conversation between poets Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire, who let us in on the friendship behind their jointly published poetry collection with Holland Park Press. The culmination of five years’ research and development, part-funded by Arts Council England, London Undercurrents explores the hidden histories of London’s unsung heroines north and south of the river.
Joolz: I remember when we met at the Spread the Word workshop, (which focussed on building confidence to read poetry to an audience), that I was impressed with the stillness of your stance when you read and the economy of your words. In comparison, I found it difficult to stay still and my poems seemed more wordy. I wish I’d known then that our differing styles, on and off the page, would complement each other so well. I would’ve got in touch with you sooner!
Hilaire: …I wondered why it took you so long to email me!
Joolz: I had imposter syndrome – you were a real writer, with books out, and I hadn’t been published yet.
Hilaire: But you’d been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize! The poem you read at the workshop, about Uluru, really struck me. The percussive quality, the rhythm… but most impressively, it dared to address the racism at Australia’s heart. Something I, as a white Australian, had never had the courage to tackle in my writing. I really admire this about you – you don’t shy away from difficult issues.
Joolz: The political nature of your poem impressed me too, tackling the subject of refugees from the perspective of schoolgirls learning French.
Hilaire: Merci! When you got in touch and suggested we go to an open mic poetry event I was peri-menopausal. Too old, I thought, to make new friends. Thankfully I was wrong. Our friendship blossomed as we egged each other on to put into practice what we’d learnt at the workshop. You seemed a natural performer, dynamic and totally at ease with a microphone – unlike me. It was ages before I realised that, like me, you feel sick to the stomach before a reading.
Joolz: I used to be the front woman for a band, but there’s something more exposed about reading poetry – and I often want to run away beforehand! Performing together has been a wonderful way to combat nerves. Once we’re in the spotlight we fly! I think that’s because we feel passionately that we have something to say, and love to feel the human connection.
Hilaire: After about a year of giving each other writing prompts, it seemed a natural progression to do a project together. I’ve got fond memories of meeting on Saturdays to thrash out ideas over coffee and cake. It soon became clear that we share a passion for London and Feminism. Deciding to write about women in our different local areas suddenly clicked into place. Back then, I was already writing with my partner under a joint pseudonym, so I knew I wanted to write as ‘me’ for our book, rather than co-author poems.
Joolz: Which felt right to me too. I think we would have found it hard to co-author poems at the beginning of our writing friendship. We were so polite giving feedback in case we hurt each other’s feelings! It wasn’t until our mentor Jacqueline Saphra encouraged us to give proper feedback, that we started editing each other’s work in the way we would our own. Final approval stays firmly with the author of the poem though. Working on a collection together has taught me lots. I feel my writing has matured, and my critical eye has sharpened.
‘Mary Kinglsey Arrives Without a Husband’ (left), is by Joolz Sparkes, who says: It’s now commonplace for women in many parts of the world to travel alone, wheelie case in hand. But for explorer Mary Kingsley the act of solo travel was an effrontery to society. I was drawn to her complex and lively character – independent, humanitarian, and driven to move freely, unhampered.
‘Lady Cyclist’ (right), is by Hilaire, who says: As someone who’s found confidence and a sense of freedom through cycling, I was fascinated to discover that more than a century ago Victorian ladies had flocked to Battersea Park to practice what was then regarded as a rather risqué activity for women.
Hilaire: Me too. We’ve learnt so much about each other as people too, including who’s best at dealing with spreadsheets, and who has enough nerve to start conversations with event organisers and booksellers! Our working relationship is truly an equal partnership. I realised early on how important fairness is to you.
Joolz: …I really struggle with the unfairness of life! So I try to bring fairness into everything I do. You do too – in a quieter way. I’m definitely the louder one! The universe did the right thing when it pushed us together on that workshop.
Joolz Sparkes, a member of the collective Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, has featured at Ledbury Poetry Festival and was a TFL Poet in Residence at Leicester Square tube station. She has been shortlisted for the Bridport Poetry Prize, Cinnamon Press and Live Cannon pamphlet competitions.
Hilaire grew up in Melbourne but has lived in London most of her adult life. Her novel Hearts on Ice was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2000, and in 2010 a selection of her poems featured in Triptych Poets: Issue One (Blemish Books, Australia).
Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire are co-authors of London Undercurrents published by Holland Park Press.