Sarah Corbett

Poetry, Fiction, Projects, Performance

Proofs! Punctuation! Forms!


I have finished what I hope will be the final set of proofs today for And She Was.  It’s wonderful to have both editor’s and publisher’s notes on the mss – how strange to say that I have never had this before … there’s what the writer desires and intends, but also the admission that sometimes, you’re just not that sure and would like a second – or third – opinion please. However, I am sick to death of making decisions about commas and capital letters and all the endless paraphernalia of print … it’s all starting blur and not make much sense …

Which brings me to one of the questions I was playing with when writing the verse-novel (or fiddling about with perhaps): punctuation, layout, capitalisation (to cap or not cap …), lineation, use of the page, sequencing and titles/sub-titles. Although this verse-novel takes on certain conventions of prose narrative – the use of dialogue, for example – it is not standard prose. I want it to look and feel like poetry on the page, even though the poem/s are carrying through a narrative, one with characters, a plot, setting, and therefore I’ve allowed myself great liberty to play with, do away with, punctuation, and create a variety of patterns and forms on the page.

I made one clear decision early on, which was that the poems Esther voices in Pinkie would have capitals at the beginning of each line. This was partly to differentiate the two voices visually (Iain’s poems follow the modern convention of only using capitals to start a sentence), but also to set up Esther’s voice as mythic and archetypal; the capitals make the reader ‘hear’ and speak the poem differently – in a heightened lyrical way, rather than in the conversational tone of Iain’s voice, so for example, in ‘Esther’s Bones’:

I make shadows:

Bird head, dog jaw, split hoof.

Maybe I”m a puppet made of hands.

I can be there and gone,

It’s a way of looking.

I’m down to zero,

Just the ghost ring.

However, later in Pinkie, Esther’s capitals are dropped. This is at the point at which she returns to Iain and their relationship is renewed:

rainbows in the kitchen

splitting prisms

of buttery sun; snow

crusts on the sill

(‘The Bond’)

But the distinction returns in the final poem of Pinkie, ‘Locket’, so that even though the two voices intertwine, this hints at a future separation.

Three poems prelude the book, ‘Nocturne in Three Movements’. These were written very recently, long after the first two books had been completed, and here I deliberately begin to do away with as much of the punctuation as possible. I think, if I was completely honest, I would say that most of this expresses something of my own grappling with punctuation (not that I don’t understand the rules, but that I don’t think that the rules always apply in the same way in poetry as they do in prose – or that they don’t have to, and this opens up a whole realm of possibility that is impossible to ignore). The first and third poems in ‘Nocturne’ relay not he white space of the page to provide the majority of the punctuation, and the middle poem hopes to create a breathless, headlong rush that asks a great deal of the reader’s ability to apply pauses, or to disregard them altogether:

and it was midsummer and they took off north

to the coast, the train running them through

the night like wolves trailing the scent of deer

in a forest of dreams until morning, a song

of sun and blackbird edging around the blinds.

(C Major)

Basically, where I could get away with leaving the punctuation out, I left it out I guess that at some point reader’s will tell me whether I have actually got away with it or not!


The four line, mostly unrhymed (any rhyme patterns are happy coincidences that hope to echo the rhyming quatrain rather than be a slave to it) stepped stanza (the ‘stepping’ doesn’t show up on the blog) of The Runner came very much of its own accord. It allowed for a great flexibility of line length, giving me the ability to manage, control and vary sentence length and pace, just as I would when writing prose. The lines originally started out very long, then got gradually shorter and shorter, but some of the sentences stayed long; other than where they are very short: often in the fourth line of the stanza, again a formal echo of the Ballad form.

tbc …

when is a verse-novel not a verse-novel?

question: when is a verse-novel not a verse-novel?

answer: another question: what is a verse-novel??

answer? well …. that’s a good question …

And She Was will finally appear in April 2015, and yes, I’m going  say, I keep saying, that it is a verse-novel. Then, when I’m met with a look of uncertainty/confusion (often further compounded when I say that I am currently writing a novel …), I have to follow this with, ‘well, it’s sort of a verse-novel, I mean it’s not going to conform to what you might think a verse-novel is.’ (I’m assuming here that some or most readers will have something in their minds along the lines of Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate, Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask or Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune). I might follow this withIf it was just a novel, it would be an experimental novel.’ Does this help? Perhaps not. Perhaps it only raises more questions, such as,

What is an experimental novel?


What is a novel, these days?

or even

Why bother experimenting at all when it’s all been done already?

I set out – quite a few years ago now, about 2006 – to write something that would bring together my skills as a poet and my inclinations towards narrative.

Ok, try again,

I’d been having these conversations with best friend and collaborator, the filmmaker Gabrielle Russell, about how you tell stories that place the emphasis – or some of it – on the imagination of the reader/viewer. How far could you play with linearity and maintain the unity of story for the reader? How could you engage the collective unconscious, asking it to do some of this work for you (how far was story telling doing this anyway, and how could we take this further?). Ok, we were watching a lot of David Lynch films and reading Haruki Murakami … both of which influence And She Was.

Ok, try again,

I’d been having these dreams, ever since I returned from Yaddo in the summer of 2005. They were the kind of narrative, little helper dreams that tell writers a story. I kept dreaming them, and they kept giving me the next bit of the story. Only little bits of these dreams have ended up in the book, but they gave me the impetus, the internal pressure, and a great deal of the setting and atmosphere. I dreamed of Iain and Esther meeting on the train, of Esther’s transformation in the middle of the night and how she returns to kill Iain, of the dancers and the cult, and of Felix and Flick in the underground club (the name of the club, The Bunker, the location that holds the two halves of this story together, was nicked from a punk nightclub in a re-used nuclear bunker in central Prague, circa 1993, ‘The Bunkr’, where I had many a memorable night in the early 90’s).

Another thing kept coming back to me, and I was sure this was connected to the work piecing itself together out of my unconscious a decade later (not a bad way to describe And She Was …). Sometime around 1995/6 I had a conversation with my Dad. It was one of those conversations that sum up the whole time you’ve had together so far, and answered, as far as he was ever going to, some of the central questions of our relationship. It was a conversation that spanned the five days I spent with him after two years living abroad, and I’m not going to relate the details here except for one: the image that set the whole work going (and perhaps that all of this is in the light of my mother leaving us, never to return, when I was four years old).

When he was in his twenties my Dad had a series of unexplained blackouts. He once found himself waking in the early hours of the morning on the back streets of a city that he couldn’t for the life of him identity. He had lost his memory, and it wasn’t until the next day – a whole other day and night spent wandering – that he recovered it. All I could see, all I kept coming back to, was this image of a man waking on the backstreets of an unknown city, with no memory of who he was. This became the opening image of ‘The Runner’, the first book of And She Was, and it goes like this:


On a side street in the gap before dawn

a man lies in a puddle of overcoat

left like a prop from the night’s show,

a man thrown from another world.


Static on air like a coming storm.

Lights of the city faltering out.

The first bars of Beethoven’s Fifth

play from folds of cloth and the man


pulls to all fours like a horse falling upwards on film,

stares at the machine on his wrist

ticking under its tinny symphony,

taps it to silence,


turns hands like a pair of new gloves

and rubs a roundel of ski on a finger

that is a band of satin. Thinks,

what has been taken?


that blind touch to the face:

cheekbones, cheeks, stubble, chin.

Waits for the dream to reveal itself, waits

and cobbled press knees, heart


pushes at throat, neck aches with holding still.

This is no dream that I can think, hurt, feel.

All is dark shapes on dark shapes.

He is one of them.



And She Was: a verse novel is re:born

The long awaited publication of my new work, a verse-novel written as part of my Phd in Creative Writing, is finally under way. The work, now called ‘And She Was’ in homage to the Talking Head’s song, will be published by Pavilion Poetry in April 2015. Pavilion Poetry is a brand new poetry imprint from Liverpool University Press, edited by Deryn Rees-Jones (