Books / Poetry

Interview: Salena Godden

By joe melia, Sunday Mar 25, 2018

Salena Godden is one of the UK’s most-in-demand poets and performers. She is the author of two poetry collections, a memoir, and the essay Shade in The Good Immigrant. Her live poetry album LIVEwire was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award in 2017. Ahead of her appearance at Arnolfini next month she tells Joe Melia more about her work.

How conscious of an audience are you when you’re writing poetry?

Most of my poems come from a place of authenticity, they are nothing to do with where they end up. Often they come from something I have to say, something I have observed, something I have been a coward to say to someone or things I wish I could say in imaginary conversations with the dead or the lost.

My poems are things I capture and borrow. I sometimes wake up dreaming I am writing, mumble the line at the air, try and write it down before its gone and evaporated. My poems are whispered into fires or yelled in frustration at the news. Because its 2018, some of my poems start as the first line of a deleted tweet or Facebook post.

The commissioned works and the pieces you read or hear on the radio are different to me, you can tell they are different because those ones have been written confidently, with the confidence of knowing they will be finished, that there will be an audience, that they will be polished for public consumption, read, seen, heard, not like the poems that come out of my head and can be left unfinished and scribbled on crumpled napkins.

Not sure why … but there is a difference in the confidence, between the writing that was made for money and the writing made for writing’s sake.

Which do you prefer, performing or writing?

Writing. I am writing two books right now.  I start at 4am most mornings, not all mornings, but most, and that’s when the good stuff happens. A magnificent day is a day when there has been time for two breakfasts!

I write and watch the first light and drink pints of tea. I am working on my new poetry collection and finishing a book, a fiction titled Mrs Death Misses Death. When one project is pissing me off and being tricky then I switch and work on the other. If they are both annoying me I play with short stories.

I love performing, I love the buzz, I still get nervous butterflies and wind myself up like spring. I love my poetry comrades and hearing their new work and catching up with poetry gossip and news. I love travel, seeing new places and new faces, I love all the after show partying and summer festivals, watching sun rise and having a laugh by a fire … but when push comes to shove I love making the work, the writing part best. I perform to make money to write.

Salena Godden’s title poem from her forthcoming collection on display at Arnolfini

What role can writers and performers play in these fractured and divided times?

Poets and writers and performers are playing a vital role in these fractured times. It’s about connectivity. It is an illusion we are connected because we have these lovely technologies and iPhones but we are separated, isolated and hidden under a barrage of noise.

People that are coming to poetry gigs want that connectivity, to stand in a room among others and feel that shared moment, that laughter and art and humanity and freedom and love are necessary and important and worth believing in and fighting for.

The number of poets and people interested in poetry is rising and rising. I’ve never seen so much traffic nor been so busy and I also have never had to hug so many people after shows before, lots of hugging is happening at my gigs and that’s new too. I don’t mind the hugging, I like hugging.

I think people are genuinely scared, they are furious, frustrated and angry, but fear is happening. If you spend too long staring at twitter it really is the end of days. Books are safe, books are refuge, books are my friends…. hahaha… no but really they are.

You’ve written poetry, of course, a memoir, short stories, essays and other work. Do you approach writing in these different forms in the same way?

No not really. Switch off the internet. Make tea. Sit and stay sat.

Open the window in your head, open the door in your soul and then sit and bleed your heart out until it is finished.

What is the best lit/poetry/book event at which you’ve performed and the best you’ve been in the audience for?

Impossible to choose. Can I tell you about the last gig I did?

Last Saturday was HUH at LSO St Lukes, I was invited to share excerpts of Shade from The Good Immigrant and a new collaboration The Letter with the London Symphony Orchestra, with music written by Jerwood composer Jasmin Kent Rodgman. The brilliant young poets Solomon OB, Laurie Ogden and Sophia Thakur performed too.

Together we made a breath taking and heart punching gig. It was performed in the round, so I was up on a stage, on the stairs under spotlight, and also in among the audience, with a headset mic. The speakers were interactive with poetry and soundscape triggered by movement and sensors.

It was powerful, those words and that feeling, those poets, the Hawksmoor church, that space, the live classical music, the percussion and the strings, the feeling in the room at the end … goosebumps … my heart is thumping just remembering it. I am still digesting what happened in that room, a shift occurred, that was not an ordinary poetry gig.

What will you be reading at Arnolfini?

I’m going to be reading from my new collection Pessimism is for Lightweights which will be published by Rough Trade Books.

Salena Godden will be appearing at Arnolfini’s Book Club on April 5. More info available at

Pessimism is for Lightweights, pieces of courage and resistance, her new collection of poetry will be published in June by Rough Trade Books

Read more: Interview with poet Rebecca Tantony


Related articles