It’s not easy to know where to start with Sarah Jackson; her bow has so many strings, it more resembles a harp. She featured on BBC Radio 3 as one of their New Generation Thinkers; she was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize; and just in the last few weeks, she’s been running a series of successful events under the Re:Vision banner at Broadway Cinema. She also continues to supervise PhD students at Nottingham Trent University. If that’s not enough to be going on with, while perusing the venue in which we choose to meet (The Malt Cross), I spy one of her poems displayed on the wall of the stairwell.
“I write, first and foremost,” she explains when I bring up her spread of talents. “People often ask if I consider myself more a poet or an academic. But I prefer not to pigeon-hole my work in this way, and always find myself drawn to new forms.”
As a child growing up in Oxfordshire, she surrounded herself with stories, losing herself in words, avidly ingested. Blyton would be read beneath bedcovers lit by torchlight, family stories would be shared. Summer holidays would be blissfully spent reading. Yet despite this love of English, she studied Maths and Chemistry and nearly plumped to pursue a career in Psychology. Fortunately, a change of heart directed her into English, eventually moving to Nottingham in 2009 to lecture at NTU.
She applied to become a ‘New Generation Thinker (NGT)’ at the BBC after seeing a call-out for early-career academics who could bring the best of university research and scholarly ideas to a broad audience through the BBC.
“I’m not particularly media-savvy,” she explains, “but I wanted to step out of myself. I love listening to radio, so I entered, rather on a whim. It’s been brilliant – addictively brilliant. I am terrified of going on air, but I love the challenge.”
Sarah has a selection of fantastic programmes available via iPlayer and podcast; I strongly recommend you give them a listen.
“It’s great to share ideas in this way. I even got to make a short film on Sherlock Holmes and his relationship with the telephone.”
Her fascination with literary telephones remains unabated, and she is now deep into researching telephony through the ages, trawling through old GPO journals at the BT Archives. The concepts of missed calls, crossed wires, and disconnection are of particular fascination.
“poetry underpins it all – that lyrical impulse”
Communication of a much different source themes her Commonwealth Short Story Prize-shortlisted story, ‘Echolocation’. It’s not the first time her work has been put up for awards: her poetry collection Pelt won the Seamus Heaney Prize in 2013, and was the readers’ nomination for the Guardian First Book Award. ‘Echolocation’, however, was new territory – her first foray into sending her short fiction into the mainstream.
“I was on the first week of a sabbatical,” she explains, “and I wrote this story. Normally they stay buried under a pile of papers, but this time I thought I’d give it a go and send it out. It was brilliant to be shortlisted, a real boost.”
She stresses the importance of playfulness when it comes to writing; of how daydreaming is a fertile path to ideas through its license to let the imagination wander into areas out-of-bounds to the times we sit down and studiously try to corral words into images.
“Sometimes I think it shows through in my work, that sense of play. That and a darkness.”
Sarah is fascinated by hybridisation, of merging fiction with philosophy, but says that “poetry underpins it all – that lyrical impulse”. I ask her why she thinks Nottingham is a City of Literature.
“That sense of community with writers born or living in Nottingham: writers such as Alison Moore, Matthew Welton, Jon McGregor, Susanna Clarke, Rory Waterman, Greg Woods … they all are very much part of the City, inspirational and exciting. The heritage gives this feeling of the place being haunted by the writers of the past – haunted in the best possible sense.”
Her hot reading tip?
If ever the phrase “takes one to know one” was appropriate, it’s appropriate right now.
Ten Poems About the Telephone, edited and introduced by Sarah Jackson, is now available from Candlestick Press.