Adventurers, nature and writing have always gone hand in hand, from the mountains that inspired great works of fiction, to the explorers whose diaries have made others dream about following in their tracks. When Shextreme launched a competition to find the best female adventure poet of the year therefore, we thought it was a fantastic idea and were more than happy to support more female voices being heard in adventure writing.
We caught up with Sarah Audsley, the amazing author of 'Questions: Ownership' and Shextreme's winning poet, when she came over from the US to read in Bristol last month. Read on to find out more about Audsley's work and how you too can start turning your adventures into works of art.
The full poem Questions: Ownership is being showcased on Cooler and can be read here.
Interview: Ruth Farrar Photos: Sarah Audsley
Which passion came first: climbing or poetry?
I think I became a poet first before I became a climber. I actually started writing poetry in elementary school, but it was only recently that I committed to the craft of writing again after a long hiatus. Very naively, I did not know it was even possible to be poet. I became enamored with climbing in my twenties when I had the great fortune of climbing up to Point Lenana, the highest non-technical summit on Mount Kenya, during a study-abroad program in college. Istood on that summit and was told it wasn’t the true summit, that the real highest point required technical climbing skills. I vowed I would acquire those skills right then and there. For developing both skills, writing poetry and climbing, it’s been a slow, but rewarding process.
How has your climbing practice informed your poetry?
I think climbing requires dedication, patience, and discipline. Poetry does as well. I need to spend a lot of time outside, hiking, climbing, or even just staring out at a lake or a mountainous landscape. Constant body movement allows me to drain away the non-essential thoughts in my head and helps my writing get to something deeper on the page.
What top three tips would you give a female writer wanting to create their first adventure poem?
Go have an adventure! You can’t write about something if you don’t actually have an adventure to write about. It’s that simple: go get outside and move in a landscape you love. Then brew a good cup of tea or coffee, sit down, and write about that experience. Finally, revise! It’s where the real “work" gets done.
Where did the inspiration come from for your winning entry – “Questions: Ownership"?
I think the inspiration for “Questions: Ownership" came from continually going back to the same places where I love to hike and climb in Franconia Notch State Park in New Hampshire. I’ve spent a lot of time in this particularly special part of the White Mountains, in all seasons, in all weather, in very different personal, mental, and emotional states of mind and being. I think it’s particularly wonderful to have a deep relationship and connection to a place year after year.
What message or themes are you hoping to convey to the reader in “Questions: Ownership"?
Some of the messages or themes in this poem might convey metaphorical pondering on what it means to “own" or dominate a landscape. As humans we often think it’s our right to be here. With this poem, I’d like to think that my speaker in the poem calls into question her own personal “ownership" to a landscape when really the landscape seems to claim her. Owning the intangible is a slippery desire.
Do you have any particular writing rituals? How do you go from the high adrenalin and concentration of climbing to a quiet deeper internal place to write?
I read a ton. I also try to write consistently. I don’t write every day, but I do maintain a disciplined writing practice of sitting down and “showing up" on the page. Often times, mornings are better for me for writing because work emails, to-do lists, etc haven’t bogged down my brain. I actually don’t think that climbing is necessarily always “high adrenalin", I think it’s more considered, calculated risk assessment. And, it requires focus and attention to detail, much like writing poetry does. I think it’s important to try to incorporate both into one’s schedule.
What is the climbing scene like in New Hampshire for female climbers?
The climbing scene in New Hampshire for female climbers is dynamically changing. There are ample partners available for climbing and even an organised ladies climbing night at the cliff. Previously, at my local rock gym, I helped organised a ladies’ climbing night. There are many female climbers who climb at a high level and who are very devoted to improving their skills and getting out there. I admire my peers, most of whom climb at a much higher level than I do, and I am grateful for their belays, encouragement, but mostly, I am grateful for their laughter and adventurous spirits.
"Poetry often times allows the adventurer to capture her experience in a way that no other genre or art form can offer"
What is your favourite route to climb in New Hampshire?
Multi-pitch traditional climbing is my favourite, so I would say that the following routes are my favourite:- The Whitney- Gilman Ridge (5.7), Cannon Cliff in Franconia Notch
- Moby-Grape (5.8), Cannon Cliff in Franconia Notch
- The Eaglet (5.8+) also in Franconia Notch. It’s one of the only freestanding spires in the state.
How do you overcome fear on a climbing route and the fear of writer’s block? Which natural fear is harder to overcome and why?
Fear in climbing and in writing is not something I try to “overcome." Instead, I attempt to embrace both as integral parts of both processes. Part of the excitement of climbing is confronting one’s fear of falling above a piece of gear, but then moving above that piece anyway. Part of the drama of writing is being afraid to fail on the page, then pushing through that moment to write anyway. I think fear is actually a good thing. I’ve also found that I need to take breaks from both climbing and writing to re-charge. When I do, I come back to them refreshed and experiencing, again, like I’m falling in love all over.
How has your poetry writing changed your experience of the outdoors?
Sometimes, I think, I think too much. Poetry writing requires me to think and to take a moment to reflect and process something. It does make me “pay attention" more while being outdoors. But, I prefer to think that both writing and experiencing the outdoors are integral parts of the creative process.
What writers or poets do you read for a burst of inspiration?
Mary Oliver – I jokingly call her work the “gateway drug" for poetry. I am also a huge fan of the late Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Her collection Song is stunning. The incomparable Ellen Bryant Voigt’s collection Headwaters is astounding. Also, one of my dear favourite nature-inspired poets is A. R. Ammons.
How do we get the female voice more heard in the world of adventure writing?
I think when women are involved in all aspects of the field, when they are the editors, writers, producers, etc. Then the whole field of adventure writing is improved and deepened and more diverse voices, more varied stories will be told and heard.
Why do you think poetry and adventure are the perfect partners?
Poetry and adventure are perfect partners because one informs the other. They are linked by the capacity of the adventurer to dream and imagine possibilities. Poetry often times allows the adventurer to capture her experience in a way that no other genre or art form can offer. The reader can dive in and experience that adventure through reading about it and a reader can be transported by a writer’s words. On the other hand, adventures allow the writer to often have transporting experiences. Living in the present moment, moving high up on a mountain gives one moments of pause, the ability to look at the world from a new and different perspective.