Helen Mort was born in Sheffield in 1985. As a child, she loved language in general and poetry in particular and can’t remember a time when she wasn’t trying to write poetry, including dictating “an incoherent poem about trains” to her mum whilst at primary school. Although “not sure where the urge to write came from”, the sounds of words entranced her. She particularly delighted in “the way someone’s voice changes as they read aloud”. It’s a love that has grown and deepened with time, making her one of the most accomplished and engaging poets of her generation.
Helen grew up in the Peak District, writing her first ‘proper’ poem at the age of ten or eleven, and soon after discovered the Foyle Young Poets of the Year competition, in which she was a prize-winner not long after starting secondary school. Helen studied Social and Political Sciences at Christ’s College, Cambridge. After graduating, she stayed in East Anglia, where she now works for the Open University.
Her poetry is musical and often playful, relying as much on sound patterns as visual imagery. Don Paterson’s notion of ‘the lyric principle’ has been a strong influence in recent years and poets she admires are often Scottish and Irish – including Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Norman MacCaig and Derek Mahon. Her obsession for the music of poetry means that she often writes by ear, letting the poem be dictated by the sound. More recently, she’s come to admire the poetry of John Burnside and Andrew Greig, using a small epigraph from Greig in her tall-lighthouse pamphlet, the shape of every box; it captured, for her, what the act of writing is like: “She would say to discover the true depth of a well, drop a stone, start counting.”
Her poems confront big themes within small, delicate moments. In ‘Litton Mill’, her image of a glove – “black, fingerless” – is ominous and even slightly grotesque, hinting at foul play, as she tells us that the mills “are plush apartments now / flanked by stiff-backed chimneys”. In the beautifully observed and cleverly restrained ‘The Word for Snow’, the narrator’s sad father “didn’t raise his head from the bowl of dough, / thumbs kneading flour in a frenzy.”
Her poems are often a series of oppositions – lost and found, disposable and permanent, ignored and desired. Love and its complications are, of course, eternal themes in poetry and ‘Division Street’ demonstrates her ability to write directly about betrayal; the opening lines leave the reader in no doubt as to the subject and mood of the poem – “You brought me here to break it off / one muggy Tuesday” and the lines “the way you nearly sneaked / a little something in my blood” show an awareness of the dark potency of suggestion. But Helen’s subjects are never coy or self-pitying; her imagery is as sharp and precise as the tattoo parlour needles recalled as “the knit-knit whine / of needle dotting bone.”
Five times winner of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year competition, and winner of the Manchester Young Poet Prize (2008), Helen’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies including Tower Poetry, The Rialto and Poetry London. Her pamphlet, the shape of every box, was published by tall-lighthouse in 2007, the same year she received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors. She has performed her work at the Ledbury Festival, at StAnza in Scotland, at the Oxford Literary Festival and in Buckingham Palace. She is currently working towards a first full collection. She runs a Poetry Society Stanza and is part of the CB1 Poetry steering group, hosting readings in Cambridge city centre.
the shape of every box (tall-lighthouse, 2007)
Helen’s author page
The CB1 Poetry Group
Poetry Society Stanzas
Foyle Young Poets
The Poetry Society’s international youth poetry competition.
Christ Church, Oxford’s prestigious poetry awards for young UK writers.