Encountering Caroline Ashley, an Oxford Poet

Article excerpt

'CAROLINE Ashley's poems build a mythology which beguiles immediately with an apparent innocence. But behind that innocence there is a troubling, serious world whose images, once they have got under your skin, do not leave you. The poems work like fairy stories for grown-ups, with all the unsettling strength that this suggests.' (Bernard O'Donoghue, Literary Editor, Oxford Magazine)

Originally from Kent, Caroline Ashley came to study in Oxford. She has a background in publishing and social care and is currently working with a charity that supports people experiencing mental distress. I meet her as rain is pelting down the streets of Summertown, a Victorian suburb on the outskirts of Oxford. Student bicycles glisten as I dash to the refuge of her door. Venturing inside I am offered a cup of Earl Grey tea, in a specifically chosen 'half naked mermaid mug'.

We settle down to talk in a room filled with glass ornaments and jewellery hung from picture frames - mostly Pre-Raphaelite. I sense Ashley's strong aesthetic sense extends beyond the pages of her mysterious poetry.

It is her distinctive narrative voice and her strong sense of atmosphere that has recently seen her gain some very noteworthy praise, from, among others, Bernard O'Donoghue, an English Fellow at Wadham College (see quote above), a senior member of Oxford University Poetry Society and winner of the Whitbread prize in 1995 for his seminal work Gunpowder.

She tells me her 'creative station' is here, in this living room - 'I find I'm rather wordless in other environments, especially away from home. I'm very influenced by my immediate surroundings, for example, the gauzy inner curtains in the bay window literally distort and make vague my perception of the outside world'.

Ashley has been published in ASH - the Oxford Poetry Society Magazine, but by her own admission, 'I've been much too windy in the past about sending work out, but that is changing'.

We both light a cigarette, and I ask her how she started writing. She originally wrote in prose, but found she was too slow and soon realised it would take her 'nine thousand years to write a novel, yet I carried over a desire to tell stories but this time using a thimbleful of words. I had some kind feedback suggesting my prose was poetical so I thought I would try my hand at poetry'.

Olivia Byard, Poet and Poetry Tutor at Oxford University Department for Continuing Education, has noted that: 'Caroline Ashley produces poems that reach out to the reader with their delicacy, disguise, accuracy, and real pressure of feeling. The demeanour of the voice seems gentle, even meek, but never be fooled by this: there is strength here, even some steel'.

She has recently been published in The Interpreter's House, an Oxford-based poetry magazine, and Merryn Williams, Editor, commented how 'Caroline has an instantly recognisable voice. Her poetry admits us to a world of flower-maps, grey lakes, drowning girls and the occasional ghost, always suggesting a little more than it seems'.

At my drop-leaf table
I am bent like a snowdrop over pages
of my February nonsense
with an alphabetic flower-map as guide.
I go from acanthus to bridal rose, yet no further,
and long for my lost muse -
my doppelganger.
Her outline is obscure, which suits
my blurred imagination, her form
hidden in stoles of mist. Grey of eye
she's as inscrutable as a lake at dusk.
Close, yet ghost-far, her tracery clings,
leads me from clematis, wisteria, to zinnia.
As her face clears, we breathe together.

I asked how she nurtured this distinctive voice: 'It is not conscious, I'm out of my time in a way; I'm not very twenty-first century. I veer away from too much reality. I think it's a form of escapism. I know the literature I've enjoyed most is where I've escaped to another world. It's the same with art, particularly landscapes - I would always be drawn to those which have a "vanishing point"'. …