Cat Hepburn is a poet and scriptwriter whose latest collection of poetry and prose, Dating & Other Hobbies, is out now. She is also a central figure in Scotland’s thriving spoken word scene and co-host of the popular Sonnet Youth, which have managed to remain must-attend events, if online only, during the last year. SNACK caught up with Cat to talk about all of the above and a whole lot more.
Your new collection is called Dating & Other Hobbies. How do you describe it to people?
Dating & Other Hobbies is a collection of poems and short stories that explores the world of dating, casual sex and relationships through a female lens. It’s full of fictional characters and situations, but it’s coming from a place of truth. I wanted to summarise the experiences that we go through in our twenties – the chaos, the drama, from awkward one-night stand, to ghosting, to affairs. It’s toe-curling and relatable and I loved writing it!
It’s been three years since your previous published collection, #GIRLHOOD. In what ways, if any, have you changed as a writer in that time, and how do the two books relate to each other?
As a writer, I’m always developing, and hope I’ll never stop! In the past few years I’ve had a lot more practice onstage and writing for other people, so I think I am more confident in my own voice and knowing what I want to say. I’ve become less self-critical and more relaxed about writing.
#GIRLHOOD was all about nostalgia, growing up, and the experiences that shape and harm young girls. Dating & Other Hobbies is all about what happens after we supposedly grow up, when we are officially ‘adults’. Life’s awkward and fun and messy in our twenties, and I wanted to reflect that.
We’re still evolving and we still make mistakes, and at the end of the day that’s what that period in our lives is for.
Dating & Other Hobbies includes short stories. In what way was writing those different to poetry and to how you write for TV? Is there an essence at the core of all three?
Storytelling has certain DNA that’s shared between all these different art forms, and they all interconnect with one another. I kept my scriptwriting hat on when I approached the short stories, asking myself the same questions I would ask as if I was writing for the screen: ‘Why do we care?’ ‘Does the main character change?’ ‘What do they need and want?’. It helped keep me on track because stories are so fun to write they could go on forever, and nobody wants that.
My experience with writing poetry helped me lean into certain aspects of the story writing. Hannah Lavery [fellow poet and playwright] gave me some really beautiful advice early on, which was ‘focus on the detail and the poetry of the moments, keep your rhythm, be in your voice.’ As as soon she said this, something clicked and I started to find poetic corners in these imaginary worlds where I could allow my spoken word experience to hold court for a moment.
You are perhaps best known as a spoken word artist. Do you write with that always in mind? And, if so, does that pose a challenge with how the poetry looks on the page?
Admittedly, my spoken word poetry was a bit of a riot when it was first written down, so I did have to adapt to the page and cut into my big lengthy one liners. But once I started chipping into it, it got easier. When the words are on the page for someone else to read, you unfortunately can’t rely on things like the atmosphere of a venue, or your confidence, or the way you deliver something. You have to convey the tone and feeling through the written word alone, so you need to make it all count, which is pretty daunting. But it’s also out of your hands by the time someone reads it, so you need to just trust that you’ve done your best.
The collection is carefully structured, with a prologue and then four distinct chapters. Can you explain what they are, and why you decided to collate the work in this way?
The four chapters are ‘Casual’, ‘Digital’, ‘Wanting’ and ‘Missing’. Any writer will tell you we work a lot on instinct, so after trying out a few different chapter titles and working out the main themes, these four just felt right. They summarise the nuances of dating and relationships that many of us experience. The illustrations of the little heart characters, by Robyn Claire Anderson, that accompany the chapter headings really brought these ideas to the forefront.
Do you ever anticipate readers’, or audiences’, reaction to your work? If so, does that affect the writing?
I never let any worries about what people might think of my work get in the way of the most important thing – the story. The joy of being a writer is getting to live many different lives through our characters, so I can allow them to be bold, brave and daft, and if people judge them then that is fine. And if they want to judge me, that’s their right as a reader. I would prefer a line stuck with a reader, for whatever reason, than them not being able to recall it. Life’s too short to worry about other people’s criticisms.
You also host, alongside Kevin P. Gilday, the spoken word event Sonnet Youth, managing to keep it going online during lockdown. What have been the pros and cons of this shift, and do you have anything planned for when we can all get together once again?
As soon as the first lockdown hit, Sonnet Youth managed the move to go digital quite well, all things considered. Because we responded so quickly we didn’t take much time to reflect. But we’re now reaching 30 online shows of SY Social Club, which has been fun for us, the talented artists we hire for every show, and our audience members, old and new.
The pros are we can access people further afield, and reach new viewers. The main con is our performances are limited to a Zoom rectangle, but we’ve done our best to recreate the same vibe as our ‘in real life’ shows. Looking to the future, I’m sure that our poetic piss-ups will return to real life venues, and we’ll retain an aspect of our virtual gigs too, so you can expect a hybrid of entertainment.
Main photo credit: Etuski Usui