The Sweet Sally of Words: An Interview with Sally Crabtree


Joana sits down with poet and the creator of Sweetshop of Words. 

On the grounds of the North Cornwall Book Festival, Sally Crabtree stood out from the crowd. Floating around in her flowery short dress and pink wig, she introduced herself to me first and foremost as a poet and creator of The Sweetshop of Words

However, I discovered that underneath these layers lay so much more. Hers is a kind and gentle story that began at the age of fourteen when she became the youngest British gymnast to compete internationally. By the age of twenty, after seeing that gymnastics wasn’t something that she wanted to be doing for the rest of her life, Sally found Poetry. Or perhaps, it found her.

I sat down to interview Sally and uncover the stories behind her choices and the Sweetshop of Words with Falmouth Drawing students Bhuvaneshvari and Ralph Nel. Standing tall inside the Book Tent, this poetic installation includes treats such as: The Japanese Bowing Lady, offering you a comma in the eternal sentence of existence; the Pillow Talk Pillow, whispering sweet nothings into your ear; or the customer favourite Quiet As A Mouse Chocolate with a Bottle of Silence, where enclosed are enough moments of peace and quiet to last you for a lifetime. 

Photo credit: Joana Varandas

Photo credit: Joana Varandas

How is the Sally Crabtree of today different from the twenty-year old Sally that woke up one day to discover that all she wanted to do was to create poetry?  

I don’t believe they are even the same person anymore. When I was twenty, I knew I wanted to be W.H. Auden. I wanted to have a face that was all wrinkly and serious, like a poet’s face. I’ve got the wrinkles now, but I think I’m surprised at how my life has taken me exactly to where I wanted to be. It was almost as if someone gave me a map to another world. I know now that I am ready to be at that place I thought I would be immediately at age twenty, but at the time I thought that I would do it by just sitting down and becoming T.S. Elliot instantaneously. Turns out, I had to live a little. You need to live your life to find out where you’re going. In my case, I also had to find out a bit more about Philosophy and Ancient Greek, where the word for Poetry is one who creates. I liked the idea of that, of being creative with words. Indeed, I feel my life is coming full circle, except it came with a bit of colour. I didn’t sit on my own in my study writing poems, but rather went about imagining things like my Sweetshop of Words and many others. Still, I like to be very quiet inside just like a serious poet, while having a bit of fun on the outside. It’s the best of both worlds.  

One of the places where you’ve been invited to bring your Poetry was Japan. How was the reception there different from other countries? Did the language barrier made the Japanese people feel like they couldn’t approach you, or were they quite curious?

I went to Japan with The Poetry Postie. The idea is that I deliver poetic inspiration in the shape of postcards, parcels of happiness, lyrical letters and sing-a-grams. One night in downtown Tokyo we went around in a bicycle, and in the front of the bicycle I had a little toy which I called Mr Love-a-Dove. It alluded to the idea of pigeon post and they went wild for it! Japanese people love these kinds of toys and mascots, and it was really heart-warming to realise that you just have to have a way in for people to want to engage with you. Mr Love-a-Dove worked that way, as if it was just a little bit of magic. I was also working with a Japanese poet called Hiroshi Taniuchi. He spoke English, which made it easier in terms of language after the first approach.

Nevertheless, I was amazed. The Japanese for me felt like a scream: they are so polite and ever so courteous and lovely. And then you take away the scream, and they’re bonkers in a wonderful way. Afterwards, we went to a fast-food sushi bar, where at the end of your meal, you could put your plate into a slot like a coin and win a prize! Japanese people love games, and because I love playing with words, it gave me some insight into the possibilities of my work.  They had a gentleness and kindness about them, which provided me with the idea of doing CreativiTea. It had been brewing in my mind until I came across the Japanese tea ceremony which is so different from our tea parties. And yet at the centre of it, both of our cultures are simply trying to stop time at the same time that we’re trying to celebrate. Not long ago, we invited Hiroshi back to England to perform at some CreativiTea cafés. It’s fascinating to see different cultures being so universal. Whether you’re in Japan, Cuba, or in Padstow, we all want the same thing really. Also, the fact that I dress up creates a friendly vibe where people tend to be open to just giving you something of themselves, or you can even entice them to showing you something magical, meaningful and poetic.

Art by Bhuvaneshvari

Art by Bhuvaneshvari

This is the second time you have made a presence in the North Cornwall Book Festival. How did they find out about you and your work? 

I came last year and they asked me to come again and I was quite pleased. It is a fabulous festival. But it all began because when my children were little I used to write children’s books. One of them was called The Magic Train Ride, and it had a song and an animation in a CD at the end. One of the ladies that was organising the kid’s events knew of that book so they invited me. 

I heard you mention that when you were young people tried to put down your creativity, one of them even called you ‘useless’. Have you ever responded to these kinds of comments? Or did you just let your work speak for itself?

That particular event happened in my Art class when I was  fourteen. My teacher said that, but I was fine with it, because in our day, no one had thought about the possibility of there being things like Art installations, such as The Sweetshop of Words, or any other visual ideas to do with words for that matter. I did feel slightly hurt, and for a long time thought it was what I deserved. I had another situation after I had designed my book in the shape of a Poetree, where someone told me ‘You can’t make a book like that!’, even though I had just made it. So I put it in a drawer for twenty-five years. But today, I would never do that, and I think the difference is that now I think: ‘Let’s just do it anyway’. Because as I got older, I got wiser. It takes a long time to believe in yourself. To learn all the things that make you feel insecure and how you can overcome them. With time, you discover how to use your mind and how to be conscious of your thoughts. Like the notion of choice behind The Sweetshop of Words. As Voltaire said: ‘The best choice you can make is to be in a good mood’. Everyone has had someone put them down, or gone through bad experiences. With time, you learn to forgive the past, and forgive yourself. And not knowing how to forgive yourself is just silly, because no one deserves to be miserable.

You are invited to participate at quite a variety of events and festivals. From the United Nations in Geneva, to the Sea Salts and Sail in Mousehole, you might be working with children at one time and adults at another. Which do you prefer?  

Children live in the moment; they are honest and with boundless imaginations. They are like tiny Buddhist monks; they have mindfulness while being permanently astounded. Whereas with grown-ups there’s a difficulty sometimes in getting a straight answer, with children you find immediately if they don’t like you. I like doing different things for different audiences. The Sweetshop of Words, although meant for adults, brings out that playfulness in people. We are always being told that being playful is the same as being stupid. People are scared of being like that, especially in the UK where we’ve got a bit of cynicism going on. So if you believe in positivity, and people reply to you with something quite cynical, never mind. This is the good thing about getting older, you just learn with experience to think, ‘oh well.’ 

Artwork by Ralph Nel

Artwork by Ralph Nel

Will your new book The Word Bird be published soon, or have you got other projects going on that might appear before that?

Sally: The Word Bird been delayed but it will be published. It’s a fairy-tale for seven year olds. I love writing stories, but I haven’t got as much confidence for that as for other types of projects like The Story Parcel Depot. About future endeavours, the best person to talk about would be my wonderful placement artist, Ellie. Ellie joined me on the project that I am delivering at the moment which involves The Poetry Postie, the postal service of happiness, and CreativiTea events. I’m glad I found Ellie, because we joined forces and she is wonderful at skills which I haven’t got, like working with people with dementia.

Ellie: We’re getting our hands on a double decker bus to create a few sessions where we will go around finding people with dementia in a local area, such as Mousehole where Sally lives. Then, we shall ask them to come and join us for a day of entertainment with costumes, poetry and games.  People who haven’t got dementia will also be invited to come along so that they can be trained to assist the people in their lives with dementia. People in rural areas struggle to get out of their house, especially with poor public transport. More so, it is difficult for them to remember everything they need to do before they even leave their house. We want to make more people aware of what sort of assistance people with dementia need, and creating bonds of friendship between them. Just ten minutes driving down the road, going to the beach or having a cream tea will make a huge difference in their day to day.

Sally: The local radio station COAST FM are very keen on being part of this project and they’re the ones who are lending us the double decker bus. And because we’ve got a core team working on the CreativiTea project, we can create a sort of ‘buddy system’ and pair everyone up. There’s quite a gap between older people and younger ones. I don’t understand why these gaps exist. Why shouldn’t people be friends with someone that’s a hundred years old? So that’s what we want to do, giving everyone an awareness, so that when they get older dementia is not something they are scared about.

The Sweetshop of Words is an artistic installation that can be seen right here in this year’s edition of the North Cornwall Book Festival. What at first glance seems like something meant for a child, reveals itself as a very philosophical approach to the core of adult life. Would you say it’s important for adults to by reminded of their inner child’s creativity?

I think it’s absolutely important to do this because people are more and more shutting themselves to the creativity that lies within their souls. I think that schools began dampening it down, quite some time ago perhaps in an effort to keep the plebes down… I’m passionate about connecting with people and reminding us all how amazing we are. Einstein said that ‘Either nothing is a miracle, or everything is a miracle’. And people need to be reminded of this: that there are things in this life which are quite amazing. But how do you have a day where you can just play? Well, that’s what festivals do! They stop time and celebrate.

I can’t quite remember the exact moment when I thought about The Sweetshop of Words for the first time, because that’s what happens with ideas. Thinking about them is the exciting bit, and then its hard work. I know it started when I wore a sweetshop counter, and I knew right then and there that it could turn into something good, especially as the thing about sweets is that they bring you a sense of nostalgia. And then I gave a bit of depth to all the things on offer, putting the idea of choice into focus. What do you choose at the counter? What do we choose in our lives? Are we allowed to choose happiness? Well, I believe that we are. So, on one level it’s very light-hearted and playful, but on a subconscious level you’re trying to answer those questions. Bad things can happen to people, and I’m not saying that it’s easy to simply choose to be happy, but we all need to forgive the past and focus on the now. I really believe our inner destiny is happiness and to be filled with light. Like the poet Dryden said ‘The chief aim of Poetry is to delight’.

And I think that delighting people with what you do, or being delighted by them, can start igniting that light within you. What I love about these installations and The Poetry Postie is that you learn that we are all equal and we are all human beings. Anyone can learn so much about someone else just by talking with them! Life is about connecting, not so much about ‘separateness’! It’s about ‘oneness’. It might sound corny, but really… life is not “us vs them”! People are quick to segregate, but they do it out of fright, they have a primal need to choose a scapegoat. It’s like what was mentioned before when I had people telling me my art was useless. You learn to say, ‘well I don’t care’. Because in a way, perhaps people only put you down because they don’t have confidence in themselves, or perhaps because they had something awful happen to them. And maybe the key to happiness is to be compassionate to yourself first… and then to other people.

Sally Crabtree is a creator  of poetic installations, books, songs and happiness. Her work has been delivered through mediums such as The Poetree, Poems in a Tin, or The Poetry Postie. Some of her partnerships include National Poetry Day, the British Council, and several other cultural exchange projects across the world, both as a children's author and book designer.