Underground poet: An interview with Sas Petherick

When you’re trapped beneath a passenger’s cheesy armpit on a summer’s day, it can feel like there’s no escaping the hell of a London commute. But author Sas Petherick found a unique approach: choosing a random stranger on her train carriage, and writing a haiku about them. She tells Thoughtful how this small daily act changed her life and became a book: Tubeku – Tiny Epic Tales From Underground.

 

sas petherickWhat inspired you to write a daily haiku?

I was waiting on the District Line platform at Hammersmith when this man in an ill-fitting suit wandered past. His phone erupted with the opening bars of “Eye of the Tiger” and I felt like I knew everything I needed to know about him in that moment—it just made me laugh. These words formed in my mind:

The sort of man who
wears his blackberry proudly
in a belt holster

Something just kind of clicked for me. I tweeted it out, a few people commented, and then someone said to me, “That’s not a haiku, that’s a tubeku.” I really liked that, so I began to write one every day. It started as a way to make my morning commute less horrible.

 

How did it affect your attitude toward your fellow Londoners?

The daily practice of writing a tubeku required me to be present, mindful, awake. It totally shifted my mindset. Crowds make me slightly panicky, but I started looking forward to my commute. I wondered who I was going to see. I’d always been the sort of person who’d get on the station platform and walk to the same spot every day. Now I was looking more closely at the people around me. I didn’t know anything about them at all, so I had to use a little bit of imagination, of trying to see what was actually going on. It switched on my empathy button like nothing else.

 

What impact did the tubekus have on you?

The daily practice of writing a tubeku required me to be present, mindful, awake. It helped me pay attention to my whole life.
These little poems helped me pay attention to my whole life. I noticed that I was less frantic and less separate. I was more relaxed. This tiny act of creativity hit me somewhere nothing else had. I’d previously adopted this attitude to travelling on public transport in London: nobody speaks, nobody gets hurt. Now I would just strike up conversations. I am from New Zealand, so people assumed I’d only been here for five minutes and I just didn’t know the ‘rules’ yet!

 

How did a book emerge from this simple act of looking up?

Committing to a morning tubeku rekindled a long-lost sense of wonder in me. After two years I had created lots of poems, and a magazine feature on my creative practice prompted questions about where readers could find more tubekus. Creating a book from my poems became a love letter to London. I partnered up with photographers Xanthe Berkeley and Jeanine Stewart and we spent a day wandering around London photographing Tube stations. It was just a really cool day.

sas petherick

 

Why did you choose to give 100% of the proceeds from your book to the homeless charity Shelter?

I love that Shelter gives people their dignity, that it provides really clear and unfettered advice. I’m quite a privileged person. I’ve had the benefit of education, I’ve always been employed, so there’s something about the giving of money and things on the street that feels patronising to me. It just felt really good to be able to do something. It was a drop in their bucket really.

sas petherick

 

One of your current creative projects is #mymindfulyear, a free monthly essay and Instagram feed on how to reflect, notice and savour life. Was this a natural evolution from those morning tubekus?

There’s a lot of really sound research that says when you can savour your life, it feels much more fulfilling. Composing tubekus had been a thoughtful act. Now I work from home, and because I am impatient and find it quite tricky to do the whole ‘eat a raisin for 10 minutes,’ I wanted to focus on pragmatic mindfulness. Mindfulness that someone like me could use, which incorporated the stuff that I quite like about the self-help world that isn’t annoying. Plus photography because taking photos on Instagram has become a just lovely little creative outlet. You really have to focus in on something and decide what you’re going to include in that little square.

sas petherick

 

Before that, you had a hiatus from blogging and social media. What did you learn and how did it feel to come back?

I’ve been writing online for ten years and taking a break to focus on my dissertation made me feel like I had my life back. I wasn’t doing the checking and scrolling—instead I was reading long academic articles. I found I could concentrate for longer. I was making connections in my mind that just came a lot easier and I thought: it’s because I’m not just flashing my brain constantly with these tiny little bits of information.

Returning to the online world was hard. It feels to me like a bit of a dance—I’m never sure if I am leading or following. Because I run an online business being present online is kind of a necessity. I’ve sort of edged away from being a consumer of social media, and become more of a creator. I’ve found it’s helped me just clear out the clutter around it. I’ve let go of that need to know what’s going on.

 

Photo credit (header): Scott Thompson