Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Mike O’Brien

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following poets, local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

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Mike O’Brien

The Interview

1. What were the circumstances under which you began to write poetry?
I have written songs since I was about 16. I started with punk songs, and then moved into less angry stuff and eventually into stuff which wasn’t angry at all. Then, due to my reputation as a performer, I was asked to compere a monthly poetry night in Manchester, and present some stuff of my own at it. I began by speaking the lyrics to some of my songs, which worked reasonably well, before branching out into writing pieces that were intended to be spoken rather than sung.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?
If I take songwriting as my starting point, then I would have to answer John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, and Ron Mael, the moustachioed piano player and lyricist of the group Sparks. However I was aware of poetry as a distinct art form before I had even heard of either of these characters, due to the good work of Mr Johnson, who was my form tutor at Wilberforce junior High School back in the early 70s, who read us such works as “The Smugglers Song” by Rudyard Kipling, “Simon Legree” by Vachel Lindsay  and “Twa Corbies” which is an anonymous Scottish poem. Subsequent teachers at secondary school, including the excellent Mr Shearring, and the psychotic Mr Garry, added to my education with stuff from Shakespeare and “Tam O’Shanter” by Burns, before I started to dabble in Radio 4, and discovered the likes of Philip Larkin “the Old Fools”

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
I don’t know that I was aware of a dominating presence. I knew that there were writers, mainly pop and rock lyricists who could express thoughts and feelings that I shared and/or enjoyed, and I wanted to try and do what they did. As for non-musical poets,  I was aware of the likes of living figures such as Larkin and other stars of Radio 4 and the Sunday Times, but I didn’t consider them to be operating in the same field as me, and consequently had no sense of competing with or trying to emulate or follow them.

4. What is your daily writing routine?
To my shame, I don’t really have one at the moment, although I do carry a notebook around with me for ideas and jottings, and put at least a paragraph in it most days. Then every now and then, I get serious, and try and find an hour or two each day to put the best ideas into some sort of shape. Not necessarily always poems or songs either.  I also like to write little essays and stories to expand on my thoughts. But due to laziness, work commitments and the relative ease with which one can purchase alcohol, I do not do as much as perhaps I might. follow them.

5. What motivates you to write?
I think it is nice to get my thoughts and ideas down in some sort of formal language, rather than just having them whirling around in my head. It clears them up, and makes them more accessible both to myself and perhaps to others. Even if they are daft ideas, or just whims, I think it is nice to see them stated well. And if they are in the form of a song or a poem, performing them gives me a chance to show them off, and also for me to show off my performing ability.

6. What is your work ethic?
I really don’t think that I have one. To be honest I think that my ego is probably my master, constantly telling me that unless I actually write something it will have no other way to obtain the stroking that it desires. I could spend more time performing other people’s somgs and poetry, but that doesn’t tick the same boxes for me at all. I would only be getting half the pleasure and there would be a constant niggling voice telling me(rightly or wrongly) that I could write better stuff.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I’m not entirely sure that they do in any other way other than that they are a part of what got me here. I feel as though I have my own voice which owes as much to my background, teachers, family and friends, as it does to Johnny Rotten, Ron Mael, Robert Burns and Philip Larkin. I would like to imagine that were any of those lyricists and poets to read my stuff, they would see their mark there, but that so would my Mam and Dad, Mr Shearring, and the lads that I went to pubs and pop concerts with in the 1980s.

8.  Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Ohh Crikey. I’m not particularly up to date with stuff at all. My niece took me to see a singer who calls himself “Beans on Toast” recently. I considered him to be an excellent lyricist and raconteur. He had just written a book “Drunk Folk Stories”  about his many years on the music scene (which had completely passed me by). I read it in a day and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone, whether they have heard of him or not. I liked his humour and his honesty. In fact I would go as far as to say that humour and honesty are the qualities that I admire most in other writers. So, although not poets, and probably no longer particularly modern, I enjoy reading stuff by Alan Bennett, Nick Hornby and Probably even more unfashionably, Garrison Keillor.

9. Why do you write?
I would refer the honourable reader to my response to “what motivates you to write?” adding that it is one of the few things that I am reasonably competent at that I would consider to have some value beyond idle entertainment.  Or maybe it doesn’t.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Just write. Do it as often as you can. Carry a notebook and pen and write in it. Have a decent writing program on your computer and on your smartphone if you are into that sort of thing. Simplenote is good because you can start on your phone and pick it up on your computer. Practice writing for periods of time. Train so you can do an hour with ease, train so that you can do 1000 words with ease. Then if you are able to expand on either target, do so. Also, learn to draft, by which I mean learn to produce a volume of writing without worrying about grammar, structure or even quality. All that can be edited later. Get your thoughts down first, so that you have something to edit. What you do with the produce of your labours is another story, whether it is just for you, for you and friends, for performance or publication is almost irrelevant. Because if you don’t do the work, you will have no produce to worry about anyway. So, as the training shoe copywriter said “Just do it!”

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I have just completed a set of poems called “A Voyage Around My Father Figures” which my good friend Ian Parks is about to publish as a pamphlet in his “Glass Head Press” . I will be performing it in its entirety in one or two venues in an attempt to shift some copies to repay his faith in me.
I have also gone in to publishing myself, helping Barry Griffiths to bring out a slim volume of his biographical Poetry “Life Histories” which we will be launching very soon.
These ventures completed, I am left with notebooks and a head full of nonsense which may or may not become written things. A piece of gothic fiction based on one of Ian Parks’ poems. A piece based on Charlie Chaplin’s experiences in Mexborough. Some half formed thoughts about the poetry and robots. A comedy detective thriller set on a train. There’s loads of stuff in there, and its only my indolence, the day job and alcohol preventing it getting out. Hey prospective writers, don’t be like me! Make sure that you walk the walk, as well as talking the talk.


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