Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Steve Ely

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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Steve Ely

Steve Ely has published seven books of poetry, most recently Incendium Amoris, Bloody Proud & Murderous Men, Adulterers & Enemies of God, Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah and Jubilate Messi.  His book Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire is the definitive work on Hughes’s poetic formation.  He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield.

The Interview

What were the circumstances under which you began to write poetry?

I decided to be a poet and wrote my first poem on1st January, 1982, my seventeenth birthday.  Prior to that I’d written lyrics for non-existent songs for the non-existent band I hoped I might one day be in.  I wrote pretty solidly for about six years after that and beginning in 1984/5ish began subscribing to and submitting to magazines and journals, with no success, even though some of the poems were decent.  I was writing in isolation.  I didn’t know any poets or of the existence of things such as writers’ groups or workshops.  I wasn’t aware of things called poetry readings.  My influences were Blake, Yeats, Lawrence, Eliot, Graves, Hughes and Plath.  Nietzsche. Occultism. Greek mythology.  The Bible.   Nature & animals.  My resources were South Kirkby and South Elmsall libraries and Austick’s University Bookshop in Leeds. In 1986/7 I did a few Open University courses — mid-Victorian Period, the Romantics, Shakespeare.  In 1988 I went to Sheffield University to do a degree in Biblical Studies.  I wanted the Bible to underpin my poetry in the way that Greek mythology underpinned much of the poetry of the Canon. At about that time I stopped writing poetry — I suppose I channelled my energies into the course, which was fantastic, with several excellent teachers – John Rogerson, Philip Davies, David Clines, David Hill, Loveday Alexander, Andrew Lincoln.  Until recently I didn’t think I’d published anything at all during my first poetry coming,  until the poet Liz Barrett drew my attention (in 2016) to my poem, ‘Suicide Note: California Condor’ in a 1990 edition of Canadian literary/ecological magazine, The Trumpeter.  The poem was the final poem of a sequence of six about extinct or near extinct birds I’d written in 1986 and sent to the journal in 1987.  However, the editor rejected my submission after I rejected his dumbass editorial ‘corrections’.  So how and why it ended up being published I’ve no idea.  I didn’t write another poem until 2nd November 2003, when I wrote a poem called ‘Gina’, about one of the victims of the American serial killer Kenneth Allen MacDuff.  The first few poems I wrote in 2003/2004 were based on themes drawn from True Crime. I’ve no idea why I started writing again.  I’d read Elaine Feinstein’s biography of Ted Hughes on holiday the previous August, and maybe that planted a seed.  I’ve not stopped writing since.

Who introduced you to poetry?

No-one in particular.  ‘School’, I suppose.  My mother used to recite a couple of poems she remembered from school – Leigh Hunt’s ‘Abu Ben Adam’ and Longfellow’s ‘The Slave’s Dream’.  She didn’t know the authors.  I looked them up years after.  I think they learned poems like by heart in the 1950s for ‘Choral Speaking’.   My mother also encouraged me to read and bought me virtually any book I wanted.  But I can’t remember any poetry specifically.  I remember writing poems about the 1972 Apollo XVII moon landing in Miss Hall’s class at Burntwood Junior & Infants, which took their cue from the singing moonwalkers Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan  who fooled about singing Ed Haley’s ‘The Fountain in the Park’ — ‘I was strolling on the moon one day/In the merry, merry month of May’ – as they took their giant leaps for mankind.  In my poem I too strolled on the moon in that month, when I was, ‘taken by surprise/when a shark blacked my eyes/in the merry, merry month of May’.  A moon shark, presumably.  At Northfield Middle School in I remember writing a poem called ‘The Otter’ which included the phrase ‘a quicksilver flash of trout’.  Maybe it was for the school magazine, The Glovonian.  Can’t remember.  At Minsthorpe High I occasionally wrote invective loaded punk-poems aimed at my mates who positioned themselves as heavy metal rebels but who got their biker jackets from their Mams’ catalogues – ‘So you think you’re a big man/Now your leather jacket’s come/But you’re nothing but a poser/Just shit elitist scum’ — and so on.  The fact that I got a lot of my alleged punk gear from the catalogue was neither here nor there.  I first learned to enjoy poetry independently  in Mr Blakemore’s class in the lower year — (Year Nine).  I remember liking Robert Frost’s poetry – ‘The Hill Wife’, ‘Birches’, ‘Mending Wall’, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.  But Mr Blakemore wasn’t my ‘inspirational teacher’, even though I quite liked him personally – I’d always hated school and I decided early on not to cooperate or fall for any of the teachers’ schtick.  It was in Mr Blakemore’s class in 1979 that I first encountered Ted Hughes.  A Sixth Former named Toni Hancock had left her copy of Selected Poems 1957-1967 (for the ‘A’ level syllabus) on my desk after a lesson and I half-inched it.  Never looked back. Still got the book.

How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

I lack a formal grounding in English Literature.  I’ve never studied it at ‘A’ level or read for a degree in the subject.  So I’m not particularly well-versed in ‘the Canon’.  I’m more or less an autodidact in the field and I have a huge hole in my encounter with Eng. Lit.— in the period 1988-2003 not only did I not write a single poem, I don’t think I even read one.  When I decided to become a poet in 1982, I think meant a poet like Blake, Yeats, Lawrence, Eliot, Graves, Hughes, Plath (etc).  So I suppose that first time around I resolved to become to be what used to be called a ‘Major Poet’.  The poets I go back to are all the usual big hitters, from anonymous Old English ‘Maxims’ poets to the English ‘Triple H’ —  Harrison, Hill, Hughes — I think John Montague’s The Rough Field is one of the great books of the last fifty years.

What is your daily writing routine?

All being well, I get up early and write for three or four hours.  Then I’m burned out for the day.  Occasionally I get a second wind, and write for a few hours later on, in the evening.  But not often.  If I’m working or have other commitments in the morning then often I find it hard to write at all. I’m increasingly finding I need routine in order to write, rather than time.

What motivates you to write?

I get anxious and restless if I’m not writing creatively.  Also, I think I’ve got some interesting and perhaps urgent things to say – about England, the violence of the state, the fragile balance of good and evil that exists in each of us – the potential to do good and commit horrors – the devastations of globalisation and the Anthropocene and the capitalist growth and exploitation system that drives both those disasters.   All that as mediated through personal experience and landscapes in my ‘parish’, as Patrick Kavanagh would call it.  I’m an expressive writer with strong subjectivity and I enjoy the process of bringing that subjectivity into the concrete form of a poem, the playfulness and audacity of it, the sense of accomplishment you get when you realise your vision or execute your ambition and intention.
How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

They’ve entered my psyche at a deep level.  All those I mentioned earlier are still there, but not as immediate influences – well, I don’t think so.  I’m not sure who my immediate influences are now – Old English, Middle English, Norse Sagas, the King James & Geneva Bibles?

Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Tony Harrison is the last of the ‘Triple-H’ still standing; one of the greats by any standards, in drama, translation and a wide range of verse forms; and of course, politically committed, international and Northern, which is why English London poetry doesn’t know what to do with him. The Irish poet John F. Deane writes movingly from the quick of human experience in the context of his compassionate, humane and but devotional Catholicism.  Pascal Petit’s unflinching, atavistic and lapidary expositions of abuse, cruelty and confinement have a raw and disturbing power.  Peter Riley’s intensely alert, alive and elegiac recent work is as good as anything currently being written. Kim Moore has written two of the best poems of the last several years with In That Year and My People. Carola Luther writes about the natural world with poise, delicacy and humility. Outside poetry, Cormac McCarthy is a great stylist and he doesn’t flinch from exposing and confronting horror at the core of his vision of humanity and civilisation.  James Ellroy’s novels are tours-de-force of audacious technique, virtuoso ensemble characterisation, exhilarating pace, obsession and rigorous research.  Elmore Leonard & Harry Crews are recently dead, but the former is the stylist par excellence, the absolute master of economy, driving narrative entirely through the POV of characters (and largely dialogue) with the narrator almost totally effaced; the opening section of the latter’s Feast of Snakes is an astonishingly vivid unravelling of a single rolling scene, one of the best pieces of writing you’ll ever encounter.
What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

You write.  And for every hour you spend writing, you spend ten reading.  The right stuff, obviously.  What moves and feeds you, not what everyone else is reading, or what you think you should be reading or those books whose publishers happen to have a machine that gets them reviewed and publicised. I’ve always thought that to want to ‘be a writer’ is a narcissistic ambition.  It seems to me that many people who express that ambition are attracted to the imagined life of the writer rather than the work itself  — how many young (and not so young) writers spend their time getting arseholed and showing off about getting arseholed and imagining git makes them Bukowski redivivus.  Career ambition and ‘lifestyle’ is irrelevant. The only thing that’s important to a writer is about whether or not they’ve got something to say that’s worth saying — and that only they can say. Subjectivity and technique, not  status and celebrity.

Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I’m about half-way through a collection of poetry provisionally called Lectio Violant — ‘Profane Reading’. The poems are improvisations based on certain chapters of the New Testament.  They’re about extinction, the Anthropocene, the North, class, capitalism, republicanism, with a dash of veneficium and maleficium; there’s a pamphlet collaboration (with the mysterious artist P.R.) ‘about eels’ in the works; I’ve nearly finished  a collection of autobiographical short stories about my childhood — Tales of Nelly Pledge.

 

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