Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Jess Mookherjee

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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Jess Mookherjee

Jessica Mookherjee is of Bengali heritage and grew up in South Wales. Her poetry has been widely published in journals, and in two pamphlets, The Swell (Telltale Press, 2016) and Joyride (The Black Light Engine Room Press, 2017). She was highly commended in the Forward Prize 2017 for best single poem. Jessica works in Public Health and lives in Kent. Flood is her first full collection.

The Interview

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

I was a child – and probably left alone for long periods, my mother taught
me to read very early so I was reading and writing before I went to school,
I wrote my first poems when I was 5 (highly derivative nature poetry) and my Primary school teacher seemed amazed by them and wrote them on enormous sheets of paper and displayed them for a whole year. That was probably the start. I then decided to be a novelist and wrote terrible historical fan fiction chapter by chapter for my school friends. Poetry was later poorly rewarded. At my comprehensive school my English teacher told me to write happier poems after I showed her my teenage surrealist ramblings. I wrote very seriously in my early twenties as I wanted by that time to be something of a cross between Charles Bukowski, Byron and TS Eliot! I wrote an epic poem and sent it to Jonathan Cape in 1989 ! I still have their lovely kind reply where they say “try Bloodaxe” – which must have just started.  Chattertonesque, I  decided poetry was not where my fortune lay and I spent the next 30 years being a scientist. When my long term relationship broke down and I moved from London to the countryside – I took up my pen again and I found teachers all around me and poetry poured back out.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

My mother sang the Indian national anthem to me as a lullaby – and that’s Tagore. But I never knew that until a few years ago! I was given by my father – a book called “A Child’s Treasury Of Poetry” which had The Jumblies, The Raggle Taggle Gypsies and Christina Rossetti and I loved it. I used to like bible stories and the psalms really got me. Going to school in Wales – I adored the dark sound of words I didn’t know what they meant so I liked to guess. Poetry and reading aloud was a thing in Welsh schools. Also, my dad used to speak weird incantations which must have been Sanskrit poetry and I got the rhythms through listening to him. But he also had these weird penguin books by Michael Hamburger and Holub – and I thought how weird and exciting words could be. I had a next door neighbour who was a native Welsh speaker and told me Welsh poetry and read me Dylan Thomas – and RS Thomas. I loved them. Also, as I got older I started listening to music and one of my friends from the wrong side of town gave me Lou Reed’s Berlin and a book by William Boroughs – and that changed my life. At the same time another – far posher friend bought me a Smiths album and The Wasteland  by T. S. Eliot and that changed me too.

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

I was very aware of Ted Hughes, Dylan Thomas and RS Thomas – in fact I thought – like many people that they were all dead. I was amazed to find when I was kid Ted Hughes was alive. I was so happy to be taught his poetry in school though as I adored it. I think we studied Stevie Smith and Louie McNeice too but little other than that and John Donne. I enjoyed it all but the real world of poetry was never really taught. When I look back at how ignorant I was – I feel quite embarrassed. I did know about Indian poets though. I bought a book of Tagore’s poetry when I was 18. In my 20s I discovered modern poetry – of Carol Anne Duffy – whom I adored and Andrew Harvey and David Constantine. In terms of dominating – I didn’t feel dominated – as I sought out poets as different as Gillian Clarke and Jeremy Reed, from Joolz to T. S. Eliot.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I’m unruly and go for days rebelling from my own routines. But when I have one it is write something as early as possible – read something inspiring. I work full time so my brain is taken up with that all day – then late at night I will start to write then redraft and redraft until I have something I’m half pleased with. Then I type it out – and tinker and go to sleep late and print it out in the morning to see what delirium has produced.

5. What motivates you to write?

Always emotion – a slow build up of something I can’t express coupled with
strange words I might hear. Also, I love challenges and commissions and the
desire to witness. People and the world they live in are so horrifically beautiful I want to capture it for a tiny fleeting moment as a witness to it and a gift to it.
I can’t write good poetry from anger – or righteousness – and I have tried – but it sounds bad when I do it. I write when I feel the burden of the worlds tragedy and some overwhelm of compassion or awe. Like most poets – I write because I must. I don’t know why.

6. What is your work ethic?

I like to be busy – even if it’s busy staring into space or being amazed at the shape of leaves or wondering who first said a particular word. I write quickly and probably over write so I enjoy the scribblingness of being industrious. For ages I was baffled by how to send things to publishers but a wise poet called Jane Clark told me to use my work brain to solve the admin problems and so that helps – to see that as a job, to help my poems live. So I like to see the publication process an extension of actually finishing the poem. I don’t think I’ve done my job if my poems are then not published somewhere.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I don’t think anything really leaves you. I recently published a poem in Bare Fiction magazine called Sea Shanty  about two strange people on a little boat out to sea and I put Edward Lear’s
Jumblies in – just the reference of the sieve. The editor said he liked it for that whimsy.
Sometimes at workshops people say don’t use Soul or shard and I wonder what T. S. Eliot would do or say – and try to do that. My O’ Level readings of Ted Hughes always influence me as strange animals appear in my poems and the moon! I also remember the cosmicness and the domesticity rolled together in Tagores poetry and I like that – and use it. But I was also very
Influenced by songwriters when I was young – Howard Devoto and Frank Black and Lou Reed.
I try to give a kind of character and feeling to each poem in the way my favourite musicians and songwriters did, give enough space for the reader to sail away but not too much I hope.

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

I admire my friend Abigail Morley’s work very much – as she stretches language like skin and it’s so beautiful and precise and fearless.
I admire Ocean Vuong enormously – he is brave and beautiful and packs
a punch of poetry. He is extraordinary. He writes about a world I don’t know and makes me live it and care and weep. I adore Louise Gluck and Jane Hirshfield for the span of emotion they can cover in their poetry and how they mould words over ideas. I love Jan Wenger’s poetry because it’s a meditation. Another poet I admire
is Elizabeth Sennit Clough – whose pamphlet Glass ( paper swans press) was one of the most intense poetry pamphlets I’ve read and I dreamed about it! I also admire Jane Commains poetry which makes me cry. But there are so many good writers that sometimes knock me for six. Years ago I stumbled on a war veterans website and read a poem by a soldier in Iraq and that has never left me even though I cannot find it anywhere!

9. Why do you write?

I am never alone when I’m writing and yet always alone – perhaps that contrast
appeals to me and the thought that I might never know if one of my poems touches someone – or where the life of that bundle of words will end up. I had no idea that s strange conversation that I had with a girl on facebook years ago would end up in the Forward Prize Book in 2018! That makes it very magical. I write to honour things – to remember things.
Also, I write to surprise myself – sometimes stuff pours out and I have no clue how and the joy of shaping it up Into something that sounds alive is great fun. But mainly it’s so I can witness or voice Something that needs to be said – even if if it’s just for me.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

It’s a terrible cliché but I would say “Start writing and don’t ever stop writing, have discipline sometimes and sometimes none. Make sure you have an exiting life, some interesting friends and a few demons in the closet  ( or at very least imagination) – and read read read. And watch watch watch. And then write it all down.”

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

Right now I’m in the process of editing my second collection – it might be called Burst of it might not – I haven’t decided yet. It should be published next August. I’m working with friends on an ekphrastic project called Fractles and that’s great fun – we had an art exhibition last year. I love collaborations. I’m working with a friend on co- writing poems which is very exciting because you need absolute trust to be able to do it. I’m also starting out as a publisher along with my friends fellow poets Karen Dennison and Abigail Morley. Our new press is called Against the Grain Press and we published 4 poets in 2018 and have just selected our 4 2019 poets – it’s s labour of love. I’m also putting together a whole new collection – and there is a strange theme emerging but I can’t quite tell you about that yet. Who knows what will happen?

 

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