Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: John Foggin

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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John Foggin

Amazon tells us “John Foggin s work has appeared in many journals and anthologies including The Forward Book of Poetry [2015, 2018].He publishes a poetry blog: the great fogginzo s cobweb. His poems have won first prizes in competitions judged by three different poets laureate, including the Poetry Business International Pamphlet Competition judged by Billy Collins. He is the author of six pamphlets and collections.”

The Interview

What inspired you  to write poetry?

An unnerving idea, ‘inspiration’. I don’t think I’ve ever been inspired. When people ask me why I write poetry I say I actually write poems, and that I write poems because I can’t write stories. I can’t invent characters and plots and so on, and I haven’t the stamina, anyway. I suppose I write poems because poems are short. This begs the question “Why write”. I’ve written books about teaching writing and about the need to establish the purpose and notional audience of a piece of writing of whatever kind. But it doesn’t exactly apply to poems, unless you’re writing rhetoric like Tony Harrison’s “V”, or for performing in folk clubs (got to rhyme, probably got to be funny, or no one listens), or writing for children to entertain and for them to perform (scary, funny, but lots of repetition, rhyme, rhythm).
So why do I write poems? because I like the compression, the musicality, the wordplay, the games with syntax. They let me celebrate what’s moved me in ways that prose won’t. I particularly like imagery. I have a mainly visual imaginative memory. I remember the world as images, pictures. When I was 17 it was a toss up whether I went to University to do English or to Art School. The Grammar School won that argument, and a good thing too. I was never good enough to do Art properly beyond A level.

Who introduced you to poetry?
The people who thought they were doing that, teachers, were successful in putting me off it. Poems were things you were tested on and written by posh dead people. I could jump through those hoops. No one at University ever suggested that you would read poetry for pleasure, let alone write the stuff. You wrote ABOUT it, got a badge and then got a job inflicting it on the vulnerable young. My thing was the novel…especially the 19th C/early 20th C . I didn’t realise that my exposure to poetry ran deep in the form of the hymns we sang in Chapel, and of pop(ular) music. Buddy Holly. The Everleys. The Stones, the Beatles…and then the blinding revelation of Dylan and, later, Cohen. Popular music as the oral poetry of our day….the great tradition.
If I had to pick out one moment that opened my eyes it was the publication of the school anthologies that Geoffrey Summerfield produced in the early 70’s…Voices and Junior Voices. And, especially, Worlds which introduced me to poets who were alive and wrote about themselves and why they wrote. McCaig. Charles Causley, Seamus Heaney….and of course, Ted Hughes.So that’s when I started to read more poetry, but not to write it
But the key moment was the accident that brought me to meet Tony Harrison, aboout 1975 He used to take his son to school at the same time as I took my kids. Partly because of this he came to read to my students in the College of Ed where I was teaching at the time. He read ‘National Trust’. It was still handwritten in a notebook. And he read from ‘The Loiners’. And there it was: poems as technically clever as the metaphysicals, but also passionately political. I guess that’s when I was truly hooked.

How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
Until I was in my late 20s that’s essentially all there was. Poetry. Literature. I have to say I should have said earlier that I liked  Milton a lot…Paradise Lost. I liked the scale of it, much as I liked epic film. I liked the predictability of the blank verse, and I liked the narrative. And I really liked the Metaphysicals..
Marvell, Donne, especially. They were sexy and clever and arrogant. Smart-arse Grammar School boys fell for that very readily…like certain hairstyles and clothes. Later, when I developed the belief that literature was meaningless unless it it was socially engaged (by which I mean it championed the history of the dispossessed working classes of any race and gender) I was part of the English teaching movement that insisted on syllabuses/curricula that reflected our prejudice against Establishment hierarchies. What we forgot was that poetry is a living tradition.

What is your daily writing routine?
I write something everyday. Mainly rants on facebook. I write a poetry blog post every week. But I don’t write poems or drafts every day. I wouldn’t write anything unless I went to writing workshops, particularly The Poetry Business in Sheffield, and before that in Huddersfield. I have to be put in a timelimited pressure situation where I can only react and can’t think myself out of writing something. I write poems in splurges of catching up on what’s in my notebooks from these workshops. I go on residential courses too. I’m of an age where I have time and I can afford it. This gives me lots to work on. I guess I’ve written between 60 and 100 poems a year for the last 6 years. 2013 was essentially the year that something snapped or loosened and I started to write ‘for real’. I write in splurges and generally I write fast. If it doesn’t come in a rush, it probably won’t come at all, or, if it does, won’t be much good.

What motivates you to write?

What is your work ethic?
I’ll merge these two questions. All my working life I guess I had a puritan work ethic. Possibly because I can’t cope with inaction. I can’t do leisure. It’s the way I am. As a teacher the motivation was to be the best, and as far as possible to be told I was the best. So I suppose a childish need for recognition was and is my motivation. I’ve won some big poetry prizes, and that means I have a standard to keep up. It’s not a comfortable way to be, but it’s how I’m made and I’m too old to even want to change. Oh…and I set my self targets and challenges. Like choosing a poet I like who’s got a big doorstop collected works, and reading two or three or four poems a day  (aloud) for a year till it’s finished. U A Fanthorpe, Charles Causley, Norman MacCaig, David Constantine. It’s trying to learn how they do ‘it’

How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
Well, because I taught them for so long, I can reference them easily, and I can think in their rhythms, especially variations on blank verse. I can be allusive. I suppose the starkest example of this ‘sampling’ of the past would be ‘The Waste Land’. I think that was influential in ways I’d not anticipated

Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Clive James wrote that there’s never been a time when there’s so much poetry about and so few poems. I understand that. I can’t be bothered to try to keep up with the contemporary poetry scene. There’s too much of it, and a lot of it is dross. I get tired of all those folk on Facebook writing about how they SO want a collection. But there are the ones who absolutely inspire me…and almost always because I heard them read. I need to know their voice. They include: Kim Moore, Clare Shaw, Steve Ely, Ian Duhig and Gaia Holmes. They write poetry that matters because what they write about is passionately understood and felt.
But poets aren’t all I read. I think there are folk out there who think it’s the way to become ‘a poet’. When you write poems they need to be about something. So I read a lot of non-fiction, and whatever it is at the moment will find its way in. Writers like Robert Macfarlane, Adam Nicholson…biographies of people who do extreme things. Mountaineers. Antarctic explorers. Revisionist histories, like John Prebble’s Culloden and The Highland Clearances.

Why do you write?
Because I started and now I can’t stop. When there’s nothing that I want to discover and then say, then I’ll stop. Maybe I’ll take up painting. Or knitting
What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I’d say: what do you want to say? Do you know a lot about it? Does it bother you? Do you suspect you don’t quite understand it? Well. See if you can tell yourself about it in writing. And if you think you have the bug, go to writers’ workshops. Go to readings. Read a lot. Don’t give yourself airs. Listen. Read aloud. Surround yourself with other people who write and listen to, say, poetry. Basically, what would you say to someone who said ‘I want to play guitar. I want to be a musician’. That.

Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
There’s one on the backburner…a sequence about British mining disasters in the context of the creation of the Earth and its end. It involves the unreliability of gods. Pragmatically, I have two reviews to write and I need to give feedback to two people who sent me draft collections. Nothing excitingly urgent. When it is, I’ll know.

 

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