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.
David Annwn (born 1953) is an Anglo-Welsh poet, critic, teacher, playwright, publisher and magic lanternist who was raised in Cheshire, Lancashire and Wales.
He is the author of ten books of poetry, the most recent of which is Red Bank (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2018). His critical writings include the Gothic Trilogy: Gothic Machine, Pre-cinematic Media and Film in Popular Visual Culture (2011), Sexuality and the Gothic Magic Lantern (2014) and Gothic Effigy (2018).
An exhibition of Annwn’s and Thomas Ingmire’s collaborative poetry and calligraphy appeared at the California Book Club, San Francisco in 2016.
He is the recipient of first prize in the Inter-Collegiate Eisteddfod, the Bunford Prize, the Cardiff International Poetry Prize, a Ferguson Centre award for African and Asian Studies and Sexuality and the Gothic Magic Lantern, was nominated for the Allan Lloyd Smith Memorial Prize.
Nobel Prize-winner, Seamus Heaney has written that Annwn’s work is ‘wonderfully sympathetic and accurate.’
More details can be found at:
Contact e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
What were the circumstances under which you began to write poetry?
When my father taught at a school for young offenders in Lancashire and we lived onsite, I started to write out rough drafts: poetic lines and songs/lyrics. My brothers, Gwyn and Gareth, were in rock bands; the Beatles and Dylan’s music was all around, and all this started the images in my head and words under my hand. I discovered Nubuyuki Yuasa’s translations of Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North while at Wigan Tech. I read the Liverpool Poets and J.P. Donleavy’s The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B (where he finishes chapters with sections of short lines) and started to write my own poetic drafts down.
Who introduced you to poetry?
Mum and Dad and school must take most of the blame. My father could recite Gray’s ‘Elegy’ and my mother read to all the family: poems, children’s rhymes, jingles and lines from hymns. We encountered Longfellow’s Hiawatha at junior school: one of my early encounters with an accessible, steady rhythm.
I must also express gratitude posthumously to Michael Munday who generously gave hospitality to very many artists and poets in his gatherings at his house in Aberystwyth. This is where poets like Mike Jenkins, David Lloyd, Peterjon Skelt and myself were given support and encouragement.
How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
In my early years I’m not sure I was aware of a ‘dominating’ presence of older poets or that poetry itself was dominating. It felt friendlier than that. I think because my mother and father read us rhymes and verses, and my great uncle, Ap Hefin (Henry Lloyd) was a Welsh bard, I always felt poetry was a potential I could explore. An invitation which I could take up if I wanted. The Liverpool poets were publicised on TV and in bookshops. The closest I got to a living writer was when Colin Welland (Z Cars and, later, Chariots of Fire) came to speak to us.
What is your daily writing routine?
The morning is best for me. Then stolen moments in the rest of the day. I taught classes, workshops and lectures for 34 years so I guess I’m used to that round of daily commitment: sitting down with concentration.
What motivates you to write?
Primarily the activity itself. That and the discoveries: the excitement of new connections and ideas. I learn as I write and research writing. I like that sudden rush when words take over and start making links and unexpected relations. That is why, for the most part, Intentionalism is a fallacy.
Sometimes I’m also motivated by commissions, like the one I received from DLA Graphics and musician Sean Mannion for my writing as part of a moving installation in central Leeds:
The wonderful American calligrapher Thomas Ingmire has also suggested new ways to collaborate:
What is your work ethic?
Not sure I have one of those. The Greek form of ‘ethic’ seems to have moved from meaning ‘manners’ to ‘morals’ when it was Frenchified. I just know that, to get anything done, I need to sit with a pen or keypad for a few hours most days.
How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
Perhaps, for me, the most complicated question. Of course, if you see an influence or have dedicated a poem to poets (as I have), that’s fairly clear. Yet influence is often subliminal and it could be that readers of my work are most accurate in picking these out.
Looking back: Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Gary Snyder, Chaucer, Emily Dickinson, Alan Ginsberg, Norman McCaig, Vladimir Nabokov, Ezra Pound, Basil Bunting, Jeremy Hooker, Sylvia Plath, Linda Pastan, Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Francois Villon, the Geoffrey Hill of Mercian Hymns, Edward Thomas, Eugene Guillevic, Ronald Johnson, Jonathan Williams even some poetry in French and Anglo-Saxon encountered by the age of 22 still provide a kind of sonic background and undertow to my own poetic voices. They are all ravelled in my poetic conscious and unconscious. Lines by Shakespeare, W.C. Williams and others even emerge in my dreams. When I was young, Robert Browning, John Keats and Andrew Marvell were also recurrent influences.
Sometimes the fine poet of The Anathemata: David Jones, or Robert Duncan or Gustaf Sobin prove more influential than others. For example, Sobin and Guillevic influenced the writing of Against the Odds (2016) and Ezra Pound’s Chinese translations were crucial for Going up to Sun Terrace (2016).
William Blake still seems to surface with regular strength in my mind.
I heard Tomas Tranströmer read his poem ‘Vermeer’ and it remains an electrifying text for me. As does Charles Olson’s reading of one of the Maximus poems:
These are influential voices for me: in their range, complexity and ambition.
Some poets are influential in other ways. They haunt my mind’s eye, a kind of shadowing. I miss my old, good friend Glyn Hughes, novelist and poet, very much but for some reason, it’s the Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown who seems to follow me around. I helped publish Water, the last book he saw in his life-time. He visits still. He was there in the cathedral in Trondheim when we were there a few years back and in the Yu gardens in Shanghai. It’s strange that now I envisage a poet (who had no small degree of agoraphobia during his life-time) travelling so far and long.
Why do you write?
You’ll get a myriad of answers at different times to this. Increasingly, for delight. To explore. To move things on. To find hidden connections. Yet we all also write within human and natural contexts. My voices are my own but they emerge from a sheaf of voices. I’ve recently written a poem to support the anti-fracking groups and taking the shameful judgement of the Planning Inspector to task. Didacticism and topicality sometimes kill poetry but we sit on our pens when corruption flourishes at our peril. Mike Leigh’s film about Peterloo should remind us of Percy Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’. It’s no good saying poetry alters nothing because we don’t know that. As Seamus Heaney said: who can tell what alters the mind’s ecology? Philippine poet Marjorie Evasco believes that poetry has a social and spiritual role in healing communities. It would be so easy to accept the daily diet of Trump et. al. and wall-to-wall sports coverage and the media’s marginalisation of poetry, but we should instead remember the urgent words of some our finest poets. Towards the end of his life, W.C. Williams who spent his time working as the American equivalent of a G.P. as well as being a poet, made an urgent statement. He knew all about sickness and malaise, and wrote:
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
I would add ‘and women’ because that’s the real news. Poetry has so many valencies that, at its best, it keeps more wavebands of discourse and possibility open than any other medium.
Another answer is that I write because of the mystery of time. Bunting’s Briggflatts grapples magnificently with this. My most recent collection: Red Bank (2018) is bound up with that. What does it mean that I grew up looking at a hillside where 1600 men were killed in the last battle of the English Civil Wars? That I was listening so often to the Beatles? That I found myself talking to Mary Bell, the young girl who had murdered two boys and to whom every journalist in the country wished to talk? That the home where we had all those experiences is now buried under grass? Only perhaps the local Hermit can answer these questions so, once more, I go looking for him at the end of the poem.
What would you say to someone who asked you ‘How do you become a writer?’
Unless you need to write as part of a new job, or for purely instrumental reasons, that use of ‘become’ in the question probably means ‘How do I bring that part of me that needs to be a writer into fuller life? How do I nurture that?’ A lifetime ago I asked George Mackay Brown, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Ed Dorn the same question. Yevgeny just said to get on with it and George recommended the activity of sitting down most days and working at writing. Real commitment. Ed looked me deeply and fully in the eyes, nodded and, said ‘You know’ and then again, more emphatically ‘You know.’ His point was that, if I really wanted to be a writer, part of me already knew the answer. Each of them was right in his own way.
I’d add: Go back again and again to the words and lines that delight and thrill you. Get out your notepad, walk around and jot down all you notice and that catches eye and ear. Most of it won’t be a poem, or story, but some snippets might open doors for you.
Who of today’s writers do you most admire and why?
Gary Snyder is still alive, though I don’t think his most recent books have been his best. Jeremy Hooker is still writing beautifully. I liked Sharon Old’s first few books and Thomas A. Clark has brought forward the lessons of brevity with grace. I admire the work of Gavin Selerie, Frances Presley, Geraldine Monk, Alan Halsey, Tilla Brading, Harriet Tarlo and Maggie O’Sullivan. They are each exciting, playful and exacting poets in different ways. I’m also very keen on Vahni Capildeo, Rhys Trimble, Billy Mills, Robert Sheppard, Catherine Walsh, Randolph Healy and Maurice Scully. I published Robin Young’s translations of Carina Karlsson’s work, and admire these for their compressed beauty and power:
Blue, I step into
like a bird which knows
but those between land and sea.
One step more, and I meet myself
in a world I’ve never seen.
I still think of Anne Blonstein as one of ‘today’s writers’, though she is, sadly, deceased. I like her bravery, invention and probing of, for example, the reality of laminar flow:
. . . laevonotation
saturated . . ?
Colourful, complicated words that roil on the tongue. That refusal never ever to talk down to the reader. Difficult lines but I’ve always thought that if you don’t get it, go find out about it like you would without a second thought if it was a fire alarm, FitBit or car engine. I also like where Jack Hirschman’s Beat poetry has taken him, and enjoyed reading with him at Café Trieste, San Francisco:
I’ve already mentioned Marjorie Evasco. Then there’s the serious, mind-blowing mischief of Taiwanese poet, Hsia Yü, available in Salsa, translations by Stephen Bradbury. Every page in her book Pink Noise, printed in black and pink, is transparent (She writes: ‘I’ve always wanted to make a transparent book…I knew the time had come to make this book of poetry filled with ‘written noise’…Then I put it is an aquarium and left it in the rain for days.’) Terrific. My fellow Wakefield resident Laura Potts has reminded me of how liberating Dylan Thomas’s influence can be. My long-term secret and guilty pleasure is Charles Simic, (‘guilty’ because so he’s so thoroughly ensconced in the US literary establishment). He’s so mordantly funny and yet also piercing.
Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
Just finishing proofreading etc. for Re-envisaging the First Age of Cinematic Horror, 1896-1934, Quanta of Fear due out in November hopefully. That’s a book about the emergence of horror films and how we view them. I’m also writing about the quality of the light in the Dordogne and a sequence of poems about Amazon. I’m finishing essays about David Pinner (his novel Ritual gave rise to the film The Wicker Man) and another about the chilling animations of Brian Coldrick for the Gothic Imagination website. I am starting to think about poems for the paintings of Steve Simpson which figure in cathedrals throughout Britain and in the refuge for the homeless, St George’s Crypt in Leeds.
Thanks, Paul, for the questions and for listening.