Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following writers 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.
Ruth Aylett lives in Edinburgh where she teaches and researches university-level computing. She was joint author of the pamphlet Handfast, published in 2016 (Mothers Milk). One of four authors of the online epic Granite University, she performed with Sarah the Poetic Robot at the 2012 Edinburgh Free Fringe. She has been published by The North, Prole, Antiphon, The Lake, New Writing Scotland, South Bank Poetry, Envoi, Bloodaxe Books, Red Squirrel Press, Doire Press and others.
1. What inspired you to write poetry?
I don’t really know. Maybe nursery rhymes. I wrote poems when I was a child. I remember writing a piece when I was about 9 in which I had a squirrel leap into his leafy realm – and was very put out when my parents explained it was not pronounced re-leam. I’d wanted it to rhyme. Still, that was my intro to half-rhyme.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
I’m guessing it was my parents, most likely my father. He would recite poems. I particularly remember Blake’s Tyger, which really entered my imagination. ‘Burning bright/ in the forests of the night’ – how gripping is that! When I was 13 I bought myself a collected poems of Yeats with a school prize, and read it obsessively. I decided I liked Yeats and did not like Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Wordsworth and all that Victorian stuff. Somewhere around then, my class had to take its turn doing a poem in School Assembly, and our English teacher suggested we do Rupert Brooks. I was so disgusted by his view of WW1 that I ferreted out a Wilfred Owen and got my classmates to agree we’d do that instead. And of course that meant I had to do the reading.
Then I got the Faber Book of Modern Verse. I remember bending my younger brother’s ear when I was 16 or 17, insisting he listen to me read The Wasteland out loud in the kitchen (for some reason this didn’t turn him on to poetry). I got Louis MacNeice’s Collected Poems and typed out the whole of Autumn Journal for myself.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
I never saw it like that. When I found stuff by existing poets I liked, I was delighted. And then there was a lot of stuff by famous poets I didn’t like at all. I was about 17 when the Liverpool Poets burst into life and for a while poetry readings became as popular as pop music. I got myself the Penguin Mersey Poets book and was knocked out by Brian Patten’s ‘I’m dreaming of a white Smethwick’, about a racist bye-election campaign there, with its ‘allwhite allright children and the white and white minstrel show’. This wasn’t domination, it was inspiration.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I am not a full-time writer. I actually work as an academic in Computer Science, which has its own fascinations. So I write around various other commitments. We had four kids as well, with the two youngest twins, so there was a period of more than twenty years when I wrote very little.
5. What motivates you to write?
The need to communicate something, to capture an idea, a feeling, something I’ve seen or heard. Or a phrase comes into my mind and I want to add things to it. And it’s a way of making sense of the world, of grabbing a piece of it and making it mine.
6. What is your work ethic?
I was in Jo Bell’s 52 project on Facebook in 2014 and that improved my work ethic no end. I got used to writing much more quickly, and even now I try to produce a poem a week, with reasonable success. I have also written short stories and I am on the last stretch of my second novel (‘Angels of Alba’), so I move from one thing to another. The novel is currently grabbing my attention a lot as I am on the last lap and it’s calling out to be finished.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I sometimes hear them in my head when I am writing. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, since I don’t want to write just like them. But when I wanted to write a piece about robot drones, Yeats’ ‘An Irish Airman Foretells his Death’ leapt into my mind and I just couldn’t avoid making my piece a parody (‘A robot drone foretells your death’ – Yeats would not have been amused) . MacNeice throws phrases into my pieces all the time, but I often try to take them out again.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I like Don Paterson because I have a continuing sympathy for form, for metre and – unfashionably – for rhyme or at least for half-rhyme. I like John Glenday’s compression and elegance. My ideal of poetry is something that is muscular and more than purely descriptive. I like Adrienne Rich (she was a today’s writer until six years ago, how time flies) for marrying poetry and feminism, and Tony Harrison for taking poetry into the wide world and engaging with what is happening out there. I like Jo Shapcott because she writes about unusual topics, and especially science, since I write about that too. I like Helen Mort, partly because she sometimes writes about Sheffield, a place I once lived in and for which I retain a lot of affection.
9. Why do you write?
Well, see what I said about motivation. I write because the voice in my head says I must.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
First, just write lots! You have to do it to get better. If you write, you are a writer. If you write poems, you are a poet. But also, read lots. You need to know what people have tried, what you think works and what doesn’t, what is going on out there. You can always tell when you read stuff by people who haven’t read anything.
Sometimes when people ask that question, what they really mean is ‘how do you become a professional writer?’ I am not one, so they might want to ask someone that is. I observe though that very few writers make a living out of it, and certainly not poets. They are all doing other stuff to put bread on the table– running workshops, teaching, being academics, acting as reviewers, performing.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
Well, there is the almost finished novel, Angels of Alba, which you might say is the Iraq war in an alternative Edinburgh with extreme Presbyterians as the religious element. I am on chapter 28 of what should pan out at 32. Then I revise the first draft and try to get someone interested in publishing it. This is my second novel in fact: the first one Collateral Damage, was about a murder and political intrigue in a local authority not a million miles from South Yorkshire. I was pleased with it in the end but my father’s critical comment stuck: ‘Very good, well-written. But who wants to read about that?’
Then I am writing an homage to MacNeice’s Autumn Journal called Autumn Blogging, which I am hoping will eventually get to pamphlet length. I am seven pieces in with this and my plan suggests twelve, so more than halfway through. Other than that, I have been assembling various single-author pamphlets without as yet getting a taker, though I have been highly commended and shortlisted in various competitions. I also have an idea for a sequence called The Singularity about artificial intelligence and robots (I research these fields in my academic life). But that’s on the back burner right now.