Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Ralph Dartford

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.
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Ralph Dartford

Ralph was founder of spoken word upstarts,  ‘A Firm of Poets ‘ and has been published in the Guardian, Stirring Magazine and WordLife amongst many other publications. His first collection, ‘Cigarettes, Beer and Love’ received wide acclaim and his current touring theatre show, ‘Recovery Songs’ is in high demand.

Ralph is about to start an MA in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam.

The Interview

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

I suffered terribly from dyslexia as a child (I still do, but it’s manageable) and guess I looked at words in a compromised way. I was forever looking at what words sounded like backwards, with a letter replaced by another etc. It was an obsessive pursuit. I also became fascinated by songs and would forever make them up on my own, singing them to myself walking to and back from school, to my baby sister in her pram. My Dad brought me a record player and a copy of ‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ by the Beatles. I played and played it to death. I was especially struck by the sadness of the song, ‘She’s Leaving Home’, the drama of the narrative. The line from the song, ‘Meeting a man from the motor trade’ always broke my heart (still does). The unknowable knowledge of what is not going to happen to the girl in the song fascinated me. Through this song I became obsessed with stories and began writing them as poems. This hasn’t changed at all over the years.

Who introduced you to poetry?

My English teacher, Mr Samson. He introduced me to literature generally. Especially John Steinbeck, Ted Hughes, George Orwell and Spike Milligan. He was quite a subversive man, a proper old socialist. He was the first person to note my dyslexia and really took his time with me. I am indebted to him and my schoolboy poem, ‘Samson’ is a homage to his enduring influence.

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

When I went on to study Poetry at Birkbeck College where the great and sadly missed, Micheal Donaghy was my tutor, I became acutely aware of a world beyond my narrow knowledge of Bob Dylan, Wilfred Owen and Charles Bukowski. Micheal had a bewildering brain of poetic history that had me running for cover. I always remember at our first lesson he produced a recording of Alfred Lord Tennyson reciting one of his own poems. I started to become aware that there was more to writing poetry, that reading was of greater importance.

What is your daily writing routine?

I try and write everyday. It could be in a notepad, my phone or computer. I think about writing constantly, looking at ideas, people, situations. I don’t have set times to write, but my head is always doing it. I think that is quite common.

What motivates you to write?

I am compelled to. It’s the only time I am truly contented and connected to myself. That may appear terribly sad, but to me it is a truth. I suffer from anxiety and depression and to write gets me away from that.

What is your work ethic?

To write and read as much as I can. Life gets in the way. Relationships have to be sustained, bills have to be paid and wellbeing has to be looked after. I’m just about to start an MA in creative writing at Sheffield. This will change my work ethic and will be welcome. I think all writers need a certain structure to work in and that increases the chances of becoming a success as a better writer.

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

Politically, I am still influenced by George Orwell, John Steinbeck, Colin MacInnes and the free spirited Beat Generation. These writers left an indelible mark on me.  You may laugh, but before that there was Enid Blyton.  She knew how to construct a story. That is important to me, construction and craft.

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

I love storytellers, both in fiction and poetry. Kate Atkinson is a wonderful novelist as is Donna Tartt. Both have the ability to craft characters and plots that get inside the story, to make the reader feel. Ian McEwan also has the deftest of touch, the confidence to take the reader on a long ride. I think ‘Atonement’ is a masterpiece. Poets. Simon Armitage is a clever writer. Deeply northern with the ability to be cruel and kind. Imtiaz Dharker is a beautiful narrative poet who gets under my skin. Her collection, ‘Over the Moon’ with its heartbreak, wit and storytelling is a modern classic in my opinion.

Why do you write?

It’s the only thing I can do well. It consumes me on good days. Leaves me in despair on bad.

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

I would say that you have to read. You cannot do it without knowledge or technique. You would not drive a car without knowing how it works. The same applies to writing.

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

I have a theatre show on tour at the moment called, ‘Recovery Songs’. It’s autobiographical and deals with addiction and mental illness. It’s a mix of spoken word poetry and no nonsense storytelling.

I have recently completed a collection of poetry called ‘Dirty Needle Rain’ and hopefully that will see the light in the next year or so. I’m at the mercy of publishers though. Early signs are encouraging.

I’m also teaching Poetry for the NHS in Leicester and at a rehab unit in Middlesbrough.

But most importantly, I’m studying for a Creative Writing MA in Sheffield. To be around other writers, learning, reading and writing more is probably the most exciting project of them all.

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