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.
Ken Evans won this year’s Kent & Sussex Poetry Competition, and The Battered Moons Competition in 2016.
Last year, he was included in an anthology of Best New British & Irish Poets, edited by Luke Kennard. Kennard referred to his featured poem as ‘a hypnotic exercise in imagination and compassion.’ Evans’ first pamphlet, The Opposite of Defeat, featured work from his shortlisted collection in The Poetry School’s / Nine Arches Press ‘Primers’ Competition, which also shortlisted in Bare Fiction’s debut competition. True Forensics is his first poetry collection.
1. What inspired you to write poetry?
A favourite poet, Louise Gluck said, ‘Writing is a kind of revenge against circumstance: bad luck, loss, pain. If you make something out of it, then you’ve no longer been bested by these events.’ I like this. Writers’ trying to order a world that continuously confounds all of us (though sometimes it does so in a good way, of course.)
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road. I opened at random ‘The Children of Albion – Poetry of the Underground’, an anthology of post-Ginsberg, UK poets. It was 1974, the Vietnam War was still being lost, and of course, all before the Internet. These angry, declamatory words hit powerfully. Like a lot of teenagers need to feel, I felt I’d found a way of looking at the world that was ‘mine.’ And when I later discovered one of the contributors, Adrian Mitchell, had been to the same school as me, it also suddenly seemed a world that was attainable. Poetry was possible for someone like me. What the book didn’t tell me was it might take 40 years!
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
‘Crow’, ‘Ariel’, Dylan Thomas, is where poetry ended at school, but an enlightened English teacher also gave us Thom Gunn, which I loved. William Blake and the Romantics were very popular, this being the 70s, and I love Brian Patten, but I think I was as influenced by singer-songwriters of the time as much as poets’ – Dylan, of course, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Don McLean, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, and Yorkshire’s very own Roy Harper.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
Less a routine, more one to stick to: to try and write something every day. Even if just a line, or a tweak to a title (I’m a bit rubbish with poem titles.) Routine breeds practise which improves your work, even when it doesn’t seem like it. Even when what you write seems tosh the next day.
5. What motivates you to write?
I heard Simon Armitage say in a YouTube interview he thought poetry was, by nature, ‘oppositional.’ It takes the world, skews it, creases it along new lines, looks on ‘the ‘slant.’ I like my eyes and ears being opened to a different take. I’m not saying I manage this in my own poems, but it’s something I look for in others’ and try to work towards. I
6. What is your work ethic?
As Armitage also said, I think, (his free, Oxford Professorship of Poetry lecture podcasts are worth a listen) – poetry takes attention! It’s hard, you have to concentrate. Probably why it’s such a minority-sport, as almost everything else in the world seems to infantilise us, make us passive recipients, indulge us. Poetry forces engagement. This means you’re almost never switched off – looking, hearing, observing – it’s a tough task-master. Most of the good, or successful, poets I ever meet are very hard-working – writing, work-shopping, performing, organising, translating, reviewing, teaching! This idea of the shamanistic versifier, waiting for thunderbolts of divine inspiration, was probably made up the same time as that Thomas Chatterton painting – the poet dying of a laudanum overdose in his garret.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I still love nature poetry, instilled by the Romantics, probably, but also Gerard Manley Hopkins and Edward Thomas. Louis MacNeice, his long, narrative poem ‘Autumn Journal’ written in 1939 with the shadow of war over it, seems so ‘now’ to me. Heaney is always returnable to with extra value, and Derek Mahon.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
North American poetry seems so free, experimental, with raggedy lines and rangey, loose-limbed expression, compared to a lot of UK poetry. Forgive my stereotyping, but it walks with bow-legs and a swagger like a cowboy after three weeks on horseback, thirsting for strong whisky. I love the daring of Karen Solie, Anne Carson, Louise Gluck, Brenda Shaughnessy. The lyrical tone and content in Henri Cole, Carl Phillips, Jack Gilbert, and most recently the alternate Lakota Sioux history of Layli Long Soldier and the hypnotic Kaveh Akbar. For making the hard flow easy, Billy Collins.
For UK nature poetry, Gillian Clarke, Alice Oswald are ‘musts’. For hints of the spiritual and mystic, Gillian Allnutt and Pauline Stainer. For unflinching, forensic honesty, Denise Riley and Rebecca Goss. For his darkness, Robin Robertson. For poetry generally, John Glenday and Maurice Riordan; my best youngish poets of the moment, Claire Askew and Fiona Benson. Wendy Cope’s new volume is wry and wise and witty about love and relationships and she’s a brilliant technician. Leontia Flynn, Mary O’Malley and Maura Dooley are just a few on the tip of the conveyor-belt of Irish brilliance that goes on and on.
9. Why do you write?
Poetry is a mood-enhancer everyone can access. At least, till they ban or tax it like the others’. It’s also the most democratic. Artists or musicians’ may demur, but even they need some ‘kit’, or materials. For poetry, you only need the stub of an HB pencil – and paper. In fact, you can beg, steal, or recycle paper, so with a crayon or pencil, you’re away. Thanks to our fantastic public libraries, which we should maintain at all costs, you don’t even need a word-processor, but can book time on theirs. But a re-furbed, pre-used WP is also within most people’s reach nowadays.
If writing is revenge, maybe it’s also damage-limitation. Trying to make sense of the inexplicable. I don’t really believe it’s true catharsis though. Focusing on any given subject for too long may even make the thing worse, or at least keep it on a permanent ‘loop’ in your mind.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Everyone says read, and read some more, which is great. You don’t even have to spend a lot – repeat visits to free websites such as the Poetry Foundation, Poetry Archive and Poets.org. are great resources. But also be persistent and resilient – Jo Bell talks about rejection being part of the acceptance process, which I think’s really positive. They’re organic continuations of the same thing. Rejection makes us better (or at least, a little tougher or more self-critical.) Easier to say once you’ve had some minor successes maybe, but everyone I know tends to be rejected far more than accepted, especially early on. Even Sylvia Plath was!
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
My debut collection, ‘True Forensics’, is being published by Eyewear, for a London launch at the LRB bookshop on October 24th.
so I’m a bit ‘post-collection’ right now. I’m still liking what I read, even after it having been under the microscope so long, which I take as a good sign – we’ll see!
I’m mainly trying to get some gigs going to help promote ‘True Forensics’.
But I’m continuing to write individual poems, and revising some that I like but for various reasons, thematic or mood-wise, they didn’t make the final ‘cut’ for the Eyewear book, and maybe looking to enter these in a pamphlet competition by the turn of the year – poetry’s a ‘slow-burn’ I find, it won’t stand a rush, so we’ll see.