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.
Tom Sastry was chosen by Carol Ann Duffy as one of the 2016 Laureate’s Choice poets and his resulting pamphlet Complicity was a Poetry School Book of the Year and a Poetry Book Society pamphlet choice. He also has a growing reputation as a spoken word performer having supported Danez Smith and Hera Lindsay Bird on their recent UK tours. Tom is currently editing an anthology of poems about the future for Emma Press with Suzannah Evans.
1. When did you start writing poetry?
I wrote poetry when I was very young. The evidence may be in my mother’s attic as I have never managed to destroy it. I stopped for twenty years. In between I wrote a lot of songs which I could never perform properly owing to my atrocious guitar playing. When I noticed poets appearing at open mics, I copied them. That was in 2012.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
I don’t know. Poetry is quite famous even if most poets aren’t. I suppose I picked up on its existence somehow. I don’t have a Hollywood fable involving an inspirational teacher, I’m afraid.
3. What inspired you to wrote poetry when you were very young?
I don’t know that I was inspired. It was a thing I did like other things and I think that is a very healthy way to look at writing poetry. As a teenager I was seduced by the idea of being a poet which is the opposite of being inspired to write. For that reason my poems were dreadful and for that reason I stopped writing for 20 years.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I very much hope to have one, one day! I write in scraps of time I can salvage from other things.
That isn’t quite true because I am always putting words together in my head with a view to writing poems and I think that counts as writing time. I think the trick is to go around filling your pockets with things that grab your attention. The rest is typing. But I get a lot of my best ideas while typing. I wish I had more time to type.
5. What motivates you to write?
Writing as I see it is the opposite of functioning. When you are being functional you are focused on the task at hand, the thing that needs saying, keeping everyone happy; and you are acting on these intentions in a predictable way because you want predictable results.
When you are writing you are doing the opposite: you are making yourself sensitive to thoughts and phenomena which are unacceptable or confusing or impolite or irrelevant. I have spent my life in a furious secret rebellion against functioning, which I hate.
For most of my life I didn’t think about it as writing – I thought I was just losing concentration; and when I did the thing I called writing I was just functioning in a different way – trying to produce things which fitted other people’s idea of a poem. But that changed in 2012 when I started writing poetry again after a long break. Since then it has become very clear that I write to escape the amount of functioning I have to do. I don’t have to motivate myself to do it.
6. How do the writers you read or heard when you were young influence you today?
I don’t know. I don’t really have that kind of reading/writing epiphany story. There isn’t anyone who I read thirty years ago who remains a touchstone for me. I am sure that everything has an influence though.
7. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Strangely, that is a very hard question to answer. I find it very difficult to speak publicly about other people’s work for the same reason that I would hate to be given a microphone and asked to praise someone’s clothes. I am terrified of doing it in a way that isn’t respectful or gracious or comes across as false and I am scared of leaving someone out. It’s not because I don’t want to be generous with praise – I love lots of poetry and I can be quite vocal about it when I choose my moment to speak about it. I know how lovely it is when people say nice things about you and I really appreciate it when others do that for me. But more than reading in public or accepting criticism I find praising on cue the most anxiety-inducing part of being a poet.
I wanted to say that because I have never heard anyone else say it and I wonder if other poets feel the same way!
In lieu of a proper answer to your question, I will say is that current bedside pile is extraordinary. At the moment the writers am reading or re-reading Matthew Dickman, Danez Smith, Kim Moore and Jacqueline Saphra and in each case I am bowled over. So at this moment, they are my favourite writers.
8. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
If you ask, you are probably already writing. Read and – just as important – see and hear as much poetry as you can.
Make it a social experience so that your need for human contact and your hunger for poetry overlap.
Always try to do what you don’t do. If you write but don’t read in public, read in public if you possibly can. If you perform but don’t publish, seek the views of people who have never seen you perform on your written work.
If there is a particular idea or fashion in poetry which exasperates you, understand it.
If there is someone you like despite not wanting to figure out what they are showing you.
If you write quickly, revise your next piece twenty times; if you are a perfectionist write something quickly and share it. In fact, don’t be a perfectionist because a defensive striving not to write badly will kill your writing; but do work as hard as you can without falling down that rabbit hole. Understand your own strengths as a write but don’t be scared to change your method.
Write down your rules about what poetry should be and burn them. They are your worst enemies. It’s not that your ideas are wrong – it’s that becoming attached to your own personal theory of poetry limits you as a writer. Most of what you do is training for the moment the real poems come. Make sure you are ready for anything.