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.
Ira has made public art throughout the North East and also in the West Midlands and the South West. He made a documentary on Ezra Pound for Radio 4 last year, still on iPlayer. He is a regular on Radio 3’s The Verb and has been profiled on Channel 4. A mathematician by training, he is very interested in pattern and form, making poetry visually and with pure sound; he believes anyone can make poetry, as long as they stop worrying that it has to be *written*. He is a professional storyteller. He proofreads for academic journals for a living, and has had many residencies in schools. He won the Journal Arts Council Award for “innovative new ways of making art in communities” for his project., The Spennymoor Letters. He has lived in the North East since 2000. His new chapbook is called “Goose”. He has been described by George Szirtes as “Harpo Marx meets Rilke” (https://www.facebook.com/Nussbach3rM/posts/10152559224041534)
1. What inspired you to write poetry? AT THE OUTSET? WHEN I WAS AT MY FIRST PRIMARY SCHOOL, THERE WAS A COMPETITION TO WRITE A NEW VERSE FOR ONE OF THE SCHOOL HYMNS, AND I LOVED TRYING AND THEN WON, AND LOVED HEARING IT SUNG. THESE WERE THE DAYS WHEN THERE WAS NO CREATIVE WRITING COMPONENT AT SCHOOL AND VERY LITTLE AT UNIVERSITY. I WAS ALSO VERY INTO ACTING AND PARTICULARLY COMEDY SKETCHES, AND I WROTE ABOUT TWO, AS I RECALL, FOR A YOUTH DRAMA COMPANY I WAS IN. I’D WRITE OCCASIONALLY AS A TEENAGER WHEN I WAS SAD. UNIVERSITY WAS WHERE I REALLY STARTED WRITING, DOING AN ENGLISH DEGREE (AS I SAY, WITH NO CREATIVE WRITING COMPONENT, AS THIS DIDN’T EXIST AT UNDERGRADUATE LEVEL IN THE 1980s; BUT ONE OR TWO TUTORS LOOKED AT MY POEMS, ANYWAY, PERHAPS BECAUSE I WAS ALREADY GETTING PUBLISHED IN LITERARY MAGAZINES). THE LARGER PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION OF “WHAT INSPIRED ME” WOULD PROBABLY BE THE CHANCE TO MAKE PATTERNS WITH WORDS (RATHER THAN CONVINCE PEOPLE TO LOOK AT AN ISSUE OR PUT THEIR FEELINGS INTO WORDS). I COULD ALWAYS READ MORE INTO THE PATTERNS OF OTHER PEOPLE’S POEMS THAN MOST OF MY CONTEMPORARIES (WHO WEREN’T POETRY SPECIALISTS): AT UNIVERSITY, I ANNOYED ONE STUDENT BY SAYING THAT STEVENS’ LINE “THE JAR IS ROUND UPON THE GROUND” SEEMED TO CAPTURE THE WHOLE OF TENNESSEE INSIDE THE ROUND-NESS. I LIKED ACTING AND PUBLIC-SPEAKING, BUT REALLY WANTED TO SHOW PEOPLE “I WROTE THIS” RATHER THAN “I CAN DELIVER THIS WELL”. AS I GET OLDER, I’D RATHER MOVE PEOPLE, WHICH HAS VERY LITTLE TO DO WITH SAYING “LOOK AT ME”.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
I WAS AWARE OF POETRY AS A THING BECAUSE OF PAM AYRES ON THE TELEVISION AND HER POEM “I WISH I’D LOOKED AFTER MY TEETH”. I RECITED JABBERWOCKY WHEN I WAS 11 IN MY FIRST MONTH AT SECONDARY SCHOOL. I LIKED MACAVITY THE MYSTERY CAT, ALTHOUGH REALLY ONLY PAID ATTENTION TO THE REFRAIN. AND I ALWAYS LIKED WORDY POP SONGS. AT GRAMMAR SCHOOL, I LOVED THE POEMS THAT MY ENGLISH TEACHER, MR THICKETT, INTRODUCED AND DISCUSSED. BEHIND ALL THIS MUST HAVE BEEN MY MOTHER, WHO WRITES POETRY, HAS PUBLISHED TWO OR THREE, AND MUST HAVE BEEN READING THEM TO ME AND MY BROTHERS. MY ELDER BROTHER WROTE A POSTGRADUATE THESIS ON “THE POETRY OF FILM” AND HE LIKED BLAKE BUT IT NEVER STRUCK ME THAT HIS THESIS TITLE MEANT ANYTHING OTHER THAN “IT’S NOT QUITE NARRATIVE AND IT’S GOT GOOD IMAGES”, WHICH ISN’T REALLY WHAT POETRY IS, EXCEPT BY SOME BASIC RULE OF IT’S NOT QUITE NORMAL. NONE OF MY THREE BROTHERS LIKE OR READ POETRY, ALTHOUGH MY YOUNGER BROTHER LOVES SONG LYRICS. I NEVER THOUGHT OF MY FATHER AS WANTING TO INSPIRE ME TO LIKE POETRY, ALTHOUGH ONCE I BECAME AN ADULT AND STARTED WRITING IT, HE DOES RECITE LONG BITS OF DONNE AND WORDSWORTH AND EVEN POUND THAT HE LIKES AND HAS CLEARLY LEARNED BY HEART LONG AGO OFF HIS OWN BAT.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets? I HELPED RUN THE UNIVERSITY POETRY SOCIETY, AND PICKED MOST OF THE POETS. I DREAMED NOT JUST OF BEING ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION BUT OF MATTERING TO ANOTHER POET, OF SOMEBODY WHO KNEW POETRY WELL AND COULD WRITE IT WELCOMING ME INTO THE CLUB. I WAS AN UNDERGRADUATE IN LONDON AND HAD THE CHANCE TO SEE A LOT OF POETS READ, WHICH I USUALLY PREFERRED TO JUST THE COLD PAGE (ALTHOUGH I LOVED READING CAROL ANN DUFFY ON THE PAGE; AND SHE WAS JUST STARTING OUT THEN). I WAS READING WIDELY AND BOUGHT A LOT OF POETRY (TO THIS DAY, I OWN LESS THAN ONE SHELF OF FICTION). IN LONDON, I WAS REALLY ONLY AWARE OF THE LIVING MAINSTREAM POETS AND THE DEAD MODERNISTS. WHEN I DID A MASTERS IN NEW ZEALAND IN 1990, EVERYTHING CHANGED. I BEGAN TO LOOK AT CONTEMPORARY EXPERIMENTAL POETRY (WHICH HAD BEEN GOING ON IN LONDON WHEN I WAS AN UNDERGRAD, I JUST HADN’T KNOWN WHERE). AND THE LARKINESQUE STYLE I’D LEARNED DIDN’T FLY AT ALL IN NEW ZEALAND MAGAZINES. I GOT HEAVILY INTO POUND’S CANTOS, AND THESE OTHER MORE CONTEMPORARY BOOKS, AND MANAGED THE DIFFICULT FEAT OF NOT CONVINCING THE NZ MAGS, AND BECOMING TOO WACKY FOR THE UK MAGS. I DIDN’T PUBLISH FOR FIVE YEARS. SO I WAS AWARE OF GATEKEEPERS AND REPUTATION MAKERS, AND THAT THE WORLD WAS FULL OF REALLY DISTINCTIVE POETS, MANY OF WHOM DIDN’T LIKE OR READ EACH OTHER: SCHOOLS, IN OTHER WORDS. I DON’T KNOW THAT THE POETRY WORLD LOOKS AT ALL LIKE THAT TO A YOUNG POET NOW, EXCEPT FOR THE GATEKEEPING. I HAVE HEARD SEVERAL YOUNGER POETS NOWADAYS SAY THAT THEY DON’T REALLY READ OLDER POETS. THIS WAS, TO PUT IT MILDLY, UNTHINKABLE WHEN I WAS STARTING OUT. ALTHOUGH IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN TRUE THAT 90% OF NEW POETRY IS MIDDLING, THE IDEA WAS STRONG IN MY YOUTH TO MAKE (OR AT LEAST LOOK FOR) THE FORMALLY DISTINCTIVE VOICE, TO TRY TO STAND WITH THE GREATS. THE DOWNSIDE WAS THAT THERE WAS A DISPARAGING OF CONTENT, AND THAT IT WAS SLIGHTLY VULGAR TO INSIST ON WRITING “ABOUT” AN ISSUE TO RAISE AWARENESS OF IT. IN MY YOUTH, YOU WOULD SAY “PETER READING WRITES VERY DIFFERENTLY FROM GEOFFREY HILL, AND WHAT THE L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E POETS OR PRYNNE DOES JUST ISN’T POETRY, EXCEPT FOR ONE OR TWO POEMS YOU MIGHT PUSH ON OUR ATTENTION”. I CAN’T FIND SIMILAR NAMES TO REMAKE THAT SENTENCE FOR THE POETRY WORLD OF 2018, IN TERMS OF AMBITION TO BE FORMALLY INNOVATIVE (INCLUDING IN THE MAINSTREAM, WHICH IS WHERE HILL AND PETER READING WERE).
4. What is your daily writing routine? I REALLY DON’T HAVE ONE. IT’S ALWAYS BEEN FAMINE OR FEAST FOR ME, WITH LONG PERIODS OF FAMINE SOMETIMES. I DON’T ASSUME I’LL WRITE, AND I DON’T MAKE TIME FOR IT. I WAIT.
5. What motivates you to write? SOMETIMES AN IMAGE/THEME FOR THE WHOLE POEM, SOMETIMES A LINE. I’M LESS AND LESS CONVINCED BY MY OLD MOTIVATIONS FOR WRITING THESE DAYS: I’D LIKE TO WRITE A DIFFERENT KIND OF POEM, BUT I DON’T KNOW HOW TO JUST NOW. I REMAIN A VERY KEEN TRANSLATOR OF POEMS, WHERE THE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE AUDIENCE IS ALREADY SETTLED AND THE PUBLIC GOOD OF THE EFFECT PROVEN; SO I JUST HAVE TO RISE TO DO SIMILAR IN ENGLISH.
6. What is your work ethic? TRY TO BE CONGRUENT WITH MY SOUL, AND KEEP DRAFTS (BECAUSE SOMETIMES THE REVISION IS BETTER, AND SOMETIMES THE FIRST DRAFT). PUT THE WORK ASIDE FOR MONTHS THEN LOOK AT A PILE OF IT AND CHUCK MOST OF IT AWAY.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today? I FEEL I WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE LARGER PULL SOME OF THEM HAD, WHICH MAKES SENSE THE OLDER I GET; SO THEY READ MORE PROFOUNDLY AS TIME PASSES. SOME I NOW FIND SPOKE ONLY TO THE CHIPS ON MY SHOULDER AT THE TIME. SOME THAT I ONLY LIGHTLY TOOK ON AT THE TIME SEEM MUCH MORE PROFOUND NOW: AUDEN, OR THE MAKERS OF CHEERIER SONGS. THE LIGHT TOUCH YOU HAVE TO PAY A LOT FOR. I STILL HAVE A LOT OF TIME FOR THE EARNEST OF EARLY DUFFY, THE ANGULARITY OF OPPEN AND DAVIE, THE ZANINESS OF DORN, THE MONUMENTALITY OF POUND, THE COLLAGE AND AMBIGIOUS SENTENCES OF SILLIMAN, THE FIERCENESS OF DENISE RILEY, THE UNDERSTATED HUMANITY OF CARLA HARRYMAN, ASHBERY, AND THE PUBLIC VOICE OF LARKIN. THE VOLUBILITY OF DAVID ANTIN, AND NON-POET-VOICE OF HIM.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most
and why? OF LIVING WRITERS, I READ GREGORY WOODS WITH GREAT ENVY OF HIS METRICAL SKILL AND EXCAVATING AND INVENTING OF FORMS. I REALLY ENJOYED THE ANTHOLOGY “THE MIGHTY STREAM: POEMS IN CELEBRATION OF MARTIN LUTHER KING”, LOTS OF NEW POETS I DIDN’T KNOW. I’M INTERESTED IN WHATEVER KNIVES FORKS AND SPOONS, MY PUBLISHER, PUTS OUT. I WANT TO KNOW FROM OTHER POETS HOW TO DESCRIBE THE WORLD, AND TO AVOID PLAYING TO THE POETRY CROWD WITHOUT SACRIFICING FORMAL SKILL.
9. Why do you write? I THINK I USED TO WRITE FOR MOTIVATIONS I NO LONGER HAVE, TO FEEL SORRY FOR MYSELF IN PUBLIC. I’VE ALWAYS LIKED MAKING WORK THAT HAS A NICE PATTERN, OR THAT SEEMS A LUDICROUS COMIC IDEA THAT WILL MAKE AUDIENCES LAUGH. I’VE TENDED ONE WAY AND ANOTHER TO WASH MY DIRTY LINEN IN PUBLIC, AND VOICE EVERY COMPLAINT I’VE HAD. NOWADAYS, I’M IN THE MIDST OF SOME OF THE MOST PAINFUL FEELINGS OF MY LIFE, OF ALIENATION FROM LOVED ONES, ALONGSIDE SOME REALLY AMAZING MOMENTS OF BEING HAPPY. I DON’T WANT TO WRITE ABOUT THE PAIN, BECAUSE IT MIGHT WORSEN THE ESTRANGEMENTS; BUT IT’S HARD TO WRITE ABOUT THE HAPPINESS WITHOUT THAT CONTEXT. I FIND IT HARD TO THINK OF WRITING POEMS OF PERSONAL CATHARSIS THAT I WON’T EVENTUALLY PUBLISH, AND SO LITTLE IS COMING. I’D LIKE TO WRITE ABOUT PUBLIC THEMES MORE, WHICH IS WHERE MY TRANSLATING WORK COMES IN.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?” READ A LOT, AND TRY YOUR WORK OUT ON PEOPLE (BUT REALISE THEY DON’T OWE YOU ANY ATTENTION, SO MAKE IT WORTH THEIR WHILE). THEN MAKE SOME SOCIAL MEDIA NOISE (SAME RULE APPLIES THAT NOBODY OWES YOU), SEND WORK OUT AND BE PREPARED FOR REJECTION, THAT SOMETIMES IT’S TIMING AND THE LUCK OF A GOOD FIT. TRY TO SEND WORK TO PLACES WHOSE WRITERS YOU ENJOY READING, AND WOULD BUY.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment. I HAVE GOOD INTENTIONS, AND SOME ABSTRACT IDEALS, BUT THAT’S ALL I’VE EVER HAD, EXCEPT GOOD HUNCHES AND NOT RUSHING MYSELF.