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.
Ian Seed’s collections of prose poems include New York Hotel (2018), Identity Papers (2016) and Makers of Empty Dreams (2014), all from Shearsman. Poems from Identity Papers and Makers of Empty Dreams were featured by the BBC on their Radio 3 Programme The Verb, hosted by Ian McMillan. The Thief of Talant (2016), the first translation into English of Pierre Reverdy’s Le Voleur de Talan, is published by Wakefield. He has published a number of short stories, including Italian Lessons (LikeThisPress, 2017) and Amore Mio (Flax, 2011). A chapbook, Distances (2018), from the Red Ceilings Press, is Seed’s most recent publication. His work appears in a number of anthologies including The Best Small Fictions 2017 (Braddock Avenue Books), The Forward Book of Poetry 2017 (Faber & Faber), and The Best British Poetry 2014 (Salt). He is a contributor to the critical anthology, British Prose Poetry: The Poems Without Lines, edited by Jane Monson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). He lectures in the Department of English at the University of Chester.
1. When and why did you start to write poetry, Ian?
I enjoyed reading and writing, though not necessarily poetry, from the age of six. At the age of nine, I wrote a kind of autobiography made up of short prose pieces.
The first poet I read that made me want to write was Edward Thomas, whose Selected Poems was a set A-level text. What attracted me at the age of seventeen was the way in which the poems were so personal and honest about his relationships. He was not afraid to explore bitterness and regret. Think of ‘And You, Helen’, or ‘P.H.T’, written for his father.
I’d had no idea that poetry could express emotions like this. Much of Thomas’s brilliance, of course, lies in his close and particular observations of nature, but within these observations, there is also a deep sense of the mystery beyond what we can see, hear and smell around us. ‘The Unknown Bird’ is a good example of this. His influence on me has remained in subtle ways to this day, though I am of course a completely different sort of writer.
Reading Edward Thomas made me seek out more poetry, for example in a book which belonged to my stepfather, The Faber Book of Modern Verse, edited by Michael Roberts, in the Penguin Modern Poets series, and in Michael Horovitz’s Penguin anthology, Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain. I was fortunate in that although we were sometimes ‘close to the breadline’, as my mother put it, there were always books in the house. I became fascinated by different twentieth-century movements in poetry, such as Imagism, Surrealism and the more recent Beats. I loved Eliot’s early poetry, and I listened to Bob Dylan on a monograph record player next to my bed. For some reason, I was especially drawn to figures who were off the beaten track, such as Philip O’Connor, whose work I had discovered in a Penguin anthology of 1930s poetry, or William Wantling, whose work was included in Penguin Modern Poets 12, or Kenneth Patchen, whose Love and War Poems my mother owned. I wrote lots of mainly free verse poetry myself, most of it pretty awful, in a whole range of styles depending on who I was reading at the time. One of my better efforts, perhaps, was ‘Café Adventures’, which I wrote in December 1974, when I was eighteen, after reading the surrealist poems of Philip Lamantia in Penguin Modern Poets 13, and which many years later I couldn’t resist slipping in among more recent poems in my 2012 collection, Sleeping with the Ice-Cream Vendor (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press):
on Saturdays we sneak
like diamonds into our
inevitable ship in a lost storm
our lung in a grey sea:
dead dragons of contentment
hanging in deep lamps
starved-white corpses wrapped
in leather wombs
stag on smoky pillar
with loser’s eyes
journey down a
maids in red like
Swiss mountains through a
My mother, who sometimes wrote herself, was my first editor. She explained the importance of reading poems out loud, and of cutting out words which were not needed.
When I told my ‘A’-level English teacher that I was writing poetry, he was not particularly interested, but he suggested I talk to David Herbert, another English teacher in the school, who happened to be my form tutor, and who, unknown to me, had published a couple of booklets with the then reputable Outposts imprint, under the editorship of Howard Sergeant. I picked out half a dozen of what I thought were my best poems to show him. Thinking about it now, I realise how fortunate I was that David Herbert (along with my mother) was so encouraging. David Herbert’s face reminded me of William Blake’s – there was something in it which was visionary yet very practical, and full of generosity of spirit. He read my poems, told me what he liked and didn’t like, and said he would be happy to see some more when I was ready. So, every two or three weeks, I would hand him a few more poems, some of them revised from drafts he’d seen before. After a few months, he surprised me with a stack of poetry magazines, and even more when he advised me to browse through them and pick one of the smaller ones to send six poems to. He warned me not to worry about rejections.
2. What is your writing routine?
And with a jolt, Paul, you bring me back to the present. But before I fully return, I must briefly conclude my story from the past because it informs the way I work now. In my late teens and early twenties, writing poetry came fairly easily. Granted, much of it was pretty bad, but I did have poems accepted in such magazines of the time as Iron, Kudos, Outposts, The Little Word Machine, and Smoke (which I believe is still going strong today). I self-published two pamphlets, one of which was featured on BBC Radio Leicester, and had two published by Kawabata, a small press run by Colin Webb out of Cornwall.
After that, I hardly wrote at all until my mid-forties. The Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg has said that up until the age of around twenty-five, writers can rely on a kind of innate lyricism. After that, if we are to write at all, we have to make writing an integral part of our everyday lives. This is precisely what I didn’t do, although I never stopped wanting to write.
In 2003, I dropped out of a well-paid job to take an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. One of the benefits of doing the MA was having to write even when I didn’t feel like it. Since then I have written almost on a daily basis. I work full time and also have family commitments, so this certainly does not mean I can spend hours and hours writing. Often I have to write in snatches, for example for ten minutes first thing in the morning, or twenty minutes on the train, or fifteen minutes in my office at the University of Chester. It also does not mean that I write a complete poem or short prose piece each day. Rather, it is more a question of simply jotting down images, thoughts, memories, phrases, or brief storylines – whatever comes into my head or through my hand onto the page without me really thinking about it. Then, two or three times a week, I will sit down for a longer period at my computer – say a couple of hours, if I’m lucky – and go through my jottings. Usually, but not always, something emerges and forms the draft of a poem, or short prose piece, or as a part of something longer, for me to work on – sometimes over a period of weeks or months. If nothing emerges, then I do something else with words instead, such as translating poetry from French or Italian, or cutting up texts and making a collage poem. Writing now, or simply playing around with words, is always a pleasure. If I really have to go a day or two without it, I become unbearable.
3. How aware are you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
There has always been an ‘Establishment’ of one kind or another. Power structures in poetry shift and reflect those in society. The radical voices of one era become the establishment of the next. T. S. Eliot is an obvious example of this. I have already mentioned the original Penguin Modern Poets series, and Michael Horovitz’s Penguin anthology, Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain. When I was in my late teens back in the 1970s, anthologies like these seemed to me to present an exciting alternative to the dominating presence of the traditional and contemporary canon, even if I had my reservations about the quality of some of the poetry. However, the fact is that these anthologies were themselves dominated by white male poets. We are all prisoners of our time, as Doris Lessing once said. So I think it is important to look beyond what is presented to us through the prism of anthologies and prizes, and also beyond poetry written in English (one reason why I write reviews of poetry translated from other languages for PN Review). Important figures continue to remain excluded. I find it incomprehensible, for example, that the work of Kenneth Patchen, a major poet, continues to be remain largely unknown.
Nevertheless, there is much to celebrate now in all the work that is being published of women poets, gay poets, poets from ethnic minorities, and so on, and in all the more experimental work that is available through publishers such as Shearsman. Thankfully, also, much work from the past that was forgotten is being brought to light. I have recently been discovering the superb poetry of Hazel Hall (1886-1924), represented in the anthology Modernist Women Poets (Counterpoint Press, 2015).
Much younger poets are now the judges of major poetry competitions. Andrew McMillan was a judge on the National Poetry Competition last year, I believe, and Kim Moore is a judge this year. And ‘older poets’, too, can be emerging voices rather than ‘dominating’ ones. I am an older poet, but my voice has really only begun to emerge in the last few years (even if I began writing a long time ago), mainly because of my prose poems. Other older poets have been publishing brilliant work for decades, but do not dominate the scene in any way – the name Martin Stannard comes to mind here.
Having said all that, while I believe that it is essential to be aware, as far as we can, of the literary (and by implication, the social and political) context in which we work, in the end, for me as an individual poet, the most important thing is simply to write, and to write with – dare I say it? – a voice which is in some sense true to me, as an individual, and is not simply a representation of some group or other.
4. What is your work ethic?
‘Work ethic’ sounds a bit grim. I prefer to think as Kenneth Koch did of ‘the pleasures of reading and writing poetry’, and making my own days with them.
5. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I will count ‘young’ as being up to thirty. John Ashbery has said somewhere that we are never smitten in quite the same way as we are by certain writers in our youth. I think that is true, though I continue to find writers now who excite me: most recently – in the last few days – the poetry of Tania Hershman. (See Terms and Conditions, Nine Arches Press.)
But, anyway, back to my youth… Many writers got into my bloodstream and remained. They continue to inform my work in one way or another to this day, but that is not to say that I consciously think of them when I write. Quite an eclectic mix, I realise, and this may seem like name-dropping, but it isn’t meant to. Here are a few of them, in the order they come to me now: George Herbert and William Blake; Dante Alighieri and Guido Cavalcanti; Dylan Thomas, Kenneth Patchen, Nicholas Moore, Philip O’Connor, Philip Lamantia and Mark Strand; Theodore Roethke and Sylvia Plath; Rosemary Tonks (I loved her poem ‘The Sofas, Fogs, and Cinemas’, which I discovered in a 70s anthology I can’t remember the name of now); Knut Hamsun, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus and Eugene Ionesco; Friedrich Nietzsche; Samuel Beckett and Ralph Ellison; T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound; the Imagists and the Surrealists, generally; Pierre Reverdy and Max Jacob; Jean Rhys and Anna Kavan – everyone should read Kavan’s Ice; Giuseppe Ungaretti; Cesare Pavese, Natalia Ginzberg and Beppe Fenoglio (on whom I wrote my PhD thesis in 2012); Charles Bukowski, William Wantling and Alan Jackson; and poets who were published only by the small presses, and whose work is almost forgotten now, but which I still return to, such as Cory Harding and Mark Hyatt. I only properly discovered the New York poets and New York-influenced British poets, especially Mark Ford and Jeremy Over, when I came back to writing after my two decades in the wilderness (not quite the wilderness – I was living and working in Italy, France and later Poland, and learning to read in other languages besides English, one of my greatest pleasures).
6. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I tend now to be most drawn to writers who are doing something interesting with language, such as breaking it up and putting it back together in unexpected ways, who startle with imagery and with fantastic yet somehow believable narrative, who are perhaps exploring the boundaries between poetry and prose. These are on the whole people who publish with independent presses. They include, in no particular order: Will Eaves, Luke Kennard, Alan Baker, Emily Berry, Hilda Sheehan, Linda Black, Lucy Hamilton (whose book Stalker offered possibilities for my own work), Lydia Unsworth, Simon Collings, Patricia Farrell, Tom Jenks, and Em Strang.
I admire some of the newer ‘confessional’ poets (a term I use loosely, and which is not meant to detract in any way from their skills as poets), such as Kim Moore and Andrew McMillan.
I have enjoyed the first two volumes of the Outline trilogy by novelist Rachel Cusk, especially the way she tells stories within stories in a way often reminiscent of Kafka.
I love the playfulness of poets such as Mark Ford, Jeremy Over, Martin Stannard, Ian McMillan and more recently the German poet, Ron Winkler. Who could resist his 2016 Shearsman volume, Fragmented Waters, translated so brilliantly from the German by Jake Schneider?
so these cows, right, were parading
around like absurd typewriters.
for that matter they weren’t cows at all.
more like black-and-white moments caught in pixels.
and no typewriter could muck up
a meadow. whatever. what mattered
was the blink-of-an-eye-ness of a thing.
together with airy psyche, right […]
the meadow and there the contorted messages
of their horns. eyes
like uninhabited planets. cows, right,
as agreed upon, cows –
at the end of their biography.
(‘x-referential field portrait’, Fragmented Waters, p. 82)
For more writers of today I admire, see Shadowtrain, the online magazine I edited from 2006 to 2015, archived by the British Library here:
7. How do you become a writer?
You are already a writer if you write. So write, read, live. Make writing a part of your life.
8. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I usually work best when I have a few things going on at the same time. At the moment: a further book of interconnected narrative short prose pieces, which follows on from my Shearsman trilogy, New York Hotel, Identity Papers, and Makers of Empty Dreams; a book of poetry based on collage techniques; translations from the French of Max Jacob and the Italian of Gëzim Hajdari; a series of personal essays, the first of which, ‘Discovery and Rediscovery: A Personal Reflection on Writing the Prose Poem’ has just been published in The Fortnightly Review; and a slow moving travelogue, which is part memoir, part fiction (this may merge eventually with the essays).