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.
grew up in Victoria, Canada and now lives in London, England. Her work has appeared in publications including The Interpreter’s House, The Island Review, Lighthouse, The Missing Slate and Strange Horizons, among others. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and is the author of a blog on poetry and poets, The Stone and the Star.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/stoneandthestar/
Clarissa performs her poetry at iamb.com
1. What inspired you to write poetry?
I first remember writing poems as school assignments, even if only occasionally, from a very young age. I started writing stories when I was five or six years old, but I saw myself as a novelist or a short story writer for a long time. Around 13-14 years old I started writing a lot of poetry – I remember one summer when I seemed to be writing poetry every day. I’d say I’ve been writing poetry fairly seriously, if somewhat intermittently, for over 20 years. I suppose the inspiration came from reading, and from travelling, since before I can remember.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
I grew up in Victoria, Canada in a houseful of books, surrounded by other readers, and my family constantly paid visits to the excellent local libraries. But we weren’t a very poetry-reading family – it was really about novels and short stories for all of us. At home I would have read some Robert Louis Stevenson and Edward Lear, and the poetry of the Bible, and bits of poetry in school, but I was a bit too serious of a child to appreciate the funny poetry aimed at young readers. I listened to and played a lot of music (classical, rock and pop). In some ways music occupied the place of poetry for me when I was younger – both in terms of rhythm and musicality, and through lyrics, too.
In junior high and high school I studied some poetry which became important to me, but sometimes I stumbled across poems that we weren’t even studying, in anthologies, and they made a strong impression or changed my perspective – for instance, Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Tollund Man’ or Ted Hughes’ ‘Thistles’. I had a few excellent English teachers in school, and also some wonderful professors when I was doing my BA in English at the University of Victoria. A class which was unexpectedly amazing and significant for me was Modern Canadian Poetry with Doug Beardsley. I had a requirement to do a Canadian literature class and was very unenthused about the whole idea. I decided reluctantly to do Modern Canadian Poetry because it was a summer course and I’d get it out of the way quickly. I ended up loving that class and it got rid of my preconceptions. I read poets like Phyllis Webb, Al Purdy (a grand master of Canadian literature, who came into to speak to us, delighting and intimidating us all) and especially PK Page, whose poetry influenced me more than I can say (and I was also fortunate enough to attend one of her readings and meet her – both she and Al Purdy are gone now.)
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
Very much: for instance, one of the first poems I was entranced by (and memorised) was ‘Kubla Khan’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The first poet I really fell in love with was when I was 13-14 and it was WB Yeats. When you are that age, artistic encounters can be extraordinarily intense (a great many of mine were) and I certainly recall that reading Yeats was a widening of my world. In university, TS Eliot and others became very important to me. I remember powerful encounters with poems by Derek Walcott and Randall Jarrell. At that time I also discovered Paul Celan (not through my studies, but through the U2 song ‘A Sort of Homecoming’) and he’s now more important to me than I can possibly express. In my early 20s I also started going to readings by poets who were still around, unlike those early inspirations, and who had been writing for decades and were well established. I suppose I’ve felt inadequate as a writer (actually, more in terms of getting published than as far as the quality of my writing) but I usually only viewed the older poets and the dead poets as an inspiration and as part of my own ancestry as a writer. I knew I could never be them, but they almost always helped me rather than hindered me.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I do not have a daily writing routine, sad to say. To be fair, I never really have (except on non-poetry writing assignments, which over 20 years have ranged from books for younger readers on refugees, Jonathan Swift, and poet/novelist Julia Alvarez, to a recent essay comparing Sherlock Holmes and John le Carré’s master spy George Smiley). I work full time as a publisher, life is busy, and I waste too much time. On the other hand, I typically write…something…every week, even if it’s not an original poem. It could be my blog on poetry, or a translation, or a review, or a bit of copy for work, or something else. I’ve also realised that even when I’m not writing, I’m generally writing – by which I mean that I tend to be thinking about or developing some work mentally, whether consciously or more unconsciously.
5. What motivates you to write?
It’s part of my identity. An important part, though far from being the whole. Otherwise, I suppose I’m motivated by my travels, by my environment – “place” is a big thing in my work – by stray thoughts and stray observations, and by other artists’ work.
6. What is your work ethic?
This question makes me feel that I should have a daily writing routine. But essentially, I think writers should write what they want and write it well. I’m not fond of rules and aphorisms when applied to poetry (“don’t use abstractions”, “all poetry is political”, etc.) Don’t write what others tell you that you should be writing. Write whatever you want as long it’s the best you can do and as long as it’s not vile or hateful.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
Immensely. I started reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories when I was seven years old. I wrote some Holmes-inspired poetry when I was a teenager, and a few years ago I started writing poems about Holmes again and have written about 20 since then. That’s a more obvious example, but I carry books and poems with me (mentally and emotionally) wherever I go, especially those I encountered between the ages of 7 and 20, approximately. And they can be either poets or prose writers. I know that Tolkien, Richard Adam’s Watership Down, and John le Carré, to name a few, influenced my poetry.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most
The list is long, so you’ll have to view this as a wildly incomplete sampling (and I’m just sticking to poets for this one). I’ve noticed that the contemporary poets I love usually express equal enthusiasm for their peers and for the works of the past – I seldom care for the work of poets who lean very heavily or exclusively on one side or the other. Some of my favourites: Alice Oswald, Carolyn Forché, Louise Glück, Ilya Kaminsky, Ishion Hutchinson, Terrance Hayes, Derek Mahon, Sean O’Brien, Sasha Dugdale, Katharine Kilalea, Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi, Adam Zagajewski, Nikola Madzirov, Dan O’Brien, Tracy K Smith.
9. Why do you write?
I can’t imagine not writing – even though I don’t always write consistently, I cannot imagine giving it up entirely. I’ve been doing it for too long and it’s the only thing I’m really good at. And it’s very satisfying to know I’ve written something good, and also lovely when it moves others.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Read and write. Read more than you write. If you want to write poetry, don’t just read poetry and definitely don’t just read prose. Read both the living and the dead. Don’t only read your friends or peers. Read internationally, including work in translation. Write a lot, but don’t feel that you have to write every day. Write work that you would enjoy reading. Don’t write what others tell you to write, unless it’s also what you want to write.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I wish I could say I really have one. My blog is ongoing, although I don’t write in it as much as I used to – but it’s been going for seven years now, so I think I’m doing ok. I have a few ideas which I need to start turning into reality, but they’re not ready to share.