Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Brian Docherty

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.

Brian Docherty

was born in Glasgow, lived in north london for 40 years, and is now part of a growing community of writers, artists and musicians in East Sussex. He was educated at Middlesex Polytechnic, the University of Essex, London University of Education, and St. Mary’s University College. He had a variety of jobs including Civil Servant, hospital storeman, warehouseman, lecturer and creative writing tutor. He has published 6 books, most recently In my Dreams, Again, (Penniless Press, 2017) and Only in St. Leonards : A Year on the Marina (Special sorts Press, 2017).

The Interview

1. What inspired you  to write poetry?

A usual reason; unrequited love, back in the summer of 1976. Those poems were very  bad and I burnt wodges of them. After a while I went to my local library, Hornsey Library in north London where I was living them (I’m from Glasgow originally) and started reading through the poetry shelves. I was dismayed by Philip Larkin and other English poets of the day, and turned my back on them, and discovered William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Gary Snyder, and other American poets. So I carried on writing, and in 1978, joined Dinah Livingstone’s Camden Voices group, where I stayed for 6 years and learned a huge amount from Dinah and from other group members.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I read some poetry at school for ‘O’ Level, but my serious introduction came at Camden Voices and other writing and workshop groups. I also found the Arts Council Poetry Library, then based at No. 9 Long Acre, and just read everything, as well as visiting Compendium Bookshop in Camden ?high St.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

‘Dominating’ isn’t the right word; I didn’t do ‘A’Levels, and did my first degree as a mature student from 1981-84, but I was strongly aware of the ‘tradition’ early on, and the American Modernists, from Ezra Pound on, to the  Black Mountain poets, New York poets (Frank O’Hara especially) and Beat Generation and San Francisco Renaissance poets. As for English, Scottish or Irish poets, Auden, Ken Smith, Heaney, Mahon, Ian Crichton Smith, and so many more. And Yes, I know this random handful are all male. Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Lorine Niedecker, Denise Levertov, are only a few of the older women poets who remain important to me.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I’m not a novelist or journalist, so ‘routine’ doesn’t really apply; drafting a short lyric poem isn’t work. I draft fast and revise & rewrite slowly, usually putting my holograph drafts aside for a little while, then introducing them to the laptop. My daily writing often involves more thinking & reflecting on a draft than actual writing. In the last 3 years I have been prolific, partly because I am now officially an Old Age Pensioner, and partly because my beloved wife Rosemary died unexpectedly in January 2016. That changed everything, including my writing. As of this writing, I am 34 poems into a memorial sequence for Rosemary. Fortunately, these are not the only poems I am writing now.

5. What motivates you to write?

What motivates anyone to do anything? I am a writer, that’s what I do; I carry on writing, workshopping poems, and doing readings, because poetry is my vocation; it is not a job, a business, or a career. I’ve been doing this for 40 years now, and have no intention of stopping, especially now, when my new writing is different to the poems I wrote in north London; it is locally specific, often to the bemusement of audiences in America, when I read in say, San Francisco or Austin Texas. I am lucky, down on the Sussex coast, to be part of a growing community of writers, artists & musicians, and to take part in Writing groups such as Shorelink Writers, Words for Wellbeing, and workshops such as Hastings Stanza Group, and to do readings and events in Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton, as well as further afield.

6. What is your work ethic?

To do the best I can on any given day, and do whatever task is in front of me as well as i can.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

‘Young’ is relative. I never read poetry as a child or teenager outside of school, but I read everything i could get my hands on, mainly novels & history. It all factors in, but  William Carlos Williams , Gary Snyder & W. H. Auden are influences I have assimilated so thoroughly that they and others inform everything I write.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

If you mean poetry, that’s hard to say. Recent contemporaries I admire include Ken Smith, Carol Ann Duffy, Michael Donaghy, Mimi Khalvati,  and so many more; and a special shout out to my friend Alice Denny, who is the most extraordinary writer & performer.

9. Why do you write?

See 5 above; because I still can, because I must, because I believe I have something to say that a few people might be interested in reading or hearing. My recent work seems to be appreciated by audiences, so I will carry on as long as possible.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

It’s no different to becoming a painter or a musician; because you want to, you start, and after a while, with any luck, you will be encouraged & mentored like I was by Dinah Livingstone. I love the story of cellist Jacqueline Du Pre, who heard someone playing the cello on the radio on when she was 4 years old, and said “That’s the noise I want to make.” You start by wanting to make a noise or a mark, and you try it out & just keep going. Fortunately, being a writer doesn’t need expensive equipment or training, just the desire to do it, and the stubbornness to keep going. As W.B.Yeats said, ‘Irish poets learn your trade / practice what is well made’. Or as Miles Davis said. ‘Play what you don’t know’. If there are any rules, learn them,  break them, ignore them, pay your dues.
If this all sounds very pragmatic, that’s me; if Kate Tempest is a good role model for you, that’s great, but she started out somewhere, and learned from other poets around her, as well as whatever she read. Join a local writers group, find a good workshop, show up at readings or slam events, and do those open mics or floor spot events.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

As mentioned in 4 above, I am part way through a sequence of memorial poems for my late wife, Rosemary: In Remembrance. I have no idea how many more there will be or when it will feel finished, so that will be either a pamphlet or a full collection, maybe next year. But I have written a lot of other poems recently, so there will be another book
at some point. I don’t think too far ahead, I write, keep what works, discard the failures or repetitions, and workshop then & road test them in readings. If there is a typical grass roots poet, that’s me; I don’t get commissioned to do ‘projects’ , so I write for myself and anyone who reads or hears me. But there is a strong element of intertextuality in my recent work that I am always aware of, so writing new work that looks & sounds interesting to me and whoever my audience might be, is my current & ongoing ‘project’.

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