Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international haveagreed 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
Tell me about your latest collection, and about definite recent and upcoming publications in magazines and online.
My fourth collection, ‘Sunshine at the end of the world ’ *, was published in 2017 by Indigo Dreams. http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/chris-hardy/4593968553 http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/chrishardypage.shtml
The title is also the title of a poem in the collection, not the best poem, in my view, but the title is the sort of phrase I like: it makes you wonder what it might mean, and prompts images of many things, but it also stops you thinking – like a koan. And without thinking you know, sense, what it means.
“The acute poems of this wonderfully named fourth collection are always clear, sometimes rueful. They cherish their ghosts. Past and present are summoned by memorable lines with strength and tenderness.” Alison Brackenbury
“Bird nesting in mailbox. Rat scrabbling in cavity wall. Spring uncoiling and a welcoming harbour. A guitarist as well as a poet Chris Hardy consistently hits the right note, never hits a false note.” Roger McGough
“These poems explore Time, from the tender appreciation of new life, through all its vicissitudes, to death: Time alters, enhances, destroys. They deserve to be read slowly, to appreciate the many and varied nuances which lead to the comprehension of the Now.” Patricia Oxley, Editor: Acumen Literary Journal
“Staggeringly beautiful, poetry as art form. Sam Smith, The Journal 53, January 2018. There is a breadth to this collection that crosses oceans. It reinforces his reputation as a poet in his own right.” Greg Freeman, Write Out Loud
“Chris writes vivid, expository poetry having the heft of short stories, often heavy with portent and mystery. Each of these poems is a story as beautifully muscular and slippery as an eel.” Peter Kennedy, London Grip, December 2017.
“Sunshine at the end of the world’ is tender and affecting and feels like an elegy, a beautiful and accepting celebration of what was, what is and what is to be – a poet writing at the peak of his powers. It is a collection of humanity, compassion and wisdom.” Dino O’Mahoney, Ink Sweat & Tears, January 2018.
I have won prizes in several competitions including the National Poetry Prize and been published over the years in many magazines, anthologies and poetry websites – Acumen, Agenda, Algebra of Owls, Atrium, Brittle Star, Corbelstone Press, The Dark Horse, Dreamcatcher, Frogmore Papers, Fenland Reed, High Window, Huffington Post, Ink Sweat and Tears, the Compass, the Interpreter’s House, London Grip, the Moth, the North, Obsessed With Pipework, Orbis, Picaroon, Planet, Poetry Review, the Rialto, South, South Bank Poetry, Stand, Tears in the Fence, Under the Radar and others.Within the last few years poems have appeared at the Blue Nib, Confingo *, Confluence *, Lampeter Review *, Poetry Salzburg Review *, Riggwelter, Soft Cartel, Presence *, South * and Stand*. Poems are due out soon in Blue Nib, South Bank Poetry, Picarooon and Orbis – maybe elsewhere, I’m waiting to hear back from editors and also the judges of various competitions.
(Some of these questions and consequently my answers overlap)
- What inspired you to write poetry and who introduced you to poetry?
I started writing at school, influenced and inspired by Keats, Coleridge, Owen, Shakespeare and Blake. We did these and other authors for our ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels so I suppose the exam curriculum introduced me to poetry – we also had a couple of good English teachers one of whom, Mr Coltman, was a 2nd world war veteran and a poet. Publishing started when I came across poetry magazines in London, where I was living. I submitted poems to them and began to get published: Stand, Poetry Review and Slow Dancer were amongst the first to take my poems.
- How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
I’ve never felt overawed or dominated by poets from the past. I respect and admire their work, their efforts, if not always their characters and lives. ‘Older poets’ and their works don’t dominate, they encourage. Here are some books, authors, tales, I admire and which have affected me and my writing at various times:The King James Bible and Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer; Greek, Egyptian, Middle Eastern and Indian myth; the Greek Anthology; some, not all, Shakespeare (eg Hamlet, Othello); Coleridge (eg Frost At Midnight); Keats (especially the sonnets); Shelley; Fitzgerald’s ‘Omar Khayyam’; Thomas Hardy; Owen; Rosenberg; Sassoon; Edward Thomas; Frost; Snyder; Ginsberg; Ferlinghetti; Corso; Robert Duncan; eecummings; William Carlos Williams; Lowell; TS Eliot; Pound, (mainly ‘Cathay’); Berryman; Larkin; Plath; Hughes; Bishop; Carol Ann Duffy and recently, Charlotte Mew, Jack Gilbert, Billy Collins, Philip Levine, the Bloodaxe anthologies, Cavafy, DH Lawrence, Raymond Carver ..I have also been influenced, in their attitude to life, subject matter and style, by novelists such as Tolstoy, Emily Bronte, Faulkner, Hemingway, Conrad: they write from their own experience, which connects their work directly to reality. They firstly create a physical world from imagery and through and from this arises any underlying meaning: fact is far stranger than fiction and, once fiction is made from fact, fiction cannot lie.Another important thing is that I am a musician, a guitar player. I write songs but have never found this comes easily, nor can I easily set my own poems to music, though in my work with LiTTLe MACHiNe I, with the other two members of the group, have set many famous poems by well known authors to music. I have been greatly affected and guided by many great song writers, who I regard as poets – I don’t think there is any point or value in distinguishing between songs and poems, they both use words, and many poems accepted in the canon are also songs eg ballads. And of course Homer, Sappho etc chanted, sang, performed their work, to music. The blues musicians of the 20th C and the songwriters who learned from them and invented Rock & Roll, Rhythm & Blues, Rock etc are great artists and I am definitely influenced by them in my writing: Son House, Blind Boy Fuller, Robert Johnson, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, Bert Jansch, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Chuck Berry, Jim Morrison, Lowell George and many others.
- What is your daily writing routine?
George Herbert: ‘I once more smell the dew and rain and relish versing’:I wait for a signal that switches on my attention so I know there’s a poem there. Sometimes I’m working on a few poems at a time, or there’s nothing new but I’ll be revising, or there’s nothing. I have learned not to worry – though I do. When I am undistracted and in the right mood I can allow words to surface without examining, or deleting. Heaney wrote about writing, ‘In the corner of a lecture’ – when your mind is focused, on something or nothing, the imagination sends messages to the surface. I like discovering what the poem reveals, seeing what I didn’t know I knew. I feel cheerful when there’s a poem in a drawer, waiting to be attended to.Michael Longley said, ‘Better silence than forgeries .. I wait for poems’, which sums up my attitude to all this. So no, I do not write every day, but I am ready to write – I try to remember to have a notebook on me at all times. I have written poems on beaches, in front of the TV, on ferries and buses .. all I need is some paper and a pencil or pen. I do not type until I have re-written by hand several times. I use a manuscript book for drafting, sometimes I compose straight into it. I have kept quite a few of these as they are a sort of mine or quarry – there is stuff in there that I might be able to use – fragments, abandoned poems and also many notes, quotes, pictures. I stop writing when I have nothing else to write down.One important rule, that I have to remind myself of, is that, once I start I must not stop to correct, re-consider, censor .. that is fatal as if there is anything there it might find its way out buried in a load of verbiage and imagery that can be pared away later. Another helpful way of finding what a poem is about is getting someone else to read it – they may see what the poem is trying to reveal, or is really about, and suggest ways of bringing this out, making the poem in fact. On the whole I do not agree with the often expressed notion that a poem is ‘never finished’: I read poems written years ago and, while noticing that I might not have phrased or structured it like that now I do not wish to re-write it .. it is better to start afresh. I have written many poems that took hours to get right, then found that what I have left is not worth doing anything with. I will leave it, and possibly make use of any images, phrases, lines in a future poem.
- What motivates you to write?
I write lyric poetry, by which I mean pieces of writing in a verse form that do not extend much beyond 4 or 5 pages, most of my poems are less than 40 lines long. I write like this because that is what my imagination creates – I sometimes intend to put together something longer but this rarely happens, mainly because it is ‘put together’ – is artificial. Over many years I have come to rely on my imagination finding the material it needs in my experiences and making something new from that. What is produced is then shaped by me into a verse form – stanzas, lines, punctuation etc – that seems to emerge from the poem. Often the first few lines set the form. I do not sit down thinking I must write a poem and this is the topic, nor do I attend writing classes where topics are set. Again, to me, all this produces is artificial, manufactured, poetry. I trust my imagination to make something, using words, from my knowledge and life: the poem, if it is a poem, will reveal what I was aware of but did not ‘see’ or ‘know’ before. Of course this leads to periods of anxiety when nothing appears, sometimes for months, but I have to remind myself then that this does not matter. What does matter is that whatever is written is necessary (to me) and ‘authentic’.
- What is your work ethic?
When poets write they resemble improvising musicians and footballers – making it up without thinking. But musicians and footballers practise intensely so that, when they have to, they can perform freely. They practise physically and try to master the practical elements of their art. They operate within constraints (eg in music – the instrument, the notes available and their skill). Is there an equivalent for poets? How do poets practise using words so they are there when needed, without (too much) thought? By reading, listening, talking and discussing. Then, diligently wait, and do all you can to be ready: ‘Intensity of mood is the one necessary condition in the poet’ (Edward Thomas).As Coleridge said there is, ‘A well of the unconscious into which everything drops and the act of creation is lowering the bucket and pulling up images and words that have hopefully undergone metamorphosis’. This indicates that you must allow, trust, the imagination to make from its material – what you have stored from memory, thought, feeling, reading, experience etc – the phrasing and imagery of the poem: metaphor, yoking images together to reveal ideas, truths, feelings, understandings, knowledge that you did not know were there.I do not ‘practise’ writing poems as I practise guitar, every day for at least 1 – 2 hours. I have to be patient and calm and wait for the moment, which is also a mood – when I become aware that anything and everything in the ordinary world is of interest and has a mystery: it is inexplicably strange that we are here, like this. Then it takes a prompt: a word, an image, a memory, a line of verse, a phrase.
Nick Laird: ‘Since the poet more often than not sits down to write about nothing, the content, subject matter, of the poem, rises to meet the words from below volition .. It is not a wholly intended process and requires trust’. What this all means is – you need to try to somehow get into the right place physically but especially mentally and emotionally, and then wait. My work ethic is to watch out, try to make space and time for when poems might arise – be alert, awake, wherever you are. This is what Buddhists call mindfulness – (I did an MA in Buddhism and Hinduism). ‘Anything, however small, may make a poem. Nothing, however great, is certain to’ (Edward Thomas).I practice guitar if possible every day. This is because an instrument is a physical device that you need to keep physically acquainted with: your hands need to be kept strong, relaxed, with hard finger tips. I don’t have a ‘writing’ work ethic – I do not sit down and make myself write. That would be against what I feel and believe about my poetry. However I do read poetry, looking for new names and going back through earlier favourites – I have just read two Cavafy collections.
- How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
The appeal of poems I respond to is their unveiling of truth and mystery. Poetry that is clear and intense, that seems necessary to the poet. I’m not interested in poems that are puzzles, that don’t deliver. ‘The Waste Land’s’ linked images and apparently disconnected sections are constructed to make you experience the concerns that drove Eliot to write, without having to pause and think. The meaning in the poem is in the emotion it creates in the reader, who must simply read the carefully chosen and arranged words and ‘see’ what they describe and suggest. I prefer ‘Ode to the West Wind’ to many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, much of Donne, and all of Prynne.I have noticed I have evolved a style I tend to begin with that, after editing, becomes the style I end with. I fight this at times, try to use words differently, to change and break up what has become a habitual tone – for example the use of half rhyme, regular stanzas, a ‘smooth’ clear feel etc. But in the end I don’t like what these attempts produce. The same goes for subject matter: I want to write about everyday actual things, (Seeing the world anew. The wonder and strangeness of ordinary life .. Newton said something like, ‘All I have done is stand on the pebbles and look out over the ocean’ to which Yeats remonstrated, ‘Never mind the ocean, what about the pebbles!?’) but these have to have significance of some sort to prompt the writing and then always turn out to relate to underlying, broader meanings and issues that I constantly return to – life, death, the planet and Universe, memory, family .. the perennial mysteries that prompt all religions and much art.
- Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Sharon Olds, Carol Ann Duffy, Roger McGough, Brian Patten, Gillian Clarke, Katrina Naomi, Hannah Lowe, Jo Bell, David Constantine, Gary Snyder, Arun Kolatkar .. Why I like them is explained in the other answers: they are interesting and have something to say – content is as, if not more, important than form and style, don’t try to make the reader think they’re stupid because they cannot understand the poem, don’t try to be obscure, cheerfully address important everyday things like work, sex, birth, death , purpose, meaning, us and our fellow creatures on this tiny blue speck, use words elegantly and beautifully, are not afraid or scornful of expressing feeling ..
- Why do you write?
I began decades ago as I thought poets seemed to live interesting, dramatic lives and I was greatly affected by some of what they wrote, especially Shakespeare, some of the Elizabethans like Wyatt, and the Romantics. I had friends with similar inclinations and we used to write together. This continued at Kent University where I read English and American Literature. There were several undergraduate poets there, we knew each other and established a short-lived magazine called, ‘The Lost Works Of Neville Chamberlain’. Some of the staff, like Michael Grant, were poets who encouraged and supported us, commenting positively on our poems which was very charitable of them considering how dreadful they were. They invited impressive, powerful personalities such as Auden and Graves to give lectures, judge poetry competitions, and attend seminars. Eventually I discovered the satisfaction of managing to write and finish poems that expressed things that were important to me and also seemed well shaped, elegant, self-sufficient.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”>
Keeping going when inspiration is absent, there is nothing to say and no one wants to publish poems you think are interesting and well constructed enough to find an audience. Even if you win a prize in the National Poetry Competition, or get a poem in the Forward Anthology or into a ‘prestigious’ magazine nothing will probably change in your life – it takes luck, contacts and of course the right poem to make money and a name .. most poets in any case do not want to earn a living as poets. This would mean writing to order like a journalist or forcing the pace as novelists do – poetry should be written in the corners of your life and you need to live, not write, to write it. Far too many poets work in Universities and especially on ‘creative writing’ courses: this means that their only experiences, from which the poems must come, are of writing and talking about writing, (and the poetry that is about poetry is the most pointless, self-regarding and unenlightening of all).To me the ideal poet’s life would be that lived by Gary Snyder, who worked in the forests of North America, or William Carlos Williams’s life as a GP, or Byron and Shelley living on debt, family, friends and fame. Arnold, Wallace Stevens, Yeats, TS Eliot, Ted Hughes, Larkin, all worked in the world and wrote – as if life, work and poetry were connected rooms.I have had the privilege in LiTTLe MACHiNe of working with, and observing, Carol Ann Duffy and Roger McGough over several years. Both of them have spent much of their lives making a living from writing poetry. They have diligently promoted poetry by going into schools, and encouraging the aspiring poets who constantly approach them. They work hard all the time, travelling about the world, meeting the demands of agents, publishers, and deadlines, go on stage on their own and for an hour or more make a large audience really listen, and move and amuse them, just with words. And they always carry a pen and notebook ..
11. Tell me about the writing projects you’re involved in at the moment.
There used to be far more print outlets, and, it seemed, far fewer poets too. Online publications are able to accept large numbers of poems and they have multiplied. But who actually sits down and scrolls through a free, online magazine? Poetry seems popular and available but this maybe an illusion create by self-promotion on social media. As far as its impact on national culture, on TV, in the press etc, it is barely visible: very little Arts Council funding compared to theatre and opera, publishing concentrates on novels, non-fiction and biography, and poetry has nothing like the power, presence or impact of the music industry. I have a theory that most poets over the past 50 years would prefer to have been in rock bands – creative, known, busy, earning. But once you have accepted you are a poet then nothing beats finding a poem, finishing it and seeing it leave and go off into the world on its own. There’s no money or fame in it, but when something really needs saying, commemorating or celebrating, the public, and the State, turn to poetry – funerals, weddings, remembering Wars, standing up to violence. It is understood as being, like music, uniquely able to express profound feelings and ideas, and measure up to such moments. In my customary fashion I have been working on several poems after a quiet period. I do not find the UK, especially London, in the Summer, conducive to writing. Winter is much better, though travelling between May and September in Greece or Italy helps. The mirror in our sitting room has been there for years. Mirrors have strange qualities. One of these new poems began with a question and a memory: why did we buy this ‘Overmantle’, as it is called? The familiar sensation of a still, attentive mood, prompted by realising this glass had stared back at us staring at it, made me grab a pencil. After a few days and several drafts there was a sort of sonnet. The last verse came from realising suddenly that the back of the box was hidden to me but not to the mirror, which had been observing the carvings there for decades, just as we had been looking into this suspended eye, this lake in the room. And writing the last lines about Shakti, the goddess who protects and is also a partner, I saw how my imagination was linking the deity on the box to my wife and her purchase many years ago. The poem taught me something I had not known I already knew.
We bought a mirror to fill the space
above the mantelpiece, from where it has
remarked on our appearance ever since.
A pool of light protects the wall
by holding and returning light,
expands the room as if we’d moved next door
and at night doubles its portion of the dark.
On the shelf stands a teak box
with a cracked lid, all you could afford
for my birthday when we’d just met.
The mirror knows the carving on its back
better than us.
Shakti, her panthers and peacocks dance
hidden in the glass.
London, October 2018.