Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Graham Mort

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.


Graham Mort

is Professor of Creative Writing and Transcultural Literature at Lancaster University and an Extraordinary Professor at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. He has worked on projects across sub-Saharan Africa and in Kurdistan and is currently helping to develop new writing initiatives in Trinidad. Visibility: New & Selected Poems, appeared from Seren in 2007, when he was also winner of the Bridport short story prize. A book of stories, Touch, was published by Seren in 2010 and won the Edge Hill Prize the following year. Terroir, a collection of short fiction, appeared in 2015 and was long-listed for the Edge Hill Prize. Black Shiver Moss, a new book of poems, was published by Seren in 2017.

The Interview

1. What were the circumstances under which you began to write poetry?

I was still at school and my father had bought a big old Underwood typewriter. I started to play about on that. I had terrible handwriting, so writing manually was agonising. I had a poem published in the school magazine and that was when the idea of writing took hold, I think. I’d written it pretty much as an exercise, but I was excited to see it in print. I started to experiment on the typewriter and by the time I was sixteen I’d put together a short collection of poems. This was in a terraced house in working class neighbourhood in North Manchester. But, actually, that terrace was full of talent, including some really accomplished musicians, my father amongst them. So, it wasn’t so strange to be interested in poetry; working class communities were much more diverse than people realise, despite the lack of formal education.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

We didn’t really have any poetry books in the house when I grew up, just Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Then we were studying an anthology called ‘Nine Modern Poets’ at school, which began to hook me. My older brother had gone to University to study English and he brought home boxes of books including poetry. He encouraged me to read the poetry that he’d become interested in. I won some school prizes and they came as poetry books, as well. So, I guess the idea of poetry approached me from a number of directions at more or less the same time. And that was also the time I started listening seriously to music, tuning in to pirate radio stations late at night with an old valve radio, so there was a real sense that my world was expanding, that there was much more out there.

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

I vividly remember listening to Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood on the radio with Richard Burton narrating as my mother was ironing and a coal fire burned in the grate. Years later, I walked into the house one day to hear a voice with an accent rather like my own saying ‘The pig lay on the barrow, dead.’ It was Ted Hughes’s voice and was an absolute epiphany that poetry could be so down-to-earth – plain diction spoken with a Northern accent – and yet unmistakably poetry. It’s hard to overestimate what effect that simultaneous revelation had on me. Then my brother took me to hear RS Thomas and Glyn Hughes reading in Manchester and I was magnetised by their presence. I was also collecting the novels of DH Lawrence who wrote so passionately about working class experience, so it wasn’t just poetry in isolation. I was reading everything I could lay my hands on by the time I was sixteen ¬ – I found Lawrence’s poems later, though they often seem overlooked these days.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

It depends what I’m working on. I can be pretty disciplined when it comes to prose writing, but when it comes to poetry, I have no particular pattern. Alternating between poetry and prose can be difficult since they seem to occupy slightly different aspects of the imagination, so there can be periods where poetry is set aside in favour of prose writing or academic writing. But I believe that the mind is always active in relation to poetry. Returning to poems in progress after doing other things a can bring a greater sense of recognition and clarity, a new orientation. And, of course, the waste paper bin if the beneficiary of some of that!

5. What motivates you to write?

I think that my motivation changes, depending on circumstance or what I’m reading. It seems to oscillate between moments of indignation about injustice in the world and moments of sheer sensory pleasure in language and the experiences that language recalls and invents. I always feel that there are two states of being: one where you’re not writing poetry, and one when you are. When you are there’s a heightened sense of purpose and pleasure that can approach intoxication or obsession. And there is the aura that a poem casts so that a real experience or a moment of linguistic epiphany seems to anticipate the poem that will arise from it; after that you try to live inside the work as it develops through all its drafts and iterations.

6. What is your work ethic?

I suppose the sense that not to write would be a kind of surrender. Writing is a form of resistance and a form of affirmation at the same time. It’s a way of being alive that one invests in and that investment can be both tyrannical and liberating. I wonder what value I would place on actual experience if it wasn’t susceptible to the transformations of language.

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

There’s something odd about now being as old or even older than the writers one admired when young. I still really admire DH Lawrence’s work because he told part of my own story and he believed in a sense of living touch, that life was both profoundly sensual and sacred and that the life of the intellect was both necessary and limited in its realisations. I still feel enthralled by Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Edward Thomas, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and RS Thomas – mainly male poets in those days of course. Now there are so many brilliant women poets. The writers that I admired when younger seem to merge with the new writers that I’m constantly encountering.

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

Well, that’s an ongoing project of encounter. I’ve just returned from South Africa and found some wonderful poets there, Antjie Krog and Kobus Moolman, amongst many others. Then I fell over new poems by Zaffar Kunial, and Jean Sprackland and Kathleen Jamie on my return. It’s not a very systematic sense of admiration, more an omnivorous one. I found a poem by Simon Richey, ‘The Book’, in Poetry Review a few years ago and I really love that poem and what it says about the act of reading and discovery and meaning. It was as if I’d found the poem there in print and at the edge of my own imagination. I think the poets you encounter later in life have a different kind of status than the early reading, when it wasn’t just poets, but poetry itself that seemed so necessary and wonderful.

9. Why do you write?

Because of life and the way we have to live it until it’s over; the way it fills us and then drains from us. Life and its connections that seem so attainable and rich at times and also so incomprehensible and out of reach at others. And it’s not just the sadness and entropy of life that compels attention, but the way that a kind of brilliance of energy fills us at times. We try to reach for it and realise it through language, and then language seems to become even more extraordinary as a tool of engagement with all that lies within us, between us and beyond us.

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

I’d probably say I didn’t really know, except for some people writing becomes the only way they can make their way through life experience. I teach Creative Writing at Lancaster University and see a really wide range of students coming to us. Some are very young but many are more mature students who’ve taken time out of their careers to try their hand at writing. I’d say, ‘Never write anything you don’t care about, however misguided and difficult that seems. Trust your own experience and make it matter.’

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

I’m trying to finish a novel that’s been haunting me for about twenty years and that I need to get out from under. Then a new book of stories which feels almost complete in structure but needs revision. And, despite wondering whether I’d ever write poetry again, a new collection of poems is shaping up, though I want to give that as much time as I can. After all, there is always that sense that there might never be another!

Graham Mort, November 2018.


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