Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Rowan McCabe

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.


Rowan McCabe

is a poet and performer from Newcastle upon Tyne. Aware that poetry isn’t a proper job, he decided to create his own and is now the world’s first Door-to-Door Poet. Knocking on stranger’s houses, he asks what is important to them. He then goes away and writes a poem about this, free of charge, before bringing it back and performing it on their doorstep. Rowan also performs on stages and has appeared at Glastonbury Festival and the Royal Albert Hall. He was the winner of the 2015 Great Northern Slam, was longlisted for a 2018 Saboteur Award and his work has been featured in the Guardian, on BBC Breakfast and was named ‘Best of Today’ on Radio 4.

“Highly talented with verse”– Broadway Baby

“Moves seamlessly from hilarious anecdote to poignant poem”– The Journal

“A must-see”– Morning Star


The Interview

1.  When and why did you start writing poetry?

I’ve done it as far back as I can remember really. When I was about 5 or 6 I wrote a poem about a rocket ship that got published in a book. In my angsty late teens I got into bands like The Libertines and that spurred me on a bit.

In terms of why, I suppose a big turning point for me was identifying and connecting to an audience. When I went to Uni I started taking part in open mic nights and suddenly there was a room full of 50 people listening to what I’d written. I think that changes the way you work. Previously, it had just been a collection of thoughts with no real intention. Once I started thinking about who I was writing for, I began to think about how I wanted them to feel. So I suppose I write to make someone feel something I’m passionate about, to think about a subject from another perspective, or just to shock or surprise them in some way.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

My Mam. She’s a teacher, so we always had a lot of books.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

I don’t know if I’d call it a ‘dominating presence’ myself. I can appreciate that some people might find more established work kind of intimidating. For me, there are some poets whose work I really like. There are some whose work I don’t like. It’s as simple as that really. If I don’t like it, it doesn’t really effect my life at all, regardless of how old or respected it is. If I fall in love with it, it occupies nearly every thought I have until I move on to something else. I’m reading The Parish by John Clare at the minute. I don’t consider the work dominating because it’s nearly 200 years old and a respected bit of Romantic satire. For me, it’s no more of a dominating presence in my life than a poet like, say, Daniel Piper, who I discovered last weekend in the upstairs of a pub and really enjoyed.

I think I do see where you’re coming from though. The establishment waves these respected names at us in an attempt to make us feel small if we haven’t read them: Shakespeare, T.S Elliot, etc etc. I’ve always tried to look at things objectively, to make my own mind up. Not all things in the literary canon are automatically good.  Likewise, much modern work that is on the fringes of the art world today is worthy of deep analysis. There is no ‘high’ or ‘low’ culture as far as I’m concerned. I find entertainment in many places.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

Well, on the days when I focus on writing (instead of poetry admin) I like to start at about 9 or 10am and finish at 5. I always write in an A4, lined notebook that is hard-backed. It’s very important it’s hard-backed, so I can lean on it and the paper doesn’t flop or bend on stage. I’ll usually spend some time free writing, getting anything in my head on the paper. Then I might flesh out an idea I’ve had, or start editing something I’ve already got. I often work at home, but I like going to Newcastle Central Library as well. It’s a glass building and on the top floor they have these big pink swivel chairs with huge backs on them. You can see for miles and I sit and look out at the city, at all the people below, and I pretend I’m a super villain in a big evil tower.

5. What motivates you to write?

I think it’s the desire to surprise people and make a connection with them. Every poet is aware of the stereotypes associated with poetry. I’m usually playing with those stereotypes, or subverting them, to make people laugh, or think, or to shock them in some way. And then, with my Door-to-Door Poetry project, writing about my experiences in places with a bad reputation also became about questioning negative stereotypes. I hope that someone might read about that, or watch the show I made about it, and reconsider some of their pre-convictions about people, which might make the world a slightly better place.
6. What is your work ethic? Do you consider writing a business or a pleasure? Do you wait for inspiration or a craft where you work up whatever you write into good copy?

I suppose it’s all business now, in the technical sense. But I just finished 2 new poems the other week, I wrote those purely for my own satisfaction, it wasn’t a commission or anything. Something like that doesn’t feel like business. It was just for fun. But then I’ll be performing them at my next few gigs and getting paid for it, so it’s still business.

In terms of when to write: I think there’s a balance. When it’s not working, it can be good to take a bit of a break. But we’ve all met those people who spend their whole lives talking about how they’re going to be writer and never actually pick up a pen. If it’s been a long time since I’ve done anything I’ll force myself to write. But really I think I’m often waiting for an interesting idea.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I suppose they’re all still in my brain somewhere. I believe everything you’ve read still has some small, imperceivable effect on you for the rest of your life. Or sometimes it’s very perceivable, in the case of a really good book. I don’t think I could point to a bit of writing I’d done and say ‘I wrote that because of Philip Pullman’. But everything I’ve enjoyed has probably had an effect.

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

There’s too many to name them all, but some of my favourites are Ross Sutherland, because he walks an incredible line between making work that is highly experimental and yet also very accessible for an audience. Also Jess Green, for making political poetry seem as un-cliche as possible.

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

Well, at the risk of sounding disingenuous, I’d probably say “You need to keep writing things.” I’d also advise taking people’s advice with a pinch of salt. There are many people out there who claim to know ‘the secret’ to becoming a good writer. It’s worth remembering that the most celebrated artists broke the rules. And what works for one person might not necessarily work for all.

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

The big one is that I’m laying plans to go all around England as a Door-to-Door Poet from next February. It’s dependant on a grant from the Arts Council, so I’ve got my fingers crossed for that. I’d be visiting 10 very different communities all over the country and writing poems for them, as well as recording their stories and ideas. I’ve got a commission with a local library, The Word, next month, to write 9 poems about lost words from the Geordie dialect. Right this minute though, I’m enjoying writing for myself and not to commission. I’m hoping to flesh out a good set of poems that I can use in my next show, but I’m also not forcing anything out. It’s nice to take your time if you can!



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