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.
The Scottish Poetry Library states
“His first collection The Assassination Museum was published by Red Squirrel Press in 2010, and a second collection A Beginner’s Guide To Cheating followed in 2015. He was editor of Split Screen: poetry inspired by film & television (2012) and its sequel Double Bill (2014), also by Red Squirrel. Whaleback City: the poetry of Dundee and its hinterland was co-edited with W.N. Herbert in 2013 (Dundee University Press). He edited a cycling-themed anthology Tour de Vers (Red Squirrel 2013) and Seagate III, an anthology of contemporary poetry from the Dundee area (Discovery Press 2016).
Since 2015 he has co-edited (again with W.N. Herbert) the political poetry blog New Boots and Pantisocracies which was anthologised in print by Smokestack Books in 2016. He also co-edited the online Scotia Extremis project with Brian Johnstone. He regularly chases ambulances via his Otwituaries blog. He was appointed as Makar to the Federation of Writers Scotland for 2017.”
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
I suppose like many writers, they started to experiment at School – poetry was quite rewarding and, unlike most of my classmates, I actually enjoyed it for what it was, and, unlike most things at school, I could actually do it. Thankfully nothing I wrote of that era survives to shame me. I did occasionally write doggerel and light verse in my student days, but after moving to Dundee in 1992 I joined a creative writing group led by Colette Bryce, the then poet-in-residence at the University. She was (and remains) incredibly gifted and rightly dismissive of the rubbish I was writing, and basically said if I was interested in pursuing poetry as an art form I’d have to read more (and better) and learn some craft. I certainly read more these days, though I’m not sure the craft has improved that much. I think I started writing more seriously because it was an intellectual and artistic challenge – I certainly wasn’t motivated by a desire to be heard or to say something. I don’t feel I’ve got that much to say from my own experience – I’m far too conventional to be a proper poet.
2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
I was aware from early in my ‘serious’ writing career that there was a group of poets, scholars and critics who occupied the highest ranks of the pantheon, both contemporary and from recent generations. Like most competitive disciplines, it’s not easy to break into the top ranks, even if that’s your aim (which in my case it most certainly was not – I’m not deluded!). I was also acutely aware that these poets dominated because, in the main, they were extremely good.
I feel you can regard your peers in several ways – you can be inspired by them to write better, you can reject them and continue working in your own way, you can be intimidated by them and give up. The latter is easy – there are some poems where you just have to step back and say ‘that’s just too good’ – but if you don’t learn something about how to write better when you encounter brilliance, I feel you’re missing an opportunity to grow and improve.
3. What is your daily writing routine?
Haha! It’s not quite a routine and it’s certainly not daily! I am very unprolific and it takes a long time for any poetry to get done in my house. And I certainly don’t write every day – not even every week, sadly. Like many poets, I have a stack of images, fragments of lines, photographs, quotes or other triggers which I carry round with me, although mine are on a note-taking app on my phone/iPad rather than written down. I haven’t written a poem longhand since…well, this century.
My process tends to involve drawing up a sketch of a poem setting out the structure, and then painting colours on top – images, vocabulary (I like to use a broad vocabulary and go for precision rather than abstraction or vagueness). Then, into the freezer with it for days, weeks – years in some cases – before taking a fresh look and embarking on numerous edits and re-edits. I’ve never finished a poem at one sitting – Colette Bryce’s advice on editing was priceless – a poem’s not finished until there’s nothing left to take out. Some poems are barely recognisable from the first draft.
4. What motivates you to write?
I’m not really an introspective poet, reflecting and ruminating…nor am I a pastoral or nature poet. I am interested in modern life or observations of others, so I’m motivated by something interesting but fairly minor – quirks of behaviour, odd situations, people or juxtapositions. I tend to think the great themes have been done pretty well by the pantheon of poetic legends, and I prefer to spend my time looking under their writing desks for the sweepings and the screwed-up papers. I’m partly motivated, therefore, by the idea of writing about things no-one else appears that interested in. I’ve no pretensions to posterity – my poetry will probably date quickly and I don’t write for a place in history. Nothing if not realistic!
Another thing that motivates me is the poetry ‘project’ – organising interesting poetic initiatives (the Split Screen/Double Bill anthologies and subsequent roadshows, the New Boots and Pantisocracies and Scotia Extremis web projects) and involving new and established poets, spinning them off into reading events and occasionally into printed form. I enjoy that and I have had more pleasure out of the presentation of anthologies as live events than I’ve ever had out of my own work.
5. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
When I was at School we studied only a little poetry – some war poets, a little Shakespeare, but there were a few random poems we did in English that have stuck with me – John Stallworthy’s ‘A Poem About Poems About Vietnam’, Peter Porter’s ‘Your Attention Please’, R.S.Thomas’s ‘A Peasant’. I think the voice Peter Porter used in his poem has been an influence – I hadn’t realised until answering this question how much I had absorbed of the way this poem worked. I do feel a poem can adopt any number of personae, speak with any voice it cares to – all is valid if the poem is good. My poetry seems rarely to speak in my own voice. I am also drawn to formalism, which is a feature of the Stallworthy and the Thomas. We didn’t ‘ave free verse when I were a lad!
5.1 How did Heaney influence your imagery and language?
I think firstly the viscerality and earthiness of his images – these were poems of the mud and the ploughed field and rotting bodies rather than of the skies and the trees and the birds. Lakes didn’t conceal shimmering shoals of fish but weighted-down bodies of dead babies. There was a persistent darkness about the images he used – something rotten in the heart of the land, its people, its history and its politics, and he captured it beautifully with the vocabulary of several languages. I think he also looked across the broad sweep of history – epic poetry of a different kind.
I’m not sure his writing influenced me per se, except to show what was possible with language and image, how people, place and politics are all interrelated.
6. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I am a fan of Paul Farley, U.A. Fanthorpe, Sean O’Brien, Jackie Kay, Don Paterson, Simon Barraclough and others. Mostly poets with a strong narrative sense and a storyteller’s eye. I am drawn to poets who use rich and varied language, who paint from a broad palette of words.
7. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
I have no talents in any other areas, sadly. I think I have a reasonable facility with words and therefore it’s the only artistic option available to me! It gives me pleasure, particularly the sharing of it.
8. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I’m not sure you can ‘become’ a writer – there’s obviously no entrance exam or proficiency test – you just write, or you don’t. If you do write, you should read first – lots of reading, across all styles and backgrounds. And once you’ve written something, be prepared to share your work with others. And once you share it, be prepared to accept comments – positive and negative. And once you’ve had comments, be prepared to edit, rewrite or even go back to the drawing board with the poem. But, more than anything else, I would say you should read.
9. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
Thank you for asking, Paul – and thanks for such a stimulating set of questions. I have been involved in editing two projects which are about to turn into books; Scotia Extremis was a web-based project which looked at extremes of the Scottish psyche through contrasting cultural icons…co-edited with the venerable Brian Johnstone and due to be published by Luath in early 2019, and The Call of the Clerihew, a collection of several hundred short, scathing poems about historical and contemporary figures in the clerihew form…very entertaining and witty, and due out on Smokestack, also in early 2019. Of my own work – well, slow but steady progress on a collection based around patron saints of unusual things – jockeys, lottery winners, haemorrhoid sufferers, disappointing children. Still seeking a publisher for that, but hopefully it will see the light of day before too long. A few other web-based projects about to start, but I guess I’m looking for the next big poetry thing to get my teeth into.
The above paragraph should act as a warning, Paul – never ask a poet to tell you what they’re doing, because they will tell you!