Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Ross Wilson

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.

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Ross Wilson

was raised in Kelty, a former mining village in West Fife. His first pamphlet collection, The Heavy Bag, was published by Calder Wood Press in 2011. He lives in North Lanarkshire with his partner and daughter, and works full time as an Auxiliary Nurse in Glasgow

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

I’ve always been a compulsive writer, writing stories since childhood, though I didn’t really get going as a poet until I was 27 when I was moved to write an elegy for my old boxing trainer.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

Most of us have nursery rhymes and fairy tales read to us as children and I suppose that’s where I would have been introduced to poetry and stories. But as a serious reader and writer of poetry, I had to come to it myself, in my late teens. The analytical approach to poetry in High School didn’t engage me at all. But I was compelled to find my way back to it on my own.

I remember sitting beside someone in High School who was obsessed with Jim Morrison. He once rattled off a list of drugs Morrison was reputed to have taken. I got a shopping list from Morrison as well: Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Artaud, Kerouac, Blake, Joseph Campbell . . . all new names to me at the time. From there I started ordering books at the local library and buying what I could to build up my own personal library.

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

Rupi Kaur is a lot younger than I am yet her books dominate poetry sections so much Waterstones could employ a forklift truck driver to move her bookstacks when browsers request to see what else is on offer.

If you mean older poets who have a high profile, I don’t particularly care, to be honest. Some of them will have earned their position, others less so perhaps, but I just get on with my own writing and read what I like. If I don’t like them I just ignore them on the shelf. Or swerve around the piles, in the case of Kaur.

If by older you mean dead poets whose reputations haunt the shelf space, I don’t feel dominated; intimidated by their skills sometimes, though at the same time the presence of their poetry and influence is as much an inspiration as anything else. And if we are talking about the dead, I’d say poems only die when people stop reading them. The poetry of someone who has been dead for hundreds of years could have more life in it than the poems of someone alive today.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I work full time as an auxiliary nurse, 12 hour days and night shifts, and have a 15 month old baby daughter to look after with my partner, so I don’t have a daily writing routine as such. Naturally, writing will always come third place to family and earning a living. That’s true of almost every poet, of course. Even Famous Seamus Heaney had to fit poems in around his work schedule well after he was established.

In my twenties, when I was mostly working on novels and short stories, my life revolved around reading and writing rather than the other way around and that was great for progressing as a writer but was never going to be sustainable.
Basically, I write when I can, where I can. There are lines of dialogue that made the final cut of a feature film I was involved in that were originally scribbled on a paper towel while working as a dishwasher in an old folks home.
These days I have a wee lap-table with a lamp that slides under the couch in our living room (a few inches out of reach of chubby hands) with poems or essays in progress clipped to its surface.

A lot of writing, for me at least, involves tinkering and tweaking drafts through various stages. I think it was Auden who described writing as scraping away on a dusty stone to see what the inscription is. And then there’s Derek Mahon, in his poem, The Mayo Tao:

I have been working for years
on a four-line poem
about the life of a leaf;
I think it might come out right this winter.

5. What motivates you to write?

Well, the compulsion to write is always there, as mentioned earlier. There’s a child-like (as opposed to childish) need to play and toy around with language, word-sounds, shapes and forms, and then there’s the adult concerns that affect us all that go into the content and subject matter.

6. What is your work ethic?

There’s a good poem called Graft in Ben Wilkinson’s new collection, Way More than Luck. It’s about running (though as with any good poem it’s about much more.) “It must get easier over time,” someone says to the runner who climbs a hill that’s also “the old hill/of weakness versus the will.”

But anything worthwhile
is pure heart and courage.
I’m not talking the rich
and their inheritance.

Fuck that shit. Graft hard,
and hold true to this –
no one got anywhere fast
without striving for it.

Of course, by “anywhere” Wilkinson isn’t necessarily talking about winning Olympic Gold but taking what you’ve been born with as far as it will go.
I see writing as more of a competition with myself than with other poets. Your natural ability will only ever take you so far but you’ll always go further with a strong work ethic. To stick to a sports analogy, there was a talented Scottish middleweight boxer in the late 1950s, early 1960s, called John McCormack. McCormack was an underachiever, which is to say he never fulfilled his potential or went as far as his talent suggested he would. In his last fight he ended up losing a points decision to a man with the same name, so in the record books it reads: John McCormack lost on points to John McCormack.

I’m the opposite of McCormack: there are far more talented and smarter poets than me around, but I’ve gone further than many would have expected by grafting hard.

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

I guess it depends on how far back we go and how young you mean. I rarely if ever return to the writers I mentioned earlier (the Morrison list of my late teens) but they were a start, or a transition from reading more commercial mainstream genre based books to what, for better or worse, is regarded as literature. Having said that, influence can be a hard thing to pin down; sometimes an influence might be obvious, other times it might be more subtle, like something you’ve absorbed without being entirely conscious of taking it in.

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

I admire the sharp satire of Hugh McMillan’s poems and how moving he can be when he wants to be. McMillan has a strong imagination but always brings it back down to earth.

I enjoyed Liz Berry’s Black Country for her distinctive imagination and her use of dialect.

I like Richie McCaffery, not only for his poetry but for his services to poetry. You sense it’s vocational with Richie. He does a lot of work keeping the names and reputations of poets alive, particularly those neglected and in danger of being forgotten. In addition to that, he is a fine poet himself.

Good writers, of course, are always for today even if they died yesterday or 2,000 years ago!

9. Why do you write?

The need to express myself; the urge to create; the enjoyment of making something; to think things through (or feel things out;) to challenge myself and others; to catch some memory or emotion or idea; to make some shape out of the chaos of living; to celebrate the life of people I respected or loved and, hopefully, to share and connect with others, whether they are standing a few feet from me in a room I happen to be reading in or are reading my poems in America or Australia (where I’ve recently sold some books too.) I could probably go on and on and on and . . .

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

Read widely and re-read the books and writers who matter to you. Be patient. Don’t take rejection personally. Listen to those who have worked hard at their craft, but remember: their way isn’t your way; you’ll have to find that yourself.

Writing is a solitary activity that requires some introspection but it’s not all about you. Remember you’re also part of a community of other poets (as well as the actual community you happen to live in) and part of a tradition (or traditions) of poetry that go back almost as far as you can trace humanity in all cultures through time. In other words, don’t neglect to read and support your contemporary writers but don’t corner yourself in a cul-de-sac of the new. Have a wee walk down the multiple roads that lead us to where we are and breathe new life into the classics (and the neglected voices we might find like ruins among the monuments.)

Be suspicious of auld farts like myself writing do’s and don’t lists!
As Bruce Springsteen once said, “Don’t take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself.”

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

My first full collection, Line Drawing, has just been published by Smokestack Books, so I’m organizing book launches for that. Meanwhile I’m busy working on poems I hope will make up a second collection while also tinkering with a sequence of poems for my baby daughter that I hope to release next year. That will be a wee pamphlet of some 15 poems or so. I have also just completed a 6,000 word essay on poetry and ideology.

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