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.
- Alex Mazey (b.1991) won The Roy Fisher Prize for Poetry in 2018 with his debut pamphlet, ‘Bread and Salt’ (Flarestack, TBA). His poetry has featured regularly in anthologies and literary press magazines, most notably in The London Magazine, Anima and The Staffordshire Poetry Collection. Between 2010-2013, he completed a BA Hons before moving to Keele University in 2015 to complete an MA in Poetry. His MA dissertation was conducted in consultation with T. S. Eliot Prize nominee, James Sheard. He graduated in 2017 with distinction. He has previously helped facilitate creative writing workshops with Writing West Midlands, an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation operating the UK’s largest programme of creative writing groups for young writers. He spent 2018 as a resident of The People’s Republic of China, where he taught the English Language in a school run by the Ministry of Education. His own writing has been described as ‘wry and knowing,’ with ‘an edge that tears rather than cuts or deals blows.’
- What inspired you to write poetry?
There’s an essay written by one of Philip Levine’s former students, called ‘How Difficult It Is to Live.’ The essay, written by Mark Levine, now an associate professor of poetry at the University of Iowa – I believe – speaks about taking a class with Philip Levine back in 1985; first meeting the poet three days after Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration. According to the essay, Philip Levine really ‘believed poetry was the most important thing a person could do, and that poems bore the impulse for collective transformation without which lies and injustice would prevail[…] [Levine] spoke of the crimes that politicians and capitalists had done to language. The right words mattered, he said, because poems could restore meaning to language.’ I believe that through the artifices of the modern world, we have become caged inside false perspectives of ourselves as imperfect beings from which material products can be used to repair our ever-accumulating deficiencies. Jean Baudrillard talked about these false realities as being maintained by ‘an order of the hyperreal.’ I think poetry has the ability to glance through these falsities and illusions, offering readers a glimpse into something authentic and transcendental.
- Who introduced you to poetry?
No one in particular introduced me to poetry – I’ve found a lot of life is learning how to introduce yourself. But with guns pointed, I’d say the generic English teacher. In my experience, poetry in the state-school system often focused on a machine-like examination of the poetic record through an historical lens, starting with Shakespeare and ending with someone like Siegfried Sassoon. I did have a wonderful English teacher who adored Carol Ann Duffy – but I was never able to fully appreciate Duffy’s proficiency for the dramatic monologue. I have always tried to read voraciously, so finding the voices I enjoyed was more of a natural process.
- How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
The presence of older poets has never really bothered me. Hera Lindsay Bird has a poem, ‘Keats is Dead so Fuck me From Behind’ where the poetic voice states, ‘Nobody, not even the dead can tell me what to do’. I think that poem is remarkable, and should indicate how every aspiring, talented person should engage with the guardians of any ‘proper tradition.’ Writers often want to talk foolishly about the presence of archaic traditions when really the only truly dominating presence in the poetry community are the darlings of the literary establishment itself. I believe a lot of contemporary poetry has been co-opted by a ‘bohemian bourgeois’, appropriately described by David Brooks as ‘folk who have one foot in the bohemian world of creativity, and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and worldly success.’ I suspect that’s why we see poetry anthologies and competitions built around hot-button issues. Whilst they’re promoted as raising awareness, I suspect book sales and monetary gains are the primary motivation behind these kinds of creative output. There’s a fine line between what’s entrepreneurial and what’s exploitive and some publishers are evidently selling social justice as a commodity. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but it’s disingenuous to think it’s always about altruistic concern.
- What is your daily writing routine and work ethic?
Coffee has been my only serious routine as a writer. I spent 2018 as a resident of The People’s Republic of China, where I taught the English Language in a school run by the Ministry of Education. Most of my latest writing has been produced in the time between teaching classes. The poems that appeared in my first pamphlet were almost entirely written in the Keele University Library, where I would usually spend up to eight hours a day writing as a postgraduate student. Previous to this, my writing was conducted around menial work commitments, with almost everything written at night or on the weekends when I had the time.
- What motivates you to write?
When asked to give some advice to writers, Christopher Hitchens said, ‘If you want to write it must be the thing not that you want to do, or would like to do – it must be the thing you feel you have to do. It must be that without which you could not live. If you’ve got that, then it will be alright because you can survive the disappointments.’ I’m no stranger to disappointments. In fact, a life can be characterised by a series of disappointments. It’s ironic to think that suffering at the hands of existence could fuel a motivation to write – but I think that’s what keeps me going.
- How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
Aged sixteen, I bought a yellowing second-hand copy of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Twilight of the Idols’ from Gloucester Green Market. I still have the copy on my shelving unit. Nietzsche’s ability to write from a perspective of unapologetic presumption still resonates with me. It’s important to remain optimistic and carefree when you’ve been cast aside, ostracised or deemed too transgressive for writing communities. Most of the writers I read when I was younger, Albert Camus, Yukio Mishima, Chuck Palahniuk and Charles Bukowski, for example, dealt with seriously conflicted protagonists living in flawed environments. I think their personal narratives have left a lasting impression on me.
- Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I admire contemporary writers who keep their creative integrity intact, and don’t follow publishing trends. There’s an insipid promotion of identity politics that’s crept into poetry, and it can be tempting for emerging poets to join the cohort of writers who are keen to tie themselves down to geographic location and/or ethnicity. I actually find a lot of contemporary page poetry banal with spoken word often appealing to superficial condemnation. Tao Lin’s collection ‘you are a little bit happier than i am’ was a major breakthrough in wanting to read more contemporary poetry. I was eighteen when that book was published. American writer, Megan Boyle adequately described that collection as the ‘iconic first doctrine of self-conscious, disappointed with people/the universe/the self (to some degree) poetry.’ Published in 2016, Ocean Vuong’s ‘Night Sky With Exit Wounds’ was one of my favourite collections to appear in a long time. In a 2013 interview with Edward J. Rathke, Vuong discussed the ‘utterances and stutters’ of a poem, which was beautifully insightful. He’s probably one of the best poets writing today. For me, his poetry is about finding redemption in a world of chaotic violence and trauma. I was saddened to see the achievements of that collection reduced to his sexuality by leading members of the poetry establishment, especially on Twitter. Between 2015 – 2016, I was fortunate enough to have James Sheard supervise my MA dissertation at Keele University. He introduced me to ‘the quiet utterance’ which was probably a kind way of telling me to be less obnoxiously declarative in my own writing. Either way, I admire his collections for their haunting representations of memory and loss. I think someone once described his poetry as ‘secular prayer’, which is a beautiful way to view poetry. The great American poet, Philip Levine passed away in 2015. Time magazine once described Levine’s speakers as ‘guerrillas, trapped in an endless battle long after the war is lost.’ I admire Levine’s poetry above anything else I’ve read. His poems like ‘The Simple Truth’, ‘Burial Rites’ and ‘What Work Is’ are impeccable examples of writing produced from places of ordinary hardship. Lastly, I think it’s an absolute crime that the Chinese poet, Bei Dao has yet to receive The Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m usually shocked when poets say they haven’t heard or read his work.
- Why do you write?
Not writing makes me unhappy.
- What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I see a lot of writers on social media complaining about this or that, talking about writing, or being writers, or wanting their craft to be taken more seriously. The writing community is full of people who would probably have better careers in social media marketing. My advice would be to ignore the distractions and put your time into actual, tangible writing. Find your voice. Find publishers who will have you. Harden yourself to rejection, criticism and ridicule. Read the library. Read outside of the style or genre you want to write in. Read non-fiction, especially. My number one piece of advice for writers is to nurture your own compulsion to write because nobody will nurture it for you.
- Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I’ll be returning to Stoke-on-Trent in 2019, after a year teaching in China. My debut pamphlet, ‘Bread and Salt’, is currently in the safe hands of Jacqui Rowe and Isabel Palmer, who have both been immensely kind to me over the course of the editing process. I have also been delighted to continue interviewing Lofi Hiphop artists for London-based, digital magazine PublicPressure.org, where you can also read my contributions on politics and culture. There is, of course, a second pamphlet in the works, with poetry written over the last twelve months. I’ll probably continue to reach out to literary magazines and publishers where I can. Aside from that, if anyone has a job, a PhD offer, a lucrative grant, or a cure for depression, please get in touch.
You can tweet me @alexzandermazey or read my blog at alexmazeyblog.wordpress.com.