Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Jonathan Taylor

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.

 

Jonathan Taylor

is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the poetry collections Cassandra Complex and Musicolepsy (both Shoestring Press, 2018 and 2013 respectively), the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). He is co-editor, with Karen Stevens, of a new anthology of short stories, High Spirits: A Round of Drinking Stories (Valley Press, 2018). He lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, where he directs the MA. Originally from Stoke-on-Trent, he now lives in Leicestershire with his wife, the poet Maria Taylor, and their twin daughters, Miranda and Rosalind. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

Although I’ve always loved reading poetry, and wrote bits and pieces, I never saw myself as a “poet” (whatever that is) till after I’d published my memoir, Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). After that, our twins were born in 2008 – and suddenly I started writing lots of poetry, without meaning to. By mistake, as it were. I think these were the two causes: finishing the memoir, and the birth of the twins. I know a lot of contemporary poets resist the “autobiographical” urge in poetry, which has been part of how people popularly see poetry since Wordsworth. But personally, I think they’re lying to themselves: yes, poetry can be anything, be about anything. But (perhaps because we’re still overshadowed by Romanticism) one of its most natural homes is memoir and the autobiographical. There’s a sincerity, an honesty, about putting the “I” in a poem – just as, in a different context, I always tell English Lit students that it’s a lie when academics refuse using “I” in their critical essays.

So, from my own perspective, I think I started writing poetry after I’d finished the memoir, because I still had lots of autobiographical material I wanted to understand. This material hadn’t made it into the memoir, because it didn’t fit thematically, or was too fragmentary for prose. So the poetry started as an exploded memoir – where my memoir writing went next, in a much more fragmentary way. A prose memoir (by and large) needs a coherent narrative or framework; poetry can deal with tiny moments, individual images, without having to knit them together. Alongside that, as I say, our twins Miranda and Rosalind were born in 2008. This would have been an overwhelming time anyway – but they were also premature, tiny and ill, and my wife was very ill too; so the sheer emotional impact of that year transmuted my writing into poetry. As Wordsworth would expect, I always seem to write a lot of poetry (or memoir) in the wake of traumatic events – emotion recollected in tranquillity. At present, I’m writing a lot less poetry, because life have been a bit calmer the last year or so.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I’ve been reading poetry ever since I was very young – and, in fact, I still think there’s a lot of children’s poetry around that’s as good, if not better, than work for adults. It’s often more direct and vivid but just as emotionally sophisticated (see Michael Rosen, Maurice Sendak, or Julia Donaldson, for instance).

In my teens, I discovered T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” and “Wasteland” – which, as a fantasy and science-fiction fan (at the time), just seemed to me to be poetic versions of a science-fiction story. I still think there are lots of hidden links between the language of poetry and that of speculative fiction. One of my teachers at high school – who, incidentally, also taught the wonderful poet Jeffrey Wainwright – introduced me to all sorts of poetry, including Auden, Pound and the war poets. He was hugely enthusiastic about it all and such an overwhelming presence in class, to the extent of going round tickling students who got things wrong – clearly something that (quite rightly) wouldn’t be tolerated these days. At least the threat made us all sit up and take notice, and made poetry feel dangerous, edge-of-the-seat. Perhaps poetry itself (somewhere in my head) is still associated with the comedy-horror of tickling.

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

Well, it depends what you mean by “older.” As I say, I came to writing poetry myself later – so I myself am an “older” poet (or at least a middle-aged one). Having said that, if you mean by “older” dead poets – well, I’ve always been very aware of them, and love them. I’m a bit suspicious of contemporary poets who only ever read and talk about other contemporary poets. It’s like a poetic version of social media: the eternal “now.” Poets – no, writers in general – should read anything and everything. Look at Yeats: he was a bizarrely eclectic reader, and his poetry (overall) benefitted from it.

In terms of one hugely dominating presence, I first came across Philip Larkin when I was seventeen – at A-Level. We were taught by someone who’d obviously imbibed “New Criticism,” so we weren’t told anything about Larkin himself. Actually, though I’m no fan of New Criticism myself, I think that helped – we just read the words on the page, and I fell in love with them (so none of Larkin’s reputation infected my experience). Here was a world I recognised – growing up in Stoke-on-Trent in the 1970s and 1980s meant that, much as I loved T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wilfred Owen and so on, I didn’t recognise the world they described. But Larkin – Larkin was much closer. I don’t think Larkin’s pessimistic – as I know myself from one or two reviews of my own work, we all too readily mistake “realism” for “pessimism” in a world dominated by bourgeois advertising and “feel good” pseudo-psychology.

Larkin’s world, for me, was simple realism. I don’t think it’s literature’s role just to “reflect” or “represent” people’s lives; it’s also literature’s role to change it. But that shock of recognition, especially for younger readers, when they come across something close-ish to their own lives, is really important, indeed life-changing. I came across it in prose with the works of Arnold Bennett – and particularly his novel Clayhanger. I read Clayhanger when I was sixteen-ish, and suddenly found myself crying at the description of the main character’s father’s illness. It was – believe it or not – the first time I’d discovered in literature something analogous to my own experience, the first time I’d seen mental or neurological illness portrayed in writing. In fact, the novel talked about these things before they were spoken out loud by my family or friends.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I don’t have one. I’m generally so overwhelmed with university paperwork, marking, emails, that I get very little time to write. So I write in the corners of days, in my head, or (primarily) in two or three weeks I get in early Summer, between end-of-academic-year marking, and the twins breaking up from school. I can’t say I write much in the Summer holidays, because I’d rather be spending time with the twins. Despite all this, I can now write – if I have a couple of hours spare – at almost any time. I’ve trained myself to do so. So I’m writing this, answering these questions, on the end of the sofa, with the twins in their pyjamas next to me, watching their crazy favourite youtubers on their tablet. I’ve developed a kind of polyphonic consciousness, where I can deal with writing, social media, and the twins saying: “Daddy, look at this!”, all at the same time. Modern life is like a crazy dream. And probably quite an unhealthy one at that.

5. What motivates you to write?

Love. I love doing it. I think I’d still do it even if there was no chance of publication. It’s a pleasurable compulsion – to tell stories. At base, I think all writing (including poetry) is about that: just different ways of telling stories. All forms of writing are, at base, sitting in a pub with some friends, recounting some funny or sad anecdote. I’m a bit sceptical when people talk about the pain or agony of writing, or even writer’s block: surely it should be pleasure to tell stories to friends? Of course, there are times when it doesn’t go as well as it should, or when you hit a difficult bit. And certainly, it’s harder when you’re starting out. But honestly, overall, writing should be primarily pleasurable. As Freud understood, creative writing is an attempt to recapture the pleasure of child’s play – and ultimately there’s nothing more important than that. If it’s not pleasurable, perhaps it’s not the right subject. And if it’s not pleasurable to you, how on earth is it ever going to be pleasurable to a reader?

6. What is your work ethic?

I’d like to think poetry is the opposite of a work ethic. In fact, I think “work” is a difficult word when it comes to writing poetry (or creative writing in general). It reminds me of that Monty Python sketch – the one where the son turns up at his parents’ house, but the father refuses to speak to him, because the father’s disgusted with his son’s pretentious and snobby decision to become a coal miner, instead of a bohemian artist (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQDeU6dHX-c). There’s far too much faux-professionalisation among writers these days, where writers behave (or are expected to behave) in certain ways. “Professionalism” so-called, at its worst, can imply institutionalisation, de-politicization, being bought out by capitalism – even a kind of prostitution. I think “amateur” is a much better word – because etymologically it implies lover of …

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

I didn’t learn to read till quite late – I was eight when I cracked the code, and I did so through books like Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. I understood the music of it, the rhythms and rhymes – and by learning it that way, I finally started to recognise the squiggles on the page associated with the music. That’s not dissimilar to how I learnt the piano. From Dr. Seuss I no doubt imbibed an idea of the musicality of storytelling, the close relationship of poetry, narrative, music.

Then I went on to reading a lot of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien – in fact, I hardly read any so-called “classics” till I was fifteen. I read s.f. and fantasy. Again, that’s probably had an effect: I’m suspicious of terms like “realism” and “realistic” (or, for that matter, “literary fiction”) when it comes to writing, because of my earlier reading. It seems to me that all good writing has an element of fantasy or speculation – because so-called “reality” is fantastic, weird, bizarre, lunatic. There’s nothing in Tolkien so weird or unnatural or “unrealistic” as postmodern life. These days, the literature I enjoy the most injects (or perhaps rather finds) the Tolkienesque fantasy in the real – and that goes as much for poetry as it does for fiction and non-fiction. Perhaps in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the most unrealistic genre of all is now non-fiction. That’s where we go for fantasy.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most
and why?

Despite what people say, I think there are some wonderful writers out there at the moment. Whether the writers who are most “lauded” by the newspapers, literary prizes, societies, funding bodies, etc. , are the ones who are most “wonderful” is a different matter. I think, in Britain particularly, the pseudo-hierarchies we inherit are extremely suspect, shot through with politics, class, dubious institutions, and so on. Writers, musicians and artists in Britain who’ve been really special have done so in spite – not because – of the institutions and establishments around them. Almost all of the great artists in Britain, I believe, have been outsiders in some way (whether geographically, socially, ethnically, religiously, or in terms of social class).

Anyway, I’m getting away a bit from the question. To go back to today’s writers – well, as I say, I think there are a lot of excellent writers out there, though I often admire writing rather than writers, particularly when it comes to the contemporary scene. I’d single out a writer like Blake Morrison for special mention – he’s provided a role model for me in all sorts of ways, as a memoirist, as a poet, as someone who manages to cross between forms and genres (and write well in all of them), as a successful writer who’s also a very kind and supportive human being, and as someone whose work deals head-on with the most serious political and emotional issues in nuanced and poetic ways. He writes about what’s important – tackles real issues in fascinating and new ways. As Ezra Pound understood, British writing – and poetry in particular – is always in danger of a certain kind of escapism, of a pseudo-pastoral political quietism. But that can’t be said for writers like Blake.

9. Why do you write?

Because I want to tell stories about a world which is beautiful, horrific and very, very weird. Because evil exists. Because I’m always trying to give it up – always thinking “this book is my last” – always trying to take up electric trains instead – but writing won’t let me go. Because writing is therefore a terminal disease. Because the world is too complex and ambivalent to leave to politicians and tabloid journalists. Because writing is one of the few pure pleasures left. Because I’m an idealist and want to imagine something different – or at least stick my tongue out at the world. Because I find language difficult. Because I love reading, and I believe literature is a kind of participation sport. Because I wanted to be a musician but – like Peter Porter – was never practically gifted enough, so took up the next best thing. Because language is a code which I’ve yet to crack, but have been trying since I was eight. Because books are a strange but compelling fetish. Because I’m totally impractical, can’t change a light bulb without breaking the light fitting, and am no good at anything else. Because – who knows, really?

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

There is no one way – and again, that’s why I’m so sceptical of “professionalization.” It’s a lie: a writer is someone who writes. It’s not someone who gets commissions, who’s been published, who’s got a grant, who works in a university, or any combination thereof. It’s just someone who writes. There’s no mystery about it, and I believe the beauty of writing is that it’s an entirely democratic art form (or a “participation sport”). Someone who enjoys writing poems for themselves, and keeps them in their attic, is a writer – as Emily Dickinson understood. Someone who writes little stories just for their grandchildren is a writer. So you become a writer by writing – that’s all.

What you decide to do with that writing will all depend on your own aims – and “success” will depend on how close you come to realising your own aims. It’s a matter of knowing what your intended audience is, and reaching them. If your intended audience is your grandchildren, then the process of reaching them might (and I stress might) be relatively straightforward. If they enjoy your stories when you read them out, then you’ve been a success. If your intended audience is a national, or international one, the process is understandably much more complex (and inevitably tied up with the paradoxes of capitalism). You have to build up in stages.

For poets in particular, I can’t emphasise enough the importance of connecting with an audience by attending events, and reading at open-mic poetry evenings. It’s a way you can judge how your work connects with people, and also a way of meeting people – and even, perhaps, publishers. Writing, and especially poetry, is a communitarian thing. For that reason, you should always be at least as interested in other people’s work as you are in your own.

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

I’m currently completing an academic book called Laughter, Literature, Violence, 1840-1930, which will be published next year by Palgrave-Macmillan. On moving to Leicester University, I wanted to go back to writing theoretically and academically, something I’d not done in quite a few years. Part of me, whether I like it or not, is academic, philosophical, and I’ve enjoyed returning to that kind of writing. The book’s about laughter, comedy, jokes in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and particularly about the darker side of laughter – for example, the role played by comedy in the First World War. It arises partly from my fascination with the disturbing early writings of Wyndham Lewis; and it starts with a late story by Edgar Allan Poe, called “Hop-Frog,” where a court jester burns his king to death, declaring that it’s his “last jest.”

One hallmark of my own writing – which many people have pointed out – is a kind of grotesque or dark comedy; so I wanted to find out about some of the ways that laughter and comedy often seem to overlap with horror. One critic said about my first short story collection that it could be “mistaken for mere comedy.” But surely it’s ridiculous these days to think of comedy as a lesser genre – it can be the very hardest thing to do well – and also I’m not sure that anything is really “mere comedy.” Comedy is always mixed up with other emotions, politics, relationships, histories, genres, and so on. The best sit-coms understand this – that comedy is never just itself. And I wanted to explore all this in my book, explore laughter’s connections with other alloys. Funnily enough – given my answer to one of the questions above – now I come to think of it, there’s a short section in the book which explores the relationship between laughter, tickling, horror and literature. When you look back on it, you realise that everything you do is connected, unconsciously speaking.

 

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