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.
has a PhD in English Literature from Cardiff University. He is a two-time winner of the Terry Hetherington poetry award for writers in Wales, and his writing has appeared in Spectral Realms, Picaroon, Amaryllis, Wales Arts Review, isacoustic, Lonesome October, The Road Less Travelled, Three Drops From A Cauldron and Words for the Wild.
- When and why did you start writing poetry?
I decided to write poetry while picking apples on a Waitrose farm in the Autumn of 2008. It’s a job I’ve always loved; a job that lets your mind wander freely while your hands are busy. Robert Frost’s poem, ‘After Apple-Picking’ was running through my head like a earworm pop song, and I was thinking about how much I’d enjoyed reading The Odyssey in sixth-form that year, and I decided I too would write an epic poem. It was an ambition I junked a very short time later, when I realised quite how inadequate my original plan was, but by that time I was enrolled in a local poetry group and busily trying to figure out how iambic pentameter worked. I set myself to memorise Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, and it decoded in my head halfway through, one of those beautiful moments where sometime complex suddenly becomes clear. I got hooked, and remained hooked, on the metrical craft of form and metre, and I’m still much more engaged and interested in the writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than I am with the free verse writers of the present day (which is part of the reason why I went on to do a PhD in the influence of John Milton on eighteenth-century poetry). It was a great liberation for me to experience poetry that didn’t have to be personal, angst-ridden or confessional but was simply a different kind of storytelling, and pleases the ear as much as it does the mind.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
I don’t think there ever was a particular moment of introduction. My Dad had been reading me ’T’was the Night before Christmas’ every Christmas eve since I was a kid, so I grew up enjoying the rhythms and the textures of words, and I can remember producing some fairly successful primary-school doggerel at times. My introduction to what you might call the poetry scene was a now-defunct poetry group that gathered in the Oxfam Bookshop in Winchester. We’d begin with a mini-lecture and discussion of an established poet, and then we read each other’s work and comment on it. They were very kind to me, because I’m sure I was terribly self-involved and nigh-on unbearable, and it’s pretty much spoiled me for Creative Writing classes ever since. I was also buying up all kinds of secondhand poetry from the bookshops of Winchester—my Byron and Shelley are one volume collected editions from the 1900s with two columns of tiny print per page—and reading voraciously.
3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
Before I started writing poetry seriously, I’d worked through the then-standard GCSE anthology of poets in English Literature classes, so we read Heaney, Armitage, Duffy and Clarke, none of which I really cared for either then or now. The hits were Robert Browning’s ’The Laboratory’, a creepy murder story with an irresistible chanting rhythm, and Gerald Manley Hopkins ‘Inversnaid’, a poem that roils and broils on the tongue like the swirls and eddies of the brook it describes. For most of my developing years, I was obsessed with developing the techniques necessary to sound like the poets of the English tradition: I read Paradise Lost two or three times over, trying to get a grip on the ins and outs of blank verse, which is something no-one ever teaches you in school or university, sadly.
Don Paterson’s Selected Poems was the first modern poetry book I truly loved, particularly ‘Rain’, his astonishing closing poem. Other living poets I enjoy include AE Stallings, Jonathan Edwards, Clive James, Wendy Cope and Andy Croft, as well as ingenious verse translators like Anthony Mortimer and Stanley Mitchell. I like poets with a disciplined sense of form, a lively sense of humour and an engaging variety of subject matter. I try not to feel too daunted either by the past tradition or the bulk of poets writing in the present day; I’ve got a very strong sense of the kind of ‘verse storyteller’ direction I want to go in, and it feels very free and wide open.
4. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why? In this you could expand on why “Rain” is so effective. And give reasons why you enjoy the others.
Rain begins in the simplest way possible:
I love all films that start with rain:
rain, braiding a windowpane
or darkening a hung-out dress
or streaming down her upturned face;
One of my favourite exercises is the invitation to simplicity, to the John Clare-ish enthusiasm to the world about us, that comes from starting a poem with the words ‘I love’. (Mine turned out to be about pencils.) Metrically, too, that first line couldn’t be simpler: iambic tetrameter in words of one syllable. Then the second line breaks with all formality, repeating the rhyme word from the previous line, running the rain / braid stresses together, in the service of a lyrical assonance that couldn’t be achieved in a more regular metre. The half-rhymes between dress and face as well show this is a poem well aware of the old rules, but willing to shirk them in the service of a sweeter lyricism when it becomes available. It ran in my head like an earworm all summer, but I still haven’t laid all its mysteries bare, and I’m not sure I want to. Like much of late Yeats, the feeling it creates is sufficient even without going into the deeper structures of meaning that underlie something like ‘Byzantium’.
5. What is your daily writing routine?
It would be nice to have one! The closest I came to a proper routine was NaPoWriMo this year, where I woke up to a new poetry challenge each morning, thanks to the Poetry School group. I produced an awful lot of terrible doggerel, but three of those poems have since been published, and two more of them are in competitions.
Currently I’ll try to knock out at least 300 words minimum on the novel project and fit in some verse around that, but like a lot of writers I’m deeply perverse when it comes to self-discipline. Switching to pencil and paper often helps unblock things, particularly in the early stages of composition—I’ve been known to scrawl couplets across Amazon parcels and the endpapers of books when the fit’s upon me. Lately I’ve been walking out to Insole Court, a grand Victorian house quite close to me in Cardiff. It’s free to get into and has a beautifully decorated pre-Raphaelite reading room, which makes a great location to work in even if I do keep getting caught up in browsing the bookshelves! If all else fails, I take a notebook out to the pub.
6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
The writers we read when young create our sensibilities, which is why it’s impossible for me to see a sheep from a distance without thinking of R.S. Thomas, or see daffodils without drawing Wordsworth to mind. I’m sure you’ve noticed in doing these interviews that everyone has different ideas of when you can call yourself a poet, from people who defer the title until they’ve published a book or can make a living from writing (pretty rare, in the case of poets), to people who will adopt it from the moment they write their first poem. My personal notion is that to be a poet, you have to have an understanding of the world that is shaped and mediated by poetry, which is why it’s so important to read as well as write verse.
I read omnivorously when I was young, but in terms of the novel, I was a great devotee of R.S. Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s where some of my enthusiasm for that much-slighted virtue of storytelling comes from, as well as the interest in pirates that first led me to publish in Picaroon.
7. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I save admiration for the ones I know, like my friend Rahul Gupta in York, who is labouring over his Arthuriad, an epic poem of an ambition that outsoars anything else this century. A fragment of his “Interlude” was published in Long Poem Magazine a year or so ago.
Poetry editors can be distant & impersonal, so it was very fortunate that I encountered Kate Garrett early in my career when I was looking for a home for my pirate ballads. A lot of submissions guidelines are terribly wishy-washy, so it’s a joy to read something crisp & precisely targeted.
8. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
I write because when it’s going well, it’s a purer, more intense form of the buzz you get when you’re reading something so involving that the world drops away from you, & I’ve been hooked on that rush ever since I was a small child. I also write because when I want to tell & retell stories, to share the forgotten narratives behind our common signs & symbols. Where I live in Wales, for instance, hardly anybody knows why there’s a red dragon on the flag or knows the story of Vortigern’s tower, & that’s a bit of ancient British legend I love retelling.