Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
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.
grew up in Grimsby and has lived in Sheffield since 2004. Their work is preoccupied with coastlines and other marginal locations, cities and post-industrial predicaments. Pete has been a featured poet in The Interpreter’s House; their poems also appear in The Fenland Reed, Caught by the River, Under the Radar (forthcoming), and elsewhere. A debut pamphlet Sheffield Almanac, published by Longbarrow Press in 2017, is described by Pete as “a poem in four chapters about rivers, rain, relocation, and regeneration, exploring the industrial past and post-industrial future of my adopted home city”. As a musician Pete fronts the indiepop band The Sweet Nothings and has released two solo albums, the more recent being We’re Never Going Home (Atomic Beat Records, 2016), which continues their ruminations on place and belonging.
main website is petegreensolo.com – this covers poetry and music, and their blog is there too.
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
The simple answer is in 2014, because I finally stopped caring whether posh people would laugh me out of the room. Because for 20 years I was so afraid of taking myself too seriously that I never took myself seriously enough.
It’s a bit more complicated than that though, and I’m still working it out.
As an adolescent I did all the correct adolescent poetry things, loved Shelley and Plath and all the outsider figures who were on fire, taught myself how to write sonnets. But I couldn’t take it anywhere because I was a working-class kid from a ruined fishing town and didn’t know anyone who liked books or had been to university. What were you supposed to do? I’d never have the confidence to send poetry to publishers. So instead I started writing songs and playing in indie bands to nine people on a wet Monday night in Coventry and never having the confidence to send demos to record labels.
And that was me done with poetry for a long time. Then I came across the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. This was a moment of epiphany. Everything I wanted from the written word but was afraid to ask for. As my best friend brilliantly put it, I didn’t think we were allowed to have poetry like that.
Eventually I was out walking along Padley Gorge with my first-born – three at the time, he was born into the credit crunch – and we found a fallen tree studded with coins. People pick up a rock, hammer loose change into the timber, and make a wish. A couple of days later, without really thinking about it, I’d written a poem called The Money Tree, which turned out to be a response to austerity and different ideas of wealth and value. I liked it enough to write more. And this time I’ve been lucky enough to have some wonderful people around to give encouragement and support, so I’ve never looked back.
2. How aware were you of the domineering influence of older poets, traditional and contemporary?
The other day I was looking at a discussion online about the reputation of Ted Hughes. Someone suggested that the day is past when these great figures like Hughes and Seamus Heaney towered over everything, that perhaps now “we live in the age of the poem more than the poet”. That’s an interesting one. It’s probably a good thing if we are, isn’t it? For the most part towering figures are probably just the product of male cult-making and ego.
That said, I’m still intimidated by reading some contemporary poets, by their approach or by their reputation. It depends who it is and what mood I’m in. Sometimes when I look at other poets I feel inspired but other times I feel like I’m doing it wrong. I misinterpret commentary as prescriptive, as if there’s only one approach that’s ‘right’. So if a ‘confessional’ sort of poet is praised, I might go away and look at my work and think it must be inferior because it’s not personal enough. That’s one of my unhelpful think-habits. Clearly it’s healthy to look at different approaches. I try to, and perhaps to some extent every poet has a responsibility to, but I need to spend a bit of time in a comfort zone, just to stop my self-belief from shattering. I’m frustrated by my own fragility, but there it is.
3. What is your writing routine?
In the tiny gaps between work and parenting, very occasionally I am not too exhausted to write. Sometimes it’ll happen at 4am when I can’t sleep. Sometimes it won’t. Sometimes I have to snatch five minutes on a park bench en route to the office and type up an idea on my phone. I’d love to have the sort of life that has room for a daily writing routine! If anyone reading this has a large amount of disposable wealth and would like to become my patron, please get in touch.
4. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
Influence is a tricky thing to pin down. I think perhaps the writers I’ve read more recently are the ones who have influenced my voice, while the writers I read when I was young influenced my outlook.
I used to read the Romantics a lot and my absorption with landscapes might begin there. The first time I travelled through the Cumbrian fells, at the age of 18, I felt a stir of that Wordsworthian sublime, but just as an outsider looking in. It was only through John Clare, as a champion of small things, that I started developing any sense of my own belonging in a landscape. The Prelude and Clare were both on my a-level syllabus, which was a lucky accident – poetry becoming the window to a more expansive view of the world, enriched by the grandiose and the humble at the same time.
As lyric poets Elizabeth Jennings and Louis MacNeice left a strong early impression on me – and MacNeice was the key influence years later when I wrote my pamphlet Sheffield Almanac. The form he chose for Autumn Journal is ideally suited to a long, discursive poem which ranges widely in focus. The varying length of the lines allows for shifts in pace, while the rhyme scheme holds it all together. And the scope of Autumn Journal is incredible. It’s not just that he shifts focus so deftly between the personal and the social – it’s that he demonstrates their interconnectedness. It sounds like a simple thing but there are so few poets who ever pull that off.
And then there are some writers who I read extensively as a young person but who left no influence at all. There was nothing I could take from Plath or Oscar Wilde and in the end the Beats were less an inspiration than a frustration.
In retrospect, what I needed most was a contemporary working-class voice which could express vulnerability and wonder, in an engaging way.
5. What motivates you to write?
There’s still a part of me that’s doing this for adolescent, wrong-headed reasons – neurosis, solipsism, need for attention, fear of death. But I think mostly I’m writing because poetry has given me a belated last chance to do something decent. I want to find a way to document marginal places and the people in them. I’m haunted by impossible or seemingly unattainable geographical locations, and identities. I’m driven by a weird conviction that the most inconsequential scenes – the far remnant of a platform from a railway station closed down 50 years ago, or the silence drawing over a suburban pub on an overcast Wednesday afternoon – are really the most important thing of all. I’ve still got no confidence but poetry is the first thing I’ve taken seriously in my whole life.
As a latecomer to poetry I’m also keen to make up for lost time. So once the idea is there, I’m motivated to develop it into text, to write and publish, by anxieties about death and unfulfillment, which grow more and more intense as I get closer to the modest age at which my dad died. That all sounds a bit dramatic and Keatsian, but it’s good that something’s driving me on, compelling me to find the energy and time to write. Without that spur, my tiredness might win and I’d write nothing.
6. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Kathleen Jamie is probably my favourite poet writing today: she has the keenest eye and the lightest touch. I enjoy Alison Brackenbury for her ability to see layers of past and present in a single scene, and she continues a lyric tradition which links back through Elizabeth Jennings and Thomas Hardy, perhaps all the way to Clare.
My friend Robert Etty has a unique gift for exploring complex nuances of perception and memory using everyday subject matter and plain language – a refreshing antidote to the current tendency for poetry to overdo the pyrotechnics. That said, I really liked Kaveh Akbar’s book too, and it’s a riot of surprising imagery.
For various reasons I hugely admire all the poets who comprise the Longbarrow Press community which I’m lucky enough to have found myself in. As well as an adroit editor and publisher, Brian Lewis is a remarkable poet – the tanka sequences which result from his solo walks have a quiet intensity which seems quite unlike anything else.
7. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
It’s only in writing that I can escape limitations. When I sing, my vocal range is constrained by the anatomy of my vocal cords and larynx. When I walk, my hips get sore after 15 kilometres and I can’t go any further. When I go to the pub, I run up against social anxiety, conflicted identities, and the finite units of alcohol that I’m allowed to drink because of my irregular heartbeat. But when I write, I don’t have a sense of any such limits. There’s just white space, and infinite ways of combining the words I might place into it.
Sometimes limits are comforting, and limitlessness might feel scary or overwhelming, and then I might do something else. But when I can step into that place, and the words seem to combine well, then the exhilaration of that creative act is its own reward. Before that, the sense of possibility at the outset, which radiates from the blank page, is the greatest thing of all.
8. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
For me, poetry begins only when my brain is allowed to decouple from the train of linear thought and minute-to-minute preoccupation – catching the bus, finding the meeting room – and drift more expansively, apprehending the secret connections between apparently disparate items, ideas or words. So you have to get into this other place. You do what it takes to switch into this psychic mode. Put yourself into situations that are conducive to it, and make it a habit of mind.
This definitely means becoming unmindful, for a time, of your day job. It could also mean getting away from your home, perhaps walking with no destination in mind, or catching buses and trains at random until you find a place you’ve never been before and then sitting in a café with a notebook. It could mean taking a bath at 11 o’clock in the morning, or walking in a public place with your eyes closed, or renting a cottage overlooking the cliffs of the North Sea, or just looking very closely at the back of your hand. It could be something else entirely: find what works for you and keep doing it.
There are other things as well, like reading critically and having brilliant friends to give you support and objective feedback, but those are all fairly obvious, aren’t they?
9. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
There’s this series of city-themed anthologies of creative writing being put out by Dostoyevsky Wannabe, an indie publisher in Manchester. They’re doing a Sheffield one in the spring. This month I’m working on a short sequence of poems for that. The sequence is called ‘Pulp’. It takes the recent kerfuffle here in Sheffield about the closure of libraries and the felling of street trees as a basis for looking at contrasting ideas of value, and what we think of as renewable or disposable, as temporary or permanent.
Beyond that in 2019 I want to start working towards either a second pamphlet or a first full-length collection. Watch this space, I guess!