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.
is a spoken word artist and poet from North Somerset. She has two published collections, Can You See Where I’m Coming From? (Burning Eye, 2018) and My Cloth-Eared Heart (Oversteps, 2017). Her work has been published in journals, including Algebra of Owls, Atrium, Bare Fiction, The Frogmore Papers, The High Window, The Interpreter’s House, Obsessed With Pipework and Prole. She has also reached three national slam finals and performed at numerous spoken word nights and arts festivals, including Womad.
- When and why did you begin to write poetry?
I don’t honestly remember. I know I had begun writing poetry by the time I was five, because I have a fleeting memory of a poem I wrote then and know it wasn’t my first. I wrote poetry continually and prolifically until I was about 20. Then some cutting criticism from a university lecturer made me feel that I was gauche and talentless and my poetry was crap and I stopped writing for nearly twenty years (although I continued to read and love poetry).
I started writing it again in my late 30s, when I was caring for my elderly parents. It happened by chance. I wanted to find an activity or group I could join to give me some time out of the house, but couldn’t join a theatre group or choir because the uncertainty of my parents’ health meant I couldn’t commit to being available for set performance dates. Then I saw a poster for a poetry writing group and thought, “That sounds fun and it’s something I could dip in and out of.” As soon as I went to one of their meetings it felt like coming home.
Then I went to a poetry slam when I was 46, just after I’d stopped caring for my parents, and was instantly hooked. That’s how I got into spoken word.
- Who introduced you to poetry?
I don’t know where I got it from. My parents had no interest in poetry (although they recited nursery rhymes and nonsense rhymes to me, as I suppose most parents do). They were madly aspirational and wanted my sister and me to have the education they hadn’t had, so surrounded us with books and made sure we had library cards practically as soon as we could walk, so I may have come across poetry in books or on children’s TV. Once she saw it was an interest of mine, my mother encouraged it, by buying me poetry books and praising my poems and I doubt if I would have become a poet without her.
3. How aware were and are you of the dominating presence of older poets?
I’m not entirely sure what this question means. Looking through other poets’ response on your website, many seem to have taken it as “How aware were you of previously published or well-regarded poets or poets of the past influencing your work and stopping you finding your original voice?” Others seem to have read it as “How aware were and are you of the literary canon?” I have become more and more aware of it as I’ve got older and I think this awareness does hold me back. I sometimes meet young spoken word poets who haven’t read a lot of poetry yet and although I think they need to read more if their poetry is going to develop, not having read it is in a way quite liberating for them, because they’re not afraid of being cliched, they’re not afraid of breaking the “rules”, because they don’t yet know what the clichés and the “rules” are. They just write and write and assume everything they write is bloody brilliant and through that process of writing they get better. Whereas I’m often too hesitant to finish things, because I’ve got this internal voice saying, “That’s been said before”, “Ooh, that’s a mixed metaphor!”, “ ‘Shards’? Seriously?” etc.I first read the question, though, as, “How aware were you of older poets hogging all the career opportunities and not letting young poets like you have a crack at the cherry?”
In my case, especially when I returned to poetry in my 30s and 40s, many of the poets who were “dominating” the scene, especially in spoken word, but also in page poetry, were actually much younger than me. I really think we have to get away from this idea that older poets are stifling and “dominating” younger poets and that young poets need all the encouragement and help. It’s ridiculous to suggest that Andrew McMillan and Martha Sprackland needed more help to get onto the first rung of the poetry ladder than a 40-year-old factory worker who discovered poetry on an adult literacy course or a 50-year-old housewife who only had time to write seriously once her children had left home.
3. What is your daily writing routine?
I don’t really have one. I know that makes me sound amateur and dilettante and hopeless and I keep meaning to establish one, but at the moment I write when I have the time and when the Muse comes to me, with no fixed pattern (although I am grateful to journals with submissions deadlines, especially those with set themes, because there’s nothing like a deadline to give the Muse a good kick up the arse).
5. What motivates you to write?
It depends. Sometimes it is pure self-expression – when I am hurt or angry or depressed or in love, I just need to let it out on paper.
Sometimes it’s something that I’ve read – it could be a story in a newspaper or it could be a mundane line in a notice or on food packaging that means something different when taken out of context.
Sometimes I want to explore an idea and find out what I think about it. I wrote my most recent collection, Can You See Where I’m Coming From?, sifting through my childhood memories and trying to explore my fractured sense of class and national identity.
I attend a local writers’ group (see answer to Q. 1) where we get set a theme every month and that is enormously motivating and forces me to write about topics I wouldn’t have chosen – I have produced some of my best work in response to these prompts. It’s also very helpful as it’s a very accepting, non-judgemental group and I take greater risks when writing for them, as I’m not scared to make mistakes in that supportive atmosphere.
I teach English part-time and it is surprising how often I have been inspired to write a poem about a writer or a topic I am teaching: I have a poem about almost every writer on the ‘A’ level English Lit syllabus, a couple of poems about the history of the English Language, and I use grammar as a metaphor so often in my poems that it’s becoming a bit of a cliché.
6. What is your work ethic?
I’m basically very lazy.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
The two writers I most admired as a teenager were Roger McGough and John Betjeman. I don’t like them as much as I used to and I don’t write anything like either of them, but occasionally I can hear their voices coming out in my work, more so than the voices of many of the poets I most admire now. And I hope I have taken that light touch that they have, that ability to make a serious point more poignant by not overlabouring it and giving it a comic spin.I’ve always been a sucker for a ballad and I’d like to think that some of that passionate use of rhythm and compact storytelling has carried over into my verse.
I also studied Philip Larkin for ‘A’ level and he continues to influence me hugely – I love his unpretentious use of language, the way he conveys a huge amount through sudden changes in diction, the way he uses line breaks to create ambiguity, the way he’s able to expose his own deficiencies and unpleasant features without either trying to justify them or angling for pity.
I have always adored Seamus Heaney and even today, if a poem of mine isn’t working, I look at the ending and think “How can I make this more like a Heaney ending?” and nine times out of ten it fixes the problem.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Too many people to mention. Here’s a few: Selima Hill, whose voice is utterly inimitable. She’s accessible, funny, unpretentious, but at the same time difficult, surreal, shocking, and her poetry works on many, many different levels. She can suggest a detailed, disturbing story in just a few lines.
Raymond Antrobus, who straddles literary poetry and spoken word effortlessly and like many great writers is preoccupied with exclusion and not knowing where he belongs, as a mixed-race, working-class, hearing-impaired, literary poet. He’s also a very economical storyteller whose each word has been weighed for its precise connotations.
Fran Lock, who manages to combine the spontaneity and pure emotion of confessional poetry or spoken word with the dazzling, swaggering, self-consciously ostentatious crafted language of a latter-day Shakespeare.
9. Why do you write?
Because it’s always been my go-to way of getting a grip on my emotions and putting my thoughts into order. And because I am, frankly, shit at everything else.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
The last thing the world needs is more people who want to “become a writer” more than they want to write. If what they mean is, “I write already. How do I become a published writer?”, I’d say submit to journals and/or enter competitions. Be prepared for it to be a slow and painful road and to receive a lot of rejections. If they want to be a performance poet, enter lots of open mics and slams and once you’ve got a bit of experience start asking promoters for feature slots. Be prepared for it to be a slow and painful road and to receive a lot of rejections.
If what they mean is, “I write already. How do I get better?”, I’d say read/listen to as much poetry as they can. Don’t just read/listen to poetry they like and find instantly accessible. If they read/hear a poem that’s been published in a top journal/won prizes/been otherwise highly acclaimed and they don’t understand why, keep reading it until they do understand. They don’t have to like the poem, but getting to the point where they at least see what other people prize in it will help expand their knowledge of poetry.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I’ve published two collections in a little over a year and am in no hurry to bring out another, but I am interested in doing more writing for children and hope to take a children’s poetry show to the Edinburgh Fringe in the summer, so I’m working on that.
My parents died in 2013 and 2015, respectively, after a long battle with both dementia and physical health problems, and I cared for them for most of that time. I haven’t written much about it so far, because I know it’s going to take a lot out of me emotionally and I haven’t felt ready to deal with that, but I’m starting to tackle it now and I think that could dominate my writing for a time.