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.
Parables for the Pouring Rain, (BlazeVOX, December 2018)
was born in London, 1964, but brought up in Hertfordshire and Wiltshire. He graduated from Jesus College, Oxford, worked in industry until 2004, then left to travel, and now teaches English at a secondary school. He finds this environment stimulating – the joys, rages and stresses are exactly the spurs needed for writing. And the insight gained is revealing; of how dull and pointless most ‘mainstream’ poetry seems, to those who don’t have to feign interest.
A related inspiration is the liberal intelligentsia’s stranglehold on poetry – the absurd perfection and self-appointed moral guardianship, of language and much else, that they seek. Poetically, this is manifested in the domination (particularly in Britain) of the low-voltage faux-modest lyrical anecdote.
He has published six poetry collections –Falling Off (The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, January 2015) was Poetry Book Society Recommended Autumn Reading, in 2015.
His most recent are The Diversification of Dave Turnip (The Knives, Forks and Spoons, March 2017) and Parables for the Pouring Rain (from US avant-publisher BlazeVox, December 2018):
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
My father was an Eliot fanatic, and I was immediately hooked. As a teenager, I tried to write some Eliot-like pastiches. He also bought me this corny anthology “Other Men’s Flowers”, which I devoured.
I did sciences at A-level – hated dropping English – and also at university. But I wrote for myself, for years – mostly lyrics, for imaginary bands.
I had no idea how to get anything published – though, tragically, used to send stuff to competitions! Crazy. Eventually I joined a poetry writing class – and the discipline of that gave me the focus (and the anger) to be much more serious.
1.1 What was it about Eliot that hooked you?
The sleazy, urban settings, mixed with mythology. Dad played recordings – and I couldn’t believe the dryness and precision of the voice. I’d heard Dylan Thomas – who I now revere – but I was repulsed by the gaminess of it! And Eliot has phrases which, once heard, you can never forget. At the time, I’d never read any urban poetry.
At school, we’d have done Hughes – but all that animal stuff bored me to death. The first modern English poet I liked was Roy Fisher – in fact, I wrote him a fan letter, in 1997, and corresponded on and off with him – organised an Oxford reading, in 1999.
1.2 What attracted you to the sleazy, urban settings, mixed with mythology?
I’ve very powerful memories of late 60s/early 70s London – especially around Kings Cross, to which my parents commuted (both doctors, they worked at University College Hospital). It’s a very Eliot landscape – with Bloomsbury next door (Russell Square in particular). Utterly changed now – but the mythology is both universal but touching – and funny:
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse.
Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck
And on the king my father’s death before him.
2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
When I write, I’m totally unaware of them, at a conscious level. But unconsciously, I guess everything one has read is somehow accessed – when it’s going well.
I don’t think any contemporary British poets are “dominating” – perhaps the last who were would be Larkin or Auden.
The “elder statesmen” poets we’ve had recently, at least here, are too dull for that. Heaney is a frightful bore. Geoffrey Hill is more interesting, but lacks any of Eliot’s magic. Hughes leaves me cold.
The recent ones I most admire – Roy Fisher, Ken Smith, Peter Reading – aren’t dominating, they’re wonderfully underrated. The big names – Don Paterson, Armitage and Duffy say – just aren’t good enough. No wonder they’re so unknown internationally.
But wonderful American poets – say Ashbery – well, that’s different. But he’s inimitable.
3. What is your daily writing routine?
I don’t have one. I wait until I feel pressured, almost obsessed – and then do it, wherever. I’ve often written at work. But then I’ll edit – mostly for the dynamics. I tend to write sequences, so usually have one “on the go”.
This may be misleading – since the ideas are always churning around. Then a phrase comes. For example, I wanted to write something on pure joy, but had a terrible awareness and inhibition, of how awful that could be.
I was in my local, and a song I realised I loved “Heaven must be missing an angel” came on – and that gave me it:
4. Is this need to write about a particular thing what motivates you to write?
Yes, though there’s more than one! But I’ve certain obsessive ideas and interests – decay, violence, crime, gentrification, authenticity, serial killers, humiliation – and many more. I especially like mixing the absurd and hyper-reality (as opposed to surrealism, which I dislike). The great French writer Celine (can’t do the accent on the e) is the model for that. I think this captures our reality our frenzied state far better than surrealism, which is often very dull.
4.1. How would you describe hyper-reality?
“Hyper-reality” is a frenzied state, but using concrete objects and ideas from the base situation. It merges internal and external consciousness, without any distinction.
In fiction, Dostoevsky’s most psychological prose would be a perfect example.
4.2. No distinction between fantasy and reality?
Well, more like an elision. But the important thing is a heightened energy – almost a delirium. The point then is to make it readable.
Another favourite (prose) writer of mine – the crime/psychological novelist Patricia Highsmith – is brilliant at it.
4.2. How do you make it more readable?
That’s the question!
I think far too many people – I’ve certainly been guilty – forget this. Poetry is a very highly differentiated type of writing, simply from its name – with all the connotations.
Personally, I just read it cold, and see if I find it interesting.
I ignore all the stuff about form/craft – NOT that this is unimportant. But it can totally obscure the basic act of reading.
As for what makes things readable, I’m convinced it’s pacing and energy – how this is structured. I’m unconvinced “poetic craft” is that relevant – though it is vital, for the poet.
5. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I’m so glad you focus on “writers”, not just poets. By “young” I guess you mean early teens on?
Hugely! I’m addicted to all the Sherlock Holmes stories – which I reread constantly. And Orwell was my first great love, at school. And Alan Sillitoe. Then I discovered Greene and Waugh. I remember reading “Decline and Fall” literally in the middle of A-level exams. But then reading say Kafka or Doesteovsky – well, it’s like an explosion.
I think the influence is in subject matter; both the mainstream and the dull “experimental” people, with their obsessions over form, seem very limited. Put very crudely, poetry is so marginal an activity that this is pointless.
Subject matter is so much more interesting to experiment in. And virtually all poets seem too sane and measured – poetry can inherently create this “superior seer” mode, which increasingly seems ridiculous.
Again, very crudely, so much mainstream work seems “nice” and preachy – almost like Soviet era propaganda, but for a patronising left-liberal mindset. The group-think aspects are horrific.
6. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I won’t (much) distinguish between living and dead!
I think Coetzee is by far the greatest living prose writer, in English. “Disgrace” is his masterpiece. I can’t think of a better modern political novel, which uses the human condition and exposes the ruthless authoritarianism of modern “liberals”.
I’d say the same of Philip Roth. “American Pastoral” is comparable to “Devils”. Again, he is driven and almost deranged, but incredibly tight and, when that novel ends, one is speechless.
I also think David Mamet is a genius. Better than most poets, in energy, rhythm and imagery. He captures so much that “on message” writers can’t.
Poets I especially admire are: Ken Smith, Roy Fisher, Peter Reading, John Ashbery (all dead, but near contemporary).
I’d not want to say much about truly contemporary ones – but Martin Stannard is one of the finest British poets. I also admire David Harsent, though he is too much “in the scene”.
I think Tom Raworth is outstanding – above all, for the speed and the energy.
7. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
I write because I love doing it; it’s the only way I can use how I feel and think.
I’m a state secondary school English teacher – working part time; I don’t think a poet can write “full time” – you need another string.
I worked in contract negotiation, purchasing offshore gas fields, for years – a highly technical and very aggressive environment. I hated the corporate environment, but it was very inspiring – I used to write (and photocopy!) extensively at work.
8. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I don’t want to sound trite – but you write and, above all, find out if you can stomach your own stuff. Read it sideways, drunk – whatever. Reread it constantly – and, any slight dislikes you have, act on.
What you don’t do is listen to self-appointed gatekeepers, droning on about whatever.
You find what you enjoy writing, and focus on that,
The “poetry world” is now – like so much of life – managerial and group-thinking, with ludicrous prizes and meaningless “leading figures”.
I’m sure I’m not alone in having picked up their latest hyped figure/collection and thought (as a reader):
“Christ, this is shit.”
Not always, of course. But it’s best to not try and fit into that structure.
9. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I’ve this alter-ego (Dave Turnip), who I thought was finished with me – but I don’t think is.
My last Knives Forks and Spoons’ collection (“The Diversification of Dave Turnip“) collected up all the work – and was illustrated, by an amazing comic artist:
The madman has now started stalking me, and I’m going to do another one, as a graphic novel.
He moves between service stations, waits for those perfect dawns found only on slip-roads.
Then foot down – and he’s in the rear-view mirror.