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.
Charles G Lauder Jr
was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, lived for a few years each on both the East and West Coasts of America, and moved to south Leicestershire, UK, in 2000. His poems have been published widely in print and online, and in his two pamphlets Bleeds (Crystal Clear Creators, 2012) and Camouflaged Beasts (BLER, 2017). From 2014 to 2018, he was the Assistant Editor for The Interpreter’s House, and for over twenty years he has copy-edited academic books on literature, history, medicine, and science. The Aesthetics of Breath, his debut poetry collection, will be published by V. Pres in late 2019.
He doesn’t have a website, but is on Twitter and Facebook. No cover has been produced yet for his upcoming collection, but will probably be available by next summer.
1) When and why did you start writing poetry?
I don’t remember when I started writing poetry. I know I wrote my first story when I was seven, which my teacher shared with the rest of the class. When I was eight, I had a story included in a Readers’ Digest children’s anthology, and so the writing bug bit. I’ve wanted to be a writer every since, but I always envisioned myself a novelist. I wrote poems as a teenager, and while I don’t remember which was the first, I do remember one in particular that appeared in my high school literary magazine. It was the first one I had published–that’s probably why it stands out–and was called ‘The Wind Blows through the Barren Trees’. It was about a priest rambling about an empty church, partly inspired by the Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’, I’m sure. It was a poem of quatrains with a lot of repeated lines, and the magazine editor very succinctly cut the repeats and turned it into a poem of couplets. It was a much better poem after that.
Like I said, I wanted to be a novelist but kept finding myself returning to write poetry. I studied literature at university and took creative writing courses in both fiction and poetry. The poems were coming as emotional outbursts. I remember writing poems in my journal at night to try and make sense of the day and what I was feeling. Sometimes I would make a real concerted effort to turn some of that doggerel into a poem. So if fiction writing was large slabs of concrete, poetry was what I poured into the cracks between the slabs. Then for 5 years I focused solely on writing a novel and didn’t write a single poem. At the end of that time, my daughter was born, and when she was less than 4 months old, she had a serious accident. She was fine in the end, but those few hours of rushing to the hospital in an ambulance, watching the paramedics give her oxygen to revive her, the tests, and waiting around to hear if she was going to be OK were hell for my wife and I. A week later I had to stop in the middle of working and write it all down. It came out as a poem, and I realized how much I had missed writing poetry and how essential it was for me. And I haven’t stopped since.
2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
Growing up, my education in literature was on British poetry up until about the Victorian era, then it swapped over to American literature through modern and contemporary times. My only exposure to a contemporary British poem while in high school (that I can recall) was Ted Hughes’ ‘Esther’s Tomcat’. While studying literature at university, I spent a year focused on the Romantics, especially Blake and Keats. I love the way Blake used his poetry, art and original mythology to portray such iconoclastic philosophy and ideas. In short, he’s a rule-breaker: he was true to himself and his visions.
For American literary history, contemporary poetry begins with Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, two more rule-breakers, Whitman being a bigger influence on me when I was younger. Other major American influences on me while at university (or immediately thereafter) included Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, Audre Lorde, and John Ashbery. Eliot’s work, especially ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, would not make an impact until much later.
I didn’t start to read contemporary British and Irish poetry until my last year of university. I was working part-time in the English Department when I accompanied one of the secretaries to a reading by a visiting Irish poet named Seamus Heaney. And I was hooked. Years later, Heaney’s poetry would be one of the things my wife and I bond over when we first start dating. A couple years after graduating I moved to the UK and eventually got a job in Collet’s bookstore on Charing Cross Road in London, overseeing the poetry and literary criticism sections, exposing me to a lot of contemporary poets in the process.
I’ve lived in the UK for many years now, reading as much British and Irish poetry as possible; however, as before, it’s difficult to keep current with another nation’s poetry if you’re not living there. Thankfully the Poetry Foundation, under former US Poet Laureate Donald Hall, created the Essential American Poets podcast, which provides a great selection of 20th and 21st century poets to choose from. I like to listen to them while walking the dog.
3. What is your daily writing routine?
My daily writing routine is currently on hiatus–it’s slipped because my discipline has slipped in recent weeks. But it’s on my resolutions to get it up and running again in January. When it is going well, I write for an hour most mornings, mainly Monday to Friday. When my children were younger, I would get up before everyone else and write for an hour or so, then get everyone else up for school, make lunches, etc. Now that my children are off at uni or doing exams, they make their own lunches, and I get up after they’ve headed out. Sometimes when the writing’s going very well, and I’m not getting distracted, I will write for longer than an hour. Then I go walk the dog, where sometimes I will continue to mull over what I’ve written, and then when I get back, I will adjust the poem. On rare occasions when I have an idea or impulse that won’t leave me along, I will jot down stuff when I go to bed and just before I turn out the light. Otherwise, I don’t like to write at night. Also I only work on one poem at a time over several days, until I feel it’s at a good point to be shared with my writing group or emailed to a poet friend for her comments, or ready to be sent out. My ultimate critic is my wife, who while claiming not to be completely astute in poetry is a very sound judge of when a poem works and when it doesn’t. Occasionally if I’m really struggling with a poem, I will abandon it and come back to it weeks or months later. In this way, some of my poems take months or years to write, evolving over many drafts.
4. What motivates you to write?
That’s a good question. I’ve always thought of it as a compulsion. When I was writing mainly fiction, it was a desire to be a storyteller. But in the years since my sole focus has been poetry, I realize writing is a conduit to how I explain myself to the world and how the world explains itself to me. A little over 15 years ago, I had just finished a novel and hadn’t written poetry for 5 years when my infant daughter had a serious accident. In the 20 minutes that it took the ambulance to arrive, my wife and I were in a frantic state. Thankfully the paramedics revived our daughter and life returned to normal. But for several days afterward, the whole incident, how close we came to losing our baby girl stayed with me, and suddenly I had to stop in the middle of work and write it all down. And it opened the floodgates, and it kept them open.
As I mentioned earlier, I can be very undisciplined when it comes to writing. In other words, I’m lazy. And in order to stop this, I’ve made myself get up early to write, to keep myself focused. Otherwise I’ll read other people’s work and end up feeling frustrated with myself for not getting my act together. In the end it just kindles much more strongly that compulsion within to write and create.
In many ways I feel I have no choice. I see the Universe has a great river that we all draw from when we create, and when we create we are choosing to be a conduit for those waters. It moves through us with such force that if we don’t create, if we don’t allow it to move through us, to express itself through us, we end up destroying ourselves.
5. What’s your work ethic?
I need to feel invested in what I’m creating. Also the work needs to be honest. While I take inspiration from fellow poets, I don’t like the golden shovel writing method nor starting a poem with lines(s) from a published work–that way leads to the Dark Side. So I need to believe in what I’m creating: I don’t want to send out or share work that I’m not completely satisfied with. Often that means going down roads I’ve not been down before with my poetry, to take a chance and trust when the direction, often new, feels right. That entails removing ego from the process, which is a very difficult thing–to just be focused on what I’m creating and not to be caught up in self-doubt or envisioning how the work will be received. Removing ego means getting out from underneath those plaguing thought, to not pay attention to those demons and just focus on the work at hand. Lastly is discipline, which I’ve mentioned already: building and maintaining the discipline to work each day, dedicating the time to achieve what I want to achieve: to create poetry I believe in.
6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
William Faulkner wrote in long sentences that wandered and meandered, and his narratives are just as complex and convoluted, often of multiple voices. I like that complexity, to the point where I have to be careful not to overload a poem with too much imagery or metaphor. Likewise, I have been intrigued by Eliot’s use of cultural and historical references throughout The Waste Land; some of my poems have focused on historic figures or events, but much more distilled than the richness of Eliot. The emotional power of Sylvia Plath’s work, in contrast to the cerebral power of Eliot’s, shows how words can carry emotional impact, especially the darker side of the heart, how the personal can be the universal. The evolution of Robert Lowell’s poetry, how he continually challenged himself, reinvented his style with each new book, has reminded me not to settle for the tried and tested, but to push and try new ways of structuring a poem, lest I be seen as a one-trick pony. Blake, even more than Lowell, continues to remind me that one should be true to one’s vision. Keats had his high ideas, especially those about love, which compels me to weave mine into my own lines without hitting the reader over the head with them. And Seamus Heaney to write the effortless, seamless poem, lines full of music—to use the sound of the line to hook and enthral the reader.
7. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
The contemporary poet I admire the most is Seamus Heaney–he has such a music to his poetry that I love listening to and reading again and again. He makes it seem so effortless and simple, when actually it’s not. His poetry is also deceptive in that there’s more depth to the lines and to what he’s writing about than what you might imagine at first. I’m always learning from his work.
After him, Sinead Morrissey runs a close second–her imagery is so rich and you get the impression that all her words, flowing so easily as they seemingly do, are painstakingly planned out. I feel at ease when I read her work, but also deeply invested. Among American poets, I love the complex imagery and deeply feeling poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa, as well as the frank intimacy of Sharon Olds’ work.
Among British poets, I love the beautiful music and imagery of the poems of Alice Oswald and Nichola Deane. The way Mark Goodwin splits his words and sounds, gappy poetry as he calls it, is quite experimental, ground-breaking, and inspiring–he’s also pushing himself into new areas. Martin Malone’s poetry has a great mix of history and contemporary life, deeply felt, and very intellectual at times.
The poetry of Buddhist priest Dh Maitreyabandu is quiet and subtle, unexpectant. Finally, Lavinia Greenlaw, Jane Draycott, Selima Hill, and Julia Copus are four poets whom I don’t read enough of–again the emotion and the imagery and the music of the lines speak to me, stop me in my tracks, make me want to have the same effect in my own poems. When I read all of these poets’ works, I am deeply inspired and amazed at what poetry can doIf I wasn’t writing, I’d probably be a mathematician or a computer programmer. I’ve always been very good with numbers, and love mental calculations and math games/puzzles. I was studying English at university and my family were strongly encouraging me to study math instead, and for a while I did switch my major to mathematics. But one day I remember sitting in my differential equations class and thinking how bored I was. ‘x’ will always equal ‘x’ … whereas with writing there was so much more possibility. I’m sure mathematicians would argue that x could equally be of any value you wanted. But it wasn’t the same–it was a Blake vs Newton moment. So I switch back to English and haven’t regretted … except that perhaps with math I would have earned more money.
8) Why write, as opposed to doing anything else?
Writing opens up the world for me, releases the imagination with such elation. It is hard work at times, but it is such a joy to discover what can be written about next, or when I feel I’ve managed to capture what I was trying to say or that a poem has evolved in a direct I wasn’t expecting at all. I love drawing and I love photography, too. For a while, I fancied creating comics, but my drawing skills just aren’t good enough and I’m much more critical of them than of my writing ability. If I’m drawing and drawing and it just continues to look like shit, I give up, whereas if my writing is failing and crashing, I try to learn why and make it better. No matter how hard my writing/poems has fallen on its face, I’m willing to get up, brush myself off, and try again. I don’t know of anything else in my life, with the exception of my relationships with my family, am I willing to do that with.
9. What would you say to who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I’m sure others have answered this before, but the simple answer is ‘Write, write, write!’ It definitely takes a discipline, in particular to write everyday, but that is the essential step.
What makes the difference is what you do with the writing. If it’s purely for your enjoyment, that’s fine. However, if you intend to share it and perhaps publish it, then being a writer also entails ‘Rewriting, rewriting, rewriting!’ You have to not only be able to create, but as Allen Ginsberg said, to ‘kill your darlings’ as well. To realize you’ve not gone far enough or deep enough. To be willing to learn. Basically, you’ve got to be willing to put the time in. And that takes passion, and from that passion springs a commitment, a commitment that if you were tasked to describe yourself, being a writer would be first and foremost.
Being a writer is not a completely joyful task—it is very stressful, full of hard work, but it calls to you. It’s an innate calling that you have to come terms with, make peace with. So in that regard, “How do you become a writer?” also means recognizing that passion, that calling within yourself and acting on it.
10. Tell me about a writing project you’re involved with at the moment.
I’m currently putting together my debut poetry collection, “The Aesthetics of Breath“, which will be published by V.Press in November 2019. The publisher, Sarah Leavesley, is a very thorough, committed editor, and I’m enjoying working with her. She’s very hands on and it’s good to get her opinion on my work. The other half of the project is putting together a strategic plan on how to promote it, which I’m currently doing with Nichola Deane, whose collection “Cuckoo” is also being published by V.Press at the same time.