Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: William Oxley

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.


William Oxley

was born in Manchester. A poet and philosopher, he has also worked as accountant. part-time gardener, and actor. At present he divides his time between London and South Devon. His poems have been widely published throughout the world, in magazines and journals as diverse as The New York Times and The Formalist (USA), The Scotsman, New Statesman, The London Magazine, Stand, The Independent, The Spectator and The Observer. Following the publication of a number of his works on the Continent in the ’eighties and ’nineties, he was dubbed ‘Britain’s first Europoet’ He has read his work on UK and European radio and is the only British poet to have read in Shangri-la, (Nepal). Among his books of poetry have been Collected Longer Poems (Salzburg University Press, 1994), and Reclaiming the Lyre: New and Selected Poems (Rockingham Press, 2001). A former member of the General Council of the Poetry Society, he is consultant editor of Acumen magazine and co-founder of the Torbay Poetry Festival. In 1995 he edited the anthology Completing The Picture for Stride. The founder of the Long Poem Group, he co-edited its newsletter for several years; and in 1999 his autobiography No Accounting for Paradise came from Rockingham Press. He was Millennium Year poet-in-residence for Torbay in Devon. A limited edition print employing lines from his epic, A Map of Time, was chosen by the Dept. of Cartography, University of Wisconsin to use, with appropriate illustration, in their Annual Broadsheet for 2002. Another of his long poems, Over the Hills of Hampstead, was awarded first prize by the on-line long poem magazine, Echoes of Gilgamesh. He has co-edited the anthology Modern Poets of Europe (Spiny Babbler, Nepal 2004). In 2004, Hearing Eye published Namaste his Nepal poems, and Bluechrome published his London Visions in Spring 2005. A study of his poetry, The Romantic Imagination, came out in 2005 from Poetry Salzburg. A fine, limited edition of his Poems Antibes, illustrated by Frances Wilson, was launched in Antibes, Côte d’Azur in December 2006. In 2008 he received the Torbay ArtsBase Award for Literature. His latest collections are: Sunlight in a Champagne Glass and Collected & New Poems (Rockingham Press 2009 & 2014); Walking Sequence & Other Poems (Indigo Dreams Publishing 2015). In 2018 Rockingham Press published his prose anecdotes On and Off Parnassus. His work is featured on various websites, including, from its beginning, Anne Stewart’s prestigious www.poetrypf.co.uk and www.creativetorbay.com.

The Interview

Paul Brookes: What inspired you to write poetry?

William Oxley: Falling in love when I was seventeen years old. Then joining a Shakespearean drama company in Manchester and being transported imaginatively by the poetry in Shakespeare’s plays. I never had really major parts but because I was mostly ‘in the wings’, so to speak, I had hours and hours of rehearsals to enjoy the words of the Bard: mostly uttered by my fellow actors. I think a third factor was that my father was fond of the work of many poets, and he communicated the love of them to me.

PB: Who introduced you to poetry?

WO: Shortly after first going to school around age five, I became seriously ill with rheumatic fever. I spent many months in a children’s ward in hospital. The fever eventually receded and I left hospital. But it suddenly came back and I found myself incarcerated in hospital again. Fortunately for me, penicillin had just been released to the NHS after the end of the Second World War, and I was permanently cured. However, the illness had left me with a damaged heart valve, and I was strictly forbidden all excitement or violent exertion. But I still had to be educated and I had a retired headmistress as a tutor. Her name was Miss Cawthorne, and she it was who first introduced me to poetry. This she did rather cunningly. As I had been forbidden any sporting activity, it was inevitable that all I ever wished to talk about was cricket and football, especially the former. So, cleverly, she had me read poems aloud that were about sport. The one that I best recall was about cricket and was called ‘King Willow’. It began something like this:

‘King Willow, King Willow thy guard hold tight!

Trouble is coming before the night:

Hopping, galloping short and strong,

Comes the Leathery Duke along…’

Not only did such poems as this inspire me to love poetry, but in my late teens and twenties – when I was no longer under medical supervision – I became a fast bowler in cricket.

PB: How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

WO: After I moved to London with my wife, I read more and more poetry. Poets of the past like Milton, Tennyson, Chaucer, and the main Romantics – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats et al – became dominating presences in my life. My father had a great fondness for the South African poet Roy Campbell, and he passed this enthusiasm on to me. I repaid the compliment with Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, the great Modernists, and they loomed over me for several years. I also took on board the Irish poet W.B. Yeats and the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Among the younger poets, then active and publishing new work, I was drawn to Hughes and Plath, Thom Gunn and Philip Larkin; and Robert Graves was still alive into the 1980’s, and I was very keen on his poetry and life story. There were others, too, who could be said to be dominating presences like W.H. Auden and the Scots’ poet Hugh MacDiarmid. Then, too, in the 1970’s I encountered the work of Rilke, especially his great ‘Duino Elegies’, and was in the vernacular ‘blown away’ by the Leishman translations of Rilke.

PB: What is your daily writing routine?

WO: I don’t have one. I’ve never had one. At most I’ve just been at the mercy of what is called ‘Inspiration’ – and that can strike at any time, any place. I even wrote a poem once that I called ‘Waiting for Inspiration’!

PB: What motivates you to write?

WO: I’d like to give the novelist’s reply: money. But there is no money in poetry. I would hazard a guess that there are two motives for writing poetry – and indeed for all art – personal suffering, pain; or praise of life. My long childhood illness put me off suffering and its frequent concomitant of self-pity. So, mostly, I praise being alive in this, often beautiful world. My poetry shows my obsessions with love and truth.

PB: What is your work ethic?

WO: Love and truth, as I have said. Successful poetry is the art of utmost honesty. This also embraces technically and ethically the wish to write poetry that is as accurate as possible and as cliché-free as possible; and which has some musical-rhythmic-metrical form about it.

PB: How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

WO: I think I’ve explained the role Shakespeare has played in my life. Other writers and playwrights like Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and the likes of John Milton, Rupert Brooke, Dylan Thomas, Robert Graves (and other First World War poets), Dante shaped my instinctive style. Eliot more than Pound – among the less traditional, more innovative poets – helped me to explore and write about the impact of urban, city experience in a world dominated by technology. My first long poem ‘The Dark Structures’ was my ‘Waste Land’, and all the many long poems I subsequently wrote can be said to have sprung from that first Eliotesque effort. But the more traditional poets whom I loved kept my shorter poems within the earlier lyric mode. I remember giving a reading in my early poetic years to a Sixties’ audience at a pub in Covent Garden and, afterwards, a poet came up to me and said ‘Your poems are too lyrical – there’s no audience for that sort of writing these days. Poetry today has to be more experimental.’ The poet in question wrote supposedly innovative, experimental poetry. He also founded an avant-garde poetry publisher which lasted for many years after the 1960’s. I have never forgotten what he said after that reading.

PB: Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

WO: I still read voraciously the various poetry magazines that come my way as a result of being a consulting editor and interviews’ editor of Acumen Literary Journal : to give the full title of my wife’s magazine, now 34 years old. I have also done a great deal of book reviewing at the behest of her book reviews’ editor, a retired academic from Swansea University. In the Nineties I co-founded The Long Poem Group and its newsletter with the late Sebastian Barker. He and I had a common interest in the long poem: I having published my longest poem A Map of Time and he subsequently The Dream of Intelligence: on which latter poem he consulted me at the manuscript stage. I certainly admired his work in the field of the long poem. Then I got to know the Welsh poet Dannie Abse, and for thirty-odd years until his death we regularly discussed each other’s poems in draft. I particularly admired Dannie’s grasp of what I would term ‘verbal texture’. Like Robert Graves, Dannie was a great reviser of his poems – even after they had appeared in published form in many cases. Then I seem to have kind of grown up with the poems of Danielle Hope, since I first encountered her when she was a student in Nottingham editing a small magazine called Zenos. We have helped each other for many years editing collections of our work published by the Rockingham Press. Another poet whom I was especially drawn to was Ken Smith, the first poet ever to be published by Bloodaxe Books. Ken Smith, a northerner, was regarded as the doyen of the so-called New Generation of poets of the Nineties, a kind of father figure who wrote what was termed a ‘gritty’ sort of verse. I liked his work and enjoyed his company. I suppose I ‘admire’ the poets I admire because they offer me different work from my own: taking me along different, unfamiliar routes than those I am used to. Part of poetry’s attraction is it is a learning process. A road to greater enlightenment.

PB: Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

WO: If you were to consult my autobiography No Accounting for Paradise (Rockingham Press, 1999), you would have your answer. I have done various jobs in my life, from Office Boy to Chartered Accountant. I gave up my fulltime profession in the City of London because I preferred using words to figures. I wasn’t bad at figures but the use of words excited me more. I have always been more of a contemplative than of a practical disposition, and that led me to a fascination with thought and word, viz, poetry.

PB: What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

WO: Read writings of the past and present in prose and poetry. And read as widely as possible: from Homer to Dante to Milton to Wordsworth, et al. Read the great epics of the West like The Iliad and The Odyssey; and those of India like The Mahabarata and The Ramyana. Read the great novels of Hugo, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert and others. It all helps with the process of maturing your talent. And if you feel it will help, try a creative writing workshop or two, but don’t get bogged down by too much of the communal teaching that imbues workshops and creative writing courses.

PB: Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

WO: This interview.


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