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 York-based writer, photographer and musician, who has been published extensively worldwide, and has read everywhere from Glastonbury Festival to New York, via countless back rooms of pubs. His most recent poetry collection is Learning to have Lost(IPSI, 2018). A keen collaborator with other artists, Oz has had work performed by classical musicians in UK concert halls, by flamenco musicians in Italian villas, and with experimental sound and film artists in an Australian cinema. By day he is Professor of English and Programme Leader for Creative Writing at Leeds Trinity University. In his spare time, Oz is a respected music journalist. ‘The poetry is as good as it gets’ – HQ
- When and why did you start writing poetry?
I really don’t know. I always liked rhymes and playing about with words, but I don’t know when I started writing them down. Also, I was fortunate in that my maternal grandparents lived with us, and my granddad was passionate about Robert Burns and the Lake poets, and could recite vast swathes of their work. He’d left school early and gone into agricultural work, so was a bit of an autodidact: loved poetry and wrote poetry (very much in the Romantic mode), as well as drawing and playing folk tunes – again self-taught – on the melodeon. And he was a huge influence on me, so I just grew up with the idea that poetry was a normal thing that happens in a working-class household.
The first poetry I remember responding to personally, though, was Brian Patten when I was maybe 11 or 12. I came across ‘A Small Dragon,’ ‘The Projectionist’s Nightmare,’ and so on, and it was in language I understood, and spoke of the world I recognised, both in the everyday and in that magical aura which shimmers just beneath the surface of that world. I still love his work, and he led me to Roger McGough, Pete Brown, Adrian Henri and so on. If I hadn’t been writing things down before, I most definitely did then. The final piece in the early picture was Robert Calvert, who was doing really interesting spoken science fiction poetry with Hawkwind, who I also discovered when I was 12, and have been a fan ever since – 45 years or so later, there are things about his approach that, though you may not see any similarity in my writing, I still see in my approach to certain projects.
A long answer, which just takes me up to starting writing poetry, but these were the things that set the wheels turning – part grandfather born in the last years of the 19th century, part future-focused space rock.
2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
I had the usual 60s/70s school introductions to ‘The Greats’ from Chaucer to the First Wold War poets, but it was the ones I encountered more serendipitously that had a more profound effect. I remember a few of us bunking off games in the library, and a teacher finding us and deciding to tell us about the poetry he loved. It started with Coleridge, and then went on to the Metaphysicals, and it had such an impact because it wasn’t someone going through the motions but, rather (like my granddad), getting carried away with a passion. The other epiphany was Hopkins, to whom we were introduced by a teacher who couldn’t hide his distaste, which sort of contaminated my reading, but I remember taking out this book in one of my favourite places, leaning against a tree, overlooking the sea on a summer afternoon, and for some reason reading it aloud. Wham!
In my 30s, I went to York University as a mature student (English and Art History), by which time I had a real enthusiasm for early 20th-century poetry – imagism and surrealism in particular – and, much to my own surprise, became passionate about medieval literature. Three degrees later, the pattern and texture of medieval poetry is pretty much a constant thread through my own writing, whether I’m thinking about it or not – it’s just in the air I breathe, even though most of what I read is contemporary.
2.1.Why did you become passionate about medieval literature?
I think it was initially the music of the language. I’d had a very unrewarding run-in with Chaucer at school, where it was taught as line-by-line translation, and that had put me off completely. However, I went to see a performance of a couple of the York Mystery Plays in the original language, in a medieval church, and it sounded magnificent! That primed me for the compulsory medieval literature module, which up to then I’d been kind of dreading. I still think Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever read – and, incidentally, that Simon Armitage’s version is the only modernisation that does it justice. That, along with the sheer stylistic diversity of Chaucer, the overwhelming complexity of Langland, the York Master’s robust dialogue, and on, and on … My interest in contemporary writing remains undiminished but, at the same time, immersing myself in medieval literature – and art (I live in York, so it’s everywhere) – has been incredibly enriching.
3. What is your daily writing routine?
I write every morning, pretty much first thing – generally while I’m having a coffee. I belong to an online group which grew out of a prose poetry project at the University of Canberra. It put writers in the form in touch with each other in a creative dialogue. I was involved for about the last 18 months of its official life, but after the project finished it seemed too good to let go, so a number of us stayed in touch, swapping poems and responding to each other’s work. With most of the other writers being in different time zones, I generally wake up to something interesting in my inbox, which mixes with whatever’s on the radio, whatever’s still buzzing about from dreams, and so on, and I just write from these diverse, sometimes clashing, sources. My critical faculties come into play later, whenever I find the time, but I have this half hour or so each day during which I will write. And – with due apologies if this sounds arrogant – I have a pretty good hit rate on raw material that will develop into something worthwhile. This most definitely isn’t because I have a unique and wonderful talent, or that I’m ‘inspired’ (I’ve never knowingly been inspired in my life) but, rather, it’s because I have worked on writing and thought carefully about it on a daily basis for many years. I think I often give the impression of being a bit scatty, a little bit flippant even, perhaps, but beneath the slightly shambolic exterior, I’m actually very focused, very disciplined and quite possibly unhealthily driven.
4. Clashing sources motivates you to write?
Very much so. Often writers will talk about the blank page and how they respond to its challenge, but for me it’s much more akin to Michelangelo’s description of sculpting an angel, by seeing the angel inside the marble and carving everything extraneous away until the angel is set free. I don’t necessarily know what is inside the chaos of stimulation, but I have become quite adept at cutting everything away to get at what it actually is that I feel needs to be set free. So, for me, there’s never a blank page, just a huge – almost overwhelming – mass of stuff waiting for me to find the shape of my thoughts within it. Sometimes it takes the delicate application of the finest chisel, and sometimes it takes a pneumatic drill. Or maybe explosives. I think that’s possibly a metaphor that’s gone about as far as it can!
5. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
The very general answer is that they gave me the passion for what I do now. I’ll set my own parameters for ‘young,’ and go back to my mid teens for the most profoundly influential, and that was Richard Brautigan. I discovered him by chance in the library – an experience that the internet will never replace – when I came across ‘The Cleveland Wrecking Yard’ in an anthology. I was absolutely hooked, and picked up everything available – and, indeed, waited eagerly for his further books. Apart from the understated surrealism of the story, the language and structure of the paragraphs was closer to poetry than to prose. I wouldn’t hear the term ‘prose poetry’ until a lot later (well, not consciously, as Brian Patten has a self-professed prose poem in The Mersey Sound, but somehow that had sailed past me), but I recognised Brautigan’s work in these terms straight away. He wrote both poetry and prose, but I’m of the not uncommon opinion that his novels are way better poetry than his actual poems. I am a very different writer, but I think my prose poems share a similar aesthetic – and that’s an aesthetic that in my case was partly shaped by my love of his work. His In Watermelon Sugar is as good as it gets, as far as I’m concerned.
5.1. Why is the language and structure of Brautigan’s work closer to poetry?
Brautigan’s is a prose that foregrounds language over narrative development, and often uses simile and metaphor in ways that are intensely suggestive, yet do not fully cohere into a fixed image. To take a very simple – and quite typical – example: when native Americans ‘report like autumn’ to the army, for instance, it doesn’t service the narrative, and I can’t quite pin down how they are reporting, but I find it deeply satisfying at the level of language. Although distinctly different in all manner of respects, there’s a similarity here to, say, the discontinuous juxtapositions in Lyn Hejinian’s work. This quality is something that was even commented upon by his contemporaries: I don’t recall the exact words, but Michael McClure said something about Trout Fishing in America being a great poem. Of course, on a pure gut reaction level, the brevity of Brautigan’s chapters or short stories makes them look like poems: there’s a lot of white space around the ink which – and it’s something that Glyn Maxwell talks about in On Poetry – is a part of the reader’s encounter with text that we shouldn’t underestimate.
5.2 How do the medieval works influence your writing?
That, I think, is much more complex and subtle. A clear example would be my An Eschatological Bestiary (Dog Horn, 2013), which took the medieval bestiary form and, instead of combining biblical and doctrinal material, natural history, folklore and so on in order to attribute allegorical meaning to animals (I’m grossly oversimplifying here), I combined newspaper reports, overheard conversations, a lot of my own academic writing on medieval animal iconography, and other found sources, and employed a few chance procedures in order to engage very obliquely – there’s nothing didactic about it – with topics that concern me, such as dissociation from the natural world, miscommunication, and personal dissociation through mental illness. That makes it sound very dark indeed, but actually it’s a very playful work, which owes as much to Tristan Tzara and Max Ernst as it does to the great medieval Anonymous. At the other end of the scale, the poems in my collection The Ringmaster’s Apprentice (Valley Press, 2014) are sequenced in a way that owes a lot to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, though you wouldn’t know if I didn’t tell you, and probably still wouldn’t be any the wiser now that I have. It’s as much a pattern of thought as it is an ‘influence,’ I think.
6. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
That is very hard to say, as there are so many writers whose work I admire, and for different reasons. I find Claudia Rankine’s challenge to form, in concert with her work’s challenge to learned cultural perception, really exciting, particularly in view of the way it incorporates visual material in a dynamic dialogue. A profoundly different writer, who also incorporates visual material is Bella Li, who I only discovered a few months ago. She has an unashamed debt to the surrealists, but there is a pared-back, meditative quality to her writing that is like imagining Solaris as a haiku sequence – or something like that, anyway. Her books are wonderful. A complete contrast, but Simon Armitage is a poet who seems to be everywhere these days, and quite rightly so. As a prose poetry enthusiast, Seeing Stars is a particular favourite – subtly disruptive – and, as I said earlier, he’s the only person to have done a worthwhile job of making Sir Gawain and the Green Knight accessible to the modern reader while as much as possible retaining the texture of the original. And I don’t think many come close to Alice Oswald and Katrina Porteous when it comes to separating and articulating the archaeological layers of place. I could – and frequently do – go on, but I will just namecheck Agnes Lehoczky and Bob Beagrie, whose work constantly astounds me in its linguistic intensity. There are more …
7. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
Ah – I don’t! Way, way back when I left school, I went to Art College, where I studied photography, and I have kept up a keen interest and taken the pictures for the covers of most of my books, as well as a number of others (and a few albums, too). Each of the poems in my Eschatological Bestiary is accompanied by a collage, too – I’m really interested in the interaction between word and image. I also play a bit of music – at a rather basic level of competence – and whenever I can I put that into the mix. The current project is The Forgotten Works (the name’s a Brautigan reference), in which I read and play treated electric guitar and kaossilator, along with Amina Alyal – a poet with whom I collaborate on projects as often as possible – and a very versatile guitarist/keyboardist called Karl Baxter, who also does clever electronic stuff. We will at some point record an album, but the immediate plan is to work some lighting effects into performances, too. In my head, the effect we’re going for is a sort of Bells of Atlantis meets Bob Calvert and Gilli Smyth, but there’s more than enough creative waywardness amongst us for it to sound nothing like that. To get back to the question: I write because it’s what I do, and it bothers me if for some reason I can’t for a day or so, but as soon as I’m given the chance, I’ll be chucking it in the mixer with other artforms, often with other people.
8. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I can only think of a very cliched response, though it has become a cliché by virtue of being true: read voraciously and write because you love it.
9. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
There are two big projects at present. First, with Anne Caldwell, I’m co-editing an anthology of contemporary prose poetry, which will be coming out with Valle Press in the summer. We’ve been working on it for some time, and are just finalising the manuscript. There will be a symposium to coincide with publication at Leeds Trinity University on 13th July, and all manner of excitements. To find out all about it, it’s best to just go to the website at https://prose-poetry.uk/events
As for myself, my chapbook of – who’d have thought it? – prose poems, The Lithium Codex has just won the Hedgehog Press Full Fat Collection competition, and Hedgehog will be publishing that in July, too.
While this is going on, I’m working on a new full collection, which should be out in the first half of 2020.
So, with all this, and a couple of editing projects, along with a couple of new writers I’m helping out, things are pretty busy. Oh, yes – and then there’s the day job …