Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: John Saunders

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.

John Saunders

is a founder member of the Hibernian Writers’ Group. His collections are After the Accident (Lapwing Press, 2010) and Chance (New Binary Press, 2013). He is one of three featured poets in Measuring, Dedalus New Writers, 2012. John’s poems have appeared in journals and anthologies in Ireland, the UK and America, on many online sites. .and in The New Binary Press Anthology of Poetry, The Stony Thursday Book, The Scaldy Detail 2013, Conversations with a Christmas Bulb (Kind of a Hurricane Press, 2013), The Poetry of Sex, (Penguin, 2014), Fatherhood Anthology (Emma Press UK, 2014), The Fate of Berryman Anthology (Arlen House, 2014) The Launchpad Children’s poetry book and The Lion Tamer Dreams of Office Work, Hibernian Writers Anthology (Alba Press, 2015).

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

When I was at school I was attracted to the reading of poetry. I remember being fascinated with Shakespeare’s sonnets and searching to read the many that were not on the syllabus. To this day I have a fondness for the sonnet form and tend to shape many of my poems into sonnets. At that time I did not write poetry but I found myself studying not just the content of poems but also the structure and tone. I would dissect a poem like a science experiment to see what was inside it. Unconsciously I suppose that’s when I learned how a poem was constructed although it was much later when I began to write.
Looking back now I realise that my father’s interest in poetry was a strong influence. He had to leave school early to earn money and became a carpenter. I think if he could he would have been a teacher of English. He was widely read in history, literature and poetry and often quoted lines from poets such as Wordsworth, Keats and their contemporaries. I have a fond memory of sitting with him when I was about eight whilst he read aloud Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

It was in middle adulthood when I returned to the reading of poetry and then eventually to writing. Like many writers I admire specific poets and was spurred on to find my own expression. I very much write for leisure as opposed to making a living which of course is impossible except for the very few, unless you want to spend time teaching poetry which i don’t.

Why do I write? Poetry for me is about personal expression and observation. I am as likely to write a poem about small thing such as watching someone cook a pancake to the big issues of love, war and death. For me all of the small observations of this world can be big issues and can be expressed in poetry. I like form and more recently have become engaged in the long poem form. I am more interested in writing for its own sake than for publishing although its nice to be published.
2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

Most of the work I was exposed to during the school years were the older ‘dead’ poets of the 18th/19th century. Few of them stimulated me the way Shakespeare did although I did like Keats partly , I think because of his intriguing but short life which I found romantic in the imaginative sense.

After school I became more engrossed in 20th century writing and of course being in Ireland found Kavanagh, Yeats and many others including Heaney. Larkin and Hughes were also enormously influential. Of course there are numerous contemporary poets from all over the world that I like and I often revisit their work.
I think all poets strive to be like those that went before and often copy styles. I suppose this is a natural learning process on the journey to finding your own voice to use a cliche. For me Kavanagh and Heaney have dominated Irish writing in my lifetime and their effect is still seen in contemporary writing. That draw on the natural, the land, the familiar.

3. What is your daily writing routine?

I don’t have a daily routine. As I work fulltime at a non writing job my writing pattern is subject to all of the demands of a working life.
When I do sit down to write I usually have an idea or a subject to develop. In recent years I have often developed rough ideas and even specific lines in my head and may not write anything down until a rough shape has emerged.

Sometimes a word or phrase stays with me and becomes the genesis of a poem.
Despite technology I still like to do a first handwritten draft which I might edit a couple of times before moving to a word processor. There is something about hand writing which gives me comfort and satisfaction which I know is generational.
I have rarely sat down to a blank page without some idea in my head.

4 What motivates you to write?

Always, its a means of personal expression and reflection. In the early days i wrote to be read. I wrote with a view to being published. In that sense I think I was motivated to impress a reader the assumption being that everything one wrote would see the light of day.
Things have changed since then. I now write for myself and to please myself. There is no longer a reader in waiting, an audience wanting to find me in a magazine. I still submit poetry and some of it is published but the urgency to do so has diminished significantly. I write because I can. Because I want to.
5. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

The poets I admire most some of whom I have mentioned all have the power to create the extraordinary from the ordinary. For me that’s the essence of a good poem. Most people’s lives are mundane. time given to work, survival, sustenance. A poetry which captures that is to me more significant than the sometimes grandiose descriptions of love, death, god, and so on. He any and Kavanagh, for example could find poems in everyday existence which they crafted into pieces of art.
Contemporary poets like Billy Collins, Carol Anne Duffy and many more do this with ease.

I also admire poems that surprise either by the unusual use of words or phrases or with punchlines. The American poets Galway Kinnell and Raymond Carver were in my opinion masters of surprise.

6. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

There are so many writers I admire and revisit. If by contemporary one means the living poets, there is a handful including Micheal O’ Loughlin, Paula Meehan, Tony Curtis, Thomas Kinsella, Carol Anne Duffy, Simon Armitage, Robin Robertson and A E Stallings.
Of the more recently dead, apart from those already mentioned I like Michael Hartnett, Elisabeth Bishop, Dennis O’ Driscoll and Phillip Larkin.
Why do I admire these writers? I’m not sure I can rationally explain why. All of these and others have mastered form and as I said earlier translate the mundane into something special. They are also very readable, what is sometimes described as accessible and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way. In fact for me being able to write an accessible poem whilst remaining true to the technique of poetry and form is success. I am reminded of Heaney’s reply during an interview where he said that writing arcane poetry was not necessary and in fact was downright rude to the reader. There is an inherent snobbery in poetry where some poets think the achievement of extreme obliqueness is a prerequisite of a good poem. I disagree. Like wine, for me, the best poem is the one you like.

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

The short answer is ; write. I believe that anyone can become a writer once they have the fundamental literacy skill. Even someone who cannot write could compose words into a meaningful shape. After all poetry was originally aural.
In the context of the modern world we can all write. The quality of such writing is of course determined by skill, technique, knowledge, motivation and so on. In other words we have an innate ability to create. What we create can be nurtured.
I am reminded of Kavanagh’s quote that the hardest part of writing is keeping your arse on the seat. This suggests of course that writing is a task to which you apply yourself and that is definitely true. It’s worth noting also and it has been well quoted that you cannot write poetry all day. Most poets spend most of their time on the business of poetry;
reading reviewing editing teaching and so on and much less time actually engaged in creative writing.
So what advice do I have? I think good writing is contingent on wide reading,
not only of poetry but also prose. The tools of creative writing are vocabulary. A writer need to have as wide a vocabulary as possible to give him the wherewithall to produce good writing.

Writing poetry demands an understanding of technique so the reading of other poets gives great insight. I rarely read a poem without interrogating its structure and form to identify new ways of expression.

So for any one wishing to write, read widely ,learn from what others have done and them practice. While you may initially start out emulating other writing styles you will eventually with sufficient practice and time find your way of writing. Your own voice.

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

As ever I have a number of projects which are best described as works in progress. I am finalizing a manuscript of children’s poetry which I have been working on over a number of years and have published some of them in magazines. I find writing for children an exhilarating experience and one that’s very different from writing for adults.
I’m also presently in an ancient Greece phase and have just completed a manuscript of fifty-two sonnets each one devoted to a god. Similarly and as an outcome of that work, I am writing a long poem on the life of Herakles. This is in the form of ten-line stanzas of ABABABABAA rhyming. I’m on the 20th stanza and he’s only just completed the 12th labor!
Finally, I have a manuscript ready on the theme of mental Ill health which is partly based on historical events of how people were treated on the past where the only option was the Victorian Asylum system.

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