Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Sam J Grudgings

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.

Sam Grudgings Variations On Home

Sam J Grudgings

(According to his website) is a poet perpetually on the edge of collapse, nominated for the Outspoken Poetry Prize 2019 and winner of Slams across the country. He yells stories about recovery, loss, 50ft monsters, cities made of teeth and haunted people because it’s  cheaper than therapy and is less physically taxing than porno.

Renowned for his off-kilter, frenetic delivery and intense stage dynamic, Sam grew up in the punk scene and it shows. Injecting gallows humour into fiercely wrought metaphors, Sam subverts the narratives of addiction, bringing a wry touch to devastating subjects whilst still allowing himself the space to be painfully candid and devastatingly vulnerable. 

Sam runs workshops on performance and writing as well as campaigning for the recognition of lived experience in professional and academic circles. He endeavours to bring poetry to everyone, by collaboration efforts with musicians, dancers and artists as well as local communities. He is the outreach Coordinator for Milk Poetry in Bristol.

His website: https://www.samjgrudgings.co.uk/

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCyZ0-fhnaMleL08EkAyUT8g

The Interview

1. What inspired you  to write poetry?

depression & suicide prevention.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

When I was very young I remember having Alan Alhbergs books along with the Usborne book of Nonsense rhymes and a few Roald Dahl books, which I would have had read to me or tried to muddle my way through when I started reading properly, at around this age I also remember my granddads on both sides (who had both been teachers) reciting snippets of war poems or famous Victorian poets and it all sounding very cryptic but extremely knowledgeable. However my interest  in poetry dropped off significantly till I was about 16 or 17.

I seem to remember a spoken word artist appear on a late night variety TV show of some sort which I guess was the catalyst or sparked some curiosity on my part because I somehow became aware of Def Poetry Jam at this age. I remember using my grandparents awful internet connection to watch their videos on an early iteration of youtube and being blown away by Saul Williams “Coded Language” It stuck with me in a way that I don’t think anyone has since. I would have picked up Common, Lauryn Hill and Mos Def at the same time but it was Saul Williams who really enmeshed themselves in my conscious, though at that stage I never put two and two together that it would be something I could do, it just made me aware of the artform.

It wasn’t until years later when an ex bought Listener to my attention that I realised there was some way of using the punk songs I had been writing without having to learn an instrument., That sounds a bit dismissive but genuinely I took all the angsty lyrics I had written and repurposed them as “a capella punk Songs” and called it poetry. I spent the next 6 years working on my songs till they became more poems and growing my moustache (thinking this was integral to punk poetry)

I went to every open mic I could, every slam I could, every event I could and hungrily absorbed all the different forms of spoken word and performance poetry and whatever anyone was calling it, before turning back to page work, surprisingly later on. I think in some ways everyone I saw in those first few years introduced me to their poetry so there are hundreds of people to point out to, but the Bristol Poetry scene and Saul Williams and Dan Smith (Listener) were the main three.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

It’s an interesting question and I’m not sure if I know the right answer. My exposure to poetry was through performance so I was very lucky in that my exposure to older poets was largely of those who were still regulars in the open mic scene and as such never seemed intimidating or dominating, just accepting of you whatever level you were at. Jeremy Toombs who ran the Arts House Open mic was a giant of an American beat poet who, though he never remembered anyone, welcomed them like he knew exactly who they were. Similarly the rest of the people who would frequent these nights, whatever level they were at were largely welcoming and free with their advice.

It was only later on when I started doing poetry more professionally that I became aware of the politics and influence of certain writers and performers, but I still don’t consider them dominating as such, they largely earned their place (even if through the means of a flawed system of meritocracy) and since they are so separate from what I’m doing, whilst I can be influenced by the work, or I can often get frustrated that a middle aged white man has been thrust into a position of influence by others, realistically on a day to day basis it has little effect on how I operate or how I or any of my contemporaries create our work. In fact some of my contemporaries on the scene at the moment will likely eventually join their esteemed ranks, and then the mystique is broken even further and it will just be Mal sat on the council of Poets and we’ll still go for a drink at the pub and bitch about things (though she might have to wear ceremonial Poet Council Robes)

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I will always write on the move, even if just a line, an overheard conversation as a bouncing off point or a song lyric to write in response to, like a weird magpie or caddisfly larva I’ll accumulate scraps and ideas and occasionally overall concepts throughout the course of the day. When I get home I compile these scraps to make a dry stone wall of words written in a secure and permanent place and occasionally make a near final draft but will then leave it. I’ll come back to it a few weeks later to think about what the work is saying then chisel out a working draft, often performing that a few times to get a feel for where it works or doesn’t then leave it again. I’ll often get another pair of eyes on it from writers I admire and respect to get a different view of it then return to it.

If I have something burning to write a hole in my pocket with a specific idea or for a commission I will set aside time each day to plan it out and write out with full mind maps, thinking of structure, point of view, how the poem needs to sound, what the narrative needs to sound like to an audience member, is it a conversation, a recollection and so on. I’ll do some freewrites etc before Frankenstiening scraps and parts from my notes onto it and finding best fit. Then leave it to prove for a couple of days (depends on timescale) and come back to it with fresh eyes as I can manage.

5. What motivates you to write?

The process of writing is both cathartic and enjoyable, it allows me to take whatever I am thinking about and put it at one remove which means I can compartmentalize it and think of it differently which is helpful. Also I get a strange sense of satisfaction from solving which line goes were working out how to best phrase something, it’s often a puzzle piece and there’s an immense sense of gratitude which is now part of what I crave/

6. What is your work ethic?

Until recently I very much had an attitude of it needs to be done at any cost, which can be quite detrimental as a performer, either from the point of view of THIS POEM NEEDS TO BE WRITTEN AND WRITTEN NOW or “I need to as many gigs as I can” and with the say yes attitude expected of poets pre-emerging stage I would agree to do a host of things I didn’t have the time or mental capacity to do.

Now I am ensuring that the projects I commit to are ones I can give my full time and effort to and that the poems that I write are ones that have enough time to come into their own maturity rather than forcing it because the time is often not right now though it may seem so. I still think I err on the side of taking too much on often in a more practical and/or producing capacity than creative one which again is not great but I think it’s necessary to make a few sacrifices so you can show willing, and then allow the future to account for your deficit of time that you spent helping others.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I was more interested in stories than poetry when I was a child so I think its only very recently I have been able to shake the notion making each piece its wholly contained narrative, and focus on the minutiae of something. Terry Pratchett was probably my biggest influence as a child and still find elements of him in my writing, a wry tongue in cheek look at things occasionally through a fantastical lens, which is what most of my metaphors do. There’s also Roald Dahl’s sense of glee in morbidity and gloom which I revel in, my poetry is darky and doomy but that doesn’t mean it can’t be catchy or have fun with it.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Joelle Taylor still, she is one of the most fantastic writers and with a work ethic that I admire and would love to emulate. Her work was one of the rare times a poem has made immediate sense to me, her performance, her stage presence and her general being is a thing of bloody minded awe and a lot of her stuff makes me weep no matter how many times I see it or read it.

Ocean Vuong, for much different reasons, I don’t understand their work, try as I might it eludes me a little, I can analyse it be in shock of the beauty of it and see individual line breaks, sense the metaphor, see how enjambment works here but not here and their use of X Y and Z but not be able to work it out. I think the fact that in itself it works as a piece of art that I actively am aware that I don’t fully understand but can appreciate is a talent in itself, I have quite an analytic mind in that regard and the challenge of their work is something that really appeals.

On a more local level (if only for the time being) Pascal Vine is a poet who I collaborate with mainly because I admire their work so much and want to get my head round how to write like them and Meg Baxter whose work I will never be able to emulate but will enjoy till I die because it is beautiful.

In terms of performers both Saili Katebe and Birdspeed are always bringing something new to the table and constantly working to better their game, it’s an inspiration to watch and one day I’ll be able to say “I knew them, before they were famous”

I’m also in constant bemused shock that the other members of the Milk team count me as one of them, we all have such wildly different styles and they are such phenomenally talented writers to work alongside it gives me a great sense of pride to see them work their arses off to make a) their own work shine and b) spaces for other people’s work to shine and grow.

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

Writing is simply the process of formalizing communication in black and white, I have a need to communicate, and poetry lets me dress that up as an art rather than just protesting the current state of everything by bothering people with anguished inarticulate wails and gnashing of teeth and/or setting fire to things.

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

Spend as long as  you can failing and learn how to turn self destruction into an artform, take away the self destruction,and boom you’re a writer.

All joking aside,I don’t think a writer is something you become, you just are one simply by doing. Being a good writer or a published writer is another matter…you may have to ask me that in a few years (and even then I may keep those secrets to myself)

Rules for being a poet, specifically a spoken word one are simple, 1. Be nice. 2. Be prepared to be wrong. 3. Read and watch everything you can to really learn your craft

As a promoter and punter of poetry shows, kindness is the one thing that I want every person to demonstrate, you are part of a community and you will find people are more inclined to help if you’re a reasonable person, it costs nothing and it’s a useful tool throughout your life. You need to learn to be wrong and make mistakes cos otherwise you can’t grow, being wrong is not shameful, it’s just a lesson in how not to do it next time round.

The last one is something that took me so long to learn, I was scared of watching or reading too many poets in case I sounded like them or inadvertently stole something from them but  if you listen and watch ALL of them, then you can combine everything stolen into something new and wonderful…and hey, maybe learn how to write an original piece yourself.

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

Currently I’m all about collaborations, I’ve worked with dancers three times over the past year and have more stuff tentatively planned. I’m working with other poets to mix our styles and create something outside of the Venn diagrams of both our comfort zones.

I’m also working with musicians quite closely, I recorded an album with a Bristol based electronic post rock outfit, Spaces Between last year which is currently looking for a record label to call home. Myself and Pascal did some live collaborations with Sean Addicott for his album launch earlier this year and I’ve got hopes of us working with him again cos a) he’s a good mate and b) I really want to work with his screamo band Punch On!  I’m in the middle of transatlantic writing with Zander Sharp a folk musician who abandoned me to go to New York, but I’m mainly just throwing poems his way for him to reappropriate into songs and see what comes of it.

The Milk Team are moving home after three years to a new bigger venue, so we have some really exciting projects coming up and weird innovative ways of delivering poetry to the masses, who even though they may not know it, are crying out for poetry.

Outside of that I’m just constantly working on finding out who I am by writing endlessly about it and trying to find some validation by getting it published in journals and magazines and yelling into people’s faces at gigs.

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