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.
Lisa Kelly’s first collection, A Map Towards Fluency, was published by Carcanet in June. Her poems have appeared in Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches Press) and Carcanet’s New Poetries VII. Her pamphlets are Philip Levine’s Good Ear(Stonewood Press) and Bloodhound (Hearing Eye). Lisa has single-sided deafness through childhood mumps. She is also half Danish on her mother’s side. She is Chair of Magma Poetry and co-edited Magma 69, The Deaf Issue, with Raymond Antrobus. She often hosts events at the Torriano Meeting House, London – a grassroots community arts venue. Her poems have appeared in a range of magazines and anthologies and she has been longlisted twice for the Bridport Prize, and twice for the National Poetry Competition. She is currently studying British Sign Language and is a freelance journalist writing about technology and business.
Her website is Lisa Kelly
Lisa performs her poetry at iambapoet.com
1. What inspired you to write poetry?
‘Conspired’ maybe. I’m quite suspicious of inspiration. I don’t think you can wait around for the muse to strike. I wrote a little book of poems when I was young about squirrels and such like. I tortured my even younger brother by making him read them as part of our game, ‘School’. My parents had offered me 50p if I taught him to read. I was forced to write poetry at school as most children are at some point – whether for English homework or for projects, when it was always the easier option as opposed to building a Roman fort out of paper machee. One found its way into a school magazine and won a prize. I tried to repeat this success and failed. I gave up writing poems. I studied poetry at school and loved it, discussing it, dissecting it. I was no good at science but liked the science of poems – how they work, where their energy comes from. I had mumps as a child and as a result am deaf in my left ear. Playgrounds were a nightmare. Books and poetry were much easier and more fun to be around than big gangs of children. Matthew Arnold’s poem, ‘Dover Beach’ made me cry. I loved words and found an outlet for this love in acting, but enjoyed the rehearsal period, the discussions over interpretation etc. more than performing in the same play night after night. I knew something was missing, and the missing something was writing. I retrained as a journalist, but that, as you know, is a different sort of writing, so something was still missing. I joined a creative writing class over ten years ago and then the ‘inspiration’ and poetry community worked together to continue inspiring or conspiring for me to write poetry.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
My father, I think. He would read me made-up bedtime stories and poems. He left school early to join the Royal Navy to avoid having to go into the army on the advice of my grandfather who experienced the trenches. My father was an autodidact and had one of the best brains I’ve ever come across. He had a deep curiosity about many subjects. He was brilliant at maths and loved literature. I let him down on the maths front, but he always encouraged my love of books. He used to listen to Dylan Thomas’ ‘Under Milk Wood’ on a vinyl LP with a cast of characters. My brother and I were not to disturb him during these sessions, and I gave listening a try, but can’t say I was enthused. However, these things that make an early impression, stick. Later, I had some very good English teachers – Mrs Heritage and Mr Hoffman are two names that come to mind. I thank Mrs Heritage for introducing me to the metaphysical poets and Milton, and Mr Hoffman for being very encouraging about everyone’s poetic efforts and putting them on the classroom wall. Encouragement is so important for anyone in any introduction to poetry – whether in the reading or the writing. When I started writing seriously, the Torriano Meeting House run by John Rety was lifechanging. He was a massively inspirational character, and a very generous soul, who didn’t suffer fools gladly. His partner, Susan Johns, edited my first pamphlet for Hearing Eye, and she is a brilliant and tireless force for grassroots poetry. The Torriano Meeting House is my poetry home.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
I’m actually more aware now. Back in the day, you just got on with it and the canon was presented as something that came down from Mount Olympus. There is much more questioning now of how that canon was created – the sexism, the racism, all the horrible isms which still exist. Much more is being done now to increase awareness of new voices in poetry and ‘new’ old voices. Poets such as Gertrude Stein, I only looked at later. She would have been considered too difficult for a school curriculum when I was studying. I am always learning – you never stop. So, I think the canon is continually being revisited and re-evaluated. It is no bad thing having a dominating presence of older poets, in my opinion, if we are in some way in communion with those voices and do not feel stifled by them. Look at how Daljit Nagra communes with the canon. When I first read ‘Look We Have Coming to Dover’, I was stunned. It had the vision of possibilities. I find that very exciting, and I find what is happening with programmes such as The Complete Works; Ledbury Emerging Critics; the spoken word scene especially encouraging. There is such a lot of great energy being injected into the poetry world which is challenging any accepted vision of what a poem should be. Things are always being shaken up, including the presence of dominating older poets. We can have new ghosts to haunt us.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
Nothing set in stone. I write ideas or lines that might trigger a poem on scraps of paper, but I like the discipline of writing in Word on my PC because it is much easier to see the line-breaks – where the poem is baggy, and to play around with form which I enjoy. I like the visual aspect of poems. I’m learning British Sign Language, and as someone who is deaf on one side, control of my ‘interactive’ space is requisite to hearing. This personal preoccupation comes into my poetry. I am often at my PC as my day job as a freelance journalist specialising in technology, means I might have a very dry article on the go about scalable processors and Artificial Intelligence as well as a poem, and switch between the two. It makes for a good balance and stops you getting stuck. Looking after the family, my hands and body might be busy, but there is nothing to stop you thinking or composing in your head. My voluntary role as Chair of Magma takes up a fair bit of time, and if I am co-editing a magazine, then my own poetry takes a backseat. I do try and get out and like to walk to destinations if I can. Sometimes, I’ll read poetry when I’m walking, which is probably as annoying as people looking at their iPhone screens and bumping into you, but reading poetry is incredibly important to my daily writing routine. If I just got caught up in my own writing, my poetry would stagnate.
5. What motivates you to write?
I am always thinking about writing and poetry in some capacity. As a journalist, I am conscious of deadlines and the need to get something finished. If I haven’t written for a while, I get irritable, a bit like if I haven’t exercised. In terms of what I write about – the motivation varies. Sometimes it is anger, and there is much to be angry about in society at present, but we won’t get into Brexit or Trump etc. I will often write as a way of working through something – to discover what I feel about it. A splinter gets trapped in the finger and needs to be teased out with tweezers. It is often cathartic. From a practical point of view, I am part of a peer group of poets, and we meet once a week at the Torriano Meeting House in Kentish Town, London. We take it in turns to run a session and bring in poems on a theme or that illustrate a form. We discuss the work and go away with a prompt to write, and the ‘homeworks’ get read at the next session and sometimes workshopped. What I find is that a prompt might motivate you to write, but what you write about will be something that you need to write about that the prompt unlocks. Times of great stress or sorrow also motivate me to write. Nobody wishes for horrible events but writing about my mother after her death was important to me. She is my muse. When you write about someone who has gone, you bring them back to life in the space of the poem.
6. What is your work ethic?
Strong. I feel guilty if I am not feeding my writing in some way, whether it’s reading, writing, redrafting, attending poetry events. Sometimes, I feel guilty writing poetry because I feel I should be writing stuff that earns money. I had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as a child, and it blew up severely as a teenager, and was related to my schoolwork. It ruined my teenage years, although it got me good A level results. I have to guard against ensuring I don’t get back into OCD thought patterns, as it can crop up at stressful times, such as after the birth of my first child, and I’ve written a couple of poems about it, addressing OCD directly, but actually obsessiveness is a strand within my poetry, especially around form. This might be true for many poets. You have to be a bit OCD to worry about a comma or a line-break.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
Very much so. Many of my poems are in conversation with poems and poets that I read when I was young, and their voices remain alive in my mind. That is why the poets we introduce to children within a classroom setting are so critical to their appreciation and attitude towards poetry. I know many fantastic poets who are working with young people to overcome any fear of poetry and it is amazing how well they respond and many start writing their own poetry and discovering their creativity and worth in self-expression which has positive benefits in all subjects, and of course their lives.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I can’t single out a name, because actually it is the poetry community that I admire. I am constantly energised by what I read. I am a magpie for poetry and am always reading new poetry that inspires me. My bedside table and floor is piled high with magazines and books, and if I find a poem I like by a poet I’ve not heard of, I will look them up and follow them on social media, and sometimes invite them to the Torriano Meeting House to read if I have a hosting spot. The poets I especially admire are the ones putting something back – the poets who are working for the poetry community in some way. And brave poets. Alice Hiller, who writes in the face of sexual abuse, comes to mind. There. I’ve mentioned a name.
9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
Hmm. I think if I didn’t write, I would have gone very quietly mad. Although sometimes I have a fantasy about being a lumberjack. I love woods and forests.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I would say, you are the only person who can decide if you are a writer. It is a mental attitude. I know poets who don’t describe themselves as poets even though they have had collections published. It is not just down to publication. Poets that we know now as great writers, like Emily Dickinson, who were not widely published in their lifetime, serve an example that success today does not guarantee any poetic legacy. So, with all those caveats in mind, if you want to be a writer, you must ask yourself what the job means to you. If it is about money, then there are very few poets who can claim it as a profession. To get to that point, they will have worked very hard, nurtured their talent, gone to a lot of open mic events, been prepared for criticism, sent off poems, got rejected, tried again, got accepted, got lucky to some extent. Perseverance is helpful. Developing a thin skin for sensitivity to language, and a thick skin for reception of your work is necessary. Don’t let your ego get in the way of the poem. Even if you have a success, when you go back to the blank page, you begin again as a debut writer. Beyond the mechanics of making time to write, it is essential to read as much as you can and be hungry for other people’s poetry more than for your own. If you only read your own writing, you are going to be a terrible writer. Find a supportive group who you can comfortably show your work to, and be prepared to listen to their feedback, think about it, discard what you don’t find helpful, and take on board what you do. If you enjoy the process, you will find a way to becoming a writer on your own terms.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
My first collection has just been published by Carcanet, which I am very grateful for, and I have some events at which I am reading, but beyond that, I take it one poem at a time. Some I am happy with and some not so happy with, and it was like that from day one, even when I was writing about squirrels!