Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Paul Sutherland

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 fiction writers you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

paul sutherland 1 Final (2)

Paul Sutherland

Canadian-British poet/writer, in UK, since 1973, has fifteen collections, editing seven others. He’s founding editor of Dream Catcher a national-international journal in its 38th issue. He runs creative writing workshops and widely performs his poetry. Leads seminars; mentors, runs Writers Retreats and collaborates with musicians, visual artists and calligraphers. Lectures on e.g. Sufi poets and English Literature. He appears in anthologies and journals. Spires and Minarets was published by Sunk Island Publishing and Journeying from Valley Press 2012 (ww.valleypressuk.com). He reverted to a Sufi Muslim 2004; two books have followed, Poems on the Life of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) 2014, A Sufi Novice in Shaykh Efendi’s Realm, (first pub. In Romania in a bilingual book 2014; re-printed in UK 2015) describing his adventures in North Cyprus. He’s won literary awards; a poem of his helped promote Olympics 2012. He has won grants and participated in many projects. He turned freelance 2004. A New and Selected Poems, was re-launched from Valley Press 2017: 384 pages of 45 years of his writing a ‘unique …an unflinching and forensic exploration of a life through language.’ The book was listed by PBS for winter 2017 and selected as a choice for The Morning Stars’ books of 2017. The University of Lincoln archives his poetry, prose and criticism. A new collection of PS’s love poems, called Amoretti, has just been published by Dempsey and Windle. In 2019 his poetry sequence of miniatures Red Streamers was published as a bilingual edition of English and Romanian by PIM in Romania.

The Interview

  1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I was 17 years old, playing football (Canadian-American) football on the street and thought, staring towards our house, I should be up in our attic writing poetry. Why is very difficult to pin down. I had experiences that confirmed for me I couldn’t easily fit in the game or team. Experiences and revelations that wanted to be written about, but it was some years before I did. When a toddler my grandfather recited poetry to me. So I felt poetry was a valid way to spend time. My attempts early on seem to me attempts at trying to understand who I was and why did events happen to me that I couldn’t explain. Relationships began to push in and I wanted to write about my feelings – perhaps those I couldn’t openly express. I was shocked by the beauty of nature and I desired to try to portray this sense of wonder and because my experiences were sometimes spiritual I wished to reveal a sense of the sacred which was so much a part of youthful encounters and dreams. Also I read poetry from all ages and from modern masters and wanted to have a go myself and see what would emerge.

1.1 What poetry did your grandfather recite to you?

He recited long 19thc. narrative poems like Lady of the Lake, Sir Walter Scott, Pied Piper of Hamlin, Robert Browning, Horatius at the Bridge by Mccaulay, Lady of Shallot, Tennyson and others of this romantic style which meant my first reading was of other romantic poems such as Shelley and Coleridge. But because our local library was very small I quickly went from romanticism and mystery stories for teenagers to German idealism Nietzsche and also poets like Rilke and Stephan George. I became a modernist overnight reading Eliot, Yeats, Pound, Woolf. Somehow also Chinese and Japanese poems in translation,

  1. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

Good question. In Canada in my youth I took little interest in trying to read my poems at gigs or meet fellow poets. My attitude meant I missed many opportunities to share and learn on the job from performing poets. To some extent I had doubt about my ability. My attempts to be published in Canada ended in disappointment and self-publishing. It wasn’t until the 1980s in York UK that I began to see the importance of not being dominated or overly influenced by older poets and try to enter and be recognised in the local poetry scene, take part in workshops, retreats, go to readings of the more famous, listen and learn from fellow poets in York and slightly further afield. I still read the classics in translation and almost all English epics of any renown. But I accepted my place among the grassroots and saw my growth as a writer in much more realistic slow measured steps. This approach was epitomised in me starting a literary arts journal at university in the early 90s, at last called Dream Catcher. It took time (too long in my opinion) for me to recognise the utter importance of living writers and modify my hero-heroine worshipping of dead and great. Maybe I’ll revisit this question before our interview appears.

Ironically against my strong classical leanings I steeped myself in rock and roll. Listened to exhaustion the Doors, Steve Miller Blues Band, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Moody Blues, Cream, Animals, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones etc. Neil Young being a particular favourite with Crazy Horse. A Sudanese Muslim friend says this kind of music gave insight of how to search beyond traditional boundaries and become a Sufi. For me it meant whatever I wrote was inconspicuously influence by another Violet Underground. So the dominance of older writers was dramatically titled by my passion for electronic music and youth culture that I absorbed to a high degree seeing Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison live and others. Perhaps this intense listening influenced my poetry by making me believe ‘I was free to do what I wanted’ to quote J. Morrison. Songs like The End fed my inclination towards a prophetic kind of poetry which inspiring my reading of English epics and seeking epical serious poets like Robert Lowell, John Berryman and others. The rebellious tendencies of that era’s electronic music (late 60s – 70s) certainly has helped me keep a critical and radical edge to my observations.

  1. What is your daily writing routine?

To your question of practice. I have gone through periods of great discipline, writing at the same time every day. Now this is not the case. I tend to write at night when the world is quiet as Ocean Voung recently remarked about Night Sky with exit wounds – poems that come from the night. My writing time, through marriage and Muslim prayer patterns, has been forced to fit into the gaps. But I remain prolific writing poems, short fiction, meta-essays, miniature poems and working on novels. I revisit work again and again to improve. Recently my wife selected poems for a competition I was entering and every poem she selected I had workshopped and edited many times. I accept that all I write will probably go through some editing filter before it reaches a public space literal or oral. When I can’t write afresh I go back over older pieces (7-1 year old) and re-examine them for how they might be improved. This is almost a daily process.
I write many miniature poems if I can do nothing else. I work in a shed in the summer and in the house in the winter. This goat-like transformation up and down the mountain affects my preoccupations and what I write. I try not to only write about Sufi practices or secular events or relationships but about as wide as range of subjects and approaches possible. To some no doubt I’m traitor to the cause, various causes. The New and Selected Poems is filled with radically different styles and subject matter.
My writing routine is therefore eclectic. I have lost my discipline and now more freely write whatever moves me and long term projects are fitted into the daily rapid observations which create miniature poems.

  1. What motivates you to write?

Another big question, rightly so. I want to refer to current poets who touch my heart: Ocean Vuong and Raymond Antrobus and Claudia Rankine. These poets who win big prizes seem to utter ‘say it say it say it and say it beautifully’ They are not PC. Many in our generation have been brought up in poetry to subdue ‘big emotions’ (but this has missed the point) and to subdue the use of ‘I’ relating to highly personal experiences. But the word motivation suggests something more than subdued emotions for the sake of craft. But for the poets mentioned craft is very important. but so is ‘big emotions’. This new vista of poetry connects with what motivated me to write, a desire to say it and say it beautifully. 50 years ago I was motivated by different subjects than now, but not entirely. My dyslexia meant words were hard won. This disadvantage spurred me to write about at first the beauty and power of the  Canadian natural world, winter in particular, which was infused with some kind of mystical quality. In my early 20s I worked in a hospital in Intensive Care Unit and saw people die each week. I wanted to write about these patients, what they said to me, their illnesses and struggles. Yet, my first significant piece of work (pub. in New and Selected Poems) Seven Earth Odes began with a search for a lost people’s grave, a first nation’s heroine. Eventually a butterfly guided me to the site. So began my ‘real’ efforts to write poetry, to describe this semi-natural-supernatural-human event (1972). No doubt the knowledge that I was leaving Canada stimulated furious poetic activity at the time. The poets that inspired me then which I mentioned above (the modernists) challenged me to write to that level and I committed myself to undertake epic serious poetry. In England working (beginning 1973) with disabled children, adults and teenagers I tried to write about these experiences. But I lost almost 15 years from my Canadian roots to restoring my real poetic intentions. During my years in residential care I wrote in a flowery Victorian style script with black Indian ink. Had no aspiration to be published. Finally in 1980s I joined York Poetry Workshop etc and started to engage with the literary scene in England which motivated me to write more contemporary poetry and forced me to try to recover my real poetic voice which meant frantic re-writing of the Odes. Direct and powerful spiritual experiences began in the mid-80s and these motivated much output to try to portray these elusive events. This motivation continues. I also became highly political and started to write about the Wretched of the Earth, the oppressed. This theme would be reinforced when I returned to university in 1994. Post colonial studies became my main focus and helped me understand my Canadian-ness and motivated much poetry up until 2004 to give a date. Then gradually becoming a Sufi meant a shift in emphasis away from the political to the mystical – yet this needs to be qualified because I continued to write on geo-political issues and intimate politics of gender. These motivations dominate Journeying (valleypress 2012). But writing about my Sheikh, spiritual guidance in general, Jesus and Muhammad (saws) has been a tremendous motivator, especially Muhammad (saws) who I see like a dyslexia misunderstood, an outsider.
My counter-western views started when working with Islamic students as a freelance tutor in 1995-6, my contact with these students forced me to rethink ingrained prejudices that e.g. favoured Israel over Palestinians. Islam has compelled me to re-examine everything: ethics, history, poetry and has been a great instigator in recent years. In 2012 I became forcefully separated from my dear granddaughter this event like others in my life caused an upheaval that had to be written about. The rights of the child ties in with my long term bias toward the underprivileged in the world. I seemed to have always been motivated to try to redress human suffering in somewhat a three-fold Shakespearean way of expressing nature, the human and the superhuman which might be the subconscious. Sorry for such a long answer. Vuong and Antrobus are multi disadvantaged, each struggle off sets the other so they don’t become rigid in their views such Black or foreign outsiders but their intimate otherness brings a remarkable level of beauty into the volatile mix. Their work gives guidance of how I might be motivated in the future. The difference between these protest poets (Antrobus, Vuong and Rankine) to me is they have multiple issues to address/redress which off sets their main preoccupations. For example Antrobus is motivated by his experiences from his deaf-ness but he is also black and an outsider, these other realities richly invade his work. His different themes create strong creative tension in the poems. Also I wanted to add regarding my motivation that recent visits to India, Australia and Cyprus all stimulated a considerable amount of writing.

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

First, I have to say that the heightened style, skill and creativity that poets like Yeats set are relevant. I apply some of his techniques like automatic writing. Those early poets I read influence me but in more complex ways then when young and impressible. I’m apt to resist now their messages as much as valuing their genius and creative achievements. Some years ago, in 1990s, I realised I couldn’t imitate Rilke or Eliot etc because I was not a privileged individual, a literary aristocrat and a polyglot. I’m a working class lad from the back streets of a Steel making city. This belated realisation first showed how I was different in person than my heroes and also that I couldn’t imitate them, I had my own voice. This was so important for me to understand that my voice was a valid as theirs. Derek Walcott and other Caribbean poets/writers/thinkers helped me see beyond the modernist vista to other themes subjects and other needs. Vitally they both respected and opposed the modernists. Re-assessing, though never quite like Antrobus erasing a poem by Ted Hughes and writing my own version, nevertheless I also re-write the masters’ themes and challenge their biases to create my visions. Ironically age has  helped me appreciate better the modernist agenda and see its limitations. I needed the classicists and elitists then and I needed to resist them to find my own voice. That’s taken time. David Jones was another important go-between writer to help shift me from my elitist obsessions. His Welsh perspective and highlighting Celtic myths challenged my Greek bias. He too was a male marker that needed to be reassessed. I saw that often I was following the creative route of WWI poets like Jones. He too, I had to push against to move on. Jorie Graham forced me to recognise that since Robert Lowell and before the individual voice has dominated, she challenges this with a concern, close my heart, that we have to develop a collective consciousness a ‘we’ voice because of the vast ecological issues facing humankind in our time  requires a communal voice. Your question is important because I realise I needed the greats of the past to learn from them and push against them to find my own way of speaking for my own time place. I’m still of course learning from them. I ran a writers’ retreat around the theme ‘why is the contemporary contemporary?’ researching this topic revealed a range of issues that I had to redress to modernise my language my writing. My Sufi practices also, with middle east origins, contradict the assumptions of many modernists; the romantics were closer to the middle east and Islam when it was less a threat to an Europe dominated world. Though not knowing Greek or Latin I’m profoundly grateful to have been soaked in the classics (on which the modernists focused) to have a sense of English literature as a continuum spanning epochs. I feel sometimes that contemporary poets discard the work of earlier eras, seeing it as irrelevant. I can never say that. In this way what I read as a young man still guides and challenges me as simultaneously I debate  and argue furiously with those famous past masters. Another lesson: those past poets were not isolated ‘wonders’ in ivory towers they interacted in literary communities which helped ‘ground’ and inspire their high flights of poetry. So I’ve learned the worth of sharing through workshops etc and valuing local writer contacts and seeking live performance. We now have chances to perform and network of support  of which the 20thc. modernist could only dream.

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

This is a very taxing question to answer. I value and appreciate many poets writing today. Yet we lost recently some key influences for me: John Ashberry and Derek Walcott. Both writers show the potential of expansiveness. Ashberry’s Self Portrait in A Convex Mirror is a masterpiece but it wandering freedom I find exciting and inspiring. Walcott is a poet capable of an epic. I read Omeros in three days and couldn’t put it down. It does everything I want poetry to do and does it in one poem, Walcott’s mixing of history, global and intimate, is breath-taking. Like Ashberry at his best there is an enormous range of vision. I value how Ashberry holds things together in illogical patterns that reveal how everything is connected if one reaches a certain level of consciousness. Walcott also intrigues with his essays, like What the Twilight Said to back up his poetry. He can draw from the classics and the legends of the First Nations of North America in the same moment. He says ‘Homer belongs to the Caribbean’. I celebrate his bold conviction. Jorie Graham still alive and writing offers an expansive or in-conclusive view. Her step poems thrill me forcing again like with Ashberry to understand how the less rational works to create unity. Her ecological focus feels vital to her whole work. Anne Carson, her experimentation between prose and poetry I find utterly stimulating. Again her poetry is supported by a keen understanding of ancient poetics. When this apparent abstract style crosses a highly personal subject the result is sublime for example her pieces about her father, mother and brother. Again great poets break all the rules of workshops. Anne Carson is a fearless revealer of the politics of intimacies but she searches for truth exposing the necessity of decency in human relationships. She like Walcott, Ashberry and Graham is a compassionate writer trying to encourage humankind to care for each other. I also can not stray far from this motive and perhaps it is my greatest motivation to try to off set the violence, cruelty and ugliness in the world with beauty, kindness and peace. Graham’s work is so peaceful the poem seems to vanish between her discursive lines. I accept that these smooth educated voices have had to give way to assertive and aggressive depictions of the human condition. Claudia Rankine’s use of videos and scripts is the kind of intervention that I value; she wants to communicate and she’ll use everything in her range and power to do so. She melts the divides between reportage and poetry; she isn’t interested in colourful lies. She aims to reveal the truth about a situation whether it includes her or not. Ashberry and Walcott gave me the impression that they were very strong individuals who could resist the world and groups and helpers. Vuong and Antrobus give me the very opposite impression – they need groups, people. Their vulnerability, deeply personal, becomes a strength in their poetry. It creates magical tension when this obvious victim-hood can write so beautifully and convincingly. Perhaps the male modernist like the strongman in La Strada believes in overcoming weakness to some extent suppressing their dysfunction for the sake of art. But Vuong and Antrobus achieve art through disclosing their weakness making it the main subject. Rankine too takes a very personal view but is extremely aware of her community and wants to rouse her comrades to action. All three of these younger writers appear like activists on the page; they intend to speak and to act. I feel Ashberry and Walcott were more aloft from their communities, the same with Graham and Carson but not Antrobus and Vuong. Perhaps these writers are going to restore to some extent the belief (more in the civil war Yeats) that poetry leads to action. I suppose to conclude I’m intrigued to say at least that such strong feelings can generate great artist/poetic expression. They appear not to need to the old dictum of great emotions contemplated in tranquillity; they seem to create artistic tranquillity out of the white heat of conflicts. I value how they turn their vulnerability and weakness, illnesses, displacement and dysfunction into beautiful art. Strange I don’t feel I’m being preach to, but I know on some level they are preaching.

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

When I go through the 384 pages of my New and Selected Poems (covering 45 yrs of writing) I see the poems that have been workshopped, edited, read over by many and those ones that no one ever saw or had a word to say about it and sneaked out to become part of my output. This observation makes me realise that I would have to tell a would be writer that both take your poems or prose to workshops and have some resistance to workshops, courses, tutorials etc., both are important. A writer needs to seek feedback and not be defeated by negative responses. A late friend, you probably knew him, Sam Gardiner, said if you want to teach participants anything teach them how to accept rejection’. I would say to an aspirant please expect to be rejected often. It may take years before something you write is worth being noticed and is published. Earlier in my life I caved into negative comments, lacked confidence and almost shied from contact with poets/writers out of fear of being criticised or thought ‘I’m not worthy of their company’. I would say to a would-be writer, meet the famous or the more recognised than you, face to face, listen to them read their writing, participate as much as you can afford or are able to attend their sessions, workshops, retreats. But also spend time in silence, sitting on a chair, or floor, no music no phone, no PC, and just listen to your own thoughts, be inspired from your own ‘treasure house’ as Zen Master once called it. You must be ready to accept isolation, being on your own to write, and exposure being able to present your work and your self. I don’t deny the value of open mic, spoken word, but writing is more than this. It is an internal undertaking that is secretive and the results are often deferred for years. I worked, re-worked, re-wrote the Seven Earth Odes from 1972 to 2004 when they were finally published. They are in the New and Selected Poems. They are the oldest poems in the collection. Much of course must be discarded but something should be held on to, and returned to, over and over to help you see your own growth as a writer. Another friend says ‘ write worse to write better.’ He advocates and I agree just write and write, read and read, write and write. There will be so many (unless you are a genius) kinks, prejudices, bad writing to work through before you’ll create a piece that is appreciated widely. Engagement with other writers is important, to learn, to share experiences, to read your own work aloud and listen for how it sounds. Read until the moment comes when you are not reading to an audience for the event and people which/who inspired the poem. When published always be patient, help your publisher, try to sell your book, promote it on Facebook, social media, live events. I have had two publishers praise my efforts to sell the product; don’t expect them to do all the work. I think you should try to see your work in print and publicise it. Phil Larkin and Robert Lowell saw publishing as a key part of the process. When something is published it clears the way for new work, making the effort to be in print psychologically helps open space for new inspiration. But don’t be defeated by your circumstances, if success is slow coming it might be more rich and sweet when it arrives. If I had been published in the 1980s and 1990s I might not have developed my style of writing. With each rejection/disappointment look again at what you have written and try to improve it. I have finally accepted I am writer, one of millions, who try to portray what’s around them or was around them. Maybe also writers take time to listen to the music of the spheres. I think I would say to a someone wanting to be a writer: make the intention and work hard towards its realisation. I think I must add that self-publishing is ok as part of the process but it can’t be your goal.

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

I’m always engaged in promoting my New and Selected Poems (Valley Press 2017) in any way I can. I purchase copies at a discount and carry them around with me to introduce the book to whomever takes an interest. I’m expecting a review in the next issue of The Blue Nib magazine. I’ll be presenting the book at the Walled Garden Festival at Baumber in Lincolnshire in a few weeks as well as running two poetry/creative writing workshops and the next weekend in Oxford shire, at the Willowbrook Festival I’ll be running workshops and performing from the stage. This event has more an Islamic slant than the previous occasion. Most of my current writing projects are related to my connections to Sufi Muslim practices. A new book is due from Beacon Books, ‘Servant of the Loving One’. It will be a new edition of the’ Sufi Novice… ‘   book with thirty pages of new writing added. I’m working with an editor in North Cyprus to make ready for publication many stories I have written over the years about becoming or being a Sufi Muslim.

I have a novel perhaps to be called ‘Sometime the Police are Friendly’ being read by a publisher, unclear whether it will be published or not. I’m adjudicating The Blue Nib’s Chapbook competition, results due on September 15. My wife and l will be flying to Canada in September-October and performing at a venue in Montreal and perhaps other places in my homeland.

Then in November I’m reading with Antony Owen and Joe Hagan at a Quaker’s event in London. Afterwards I’m flying to India to work voluntarily at Ma’adin Academy where I’ll be used 24/7 to run creative writing sessions, teach in schools across S. India Kerala particularly. I’ll be called on to read my poems. Last time there a read in front of 100,000 people through a tropical night.
The academy pays for everything. This is my third visit, the other two have produced much poetry and prose – perhaps publication is possible. I’m always working on new poems and am about three quarters through a second novel, though perhaps it shouldn’t be called a novel rather meta-historic-fiction. I’m inclined to blend fiction and fact and am very attracted to creative non-fiction. I attend three different writing groups, one meets once a week, the other two once a month. I attend and support them as much as I can. I have regular meetings with a ‘comrade’ who has become a dear friend and we are writing a Renga together. This sharing keeps me writing if everything else fails to inspire. I also have created a Facebook page and spend time considering how to use and develop it. It’s been eye-opening to make contact with many writers, poets, bookshop owners across the globe; and a website is also near to completion. I’m retired now and driving infrequently, so I’m doing less gigs. I see social media as a way to keep reaching a new audience and joining in the literary community in different countries.

To conclude I just wanted to say thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to express and share some of my ideas and preoccupations relating the world of writing.

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