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.
Mark Antony Owen
Based in subrural East Hampshire, Mark is the author of digital-only poetry project Subruria.
1. What inspired you to write poetry?
Poetry and I have had an on/off love affair stretching back to when I was seven. I still recall the first poem I ever wrote at that age … though I’ll spare your readers that. Poetry has come and gone and come again into my life several times since then – and until I turned 37, I didn’t really know what to do with it. It took a troubled period of my life, a realisation that my career was insufficiently fulfilling, and a deep-seated desire to create something that might reflect at least some of who and what I am in the world before I admitted to myself, ‘You’re a poet.’
For this reason, there’s been no one moment I can point to and say, ‘That’s what first inspired me.’ I’m a writer, I’m certain, because of Jeanette Winterson’s novel, ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’. But I’m a poet, perhaps, because I think and feel poetically, rather than in a prose-like way. All I know is that I don’t want to tell my life straight. Where’s the art in that?
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
Here’s where I’d love to be able to heap praise on some long-forgotten secondary school English teacher, or a thoughtful relative who instilled in me a love of literature. Sadly, I can’t: I’m pretty much self schooled in poetry – and in art, generally. So I’ll tell you instead about two poems which, when I was coming back to poetry after a prolonged period of not thinking about it nor writing any, reinvigorated me and made me want to make it as a poet … whatever that means.
The first poem is ‘Shopper’ by Connie Bensley. It contains this one line that, when I read it first, felt like it showed me what was possible in poetry:
` … The road chokes
on delivery vans.’
It’s just those six words: the idea of a road as a throat. And it was utterly transformative. It made me realise I didn’t have to write about love or loss or nature in that florid, faux-Keatsian, juvenile way too many young people do.
The other poem that had a devastating impact – in a good way – was ‘A Bird in the House’ by Elizabeth Jennings. I feel I need to share a bigger slice of this poem, from its ending, to try to convey what I felt when I first encountered it:
`After my first true grief I wept, was sad, was dark, but today,
Clear of terror and agony,
The yellow bird sings in my mind and I say
That the child is callous but wise, knows the purpose of play.
And the grief of ten years ago
Now has an ancient rite,
A walk down the garden carrying death in an egg
And the sky singing, the trees still waving farewell
When dying was nothing to know.’
How powerful is that last line? Obviously, this extract is shorn of context. But you get a sense of the innocence and the tragedy that this poem deals with so brilliantly. You can read the poem in full and hear Elizabeth Jennings read ‘A Bird in the House’ over at The Poetry Archive. (https://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/bird-house)
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
Larkin and Hughes. Those were the only two names I can remember having imposed on us at school. Consequently, they were the two dominating presences I encountered as a young man. I don’t recall much about Hughes from that time, but I do remember thinking I wanted nothing to do with Larkin.
Fast-forward nearly twenty years, and there I was, reading Andrew Motion’s biography of the poet – and (horror of horrors) finding myself as inspired by the facts of his life as by his poetry. I worry at times that I’ve absorbed something of the Larkin spirit; I often talk about my own work as belonging to something I’ve termed New Pessimism, which I’m sure Larkin would’ve loved.
This is not to suggest I see myself as entitled to nor wearing the old curmudgeon’s crown – his poetry works in quite a different way to mine. But I do seem to see the world through Larkinesque eyes when I write, so it’s possible I’m treading in his footsteps even without consciously meaning to.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
Oh, to have one of these! My days are long and quite full-on. I rise early to drive to places of work that are considerable distances from home. Once I’m back, I help a lot around the house and with the raising of my children – so there’s no sloping off to a study for a couple of hours’ writing. But at some point, I fantasise, I’ll be in a position to enjoy at least one day a week when I can wake around 7am, take coffee, listen to some chamber music, shower, perhaps go for a walk in the countryside, then arrive at my desk for 10am to write or revise till about 4pm.
I greatly admire those who rise before the sun to write, or who scribble deep into the night. My brain’s not at its best at those times of day. So I tend to write in snatches: draft new poems quickly to preserve (as far as possible) the original idea, then take sometimes several years – and countless revisits – to perfect what I first jotted down. Not exactly what you’d call ‘routine’.
5. What motivates you to write?
I’ll let my vanity answer this one: I want to be remembered. Or rather, I want the art I create to be remembered. That’s not my sole motivator, of course – I write because I need to express how I think and see and feel about the world around me (as well as the world within me). But when I ask myself how, at the end of my life, I hope to appraise all I’ve written, I always come back to the idea of art conferring upon artists a kind of immortality. I’m not actually interested in living forever physically. I like to hope, however, that my work might go on living long after I’m gone.
6. What is your work ethic?
If, by ‘work ethic’, what’s meant here is, ‘Do you believe in working hard?’, then no – I don’t. I believe in working smart. There’s no inherent virtue nor value in hard work, no matter how much the world tries to convince you there is. There’s every virtue and value in working smarter. Do it right, and you can achieve just as much as you might by hard work alone but with a greatly reduced cost to your physical, mental and emotional health. Take it from someone who used to be a workaholic (and who got ill for a number of years because of this): it’s really not worth it.
What matters most is constancy. You need this to drive you – give you a reason to believe that what you’re doing matters, to motivate you to carry on. It also helps to keep you from deviating too far from (or diluting) your original vision. Do that, and things can and will get messy, sooner or later. Hard work doesn’t enter into it. Yes, you will face challenges. Look always for the smartest way to resolve these, not the way that’ll see you expend the most effort. Life is hard enough as it is. Don’t make it harder, especially not in the name of art. Don’t rob what you love of its joy.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
Without wishing to make it sound like I grew up in a house free from books – I didn’t; my father was a voracious, wide-ranging reader (and still is) – I wasn’t a reader as a child. I wanted to make and do and go outside to play: to have a visceral interaction with my environment. I sometimes wonder if this hands-on life experience in my early years has in some way shaped my approach to poetry. When you’re immersed in the world in a very physical way, you tend to notice a lot about it. Certainly, I can’t imagine anyone who knew me as a child ever suspecting I’d grow up to be a writer – and definitely, not a poet. So as much as I’d like to answer this question by citing a list of obscure or critically acclaimed authors, I really can’t.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
There are so many incredible, inspiring writers around today that whoever I pick I’ll inevitably neglect to mention someone else equally worthy. I must confess to reading mainly female poets, so I’m going to name-check just three: Natalie Ann Holborow, an extraordinarily talented poet to whose work I was introduced only relatively recently; Rebecca Goss, whose writing goes from strength to strength with each new collection; and Ada Limón, who writes with such intensity and honesty it’s disarming. I could reel off a dozen more names, but I won’t.
9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
Fun fact: I wanted to be a visual artist. A cartoonist, actually. I spent my entire childhood believing this was my creative destiny. I tell people the reason I quit was because my step-brother was much better than me at visual art. The truth is that I simply lost my love for it. Around the same time, I was discovering I had facility with words.
At first, much like Larkin I suppose, I was resolute in thinking I’d be a novelist. It took me most of my twenties to realise I wasn’t cut out for this – followed by a long, dry spell of no creative writing through the bulk of my thirties. I say ‘no creative writing’, but in fact I was working as an advertising copywriter, which gave me an outlet of sorts. What that job alone should’ve proved to me was that I enjoyed short-form writing the most.
To bring all this back to the question, I hit a point where I felt almost a physical ache from not creating something original – something that came from me, rather than in response to a commercial brief. When I’d wrestled with the reasons why and explored what might make my ‘pain’ go away (my options at that time included writing comedy, something I still wish I’d done), I realised my first literary love was poetry. Ever since that epiphany, I’ve made poetry a fundamental part of every day. I can’t imagine this ever changing now, after almost a decade.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
If you can do anything else better, do that! Being a writer is rarely, if ever, as glamorous as one imagines. But if putting one word after another after another is the thing that gives you your power and freedom of expression (and you believe you have something to say, and a way to say it differently to how others might say it), then you need do only two things: write a lot, and read even more. Reading will fuel you, inspire you, educate you, entertain you, alarm you, enrich and enliven you. Writing will give you the means to take what reading – and living – gives you, and transform it into art. Because art is the goal. Why aim for anything less?
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I shall be frank here, and bold: the next 30 years are being dedicated to my digital-only poetry project, Subruria (https://www.subruria.com/). You can read what this is (and how it came about) in another interview I gave earlier (http://poetryminiinterviews.blogspot.com/2019/03/mark-antony-owen-part-one.html?m=0) in 2019 as part of Thomas Whyte’s Poetry Mini Interviews series.