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.
David Russomano’s poetry has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, long-listed for The Brian Dempsey Memorial Prize, and featured in over 40 publications, including The Missouri Review, The Worcester Review, and SoFloPoJo. In 2014, Kingston University awarded him the Faber & Faber Creative Writing MA Prize. He is the author of (Reasons for) Moving [Structo Press] and Caught Light [Friends of Alice]. To learn more, visit https://davidrussomano.wordpress.com/
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
I grew up in a relatively religious family and went to a Christian summer camp for several years when I was younger. There were nightly chapel services and a weekly talent show. It seemed like everyone and their brother could play guitar and I was eager to join in. What was probably one of my first poems was intended to be a song for one of those talent shows, but I couldn’t play the guitar yet and didn’t have the time to get someone else to add music, so I just read it like a poem. Later, in high school, I started a band. I played guitar, sang, and wrote most of the lyrics. I didn’t really start writing poetry as such until I was in college. Even then, as I graduated in 2006, I couldn’t get a decent writing sample together for an MFA program, partially because I hadn’t settled on poetry or fiction. From 2008 to 2011, when I was teaching English abroad, I got some crucial encouragement from co-workers who were also creative writers. I still wanted to pursue further education and settled on poetry because it seemed to come more naturally to me and/or I seemed to be better at it. My fiction hadn’t amounted to much, but I was able to build up enough momentum with my poetry to eventually get into an MA program.
I feel like this has turned into an answer to “How did you end up writing poetry?” as opposed to “why did you start?” Maybe, the short answer is, I don’t know why I started, but hopefully that’s OK.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that before. And I don’t think I know the answer. I could tell you who all four of my high school English teachers were and even list off a decent number of the prose books we read, but I couldn’t be sure of a single poet or poem we studied. Nothing sticks out. College was a little different in the sense that I had a few teachers who actually were poets and taught entire courses dedicated to poetry, but it doesn’t seem right to say that they introduced me to poetry. I must’ve already been familiar with it. I think some people have an ‘Aha’ moment where poetry finally clicks for them, but if I had one, I can’t remember it.
2.1. What’s the first poem you can remember?
Man, you seem to ask all of the toughest memory-based questions. Again, I don’t really know. I’m sure that in school, I covered poems like The Red Wheelbarrow, Pied Beauty, God’s Grandeur, Ozymandias, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, and The Road Not Taken. I imagine there was a Shakespearean sonnet in there somewhere as well. But I couldn’t tell you exactly when I encountered any of these. Of course, before this, there must’ve been some nursery rhymes or children’s books, but none come to mind.
3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
Well, that seems to be at least a two part question. As far as the ‘how aware was I?’ part of the question, I feel like it was all that I was aware of initially. Being introduced to poetry in a school setting, you get saddled with the same set of anthologised poets over and over, at least to some extent. Or, you hear a short list of names and you learn that they’re supposed to be the greats, regardless of whether or not you learn why they’re meant to be great. You don’t look at anything like what could be called ‘lesser known’ poets, presumably because there just isn’t time. In college, I had to have an enormous two volume anthology of poetry and we really didn’t cover very much of it. So, even the big anthologies get pared down to the bare minimum.
But, how aware am I of the dominating presence of older poets now? That’s hard to say. I’m definitely more engaged with poetry at a grassroots level now. I participate in local open mics, which are either run by smaller publishers or poets who have released books with smaller publishers. The poetry I’m reading now is often by the poets I meet or in the little journals I appear in. So, it’s not necessarily that I’m less aware of the big name poets who dominate, as much as I’m more aware of lesser known poets.
I’m not sure exactly how dominated I feel by the lingering presence of older poets one way or the other. There’s certainly a sense of influence, but beyond that, I guess I’d need some more concrete examples to fully understand what you mean by dominating presence.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
Unfortunately, it isn’t daily and it isn’t particularly routine. I work a full-time desk job and I have a young daughter, so I have to squeeze my writing in where/when I can. Usually, when I get a chance to write, it’s in the evening between my daughter’s bedtime and my own. That’s after I’ve prepped my breakfast and lunch for the next day, done the dishes from dinner, and taken care of any other random jobs. Sometimes that leaves me a little time in front of my laptop and sometimes it doesn’t. At the weekends, I try to write a little during her midday nap, but there are often other tasks at hand. Sometimes, I write a little during my lunch break at work. Apart from all of this, I carry a small pocket notebook (a practice I’ve maintained since I became an English major in college) and if any ideas come to me, I try to write them down right away so that I don’t lose them.
5. What motivates you to write?
I feel like I could answer this in two different ways and I’m not sure which would be more true to the spirit of the question.
If you’d like to know what inspires me to write:
Much of my writing is what I think of as reactionary. It draws from things that I’ve personally encountered in my travels and daily life. Other times, an idea comes to me of its own accord and develops into a poem without any basis in my own experience. But, both of these approaches often have a common underlying concern: mortality. For me, my best poems are a matter of life and death. I’m preoccupied with the fact that things wear down, that they have endings, that they’re finite. In that sense, I think that the finite nature of things is a source of inspiration.
On the other hand, if you’d like to know what actually motivates me to do the physical act of writing/typing:
That’s a much harder question. I suppose sometimes, when I know I have an idea, I’m driven by the urge to see it developed into its final form, to see it grow into what I imagine it can be. That’s exciting. Other times, it’s hard. And it’s work. And it’s, hard work. Bukowski was famous for saying “Don’t try”, but I break that rule regularly. So, why do I break that rule? Why bother trying when it all seems to be an uphill slog? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m desperate to justify my own existence with creative output. Maybe I’m also desperate to leave some sort of record or legacy, as cliche as that is. I don’t think I fully understand my own motivations. But I have found that I understand something better when I explain it to someone else, so maybe some of my writing is an attempt to do just that – to turn an idea into something I can actually understand.
6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
This is somewhat difficult to answer, partially because I don’t think I read anywhere near enough poetry when I was young and partially because I’ve probably forgotten many of the poets that I actually read. But I suppose I can trace many of my current poetic priorities back to what I covered in school. This includes things that I aim for, as well as things that I dislike. For example, I remember covering confessional poets on one hand and Imagism on the other.
Teaching confessional poetry to inexperienced students is dangerous. Kids can get an over-simplified idea of what the confessional poets were doing i.e. my life is bad and I’m going to whine to you about it. This either turns people off to poetry or emboldens them to write bad poetry. Many amateur poets never seem to grow out of this ‘me, me, me’ type of writing, but I strive to avoid it. While many of my poems are inspired by own experiences, the experiences are central and the fact that they happened to me is only peripheral. Imagism helped me understand the importance of elevating the ‘what’ over the ‘who’. “No ideas but in things”, as W.C. Williams said.
Though I don’t necessarily have a good example to hand, I’m sure that I encountered plenty of unintelligible poems in my school days and it didn’t exactly encourage me into the world of verse. I don’t think that poetry should be dumbed down per se and I believe that experimentation can be valid, but there’s nothing to gain from driving readers away with excessively difficult poetry. When people tell me that my work is approachable, I take it as a great compliment. One aspect of my work that I think draws people in and makes them comfortable is its narrative quality.
I’d say the poet from my education who’s most directly influenced me has to be Robert Frost. I respect the way that he brought engaging narratives to life with crisp imagery and fresh figurative language. His influence on my work might not always be obvious, but it probably isn’t hard to miss either.
7. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Assuming we’re talking about poets, I’m impressed by anyone who makes a living as anything that could be loosely described as a ‘literary figure’. It’s very difficult to turn poetry into something financially viable, even if you combine it with an academic career and/or writing in other genres (novels, plays, songs, articles, non-fiction, etc.), so I admire anyone who’s been able to pull that off. I also admire people who achieve the rank of poet laureate, like Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage. I know this position is a problematic one, so much so that some poets have actually turned it down, but I think there’s something to be said for any nation that even bothers to preserve such a role and any individual brave enough to be the face/voice of that aspect of a nation’s cultural life. Stylistically, I appreciate Duffy’s ability to utilise single word sentences, using those words almost like a form of punctuation. This lends her work a punchiness that’s very effective. I’ve also been struck by some of Jorie Graham’s work, mainly because it’s so different from my own. I read it and think, “Oh, you’re doing something I might not ever be able to do and you’re doing it very well.” I read two of her collections and found them difficult, but rewarding. On the other hand, I heard her read something from her collection P L A C E and I didn’t enjoy it at all. I guess you can’t expect anyone’s work to be consistent. Beyond that, I hardly feel well-read enough to comment on many contemporary authors’ work or careers. But, there is a man named Aaron Weiss who fronts the band mewithoutYou. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that a songwriter is not the exact same thing as a poet, but Weiss’s lyrics have often impressed me more than most poems I’ve read.
8. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Because this is such a complicated question, I would respond by saying “Be more specific”. When people say that they want to know how to become a writer, they can mean different things. The simplest level of inquiry can be answered in the simplest way. If all you want to know is how to become a writer, then all you have to do is write. In some sense, anyone who writes (creatively and with intent, not just jotting down shopping lists and memos) is by default, a writer. This might seem dismissive, evasive, or banal, but I think that many people don’t realise that THEY’RE ALREADY WRITERS. They’re writing, but they’re waiting for some magical watershed moment before they actually call their work ‘writing’. That magical moment doesn’t exist. Conversely, there are some people who spend an inordinate amount of time thinking and talking about writing, but never actually do it. These people might have great ideas, but they’re not writers. They’re too paralysed by false conceptions of what will legitimise their efforts. Don’t be one of them. If you want to write, start writing. If you’ve got the urge, then bad writing is better than no writing.
Which leads on to the next point. Some people want to know how to become a ‘good’ writer. That is a much harder question. There’s no simple answer. If the person asking me thinks of me as a good writer (whether or not I deserve that accolade) and I can refer to my own experience, I’d say it isn’t so much about becoming a good writer as it is becoming a BETTER writer. There was a definite point in time, I think around the middle of my 2nd year of college/university, when I decided to seriously pursue writing. To that end, I made a few decisions:
- In order to be ready for inspiration, I started to carry a small notebook at all times. I’ve been doing it ever since and I’m up to pocket notebook number 40. When you have a great idea and you swear you’ll remember it, but you don’t, it’s an awful feeling. Do what you can to avoid it. I suppose some people use their phones for this now, so do whatever works for you.
- It’s been said that you should “write what you know”, so I told myself that I better make what I know more interesting. That’s why I started travelling and living abroad. Expanding the breadth and depth of your experiential knowledge is extremely beneficial. Of course, nothing is mundane to the well-trained eye, but what training is effective? How can you gain a fresh perspective on what seems stale? Look away, then turn back. It’s not the only method, but it’s worth a try.
- Oddly enough, I wasn’t much of a reader in my younger years. I felt like I read too slowly and that discouraged me. But after college courses forced me to read more quickly and I realised I could actually do it, I began to read more voraciously. I took it on as a personal challenge. I wanted to read those who were allegedly great and see what the fuss was all about. I wanted recommendations from friends. I wanted to catch up on what I’d missed. I wanted to give myself a good foundation for my own work. It’s something I’m still working on now.
I’ve also had to develop a healthier attitude towards editing and editors. It’s been said that you should “kill your darlings”, but when I was younger, I wasn’t ready to take this on board. Like many immature writers, I didn’t respond well to critiques of my writing. But, now I have a far greater appreciation of the process. Start with bad work. Don’t be afraid to share it (with people who know what they’re talking about). Listen to them. Edit like your writing life depends on it, because it does. Draft, draft, and re-draft. Rarely, someone will tell you to cut something that you should keep. You have to develop your intuition enough to know when to say no. But most of the time, the editor is right.
I could actually go on, but this response has become ungodly long already.
9. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I’m in the middle of several stalled poems. One of them, an experimental sort of erasure poem, has the potential to turn into something larger, but I’ve been struggling with it on and off for over a year. I hoped to finish it in time for the WWI centenary, but couldn’t pull it together in time. In this piece, or series of pieces, I hope to take the specific words from the specific monument that’s closest to me and reconfigure those words to say something meaningful about the war in general. I may have set the bar to high for myself though. I’m not sure yet.
What I’m really focusing my energy on though is two novels. One of them is a fantasy novel inspired by characters I drew when I was a kid. I go back and forth between wanting to present the story simply, almost as a fairy tale, and wanting to convey it in a more sophisticated way, like within a frame narrative of a father making it up for his child at bed time. My other novel idea is a sort of hard boiled dystopian Sci-Fi detective novel. I keep going back and forth between the two, which means that neither are anywhere near complete, but I’m keen to finish at least one of them.