Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: John Challis

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.

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John Challis

was born in London in 1984. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Newcastle University and is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize. In 2012 New Writing North awarded him a Northern Promise Award. His poems have appeared on BBC Radio 4, as well as in journals and anthologies including The North, Magma, Poetry London, The Rialto, Stand and Land of Three Rivers (Bloodaxe). The Black Cab (Poetry Salzburg, 2017) is his first pamphlet of poems and was chosen as a 2019 Read Regional title by New Writing North. He lives in the North East and works as a Research Associate at Newcastle University. http://www.johndchallis.co.uk/

The Interview

  1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

If I’m going to be honest, I started writing what I thought were songs during my mid-teens inspired by the likes of Dylan and the Doors, but poetry really grabbed me when I was 18. I had appreciated war poetry at school (Sassoon, Tennyson, Owen), but it was a chance encounter while browsing the library shelves with Dante’s Inferno that got my imagination really fired up. I wasn’t all that good at playing the guitar so I gave up songs for poems and gradually came to realize that there was far more I could do with the form. Then a creative writing teacher lent me Michael Donaghy’s Conjure, and I got hooked.

2. What was it about Dante’s Inferno that really fired you up?

At first I was captivated by how Dante had imagined his terrifying world in such excruciating detail. The way in which sins were enacted upon the sinner across the many levels of hell seemed a powerful and moral idea. I felt the reach of Inferno far and wide, notably in David Fincher’s neo-noir Se7en, which I’d just studied at sixth form college, but also further: in video games, detective shows, comics. In some ways, Inferno is the perfect dystopia. The way in which Dante assigned figures from history (politicians, conquerors, biblical figures and philosophers) to certain levels seemed to beg for endless comparison to the present. I was also intrigued by how Inferno provided a map to hell as an illustration, as though it was a theme park or a shopping centre. It made something so abstract very concrete.

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

It’s difficult to write in a vacuum. Whether the presence of older, more traditional poets dominate my writing life, it’s difficult to say. Guiding lights are both old and young. In particular, there’s a whole raft of American poets (James Wright, Larry Levis, James Dickey, Louise Gluck), all of whom might be classified as ‘contemporary’ poets writing during the second half of the 20th Century, that I’ve enjoyed reading and have learnt something from over the last few years. But then there are younger poets (Emily Hasler, Wayne Holloway-Smith, Ocean Vuong, Hannah Sullivan) who I’ve really enjoyed reading as well. In some ways, everything is influential. When I started to write more seriously I looked to Philip Larkin, Paul Farley, Sean O’Brien, and still do.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

Since having a daughter last year, regular writing has gone out the window. When I was younger, I tried to cultivate a space and a routine, but now it happens anywhere and usually when there isn’t time. If I can, I like to write fast, in between my daughter’s naps or on the metro on the way to work. I like to spend time editing and often play around with form and syntax before settling on one configuration. Though too much fiddling can sometimes strip a poem of its mystery. Generally, I’m more productive and less self-critical first thing in the morning.

5. What motivates your writing?

Many things: to remember and experience; to re-experience and re-examine; to think aloud on paper; to imagine something other than experience; to create connections between seemingly oblique things, subjects and phenomena; to connect with others; to respond to encounters with language in great poems, novels and non-fiction books; the inexplicable need to do all of the above at the same time by writing.

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

Inferno taught me to consider what’s hidden below the surface, to drill deeper, figuratively speaking. Heaney said somewhere that the role of writing poetry was to unearth revelations about the self to the self. Given the time-intensive labour poetry seems to demand, it’s not hard to imagine images and ideas from texts I encountered earlier seeping in and emerging. If anything, I think that the sound and meter of favourite poems tends to crop up here and there and echo through my lines. I heard a recording of Michael Donaghy reading ‘Black Ice and Rain’ when I was starting out and his delivery of that poem had an enormous affect on me. Novels by J.G. Ballard and Haruki Murakami, which I obsessively read in my early twenties, have also had some kind of influence, perhaps in terms of subject. And film too, in particular neo-noirish classics like Big Trouble in Little China and The Terminator, and the strange otherworldly, edgy and pessimistic worlds they created.

7. Who of today’s writers do you most admire, and why?

Too many to mention, though one poet in particular whose success hasn’t translated into a huge volume of critical engagement is Sean O’Brien, whose collected work seems to me to show an incredible consistency, in terms of theme, subject and form across a 30+ year period. In particular, I love the way his poetry actively imagines events, moments, situations, that are all endowed with a kind of murky, subterranean sense. In his work time is traversed, history opened and spread out across the present. His work is metaphysical and elegiac, comic and resolute. If you’d like to read more, I have an essay on O’Brien’s engagement with the dead in his work over at Wild Court: http://wildcourt.co.uk/features/permanent-afternoons-underworld-poetry-sean-obrien/

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

I think writing is something you grow into over time through the act of writing. The more you do it, the more you come to realize it’s essential to your well-being and also to your thinking. I tend to think aloud on paper. It wasn’t always this way, but the more I wrote the more I began to realize that I thought differently on the page. It’s hard to describe what this difference is, except to say that there’s something about that marriage between physicality and cognitive thought that often produces surprising results. You become a writer by writing. Why do you write though? Because.

9. Tell me about writing projects you’re involved in at the moment.

At the moment I’m trying to finish a first collection of poems. I seem to have done this many times. The more finished the collection seems, as soon as there’s a contents page and a title, the more unfinished it becomes. But I think I’m beginning to get somewhere. Many of the poems carry themes over from The Black Cab – London, history, markets, work, class – but others look at parenthood, its affects on memory and a sense of one’s own time, which there is never enough of, as well as the idea of having place or purpose in all that time. I’m interested in fluidity, how a poem can seem present and continuous as it breaks into and dramatizes the past, and this perhaps is what drives my efforts. Elsewhere, I’ve been working with prisoners to produce a book of their work, which has been an exciting and touching experience.

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