Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Jill Abram

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.

Jill Abram

Jill Abram

is Director of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, a collective encouraging craft, community and development. She grew up in Manchester, travelled the world and now lives in Brixton. She regularly performs her poems in London and occasionally beyond, including Ledbury Poetry Festival, Paris and USA.  Publications include The Rialto, Magma, Under The Radar, The High Window and Ink Sweat &Tears. Jill produces and presents a variety of poetry events and she created and curates the Stablemates reading series.

jillabram.co.uk

The Interview

  1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I’ve always put pen to paper but when I gathered my poems together to take on my first Arvon course, it was a very thin portfolio! That course in 2007 kicked things off and I came back wanting to do more. I’m not very good at self motivation so looked for some external discipline. Someone told me about Poetry School and I thought their monthly Saturday Sessions with Jane Draycott would suit me. They did and I attended those for 5 years (on and off) until Jane stopped leading them, when a group of us carried on meeting monthly to workshop poems and became Tideway Poets.

In 2008 I started performing my poems and took some performance workshops. One of these was led by Malika Booker and she subsequently invited me to join her collective, Malika’s Poetry Kitchen. This has been the greatest influence on my practice, learning to craft, to turn the inner editor off when writing and make editing a separate process, and to read read read!

I never took English Lit at school, though I did quite well in Lang, so wasn’t brought up with the canon. My early influences were Edward Lear, AA Milne and Lewis Carroll, ie so called nonsense verse, so I used to write mainly with rhyme and meter. I still haven’t read many “dead poets” but have immersed myself in contemporary poetry and love going to hear poets read their own work.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

My earliest memories of poetry are from Infants/Junior school:
When I was 4/5, I took part in the top class’ end of term play – I was a child in bed as my “mum” narrated Hiawatha and the rest of her class acted out the story. (I had one line – when she mentioned the warriors, I had to say, “Gosh, I bet they were fierce!”)
A year or two later, I narrated The Jumblies while the rest of my class (in green balaclavas and blue gloves) performed the actions. I have a book of Edward Lear which my mum gave me wen I was very young – maybe it was around this time.
I also remember my whole class learning “You Are Old, Father William” together with Mr Gee in Junior 2 (year 5).

I don’t remember who introduced me to adult poetry, but some of the books I bought before the time I was writing seriously are by Lemn Sissay, Henry Normal, Maya Angelou and Edna St Vincent Millay.

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

It depends where you go – my first performances were at slams and they were youth dominated, the classes and courses I did were attended by an older demographic (and more women than men).

I heard a statistic a few years ago that 90% of published poetry books were by dead people and 9 of the other 10% were by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, so how has that changed now..? The recent surge in poetry book sales has, to a large extent, been down to a few poets – eg Rupi Kaur accounts for at least 1m of the £12m increase.

In terms of the “establishment” where experience counts, naturally you are right, but I see a lot of talented and successful young poets – and think of all the schemes and prizes for young poets. The poetry underdogs are those who came late to writing so of course are older.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

Hahahahahahaha!

Sorry for laughing in your face- I don’t have one. In fact I have no routines in my life (a long career of unpredictable/irregular hours working)!

5. What motivates you to write?

Usually external stimuli – a workshop, a deadline. A successful workshop (for me) is when one of two things happens: either I come up with something I would never have come to on my own, or I find a way to express something that has been stuck in there for a while. I don’t give myself the headspace often enough to allow inspiration in, but sometimes I see something that really clicks and triggers something off.

For example:
A couple of years ago, I saw news footage of refugees walking through Hungary and it reminded me of a scene from a film when Jews were being exiled from their village about a century earlier – which is the history of my forebears. I wanted to write a poem connecting them and the result was Like A Fiddler On The Roof, published in Tears in the Fence Issue 67
Home

I want to write more about migrants and refugees, linking recent/current stories with those from the Jewish diaspora over centuries. Not just the Holocaust, which is still in living memory for some, and survivors bore witness so that we should “never forget” – but despite that, there are so many parallels in the way people are being mistreated now and the rise of the far right again.

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

I’m not sure they do.

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

Top of the list has to be Malika Booker – I’m biased of course, because she founded Malika’s Poetry Kitchen (a collective focusing on craft, community and development since 2001) from which I have gained so much. She invited me to join in 2009 and I started running it a year later, so I’ve been its Director for half of its existence now! (We’re celebrating our 20th anniversary in 2021 with an anthology to be published by Corsair, which will include poems from alumni past and present, and a series of events so watch this space!) But MPK is exactly one of the reasons for her being my number 1 – not only is she a fine writer, dedicating herself to her craft, and great performer but she gives so much back. She’s mentored so many poets, often voluntarily, and has given so much help and encouragement to others – often, but not exclusively, to young poets of colour, no doubt remembering the difficulties she had when starting out as a black poet with few role models and rejected by the establishment. I can barely even start to list all that she has done to enable others and am delighted to see her recognised in the September edition of British Vogue in the “Leaders and Proteges” section (with one of her protégés, Theresa Lola).

8. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

I can’t draw – not even a straight line with a ruler – or sing/play an instrument. I guess I write because I can. I’m a big show off so writing poetry means I have something to perform and, with open mics/slams, you can do that without needing an invitation, passing an audition, or having to commit to fixed rehearsals, which can be tricky with my job. (Please note that I do now get asked to read so I hope that is some indicator of quality!) Outside of Poetry World, I often feel no one listens to me so at least I can express myself through my writing – and it turns out some people even read/listen to it!

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

Just do it!. Put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard or whatever) – you can get a lot of joy and satisfaction from doing it even if you’re no good.

If you want to be a good writer, the first  – and only essential – other thing is to read read read! Read stuff you don’t like as well as stuff you do. You have to be aware of all the possibilities before you know what suits you.

You can do courses and classes, you will be exposed to loads of other poets as well as techniques and ways of writing, and (perhaps more importantly) make poetry friends. If you don’t have much money to spare, many organisations offer bursaries/grants etc. and there are MOOCs and other free online resources. But you can invite a few pals for nothing to share work – online makes so much possible even if you can’t get to meet face to face. And thanks to the Poetry Society there may be a local Stanza group you can just turn up to. If you’re lucky enough to live near one of the poetry libraries you can borrow books for free.

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

I’m working on my submission for the MPK anthology, a sequence about my chronic health condition and the refugee poems I mentioned earlier, although I have been far from prolific lately. I had mentoring with Mimi Khalvati last year which led to a manuscript for my debut collection and I’m waiting to hear from a publisher about that. I’m applying for ACE funding to continue my Stablemates event series (in which I interview three poets from one press, then they read) and want to do more of those in London and at Festivals further afield. I’m also trying to build my career as producer/presenter so if anyone needs a poetry event (reading/interview/panel/launch etc.) organising/hosting etc. – look no further!

 

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