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.
Stephen is a Blackburn born, Bristol based poet and disability rights champion. In 1996, aged 16, he experienced a life-changing accident whilst sledging in the snow and is now paralysed from below the waist. Stephen writes extensively but not exclusively about life as a wheelchair user. His debut poetry collection, Only Air, was published in 2019 with Burning Eye Books.
Social media: @spokeandpencil
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
The first poem I wrote was strangely enough on a friend’s stag do in Devon in 2012. They had gone kayaking and I wasn’t able to do that so I sat on the beach and wrote a pretty terrible poem about the sea and waves coming to shore like tiny snow capped mountains. It really wasn’t good. I then on and off carried putting things into the note book as they came into my head but didn’t really intend to do anything with it. Then around a year later in 2013 a perfect storm of events happened in my own life. My marriage ended, my step father passed away suddenly and I was in a particularly stressful environment at work. So with plenty of new time on my hands I signed up for a 10 week poetry course through City Lit with Malika Booker in London. It was a beginner’s course but I was probably starting even at a more basic level than that. I didn’t really read poetry at the time, I couldn’t have told you who were contemporary poets and I had no idea about the difference between page and performance poetry. But I wanted to write and I realised I had things I had to say. Over those 10 weeks it became incredibly cathartic and Malika was superb, encouraging us to share poems and I started to realise I was enjoying the experience of reading my poems to an audience even if they were terrible. On the course we were asked to write a letter poem and I chose to write one to my legs. I don’t know why and it was the first time I had written about my spinal injury and my relationship with my body. From that moment I couldn’t stop and here I am six years later with my first collection just published and many book shelves stacked with poetry.
1.1. Why choose poetry to say what you wanted to say?
There was something about the format that appealed. The shorter format rather than writing longer prose interested me as it really concentrated my mind about what it was I wanted to get across. Playing around with imagery, metaphor and surreal language also gave me an outlet to really go beyond what maybe I had originally thought and probe my own preconceived ideas. For instance I’ve written a poem about living in London and feeling angry about how inaccessible it is and my anger is represented by a bear who walks alongside me and just lashes out at random people and objects. Talking about my anger like that helped me to think was I carrying this anger around, was it frustrations at my disability or just these were easy outlets for me to be angry at rather than trying to understand what I could do to move away from these feelings. I was also drawn to confessional poetry and was mesmerised by the way poets like Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds have been able to tackle issues such as death and loss but through such beautiful language. The challenge of trying to write in that way, even getting anywhere near the way those wonderful poets articulated themselves was something I was really keen to try.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
My mum. My parents separated when I was a child and me and my two brothers lived with mum. She was brilliant and a wonderful influence. She was able to tap into what each of us needed and would spend time with us on our own helping us to express ourselves. She had seen that I was creative and loved telling stories and reading so around the age of eight she took me with her to see Roger McGough read from one of his new collections in Accrington, Lancashire. I can still remember the feelings I had now being allowed into this magical world, sitting entranced looking over the tops of a room full of adult’s heads listening to this man with a wonderful accent and a ponytail. I didn’t really understand what he was saying but he made my mum laugh and I hadn’t seen that much since dad left and I knew this man at the front of the room was something special.
3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
This is a really interesting question and one that I think could be answered in a number of ways. When I was younger being taught poetry at school the poets would be the usual suspects. At that age though I wasn’t aware of the likes of Byron or Browning being dominating it was just who I thought wrote poetry. Yes I knew it was old but still interesting and beautiful. Yet I also knew it was different to the other kinds of poetry I enjoyed at that age by Michael Rosen or Roald Dahl and his Revolting Rhymes. As I’ve grown older I can definitely look back and see that the poems I was taught or consumed were by white male poets and my early influences of poetry would obviously have been swayed by that. For many years whilst I may have read poetry on and off it was only if someone bought it for me and again as I got older these would have been collections by Roger McGough as already mentioned, John Hegley and John Cooper Clarke. Becoming more contemporary yes but still white and male. If I try and think why this might be I wonder if it is because in the main high street book shops are not stacking shelves with different voices. Is this because this is what people want to buy or is it that people are only buying these because that is what is on offer? I’m aware this is a generalisation and it’s a question I’m not sure I yet have the answer to. As I have consumed more poetry through reading, studying and watching I have been delighted to watch my book shelves grow with many more varied voices of all genders, backgrounds and ages different to mine. I would encourage anyone interested in poetry to look beyond what is offered on high street book shelves and search out independent publishers, smaller book shops, people self publishing and poets reading at open mics who might not yet have had anything in print. You’ll be so glad you did. You might not like it all, but you’ll definitely hear something worth listening to. I also feel this would be a good place to consider the lack of disabled poets both in print and heard at poetry events. As a disabled poet myself I definitely feel there is and should be a space for deaf and disability poetry but our voices are being crowded out and there isn’t an active movement to discover new voices in this area. Some of the reasons may be the subject matter may be considered niche, venues may not have adequate access or poets may not be prolific enough to have material for a full book due to energy levels or managing illness or ill health. But more can definitely be done to give disability poetry the platform it deserves. Yes poets such as Raymond Antrobus and Ilya Kaminsky are getting mainstream attention and rightly so because they are magnificent but there are many many more deaf and disabled poets both from the UK and internationally who poetry lovers should know about.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I wish I had one. I work most days in the NHS and am out of the house by 7.30am and some days not home again until 7pm. So unfortunately my daily writing routine is answering emails! I do try and read poetry every day though and will always have a collection in my bag and a pile by the side of the bed so I can read at least one poem before I go to sleep. Doing this helps keep my mind active and will always spark an idea or two and they often end up in my phone or a notebook along with all sorts of random musings. If I have the energy when home in the evening I will see if I can write something and some of my favourite things recently have just been to write without over thinking and see what comes out. If I don’t feel like writing something new then I can be in an old poem editing and again that helps to feel like I’m doing something productive. I’ve recently dropped to four days a week and so Friday to Sunday is when I will try and write. If I am short of inspiration then maybe I’ll just write a prompt at the top of a page, set my phone for ten minutes and free write. I’m a big fan of this as often I’ll get to seven or eight minutes in and something will appear that I’ll enjoy and play around with. I much prefer writing in a notebook rather than straight into my phone and on a Friday I just enjoy finding somewhere to sit and writing down observations and then seeing if I can turn them into something. When I do write I prefer to write somewhere quiet, I’m not great with loads of stimulus as am easily distracted. I’ve also loads of things around the house to help act as prompts such as newspaper articles I’ve kept because I liked the words used, fridge magnet words which I might try and jumble up and see what comes out, books with writing prompts and an old dictionaries I’ll randomly flick through and see what jump out. I’m in between projects at the minute so the other thing I’m doing to keep acting is finding open submissions on a theme and then writing to those. This has p-roved quite fruitful and I’ve been lucky this year and have had a number of poems selected for anthologies with themes ranging from nature to running.
5. What motivates you to write?
With my first collection I took the decision I wanted to write about my experiences of being a wheelchair user. Hopefully through my writing I can help to change a few perceptions about what it is like to live a normal life with a disability. In the book I talk about travel, relationships, working, having a family, the strange things people to say to someone with a disability and the frustrations of many places being inaccessible. In many ways it is a celebration of the mundane and this is a conscious thing to have done because I don’t believe this is something that is talked of enough when it comes to disability. So far the response has been great and after every reading someone will come up to me and say I’d made them think about how they perceive people with disabilities in a different way. If I can keep doing that I will be happy.
6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
One of the biggest things I realised has influenced me is using place and where you are from in your writing. Writers such as the Mersey Beat poets have a very strong connection to Liverpool in their writing. Even though I live in the south now staying connected to the north and my hometown in how I not only write but keeping my accent and staying true to my roots has been really important.
7. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
There are so many to choose from but I’d like to give a special mention to poets who identify as D/deaf or disabled. I was fortunate enough back in May to travel to San Antonio in Texas to attend Zoeglossia, a new community and conference the celebrates disabled poetry. Writing alongside my fellow attendees was magnificent and I was genuinely moved to be on the other side of the Atlantic but connected by our shared experiences. Following the conference a new anthology, called ‘We Are Not Your Metaphor’ was published with contributions from all the attendees. So I’d like to mention Viktoria Valenzuela, Gaia Celeste Thomas, Elizabeth Theriot, Zoe Stoller, Jessica Suzanne Stokes, Margaret Ricketts, Naomi Ortiz, Raymond Luczak, Stephanie Heit, and Genevieve Arlie. I’d also encourage anyone to find a copy of Stairs and Whispers published by Nine Arches Press. This is a magnificent collection of essays, poems and writings from D/deaf and disabled poets. I wouldn’t want to single any of the contributors out specifically other than just to say I would implore people to search out work from all of these writers.
8. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Just write. Buy yourself a notepad and a pen and write down anything that comes into your head. Find somewhere to sit, buy a cup of coffee and write down your observations and then try and arrange them into something. If you want to write, then do so and with freedom. Don’t feel restricted by form or content, or by wanting to get published or whether anything is any good. Just write because you want to and write for enjoyment. Write on your own, with other people, inside, outside, in the morning, last thing at night. Mix it up and see what happens. After a while you’ll start to see things in your writing that become familiar or themes might start to emerge or ideas and if they do, explore them, play with them and be excited by the results. The other thing I would say is if you want to write, then also read. Read as much as you can. If you read something and you enjoy it ask yourself why? And again, if something moves you, challenges you, makes you angry or you don’t like it, ask yourself why? Then start to incorporate some of these answers into your writing and see what happens.
9. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
With the book coming out in March a lot of my focus has been on promoting that and getting out and about doing readings, which I have really enjoyed. However, having a disability has meant I have to manage my energy levels a bit more and so writing new material has taken a little back seat for the time being. However, I’m looking forward to getting back to it and have a few ideas I’d like to play around with. One is expanding some of the themes in the book and seeing if I can write a one person play. I like the idea of having a bit more space to stretch out some of my thinking that I’ve started to explore with poetry. The other idea I have is for a follow up to the book but set in a near future and again exploring some of what is in the book but imagining life with a disability set in a dystopian time. I’ve been enjoying reading near future poetry but haven’t seen disability explored as a theme and what it would be like to survive and exist when things have started to crumble around us. At the moment I’m just reading as much as I can and hoping to start putting something on the page soon.