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.
was born in 1952 in Wimbledon, and lives in Surrey. He is a former newspaper sub-editor, and now news and reviews editor for the poetry website Write Out Loud. He co-comperes a monthly poetry open-mic night in Woking with Rodney Wood, and his debut poetry pamphlet Trainspotters was published by Indigo Dreams in 2015. His poems have appeared in South, South Bank Poetry, The Interpreters House, the Morning Star, the High Window, and are plastered all over England and even offshore on the Places of Poetry map.
1. What inspired you to write poetry?
I was meant to be revising for my O-levels. I would have been 16, the year was 1969. Blimey, that’s exactly 50 years ago! I was staring out of the window. It was a distraction technique. And I did write a poem about the moon landing.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
An English teacher notorious for getting benignly intoxicated in a nearby pub at lunchtime introduced us to the Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse. And I thought I’d have a go myself. (Much later, I wrote a poem about him, as the only schoolmaster that had motivated me at my dusty old grammar school). Then there was The Mersey Sound, that inspirational anthology of Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, and Brian Patten that opened up poetry to so many young people. No reflection on those three, but I wrote fairly awful adolescent poetry for two years, attended one poetry reading, by Brian Patten, and gave it up when I went to university in 1971. I didn’t take poetry up again until I attended a creative writing group in 2004. In the intervening time I had put together three or four novels and a few short stories without any success and very little encouragement. In 2008 I had a poem published in South magazine. It was quite something to see my name in print at last, after all those years. I concentrated entirely on poetry after that.
3. What is your daily writing routine?
I am afraid that that old distraction technique I referred to earlier now works against any chance of me writing poetry on a daily basis. Before retiring as a newspaper production journalist, I had been volunteered to become the news and reviews editor for the poetry website Write Out Loud, which now occupies me almost daily, writing news stories about poetry, and book reviews as often as I can. It’s great to be still working as a journalist, even if unpaid, and to be writing about poetry – so much so that it often doesn’t feel like work. But maybe it also prevents me from producing more poems than I actually do. Then there’s monthly co-compering of the Write Out Loud Woking poetry night, of course. Excuses, excuses.
4. What motivates you to write?
A lot of my earlier poems were about looking back at moments in my life. I suppose that seam is never exhausted, but these days I often need to be away from home for an idea to come – and sometimes on long-journey trains. Since the wonderful Places of Poetry project was introduced, to which I have contributed enthusiastically, I have realised that I am very much a poet of place. And I still can’t help writing poems about railways, from time to time.
5. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
As I said, Brian Patten was the first and only poet I heard when I was much younger. In 2014 I reviewed for Write Out Loud a reading he gave in Teddington. Someone sent it to him, he emailed his thanks, and I seized the opportunity to do an email interview – a bit like this one, I suppose. Soon afterwards I met Brian at the Aldeburgh poetry festival, and he introduced me to another of my poetry heroes, Tom Pickard, and even gave me a name check when being interviewed at the festival the following evening. Lovely man. Not only that. The following year my poetry pamphlet Trainspotters was published and I sent him a copy. He liked it, immediately sent me some unsolicited comments, and my publisher Ronnie Goodyer at Indigo Dreams quickly reprinted to give them pride of place on the back cover. I also found myself at the same table as Roger McGough at a poetry event earlier this year, at which my wife seized the opportunity to apologise to him publicly for plagiarising one of his poems in her school magazine at the age of 17. He was very good about it. I should also mention Philip Larkin, probably the poet I admire the most. ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is the most wonderful poem about a train journey I know. I enjoyed it when I was 16, and I love it now.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I was a great fan of Paul Farley, although he seems to have slipped off my radar a bit recently. The performance poet Luke Wright often succeeds in placing his finger on the nation’s pulse. He wrote a prescient, epic poem called ‘Essex Lion’ a few years before the referendum; it empathised with people that want to believe in something, whoever outlandish, and cling on to it doggedly, especially when Guardian readers tell them that it can’t be true. A so far overlooked poet that I really rate for his warmth and humour, as well as his craft, is Matthew Paul, who has published just one collection so far called The Evening’s Entertainment. His time must come. There are other poets who come to the Write Out Loud Woking nights – some of them published, some not – Kitty Coles, Karen Izod and Ray Pool I would mention. Another fine local poet, Eddie Chauncy, resolutely refuses to submit any of his work for publication. If he did, I believe he would be a popular success; you would find his books in Waterstones.
9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
I have no physical skills, like bricklaying, or indeed, no talent for any form of DIY. I wish I did. After dropping out of university after just one year, I didn’t really know what to do with my life, but started trying to write a novel, feeling that I might be better at being an observer rather than a participant, somehow. Within a few months I was incredibly lucky enough to land a job as a junior reporter on my local paper. I knew almost at once that this was where I wanted to be. Within a few years I chose to switch from being a reporter to working as a desk-bound sub-editor, a production journalist, as I believed that would help my novel writing. It did, and it didn’t, you might say. Probably a mistake, in retrospect. But no regrets. Not now. Sub-editing should involve condensing words to their essence, getting rid of anything that is unnecessary. Very much like poetry.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Read voraciously. As soon as you think you can or want to do better, make a start. In the case of poetry, go to readings, listen to poets. And buy their books! They’re usually quite cheap.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I was lucky enough to have a pamphlet accepted by the good folk at Indigo Dreams on the theme of trains, which was published four years ago. I remain very proud of it. But my ambition is to get a full collection out there before too long. I think I may have enough poems of sufficient quality, but whether they are exactly the right poems, whether they fit together, is another matter. Still more work to be done, I think.
12. What is so fascinating to you about steam trains?
I love to see and hear and smell steam trains – as do so many others who work on and visit heritage railways. But really it’s not so much the locomotives – as beautiful and alive as they are – as what they represent to me. Their disappearance from the national rail network, which had to happen, coincided with Beeching’s butchery of the branch lines. I’ve always linked the axeing of all those little branch lines with the end of Britain’s empire, which is not be mourned, of course. And in my own case, there was one particular branch line. During my childhood in the early 60s we stayed in a camping coach on a line in east Devon that ran alongside the valley of the river Otter, and a tank engine with two coaches – sounds familiar?! – would pass us regularly while we were looking out of the window, and the driver and fireman would wave to us. If there were any passengers they would wave, too. The names of the stations on that line read like a Betjeman poem – Tipton St Johns, Newton Poppleford, Ottery St Mary, East Budleigh, for Otterton and Ladram Bay. I see it in my mind’s eye as a paradise lost. There’s a poem about it in my Trainspottters collection – and I’ve posted that same poem on the Places of Poetry map, of course!
13. Ah, yes. “The Old Branch Line”. That list of station names. You use lists in your collection to show the passage of time, or convey a place.
The list of retail outlets in ‘Betjeman at St Pancras’ is intended to sound like station stops. In ‘A Job on the Railways’ they are just the stations where my father worked before the war came. Three favourite railway poems listed in ‘The Rother Valley Railway’. A number of locations in ‘The Butterflies of Yorkshire’. You’re right, there are a few lists! I think they serve different purposes in each poem.
14. I agree. They complement your almost notetaking style.
Dead-end canal delivers its waters
To the Wey and Thames,
and always thirsts for more.
Your eschewing of the word “The” at the start of this sentence, and the circularity of meaning “waters” and “thirsts”. Converting conversational cliché into fresh perspective metaphors.
Ah, you’ve spotted another poem that contains lists! As for “almost notetaking” style, maybe that’s a result of my background in journalism. I think that’s why I find clarity in my poetry unavoidable, because of an instinct to communicate, to get my meaning across simply. I couldn’t do obscure if I tried. There’s nothing wrong with poetry that is conversational. Cliché is another matter, of course.
15. How important is popular culture in your poetry?
In ‘Dance On’, the opening poem of Trainspottters, (Aha, another list, of Shadows hits!) the all-conquering Beatles leave a Shads fan floundering. ‘A Job on the Railways’ mentions my father’s love of Thirties crooner Al Bowlly, listening to him on the radio just before the outbreak of war, oblivious to the sound of “breaking glass” elsewhere. ‘Train to the Kwai Bridge’ refers to the Hollywood film starring Alec Guinness. The TV programmes Dad’s Army and 60s pop show Ready, Steady, Go! crop up in different poems. Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac and the group’s no 1 hit Albatross get an honourable mention in ‘Climbing the Malverns’. I would say those references help to ground the poems, establish a landscape or backdrop. I’ve written a poem about being in the crowd on the night of the live recording of Chuck Berry’s My Ding a Ling. I’m not sure how significant a cultural moment that was, but it meant a lot to me at the time, and still does. It was published in a fairly obscure music magazine shortly after he died. Checking over my oeuvre, as it were, I find I’ve written poems about Andy Williams, Julie Christie, Bud Flanagan, stars that made films at Shepperton studios, Ealing comedies in the context of Brexit, football, including a poem comparing Alf Ramsey and Alf Garnett, and one about characters from the Beano and Dandy. Does that answer your question?! No poems about the opera, I’m afraid.
16. I love the way you hint at a modern update of “Brief Encounter” in “The 21:53”.
Well, Brief Encounter is one of my favourite films, of course. I still need to make a pilgrimage to Carnforth one day. ‘The 21.53’ was one of the first poems I wrote after my newspaper shifts changed, and I was able to take the train in to work for the first time. This was in 2005. I felt a sense of liberation, and from then on began to think of myself as a poet.