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.
Deborah Harvey’s poems have been widely published in journals and anthologies and broadcast on Radio 4’s Poetry Please, while her poem Oystercatchers recently won the 2018 Plough Prize Short Poem Competition. Her fourth collection, The Shadow Factory, will be published by Indigo Dreams during 2019. She has three previous poetry collections, Breadcrumbs (2016), Map Reading for Beginners (2014) and Communion (2011), also published by Indigo Dreams, while her historical novel, Dart, appeared under their Tamar Books imprint in 2013.
Deborah is co-director of The Leaping Word poetry consultancy.
1. What were the circumstances under which you began to write poetry?
I started writing poems and stories when I was a young child and continued throughout primary school, but as is so often the case, at secondary school the emphasis shifted onto learning for the purpose of passing exams, rather than exploring any creativity we might have; in fact, the teachers seemed to go out of their way to discourage such unruly impulses, and eventually I stopped writing altogether. Then, decades later, when I was struggling to raise four children and my marriage was falling apart, I had a very vivid, urgent dream, which seemed to me to be saying that unless I found a way of expressing myself, I’d die. So there I was, knowing I had to write poetry but not even sure what a poem was. I started to write what came, though, and to read poetry too, to make sure I was doing it right, and gradually the process became less agonising.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
Being brought up in the Methodist tradition meant I was exposed to poetic images, language and cadences for several hours every Sunday from a very young age. I used to love the call and response of psalm reading, and hymns were great because I got to stand on the pew and sing words I didn’t understand but which were mysterious and conjured pictures in my head – fiery cloudy pillars, chariots rising into the sky, all that sort of stuff. So the poets of the Old Testament and Charles Wesley have a lot to answer for.
Then there was my grandmother, who taught me and my many cousins all our nursery rhymes and told us traditional stories with lots of repetition in them; tales like Chicken Licken and In A Dark Dark House. She wrote poems too, and always kept a scrap of paper and a pencil in her apron pocket to jot down lines and images as they occurred to her.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
When I started writing 20 years ago, I was not only aware but completely over-awed. I’d enjoyed English literature at school and planned to study it at A-level, but was told by my teacher that I wasn’t good enough (even though I got As in language and literature at O-level). I was completely thrown by this experience and believed what she’d said for years, so when I realised I had to write, the thought of reading poetry as well was very daunting. A few months earlier I’d seen a programme on telly about Ted Hughes’ ‘Birthday Letters’, so I took the plunge and found it completely absorbing. The second poetry book I bought was Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems, and I went on from there.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I have three day-jobs, two of which involve caring for dependents, so I rarely get a whole day to myself, and I’m pretty much on call all the time. What makes writing poetry a practical means of self-expression is that I can do it out of the corner of my eye, as I go about my day.
5. What motivates you to write?
The greatest motivator of all: the fear of dying before I’m finished. I think this is partly because I spent three decades in a relationship that was obliterating me, and I neglected my responsibility towards myself and my development as a creative human being. Now everything I do is an attempt to make up for the years I lost, and expressing myself by writing poems is a kind of redemption.
6. What is your work ethic?
It’s very basic, really. I try to spend at least a small part of each day writing, and if that’s not possible, doing something that will feed into my writing, whether it’s reading poetry or prose, walking somewhere new or in a place that has resonance for me, doing a bit of research, going to hear another, better poet read, watching starlings in the garden. Then, even if I’m stuck in a trough of discouragement, at least I can tell myself I’m cobbling together a ladder to climb out.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
Calling someone a coming-of-age author carries quite pejorative connotations, but the three writers who had the biggest impression on me as a child and teenager – Bulgakov, Camus and Steinbeck – shaped me to such an extent that I carry them with me every day. ‘Master and Margarita’ is still a very important novel for me, and I don’t know where I’d be without my inner witch. As for ‘The Red Pony’, which I started to read by accident when I was seven and abandoned in disgust when it turned out to be about death rather than gymkhanas and rosettes, that early encounter coloured my whole life. That experience convinced that early exposure to seminal stories and poems has a profound effect on the developing imagination – as long as you remember to read them again later too, when you can fully understand them.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Alan Garner is just about the last of my childhood heroes who’s still alive. Reading ‘Boneland’ a few years ago, having grown old alongside the character Colin of ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ and ‘The Moon of Gomrath’, was profoundly moving, and I was bereft when the story ended. I am completely in awe of Garner’s connection with his landscape, and the way his stories inhabit mythic time.
In contrast, a writer I very much admire whom I read for the first time recently, is Rebecca Solnit. I got such a lot out of her memoir/travelogue ‘The Faraway Nearby’ that I’m lining up more of her books by my bed to read.
As for poets, there’s Alice Oswald, Kathleen Jamie and Stanley Kunitz for the way they capture nature; Charles Simic for his startling imagery; Neruda for always taking the reader with him on his huge associative leaps; Raymond Carver for his story-telling; Heaney and U A Fanthorpe for their unrelenting humanity; Carol Ann Duffy for her surety of touch; Kei Miller and Liz Berry for their true voices; Leonard Cohen for sounding like God; I could go on
9. Why do you write?
Because not writing is not an option.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Becoming a writer – a good one – means embarking on an apprenticeship that will last the rest of your life. You have to be prepared always to improve, to welcome criticism, and above all, to read the work of others. In fact, read whatever you can lay your hands on: poetry, novels, folk stories, plays, non-fiction, atlases, art books, biographies, soak it all up. Don’t ever think there’s no room for improvement.
The other thing is to be prepared to stick your neck out in order to get an audience for your writing. This can be particularly hard for poets. The impulse that makes us write poems often co-exists with a profound reticence when it comes to publicising our work. But poetry is an inherently collaborative art form, and a poem only fully exists when it is being inhabited by the reader, so all that uncomfortable stuff has to be done. Good luck with it.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
My fourth collection – The Shadow Factory – is due to be published by Indigo Dreams in 2019, so I’m now in that lovely space where I can turn my attention towards something new. Well, not really new; I’ve lived in Bristol all my life and have amassed stories, family anecdotes and memories, old photos, historical snippets, the voices you hear in the queue at the bus stop, the way places change and people come and go, but the city remembers how it always was and keeps re-creating itself in that image. The past in the present. I want to write all that.