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.
Decades ago, gravitated from sunny Zambian skies to solid Canadian soil. Now returned her muses an unmitigated optimist, she’s the winner of Postcards, Poems & Prose’s “drawkcaB” Contest; was a finalist in Ascent Aspirations; Mississippi Valley; Malahat Review Open Season and Hawai’i Review Contests; and long-listed for 2015 National Poetry Contest of the UK. Poems, some with artwork, accepted by: Midwest Quarterly; ditchpoetry; 3Elements Review; Main Street Rag; Unshod Quills; War, Literature & the Arts; Codex. amongst others. Photo-artwork publications: Qwerty; WaxPoetry & Art; Adirondack Review; AColorProject, Five on the Fifth; The Peachland View front page, Nov. 14, 2014; Peachland Art Gallery Exhibition. See everything at kerryrawlinson.tumblr.com
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
In the womb; because I could. It was in morse code I think… Seriously though, does any scientific evidence exist as to whether one is born left-brain or right brain? I’m a changeling who disguises itself as both, never fully comfortable with one or the other. I’ve been creative since earliest memory–and a voracious reader–so initially, stories were my thing. In Std 1, at Kalulushi township School, Zambia, for example, I had a teacher-crush on Miss Bath & wrote her long, boring love-tale about a dog. I don’t know what impressed her, its length or its mawkishness, but she kept it. I won a TV award that same year for drawing, too. But Miss Bath also wanted me to improve my “sums”, so I did–until I was first in class.
Poetry didn’t strike until the last year in Junior school. We were sent off to pick a poem on our own from the library, and read it to the class. I picked Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break…” and when I read it, the tops of all our heads came off. I was hooked. I wrote & kept on writing, especially in my sophomore year of university (which I dropped out of), but was always too shy to publish. (My husband calls it “housewife poetry”, so thank god I never tried.) And then the hectic and all-consuming challenges of life snowballed. I found myself too overwhelmed by them to dedicate myself to Art’s calling, and set it aside. I had little spurts of creativity here & there over the years, like a steam vent, but nothing consistent. I raised a family & slogged on through a career doing work I loved–Architectural Technology–but I loathed the corporate environment. That informed the decision to retire early, in order to focus on the voices & pictures in my head, and get them out into the world by whatever means…
The last line of that pivotal poem has inhabited my life: But the tender grace of a day that is dead/ Will never come back to me.
So I’m hard at it. In my bio I characterize myself as a bloody-minded optimist, and I think that’s as true a statement about my journey as any.
1.1. What made you choose Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break…”?
Bear in mind I was young, and the poetry books available in Johannesburg School libraries in 1966 were probably fairly dry. So the refrain “Break, Break, Break…” , its melancholic rhythmicality, the musicality of its rhyme, appealed immediately to the actress in me. But I was also drawn to the topic of a person in deep mourning. It’s interesting now, as I look back on it so many years later, how prophetic it was for my life. Consider the words in the second stanza: “cold,” and “stones,” and “oh”. These are primal sounds of despair. Then the next two stanzas wrestle with every poet’s–and indeed every human being’s–difficulty: not being able to articulate your meaning. The second verse contrasts this inarticulation with the carefree joy of children going about their ordinary play, which must have appealed to me, being the same age. And the next two stanzas of the third verse describe the inexorable continuation of normal things, while the poet has lost the normal thing that gave his existence purpose. The refrain repeats again, like the tolling of a bell, and Tennyson offers those riveting stanzas, two of the most melancholy lines I’ve ever read: But the tender grace of a day that is dead/ Will never come back to me. Which, I must have felt, being that miserable young girl in a boarding-school far from home who’s lost her own carefree joy, described my life.
2. When you focussed on the voices & pictures in your head, and got them out into the world by whatever means…how aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
I’m a work in progress, and the voices and pictures keep growing and changing… Yes, I was aware; and no; I don’t think anyone can fully comprehend the depth and extent of any creature’s reach, ever. It’s like the three, 2,000 year-old yews in Cumbria, UK. Scientists now know that they’re actually clones of the same tree, on the same root system. So in order to become a poet of merit, does one have to belong to the same root system, or can one be an entirely different tree?
The way one generally learns about poetry is in the school system, which is (at least in my day) woefully focussed on the older traditional poets and writers. Well, they’ve stood the test of time, have they not? Yet we have a populist revolution exploding right now, in the written word–but unless you’re immersed in it as a poet or writer yourself, it’s alI underground. In truth, it isn’t so much the older establishments which intimidate me, but the young; the bright burning bushes with so much talent and so much time ahead of them in which to allow their roots to combine with the established system. And their energy!
Malcolm Gladwell wrote that it takes a person, on average, 700 repetitions of an action or task to be able to complete it satisfactorily by rote, without faltering. If one considers that publishing three poems a year (as an example of my personal exercise towards perfection), then I’ll have to live to about 233 to get it comfortably right.
3. What is your daily writing routine?
It’s not rigid. I’m not one of those writers who say: you have to write a minimum of such-&-such every day. What’s routine for me, is that I wake at sparrow-fart, as my dad used to say, and sit outside in all weathers with a cup of tea to think and charge-up. Then I head to my “office” — which is a laptop on my lap – and settle-in for three or four hours. But oftentimes I don’t write. It’s just as important to read and that gives me inspiration, too. Then I jot notes. Or I work on my art. Wherever the muse is leading me. Often I’ll pick it up again after about 8pm and work til midnight. Sometimes, as my husband will affirm, I go all day and forget to eat.
4. What motivates you to write?
What inspires my writing is every-every-every little thing… A kid in a grocery store. A tv show. A sunrise. A bird. A speeding motorbike. A book. A tree. A poem. A politician. Work. An overheard snippet of conversation. A dandelion. A transvestite. A cup of coffee. A Tweet. A store. A list. A bathroom. A movie. Another book. A lie. A warm bagel. A cold glass of wine. Repetition. A list… etc. etc. What motivates my writing is part bloody-mindedness; part quest for the unknown.
5. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?
Incredibly! I don’t think I would be on this journey, if not. They gave me a framework, and within that framework such bounty. My school taught Shakespeare, Blake, Shelly, Keats, Tennyson, Byron, Milton, Homer etc. as being the pantheon to which mere mortals like me would never be admitted… I’d say possibly the “knotty rhythms” of Gerard Manley Hopkins (as one editor commented about one of my poems) have stuck with me; certainly the cerebral leanings of T.S Eliot, Tomas Tranströmer; the bucolic simplicity of John Donne. Paul Celan and Paul Verlaine are both go-to’s for musicality; Rimbaud & Coleridge for surreal vision; the blistering Dylan Thomas and Behan for their brilliance… Honestly, this answer could just end up being a loooong list! I Have to say though, as much as I studied the female poets, the list is shorter: Dickinson, naturally, and Sappho, Marianne Moore, Plath. I look to them for the layers within the layers; to Sarojini Naidu for lyrical imagery; Emma Lazarus for social commentary. And god knows, I try to honour them all while moving forward, onto the modern poets, such as Seamus Heaney; Kay Ryan.
6. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
As I’ve said, I believe we’re in a renaissance of art and writing. There are marvellous, distinctive voices emerging, and it’s difficult to pick one above the other.
Lately I’ve been re-reading Joseph Fasano’s award-winning poem, Mahler in New York, which turns its deeply personal lyricism into greater philosophical observation. I can’t wait for his next book. Ocean Vuong’s voice resonates for the disenfranchised, whether by status or gender, and his imagery’s powerful & often shocking. Kayo Chingonyi is also deeply moving in his deft questioning of the relevance of a young immigrant in society. Our lovely Canadians amaze me: Sylvia Legris, (cerebral, playful, with mind-blowing twists of language), Sharon Olds (visceral questioning of the world, faith & the body’s relevance to any of it) and Anne Carson (deeply intellectual, yet original, breaking the boundaries of rhythm, tone & intonation her exploration of sublime experience) & the tender, minutely-detailed & caring prose-poetry of Eve Jacobs. I recently discovered Hilde Domin, & admire the beauty & accessibility of her language as she explores life’s Great Questions. Ilya Kaminski’s “Deaf Republic” is a masterpiece, and it blew me away. His playfulness with the sounds of words is astonishing for someone hard of hearing — or perhaps that’s why it is so? — and the irreverent, gritty humanness of his writing gets under my skin. Jane Hirschfield is up there for her informed eloquence and spiritual clarity.
A poet I admire for qualities of lyricism, who’s also very much a poet of place & multicultural evaluation, is Derek Walcott. Colin Channer, another Jamaican poet, writes intimately and lyrically on very human themes of place and time; colonial & modern; and Simon Armitage is King of Britain, as far as that goes. I admire Billy Collins’ conversational, quirky poetry into profound observation through image and metaphor. Carol Ann Duffy also, for her conversational poetry, which uses humour to explore themes of love; Jane Hirshfield, who employs rich, spare lines and ordinary situations to explore deeper truths.
And now we see common threads emerging in this list which could in truth go to several pages! Poets who are masters of prosody, with philosophical bents, immersed in the study of humanity. Amen!
7. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Breathe. Nothing in this world, or the last, or the next, guarantees a place anywhere. So knowing you’re an infinitesimal speck of dander, release ego. We become writers by reading. Read a lot. The second thing I’d offer is that as a writer, you need to find your own voice. I’ve red Kay Ryan from when she began her writing journey, and she’s wonderful example of tracking. Everything’s its own journey. Be free enough to realize you have a *@!$#^ long way to go! And then, have the courage to go.
8. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I have spent the last five years since I began this journey establishing some “street-cred” and trying to fine-tune my craft. I’m now at the point where I have to send some pigeons out to race! There are 2 full poetry collections ready to publish, (one linked to the Seasons includes my photo-art); I have a few pamphlets/ chapbooks edited and at the publishing stage; I have a Flash-fiction manuscript prepared, ready to offer. I’ve also been working on some illustrated children’s books, but these require further polishing. Later on, much later on, I very much want to curate an anthology of art, poetry, flash-fiction & non-fiction from this area of the Okanagan because our local talent is mouth-watering. Now I need two things.
1) Publishers; 2) Time. I must put everything out there, and still keep writing. Thanks to generous people like you, Paul, perhaps my pigeons will have the good fortune to fly straight into some willing, winning ears.