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.
Played Hamlet aged 16 at Lymm Grammar School, Cheshire and never looked back.
Trained as an actor at Manchester Poly but started to create my own work even then. Founded Midsommer Actors’ Co. in 1990 specifically to create promenade theatre in the most atmospheric natural locations; but with the emphasis on the actor’s performance. Won awards and a massive following in the North of England. Started writing for this unique form of theatre. In addition, I was writing and directing for, amongst others, the likes of The Library Theatre Co. Harrogate Theatre, The London Bubble,Lancaster Duke’s Playhouse, North Country Theatre.
2001: Took two years out to work on the extraordinary Greek Island of Ikaria as a guide and manager for a small tour company. Started Found Theatre with first production in 2005. Powerful stories, simple means. Concentrating principally on writing at present, with some directing and performance work.
1. How did your start in writing poetry lead to the publication of White Light White Peak?
I had been writing poetry, on and off, all my life, but always judged it not worthy of sharing. I think I was correct in this, as, looking back on my earlier work, I don’t see very much I like. I suppose you could say that I had not found my own voice. Interestingly I was more than happy to write verse for my plays; The Hound of the Baskervilles, for example, begins entirely in ballad form, as a rustic melodrama for the first fifteen pages. In writing for the stage, you are of course using someone else’s voice, that of your character.. Several things then seemed to come together for me, just over a decade ago, a major factor being the move up to the White Peak plateau from Manchester. It is a bit of a cliché for a writer, moving somewhere remote to concentrate on work, but for me it became a reality in a rather interesting way. For a start we are not remote, but in the middle of a lively village community, where I, for example, edit the local magazine. Secondly, I started writing poems again, this time in earnest. Moving to the village where we now live felt like a home coming for me, as I had grown up in a very similar place, to the age of thirteen, on the edge of the Cotswolds and I think that also had much to do with this new inspiration. Reconnecting with my “inner child?” As the poems came along pretty freely, I began to notice common themes and of course, settings. While there is actually a huge variety of forms in the collection and subjects as diverse as cleaning my boots in the remains of a snowman, to the suicide of a once close friend, the landscape of the White Peak is always there, at least as background. It started to feel like it was heading towards a coherent whole very early on. In parallel I had been working on my photography and I formed my vision for a publication that would balance the two disciplines. It has been five years’ work pulling it all together, launching a live performance piece and, finally, finding a sympathetic publisher. I was really fortunate to more-or-less stumble across Isabelle and her Fly on the Wall Press, if you can “stumble across” online. A chance encounter via Linkedin, (yes, folks, it really can be useful) quickly led to an agreement, just when I was beginning to think that no one would touch such a hybrid animal.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
I would have to credit the delightfully named and generally delightful man, Mr. Trinkle, our bee-keeping primary school teacher. In a classroom smelling of honey and beeswax (the smell of which automatically transports me back to the age of nine, even now) he would read poetry to us on a daily basis and in a fairly random fashion. The one piece which I remember really grabbing me I later found out was by Shakespeare – the song which ends Love’s Labours Lost, concluding “Then nightly sings the staring owl,/Tu-who;/Tu-whit, tu-who: a merry note, / While greasy Joan doth keel the pot“. The words seemed like rich magic and yet described people carrying out domestic chores, with extreme difficulty in harsh winter weather. I had no thought that they were written hundreds of years ago. Above all, they created vivid pictures in my head and made me feel I wanted to do the same with my words. I think he must have read the poems brilliantly too. If Mr.Trinkle created a first spark, it would have to be the poet Wilfred Owen who showed me what powerful poetry could do; that it might even change things. To use an unfortunate phrase, I was blown away on discovering Owen’s work, again at school and again with the guidance of a really good teacher, who was one of the first to spot some promise in my own writing and encourage me forwards.
2.1. Who introduced you to photography?
At the risk of sounding repetitive, school again. There was a photography club, which I joined aged sixteen, with an Ilford 35mm camera which must have been a hand-me-down from one of my elder brothers. Back in those days, way before digital, if you processed your own prints it meant working in black-and-white, so that was when I started to understand how fundamental light and basic composition were. We were all learning from each other, I guess, but it was also the golden era for monochrome photography in the Guardian newspaper, which my parents read. Denis Thorpe and Don Mcphee were like the photographic equivalents of Wilfred Owen for me; their work was not only beautiful but served a clear purpose. When the Guardian actually sent Denis to photography the site-specific theatre I was creating in the 1990’s, it felt like a massive honour. Watching him work was revelation; so unassuming, so unobtrusive, like a day-tripper casually taking a few snapshots. I asked for a copy of one photo (which was so good the Guardian reprinted it as their New Year’s Day centre spread in the G2 supplement) and he generously sent me a whole package of large prints from that session.
3. How do the writers and photographers you read or admired when you were young influence you today?
It is like an unconscious bank of language and ways of using language. You can throw the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into that mix, also, along with lyrics from the Beatles, Bowie and Mark E. Smith of The Fall. All of this and much more seeped into my brain from a very young age and right through my teens. Above all, what the voices from back then teach is to innovate, without thought of how it might be received, to create what pleases myself. And what pleases me nearly always has a ring of magic – something that ultimately cannot be defined or understood by any theory, the highly elusive. With photography it is more simple: It’s all about the essence of a moment, but, again, to steer well clear of the obvious.
4. What is your daily writing and photographic routine?
You have to be kidding? I am pretty chaotic. Fine if I have a deadline that has been set for me – like the prose, short intro pieces in White Light White Peak, I sat down at 10am for a week and simply worked a normal day – but otherwise it happens when it happens. Poetry needs real space. Nothing is getting written at the moment, as there is so much to do to prepare for the tour of “the live experience” that runs alongside the book’s publication and all of my photography sessions in the past month or so have been to do with filling gaps in the live show. I have had to wait for a particular, still, warm evening, for example, with the honesty and apple blossom in bloom; conditions whereby I could literally take pictures by candlelight in my garden. The poem in question is called This Still Evening. Most of the time photography is nearly always even more spontaneous than poetry for me, which is why I go around with at least my compact strapped to my belt. Whenever I do set out with a particular purpose, to tackle a defined subject, something intervenes and the session becomes about that. Another thing is that the least time I spend in front of a computer screen the better. So my manipulations I keep to a minimum; the very best shots are always perfectly captured with the camera, just as in the old days of film. Same with poetry: Sessions come on when I am inspired (I have no idea how this happens) and I work in pencil, usually in a special book, which must on no account have lined pages. For some really strange reason, travelling by train is really productive for me. I have seriously thought about getting a day-rover ticket and simply going back and forth on the Buxton to Manchester service all day long.
5. Who of today’s writers and photographers do you admire the most and why?
When I think about it, it is the performers I admire most among today’s poets. A predictable answer in some ways, from a playwright, theatre director and erstwhile actor, but actually the work of the likes of John Hegley, Zephaniah, Lemn Sissay, or Kate Tempest is quite a distance from my output. Or is it? The sounds of words is so important to me; it simply isn’t a poem until it is spoken aloud – and that has been a constant, right back to “greasy Joan doth keel the pot” in Mr. Trinkle’s primary class. I know I am not happy with anything I write until, as I put it, I “wrestle it to the ground” out on one of my daily walks. Anyone I meet must think I am a few iambs short of a sonnet. With the photography, the internet has changed everything utterly. The people I admire now are not “names” but are those I come across in obscure corners of the world, quietly doing their own idiosyncratic thing and sharing it on Flickr, where I have been a member since 2005, way before I saw any need to involve myself with any other forum.
6. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer and photographer?”
Find your own voice, trust in your own instincts. So easy to say, much less easy to accomplish. I have been lucky in coming from the world of live theatre, because there everything is tested in public, brutally and quickly. It is where I learned to trust instinct over anything else. When I directed “A Midsommer Night’s Dreame” a kind of vision came to me for the final, magical moments, involving the whole cast suddenly discovering their “inner dream-fairy” advancing on Oberon to light sparklers in a group wigwam, then wandering off to hand them over to the random people in the audience. Part of my mind was going, “Why? What is that saying? Justify it!” I did not. I let it happen and it was simply right. There is a poem in White Light White Peak, which is not only all about that, but was itself created in a similar fashion and it is arguably the best, or worst, poem in the collection. That’s the other thing; you have to be daring, take what may seem like almighty risks. Break rules, take a walk on the wild side, to quote the man who coined the phrase behind the title of my book. There are a few other pieces of advice I would give about photography, in addition of the above. They are quite specific, but a bit more than “tips”. Whenever you take a shot, (or crop a shot, which can be just as important) ask yourself, “What is the photo about?” It is simple enough as a question and kind of obvious, but I find myself repeating it again and again and it really helps focus, sometimes literally. The other is to remember what “photography” actually means – “light-drawing”. Light is your medium, you have nothing else and it is certainly not about “kit”. Don’t get distracted or intimidated by “kit”, just find what you enjoy using. Relish light in all its forms. None of this is really answering the question, “How do you become a writer and/or photographer?” That is far more involved; but you have to practice first and totally love what you do, or you are lost. These days, of course, there are courses and they may be a help, but make sure they are courses which take you out of your depth, until “you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom” as Bowie famously said.
7. Tell me about writing projects you are currently involved in:
I have co-written The Red Room, a play set in an old mental asylum, spanning across different time periods; it is part-ghostly, without giving too much away. It will be produced next year, directed by my co-writer, Alice Bartlett, who is directing me in WLWP. and will actually visit such places, on the first leg of a short tour I am also co-writing a comedy set in Lapland, with a Finnish comedian. Very different territory but a lot of fun and I got a trip to Lapland out of it as research, which was amazing and magical. I am also inching towards a new poetry collection which will range across memories to do with water. That’s quite a deep one. I have three poems for it so far – my very earliest memory, one from teenage years and a very recent happening. It needs space, so will not get any further until the Autumn I imagine.