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.
is a poet living in rural Worcestershire. He is an active member of the Open University Poetry Association and occasional editor of its workshop magazine. He has been shortlisted for several national competitions and his poetry has appeared in a range of publications. His poetry conversation pamphlet, ‘A Hostile Environment’, written in collaboration with Sarah Thomson, was published by Hedgehog Poetry Press in January 2019, and a second conversation, ‘Thinking You Home’ in June 2019. His poetry has been translated and appeared in the literary journals, Pro Saeculum and Banchetul. Saudade is his first collection. You can follow Nigel on Twitter @kent_nj
Nigel performs his poetry at iambapoet.com
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
I was hooked on poetry in my teens after hearing the songs of Leonard Cohen and reading his poems. Cohen’s ‘Poems, 1956-1968’ was the first poetry book I bought. I was then introduced to the work of Adrian Mitchell, who was appearing at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and was bowled over by his performance and the work. After that I couldn’t get enough: Wilfred Owen, D.H. Lawrence, Elizabeth Jennings and even Robert Herrick were early favourites!” I was attracted to the form because of its music, its economy, its inventiveness and its power. A friend of me showed me a quote by Sara Collins the other day: ‘A novel is like a long, warm drink but a poem is a spike through the head’. It captures for me poetry’s capacity to synthesise strong emotion and observation. I want to be moved by poems, but I also want poems to resonate with me long after I have put them down. That’s the sort of poetry I want to write.
2. What inspired you to write ‘Saudade’?
On a writing weekend I attended the tutor invited us to write a poem exploring an emotion. I had always been intrigued by the word ‘saudade’. It is a Portuguese word for which there is no direct English translation. It describes a profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one has loved. Some define the word as the love that remains when one has accepted that the object of love has gone forever. The memories of the loved one elicit a deep sense of loss whilst simultaneously evoking the joy and happiness associated with those moments. The resulting poem was the title poem ‘Saudade II’. When I was asked to put together a collection, the word seemed to capture the mood of many of the poems I had selected: a sense of incompleteness, sometimes fostered by social media with its images of idealised lives (Pop-up Princess, Saudade II), sometimes because we have made life-changing mistakes (Saudade I, Saudade II, Breakfast Scene); sometimes because we are victims of events we cannot control (Dignitas, Sweet and Sour, Miscarried, The Maids, Separation). Furthermore, some of the poems acknowledged that what makes life fulfilling today will not last forever. Understanding that, however, doesn’t make its loss any easier to bear (Casting Off, Empty Nest, Home Truths, Clearing Out). The notion of ‘Saudade’ then was a vehicle for pulling together a collection of poems.
3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
I’ve always been an avid reader of poetry. I try to read some poetry every day. I find that reading poetry feeds the imagination and motivates me to write more. I’m drawn to poetry that has a narrative element, that explores relationships and emotional states, that finds significance in the ordinary. For those reasons one of my favourite poets is Thomas Hardy. His ‘Collected Poems’ that I bought in 1973 is probably my most read book. I can think of no better sequence of poems than those he wrote after the death of his wife, Emma, in 1912-13: examples of saudade that I can only aspire to!
My favourite contemporary poet is Ted Kooser, author of ‘Kind Regards’, ‘Flying at Night’ and ‘Delights and Shadows’. He writes about every day, unremarkable experiences: a student walking along the road, a man tying a tie, a woman washing her hands. Yet he illuminates such moments with such empathy and compassion, finding beauty, dignity and humanity in them. Jonathan Edwards’ ‘My Family and Other Superheroes’ and ‘Gen’ has a similar appeal for me. I can see the influence of these poets and others like them in my work.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I consider reading poetry as part of a writing routine. I will read poetry for at least thirty minutes per day. I keep three notebooks: one in which I note memorable lines from what I’ve read: one in which I note themes or ideas for poems; and one in which I’ll jot down lines, the development of ideas, the products of research etc. I use a word processor to draft, always saving each version in a separate file. I cannot start, however, unless I’m clear about what it is I want to say and how I’m going to end it, though inevitably this does evolve during the process. This involves endless staring into space; I’m a very slow writer. Clarity generally arrives through a shower, a walk or sometimes through writing out in prose my intentions. I find I’m most productive first thing in the morning, 8 till 10 and between 4 and 6 in the afternoon. I wrote most days, since retiring, though I might only produce 15-20 words. Most poems undergo at least 10 drafts, though interestingly my Pushcart Prize nomination, ‘Miscarried’ was the product of only 5 drafts; there may be a message for me there! When I can I’ll ask another poet to read what I’ve written. This was one of the benefits of the poetry conversations, ‘A Hostile Environment’ and ‘Thinking You Home,’ with Sarah Thomson, (published by Hedgehog Poetry Press): I believe that the poems were stronger for the honest appraisal we gave each other when we were writing. I have also used ‘Crits’ Corner’ on the Hedgehog Poetry Press website to engage with other poets about early drafts and I regularly receive useful feedback from the Open University Poets’ Society workshop magazine. Even then, however, I seem to have the annoying habit of suddenly thinking of how to improve the poem after I have submitted it for a competition or for publication.
5. What motivates your writing?
That’s a good question because I find writing poetry extremely demanding. Life would be so much easier if I didn’t. I suppose like most writers I’m trying to make sense of my experiences and those of people around me. It’s also the case that when I was at university, studying the literary canon, I seldom felt that the texts were about people like me. Characters from my sort of background were rarely foregrounded and if they were their functions were to advance the plot or to be the source of comic relief. I hope my work gives a voice to people leading unexceptional lives. Then, of course, there are the challenges of the form (the economical use of words, finding the right sound and rhythm, the choice of imagery etc.), the sense of satisfaction when you feel you have largely met those challenges and the feedback from readers when ‘they get it’.
6. In your poems there are lots of references to how we choose to frame our lives, such as cutting and pasting and painting.
Yes, in ‘Saudade II’ I do use imagery drawn from computer graphic programmes: ‘cut’, ‘paste’, ‘cropped’, ‘saturated’. I suppose what interests me about computer technology and software is that it gives us a sense of control but that control is illusory. The father in the poem wants to resurrect his relationship with his daughter, but he does not have the power to do so. The imagery evokes the futility of what he’s doing. It is also the case that I wanted to convey the way in which we construct alternative realities when life is just too painful to cope with. He has ‘cropped’ the summer sky, the sky is ‘saturated blue’: in doing so, he has created something artificial and delusional. This is similar to the way in which the speaker in ‘Depict’ paints out the ‘brooding clouds/with a bright summer sky/much too blue’. He cannot cope with the memories of childhood; they’re kept in ‘tubes/with caps twisted tight’, so he edits them out of his consciousness.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?
When I started writing I was intimidated by the classics, particularly when I studied them at university. My efforts paled in comparison and I wondered if in fact I was writing poems. They made me feel that I didn’t have anything to say and I didn’t have the tools to say it! Over time, as I read more, I began to realise the diversity of the genre: whilst there were poets such as Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge and Wordsworth, there were also writers like Brian Patten, Adrian Henri, Adrian Mitchell, Edwin Morgan, Elizabeth Jennings, Stevie Smith and Sharon Olds. I suppose initially many of my poems were imitations of the last poet I’d read. However, in a sense that served as a sort of apprenticeship in which I learned to find my own voice.
8. You have four poems ‘after’ painters: Walter Sickert, Paula Rego, Edvard Munch, and Roy Lichtenstein.
Yes, these are from a sequence of ekphrastic poems that I wrote last year in which I explore the relationships conveyed in the paintings. All the paintings have a narrative quality and I attempt to explore in words those relationships and mirror the very different emotional impact of each work.
9. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
There are so many. I’ve already mentioned Kooser and Edwards earlier so I won’t comment on them again. Stephen Dunn is a current favourite. He has written so much but is never repetitive. I like his accessible, conversational style, the sharpness of his perceptions and the precision of his language. I’ve just discovered Natasha Trethewey. In her collection ‘Monument’ she writes about working-class African American women, interweaving personal experiences with historical events, giving them an epic significance. On a lighter note I like the wit and inventiveness of Charles Simic and Brian Bilston.
10. Your prose poems have a distinctive character. Their titles are all in capitals and you have spaces in addition to punctuation. How and why did you decide this was the shape that they must take?
These poems are taken from a sequence I have written on austerity Britain. The titles are all quotes from Charles Dickens and seek to connect the poverty of Victorian society with the effects of the policy of austerity, challenging the reader to find the difference, if they can. Each poem tells a story illustrative of one or more effects of living in poverty today. The use of the second person is intended to connect the reader with the experience more directly. The poems combine the conventional syntax of prose with line spacing, which I hope lends emphasis to the emotional impact and meaning of each isolated phrase and clause. The capitalisation was an editorial decision.
11. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I think the starting point for any writer is having something you really want to communicate. Secondly you need to know your genre; read as widely as you can and have a look at ‘The Way We Write’ by Fairfax and Moat and Kowit’s ‘The Palm of Your Hand’ which discuss the process of writing poetry. Allow ideas to incubate and draft, draft and draft again, leaving time between drafts so you can view your efforts more objectively. If you can, join a writing community to give you honest feedback on what you’re written. If you seek to get your work published, remember that all writers suffer rejection. Editors, like us all, have personal preferences.
12. Your work, especially the poems towards the end of the book, remind me of one of my favourite writers, the late Peter Reading. He also wrote powerful accounts of cruelty and poverty. Your poems engrave themselves on my mind.
Wow! I’m flattered by the comparison! In my personal and professional life I have experienced the corrosive effects of poverty on families and relationships. I like to believe that the arts can impact upon society and think of the way Paula Rego’s paintings changed the abortion laws in Portugal. I’m still idealistic enough to believe that poetry can also make a difference, if it good enough. Consequently, I admire the work of Fly on the Wall Poetry Press and its editor, Isabelle Kenyon, whose anthologies on social issues such as mental health, homelessness and the environment attempt to do just that both in terms of the impact of the poems and the money raised by sales.
13. The book is topped and tailed by descriptions of live performances, the first one on the inner struggle to control the words, the second on inviting the real world in. Is “The Urban Shaman” and deliberate reference to “The Urban Spaceman” song?
These two poems represent my hopes and fears for the collection. The first poem, ‘7.30 p.m. at the Arts Workshop’, conveys my nervousness of exposing my work for the first time on such a scale to the critical scrutiny of others. Despite your best endeavours, when you publish your first collection, you run the risk of humiliation and of your words dying on the page. I guess, therefore, it might be my subliminal attempt to secure a sympathetic reception by the reader! The final poem ‘The Urban Shaman’ was written after hearing a particular poet at the Poetry Café in London and captures my aspirations to be as successful as him in securing the attention of the reader and producing a set of poems that will linger in the consciousness long after the reader has put the book down. This is very much a development of my answer to your last question where I suggest the best poetry aspires to alter the consciousness of the reader.
14. What does narrative poetry do for you?
I suppose it depends on how you define narrative poetry. I like poems that tell stories, but I’m not a lover of ballads, because I prefer economical verse: the tighter the better. I do accept, however, that each of my poems tells a story, exploring the emotional significance for those involved: e.g. the dysfunctional family in ‘Breakfast Scene’, the father waiting for a text from his daughter ‘Faraway’, the teenage girl’s prom in ‘Pop-up Princess’. They have the elements of narrative poems (such as characters, exposition, complication and resolution) but I’m not sure you would describe them as narrative poetry.
15. Tell me about writing projects you’re involved in at the moment
I’m currently working on a series of poems about ageing. This year, however, I want to get out and about promoting ‘Saudade’, reading in as many poetry groups and festivals as possible. I am also delighted to have seen my work included in Mark Antony Owen’s excellent website ‘iambapoet.com’