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.
Personal Website: https://brionycollins.co.uk/
Cape Magazine Website: https://capemagazineteam.wixsite.com/mysite
1. What inspired you to write poetry?
Music has always played a huge part in my life. I grew up on just about anything I could get my hands on. When I was ten years old, I heard Queen for the first time and fell in love. I had feelings and reactions to their songs that I couldn’t explain or understand. How could words and melodies bring forth such potent and undeniable emotions in me? Why did the sound of another person’s sorrow make me cry? This was the first time I became aware of empathy and what it meant. From then on, I was fascinated with the idea. I had to know how it was done, how the power of words could be harnessed.
I wrote in school, but didn’t take it upon myself to write independently until I was about fourteen. Those initial, angst-ridden, pain-drenched scratchings in my journal were abysmal. I hope they never see the light of day! I began to hear something as I wrote though, which wouldn’t let me give up. I found that, when I write, I don’t hear words in my head; I hear music. It’s difficult to explain. I don’t experience this when writing prose or scripts. Something about the craft of poetry feels more like composing a melody to me, and this has only gets stronger with practise.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
I don’t know if I was ever “introduced” to poetry. It’s always been there. My father was a poet and had a piece he’d written framed on our living room wall. He was always working on projects. It has been a part of my life since the day I was born. However, I was certainly introduced to the notion that I could write it too. That happened in school. I took a lot of pride in my schoolwork even at a young age. I’ve always enjoyed learning. I wrote my first short story when I was eight, but it wasn’t until I was nine that I really began to try writing. That was a big year for me. My teachers would let me and my best friend, Nimah, leave classes to work on a project in the library. We were compiling a non-fiction book on sharks. My cousin was one-year-old then, and I used to write him his own comic book series – The Adventures of Disco Pig. I think I made the protagonist a pig because I couldn’t draw human faces very well at the time. I wrote a newspaper article with another friend, Oscar, about a ghost that was meant to be haunting the school bell-tower. Best of all, Oscar and I, along with a couple of other students, would write our own skit-shows and perform them to younger students. Everything that year just clicked for me. All I needed was for my teachers to tell me I could write my own things. As soon as I was told that, I never stopped.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
Being a “young poet” is something older writers often refer to me as, but I don’t see it that way. I’m just a poet. The first time I experienced this was when I won the 2016 Exeter Novel Prize. I showed up with my grandparents and a few people actually thought my grandma was me because of how much younger I was than everyone else! I started writing that novel when I was nineteen and was twenty at the awards ceremony. I think being recognised for my age made the situation even more intimidating. I was so hyper-aware of how out of place I was that I felt extraordinarily awkward. Everyone there was lovely. I still deal with similar feelings at events, but I’m starting to be recognised as just another writer now, which is wonderful.
There have been a couple of instances where I’ve felt patronised or taken less seriously for being younger. It used to bother me, but I’m not upset about it anymore. I’ve got more grit because of it and that’s vital for any artist.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I get asked this all the time and I’m afraid my answer is a disappointing one! I don’t have a daily writing routine. I can go months without writing a single word and then hit about 20,000 over a single weekend. It doesn’t take me very long to physically write a poem either – perhaps half an hour for a solid draft – but it takes me quite a while to get in the right headspace for it. I know the general advice is to never wait for inspiration and to just get on with it, but I find that hard sometimes. I attribute that to being a full-time student. I spend so much time writing and reading for classes that a lot of my creativity gets sapped out of me.
5. What motivates you to write?
I had a tumultuous upbringing that really affected my work and the motivations behind it. My mother passed away, my father disowned me, and I live apart from my brothers, who are in the United States. I went to high school out there too, but moved back to the UK on my own when I turned 18. I had a single bag of clothes to my name, zero qualifications, and had to live with my grandparents for a few years. Seeing your entire life fit into one bag is an odd sensation. You feel really small, like you haven’t done anything with your life at all. I didn’t want to feel like that ever again. I use that as motivation to write and keep pushing myself. I also want to make my brothers proud and let them know that moving away really was the best decision. I left behind my mom too (not my birth mother, but a parent in every way). I want her to feel like I’m doing something special. I don’t know if those are good motivations, but that’s an honest answer.
6. What is your work ethic?
Ultimately, what I value above all else in writing is honesty. I try to captivate this in my work, but particularly my poems. I want everything in my poetry to have a point. Each word, each piece of punctuation, must have a purpose. If there is ever a part of a poem that isn’t adding to it in some way, the poem isn’t finished. That’s why a lot of my poems are short. There’s a lot of cutting back. In fact, one of my first published pieces was only two lines.
I start with an idea or a feeling and I just free-write in my journal about it for a couple of pages, normally in prose. Then I go through with a pen and circle all the bits I like, and rewrite those parts down separately. I start playing with the language, seeing if any of those words prompt new ones. Normally this is when I also being to move the words around the page, seeing how they can physically fit together too. I like to have a fairly consistent structure throughout my poems. I rewrite it again and go through crossing out every word I don’t need. I examine the verbs and see if I can switch them to anything more powerful. I’ll toy with synonyms to see if I can develop any internal rhymes. I never worry about rhythm or metre – that happens naturally. When I have a piece that I think is about done, I make sure the punctuation is the way it needs to be. The last thing I do is give it a title. Only when all this is done do I type it up onto my computer. If it looks good on the screen too, it’s finished.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I would say that every writer I’ve ever read has influenced me in one way or another. I learned to write by reading frequently and broadly. As a child, my favourite authors were Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl. I don’t think there was a single book by either of them at that time that I hadn’t read. In particular, I adored Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. It’s a magnificent book about a father who teaches his son how to poach pheasants. It brought to light many subjects I was familiar with as a child, such as working class issues, the loss of a parent, and the importance of friendship. There are many times now when I am writing on these subjects and my mind drifts back to Danny in his little Gypsy caravan.
The only other author I read when I was younger that comes to mind now is Terry Pratchett. His book Nation remains one of my favourite novels to date. I can say with absolute certainty that many of my works would not exist if it weren’t for the phenomenal tale of Mau, a young boy suddenly thrust into the position of chieftain after a tsunami wipes out the rest of his tribe. His iconic phrase, ‘DOES NOT HAPPEN,’ which he screams in the face of adversity, is one that I cannot forget. If I find myself struggling with a poem or a story, I feel the spirit of Mau raging through me. I have a blue hermit crab tattooed on my arm now too, just as he did.
I don’t really write children’s fiction, but Dahl and Pratchett’s work certainly influenced me as a person, and changed my attitude towards writing.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Most of the writers I am currently influenced by are no longer alive, the most important to me being Kurt Vonnegut and Jim Morrison. However, of today’s writers I would be remiss if I didn’t name Forrest Gander or Carol Ann Duffy. I’ve had the very great pleasure of meeting them both and found that they are not only excellent poets, but examples of how poetry lives inside us.
I became acquainted with Gander’s work in a class on contemporary writing in my second year at Bangor University. His collection Be With was an attempt to articulate many of the emotions and experiences he went through after the loss of his wife. It was my first experience reading something that really represented my continuing grief at the passing of my mother. Gander does a lot of work with translations and it brought to my attention the way that the act of poetry is a type of translation; we are taking our most powerful emotions which should transcend language and finding a way to put them to paper. Be With is translation at its finest.
I was fortunate to be accepted onto the 2017 Spring Poetry Masterclass at Ty Newydd Creative Writing Centre, tutored by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke. This was my first exposure to Duffy’s work and it left a permanent mark on me. Like Be With, I found her collection The Bees to express thoughts and feelings I had but could not yet put into words. The Bees explores the loss of Duffy’s mother, but there is so much tenderness and beauty between the lines of her pain that it changed me irrevocably as a writer and as a person. After reading it, I gave myself license to start writing about my own mother for the first time. It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that changed my life. The relief and power that comes from an epiphany like that is unmatched.
9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
I came to writing somewhat accidentally. It’s something I’ve always done – even as a toddler I’d try to tell my family stories in incoherent baby babble – so it never seemed special to me. I don’t even think I realised I was actually good at it until I was twenty. It was just second nature to me; it was just something I did from a young age, so I never paid any mind to it.
When I moved back to the UK from the US at age eighteen, I had to live in the country again for three year before I obtained any student finance. Without qualifications too, I knew I had to use this time to go to college so that I could get into university one day. I started my A-Levels at Rhyl Sixth later that year. When I finished two years later, I was accepted into Bangor University, but I had to defer my place another year because I still wasn’t eligible for financial help. I took some GCSEs to kill time, but also took both years of A-Level Creative Writing simultaneously. My teacher, Samantha Egelstaff-Thomas, had taught me for all three years and I think she saw something in me that I didn’t know was there.
One of my assignments for Creative Writing was to write the opening of a novel. It was supposed to be 4,000 words, but I couldn’t stop myself. I soon had 10,000. Sam urged me to enter the Exeter Novel Prize, which she’d heard about in Mslexia – a magazine for female writers. I was hesitant. The entry fee was more than I could really afford and I thought my work was abysmally average. I almost missed the deadline because I couldn’t decide what to do. Sam told me that if I didn’t invest in myself, nobody else would. That was the best advice I ever received. I was longlisted and then shortlisted, and was invited to the awards ceremony.
As I stood there I felt stupid and awkward. I was so young and had no idea what I was doing. I knew nothing about writing competitions, submissions, publishing… I didn’t even know what an agent was really. When they announced me as the winner, the first words out of my mouth were, ‘Are you sure?’ They laughed and nodded. That was the moment it clicked for me. I couldn’t understand how so many people could see something in me that I didn’t pay any attention to. I haven’t been able to stop writing since that moment. It wasn’t a conscious choice to write as opposed to anything else initially, but now it’s all I want to do.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I would tell them to write. Next question!
In all seriousness, you start simply by starting. Read as much as you can. Consume art like it’s the air you breathe. Gravitate towards work that makes you feel something and then try to dissect why you feel that way. Writing isn’t something you can learn just by theory; it’s a practical skill. Open yourself up to new experiences and opportunities even if they aren’t directly related to writing. Live a full and varied life. That’s how you find things to write about. Once you have that sussed out, just do it.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I have a few projects on the go right now. I’m in my last year of university at the moment, so I have my dissertation. It’s a self-illustrated memoir-in-verse called Blame It On Me, and will feature poetry that articulates my ongoing journey through the grief of my mother’s passing. I’m currently developing my third novel, Simulacrum, which is a quirky and amusing sci-fi that explores the reliability of memories. It’s also quite metafictional. Think Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions for a comparison. My second novel, Ambergris, is currently with my agent.
I recently launched Cape Magazine with my dear friend and fellow writer Aaron Farrell. We’re a digital publication seeking poetry, prose, and visual art, especially if they’re experimental! We’re hoping to launch our podcast, Altered Egos, in tandem with Cape.