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 three options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger or an interview on their most recent book, or a combination of these.
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.
grew up in Manchester, read English at Oxford and worked for many years as a civil servant in London. His poems have appeared widely in magazines, both in print and online, and he has recently published two pamphlets: The War with Hannibal (Poetry Salzburg, 2019) and The 3-D Clock (Dempsey and Windle, 2020). He reviews regularly for London Grip and blogs occasionally at www.stephenclaughton.com, where links to his reviews, poems and pamphlets can also be found.
1. What inspired you to write poetry?
I can’t remember what originally inspired me. I began writing poems in my early teens, but didn’t really get going until I retired from the Civil Service ten years ago. I like to think that I was held back by lack of time, but really it was a lack of confidence. Poetry was too important to me to risk failing. Then, once I’d reached a certain age, I realised I’d got nothing left to lose. You can’t write without taking risks; you have to accept every time the possibility of failure.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
As an English teacher, my mother was very keen that I should like literature. I remember one wet holiday, when she insisted on reciting part of The Song of Hiawatha to me, but I wasn’t a bookish child and — much to her dismay — resisted her attempt to interest me in it. The 3-D Clock, my pamphlet about her dementia, reflects what always remained a difficult relationship. Poetry — and literature more generally — was something I had to discover for myself, encouraged by some excellent teachers at my school. It was, of course, a great help then to have books in the house. (I read Hiawatha again recently and for the most part I concur with my youthful judgement.)
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
English was my main interest at school and the subject I went on to study at university, so I was aware of the poetic tradition. But it was 20th century poets who first sparked my interest — Eliot, Auden and Dylan Thomas from school anthologies — and then the usual influences on my generation — poets such as Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn, R S Thomas, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney and Robert Lowell (all but one of them Faber poets). Robert Graves was also an influence, although I think The White Goddess made more of an impression at that time than the poems themselves.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I’m ashamed to say that I don’t really have one. In the past, I tended to write when I felt like it, provided nothing more pressing needed doing. It probably explains why I got so little done! These days, although I’m retired, I have a number of other calls on my time — as a town and borough councillor and (before the pandemic lockdown) helping to look after our young grandson. It’s meant that in order to remain seriously committed to writing, I have to be more careful about managing my time. I’ve been surprised by how productive it can be just to sit down and apply yourself, although it can also be very frustrating. I work best in the late morning, late afternoon, or early evening.
5. What motivates you to write?
I can’t really explain the need to write poetry, other than that it’s been a compulsion I’ve had for most of my life. Even when I wasn’t publishing any poems, I was still planning them in my head and producing various, unsatisfactory drafts. There has to be something that sparks a poem off — an idea, a line, an image; I couldn’t write one to order. I’ve recently started reviewing, which is something I do for enjoyment. It helps that I have some say in the books I review and don’t have to work to deadlines. I like to take my time, so that I’m not influenced by any particular mood I’m in — I worry about being fair. Fortunately, I haven’t had to write any unfavourable reviews so far, although I do say what I think works and doesn’t work.
6. What is your work ethic?
Professionally, I used to have a strong work ethic, but when you retire people don’t expect it of you and you don’t expect it of yourself. (Thom Gunn stopped writing poetry after he gave up his academic job — he no longer had the motivation.) I get twitchy, if I haven’t been working on a poem for a bit. I wouldn’t want to write out of a sense of duty, but having started late, there’s always the sense of having to make up for lost time.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I think it’s more in terms of subject matter than style. The War with Hannibal has two poems about Larkin, one occasioned by The Guardian reprinting an old article, “Poet on the 8.15”, and another about Larkin’s famous last words (‘I am going to the inevitable’), which I’d hoped to write as a cento, consisting entirely of lines by Larkin. That didn’t work out, but the poem includes references to several of his poems. Some of my early influences were unhelpful — Eliot in particular. I read him when I was too young to understand what he was doing and just thought that good poetry had to be obscure. It took me a long time to find my way out of that blind alley. I wrote one poem, when I was fourteen, that seemed to come out of nowhere and was highly praised, but after that my teenage career went rapidly downhill. I recently came across one of the poems I was trying to write then, still in the plastic writing case I used to use. It was so awful that I binned the lot without a second thought. ‘Inspissated’ is the only word to describe my style then.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
There’s a long list of poets I admire and I’m always finding people I should have read years ago. Ciaran Carson, who died last year, is an example. Perhaps because of my early tangle with Eliot, I’m most attracted to poets who write accessible poems in a conversational style (though Eliot himself could, of course, adopt a conversational mode). Hugo Williams, in particular, helped me get back on track. Reading about the way he rewrote poems as a whole rather than line by line was an eye-opener. Before that, I’d put poems together in the painstaking, bit-by-bit way of the fictional poets, Gordon Comstock (in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying) and Anthony Burgess’s Enderby. Some of my more recent poems have come easily, but a lot have been through multiple drafts — usually to try and make them sound more spontaneous! There’s something of the obsessive-compulsive about me.
Another, less well-known, poet who inspired me was Gareth Reeves. I particularly liked the moving series of poems about his father, the poet and critic James Reeves, gradually losing his sight. It intrigued me that you could convey so much in such a simple-seeming way. Of course, it’s only when you try to do it yourself that you realise how difficult it is. I also like the poems of Reeves’ Oxford contemporary, Grevel Lindop. Both are or were academics and Lindop has written biographies of De Quincey and Charles Williams, as well as producing an edition of The White Goddess.
9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
Again, I can’t really explain why I’m compelled to write poetry, except to say that my life would be very empty without it. Poetry is a way of capturing something alive. What you do with it when you’ve caught it is another matter and one that’s always open for debate. For me, it’s principally a way of finding meaning and structure in an increasingly crazy world. Also, I like the concentration that’s required by any kind of writing. The same is true of reading, of course, but writing gives you the prospect of having produced something at the end of it. It’s mostly an unconscious process. The only real control I have is when I’m acting as my own editor. Writing and reviewing have given me a sense, for the first time, of doing something that feels ‘right’.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I’d say the usual things — practise your craft and read as widely as possible. Like most things, the more you do the better you become at it. As for reading, I’m lucky to be within striking distance of the National Poetry Library, which is an excellent resource, but other libraries are available. Most of all, don’t be afraid of failure. You can’t get anywhere without being prepared to take risks. And lastly, don’t give up: as long as the impulse is there, keep on writing.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
There are a few poems I’ve been working on about my mother’s dementia that didn’t make it in time for The 3-D Clock, although I hope that, when they’re finished, that will be it: I don’t want to keep writing about the same subject. I’m interested in ekphrastic poems. The War with Hannibal has two: one about a watercolour sketch by van Dyck and another about Munch’s “The Night Wanderer”. I’ve written others since and perhaps I’ll have enough for a small collection one day. I’m also toying with the idea of doing a ‘version’ of some incidents from The Aeneid, which I studied at school. And it’s hard these days not to write about the current pandemic, although it may not produce anything useable in my case. I don’t know if anything will come of any of these projects. I depend on poems approaching me rather than me them.