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 about their latest 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.
is a writer from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. His poetry and prose have featured in: LA Review of Books, Aeon, Acumen, X-R-A-Y, Entropy, The London Magazine, and Dublin Review of Books among others. He was awarded 3rd prize in The London Magazine 2019 Poetry Competition. Twitter @oubliette_mag.
Here is a website link: https://danieljamesfraser.wordpress.com/
1, When and why did you start writing poetry?
Like many people I suppose I started writing poetry when I was a teenager, partly as a way to deal with the difficult time I was having and also because it was the time when the world of literature first started to open up for me. At school, early on I had always been more interested in science and mathematics but then something started to shift. Reading and literature became increasingly central to how I reacted to and responded to what I was experiencing and writing poetry became part of the way I tried to express that change. Back then it was little more than a kind of psychic effusion, a mess of borrowings and moods. I did not begin writing seriously until I was 24 or 25; I spent much of my early adulthood ‘gathering material’ is the most charitable way I could put it. I was, I think, almost 30 before my poetry found the first grains of what it was (and still is) looking for.
1.1. Were there any writers you were drawn to in this early period?
The first things I picked up were Rimbaud and Baudelaire, which I took from my Dad’s shelves, and Sylvia Plath, who was buried very near where I am from. Her poem ‘Hardcastle Crags’ is still my favourite poem about the area. There was Bukowski too, inevitably, and some Beat stuff; my Dad gave me a copy of A Coney Island of the Mind which I read over and over again.
Then Eliot, which was completely transformative for me. Reading Four Quartets then felt almost alien in a way that made me want to find out why.
1.2. How was Eliot transformative?
I suppose it was the odd sensation of closeness and distance I got from reading Four Quartets, familiar and unsettling at once (without wanting to get too Freudian).
The poems were written in language I knew and understood, much of their rhythms and allusions were not so far beyond me, but somehow there was something infinitely puzzling about them.
Each time I tried to get hold of certain parts or phrases, others eluded me completely.
More than this, the poems themselves seemed to be trying to reflect on this problem, questioning their own presence, their form.
2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
I’m not sure I gave it much thought. I was simply reading whatever was close to hand.
[Sorry that’s not a very good answer!]
2.1. What came close to hand?
I suppose in that second phase of reading I was drawn to a lot of translated poetry.
I read Vallejo, Neruda, Rilke, Tsvetaeva. This was when I first starting reading Shakespeare too. I remember reading Bolaño back then, one of literature’s great name-droppers, and seeking out some of the poets he mentions: like Gonzalo Rojas.
My dad was (and still is) running a secondhand bookshop, and so there was always interesting stuff around, though not for too long! He always gets nervous when I go to visit, in case I start trying to steal the stock.
Both my parents were dealers of secondhand stuff actually: my mum sold antiques and pictures and other bits and pieces, so everything in our house was on a constant carousel. I rebelled there, I’m a hoarder. Books everywhere. Bits of paper with notes on, receipts, tickets.
2.2. A second hand bookshop must have been a treasure trove.
It was! I’m very thankful for it (even if it partially led to me hoarder tendencies!).
3. What is your daily writing routine?
I still find it difficult to settle into anything like a routine, particularly with work and various other commitments. I set myself a daily minimum of 30 pages of reading and 30 minutes of writing which gives me something easily attainable on days when I’m struggling and leaves scope for writing to swallow the whole day when it needs to.
I don’t have any fixed hours, I don’t find myself being particularly a ‘morning’ or a ‘night’ person but I do find different spaces suitable for different kinds of work. For inspiration and initial creative efforts I find background noise, particularly cafe noise and transport sounds, being on a train or a bus, very helpful; which is probably why so much of my writing starts out life on scraps of paper. Editing and re-writing are firmly indoor activities: at home, plenty of coffee and silence.
3.1 What subjects are you especially motivated to write about?
Good question! At a general level, a lot of the time it feels random, what comes. Things start with a mood or an experience.
There is that great line Geoffrey Hill borrows from David Bomberg about ‘grasping mood through structure’. I still go back to that often. If I start with the idea, with something too structural, then the work is often harder, and easier to abandon somehow.
More specifically, there is a good deal of my home landscape of West Yorkshire in the poems: waste grounds and industrial premises as much as mills, thick woods, and moors.
My philosophical reading also finds its way in there, though only as a trace, a chunk of mica in the sediment: Marx especially, in the ideas of history, of nature and of work, but also Blanchot, Benjamin, Kristeva, Malabou.
I also find much of my poetry bears marks of awareness of their construction, of its status as poem, a kind of uncertainty. I feel like this uncertainty is an important part of what allows literature, and poetry, to live, to keep moving across time. The gap between language and experience is always there, however we might try to cover or cross it.
Besides, as human beings we have to question the meaning of our existence and the effect of our words constantly, I don’t see why poems should be let off the hook in this regard.
4. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?
They are all part of the ‘poetic sediment’ that builds up of course, though it can be difficult to identify specific influence. In general, there is too a kind of affective memory, where the particular emotive response generated by reading those poets at certain points in my life re-emerges when working. More specifically, I certainly think encountering a lot of translated poetry early on introduced me to unusual rhythms and forms, and gave me confidence to allow some of more experimental impulses into my work.
In practical terms, when working on a poem, one often finds a particular image or shape is being pulled in several directions at once: toward the lyric, the surreal, the modernist, the commonplace and so on. And these forces or tensions are naturally shaped by previous poetic reading. So, whilst I might not be able to say ‘there was an element of Plath in this phrase’ or ‘I found this image in Vallejo’ (beyond those poems which are designed to speak directly to another poem or poet and where certain phrases might be directly adopted and acknowledged as such), all of what we read forms part of the murmur from which the work develops.
5. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Thanks for this question Paul. A lot to choose from! I shall limit myself to poets because the list will be long (and incomplete) enough as it is but, the ones that immediately come to mind are: Karen Solie, Michael Hofmann, Rory Waterman, Vahni Capildeo, Anne Carson, Fred Moten, Ocean Vuong, and two recent losses to the category of contemporary: Geoffrey Hill and Sean Bonney.
Solie for the blend of philosophical and colloquial, of industrial and natural, that make her one of the best poets of work and material labour as well as of nature and landscape. Her concern of how these two are formed and forming one another, the economy of natural history, makes her work something I return to on an almost daily basis. Hofmann has been one of my favourite poets for a long time. His voice, piercing, literary, and often extremely funny, cuts out wonderful poems from moments of awkwardness, failure, and misunderstanding that manage to be both superbly readable and endlessly re-readable. Alongside Solie he is the poet whose work I most often give as a gift.
In Vuong, there is something in the way that the finished poem still feels cut raw, the images being wild/surprising but somehow not out of place. I have re-read Night Sky with Exit Wounds probably five times and found new favourite moments each time. Waterman I admire, perhaps, for working from the opposite direction: where what is strange and special rises slowly from below a seemingly familiar surface. His grasp and twist of the everyday can be extraordinary. Like the title of his book Sarajevo Roses he often draws beauty from small wounds, repairing them not by attempting to ignore or cover them but rather by deepening their significance.
Moten for his theoretical depth and political commitment; and for giving some of the best live readings I’ve ever experienced. He is someone who’s ability to shape language and rhythm to his own ends seems almost limitless. Capildeo (another wonderful reader of poetry) for a plurivocalism and formal experimentation that can only inspire awe and admiration, capable both of narrative ‘epic’ and tightly wound images that explore the shapes of individual words, forcing a recognition of the material weight of sound in the mouth. Bonney: again for his political commitment, and for developing a kind of communist metaphysics from the French tradition, particularly Rimbaud. His polemics manage to avoid being either dull or arbitrarily experimental but, like the best invocations, are memorable, rousing, moving.
Hill not only for poetry, but for his writing about poetry. His Oxford lectures and entry in the famous Paris Review ‘Art of Poetry’ series are incredibly rich sources of inspiration and poetic-thinking. As for the poems, Canaan in particular remains one of the most incredible books of poetry I’ve ever read, where his frighteningly powerful sense of time, of the present and its deep history, is at its most acute. He is a poet of Benjamin’s catastrophe, of the paradox of urgency and century.
Carson, on the other hand, seems to be writing ancient myths for a future world that’s still to come.
6. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
The short answer I suppose is that I have to. The long answer is very difficult to pin down and may sound convoluted but here are a few notes which fumble towards an answer:
Our experience of the world is narrated all the time both by the structures of language by which the conflation of word and object becomes naturalised and the structures of power which naturalise historically created institutions and ideas.
The only way the world can become, in any lasting sense, genuinely liveable requires a radical shift both in the way we understand wealth and the way we understand being human; a transformative opening out of the restrictive and broken modes of social being which capital currently offers us.
Whether writing or poetry can form a small part of pointing the way to these things, resisting the realist narrative by which the world comes to us, allowing us to think about different ways of being, creating moments of experiencing different temporalities, and so on, I don’t know. But I think the best writing tries to find out, even if its quest is a doomed one.
Writing can certainly lead us to think again about the discomforting, uncanny character of life, of the places where the communicative aspect of language shuts down (mourning and trauma for instance), making us more attentive to the fissures of a world that presents itself as whole. In this way, I do think political activity and literature share some ground in their attempt to critique reality, and in both cases doing so effectively means to be self-critical: that is, to be critical of both the reality from which they are created and the realities which they create. In both cases our relationship should always be unsettled and uncertain: fetishism (whether it be for an element of doctrine or a cultish appreciation of the sentence) is toxic. And yet, criticism cannot collapse into relativism: in the end something must be said, must be believed in. This is part of what makes things so difficult, and why nihilism is often so close at hand.
R.P. Blackmur’s quote about the best poetry ‘adding to the stock of available reality’ is perhaps too grand a claim, and is still couched in the language of the commodity, but something like that, an opening of possibility, is worth fighting for, and failing to reach, again and again.
7. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I can only respond with cliches for this one I think, but I find them useful nonetheless:
Read, read, read, write, write, write.
Attention to the strange spaces of experience and language is the most important thing. Commitment to the object, to what you are writing about, is the second.
Don’t listen to too much writing advice. Use what helps you, if it helps you.
Don’t be afraid to keep everything.
Don’t be afraid to throw everything away.
Always have a pen/dictaphone/notes app to hand. Leave pens in the shower if you have to.
Don’t be afraid of cliche. It takes more skill to push a cliche into new ground than it does to experiment arbitrarily.
Writing is hard. It should be.
8. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I’m currently gathering together my essays on literature and cinema and re-working them into a book manuscript, and putting together a book of short fiction. In 2021 I will begin my PhD Scholarship at University College Cork, looking at trauma as a category of historical experience. In between I’ll obviously keep working towards a first poetry collection. Hoping to fit eating and sleeping in there too somewhere!