Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: Rory Waterman and “Sweet Nothings”

Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews

Rory Waterman Sweet Nothings Cover

Rory Waterman

his third full-length poetry collection, Sweet Nothings, is published by Carcanet , and is now available to order (click the book tit His second book of poems, Sarajevo Roses (Carcanet, 2017), was shortlisted for the Ledbury Forte Prize 2019. His debut, Tonight the Summer’s Over (Carcanet, 2013), is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Prize in 2014. He is also a critic, editor, and senior lecturer in English and Creative Writing.

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

When I was about 10, and at primary school. My school was on the edge of a small Lincolnshire village, and there were quite a few trees around. We had to go out in the playground one day, look at catkins and buds and suchlike, then come in and write a poem about our expedition. Mine was about how nice things are when you look at them properly, and how I hoped they’d stay like that, but we’d also been learning about pollution and the ozone layer, so that came into it as well. My really kind teacher encouraged me, bless her, so I kept trying again in my own time. My dad was a poet, so that probably helped too, in a way: I already knew it was something people might do. Then, when I was a ratty teenager, I wrote a lot more poems about being a ratty teenager, like everyone else, and got a few of them in print in decent enough magazines thanks to editors who probably should’ve known better.

I had a fairly complicated childhood, in some ways. My dad lived in Northern Ireland, and was a manipulative alcoholic, who was nonetheless my hero until I grew old enough to see why he shouldn’t be. I lived with my mum, aunt and grandmother in a little lodge house to an estate, a mile from the nearest village, until my grandmother died when I was 15, at which point we were booted out by the bastard landlord, my aunt upped sticks to her son’s house in Stafford, and my mum and I moved into a council house a few miles away. I then got expelled from school for taking some weed on a school trip, was let back in (probably, I suspect, because I was expected to do quite well; two other boys were excluded permanently, though they’d done the same thing as me), and failed almost all of my GCSEs. I tried to write poems about all of this, just to sort my spotty little head out, but they came out either as mawkish claptrap or as tenth-rate versions of Seamus Heaney, Louis MacNeice, Tony Harrison, John Agard or Philip Larkin, the only poets I really knew about at that age. It’s very frustrating to want to say something profound but to know you are too immature and unskilled to do it, so that put me off trying again until I’d grown up, and I certainly had a lot of growing up to do. The earliest poem I included in my first book, ‘A Suicide’, was written when I was 25.

2. Were you introduced to poetry by your dad?

Up to a point. I saw him about once a month, in England until I was 10 and then often in Ireland or for holidays, with a break of about 4 months at 14, when his last real partner left him and I felt disgusted by what I’d seen. He bought me some poetry books: the Heaney Selected on the bookshelf next to me says ‘To Rory, from Dad, October 1995’ on the flyleaf, which means he gave it to me when that four-month period ended. I was always more interested in finding my own way – I just found it in the same direction, in that instance.

3. What is the significance of the quotes at the beginning of each of the two sections of “Sweet Nothings?”

The book is in two halves, each of which has its own loose trajectory and set of concerns. I gave each section two epigraphs, contradictory in the first pairing and complementary in the second, all containing the word ‘nothing’. Explaining one’s poems, or the context in which one has put poems, feels a bit like explaining a joke, so I’m going to be careful about what I say. I didn’t want to give the sections names, because I thought that would be too limiting, so they’re just headed by Roman numerals. I think of the paired epigraphs as surrogates for titles, in a way: every poem in each section relates to both of the epigraphs preceding it, one way or another. And I think of a poem title as the first reading of a poem, in a sense, so I really felt I had to work to get them right – it took a ludicrous amount of time, and I’d been gathering potential quotations for three years before I finalised the manuscript. Had I not found the right four, I would’ve ditched the idea, and I felt it was equally important to read each of the ones I considered in the broadest context possible. I kept falling down huge rabbit warrens of reading for this, and suspected nobody would ever really notice them enough to ask, so I’m grateful you have asked. My favourite of the introductory quotations, at least in the context in which I put them, is the one from the Book of John (I’m not religious, at least not in a conventional sense): ‘Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, we also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing.’ The one that means the most to me is from Katherine Mansfield’s diaries: ‘But warm, eager, living life – to be rooted in life – to learn, to desire, to feel, to think, to act. This is what I want. And nothing less. That is what I must try for.’ I’m still trying, of course.

4, You delight in the use of “ordinary” words as in “Trigger Warning” and “University of Life”, almost using the words as triggers.

I’m not sure what you mean by ‘ordinary words’. Both of those poems are set in Lincolnshire, and both include tiny bits of local dialect, of a pretty mild variety, and of the sort that is normal in Lincolnshire (and elsewhere): ‘pack it in’, etc. The ‘University of Life’ sequence is really a trawl through doing various jobs one summer when I was a student, though like Wayne in Wayne’s World, I amassed a large collection of name-tags and hair-nets, over the course of about six years. Everything that happens in the sequence is true, though some names have been changed. It’s quite impolite, and it is probably for that reason that an academic acquaintance warned me, with the kind of jovial, hyperaware, hyperunaware cowardice only some contemporary academics can muster, that it might be perceived as a snobby poem. The pervy bloke who said ‘bleerk’ to mean bloke did indeed do so: he was from Manchester. Lincolnshire people don’t pronounce it like that, as you probably know. Every time we drove past a group of women he’d say something to us about tits. He did it without fail. Maybe he was a wonderful father and husband. The current narrative is that silence is complicity, and I certainly felt a bit of that then too in a less socially-mandated way, but I liked wearing my balls on the outside of my body so I kept my mouth shut instead. I think ‘University of Life’ makes it pretty clear I felt like a bit of an outsider talking about the waggon and my gaffer and stuff like that, though I biked up to the depot from our two-bedroom council house and certainly didn’t feel like I was a cut above. I wasn’t and I’m not. I’ve often enjoyed getting other voices into poems by quoting people, and both of these poems include some of that. It can help things to feel properly alert and animated. I’ve gone off piste, I realise, so I’ll get back to ‘ordinary words’. ‘University of Life’ is also peppered with allusions to literary works I studied on my degree (or, in one obvious instance, the dissertation focus of someone else), often wrenched ludicrously but I hope also appositely out of context. They’re all pretty well hidden apart from in the final section – designed to look just like ‘ordinary words’, if you like – and it doesn’t affect the poem much if you don’t notice them, though I like to think some people will spot at least a few.

5. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

I’m not the sort of person who only reads his contemporaries. Some poets do that and know little else about poetry, it seems. They can’t be very interested in poetry really, can they? They’re interested in being poets. The poets I return to most often are mainly long dead and belong to various traditions. I think I’m moderately ‘aware’, then, but I don’t feel any ‘dominating presence’ looming in from the past. I got called a ‘lefty Larkin’ once, which made me laugh and wince. I don’t mind admitting his poetry had a big influence on me (and that I’m ‘lefty’, albeit of a non-censorious, real world kind wary of aspects of the current corporate-sponsored orthodoxy). I even make fun of that in Sweet Nothings. The late twentieth century Briton I return to most is probably R. S. Thomas, though. One of Thomas’s poems is even stuck up above my desk, and his battered and taped-up Collected was the first book I took from my office at work when we were kicked out of our building at the start of lockdown. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I quite fancied being a medievalist: I was obsessed with a lot of medieval literature, though probably more for the world it forced my mind and senses to inhabit than for the poetry itself, in most cases. It’s a good job I didn’t try to become one, in a way, because I wouldn’t have got an academic job. Old English poetry comes to us as a huge anomaly, aside from the tradition of poetry in this country, to which it was for so long effectively lost. I’ve always read widely, within and outside of the obvious canon, and not just poets by any means – whatever I find interesting. I’m a serial obsessive hobbyist. Most of the artists and ‘thinkers’ I’m drawn to are people who dared to stand out, to pose difficult questions if they could, who refused to succumb to an orthodoxy, who demonstrated an ability to entertain thoughts without accepting them. They normally paid for it, and normally still do. They loom in me somewhere, and I know how lucky I am.

6. I notice you use a lot of formal structures in your poetry. How important are formal structures for you?

You can play with a received form and use its energy to create something new. The sonnet, for example, comes with a lot of formal and attendant expectations, to the extent that you can break with them quite freely and then purposefully draw on the contrasts. As Don Paterson said, a good sonnet tends to do at least one thing you don’t expect it to. I regard the forms I use, when I use them, a bit more like the way a multi-instrumentalist might view the instruments he or she plays. You’re not going to play a song about a famine on the kazoo, are you? I also like hiding little formal tricks in poems, of the kind that I hope have a positive effect for any reader on the way the poem works, without consciously being noticed. And I think tight, clever rhyme and metre can make wit wittier, because it can. That said, fusty formalism bores the pants off me, and most of the great poems of the past century don’t draw on received forms, at least not ostensibly or thoroughly. I’m not a formalist, I’m a poet who quite often writes metrical poems and occasionally uses received forms.

7. What is your daily writing routine?

I don’t have one. Poems turn up when they turn up, and normally take a long time to get right. And sometimes I come back to them many months after first writing them, or even years later, and worry away at anything that doesn’t quite sit right. I’ve learned to drop poems if I can’t get everything in them to do what I want it to. But I don’t have a set time, or an ideal time, and most days I don’t consciously think about my own poems at all. I write a lot more criticism, though I also think that’s inadvertently part of my process. I’ve done one for almost as long as I’ve done the other.

8. Would you say belonging and estrangement are the motivations for writing your poems?

That seems a bit proscriptive, but it’s probably true. I’ve never fully felt I belong anywhere, but that probably just makes me normal now. Most poems arise from a tension, and that is probably the most consistently present one – whether the subject is my childhood, my invented academic character Bob Pintle, relationships, family, an Albanian keen to get a Green Card, the Bosnian War, being at an American wedding before the 2016 US election, going to a non-league match, or almost anything else I have written poems about about when I come to think about it. I wrote my PhD thesis on belonging and estrangement in late twentieth century British poetry, and the phrase keeps sticking to me in reviews and so on, but I doubt those concerns are more mine than anyone else’s really: they’re just there in the world as we all experience it.

9. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?

I’ve no idea! If you mean the first poets I read of my own volition, mentioned earlier in this exchange, then I still read all of them quite often – some more than others, admittedly. Actually, I have a lot of their poems with me all the time, in my head. That’s the power of a (shortish) poem, though, isn’t it? If you can remember it, you have it whole whenever you want it. No other artform has that. I mean, I can remember a painting or a song, but I can’t look at it or hear it without looking at it or hearing it. I digress. They definitely all influence me to some extent, because they’ve all worked their way into my conscious and subconscious selves and I haven’t rejected any of them. But the weight of that influence on my poems isn’t up to me to decide, and I’m not interested in trying to be like anyone.

10. “University of Life”, Bob Pintle, Had and Held, there are a number of sequences in “Sweet Nothings”, coupled with the idea that they all respond to the quotations before each half of the book, almost as if there is a larger book, as if the whole book is treated as a sequence. It begins with something said and ends on the importance of listening.

I’m glad you noticed that. It’s precisely what I’d hope someone would notice about the book, in that regard. I don’t wish to be didactic, and don’t think I am, but it is a book about learning things, as much as anything else. Learning to listen is part of that. The book’s two sections are both fairly self-contained, though obviously there are connections between them. They aren’t sequences, they’re groupings, ‘mini-books’. But yes, there are a number of sequences within them, and early on in writing these poems I imagined the book might be a sequence of sequences. It didn’t turn out quite like that, but I do like the potential sequences hold for allowing you to chip at one thing from multiple perspectives in poems that might stand alone or apart, but gain something from proximity. ‘Had and Held’ is about splitting up with my ex-wife, the hardest thing I’ve ever done and the hardest thing I’ve ever done by anyone else. Luckily, she forgave me, we’re both happy, and we are extremely close friends. I’ve spoken about ‘University of Life’. The poems about the nearly-real tortured and torturing academic Bob Pintle aren’t technically in a sequence, but they belong with one another. I invented him in the last book, Sarajevo Roses, where he does get a sequence, a day in the life. I wrote about him for the Carcanet blog, here: carcanetblog.blogspot.com/2020/05/rory-waterman-sweet-nothings.html. ‘Garlic’ is a two-part sequence about looking back at looking forward, then trying to remember to look at the present. The first and last words are the same, and the last words of the first part and first of the second are the same. It’s a poem about and full of echoes. You didn’t mention it and nobody else has either, but it’s one of my favourites, and relies on being a sequence.

11.p style=”margin: 0; font-family: Calibri; font-size: 11pt;”>Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

That’s too hard to answer. I might just about know where to begin, but I wouldn’t know where to end. I’ll tell you what I do like and don’t see all that much of at present: purposeful contrarianism.

11.1. What do you mean by “purposeful contrarianism”?

Considered, thoughtful alternatives to any cosseted and cosseting status quo. What I might call punk rock spirit, embodied by bands like The Clash and The Specials, though that sounds a bit silly in this context. The ability to see complexity where simplicity reigns, intelligently, even if you’re going to upset the orthodoxy. Most of this has come from the left, broadly conceived: Orwell, Rushdie, Ginsberg, Atwood, Heaney, etc. I don’t always agree with the stances some of these people have taken and – you know what? – that is okay. I’d be more worried if that wasn’t the case. But I recently saw a journalist criticising Orwell for being a ‘vile man’ because he didn’t do enough to take on Nazism or something. I’d like to set that journalist some homework: read Homage to Catalonia, and then tackle Orwell’s essays ‘Antisemitism in Britain’ and ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’. Finally, conduct some research into what your grandparents were doing at the time. That particular journalist wasn’t being purposefully contrarian, he was purposefully saying what he thought would gain him some credibility from other idiots at keyboards who know what they’re talking about even less than he does. How many of the best poems, novels, ideas, have challenged the pervasive or mandated narratives of their day? Tony Harrison’s ‘v.’ would be the first fairly contemporary example of that I remember reading, though it isn’t a very extreme example, and of course the right-wing press wanted to ban that from broadcast, back when the right were stifling free speech rather than pretending to defend it. I like to have my perspectives challenged. That isn’t the only reason I read, of course, by any means. ‘World is crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural’, as McNeice wrote. Good. Let me at it.

11.2. Peter Reading used to do that for me, too. I like the way he designed his whole books and undermined classical form by his word usage. I would also mention Ken Smith, too.

‘Fox Running’ is one of the great neglected long poems of the late twentieth century. I also find his poems about the Balkans moving and complex, for example. Both of the poets you mention are slightly at risk of being forgotten, which is terrible. Complexity, muddiness, is often ignored while simplicity is embraced, but the truth is rarely simple, and where it isn’t, simplicity is a lie. Peter Reading is the epitome of someone who knew enough to know what he meant, and was uncompromising about it. When Nick Everett and I set up New Walk magazine, we arranged for Reading to read at the launch (alongside Alice Oswald). He cancelled because he was ill. I didn’t know he was in fact dying. There aren’t enough poets like that now, not really, unless I’ve missed them – and by ‘like that’ I of course don’t mean exactly like that, but similarly engaged and unfashionably independent and consistently moving, blackly satirical, contrarian, and, frankly, knowledgeable about their art. We aren’t an age of mavericks, because most would-be mavericks are in fact robustly institutionalised. I am an academic, so I’ll shut up about that before I box myself into a corner.

12 Did you choose the picture on the front cover of “Sweet Nothings”?

My friend William Jackson is responsible for the cover. We were at school together, and have been friends since we were about 15. His partner Sarah has been my friend for even longer, and their first child is the dedicatee of a poem in my first poetry collection, Tonight the Summer’s Over. William is a superb artist, and thinks in a way I admire. He’s responsible for most of my book covers, including that of my first book. He produced this one directly in response to the manuscript, which is probably why it is divided in half. It was made by layering two photographs – one from the late 1980s and the other from the 1950s, I think. I don’t know how. Yes, I chose it from a few options, and had a pretty solid idea about how I wanted the text presented, but turning that into a reality better than I imagined was the job of Andrew Latimer at Carcanet. Carcanet books have always looked nice, but they’re gorgeous these days. I love it.

13. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a poet?”

Pay me handsomely. No. Read and think for yourself – really for yourself. That isn’t writing, but it’s a necessary foundation for any writing of value. If you have even a basic aptitude, you can learn a lot about craft, but you have to want to. Technical control isn’t enough on its own, of course, but a poem is indeed a machine made of words. Embrace criticism, but be discerning about how you use it. Expect writing to be difficult: it is for everyone. The truth is, most people can be taught a lot, and anyone who is literate can write, but writing well is exceptionally hard. I only very rarely think I’ve managed it, and I have notebooks full of abortions.

Nobody should feel they can’t enjoy writing, and everybody can learn and grow from doing so. Embrace that, whoever you are. I play the guitar a bit sometimes, and I love it, but I’m never going to end up on stage at the Wembley Arena. Just explore – and if you’re serious, take it seriously.

14. The second poem of Garlic is called “It might repeat On You”, In the first line of the first part “flung off” is repeated. The last stanza of “Trigger Warning, repeats the word “Last”

Yeah. I don’t know what to say about this, other than that sometimes I have used repetition as a rhetorical device, often in the context of oppositions. It’s not just an attempt at fancy footwork: I’m building the tensions inherent in those poems.

15.”Sweet Nothings” ends in a nocturne, and there are two other Nocturnes in the book, both are about events abroad. This last poem in the collection takes place in Nottingham, as if the collection comes home.

Yes, I did want the collection to come home, to land there. Nottingham just happens to be where I live, though: I didn’t care about it ending in Nottingham, just at home in nocturnal meditation, time almost out of time. The three ‘Nocturne’ poems, each set in a different European city, are a legacy from when the typescript had three sections, not two. When I scaled it back, some of the poems lost their place, and others fitted well into one section or the other.

16. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I’ve not written many poems at all since I finished Sweet Nothings. That feels a bit odd, because when I stopped working on Tonight the Summer’s Over at the end of 2012, I just carried on as I always had, and the same thing happened after I finished the typescript for Sarajevo Roses in 2016. I think I know why, though. Quite coincidentally, the earliest poems for Sweet Nothings were written when my life was in sudden and near-total upheaval, and the last ones were written in satisfaction, or something a lot closer to it, which has continued – near-global pandemic-induced meltdown notwithstanding. I assume the poems will come again. Actually, I’m currently working on a collaboration with the Zimbabwean poet Togara Muzanenhamo, which is to some extent about life in these times. I’ve never collaborated before, and I don’t want to curse us, but at present I’m very happy with what we are doing. He chose a loose form for us both to write in, as I hoped he would: I asked him to dictate the form. I love his long, precise lines, his apposite play with the slantiest slant rhymes, the way his poems often unpack ideas, gently and purposefully. I’m learning a lot, anyway. In October, all being well, I am going to Bucheon in South Korea, to be writer in residence. I’m looking forward to seeing where that might take my poetry, and I have some ideas at present, but I might not decide to write many poems for that. I’m very secretive about what I haven’t yet managed to do, so I’ll say no more about it. Most of my current writing projects have been essays, and reviews for Poetry Review, PN Review and the TLS. I reviewed Martha Sprackland’s debut collection Citadel yesterday, and it I haven’t enjoyed a debut more in a long time. I’ve recently finished writing a book on Wendy Cope for Liverpool University Press. That might surprise a few people, and good. She is often extraordinarily wonderful, and nobody is quite like her. I like that.

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