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 the author of the poetry chapbook, Cry Sweat Bleed Write (Lily Poetry Review Books, 2020). She earned a BA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing at The City College of New York (CUNY) where she also served as a poetry mentor in the Poetry Outreach program. Kay’s work appears in the book, Brown Molasses Sunday: An Anthology of Black Women Writers, and online in Moko: Caribbean Arts and Letters, The Write Launch, Pithead Chapel and various other venues. Kay is passionate about bringing the arts back into public schools and issues that affect marginalized communities. She lives in the Bronx and considers herself a bibliophile. Visit her here: www.iamkaybell.com
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry in the sixth grade when my teacher, Ms. Nolan, introduced my class to the Haiku. I learned very quickly that I was not only fascinated with writing but with words. I was even known to have been an avid dictionary reader. Soon after sixth grade I started keeping journals. Some pages were filled with venting about my rough childhood but many pages were poems.
1.1. What was it that fascinated you about words?
I believe it was the power of words that fascinated me. I remember reading words like “rhapsody” and “exalt” and feeling what they meant before truly understanding their definitions. Words have the power to make you feel and move you to create and reimagine things. When I found writers like Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Warshan Shire, Claudia Rankine and Amiri Baraka etc. I started to realize what you could do with words. They could be shaped into messages. Important messages. Writers such as these wrote such powerful messages in their poems and for me that was empowering and inspired me to do the same.
2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
When I first started writing it wasn’t that obvious but looking back I definitely see that I wasn’t exposed to that many younger poets. It’s only within the last maybe 5-7 years I have tumbled upon younger poets. I believe writers such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks and Amiri Baraka definitely dominated the presence of Danez Smith, Evie Ewing, Claudia Rankine etc even a few years ago in my college courses.
2.2. How did they dominate?
I guess when I think of the question of domination I’m thinking about how they get more presence on the classrooms and they’re the writers most people are more familiar with because they get more exposure.
3. What made you tightly structure Cry Sweat Bleed Write round these words and their order?
People always ask me what do I write about. This title became the answer to that question. I think it was inspired by me hearing people say they accomplished victories by blood and tears. It made me think about what I choose to write about. I realized if it makes me cry sweat or bleed it’s worth writing about. That means nothing Is off limits. I write about all my experiences.
4. Seasons are an ongoing theme within the poetry., as in “smashes her face against the seasons”, “From the borders of winter”. Why are the seasons so important to you?
Seasons represent time and change but also they help you feel different emotions. Smashes her face against the seasons shows it happened all the time. As the seasons kept changing, this situation kept happening. Winter is symbolic of death or despair. When you emerge from winter you are emerging from dire circumstances.
So using these references to seasons helps me to convey a message about time and change that I hope will encourage the reader to understand something is changing and many times that includes a change in time, and a range of feelings.
I think mentioning the seasons also helps the reader reflect. This is important because for me, poetry should make you reflect. During reflection, that’s the moment you feel the time changing, and you feel the cold loneliness of winter, you smell the spring flowers, you jump in autumn leaves and you sweat in the heat of summer. You get immersed in the poem using this type of language.
5. What is your daily writing routine?
I do not write everyday. I think about things to write everyday but unless I feel an uncontrollable urge, I usually don’t stop to write. That urge guides me as to what should be on the page. Everyday I play with words, sentences, images, ideas in my mind. When I get a good combination of those things, that is when I feel the urge and start writing. For me this process is organic. I do not like to force myself to write unless I have a deadline. I think writing is like cooking. It takes time. Food has to simmer and absorb in it’s juices. I feel as though I must simmer and absorb the ideas, words etc. I need to let the poetry marinate within me and not rush the process or the result may not be as good.
6. What is the significance of the quotes at the beginning of each section of your book?
Each quote serves as a prologue for its chapter. I wanted to show the range of emotion and the connection to the title. The quotes work to do just this. I might add for each section except ”cry” I already knew from the beginning of creating the book, what quote I would use for that section because when I saw that word that quote popped in my head. For instance, sweat. Reading Hurston’s essay Sweat early on in college stuck with me and whenever I hear that word I think of the essay.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?
Nikki giovanni was one of the first poets that influenced me. Her writing is practical, bold, confident and revolutionary. Her work influenced me to write in a way that was accessible to non- poets/writers and she also taught me to write with confidence and courage by boldly speaking in ways and on subjects not always well received. I also think Ntozake Shange and Sonia Sanchez played a major role in shaping the structure of my poems. They were doing things with language and structure that I had not previously seen before reading their work. I am still working to incorporate more of that in my work but I definitely incorporate it. For instance the poems Untitled 6; Magic; and Liberation all play with the structure. These ideas would have not have not materialized in my work, had it not been for writers like Sanchez and Shange.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Today I’m really engrossed in Ocean Yvoung, Danez Smith, Warshan Shire, Camile Rankine, and Terrance Haynes. I mean there are others but these authors work lie next to me on my nightstand and I go back to them when I need inspiration. I love what they do with language, form, structure and imagery. They help me to envision what I’m going to write about and then my imagination and creativity finishes it off. I also love what they are writing about: Blackness, sexuality, religion, gender, family dysfunction etc. So many raw intense often taboo subjects. I have to say that even some traditional poets are on my nightstand for easy retrieval as well: Charles Simic, W.S.Merwin, Adrienne Rich and Amiri Baraka are names among those poets. These writers keep inspiring me.
8.1. What do Ocean Vuong, Danez Smith, Warshan Shire, Camile Rankine, and Terrance Haynes do with language, form, structure and imagery that really inspires you?
They create their own rules. For instance, Ocean Vuong’s poem Aubade with Burning City, he weaves lyrics to a song throughout the poem. The lyrics gives the poem movement. I can hear the song throughout the poem and each line becomes intensified. The poem becomes the song and the song becomes the poem. There is no beginning or end to this. The song also work to help facilitate this image of a perfect world where the images of the soldiers and war carry so many ugly secrets. Terrance Haynes reimagines the sonnet. He gives it life in his book, American Sonnet for my past and future assassin. This book actually inspired my poem: Work Sonnet. It gave me the permission to reimagine the sonnet and make it my own. Camille Rankine is thought provoking, as with all these poets, but there is something about her language and imagery that makes me stop and read her poems over and over again in one sitting. I’m constantly reflecting on her ideas and language choices. One poem that stands out to me is Vespertine. She says:
I’m an acre of empty
desert, anyway. A spent white flower. A pale
honey scent wilted away.
I have to take it all in.
I have to digest it. I ask myself what is an acre? A spent white flower? A honey scent wilted?
She is sparse but always fulfilling. She sends me searching for answers. Danez Smith and Warshan do some of these same things. Provoke me with language that forces me to reflect, search for answers, and lastly inspires me to write my own stories that bare some of the same pain, courage, love and resilience.
9. There is a loneliness in these poems, the sense of being abandoned, of being misplaced, distanced from everything, and an aching.
Absolutely. I was a foster child and not having my parents around always fostered a sense of loneliness and abandonment within me. I met my dad last year for the first time and my mom when I was 11 and never had a good relationship with her. The absence of a real patent child bond has always made me feel alienated. It has also affected all of my relationships, whether with my husband or my own children. I have always felt like people don’t understand me or I’m alone and I know now that the void I felt came from not having a healthy relationship with my mom and not knowing my dad. It has cause some to ache profoundly.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?
There is no magical way to become a writer. Becoming a writer is easy. I think the mere desire to be one places you in position to become one. But becoming a good writer develops over time. Good writers learn how to be creative, they imagine, edit/revise their work and take criticism. Both good and bad criticism is good in my eyes. Even the bad criticism you can take the meat and leave the bones: there is always something to learn. Good Writers are not magicians. They’re critical thinkers, they read ALOT and they have opened themselves to a variety of writing styles and techniques.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
Right now I am working on a novel loosely based on my experience in foster care and how that shaped my life and relationships. I have another poetry book set to be published next year, Diary of an Intercessor. It was actually my thesis in grad school and is based on my relationship with God and shares some of my struggles and victories with religion and church. I also just finished a book of poems I started writing around the time I met my dad, called Pilgrimage.
A splash of blue amid the rubble
of wooden planks and rusty nails
like an underground lake
not yet seen by the naked eye.
Dive in, feel the sting of cold water.
There are no etchings on the walls,
no history revealed.
The Way Down to the Lake
has no obstacles except for five
bone-white trees reaching out
from the cold ground like fingers.
Hundreds of years ago he was
killed by the boy named Jack.
He kept them in oak boxes,
on a green wall.
I asked him once,
what’s the fascination?
he said, in love
He spread the wings
of the dead leaf butterfly.
Can you see the sunrise
over the ocean?
That’s because you have
a moth’s heart
transformed me into
a metropolis of bone and blood-streams…
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In writing about Eleanor Perry’s ‘Pataquerical Imagination’ in issue 70 of Tears in the Fence last autumn Duncan MacKay suggested that close reading and close listening ‘function in tandem’ and that they are indeed the ‘two complementary poles of our experiential poetic whole’. That wholeness of response rings out of the pages of Muscaliet Press’s new selection of MacKay’s poems, Happenstance, and as we read the poem ‘HER WORDS HIS’ we recognise a quality of poetic response to ‘displacements of faulty memory’ where ‘in transposition we refigure the word’. In terms of that refiguring it is interesting to note how MacKay’s interest in the poetics of J.H. Prynne had led him to quote from an interview given in 2011 in which the Cambridge poet spoke of the difficulties of translating his own work at the time of the publication of a bilingual English-Chinese edition of his selected poems. MacKay’s…
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Well, it’s been a long time coming but I’m blogging about it at last. Hard not to when “How to Write an Erasure Poem” made the top three in my top ten popular blog posts for three years running. So as a refresher, what is an erasure poem? It’s a type of poetic form […]
The first time I asked to study blackout poetry, I was an undergrad at Salem College. I’d asked the director of my Creative Writing program to do my honors independent study on it. I remember sitting in her office on the second floor of Main Hall, fiddling with her crocodile shaped staple remover. I kept […]
Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews
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.
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.
I want to scoop you
from the bed
your scent will leave
no impression here
and carry you back
more than two years
less than one mile
to your ground floor flat
gathering of friends
food and wine
sun lettering the grass
with poetry and song
your purple-tipped hair
storming the lessening of days.
i.m. of Jean Millar Lawson 1929-2011
-Eileen Carney Hulme
He considers trains
the light and dark of journeying
the elements earth fire water air
he needs to oil the wheels
his shoulders ache
stooping pushing lifting
springtime, everything coming alive
today they’ll go to the park
maybe he’ll remove her scarf, gloves
shake off the strains of winter
the pressure points
transform the signs of pain
and the wheels turn, let out
a squeak, softly he speaks ‘not far now’
and in the distance a train purrs.
-Eileen Carney Hulme
After The Bones
I thought you were
tired lost blind
to the light that fluttered
through cotton curtains
troubled by silent faces
passing in and out of
your landscape, a darkness
of rivers a burning of hearts
I think you are
waiting beyond sea-lines
beyond wind-drifts, reaching
into the sky multiplying stars
meditating with the moon
nothing frantic about your words
they are low soft whispers
graceful as bird song, sacred at dawn.
Published in Soul Feathers
An anthology in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support
-Eileen Carney Hulme
To prove to myself I can.
I can take the weight,
make the hard choices,
arrange visits to three care homes,
bringtheir literature home
for you to read and say
You choose, Paul.
I choose the rooms that look out
on greenery. Once an old hall,
Old nunnery for my dad,
An old Victorian house
for my Nanna. I visit once
every two weeks for her,
My dad once a week.
Read the care reports for each building
Arrange estate agents for their old homes.
stress to you it is your decision not mine,
foryou to say we trust you, Paul.
i have a lump in my throat.
I make a list and tick it off one by one.