Wombwell Rainbow Book Interview: Ralph Dartford

Wombwell Rainbow Book Interview

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.

Recovery So9ngs By Ralph Dartford

Ralph Dartford

hails from Basildon in Essex, and now lives in West Yorkshire, having got there via Australia, Barcelona and Los Angeles. He was the founding member of influential spoken word collective ‘A Firm of Poets’, and his first collection of poetry, Cigarettes, Beer and Love was published by Ossett Observer Presents in 2013. His latest collection, Recovery Songs – also touring as a spoken word show – was published by Valley Press in 2019. His third collection, ‘Hidden Music’ will see the light of day in 2021.

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

When I was a kid I’d always make up song lyrics in my head whilst walking to and from school. I found it hard to write things down because of chronic dyslexia. However, in my teens i was lucky to have a teacher and he slowly taught me a technique to putting things down on a page in a coherent order. So I I would say I started writing poetry when I was fifteen years of age. That‘s thirty years ago. More importantly, I read poetry from that age.

2. Did the teacher introduce you to poetry?

Yes. Lots of Ted Hughes and Spike Milligan. Also to the novels of John Steinbeck. I remember being fascinated by ‘Of Mice and Men’. The story and the language.

2,1, What fascinated about the language?

The way that it manipulated me as a reader to a time and place. The landscape, colour, the sound of people’s voices. I lived in Basildon in Essex, a concrete attempt of building some kind of utopia. Steinbeck, in this book and many of his others, wrote about early 20th Century America, about ordinary, compromised people. He constructed these people in colour and in full. I believed in the voices, how they rang true in a world that was removed from my own. The cadences, what clothes they wore, their physicality. All great writing has to have that, the ability to disarm the reader and to put them in the middle of the story or the poem. To make the reader breathe the same air.

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

I was aware of the giants of poetry, but did not necessarily read them with conviction. I remember loving the Liverpool poets of the 60’s and I still do today. I was also drawn to the poetry of America, the Beats: Ginsberg, Kerouac and Snyder, then Bukowski. One of my favourite poets ever is Raymond Carver. He is of course a sublime short story writer and rightly celebrated for that, but his poetry refines moments to an almost impossible detail.

3.1. What drew you to the Beats?

I think it was the sense that they had a vision of freedom and rebellion at the time. That life was wild and untamed and it moments should be lived within the moment. Of course that is unrealistic and flawed, but it was incredibly attractive as a young person to feel that. In my next collection, ‘Hidden Music’ there is a poem called, ‘To Recover’ that explores that belief and it’s consequences.

4, Music plays a big part , calling the collection “songs” , references to Peggy Seeger and Tom Waits.

Yes. Music is important to me, obsessively so. If you read the collection forensically and are inclined to ‘nerdy’ details, you will find many musical influences and references. The second collection explores that further and riffs on a quote by Duke Ellington when speaking about Jazz and art.  Hence the title, ‘Hidden Music’.  The quote is:

You’ve got to find some way of saying it without saying it.’

4,1, Why is music so important to you?

Because of suffering with dyslexia, I listened more. Lyrics became hugely important to me and still are. However, the is a fine line between poetry and lyrics. Poetry only has a blank page, lyrics have a backing of musicians. Most lyrics if placed on a page don’t stand up. Glen Maxwell in his brilliant book, ‘On Poetry’ writes about this brilliantly. Poetry on the page has too many variables (line break, metre, stanza length, form) that trumps a lyricist time after time. However, I will fight that Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Bob Dylan and PJ Harvey sometimes pull off both.

5. In “After The Poetry Slam In New York” you talk of “overwrought poetry”. What do you mean by that?

When I visited New York a few years ago I went to a ‘Slam’ event just off Union Square. I was shocked at how dramatic and how unsubtle the poetry was. Everyone seemed to be virtue signalling their own agenda. Of course there is nothing wrong with that and I do that in my book to a point. But there was a lack of finesse, wit or beauty about it. This style of reading poetry, I think, has crossed the Atlantic and is a problem. Spoken Word is fantastic when what is said on a stage is also compelling on a page, when both merge successfully. It’s becoming increasingly rare that that is the case. I kind of gave up on going to those nights because I wanted to learn more about form and craft. I took a Masters Degree in creative writing and locked myself in a room with hundreds of books. Spoken Word however, is a great way to get into poetry, but I wanted something more, something academic that would make me a better writer. Just for balance though, there is another poem in the collection  titled, ‘That Poetry Voice’ that has a dig at actors who read other people’s poetry as if they are performing King Lear regardless of the subject matter of the poem. It’s usually on Radio 4 and usually does a disservice to the poet who wrote the poem.

6. The book begins with a complaint and ends with a song.

I don’t think the opening poem, ‘At the Arts Council in Manchester’ is a complaint. It’s a story about outcomes (a true story too). The point I’m trying to make with the poem, I guess, is that we are all haunted by our own history and experience. That our ghosts are not tangible in a modern world. That they can, if allowed, defeat us.

The final poem, ‘Recovery Song’ is an acceptance of all that has gone on before and a willingness to move forward. That if we let our pasts dictate our future, we are trapped.

7. What is your daily writing routine?

My daily routine starts with reading, it gets me in the mood to write, gets the blood pumping. I walk a lot, that’s where the writing percolates. I make notes either on my phone or in a notebook that I always carry. Most days, I try to write a poem or edit something that I have written previously. I love editing, the craft of it. Some days though, the words don’t come and it’s frustrating.

8. Besides your struggles with addiction what other subjects motivate you to write?

There will always be an element about writing about addiction in my work. It can’t be escaped because of my deep and personal knowledge of the subject matter. However, the new poems from the forthcoming collection have broader leanings. Poems about America, history, growing up and politics. The overriding theme though is the musicality of language. I have been very taken by the recent Bob Dylan album, ‘Rough and Ready Ways’ and two sings in particular, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ (which riffs on a Walt Whitman poem ‘Sing of Myself’) and ‘Murder Most Foul’. The new poems tell bigger stories, many are written in the third person. It would be easy for me to write about addiction all the time, but I don’t want to thought of as the ‘Recovery Poet’.  I want to prove myself as a writer of many things, of multitudes.

9. “Sheffield, Bow, Bretton, Bradford, Wakefield”. You like to name the places where a particular incident happened in your titles.

Place to me is very important in a poem. It gives the reader knowledge of where the actual action is located. Places always sound interesting to read too, the word of a place.

10. There is a lot of mention of “rain”:

“The rain so hard and northern” , White Poppy

It rains vertical.

Needle hard. The Song Of Mickey Clemons

There was no rain, At The Arts Council In Manchester

the dirty-needle rain The Levee

Rain on me, like a memory, We Will Be Men

(Perhaps a reference to the Eurhythmics song: Here Comes The Rain, Again)

And a rain ceases to fall, Haiku Five-O

To cause this rain to question itself, White Poppy

What does rain mean to you?

Yes. I use a storm of rain in the collection. Actually the original title was to be ‘Dirty, Needle, Rain’. I use the word as an outside force that we have no control over. That the rain, when it comes takes no prisoners and dictates our moods. It’s a constant metaphor that is visual. A natural occurrence in I think, in the urban and man made world where the poems take place.

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

I think the storytellers I read when I was young hold a big sway on how writers write when they are older.  I’m still influenced by Roger McGough (who I read at school and college) and his ability to compress language into a poem to make a story. Storytelling is important to me in a poem, I like poems that demand the reader to engage with the next line and get to its bottom and resolution. Even If that resolution is open ended. The cinematic approach of Steinbeck and Kerouac are still deeply resonant to me. The world in widescreen, monochrome or technicolour.

12. How important is form to you in poetry?

Very important. I’m obsessed with where a line breaks in a poem, the use of stanzas and where the a poem beats and echos. All poems reflect time and as Glynn Maxwell says, ‘master time, you master form’. If you look at the long poem in the collection, ‘We Will Be Men’, it appears as if its ‘free verse’ and sometimes it is. But, there are other times, when the poem has strict rhyme, shape z as and form.

13. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I love the poems of Ella Frears. Her collection, ‘Shine, Darling’ is excellent in it’s playfulness of language and sense of danger.  Clare Shaw’s ‘Flood’ is also excellent in its sense of drama that engulfs a West Yorkshire community. Novels: ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernardine Evaristo Is exciting in how she uses form to write a novel. I also admire John McGregor for similar reasons, ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ is outstanding.

14. You say “where a poem beats and echoes”. How important is this in the placing of poems in the collection?

Absolutely vital. The placing of the poems, the sequencing, was very difficult. The poems have to talk to each other, even when they may seem remote or in isolation. The best collections this, I think. Tell stories that may not be seen at first glance throughout.

15. The Understory?

Yes. The understory. Of course.

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

I think you need to read as much as you can, anything.  Examine how it is written, why it does or does not work. Also, learn to be disappointed. You have to develop a thick skin because there will always be more rejection than success. Also, connect with other writers as much as you can, become part of a community. This way, you are aware of what is happening in the writing world. Finally, never give up, write every day if you can.

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

Right now, I’m just completing the second collection. All the poems are complete, it’s just the sequencing to finalise and to write an ‘afterword’. Then I’ll work with my editor, Emma King to iron out any issues. Once that is complete, it will go to my publisher, Valley Press and they will have the final edit. Once that is complete, I let go of it until it’s out in the wider world in October 2021.

I’m also concentrating on finishing my first novel, ‘The Radio Rooms’. I’ve been part of the Penguin Books ‘Write Now’ scheme, which has been a revelation in terms of mentoring. The novel will shortly start a process whereby it will be sent out to agents with the aim of securing a publishing deal. I always had the ambition of writing a novel, and this book has been worked on for nearly ten years. First though and most importantly, is the completion of my Masters Degree in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam. It’s been a wonderful academic experience. I left school at sixteen with absolutely no formal qualifications, so to have a Master’s Degree is a big deal.

18. What do you want the reader to leave with, once they have read “Recovery Songs”?

I would like two things. Firstly, that they are affected by the content, that it has meaning to them and there is an understanding of how other people’s life who have encountered difficulties function and survive. Secondly, that they feel the quality of the writing is good and that the poems stand up.

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