Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews
Robbie Frazer describes himself:
I used to be a businessman with suits, ties and a smug look reserved for airport lounges. Don’t have much use for any of those these days. In 2015, close bereavements coupled with a peaking sense of ennui with the rat race saw me walk away from it.
I published my first collection of poems this year (192 Miles with Carla) and am currently creating films of poetic monologues to be released in the Autumn.
This year should also see the completion of a book about finding meaning and purpose in midlife.
Beside the writing, I help executives navigate transitions or, more accurately, support them through periods of inertia and feelings of meaninglessness.
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
I was a troubled 10 year old: lonely, bullied and trying to make sense of a new home with a new father. While my outer world was turbulent, my inner one was colourful and full of hope. I couldn’t paint to save myself but I discovered that I could change the way I felt by moving words around a page. I could introduce words to each other that had never met before and what happened surprised me. That’s when I started experimenting with poetry.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
My English teacher. Mrs Shields! All the boys had a crush on her …
2.1. Who did she introduce you to?
Absolutely no idea. But it did lead me to picking up The Mersey Sound (McGough, Patten, Henry) from a bookshelf – which I loved although didn’t wholly understand.
I didn’t love the bookshelf…
2.2. What did you love about it?
I do remember being thrilled at the irreverence of it all. The poetry I’d been introduced to at school left me cold whereas the Liverpool poets’ work struck me as more liberated and fun. I was drawn to the surreal nature of some of it and immediately went off to write my first ballad – The Strawberry Moose – about an elk with skin blemished by strawberries who found love with a creature covered in fruit salad.
3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
Actually, I was more aware of the dominance of men in traditional poetry. That said, we can look around the poetry scene of the 19th century and assume that it was dominated by old men with massive beards. But Tennyson was 21 when he published Claribel and Mariana, Coleridge was winning awards at 20 and Wordsworth was 23 when he published his first collection. He went on to sleep with the woman Coleridge was in love with and who, as it happens, was his own wife’s sister; not the behaviour of an old fart, I suggest. But when I first encountered these three, bored rigid in my Leeds comprehensive, I could only picture them as old statues. The only reason we see Shelley and Byron as young men today is because Shelley died in his twenties and Byron looked sexy as hell in a headscarf and didn’t get to see 40.
Merely by avoiding walking in front of buses or by sidestepping knives in bar room brawls in south London, a poet will inevitably become a member of the cultural gerontocracy. The truth is that much of the famous poets’ creative output happened in their youth but most of them had the misfortune to survive into old age. Take the Mersey Scene poets I mentioned before: today, the edgy zeitgeist of the sixties has become slippers, mint tea and Radio 4. But the work itself is still young.
If anything, I think there is a bias today toward young poets and “new” work in poetry magazines where sometimes the novelty trumps the merit.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I don’t have one. Deadlines do force me to work which is why I avoid having them.
5. What subjects motivate you to write?
Words flow in to fill fissures when we are torn or pulled out of shape by events. So like most writers, loss and love dominate my motivations. Injustice is another. I wish I could write about football so that I could claim my wasted hours on the internet could be classed as research.
Sometimes an image pops into my head and I create a story around it. Only later do I realise where the thought came from. The images are often bizarre or starling: a penis in a jar, a feral child caught in a car’s headlights, a drop of a dying cat’s blood falling through the still water of a canal. Other times, a piece arrives into my head fully formed and all I need do is write it out. That feels a bit like cheating.
6. What is your work ethic?
I work in bursts and in phases. If I am in a transitional phase I tend to graze on the surface while the real work is bubbling away in my subconscious. But when I am in a phase of productivity, I will work intensively for an hour or so, then waste time doing something mundane like peeling vegetables or being fascinated by my feet, before returning to the focussed creation. I am not someone who can sit head down at a desk all day. I move around the house from early morning till late at night with a laptop and either coffee, tea or wine.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?
I did not read much when I was young. I wrote reams and lived much of my early life in my own head, trapped in an imaginary world that was more pleasant than my outer one. I’m surprised at how little I read considering how interested I was in writing despite that. Usually one begets the other.
8. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I have a casual disloyalty with writers. One day I can love everything about Margaret Atwood and the next eschew her for Niall Williams because he has magic coming out of his pen. Today, I like Ted Hughes (again) and Don Paterson (again) because of their lyricism; I often find myself not breathing when I read them. I need to be moved before I connect to a poem and Alice Oswald does that effortlessly. She swims through me with a scalpel. Last week I read some fabulous work by Becky Cherriman and Niall Campbell, both of whom deserve a bigger stage. There is some cracking talent out there too that is yet to step forward except in a couple of competitions: Meredi Ortega and Isabella Mead are two truly outstanding writers I’d love to read more from.
9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
I think we all have a hard-wired need to connect with the world outside of ourselves. That’s why solitary confinement is a form of torture. Writing is doing just that but with the luxury of not needing someone to talk to. For me, what is left on the page represents most accurately the emotions and thoughts I had been experiencing – rather than the flailing approximations of discussion. The held pencil can get to just that part of your back that’s itching when nothing else can.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I would ask why? Perhaps they’re drawn to the rock and roll lifestyle, the wild orgies fuelled by booze and drugs, the all night parties in Soho private clubs or, quite simply, the heaps of cash. If so, I’d recommend they sit down and write something about whips, leather, bondage and, I don’t know, wizards. But if they have a yearning to express themselves through writing, I’d ask them why writing in particular. I think writers tend to find that their best mode of expression in the written word, as opposed to the spoken word or the painted image. Some people find the route from inside the mind to outside the body is easiest through music, others through sport or dance. If writing is the means of communication that is your best, I’d say go for it. Just start writing, about anything, but preferably about something where you can be honest and vulnerable. I don’t think you ‘become’ a writer, you simply become a better one.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I have three. First, I am in the final straight of a manuscript of a book about finding meaning and purpose in midlife. It’s part memoir and part take-down of self-help. I talk about the hideous mistakes and horrid embarrassments of most of my business career, walk through tragedy and terrorism and then into a more self-aware phase of reflection. By the end of it I hope to know what the hell to do next.
Second, I’m releasing a short film next month. It’s a poetry monologue set in lockdown and features domestic abuse, cancer and climate catastrophe. It’s a barrel of laughs.
Third, I’m starting a Poetry Films business that creates short films featuring poems I will write for special occasions. Love, death and honour will feature heavily. There might be some laughs in that, but quite a lot of death too.
12. 12. “Crunching Bones” seems to be about a dog gnawing a bone in a kitchen, Am I close?
Actually, it’s about a teenage boy living with his mum and dad in a Yorkshire farmhouse. A Wuthering Heights kind of vibe.
I wanted to write a scene of quiet tension filled with this sudden and massive dark presence, dripping wet from the incessant rain. I pictured something claustrophobic and unrelenting so wrote it as just three sentences punctuated by the repeating sounds of the wind and rain outside.
12.1. How do you feel about it being open to many interpretations?
I’m very happy for any interpretation to be made. I think that’s one of the beauties of any creative piece – that it can appeal in different ways to different people. (Well, as long as the interpretation is not malicious, like justifying fascism or something!)/p>
Also, I think that sometimes others’ interpretations often get to the source of an inspiration more accurately than the artist can because often we create things, whether it be music, art or a piece of writing, from an emotion. But where that emotion comes from, we often don’t know. It’s like a shortcut between sensation and expression, bypassing cognition in the process. Sometimes others pinpoint that source better than the piece’s creator.
What I will correct, however, is when someone says ’this is about…’ when it is just an interpretation. ’To me, this is about…’ is more reasonable, I think.
13. How important is the use of form and rhyme in your poetry?
I use internal rhymes and chimes frequently to imbue a piece with a lyrical quality. If you listen to a poem in another language, you are lulled by the wave-like repetitions. I recently listened to poems in Farsi and Italian and was transported by them – like lying in a row boat being gently swayed by the movement. I think that musical and rhythmic aesthetic is an important element of poetry.
End rhymes go with a more ordered structure and I have used them when I want to inject pace. Like the ‘Dublin Chrissie’ ballad. I wanted it to be propulsive and the rhythm and rhyme contributed a lot to that.
I used a sestina form for ‘Eat it with skin fat’ because I wanted to trap the narrator. He is a man imprisoned in a life he hates but his only way of escaping it is by first going within – into an internal voice – and then disappearing altogether into wild fantasy. But he never manages to wriggle out of the shackles of reality – the rigidity of the form. I actually looked for the most unyielding structure and decided upon the sestina. It was hard!
Another example is the slightly pulled-about sonnet used in ‘Collapse to rain’. The man – my father – was conventional and also a Catholic. But he didn’t adhere to their structures very tightly. So I reflected that in distorting the given form of the sonnet with the ‘holy trinity’ of tercets. Probably going up my own arse with that one – too abstruse probably – but that was the thinking.
I guess I am saying that form and rhyme is important but I only use it when it lends something meaningful to the writing.
14. How did you decide the order of the poems?
Honestly, there was little strategy to it. I chose through feel.
I wanted to kick off with something short and arresting. Carla, in second, was an accessible piece with some pace which I hoped would give some momentum to the reader.
After that I tried to balance grief with hope, love and surrealism in equal measure so the middle bit was like a pie filling.
The three poems at the end are about loss: impending loss, the moment of its happening, and the aftermath. I wanted to finish with endings.
15. How important is the natural world to your poems?
It’s surprising to me that I do not write about the natural world much because I spend so much of my time in it and being enthralled by it. I think it’s because of the subject matter. The natural world evokes in me metaphors and symbols for existential subjects: meaning, purpose, time, the physical realm. Whereas most of my writing of late has focussed on more domestic issues like relationships, loss, hope and love. I suppose I find the emotional content of interpersonal connections more readily accessed than the more lofty or ambitious subjects that present themselves when I contemplate the natural world.
16. What do want to leave with after they have read the book?
When I first presented the collection of poems to the publisher, they asked me ‘what’s the theme?” to which I said that I didn’t really have one. However, what I do hope to inject into the poems is immediacy. I want to drop the reader into the middle of scenes and take them on a journey, sometimes literally like in 192 Miles With Carla or Scars to Heptonstall, but also figuratively as in The Flower-eating Girl. I would like to think that each poem is like a fair ground ride – you sit on, be jerked into a novel experience, to be let off at the end with some hairs out of place and a button undone.
I don’t have a high purpose for the book; it is not an attempt to further any particular theme or campaign. What I do hope a reader will experience, apart from a diverting read for a while, is some stillness. I like to think that there are some quiet hollows in some poems in which to rest; where those shades of meaning – like the intimate love of a stranger, the rusting of uncoiled loss, the confusion of being different, or the injustice suffered in simply being human – can be felt in that space and then fed by the words around it.