Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews
born in Douglas, Isle of Man in 1965 was brought up in Bolton, Lancashire. Living in London for 20 years he moved to Brighton, UK in 2020.
Simon has 15 years corporate experience and started-up a multi award-winning charity, Excellent Development in 2002. Simon resigned as Executive Director in 2016 to focus full-time on writing.
Simon writes through the lens of living as a queer Manx man, thriving with HIV. His debut chapbook, Throatbone, is being published by UnCollected Press, USA in July 2020.
Simon was first runner-up in the Frogmore Poetry Prize 2020 and has had poems published in various Anthologies and diverse publications such as The New European, Morning Star, Brittle Star Magazine, The Dawntreader and Impossible Archetype.
Quick link to buy the book is
Launch is Weds 23rd Sept 19.30 (BST)
Zoom Registration https://bitly.com/ThroatboneIOM
Also on Facebook as an event for more details https://facebook.com/events/s/throatbone-poetry-launch/305416114082640/?ti=icl
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
Apart from my teens, my first ever poem was written in 1995 after a tragic experience of death in Africa during an expedition, I wrote it for an 18-year old lad who was with me when it happened to try and help him with the trauma.
I didn’t write poetry again until 2011 after my parents had died over a difficult two years. In many ways I went back to my teens when I should have been listening to Dylan and Cohen. The first poem I wrote was a response to William Styron’s book, Darkness Visible. Poetry was my way of expressing my past and my feelings subsumed like, in hindsight, my love for poetry was by my English teacher who told me I was useless and parental expectations that pushed me elsewhere.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
My Dad was a Maths, Physics & Computer Science lecturer but when I was six or seven, bobbing in grandpa’s rowing boat in Port St Mary bay in the IOM, my Dad recited the whole Rime of the Ancient Mariner to me. I was spellbound.
I recently wrote a poem about it, “Half-rotten, half-new”, which coincidentally I heard this week was longlisted in The Rialto Nature & Place Competition 2020.
Dad also had the tapes of Richard Burton reading Under Milkwood which I (and we) used to listen to in the ‘front room’.
My mum — who left school aged 14 — gave me the love of words & language — especially from sharing Shakespeare & Samuel Johnson.
3. How important is a sense of place in your poetry?
Generally speaking it isn’t necessary — but the genesis of what has turned out to be my debut chapbook/pamphlet — Throatbone — was poems inspired by the Isle of Man, where I was born. Many of the poems are connected to a sense of the island or specific places on it — even if the poems may go somewhere else or turn into something else.
4. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
As a teenager, very much so — to the degree that it seemed like some mystical, monolithic fortress where access wasn’t even conceivable, especially after my English teacher’s comments.
I suppose some of that still hangs over, but mostly I see the traditional poets with love & respect. I am more submerged in younger contemporary poets, especially now Seamus Heaney et al have been transferred to another space. If I think about ‘dominating presences’ too much it will crush my creativity and probably destroy me too.
One of the things I wanted to do in Throatbone was read old Manx poets and be inspired by that as well as the place itself, which ended up either just as prompts, e.g. Threads was prompted by a Mona Douglas poem about a cottage. Or, In other poems, I used words and phrases (especially from TE Brown) to reimagine them in a contemporary context. For example, when I read Sooreyin’ I thought, “that’s so gay!” and rewrote and reimagined it with that lens.
5. Your poetry is very earthy. How important are the use of the five senses in your writing?
Even from my early forays into poetry and my spoken word days, many observed the ‘visceral’ nature of my work. I guess the sense of place in Throatbone adds that earthiness (perhaps along with my Northern & Manx sensibilities).
My teachers and my own reading have taught me the importance of feeling in poetry — utilising all the five senses is a great way to ‘bring the reader in’ but, perhaps more importantly, connect me to the essence of what could be said. Emerging myself in the senses of an experience can be a gateway to the turn(s) or tangential switch in a poem.
6. What is your daily writing routine?
Probably not a good thing but I don’t *yet* have a *daily* routine — that would definitely change with a writing grant or residency of course. I tend to have quite intense writing periods for new stuff, either planned or unplanned, — I always initially write in pencil in a notebook and go through several drafts before typing up, which usually creates its own editing in the process, and then I continue to create versions electronically in the same document, always saving the previous versions.
I have a notebook by my bed too in case I get any ideas during bedtime reading or when waking up in the night or morning.
Of course, reading, listening to poetry performances, workshops and classes are all initiators of writing as are deadlines, which are mainly editing and rewriting exercises or organising manuscripts.
7. What subjects motivate you to write?
My prime subject matter as a gay man is queerness. As a 54 year-old brought up in the North — with a heavy Manx shadow — this means that encapsulates a whole range of subjects from shame, pride, sex, drugs and HIV/AIDS. I’m still trying to get a pamphlet home for my queer poems! I also write quite a lot about grief and existence as they fascinate me, in particular the aspects of both that are not talked about often enough, or even widely understood.
I am currently obsessed with the Manx-inspired work because it has such a rich and wide scope: Identity & islands in all their guises; history including queer politics & colonialism; folklore, mythology & legends; nature & environment including queer eco-poetics and human existence.
On queerness, I’m currently researching and seeking funding for a poetic biography of the wonderful Jonathan Blake, a co-founder of L&G Support the Miners — featured in the film Pride — and the first person to be diagnosed with HIV at the London Middlesex Hospital in 1982. Apart from the importance of capturing a queer history far more interesting than mine, the challenge of poetic biography intrigues and motivates me. He celebrates 40 years with HIV in 2022 — 50 years after the first London Pride — so that’s my target for that book!
8. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?
This is a great question with so many places to go!
I was grabbed by the throat by Wilfred Owen, such that I also went to read the other war poets too, especially Sassoon (how I wish I knew about their sexuality at the time!). I think I was attracted by the visceral nature of it and I’m told that is something I have in my poems.
I think my recent poetry teachers have pretty much pushed the ‘old romanticism’ of Betjeman out of me that lurks in the background muttering rhyme and sentimentality and occasionally getting a word in.
I think one of the biggest things (and it’s almost always something I have to consciously avoid) is the register of language, which comes as much from an enforced Sunday School upbringing as it does my Dad’s Ancient Mariner recital to me bobbing in a rowing boat and his Richard Burton recordings of Under Milkwood. Rachel Long was only talking to Jack Underwood about this church influence yesterday on Pages of Hackney’s InstaLive. I often re-listen to Dennis Potter, in his amazing final interview with Melvyn Bragg, saying a similar thing about his childhood memories of language both at chapel and at home in the Forest of Dean. Whilst religious language, especially in hymns, and dialects like Manx and Forest, have an old, even baroque, register they also have musicality and rhythm, which is something to be eternally grateful for being etched into my brain.
9. How did you decide on the order of the poems?
I wanted to start with probably my favourite poem in the chapbook –– “Threads”. The last poem was quite easy, “Island Home” seemed the best place for it. After that I wanted to create a sort of thematic flow especially where some poems could help segue from one thing to another. The sequence of three queer history poems were originally separate poems and then I thought that putting them under the name of the first poem, Manx Pride 1986-1992 could work with three ‘X’ & ‘Y’ titles.
To be honest I have no idea if it works or whether anyone else recognises any flow to it. I did switch two poems very late on as I really wanted “Family of Fissures” to be on a double-page spread. I wanted to do the same with “Hollow of the Chapel” but I just couldn’t switch anything with it. In hindsight I’d probably have cut one of the earlier poems to enable both of those double-page spreads to happen naturally.
10. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o has been one of my favourite writers for over 35 years, for all the many reasons why he deserves The Nobel Prize for Literature. Armistead Maupin gave me life and acceptance.
I’m a little bit in love with Joelle Taylor, Lisa Luxx and Fatimah Asghar because they are fire. I can’t talk about fire & queer writers without mentioning Danez Smith –– they are something else.
Richard Scott & Rachael Allen have shown me a very different way to think and do, which I’m yet to master.
Wayne Holloway-Smith is such an amazing poet and teacher and I also love Anthony Anaxagorou who has been such an influence, encouragement and inspiration. “After the Formalities” is brilliant and resonates with my aspiration to explore identity related to bigger subjects of existence.
10.1. What “very different way to think and do” have Richard Scott & Rachael Allen shown you?
Richard and Rachael are very different personalities and styles to me, so there’s so much to learn. For example, Richard’s delicate innuendo is so far beyond my powers and Rachael’s use of surrealist thought gives me something to aspire to, away from the concrete.
11. How important is form to you in writing poetry?
For me, now at least, form almost always follows a draft. In my earlier days of doing more spoken word I focussed a lot on a fixed meter or a meter pattern in my poems, whereas nowadays I tend to worry more about sound and rhythm, even though they are of course highly connected and maintaining a fixed meter is a great way to edit a poem, strip it to its essential words (whilst also being conscious that a slavish adherence can also force you to add unnecessary ones). A few years back, I wrote a series of Pindaric Odes to the exact rhyming and a fixed meter. It was quite an achievement but the poems had some nuggets of gold in a slag heap and of course were never published. I tend to write shorter poems so after initial drafting I often see if condensing it to a sonnet — or fourteen lines — is a good way to go. Sonnets are my favourite form although I tend to focus more on the fourteen lines and a turn rather than iambic pentameter and the various rhyming structures.
12. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I do think you are either a writer or you aren’t, whether you’ve discovered that yet is another thing. The early passages in Rilke’s ‘Letters to a young poet’ answer that far better than I ever could. Of course, being a writer isn’t really good enough, I’m pretty certain that every writer wants to be a better writer and knows that they can be better and better hopefully until their last breath. I’d recommend the book, ‘Ernest Hemingway on writing’ edited by Larry W. Phillips (and a few more I haven’t read yet!). Hemingway also nicely rounds off the other cliche ‘write, write, read, read, read, write and rewrite’. Just because it’s a cliche probably means it’s true. In every walk of life even the most successful geniuses practise. After his world snooker semi-final, arguably the greatest player to lift a snooker cue, Ronnie O’Sullivan, wasn’t interested in the fact he’d won, just that he’d lost his rhythm and timing and that he was going to go home, read his Joe Davis snooker book, get up early and practise. He won the final.
13. Why is it important for you to include Manx language in your poetry?
Throatbone — and the poems I’m writing towards a collection — is specifically a Manx-inspired book, hence it draws from its landscape, nature, culture, heritage & history.
Missing language from that list of influences would feel unnatural and poetic sacrilege –– not to do so as it is a crucial part of Manx cultural identity and exploring my own identity. I know this approach runs the risk of breaking the rule that poems are accessible, inviting the reader in, rather than creating barriers or even alienating them. I’ve done my very best to avoid that but I’d rather create a barrier for some than compromise the integrity of the poems. There are much more accomplished poets and academics than I who can better express the importance of the use of languages and dialects, especially the marginal languages like Manx Gaelic and dialect, in literature.
14. Looking at “Hollow of the Chapel”, “Meayll Circle, “Family of Fissures”, how important to you is shape and the use of white space?
Being quite a visual person, I think that the format is very important, hopefully you can see that in the way I insisted the poems were formatted in relationship to each other too. I’m not at all convinced I’m very good at formatting poems but I try to get the poem to reflect itself. I guess with the poems you mention it was easier to find inspiration for that as they are inspired by specific places or the journey to it. Meayll Circle started as a conventional format but I realised quite quickly that it had this pattern to it to read it three ways and create the twelve graves. It seemed natural then to create the curves.
I don’t know if it’s seen as gimmicky or the actual poem isn’t good enough but I never managed to get a magazine to publish it! I’ve done another poem about ‘Meayll Circle’ called ‘Twelve Graves’ which is just twelve words in a circle, I’m really pleased it’s being published by The Dawntreader next year.
15. Once they have read your book what do you hope the reader will leave with?
Poetically, I think it is very dangerous to wish for specific outcomes — everyone’s experience will be different for all sorts of reasons — the best I can hope for is that the reader feels something, and they are enriched by that experience.
Personally, as a Manxman, I hope one of the things people leave with is new things they know or appreciate about the Isle of Man. Some friends have said that they’ve never visited and now they must, so that would be a great outcome too.
16. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I have three projects [waves a big flag to publishers].
Firstly, I’ve written about twenty poems towards a Manx Collection and working with Anthony Anaxagorou again to get his fabulous editing help. I have another ten or so poems I’d like to do to capture the breadth I want it to cover. Second, I’m desperately trying to get a pamphlet published of my queer poems — there’s a collection worth but probably only a pamphlet worth are good enough.
My third project is very exciting — but I need to get funding to implement it. It’s a poetic biography of the amazing retired actor Jonathan Blake — one of the first people in the UK to contract HIV in 1982 and now 71 years old. He is also one of the characters in the film ‘Pride’ about Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners, played by Dominic West. It’s like being let loose in a poetic tuck shop. I hope I do him justice.