Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: Thomas Stewart

Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews

empire_of_dirt

Thomas Stewart

is Welsh. He lives in Edinburgh where he works as an English Language teacher. ’empire of dirt’, his debut poetry pamphlet, was published by Red Squirrel Press in 2019. His work has been featured in The Glasgow Review of Books, And Other Poems, Oh Comely, Litro, Ink, Sweat & Tears, among others. He was highly commended in the 2020 Verve Poetry Competition. 

He can be found at @ThomasStewart08  

https://thomasstewart0808.wixsite.com/mysite

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

The clearest memory I have of writing poetry for the first time was on a children’s writing course at the University of Glamorgan. I didn’t take it seriously – because I didn’t get poetry, I would go so far as to say, I hated it. But I played along. I wrote a lot of very bad poems on that course. And I guess, without realising, I sort of inhabited that space. I grew to see what poetry could offer. There was this sense of intimacy. It was a moment, a snapshot, a vision, something I hadn’t really experienced before. I am very glad that I did.   

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

Roald Dahl and his Revolting Rhymes. Although it was my mother who read him to me. I remember laughing so hard when Little Red Riding Hood drew the pistol from her knickers. They are the first poems I encountered that were in colour – meaning, I completely saw them and understood them and loved them. 

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

I don’t think I’d use the word dominating. I’d say I’m inspired by older poets. I’ve only recently discovered Mary Oliver, for example. It’s a new kind of poetry I’ve not read before. Oliver writes with experience, she’s so at peace and has such a positive view of the world, I don’t think these poems could be written by a young poet. And I trust Mary Oliver. So, no, I wouldn’t say they dominate. I would say they continue to guide my way along the path.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I wish I had one. My day job makes it impossible to have a writing routine, so I usually write in bursts. I’m a loud writer, banging the keys so the words come out in an explosion before they slip away. If this is a poem, when it’s done, I try to put it out of sight for a week or two. Only then will I be be able to see it clearly. And edit and edit and edit. 

I did have a writing routine once. When I was a writer-in-residence at Arteles in Finland. I’d wake up every morning around 9, have my cup of green tea and a cigarette on the porch, looking out at the snow. Then I’d go to my desk in the studio and write 1000 words. Sometimes this happened in an hour, other times it took all day. It was bliss.  

5. What subjects motivate you to write?

When I’m writing fiction I’m interested in exploring human nature. Richard Yates and AM Homes really taught me to treat a character like a human being with all the ugly and good stuff mashed up together. I’m interested in that blur between the two. I find myself drawn more to writing female characters because I’m hugely influenced and inspired by the women in my life and that affects my motivations.

It’s different for poetry. I find myself focusing more on men and this crisis of masculinity I see everywhere. I guess that’s because my poetry is more introspective, maybe you could call it ‘confessional poetry’ and, as I’m a man, I’m intrigued by how I operate both because of and in difference to the other men around me. Death, grief, loss, anxiety and sexuality are part of my story so they become part of my poetry.

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

Roald Dahl taught me never to patronise children. To write the truth because children can smell bulls**t from a mile off. Although my writing isn’t aimed for children, this lesson about writing the truth has stayed with me.  

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

I admire V (formally Eve Ensler). There are too many reasons why – her bravery, her honesty, the fact that every word is razor sharp. She’s had such a huge impact on me as a writer and as a person. I also very much admire Richard Scott. I was floored by his first collection, ‘Soho’. I’ve read that book every year since I received it as a gift and I continue to let out ‘bloody hell this is brilliant’ gasps. His poems are just …perfect. They feel so personal and, at the same time, universal. I love Jacqueline Saphra. ‘Dad, Remember You’re Dead’ was brilliant, each poem felt like a powerful, beautiful explosion going off in front of me. 

8. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

I think, like most writers, I do other things. Poetry doesn’t pay a lot and you have to pay the bills. So, I teach English language online and at a school. I edit, freelance. Until recently I used to be a barista. But I am dissatisfied if I don’t write every day. It’s like an itch inside me, my body knows when I haven’t written in a while, it feels very natural, very much part of me, always has. But why do I write? I guess I write to make my imagination a reality and to turn my reality into imagination. 

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

Persevere. Develop a thick-skin. Understand that a ‘no’ doesn’t mean your work is bad, it means this industry is subjective. Listen to advice but know when you need to listen to yourself. And, I refer to Stephen King: “read a lot, and write a lot.” 

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

My second pamphlet with Red Squirrel is out in 2021. I’ve got that in a drawer for the moment. We need a few months apart. I’m in the process of putting another pamphlet together (something a bit different from my first and proposed second). I’m also coming to the end of something I’ve been working on for about 8 years, off and on. It’s this giant idea I had at uni and always felt too overwhelmed to try and tackle. Being in quarantine has oddly enhanced my creativity and I’ve done more work on it then I ever have.  I’m excited about it. We’ll see what happens. 

11. How did you decide on the order of the poems?  

A lot of this was thanks to my editor, Andrew McMillan. He suggested I put ‘The Men With Foxes On Their Heads’ first and ‘Sunflowers’ last. empire of dirt went through many drafts and a lot of poems were chucked out and re-written, so the whole thing was constantly being re-arranged. ‘Owlhead’ was the poem I wrote within months of publication so it felt right to put it in the middle, to wrap it around all these other poems that had morphed into new things and survived the years.

12. Nature figures prominently in these poems. How important is nature to you in your writing? 

It’s hugely important. The original idea for this pamphlet was ‘violence and nature’. But when I started thinking about the violence we bring to nature, it really illuminated the metaphor of toxic masculinity. How can we, as men, stop destroying things as a way of showing our love? 

13. What do you see as “toxic masculinity”?

I see a lot of things that are toxic about masculinity. First, there’s the bullshit myths: ‘boys don’t cry’, ‘be a man’, ‘man up’ – all of these mean the same thing: don’t show emotion. Repress. This comes from the belief that emotion is a form of weakness. And that to show any kind of emotion threatens the stereotypical version of ‘masculinity’. I think the whole thing is dangerous. We become bad fathers, bad brothers, bad uncles, bad sons, bad men. Nasty men. Repressing and ignoring how we feel leads to anger, the destruction of relationships and violence. To quote Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘we need to raise our sons differently.’ 

14. Why did you decide to call the collection “empire of dirt”? 

I have Johnny Cash to thank for that. I think it was one night, listening to ‘Hurt’ for the thousandth time, and then I heard those words ’empire of dirt’ as if for the first time, and thought: that’s the name of the pamphlet. The other idea was empire of shit.  

15. How important is surrealism in your images? I am thinking of “The Men Who Wore Foxes Heads” and “I Drew My Finger’s In The Blood Of a Crocodile’s Belly.” 

It’s important when I want to show emotion without being held back by reality. ‘Crocodile’ originally started with the image of dragons being shot from the sky. The message was very on the nose: these beautiful creatures being killed, for what? Glory? Honour? Taxidermy? It was definitely a poem about hunting. I spent more time thinking about it, and then I came across Shane Jones’ book ‘Light Boxes’. It was fantastic, dark, beautiful, and completely without boundaries. There’s a scene in that book where the main character ‘vomits ice cubes’ and I thought it was genius, weird, magical. I wanted to do something like that. So the dragons became a crocodile. I like that bridge between the absurd and the real: so, the men with foxes on their heads come into my mother’s garden and burn her flowers. It’s ironic – in a morbid way – but when I wrote ‘Foxes’ I was floating on a cloud of surrealism, I wasn’t even thinking about my life. Then, after my father died, my sister read the poem and said, ‘so, the men with foxes on their heads are cancer.’ And then I realised what I had written. 

16.

Once they have read the book what do you want the reader to leave with? 

I don’t know where I heard this – I think it might have been AM Homes – but the quote goes something like: ‘if a reader hates it, that’s fine, because it’s created a feeling, a reaction; if a reader loves it, that’s good. The worst thing is when a reader is apathetic.’ So, I guess, I hope a reader of ’empire of dirt’ walks away non-apathetic. If I succeed then I have created thoughts within the reader. Perhaps given them something to chew on. My friend called this book ‘angry’ and I liked that. Maybe the reader will walk away enraged. A lot of people said they found it very sad. I’m happy with that too. Any kind of emotional connection is what I’m aiming for. 

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