Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
was born in London in 1973, and now lives in Leeds. He won the Newdigate Prize in 1995 and received an Eric Gregory Award in 2000. He has published three collections of poems, Pilots and Navigators (Oxford University Press, 1998), Flying Fish (Carcanet OxfordPoets, 2002) and Bugs (Carcanet OxfordPoets, 2009).
In 2015, he was the editor of Ex Libris, a volume of selected poems by David Hughes. His own fourth collection, Take This One to Bed, was published by Valley Press in October 2016.
- What inspired you to write poetry?
I’m not honestly sure I remember. I have vague memories of a book my parents gave me when I was very, very young – a treasury of poetry with lots of illustrations. I remember something about the fairies in the fireplace… By the time I was ten or so, I was writing poems a lot, at school, anyway. I wrote one about fox cubs in winter and my English teacher made me write it out nicely and he stuck it on the wall. I thought that was really something at the time. And I loved the game of making the rhyme and rhythm work properly.
Later, it was girls – or, specifically, my first proper girlfriend – that inspired me. She had to endure a number of overwrought sonnets, poor thing.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
My parents, of course, but when I was teenager there was an English teacher at my school called David Hughes. He never taught me formally, but he became a real mentor for me. He was aware that I wrote lyrics for a pop band (me and my friend Simon), and somehow he got hold of scores and scores of the lyrics. I really can’t think how, now. But he went to the trouble of writing a paragraph or two of criticism on each of those lyrics, which must have taken him hours. Then he gave me the notes, and the gist was really, “Take out the oos and aas and the I love you babys, and apply some more rigorous rules, and you’ll be writing actual poetry.” That really struck me, and it felt as if he’d identified something right in the very essence of me that I hadn’t noticed before. Then I was off… And Dave and I would hang out and talk about poetry, and he introduced me to Edward Thomas and Ted Hughes and Wilfred Owen and took my poetry seriously.
And at almost the same time, I met my first proper girlfriend, and it turned out her father was Nigel Forde – a wonderful poet himself and, at the time, presenter of Bookshelf on Radio 4. He had a massive collection of poetry books, and when I moved in with the family for my gap year before university, we’d often stay up late, talking about poetry and swapping drafts and criticisms. It was wonderful.
So I was very lucky indeed to have those two pushing me on and seeing the potential in what I was writing when I was flailing about trying to work out what on earth I was doing. I owe them a lot.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
Well, very, in the sense that I held a number of poets in high esteem to the point at which I was in awe of them. Edward Thomas and Ted Hughes, later Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney, and later still Simon Armitage (who’s only ten years older than me). I wanted to be them, in a way, and I measured my poems against theirs frantically. And of course I always found my poems wanting in that way, which maybe made me work harder? I’ve relaxed a lot in that regard over the years, but I do still have jealous pangs when I read something brilliant that I know I’ll never match.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
Ha ha. Um… Wake up with low-level anxiety about writing, then don’t do any writing. That’s it. I’ve never had a routine, ever. I used to write a lot, and I’ve slowed down incrementally over the years.
Having said that, if I remove myself from real life for a bit something odd happens. A few times I’ve gone away for a week or so to a cottage somewhere with my lovely friend, the poet Matthew Hollis, and we’ve imposed a regime on ourselves. Get up early, drink coffee, write until lunchtime, then long walks, the pub or an afternoon writing if we’re really in the swing. And I’ve always come away from those with new poems, sometimes one from every day of the stay.
I also teach residential courses for the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire and at Totleigh Barton in Devon. There I get up really early, often 5am, write until morning classes start, and then go for late afternoon walks with a notebook. And there again, I come home with new poems every time. Unfortunately, I seem to have trained myself only to write in those environments, and those moments don’t come round that often.
5. What motivates you to write?
That’s different from poem to poem. I don’t ever sit down to do some poetry-writing. I start writing because something very precise and specific has popped into my head and I urgently need to wrangle it before it disappears. Those ideas are like dreams – they’re vivid for a bit, but before you know it all you can remember is the vividness, not the idea itself, and that’s incredibly frustrating.
6. What is your work ethic?
Broken. Next! I look at all those people on Facebook doing NaPoWriMo in absolute disbelief.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
All sorts of ways, I’m sure, noticed and unnoticed. Matthew Sweeney presides still over some of my more surreal, imaginary story-poems. I reckon some of Thomas Hardy’s lyricism has rubbed off on me. And Eward Thomas’s. Simon Armitage’s precision-tooled clarity and cleverness definitely still make me want to write the way he does.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Ah, where to start? I love Daljit Nagra for his ability to be both jester and statesman. Kathleen Jamie’s poems break my heart every time. Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead was a remarkable recent read which I can’t stop thinking about. Jo Shapcott’s wild invention is breathtaking. I’m impatiently waiting for James Giddings to publish another book because his first pamphlet, Everything is Scripted, was brilliant. Julia Copus’s poems seem to be both experimental and, at the same time, absolutely familiar, and I love them. Did I mention Simon Armitage at all yet?
9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
I don’t. I pair socks. I make packed lunches. I load the dishwasher. I unload the dishwasher.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Read books. Loads of books. Go to poetry readings and performances. Find what you love and what inspires you. Read more books and go to more gigs. Start scribbling as you go along. You’re a writer.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
Honestly, just ‘writing a poem’ counts as a project for me. But there’s one thing I’ve started thinking about recently. When my son was born in 2010 I was talking to Matthew Hollis about how new-parent-poets must feel the need to write new-parent-poems, and I vowed I wouldn’t do that. Obviously, I did do that, and there are a few of them in Take This One to Bed. I’ve written a few more since then, too. I’m plotting to write a couple more, then publish them as a very limited-edition pamphlet, beautifully made and hand-printed in letterpress, with illustrations by a brilliant artist. I know who she is, but I haven’t asked her yet. And I’m going to call it The Poems I Promised I Wouldn’t Write.