Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: “These Queer Merboys” by Serge Neptune

These Queer Merboys

Serge Neptune

has been called ‘the little merman of British poetry’. He is a London-based queer poet. His work has appeared in Finished Creatures, Perverse, Anthropocene, whynow, Harana Poetry, Lighthouse, Banshee, Spontaneous Poetics, Brittle Star, Ink Sweat & Tears and Strange Poetry. He has been commissioned to write a piece for the London Science Museum. His first pamphlet is These Queer Merboys, published with Broken Sleep.

twitter: @mermanpoet

pamphlet link: https://www.brokensleepbooks.com/product-page/serge-neptune-these-queer-merboys

goodreads page: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53073696-these-queer-merboys?ac=1&from_search=true&qid=6SVSoRH6td&rank=1

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I started writing in a committed and focused way in 2017 when I first enrolled at Faber Academy. There had been some verse writing before, but no consistent effort. Poetry seemed the inescapable outcome of my years studying and working as a translator, even though my love for poetry began much earlier on.

The truth is I write poetry because I can’t do anything else. Because I need to give my obsessions a body to escape out of me. We write the poems we write because there’s a place for them in the world, they have a reason to exist.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

Nobody introduced me. A series of coincidences led me on this path.

My family is working class but there were books around. I remember being 12 and finding a slim black volume of E. A. Poe’s short stories and verse, which in turn led me to discover Baudelaire and Les Fleurs du Mal – both these authors awoke something big in me at the time.

From then on I often encountered poetry, one way or the other. I studied Russian language and literature at university, which gave me access to plenty of poets I wasn’t aware of. I am particularly fond of authors of the ‘Silver Century’ like Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandel’shtam, Zinaida Gippius, Daniil Kharms, and other like Elena Shvarts (more Soviet) and Aleksander Pushkin (Golden Century), etc.

3. How did you decide on the order of poems in “These Queer Merboys”?

It was essential to have a red thread that would connect all poems from the first to the last page. A book of poetry is a sentient thing asking you to come alive. You must create for it a functional body, a habitat where each of these feral creatures can cohabit harmonically. Not necessarily a narrative, it could be a vibe or a subtle recurrent theme. The poems need to speak to one other, you create a dialogue or a score that will allow the music of the verse to flow freely.

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

I don’t really give traditional poets much thought. They ‘did their thing’ in their own time, as we ‘do our thing’ now.

Some had an influence on me like Sylvia Plath, Sappho, the Ted Hughes of Crow, e.e. cummings, or the Russian poets I mentioned earlier.

As per contemporary poets, names like Richard Scott, Emily Berry, Anne Carson, Ella Frears, Luke Kennard, Denise Riley, John McCullough, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Daniel Sluman, Sam Sax, have been fundamental for my growth as a baby poet…

4.1. How have “Richard Scott, Emily Berry, Anne Carson, Ella Frears, Luke Kennard and others…” been fundamental to your growth as a poet?

My first attempts at poetry were massively influenced by the work of Emily Berry and Luke Kennard. Berry’s exploration of human flaws, power games and manipulative relationships, and Luke’s surrealism contributed to how I write today.

Richard Scott has been my teacher and always encouraged me. ‘Soho’ is a book that makes my knees weak.

John McCullough and Melissa Lee-Houghton, who always give sound advice and whose poetry should be celebrated a lot more, are two of the best poets in the UK today and two of the most generous. I look up to them a lot.

Anne Carson is a genius and I have no clue how she does what she does, but I worship her.

These are authors whose book I go back to whenever I forget how to write. 

5. What is your daily writing routine?

I have tried time and time again to establish one in vain. I try to grasp every moment my mental health allows and use that to jot a few lines down. Watching TV series and films that put me in the mood seems to help and it is a way to discover strange and unusual words.

6. How did you come up with the idea of “mermen”?

I came up with the mermen idea shortly after starting to write poetry. Lots of poets were already writing about everyday queer subjects and I felt the need to ‘distinguish’ myself a bit. Having been always obsessed with mermaids, the idea of combining that obsession with queer subjects was a natural choice.

The mermen themselves aren’t the subject of course, but a lens that allows me to talk about queer themes (if we can ever talk about themes or subjects in poetry) and queer feelings with a surreal edge.

I must say such a quirky approach fits my personality well and so I never have to force the mermen into my poems, they just appear, like the sneaky buggers that they are.

7. What subjects, aside from queerness motivate you to write, or is it all part and parcel?

Mental health, as it affects every moment of my life.

I like to write about body shaming, which is a big issue among gay men, and to celebrate the beauty of the male body in all its shapes.

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

I am not too sure. I guess they words had some kind of electricity and I tried to recreate that.

I believe some of the first authors I read (Poe, Baudelaire) left a gothicness in my writing, a purple patina that exists to this day.

The Russian poets I read at university taught me about music and lyricism, while contemporary British poets gave me an overview of what poetry looks like today.

9. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Certainly fellow queer writers Richard Scott and John McCullough. Both have been an invaluable support and are such incredible talents. Richard has been my teacher a few times (I call him my guardian angel bear) and John has such a big heart and always helped when in need. I’d also like to mention friend Matthew Haigh, a fellow weirdo poet, Caroline Bird, the most fenomenal poet and teacher, poet friend Stuart McPherson and the amazing Aaron Kent, the genius behind Broken Sleep books. Not only Aaron helped me realise one of my dreams but he is very active in the writing community and immensely generous. He is an example for everyone to follow.

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

  • Read as much as you can, read more than they write.
  • Social media is a double edge sword and should be used in moderation.
  • When in workshops write all suggestions but pick and choose what fits your writing. Some of the suggestions you disagree with might still be useful later.
  • Do your homework: if you want to be published by a magazine, find out who the editors are, what style they like, and follow the guidelines.
  • Only send your book to publishers you like and that publish authors you’re familiar with.
  • Comparison is the death of happiness, avoid at all costs.
  • Fail and fail and fail again until you succeed. The writing is all that matter.
  • Be resilient, stubborn and persistent and your writing will get places.
  • Be kind to yourself and others. It’s not a race. We are all hustling. You will be fine. I love you.
  • No dream is too big. The sky really is the limit.

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

Right now I’m taking a small break from writing so I can focus on putting my second pamphlet of mermen poems together. Also, not a writing project per se, but I host a zoom reading series called ‘Neptune’s Glitter House for WayWard Poets’ and after a brief hiatus we are starting again in February. It’s going to be lots of fun.

12. Once the reader has read the book what do you hope they will leave with?

It’s hard to say. When your book is out into the world everything is out of your control – it has a life of its own. I wrote the pamphlet to celebrate the resilience and strength of queer people, how you can survive the darkest moments and rebuild yourself into a thing of beauty.

Some can relate to that, I’m sure.

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