Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: John Wolf

-John Wolf:

Creative Writing Tutor and Career Environmentalist. Started out as a Park Ranger, finished my conventional career at South Yorkshire Local Authorities, managing building contracts and partnership projects. I’ve been a gardener, footpath ranger, conservation officer, home surveyor, salesman, environmental auditor and project officer working with schools. Before, during and after, I simply wrote. Stories for role-playing games; drafting a novel called Wildwood, or sci-fi stories like Symbiont. I converted to poetry through my association with Read To Write. The discipline and form of poetry suits the narrative approach I bring. For those seeking to learn and improve, it’s word-economy and refinement are a constant challenge. My path to becoming a writer: • Attended a WEA writers’ group, meeting inspirational tutor Ray Hearne. • Completed a Writers Bureau course. • Attended local library writer’s groups. Work published in anthologies. • Qualified as a teacher at Dearne Valley College. • Ran two library writers groups at Wath and Swinton for several years, securing community funding. • Worked as a Creative Writing Tutor for RCAT College Rotherham and Doncaster College, teaching poetry and short story writing courses. • Attended masterclasses eg. Langston Hughes, Derek Walcott, The War Poets. • Attended Open Mic evenings and readings of live poets like Brian Bilston, Ian Parks, Ian Macmillan, and Steve Ely. • Joined Write on Mexborough. Read poetry at the Ted Hughes Festival. • Wrote and performed children’s stories for RSPB Old Moor. • Joined Read To Write poetry group. Ran taught workshops on various poets, including Larkin, Frost, Beowulf and Homer’s Odyssey. • Read poetry on BBC Radio Sheffield – Dis Poetry, a tribute to Benjamin Zepheniah, • Read for CAST and The Little Theatre.

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

As a teenager originally, when I realised that I didn’t have time to write long stories, but ideas were flowing. The solution was to compress them into key words and write poems with the concepts in. I was impressed with performers who could memorise poems and entertain a crowd.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I got there through stories. As a child, I came across headings with short poems introducing each chapter and it made me want to explore the story. So I came up with the idea of writing a novel with twelve chapters (twelve seasons of the year) and called it Wildwood. What started as Robin Hood with a Viking invasion thrown in, evolved into Gaia, the spirit of trees and the wisdom of age. Poetry began to describe the emotions and connections of human beings to the environment better than action and dialogue, so I’ve converted to poetry.

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

In the beginning, I was aware of giants like Auden but it wasn’t until I studied poetry that I really understood the opportunity we have in terms of the pantheon of masters we have access to. I was fortunate in that in library writers’ groups I met really dedicated, kind and patient writers; some already published, like horror writer Stuart Turton, and the brilliant poet, Keith Garrett. Keith’s Cenotaph for an Ice Child rivals anything Seamus Heaney has written. They really encouraged me to experiment and try new techniques. I love McGough, Heaney, Armitage, Larkin and now a plethora of Hull poets. In the past five years my taste has expanded from epic poetry like Beowulf and Homer’s Odyssey to modernist masterpieces like Eliot’s The Wasteland, on account of the quality of Read To Write.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

If I haven’t written something each day it feels like there’s something missing. I often wake an hour or two before the rest of the world and sometimes channelled material reaches the page nearly perfect first time. These moments of clarity are wonderful. Even in the eye of the storm you can write, provided you have discipline to prevent life ordinaire interfering. When I worked in an office, I would keep core hours free when I’m most alert and effective; prioritise them for key tasks – which I still do for writing. You can warm up your brain to write just like a soft spin on an exercise bike before a gym session. When you read it back later you notice that when you begin its clunky and part-formed, whereas later a poem flows and feels more natural, because you’re connected, focused and concentrating. I use mood music – playing Bob Dylan, The Bushburys, or chilled sixties hippy sounds. Nature inspires me. I sit in a wood or garden, just listen and watch. Love on a Tightrope was written watching two courting damselflies, disturbed by a keen interloper tip-toeing along a washing line. Images help – paintings and photographs – I enjoy ekphrastic poetry because it lends itself to a narrative or finding a unique angle on a well known image. The Old Master was written that way. There’s a link between art and poetry – I enjoy documentaries about the lives and drives of great artists, writers, philosophers and scientists; because they’re interesting people. It’s a challenge to turn flat research into lively poetry; that takes composting time. Ideas come from observing ordinary life. Conversations in a cafe, a daft joke a guy in pub says. One word spelled incorrectly. One phrase a character says that triggers it. I’m a pantser – I write to explore what happens. When you’ve written enough poems, you know which form and style suits you best. For me, it’s free verse. Deadlines motivate me. Write for competitions. Otherwise I’d bumble along.

5. What subjects motivate you to write?

Wildlife and environmental, biographies, sci-fi, history – Dark Age, Greek, Roman, Wild West, World War Two, space and technology, psychology, current affairs – righting wrongs, and just getting to the truth of any issue. People interest me. Why they say and do what they do. I’m inspired by a wide range of things – a fascinating documentary on The Spitfire; a book called Chickenhawk, about the 1st Air Cavalry – which is where the poem Into the Happy Valley Flew the 450 came from (450 Bell Huey Cobras that started the Vietnam war). I’m searching for truth and authenticity in whatever I do. Just seen a brilliant documentary about Rocky Marciano, but what inspired me to write The Ring and The Draw was hearing Ian Parks’ awesome poem about Iron Hague, the barenuckle boxer from Mexborough. Arnold Schwartenegger’s autobiography – and it’s a real draught excluder – provided useful material for a persona poem called Mrs Terminator. Working at RSPB pond-dipping with children inspired me to write Axolotyl – its about a cute newt in a jar, but the poem considers the fascination kids have with new discovery; and its a kind of parody about that distinctly Victorian obsession of labelling things in jars. As if you know everything about its life by knowing its latin name.

6. What is your work ethic?

I write daily and stick at it. In the first draft, it’s unclear whether its diamond or coal. I was given some great advice years ago – the more professional an approach you take, the more professional you become. I started writing for enjoyment, which I’m still doing thirty years later. The only difference is, I’m dedicated to craft a poem to be the best I can make it. The covid lockdown period actually helped me to focus on producing the collection. I wrote a poem a day for two years. The first collection, Heroes comes out soon, which will be a massive buzz. It’s a real team effort – I’ve had nothing but help and support from Ian Parks, and many members of Read To Write, which is why I wanted an Open Mic session to follow it, because I love to hear everyone read. Every member of that group is writing better poetry than they did last year. You become a better writer when you teach, because you dedicate yourself to learning. Given the right opportunity, I would go back to being a Creative Writing Tutor because it runs in parallel with writing and it keeps me grounded.

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

I read Roger Lancelyn Green’s Robin Hood when I was about eight, so the love of myth and folklore is still there. In the school library on wet afternoons I read the trails of Heracles and Lord of the Rings. Now I’m writing alliterative verse, teaching Beowulf and Homer’s Odyssey. Stories like Robin Hood influenced me to become an environmentalist; initially a Park Ranger so I could work with woodlands then later a manager so I could help people and the environment. A lot of the jobs I’ve done have been advisory; communicating ideas and learning to clients. Many folktales are from that kind of moral perspective – from the wisdom of age to a young person. Even when really young I understood that there was a depth and truth to the experience of surviving outdoors and connecting with mother nature. One of my earliest poems was called Place Among The Stones – essentially about the pagan connection to land and spirit and where I’ll go when I die.

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

The latest one I read is Dai Fry – his Under Photon Crowns is terrific; all about deep time and connection. I love Seamus Heaney’s bog bodies & Viking burial poems. We’ve recently being studying The Hull Poets – Larkin I loved, but now it’s Douglas Dunn’s Terry Street, which is an incredible social commentary of life in the Hull slums. Edward Thomas and Robert Frost have nudged their way up the leaderboard; whereas Uaden has always been there. Roger McGough has always been in season, and Brian Bilston makes me laugh. Simon Armitage’s Odyssey is brilliant. Stephen Fry’s Greek myths retold are bright, witty and his humour is hilarious – I’ve just bought Troy (2021). Akela’s Odyssey is an amazing achievement. Imagine remembering over 12,000 lines of verse.

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

I’m curious; really enjoy researching then writing, whether it be poetry or prose. Many of my jobs included writing reports and advising managers of the way forward, so you learn to think critically and ask questions about a subject. What if? Makes you a storyteller. What does that feel like? Makes you a poet. I’ve been a reader since I was eight and a writer, then a poet. When you read a poem out on Radio Sheffield dedicated to Benjamin Zephaniah, a day that started dressed up as a cowboy in Lesley’s Shed, you communicate with new people and that’s a golden moment. Politically, I’m championing people who have been trodden on by an uncaring society built by amoral capitalists; it’s tough at the bottom: Poets Win Prizes We are literate Ninja, sponges of the masterclass, champions of the underclass, willing to die a thousand times, just to be heard.

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

By writing. By improving. By being who you are. I once had a business card printed that, instead of listing professional qualifications, it said : John Wolf Human Being, Writer and Poet. What’s the second thing you get asked at a Party? What’s your name, and what do you do? This label tells other people what you already know. But by putting it our there you pave the way to that future. Envision, manifest. Otherwise you might reply: “Err, I’m sort of farting about doodling poems, they’re not very good and I’ll never read them out. My husband says they’re crap but my sister says I’m great. I paid £5000 to have them published.” You’re not a writer, you’re an idiot! My publisher paid to publish my work, which means he took the risk it would sell and he believes its of the right standard. That’s something to be proud of. Life the conventional way didn’t work for me, but the life I live now, does. Buy Heroes, it’s worth reading. I have a great sci-fi short story called Symbiont too, if that’s your bag. You work tirelessly at things you love doing. In a previously dull life of duty and responsibility, I worked 22 jobs, which paid for material things but did not make me happy. I wrote before, during and after. You can study a Creative Writing degree but only dedicating your life to writing makes you a writer. Leave the ego on the roadside, read as much as you can and read your own poetry aloud. Listen to what the market wants rather what you think they want. People who edit and sell poetry books can tell you. Write for the love of it and do so in your own voice. It’s fine to imitate in order to learn but few impressionists are memorable. (Mike Yarwood, Monet, what did the Impressionists ever do for us?)

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

My debut collection entitled Heroes launches on the evening of 9th July at Doncaster Brewery Tap. Following the success of last year’s Beowulf, I’ll be teaching Homer’s Odyssey for Read To Write in Doncaster. Then I’ll be part of the Glasshead Press Anthology, so that’s a few new poems to write. We’re having a tour soon, of the Hull Poet’s haunts with expert guide, Ian Parks, who studied at Hull University and knew many of the people whose poems we’ve been marvelling over. I’ll write off for a few competitions just to keep the fingertips sharp.

12. How did you decide on the order of the poems in your chapbook?

I had editorial control but took advice from Mr Parks on content and editing, I went with Ian’s recommendation as he knows poetry and the market, and were delighted with the end result

13. How important is form in your poetry?

I’m generally a free verse poet, largely because a sonnet is a straight-jacket to me.
The more great poetry I read and hear, the more I’m experimenting with form.
Content and message tend to drive choice of form.

14. How important is nature in your poetry?

As a career environmentalist, I have a strong connection to the land and nature.
I’m working on a second collection on an environmental theme. Many of its poems are about individual species, whether that be a response to Ted Hughes’ Jaguar, or a parody of Wallace Stephens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. In Heroes, there’s a poem called Love at First Bite, which is a fusion between finding a solution to the peril of plastic in the ocean and a snapshot of the odd creature who might be the solution; the Hagfish. Major eco-themes occupy much of my head – I’ve written poems like Bushfire, about the great fires that raged across Australia, or Bee Ing, which focuses on the humble industrious bee, responsible for pollinating 70% of the food crops we need. The bee is one of our world’s real heroes.

15. Why is performance vital to your poetry?

Spoken word and cadence, how a word sounds, is an ancient entity. I’m the modern descendant of those bards who toured the land entertaining and agitating, spreading folktale and rumour. We love to share a joke or a story, to shape words individually; they’re personality crafted. Communicating ideas and sharing visions is vital to building a future where diverse people work together for a better world. Look at the difference in children who have been read to and encouraged to read as opposed to those who grew up with ‘shut up and watch Spongebob’. For me, it’s about connecting with an audience. Literates, musicians and artists are a positive community who invest in people.
With spoken word, emotion transfers. Live stuff can always go wrong, so the buzz of adrenaline electrifies your veins.

16. What is the role of popular culture in your writing?

When Read To Write studied Terry Street, Douglas Dunn’s masterpiece about life in the slums of Hull, I felt empathy for real people and a genuine interest in their lives. It’s working class, warts-and-all, places I came from. I don’t support elitist poets like TS Eliot who write for a select few and expect you to have three degrees just to understand the references in his poem. A poem should communicate with ordinary people. That doesn’t mean it’s about popcorn and Love Island, just that the interests and lives of us ordinary people are just as valuable.
We live in very media-centric times, bombarded by advertising, opinion and misinformation.
Some self-appointed moral arbiter or opinionated Twitter influencer telling me how to live can jog on.

Pop music means nowt to me. I’m happiest with a crusty folk gig, sat round a campfire, or at a Poetry Slam enjoying the myriad of ways and wisdom that enlighten the life we live. I can still write poems about Ben Shaw’s pop, Campbell’s Soup Cans or how awful Love Island is.

17. How political is your poetry?

I was an angry young man for fifty years. I’m not party political but I lived through a Miner’s strike and a decade of austerity. When I see something that’s clearly wrong in the world – such as Boris Johnson and everything he stands for – deliberately manipulating market mechanisms to preserve mass poverty, retaining power and control in the hands of the few; then I label it tyranny. Ukraine and Putin – war crime. It’s hard to write poems about war if you have never been a soldier. Authenticity matters as does getting your facts straight.
Strong emotion and opinion is good in a poem – there’s something to engage or argue with – but I write better from an objective distance. I read out one political poem at a recent Ukraine benefit gig and it was well received.

18. After having read your book, what do you wish the reader to leave with?

I’d like them to be happy that they came to listen or buy the pamphlet.
I’d also like them to have learned something or taken that idea further forward.
When I’ve read great poetry, I’m enthused with ideas and start writing. But for others that might be painting, sculpting or playing a guitar,
so I’d like to inspire others to be who they are and create.
In terms of how we see the world, how we make sense of it, it’s great to connect with people.

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