Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Dave Garbutt

Dave Garbutt Medium site

Dave Garbutt

has been writing poems since he was 17 and has still not learned to give up. His poems have been published in The Brown Envelope Anthology, and magazines (Horizon, Writers & Readers) most recently on XRcreative and forthcoming in the Deronda review. His poem ‘ripped’ was long listed in the Rialto Nature & Place competition 2021. In August 2021 he took part in the Postcard Poetry Festival and the chap book that came from that is available at the postcard festival website. https://ppf.cascadiapoeticslab.org/2021/11/08/dave-garbutt-interview/.

He was born less than a mile from where Keats lived in N London and sometimes describes himself as ‘a failed biologist, like Keats’, in the 70’s he moved to Reading until till moving to Switzerland (in 1994), where he still lives. He has found the time since the pandemic very productive as many workshops and groups opened up to non-locals as they moved to Zoom. 

Dave retired from the science and IT world in 2016 and he is active on Twitter, FaceBook, Medium.com, Flickr (he had a solo exhibition of his photographs in March 2017). He leads monthly bird walks around the Birs river in NW Switzerland. His tag is @DavGar51.

The Interview

When and why did you start writing poetry?

Way back in 68 when I was 16 I met a girl on a birding holiday and then a week later I was off to the USA for a year. She gave me her address and we corresponded for a year or more. Although I was doing sciences in the UK in the US I had also to do Eng Lit and Humanities so I met poetry again and loved it. And I started writing out all these strange feelings I had suddenly. I was quite quiet and geeky, I suspect I would be ND these days, who knows.

I met Emily Dickinson there and my first ambition was to write more poems than she did 🙂 That accomplished, I came back to the UK in 1969.

1.1. “You met poetry, again” when and how was the first time you met it?

At the Grammar school I was at I had a form Master who was a historian an taught us Latin. He had a little library in the classroom  we could read from, and one day I stayed in at break to read The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. He was about to chuck me out into the playground (a den of villains who certainly would thought nothing if killing an albatross, and the crew) and he asked me why I was staying and I said I wanted to read TRAM again, so I got to stay. 

I loved that poem then and still do. It has got greater even: now I see it as a very astute diagnosis of what is wrong with our capitalist society and the way it is shredding the world, just because we can. 

1.2. What poetry unlocked the poetry in you in the US?

I just realised I should have mentioned Dylan. I sat next to a Dylan fan in my third year at school and we would play hangman using Dylan’s song titles. I’ll never forget getting ‘It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry’. So in Christmas 1966 I bought Blonde on Blonde and was hypnotised. So that was laying the ground for an extra interest in lyrics. 

It was a great course that covered Chaucer and folk ballads to the moderns so there was lots to like. The intricacies of Donne and Hopkins appealed especially and I found a lot to like in Pope and Blake too. 

But I think ee cummings, Blake, Emily Dickinson and Chinese and Japanese poets had the biggest influence on how I wrote. 

Line Emily ‘I was much possessed by death’

Of the Haiku masters I find Issa the most moving. 

But I read then in Henderson’s book of Haiku about Basho’s student when asked what is poetry said

A dragonfly! Remove the wings,

A pepperpod!

To which Basho said oh no THIS, is poetry:

A red pepperpod!

Just add wings, it’s 

A dragonfly. 

It seemed to me this encapsulated how poetry should be, opening us up, expanding thought and imagination. Not the depressed mumblings of the teenaged/ existentialist/ modernist Hollow Man I was (and some others were/are too). 

[I disliked then and still do Henderson’s rendering of Haiku as couplets. He said 17 syllables was too few, and I resolved to prove him wrong 😉 ]

[I can find his exact words once I get home, but this is what I remember]

I suppose what I concluded from all those poets was that there are many paths to poems that work, and that form and metre are subsidiary tools to expressing what you want to say and what is interesting. And intricacy is necessary unless you want to be read just once. I later learned that the intricacy doesn’t need to flag itself. I was quite obsessed with trying construct poems where words should be read twice as a part  of two phrases or where a second interpretation was necessary and simultaneously present. And allusiveness was all there, but with the ideas rather than direct quotes, as in Eliot. 

And as I was studying science I wanted to root my imagery in that vocabulary too. 

3. What motivates you to write?

Ah! This is a hard one. 

In a way it is like any activity, why do I go birding? Why do I walk the dog? Why do I do crossword puzzles? Actually I don’t do those so that isn’t helpful. 

Often first lines pop into my head, I scribble them down and sit quietly later and ‘follow  that golden thread’. 

I used to wait for these moments but about 32 years ago I started up writing again and found a writing group for the first time in my life. There we started doing writing exercises and I learned I could write anytime- as long as someone said: Write!

So I learned from that it was about giving myself permission not ‘waiting for inspiration’. After that group folded I co-founded a new one and also organised monthly open readings with a star author. And I discovered what a drug reading to an audience is. So I started writing simpler poems that would also perform well. Or at least simpler on the surface 😉  [Cy Forest was a member of that group and can talk about the history 😉 ]

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

I think I have moved beyond copying and pastiching them (this might not be true ;-), although I would say doing that is an essential stage of exorcism; it was only recently I stopped writing Eliot-like lyrics.

So, I think today I am using those cadences, ways of thought, and approaches to subjects. But I hope adding my own twists.

To be honest I think my readers are better placed to think about that. My role is just getting the poem done. And tweeted/published.

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

I think I have moved beyond copying and pastiching them (this might not be true ;-), although I would say doing that is an essential stage of exorcism; it was only recently I stopped writing Eliot-like lyrics.

So, I think today I am using those cadences, ways of thought, and approaches to subjects. But I hope adding my own twists.

To be honest I think my readers are better placed to think about that. My role is just getting the poem done. And tweeted/published.

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

Now that I am retired I usually can make time between household duties to write when an idea pops into my head, of course when I was working it was much harder to do that but I used to write on a post-it and stock it to my computer, then take them all home when I went home. 

I am also signed up with poetry group over Zoom on Thursday evening where we have prompts and write for two hours. In the last year this has produced 50+ poems.  I also go to a Stanza group run out of Geneva that has people with very different world views from mine, and has prompted several response poems. It has especially crystallised my annoyance with symbolism. 

TL;DR Life. To paraphrase Neil Young: poetry is breathing out; everything else is breathing in. 

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



And throw things away

And find people that write and talk

(They almost all do ) 

And write and talk with them. 

And read your words out loud, to your self—

And before you are ready —to your friends

And when you can to strangers.

And as you read


Listen to the audience breathing.

When they stop, remember that

And what took them there. 

And write it again, but ascend this 

mountain Non-breath by every ridge,

Every route,

And one day the North face:

Solo, winter, unroped. 

8. How important is white space to you on the page of a poem?

Mostly, I would say very important. 

I have gone through phases oscillating between being all about visual layout (originally this was the ee cummings influence) and being all about the words and rhythms. 

Nowadays I don’t see these as experiments but a technique to use when needed. 

When the flow of a poem is not so strong and rapid, when, if I read it aloud there would be pauses then I add white space. 

Some times I will write in two columns and these can be read with two voices. An example would be Piano practice (triads) where one column is the piano and the other is a voice singing adapted lyrics from the song. Here vertical space matters  in denoting simultaneity, and the pauses in the piano tune the player makes. 

Space for me includes line ends and for example ‘Swifts’ uses short scythe-like lines that emulate the swift’s flight. So, white space also includes the poem’s shape. 

Other poems (eg How do you cover love) have lines that get longer to echo the desperate search for better ways, or at least one that works. 

I have long thought punctuation inadequate so I always search for better ways to nest clauses and how to allow other structures than linear with nested sections. 

Speech is often not structured like written words so sometimes that is what I am building with. 

The summary is that form (including white space and layout) is a tool whereby meaning can be expressed, and the meaning is more important to me. If I had a sonnet and a line I couldn’t rhyme but that non-rhyming word was the best, then I would stick with that word. In the right mood I might try to recast other words, maybe not. 

Other people have different views, perhaps their command of English is better, that’s OK. Only I am writing the poems I write. My job is to find them and write them not measure them*. When I realised that it was very liberating.

9. When assembling a collection of your poetry how do you decide the order of your poems?

Ah ha! A good question to which I knew the answer.

The ‘collected’ which I am working on will be in date order, as most likely will the 1971-1990 volume. 

With the Cliché collection and the postcards I started in composition order and then shuffled them around so some on similar themes (eg the environmental ones) are together. Sometimes I juxtapose contrasting ones or make sure they are on opposite pages.   I think this works well but to be honest I would like to find expertise on this.

I think my policy to not measure my poems is working against me here :-).  

I did always like the way the Rattle Bag was arranged  (alphabetically by title) so I considered that and I also will try alphabetically by last line for the collected poems.

I am not writing long sequences with a story line so that isn’t an option. 

I do have one project with characters of different ages and I have decided that these will be chronological by age of the character, so their poems will be intermingled. 

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