The following interview was conducted by Anneliese Hill, a student on Dr Sophie Mayer’s Creative Writing: Poetry course at Middlesex University in the Spring of 2012, for inclusion on the I Don’t Call Myself A Poet website. As that particular site was limited to a 1000 word edit of each original email conversation, it seems worth preserving this somewhat extended version, particularly as the questions put forward did force me to think about certain things I’d not really considered all that consciously before.
1: Firstly, what was the first poem you read and how do believe this has affected you?
I can’t remember the first poem I ever read but my dad had a habit of singing grotesque songs to us in the car as small children: “The worms crawl in and the worms crawl out/the ones that crawl in are lean and thin/the ones that crawl out are fat and stout/your nose falls in and your eyes fall out/your brains come tumbling down your snout/be merry, my friends, be merry…”. Those always stuck in my head. The first poetry I remember – as in, things that weren’t songs, but were texts I was conscious weren’t prose, either – were probably the verses that told the stories underneath the Rupert Bear cartoon strips in the annuals my grand-dad used to read to me. One of the consequences of his disability (he’d been put into a wheelchair by an accident, when a coal seam collapsed on him in the pits long before I was born) was that I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house when my parents were both at work, which resulted in me learning to read and write very early. And when I was reading books on my own, mostly thanks to him, the first poems I read quite obsessively were those featured in some of the old Dr Seuss books that were handed down to us. I can still remember whole chunks from things like Green Eggs and Ham or One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish even now, decades after I last read them: (“My hat is old, my teeth are gold./I have a bird I like to hold./My shoe is off, my foot is cold./And now my story is all told…”). As far as its effect goes, I suppose the examples I’ve mentioned share a certain aesthetic. The Dr Seuss books, especially, have a very peculiar atmosphere, like children’s books devised in the spirit of Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington. I do sometimes wonder if early exposure to those verses had something to do with my almost instantaneous receptivity to Surrealist writers and artists when I first discovered them.
2: As a creative writing student I am finding it difficult getting my name out there and my work published, how difficult did you find getting into the industry and getting your own work published? Do you have any advice for aspiring poets/ writers trying to get their own work published and name recognized?
I’m probably not a very good person to ask about strategies as I’ve always taken quite a circular route to everything: whatever career I’ve had has found its way more by accident than design – a sort of half-conscious stumbling through a landscape in the dark. I think things have changed since I started out, too. I distinctly recall early on being told, at 18 or 19, 23 or 24, whatever age it was, that I needed to ‘get a bit more experience’ before I could apply for bursaries, or get reviewing work, or realistically submit to certain magazines. Now, of course, there’s been a huge expansion in opportunities for young writers and new voices – but the downside is that these most obviously benefit the sort of highly focused people who know where the levers are and can access the networks very early in their careers. Those who take longer to figure out how it all works still get started later…by which time they’re slightly disadvantaged by no longer being the youngest and newest things around, so these new opportunities bring their own problems, not least an expectation that writers should emerge and succeed early.
I’m very ambivalent about the growth in academic writing degrees and courses as a sort of professionalized route into the business, too, though I appreciate it can work better for some writers than others. It can be very useful in terms of building and accessing networks, mentoring and feedback, but there’s a risk that those who don’t take the approved routes get sidelined. I suppose it’s about a balance, and while it’s not too far off being about right at the moment, there’s a risk of writing becoming institutionalised, in a sort of free-market version of the ex-Soviet organisations that used to dictate terms of entry to the profession. I think in my general lack of awareness about how things worked, I was lucky to have some support from magazines like Poetry Wales early on, and from Poetry Review under Peter Forbes and Fiona Sampson a little later, so in that sense I did have a few regular outlets that would take work, and was able to build up a sort of profile. A friend suggested applying for a Gregory Award in 1991, which I wouldn’t have thought to do myself, but when I did, I managed to get one, so that was important, too.
When I’ve worked with other poets in mentoring schemes, or in workshops, I’ve always given the same advice: “learn to recognise the quality in your own work and ignore as completely as you can the seductions of external validation”. Nice as that is, if you set too much store by the validations when they happen to come along, the rejections will start to seem significant as judgements on your poems, too. The truth is, neither means anything very reliable. Certain poets seem to win short-listings for major prizes and commissions almost by default, while other, far better, writers never come close. None of the accolades, coverage and awards being distributed accurately value the work a writer does any more than the dumb luck of a lottery win accurately measures the deserving personal qualities of the ticket holder. As long as your focus is on the writing you’re doing, not any relative status it might buy in the social context of the poetry and publishing scenes, then you’ll mostly be on safe ground.
3: Do you have a favourite form or mode of poetry which you enjoy both reading and writing?
I think the one thing I’ve always returned to and still keep finding new inspirations in is the long tradition of Surrealist writing around the globe, from Andre Breton to Jayne Cortez. I was first drawn to poetry by snippets of poems by Eluard, Char and Peret in books about Surrealist art and my interest grew outward from there. I still find whole new areas opening up. In 1997, for example, Penelope Rosemont edited Surrealist Women, which opened a door into a huge array of writers, many previously unknown in English. A year or two ago, another anthology, Black, Brown & Beige, edited by Franklin Rosemont and Robin Kelley, gathered Surrealist writings from Africa, the Caribbean, Black America and Arab nations; again, a whole new set of landscapes to explore that also refreshed the work I already knew. Surrealism as a general mode of imaginative exploration remains an extraordinary resource for me. I’m not sure that influence shows very obviously in my own writing, but it’s always there on some level. As far as sheer enjoyment in writing goes, I’ve been taking great pleasure in making English versions of the lyrics from pop songs of the 1960s and 70s, mainly from Poland and Czechoslovakia, but a few from Hungary and elsewhere. I’d been fascinated by these records and the people who made them for years, but it was only after I gave a talk on the subject of Communist Rock’n’Roll at Nottingham Contemporary in 2010 that I started to wonder what the songs were about, and began exploring their lyrics’ content as well as the fact that they sounded amazing. With the help of various collaborators, often online via my own Eastern Bloc Songs blog, I’ve accumulated around 50 or 60 of these lyrics, some more literally rendered than others. I suppose they’re a point where a non-literary obsession has collided with a writing project, and the whole process is about enjoying these songs, and communicating some of my own enthusiasm for them to a new audience.
4: Have you always wanted to become a poet? If so, at what age did you become particularly interested in poetry?
I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to be ‘a poet’ and I probably tend to bristle a bit at being called one. I always preferred the broader term, ‘writer’, which seems less pretentious and far more open to the possibility of different ways of working co-existing inside a single body of work. Maybe this is because I’ve never made distinctions between the work I do as a writer on visual arts and performance, the visual work I’ve made, writings in prose, talks, performances, other kinds of text and the production of actual poems. Poetry as an effect that can be created by a piece of work in any medium, or none, is more important to me than poetry as a specialist sub-category of writing with its own rules and conventions. I got interested in it, along with many other things, when I was about 13 or 14, and perhaps some of this resistance to the word ‘poet’ goes back to the chancy way I first got interested in poetry, coming to it from a background where it wasn’t taken for granted, or even considered a particularly valid thing to do. Although I joke about it, I’m genuinely quite fond of the old word ‘hack’ to cover someone who will turn their hand to pretty much anything that comes along and offers an opportunity. There’s a lot to be said for ‘hack’ as a title a writer should wear with pride.
5: Are there any particular poets who inspire or influence your writing?
Some very obvious names – like Hughes, Plath, Geoffrey Hill, Derek Mahon and Robert Lowell – were always clear models, but they always exerted their pull alongside other influences: finding Adrienne Rich’s Selected Poems or Christopher Okigbo’s Collected Poems in a remainder shop, or things like The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry, Edward Lucie Smith’s British Poetry Since 1945, those old Penguin Modern European Poets paperbacks or other anthologies that would turn up cheap at jumble sales all through the 1980s, which brought me into early contact with Apollinaire, Cendrars, Rilke, Arp, Vasko Popa and lots of others. Some very odd, slightly kitsch, mostly forgotten (or not even remembered in the first place) things like Gerard Malanga’s Chic Death were models early on, too, at a time when I had no idea about the canon and could happily read anything that came my way entirely at face value – for better or worse. Later on, of course, I learned a lot from the writers I began to meet. I was lucky to study at Sheffield Hallam University with E.A. Markham, and before that Douglas Houston and Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan would comment on things I’d send them by post. Mimi Khalvati always seemed exemplary, too, and is someone I learned from both in conversation and by reading her books. Sometimes, it’s also by defining your work against certain assumptions about writing that you find out what your voice sounds like, what you want to do, so even the things I read that I didn’t like have probably played their own vital part in making my work what it is. Influences come from everywhere and it’s how you process them that matters.
6: Do you have any regrets as a writer?
I think at a certain point I was frustrated that I hadn’t gone to university but after I managed to do the MA at Sheffield Hallam (which I got onto without a degree) that feeling kind of passed, and I realised my way of working probably wasn’t all that suited to academic contexts. I can’t imagine focusing on only one subject area, let alone any one particular part of that subject area, for years at a time. I seem to operate more by a kind of instinct, chancing my arm with ideas, then modifying them as I go, rather than working them out in detail first. I suppose I also wish I’d better understood how things worked at an earlier stage. It was years before I understood the necessity of networking and personal connections and stopped assuming that if I focused all my energies on the work someone would just sort of notice when I sent it out…but that probably applies to half the writers out there. Besides, neither my background nor the schools I went to offered any guidance on how any of this was done, so I’m not sure how different things might have been, really. And I now realise that not having taken the obvious path meant I took the very odd, circuitous journey I did and that has made me – for better or worse – the kind of writer I ended up becoming. Most days it seems to have turned out OK, but the pay could be better.
7: Do you find it irritating when someone misinterprets your work?
I think the final meaning of any piece of work is decided by the reader, within certain parameters set by the work itself, so to that degree, I find the various ways people interpret work I’ve done endlessly fascinating, and see how it can reveal things I hadn’t realised were there that I can then develop in other pieces later. Perhaps that’s partly because I rarely have a particular meaning in mind when I write, and would endorse the idea that writing is a method of finding things out rather than delivering pronouncements. It does irritate me when readers misinterpret work for reasons related to attempts to force their own preconceptions onto the writing, though that usually results less from any particular malice than a simple inability to remove whatever spectacles they’re determined to read the work through, and I suppose that’s a slightly different issue, really.
8: In your poem ‘Binary’ who is the female ‘dreaming water’ and what sort of emphasis were you hoping to create by italicising the final words ‘A veil of breath’ ?
The woman in many of those poems from Marginalia is in one sense the dedicatee of the collection, since many of the poems trace the early years of a relationship that is viewed partly as ecstatic, sexual and close, and partly under stresses of various kinds: financial, psychological, social, in relation to a media landscape, and so on. But just as the ‘I’ of even the most autobiographically direct pieces in that book both is and isn’t the authorial mask, myself, or entirely a construct, so the ‘you’ is similarly layered in her relation to reality, both within and outside the poems. The italic in the final line was intended to shift perception from the external perspective of the (male) narrator describing the (female) subject to a sudden, direct transcription of thought (signalled by the switch to italic) that blurs the positions. Without labouring the point too much, I hoped the glimpse of a face through that ‘veil of breath’ would place narrator and subject inside the same mirror-reflection and break down the distinction between them on some level.
9: At what point do you decide that a particular poem is finished?
Generally when it ‘feels’ right, which is hard to define, exactly, but judging it has become a kind of instinct. It relates to both content (that the poem has covered whatever permutations of its material seem necessary to create the atmosphere or movement its writing has been aiming to express) and form (in that the rhythms and patterns of sound it has developed reach a satisfactory end-point). Sometimes poems are finished by huge amounts of cutting from longer pieces, and find a fragmentary form; sometimes the material creates a pattern that integrates sound and content in a more conventionally or obviously ‘finished’ way. Often, changes are being made even after publication – with tweaks following even a second or third publication, in a few cases. At worst, things are never finished and only end up in a ‘final’ form because I stop tinkering, resign myself to what it is, and move on; at best, a poem can find exactly the right form with a light edit of the first draft. Mostly, they fall somewhere between, but there don’t seem to be any fixed rules about how the final form is reached or what it might be.
10: Do you have a favourite piece of poetry which you have written?
Like most people, I suspect the most recent thing is always the favourite, though perspective – even that of looking at it again the next day – can change that. All the books I’ve published so far contain work I’m still very pleased with and things I’m slightly embarrassed to know are still in circulation. Sometimes, the latter are other people’s favourites, singled out in reviews, etc. At the moment, my own favourites are both unpublished. Zeropolis (named after a book by Bruce Begout) imagines Shelley writing home from present day Las Vegas, a connection that was prompted by descriptions that seemed to fit Nevada’s gambling capital in certain passages of The Revolt of Islam. Another I quite like is Black Glass, a sequence that was initiated by a box of glass plate photographic negatives I found last year: they were taken in the 1930s and 40s and show unidentifiable villages, people and vegetation, and seem hugely suggestive about the textures of memory. They’ll probably be replaced in my affections soon by A Cycle of Songs from the Body’s Interior, a sequence I’m still working on – or something else entirely if that doesn’t work out.
11: When reading some of your poetry I noticed that a few were entitled with Welsh titles, is there a specific reason for this?
I was brought up in South East Derbyshire – a mostly industrial and mining area – but when I was ten or eleven my family moved to Aberaeron, on the mid-Wales coast just south of Aberystwyth. That meant I went to secondary school there, picked up some Welsh in the compulsory classes, and so now often draw on that extremely minimal knowledge of the language to produce versions of Welsh poems that happen to catch my attention. Generally, these are noted as being ‘after’ the authors of the Welsh poems rather than presented as proper translations, a fact made necessary by my limitations in the language itself and a tendency to make fairly free with the originals, so they never are real translations, in that sense. As far as I can remember, all the Welsh titles are attached to poems that have roots in Welsh language sources.
12: In the poem ‘After Englynion’ how did you bring together the different ideas and inspirations for this poem? Is there a specific reason why you dedicated each stanza to a different individual?
After Englynion is an example of the process described above, in that the sequence consists of versions of eight short Welsh poems, each one an englyn, a Welsh strict metrical form that is pretty much impossible to render accurately in English. Because the englyn form can’t really be done in English, I cheated slightly and used a rough equivalent – the epigram quatrain – and then expanded the content of the englyn to fit the new shape, but held on to some of the cynghanedd – the Welsh multiple stress metrical lines that also lay behind Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘sprung rhythm’ in the nineteenth century. Each stanza is therefore written ‘after’ the original englyn authors – so those brackets aren’t dedications, but attributions of the Welsh source texts. The way the stanzas were arranged was to insert Waldo Williams’ stanza about the impossibility of writing englyn in English as an epigraph, then order the rest as a series of facets viewing the landscape that inspired the poems from various angles. It’s quite fragmentary because the sequence is really a small anthology of short individual poems rather than a unified piece in its own right – though I hope it does have the ghost of a larger meaning within that, somewhere.
13: Many believe poetry to be a dying art: do you agree with this idea?
I get the feeling that, just as everyone seems to think the best time to have been alive is nearly always 50 years before the moment they’re living in, so it’s always been the case that people have talked about poetry as an art-form in decline. But if you look at the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, poetry was a marginal activity, circulated in manuscript, mostly, among a cognoscenti audience of educated gentlemen – it had a very narrow audience compared to today, but I’m not sure you could call it a period of decline in the art itself. In the twentieth century, it varied hugely in impact, with massive book sales for laureates like Masefield or Betjeman, minimal sales for avant-garde ‘little magazines’, but I suspect that for all the talk of poetry as a minority interest, the numbers reading and (especially) writing it in our own time are off the scale in historical terms. Does it matter that it’s such a tiny market compared to televised sports or Hollywood blockbusters? Given how little promotion or coverage poetry receives, I think it’s possibly more remarkable that the audience is as big as it is – collectively, given the fragmentation of the market, it’s much bigger than sales of individual books or attendances at single readings would suggest. It doesn’t have the audience (or the multi-million dollar marketing) of things like Twilight and Grand Theft Auto, but given the demands it makes on its readers and the lack of money it has to promote itself, it’s amazing poetry thrives to the extent it does.
14: What do you hope your legacy to British poetry will be?
I suppose that’s not up to me, but I sometimes read anthologies and am struck by how many of the best things in the language – poems like Henry King’s An Exequy – are basically one-offs. There are other poems by King, some of them very good, but that’s the one that endures. When you look at the pattern over history, very few poets are discussed in terms of large bodies of work, and those are generally sanctioned by academia. For most, there are a handful of poems that survive. So the only thing that matters much is leaving – somewhere among all the piles of paper and digital memory – a few of the kinds of poems that will go on being read, in some form, regardless of the fact that I wrote them. If I’m really lucky, and have done the job exceptionally well, my name will drop off the poems altogether and they’ll enter the general culture marked ‘anon’ or ‘trad’. I have other ambitions for others kinds of writing I do, but anyone writing poetry who is aiming for anything other than this kind of entry to the collective cultural memory is probably in the wrong business. The encouraging thing is that you only need one of those poems in an entire lifetime’s output to achieve it.
15: Where and when do you write, especially when writing about strong emotions – is it immediate or from previous memories?
Where I write has recently changed: I’ve always worked from home, but in the past few weeks have relocated to a space at a new artist-run studios based in Nottingham, Primary, which is housed in a former school. It’ll be interesting to see how the change to a designated work-space will affect the way I write: it’s too early to say at the moment. In terms of distance from events, it varies a lot: I have written things that come straight from the immediate vortex of emotionally charged situations and others that circle them from several years’ distance. I suppose the key is not how close to events you are, but how far you can find the larger patterns and alternate perspectives in the material. I suspect it’s harder to achieve that necessary distance – to move beyond the ‘how it makes me feel’ to the ‘how it is’ – when you’re in the middle of things, but if you can do it, then the proximity adds a charge that distance might easily diminish. Mostly, though, I’d have to admit that I almost never write very straightforwardly – seemingly direct autobiographical poems can be entirely fictional, or compounds of multiple events experienced at different times, while very artificial and stylized pieces can touch on the most personal material. The key, for me, is always about how the experience is transformed by the act of writing about it. I’m not convinced that anyone would want to read about me and how I feel about things, so I draw on experience that I know to be authentic, but that isn’t always mine, or necessarily true in a literal and confessional sense.
16: Do you sit and think through every word of every stanza or do you just write freely and allow the words to flow?
I think this is where the influence of Surrealist methods does come into play, even though the resulting poems don’t feel ‘surrealist’ (which is to say, obviously aleatory and random) in the way most readers would probably expect when that word is used to describe some aspect of what you’re doing. My usual approach is to find an image – some spark that gets the poem moving – and then to begin writing around that image: usually, the image has the germ of a sound-pattern in it, so sound and imagery develop in a kind of tandem: what I suppose a musician might think of as basic improvisation, playing around the possibilities until the core of the piece, or some version of it, is down on the page. This first phase of writing happens fast, often very fluently, though it usually follows periods of toying with lines and phrases in my head, and letting them simmer away in the mind’s dark corners while doing other things. This seems to mean there’s always something in the well when it’s needed, and the triggers to begin writing can vary hugely – notes made on trains, things glimpsed in the corner of an eye, a sudden feeling of one moment, now, connecting with another, a long time ago. Once that first improvised phase is done there’s the much longer process of editing and refining that first version, trying to distil it into something else. It’s here that more careful consideration comes into play, so the total process is a blend of both freely improvised and more carefully constructed approaches to the material.
17: What advice would you give to young writers to encourage them to write poetry?
Maybe the best advice you can give to anyone who needs encouragement to write poetry is to say ‘Don’t: read it instead’. Those who are going to write poetry will write it regardless of any advice anyone offers. It’s such an odd thing to do and – like most art-forms, if you’re doing it well – will result in your life being consumed by it, on many levels, in exchange for very little in the way of recognition or material reward. What people do need, in my experience, is to be encouraged once they have written good poems. There’s a noticeable inverse proportion that seems to operate on the poetry scene generally between the quality of an individual’s achievement and their confidence in that achievement: the worse the poet, the more misguided confidence they appear to possess. I’ve come to the conclusion that the two things are related, insofar as those who are never satisfied with the work they’ve done keep stretching themselves and improving, regardless of any praise they get, while those who are entirely at ease with their own abilities never really work to develop them. So maybe the encouragement that’s most needed is for those who feel insecure about the quality of their work to put their poems out there, send them to magazines, read them aloud and show them to others. Allow those insecurities about the work to drive you to improve it and constantly measure it against the best by others, but don’t let that stop you writing, rewriting and circulating the things you write. Perhaps this is really about developing your inner critic so you have that conviction, free from the seductions of external validation and the judgements that seem to come with rejection, about the work you want to do.