August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Kirsten Irving by Hannah Sinyard
1. What was the first poem you ever read?
I can’t remember the very first poem I read. As a kid I was given Shel Silverstein’s ‘Where The Sidewalk Ends’ by an auntie, and I loved Allan Ahlberg. I also have strong memories of my teacher parents strongly suggesting I not read ‘The Lesson’ by Roger McGough (which I loved) at Brownie pow-wow.
2. Which poet/poets inspired your work?
I used to be crazy-keen on Ahlberg’s style, and had a godawful period of mimicking psychedelic lyrics. These days I love Tony Hoagland, John Clegg, Gregory Corso, Abigail Parry and Matthew Caley. I was also just introduced to Tamarin Norwood and Hannah Silva, who do fantastic sonic and experimental pieces, and I’ve just used a Chrissy Williams-invented form – the mix tape – in a NaPoWriMo piece. That was fun.
3. Have you always wanted to be a poet or was there another career you wished to pursue?
In as much as it is a career (I can’t live off poetry at the moment)!! I have always loved poetry, right from the day my teacher put my infant class work on the classroom door, and while it’s only been in the last few years that I feel I’ve hit my stride, it’s always been something that interests me and excites me.
I currently work as an editor, and went into this mainly because it was drummed into us at university that we should give up hope of becoming professional writers. That was both helpful and unhelpful advice. It dispelled a few myths but also shut a few doors and proved hard on the self-belief for many people.
I also do some voice acting and I’d like to do more of that.
4. It seems very difficult to get poetry even heard, let alone published. How do you get your work published? Do you think it can put some young writers off?
Poetry isn’t a money spinner, so most big publishers, in search of safe revenue streams, will either not publish poetry at all, or will stick to established lists of big guns. Having spoken to editors over the last few years, there are nevertheless realistic routes of getting your work into print.
- Read a lot, rework, collaborate and experiment
- Run far far away from poetry.com and vanity presses that demand money in order to publish you.
- Don’t rush into wanting a full manuscript published – poetry is not a scene that punishes those who weren’t child prodigies. There’s plenty of time for a first collection, so it’s worth waiting and getting to know your style thoroughly. Consider putting together and editing a pamphlet. Look into pamphlet presses and see what they’re looking for.
- Submit to magazines, print and online, and enter competitions. This is where investigative editors are most likely to scout for new writers.
- Review the work of others – this is great for your own research and profile, and immensely helpful to smaller presses.
- Start your own magazine! If you don’t have the time or resources to produce a print magazine, online magazines are a great way to view new work and hone a range of skills useful to your writing career. Working on Fuselit has been massively helpful in helping me to view my own work with a critical eye.
- If a magazine is too much, simply start and get involved with projects online and offline. This will benefit and raise awareness of your work.
- Read at open mic events where possible, or, again, start your own.
5. Is it difficult to support yourself financially through poetry writing?
Yes. Most poets don’t exist solely on their writing. Some go into academia as a way of staying close to literature, and many teach. Most, like myself and my co-editor, have regular day jobs which help to finance poetry projects. Although this can be tiring, I find the variety is helpful in providing new ideas to use in my writing. There’s always the risk, otherwise, of writing poetry in a bubble that doesn’t engage with anything outside poetry itself.
There are awards and funds set up to enable people to write full time, though these are particularly few and far between at the moment. If you apply to these, speak to others who can help you make your proposal as strong as possible, and read all available guidance.
6. What is your favourite form of poetry (to read/write)?
There are so many to try – you only have to look at the Wikipedia forms page! I used to like pantoums, but they can be limited. So many from other cultures that create the most unusual poetry, and can take you in fresh and new directions. My favourite forms are those recently invented or recently perverted. I mentioned Chrissy Williams’ mixtape form, but there are collages, Oulipo experiments, Roddy Lumsden’s sevenlings and fuzzy rhyme… Best plan is to play around and invent your own! Penned in the Margins actually released an anthology recently called Adventures in Form. It’s full of cool games and bizarre experiments.
7. What do you enjoy most about being a poet?
Finding a way to express yourself is really healthy and it’s so important to know a way of challenging yourself and being productive/creative. It’s also such a good way to meet interesting people. The poetry scene is full of strange people doing strange things.
8. Is there a particular process you use when writing poetry?
It’s changed over the years. I used to work very reactively, hunting down interesting non-fiction books and nicking phrases from novels to use as titles, and I enjoyed that, but recently I’ve been asking my partner to give me challenges that take me away from my most common habits. That second opinion is so valuable. Short stories are great for ideas. Flash fiction and poetry require similar economy of language, which forces language into new shapes in both cases.
9. Where and when do you write, especially writing about strong emotions on a particular subject? Do you use reflection/memories or immediate?
I don’t tend to do direct confessional poetry, but a lot of my work is strongly emotional nonetheless. I write a lot using characters or case studies as avatars for me. It’s a lot easier to channel their experiences to get a lot of my own feelings on a subject across than to write about my own mundane life.
10. Do you use your own experiences or events happening in the world to base ideas of your poems?
Not all that often – I can’t shake the feeling that my personal experiences aren’t special or exciting enough to merit a poem, as opposed to, say, a status update or a tweet. Writing about world events is extremely difficult to do without getting cringeworthily didactic or hackneyed. It can be done really well. I’m just not sure it’s my strong point.
11. What keeps you writing and sharing your work in a society which has become ‘against’ poetry?
Society as a whole isn’t ‘against’ poetry as such; it doesn’t really know what to do with it. I keep writing and sharing because I find it massively enjoyable and because I don’t rely on it solely as my bread and butter. I think that makes a big difference.
12. As somebody who finds it difficult to know when to end a poem, what point do you decide a poem is finally finished?
It’s a really good question. I actually wrote an entire article for our site on ending poems. In my opinion, people keep going way after the best possible ending for a poem, be that due to a pressing concern to overexplain, a preconceived idea of how the poem should end that doesn’t end up fitting the poem that emerges, or the urge to add a punchline that’s not earned.
13. Do you think poetry is a dying art?
Nah, it’s just getting warmed up. There are so many people starting so many projects and really pushing the definition of the artform. It can address morality or anime, whatever you want. Sure, there’s not a lot of money in it, but in many ways this limits it becoming flabby and easily merchandised, marketed or pigeonholed. There aren’t many poetry rockstars, but that’s no bad thing.
14. And finally, what advice would you give young writers to encourage them to write poetry?
Get involved and start things! Aside from the methods I mentioned earlier, check out the Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network for great articles and resources. For writers under 18, look into the Foyle Young Poet awards. The Poetry Literary website has lot of resources too. Don’t waste time simply shopping your poetry around to presses with no open submission policy, or hunting for agents – they get so many manuscripts and letters that without credits you’ll simply get lost in the slush pile. Just get out there and read, write and work together with other writers. Make a website, start a blog, get involved with the (often fierce) debates online. The best thing about the poetry scene being so small, in the grand scheme of things, is that there are many areas uncharted or only now developing, and lots more room to make your mark.