August 11, 2012 § 2 Comments
Interview with Patience Agbabi by Amaris Gentle
1. Is there a particular process you use when writing poetry?
I like to keep to a writing routine which means I write at least one day a week; usually Monday when I’m freshest after the weekend, mornings are better than afternoons. When writing poetry, I usually start with an idea that works on several levels and very quickly afterwards find a form. Sometimes the form comes first but that tends to happen when I’m working on a longer collection. At the moment I’m writing a contemporary version of The Canterbury Tales so I’m bouncing off Chaucer’s ideas and working very strongly with characters. The characters determine the shape of the poem e.g. the last one I’m about to write is in the voice of a middle-class white English woman in late-middle age so I’m using quite a traditional form, a sonnet sequence in iambic pentameter. But the one I wrote before was supposed to be written by a twenty-year-old so was in a loose rap style with refs to piercings and tattoos.
2. What can you express in poetry that you can’t in another literary or art form?
You can write poetry about anything under the sun. What I love about poetry is how you can use poetic forms to shape ideas. I love working with rhyme, I don’t care whether it’s in fashion or not, I love the SOUND of words and the SHAPE of words on the page. Of course, when you’re using that method, there’s intensity to what you write. Poetry is about the compression of an idea. I guess some ideas are too big to put into one poem they should be in a novel. But they can become a BOOK of poems
3. Do you have any regrets as a writer?
I wish I’d not allowed myself to become so terribly blocked in between books which means I’ve spent several years not writing. Those periods also coincide with being depressed but I think I become depressed because I’m not writing rather than the other way round. I’m becoming much better at keeping the ball rolling by taking on different kinds of creative projects once a project is finished e.g. I’m about to finish a full-length poetry collection and have already got lined up ideas for a novel and a children’s picture book.
4. Personally, I write poetry in an extreme state of emotions, whether its happiness, sadness or love, are you able to just pick up a pen and write automatically or are you like me?
When I’m working on a book I work to a timetable. That worked for me before I had children. I need a routine to motivate myself. In the early days I’d write anytime, anywhere, but after my first book I became much more precious about it. I was much more aware of quality. I really believe all writers must just let it all pour out at some stage then start editing. It’s very dangerous to get too hung up too early on about the quality of the writing. I’m still a very measured writer. When I write poetry, especially when using rhyme, I still have my editing head on to a certain extent. As for extreme emotions, I’ve NEVER been able to write when I’m blissfully happy or sad. Extreme emotion means I’m in the emotion. No writing tends to come then. I’ve always liked the Wordsworth quote on writing poetry: ‘…emotions recollected in tranquillity’. I have to be in a place of calm to write. He’s much more known for declaring that poetry is ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.’
5. Do you think your race and gender effects the way you see the world and then is expressed in your poetry?
Yes, I think race and gender do affect my work. Novelists often write their first novel as a form of autobiography and I can say that of a lot of my early poems in my first book R.A.W. However, when I got to Transformatrix, I wanted to free myself up. Gender was very apparent in that almost every poem in the book is from a woman’s perspective. In the 80s and 90s there was lots of pressure on Black poets and/or women poets to reflect their politics and ‘positive images of black people/women. There’s a lot to be said for that if that’s within your own poetic integrity but by Transformatrix I wanted to see what happened if I let the characters speak for themselves rather than edit them. The book was much broader in range. This is something I’ve done every since. Ultimately, you have a responsibility as a writer for what your characters say and do but sometimes I want to walk the tightrope rather than do what everyone expects me to do. There’s a quote from Robert Frost: No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. I get much more from the writing if I sometimes do the unexpected and ultimately, I think the reader gets more from the work too.
6. I love your poem ‘The London Eye’. Do you feel that living in London effects us romantically because there is such a diversity of race and culture or do you feel people still stick to what they know?
I don’t live in London any more but yes, it’s a very cosmopolitan city and when I was younger I did find it broadened my horizons and expectations of a partner. I’ve been out with men and women, black and white which may not have happened had I been living in a small village in the middle of nowhere. I found London stimulating as a writer but also found I needed to get away from it once a month to recharge my batteries.
7. What advice would you give young writers to encourage them to write poetry?
Buy the Bloodaxe bestselling anthology Staying Alive. Then if you like it, buy Being Alive…Go out and listen to poetry. Go to anything organised by Apples & Snakes, the UK’s foremost performance poetry agency; go to Bang Said the Gun. Join the Poetry Library and look up collections by the New Generation Poets and the Next Generation Poets (I’m on the Next Generation Poets List). Go on www.57productions.com and listen to the Poetry Jukebox. The list is endless.