August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Fawzia Muradali Kane by Deborah Gaynor
Author Page — Poetry PF
1. Which is your favourite poem that you have written and why?
There’s no single all-time favourite for me. There are poems that go through my thoughts constantly, for some months sometimes, but I’m not sure whether this is because I like them or if this is just part of the mental editing process.
There may be a particular poem at some key point in my life that resonates with whatever I’m going through at the time, at the moment it’s “Curfew”, written during the State of Emergency in Trinidad last year.
I guess I like the poems that mean the most to me in a personal and very private way, where readers may assume meanings that are completely different to my intention. That does not mean that a reader’s interpretation is any less valid – after all, a poem will still work on some level if it manages to provoke some feeling of recognition in them. It’s just that sometimes, the codes in the phrases may reflect a specific event or feeling, that is so personal, I don’t think it necessary for anyone to know the true reason behind its creation.
2. Where do you get your inspiration from for your poetry?
Poets will probably say “anything and “everything”. For instance, with “Curfew”, I was staying at my mother’s in San Fernando (September 2011), the weather was boiling, and there was all this turmoil going on out in the streets during the day. But at night, because of the curfew, the silence outside became a presence as strong as fear. Even though it was probably the safest (crime-free) time in memory. I wrote in one sitting at night, about the heat wrapping itself around everything, and while writing, Lex our pot-hound sat outside my window, and began to howl at the moon. This went in too, and as the poem finished, I remembered the gang-speak of “dawgs” and “bitches” so this reference stayed and became a symbol of the cause of the State of Emergency (a spike in gang-related crime).
This is maybe too big a question to answer, for any poet. One method I have is to simply write a simple and (at least what seems to me at the time) a truthful no-frills description of what is in front of, or around me -whether actually there in front of me, or a mental image. The piece is worked up, and it may change into something completely different from the first words. Then it is workshopped, to me a crucial part of the process.
Many of my poems are dramatic monologues. Sometimes you can say more in another voice than your own. Once you’ve fixed the characteristics, attitude and tone of the voice, the rest can almost write itself.
3. What advice can you give someone who has never written a poem before?
Read. Read. Read. And you must want to write and not feel that it is an obligation. Get your work read by someone sympathetic but independent. There are so many courses out there for beginners, why not just choose a “starting to write” one and see how things develop. Oh, and don’t forget to keep reading.
4. Does your job as an architect ever influence your poetry?
Years ago, I used to try to keep the 2 disciplines separate, but it’s an impossible task. When a building is lived in, it can retain aspects of the occupants’ lives, even when derelict. Sylph Editions are due to publish a long sequence “Houses of the Dead”, which lists the detritus of lost lives in emptied spaces, linked by the current personal life of the surveyor, who has no choice but to walk through these spaces. I think these poems are perhaps the most overtly influenced by architectural practice.
5. Finally, you have a very beautiful and interesting name, does it mean anything?
I don’t know what it means. My father named my sisters and me after King Farouk of Egypt’s daughters (Ferial, Fawzia and Fadia).
August 13, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Mimi Khalvati by Ro’isin Singh
1. What inspired you to start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry by accident whilst working in the theatre. I went on a writing course titled ‘Script writing and Poetry’ which introduced me to the idea of it. It was completely unplanned and I sort of fell into it. I started writing poetry at the age of 42 which is quite late compared to other poets but when I discovered poetic skills, I knew it was perfect for me.
2. In your own words, how would you define a Ghazal?
Well, a Ghazal is a very old Persian form of poetry and is a very popular form in the Middle East. It is a short love song with a spiritual dimension and covers different definitions and levels of love, such as, love for an object, person or their beloved. It is considered to be very romantic.
3. Looking at the way your poems are written, there seem to be both Persian and British influences within your poetry, is that something you would agree with?
No, not really as I do not read Persian literature or poems in original classic Persian. I have only read two classically Persian Ghazals and those were read with a translator who helped me. I believe that my influences are British and American because I was brought up in England. I can’t really say I have Persian influence because I don’t know it as well as I know British poetry, so my influences are definitely British.
4. Spending time in Iran as well as growing up in the UK suggests that you have seen poetry at two different angles. Do you think poetry is more widely acknowledged as a form of literature in Iran or in the UK?
My impression is that poetry in Iran is considered the highest form of literature. Poets and writing poetry is considered to be commendable in Iran and is more popular than novels because even illiterate people memorise quotes from well known Iranian poets and use them in daily life. In the UK, however, poetry is quite marginal in that there are many critics that consider poetry to be a popular and sophisticated form of literature yet other consider it to differ too much from novels in order for it to be considered as a form of literature. In my opinion, it obviously should be acknowledged as a form of literature but the debate situated around it is still ongoing.
5. You are also an editor and have co-edited three anthologies for Enitharmon Press. Can you tell me what your editing work entails?
Poetry editing is very simple but it depends on its brief. Throughout the editing process you have to honour the idea of the anthology that you are editing so as to keep a recurring theme between all poems. As well as corresponding with the poets this is also crucial. However, poetry editors are not as connected with poets as they used to be previously as a majority of the poems need no major alterations and the go ahead to edit them is almost always given without needing active involvement from the poets themselves.
6. You first started writing poetry while bringing up children; did you ever consider it before hand?
I have always loved poetry in terms of reading and acknowledging it’s presence but in theatre I always look at verse because that was the most popular form used within dialogue and as I was working with scripts, that was the form I was most confronted with. Originally, I never wanted to be a writer but my strongest subjects at school was English.
7. What are your views on feminism?
I consider myself as a feminist and have been a strong believer since my 30’s. My life and way of thinking was influenced by 60’s and 70’s wave of feminism. I have always believed in giving weight and value to the feminist principle. I think women in today’s society want to have masculine traits because society approves of them, which I don’t agree with. Women need to embrace what makes them a ‘woman’, in those feminine traits should not be oppressed or mocked rather they should be embraced and celebrated. I sympathise with radical feminism and socialist feminism, in that I believe in equal rights, equal pay and equal opportunities between men and women.
8. Do you think there is enough female contribution to poetry in Iran?
At the moment, there are two or three female poets that are quite well-known in Iran, such as Forough Sarrokhzad who is a contemporary Iranian poet that died in the 60’s and is well-known for her work. Although, censorship in Iran is very strict and monitors every piece of literature published in the country. The rules and regulations always depend on what regime is in Government and many writers have banned and jailed over their works due to disapproval from regime
9. Can you explain what the poem, Nostalgia, from The Chine is about?
I wrote the poem after being inspired by a conversation I once had with an Iranian man. We were talking about something I cannot recall at the moment but he described himself to be nostalgic over something that has not happened and at that point I didn’t understand how you could feel nostalgic about something that hadn’t happened. After giving it some thought, I realised you could and decided to write about it. The poem Nostalgia is about exactly that, at how you can feel nostalgic over something that hasn’t occurred yet.
10. When writing poems, do you draw upon your own personal experiences that act as an inspiration?
I do draw on my personal experiences as inspiration for writing poetry. Virtually all of my work has come from my own personal experiences, which sometimes can be a flaw as it restricts you from being creative and thinking of other themes or topics to talk about. I am trying to write beyond that.
August 11, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with W.N. Herbert by Nathaniel Wooding
1. How did you get into writing poetry, who were your influences?
I was always writing because, from primary school onward, it was part of our ordinary school work to write stories – my English jotters are full of ‘compositions’. When I was 16 or so, we started to learn about poets and playwrights – Norman MacCaig, Bertolt Brecht, Shakespeare (of course), John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins. I bought poems by Keats and Auden from a little second-hand bookshop on the Hawkhill in Dundee, and, very gradually it seemed…I began trying to make these strange things myself.
MacCaig, Donne and Auden were so neat and elegant in their thinking it was like they were making striking buildings or fast cars, but each was designed so differently I wanted to know how they did it. With Keats and Manley Hopkins the expressiveness of what they were saying was so striking it was as though you were them: again, I wanted to be able to do that to a reader.
Poems were like model kits made out of words, like origami or punk singles or prog album covers or Renaissance paintings: something technical that captured something I thought was cool. So I took their poems to pieces and then I imitated them, and then I found I was making these other shapes of my own.
2. What can be expressed in poetry that can’t be expressed in other art forms?
Nothing, it just expresses stuff differently because it’s so focused on patterns of language and trying to make the reader experience that as a multi-sensory texture. The poem is the fastest, most direct way to do what music, stories, images and films do over time, but because it does this with words, the reader gets drawn into the language rather than just hunting for the meaning. Done properly, poems knock time out of the picture entirely, so you don’t know when or where you are, or how long you’ve been reading. Because words can affect us as immediately as smells, we can be thinking and remembering and processing experiences before we really know why.
What poetry is processing is what things, events and people mean rather than what they are. The value of being here rather than the monetary value of buying something from here. What they (things, events, people) actually are remains a mystery, but what they mean you can at least explore through language: what words filter and what they permit. So poems are full of symbols and fables even when they contain linear narratives and realist description. Jokes, tunes, dreams, jingles: strong verbal patterns that stick in the head and make you think the pattern itself has meaning, because it does.
3. You write poetry in both Scots and English, what does each language offer? What do you think a poem like ‘Beaker Man (Dundee Man)’ gains from being written in Scots?
English is a world language so it offers you the world; Scots is the language of a small country so it offers you intimacy, and not just if you’re Scots – it’s like all those near-Englishes we speak that someone tells us aren’t quite ‘proper’. English can go anywhere, contain anything, is almost infinitely flexible and curious; Scots can be, vividly, right here: that’s the way I try and use it in ‘Beaker Man’ – this skeleton is both impossibly distant in terms of who it is, and right here in front of us in terms of what it means.
Scots people don’t always use all the words we associate with Scots poems, but they often feel strongly about them, positively or negatively, and that can be interesting in itself, or it can swamp the poem. So you have to judge that carefully, but, usually, the poem has already declared itself to be in Scots or English before I’m conscious of the decision. ‘Beaker Man’, unusually, I decided would work better in Scots.
4. Poetry is often said to be untranslatable, what are your opinions on this? You co-translated the poetry of Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac ‘Gaarriye’, do you think that by translating his work it was made into something new? Has the process of translation affected your poetry in any way?
I’m always a bit bewildered by big categorical statements like ‘poetry is untranslatable’ – each poem can’t be translated into any other language by anyone at all? If they mean it’s probably quite difficult, I can confirm that it’s often pretty complicated because it’s not just about the meanings of the words, it’s also about their music, and what value different writers in different languages attach to poetry itself and to the particular patterns poetry tends to be written in. It’s also about what the images stand for, what the audience is used to, and the really difficult thing is when you have to find equivalences for these – usually you’re translating culturally. But that’s what makes it interesting.
So with Gaarriye we’re talking about long oral poems usually recited to hundreds of people with a single alliterative sound recurring in every line and imagery often drawn from the rural landscape of Somalia – I had to make that work for about thirty to seventy people who’d never owned a camel and might be hearing this just once with a little bit of explanation (but not too much).
I realised that his writing was made strong and confident by its clear shape and its connectedness to the audience: they knew how he was doing it even when they were astonished by what he came up with. So I tried to make the translation argue very strongly and explain its images as it went…, and it did alliterate, just not as often, since that would sound too relentless…in English.
It certainly changed my writing: I realised if you’ve made your pattern strong and your argument plain and your music distinctive, you don’t need to be too precious about being a poet because it’s not about you. The poem’s the thing.
August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Chris Hamilton-Emery by Sarah Castro
1. How long have you been writing poetry? Why and how did you start?
My earliest memory of actually writing a poem dates from around 1976 at grammar school, aged around thirteen, I think. That was a poem about the oubliette at Warwick Castle. I went on to write dire sequences around wizards and dragons and secret knowledge with lots of archaisms — ‘ye’s and ‘thou’s — but somehow I caught the bug — I’d been reading light verse for years, but I had no idea about the art and like many people, felt I had access to the art without any real knowledge of contemporary writing at all. This continued through my art school education and sometime in the mid 80s I had to make a decision about choosing painting or poetry. Poetry won, largely as the facilities for the visual arts in Manchester were so poor. As to why and how, I can’t honestly recollect those original impulses, but I do have some touchstones, in fact the series of books entitled Touchstones became part of my early poetic education and I loved the visual elements of those books, with dramatic black and white shots that had tremendous psychological resonance for all young creative minds. Photography and film seem to me to make very good bedfellows for poets.
2. What do you enjoy most about being a poet?
It allows me to be other than me. I think that’s the chief pleasure in all creative writing, to momentarily create these alternate spaces in which we can see through into dramatically different modes of being in the world. Inventing new histories for oneself. There’s a huge social component too, though I can find this a drain because of my day job as a publisher, but I think poets are always fascinating to be among. I also like the idea of living a life within this large historical pursuit, you join in, you add what you can and inevitably pass out of the vast historical conversation that poetry provides.
3. How do you see your work as different from other contemporary poets?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that, and I don’t think my writing has qualities which separate it out from my colleagues, there’s nothing exceptional about my writing. I’ve moved from writing quite accessible poems to a deeply explorative period in the late 90s and early noughties that has now led me back into writing a more socially focussed kind of poem — a poem I hope general readers can find entertaining and rewarding. I can’t say I’m any different from other poets, but I do have this belief in attending to, let’s call it artistic sensibility. I’m not interested in coteries or programmatic writing, or writing for and within the academy, I like the idea of poetry being a living breathing art outside of any university system. It doesn’t belong there. But this isn’t to say it can’t be taught, or shouldn’t be, but I think one has to leave the university system and recognise that there are no qualifications to being a poet. No tests to pass. Except for the attention of general readers. I also believe that you have to write for people today, people in society living their lives, today. I like poetry which cares about real lives in real places and tries to engage with them in a language they can come to cherish if not wholly understand. But that sounds too arcane, doesn’t it.
4. Where and when do you write, especially when writing about strong emotions – is it immediate, or on reflection/ from memory?
I don’t think necessary writing ever directly arises from strong emotions, or rather, one can have terrifically strong creative urges that attend to emotional content, but are, in some way, distanced from it, they can commandeer it, if you like. You’re not in the emotional context of the poem as a writer, but are engineering at a deep level of craft that emotional context for the reader. Does that make sense? The honesty of the poem doesn’t like in its reportage, it lies in its effective transfer of the emotional universe of the poem itself. I think I can write emotional poems, but the emotions may be fictions. To suggest memory would be to imply authorial culpability in the poem’s facts and trajectory, I suspect it’s more tangential in that we create these imaginative spaces and occupy them with the poem and the poem can gain force and presence from these imagined worlds.
5. Is there an aspect of your life that is particularly influential on what you write?
Well, in one respect, how I earn a living, as it provides the means to do everything else. If there’s no income, all art becomes the poverty of hope. I have been terrifically fortunate to work with a lot of writers and some have been wonderful colleagues and nurturing influences at different points in my creative life. But much of my world is the grinding pursuit of tiny sales for the beautiful work I believe in and, to be frank, bet my own money on. The world of writers can be frustrating and, like any professional society, it can be inward looking and occasionally regressive. But it can be wonderful too and the wonders far outweigh the presence of ego.
6. In your Poem George’s Song, how did you bring together the different ideas and inspirations in this poem?
Goodness me! That’s a poem from a long way back. I honestly can’t remember how that was written, though I do recall that it was a technical challenge to write a kind of dramatic narrative poem that had a kind of inner voice but moved through a sequence of isolated images; the way dreams can be filled with these narrative procedures — cuts and scene changes — that seem to make absolute sense in moving the story forward, but actually are fractured and fragmented. The story lies underneath the images. It’s a filmic poem, too, the thing moves forward by conveying these distinct hallucinatory elements that are comic and threatening and creepy, too. When I read it, I see the poem as much as I hear it. I’ve not read it for many years now.
7. What advice would you give young writers to encourage them to write poetry?
Firstly, read everything you can. Read beyond your own tastes, your own prejudices, your own desires. Read until your eyes bleed. The writing will take care of itself if you build this occupational obsession.
Secondly, imagine a writing life that is outside of any institution. Avoid all forms of institutional writing and beware of what drives it in case it ends up driving the writing itself.
Thirdly, consider what it is to be a poet, what this vocation means to you in terms of your whole life, not just the writing, but your idea of yourself and the choices you will make. Being a writer is a responsibility and each writer will articulate those responsibilities differently, and they may change, too. But do think of the big questions, How will I choose to live as a writer. And remember, you’re almost certain to find you can’t earn an income from writing. It’s not about money.
Fourthly, remember it’s about craft and technique as much as it’s about skill, style, voice, theory, emotion, politics or anything else. Without the technique you’ll fail to deliver the art.
Finally, don’t become a ghetto. Look, listen and attend to all the arts, for they are the lifeblood of the world. It would be foolish to only savour one art, just like it would be boring to spend your life eating radishes.
8. What do you hope your legacy to British Poetry will be?
My absence! I’m not interested in legacies, it’s fallacious, history is not my concern. We’re alive this very moment, and it’s this moment we should attend to as human beings and as writers.
August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Andy Jackson by Arina Mitsujeva
1. Do you remember how and when you first realized you were a poet? What did it feel like?
It’s difficult to say. I think there is a difference between writing poetry and being a poet. The latter sounds like a profession, as in being a doctor or a police officer. I think I am not a poet, but I do write poetry. There is a line to be crossed from just writing poetry to writing poetry which might be worth publishing.
I guess you need a respectable publication to describe you as a poet. The first poem like that for me was one I sent to New Writing Scotland about six years ago. It was something I felt I could send off and believe in. Something I would want to buy myself.
At school and in my twenties, I did write poetry, but it was not high-intention poetry. What changed how I look at poetry was me joining a writing group ten years ago at University of Dundee (for students and staff). The group was lead by Colette Bryce. In the group I learned to not just write from the heart, but apply technique, to understand form in poetry and try to develop a critical eye, although none of that came straight away.
It’s also important to see other poets, read their work. Sometimes new poets are very close to their own poetry and their critical sensibilities for their own work are slower to develop. I feel you can’t be a modern poet without reading a lot of modern poetry.
2. What was the first poem you ever read & how did it affect you?
I guess the first thing that I felt was a poem and not a nursery rhyme was The Owl and The Pussycat by Edward Lear. I was a fan of nonsense and wordplay, as children usually are. That sense of the ridiculous and sense of humour still appeal to me.
In my own poetry today, I try to implement the sense of humour and the ridiculous, by means of witticisms, asides, and so on. I do not write comic poetry but I try to write poetry with some comic sensibility, without intention to make people laugh. It is sometimes confused with being populist.
I believe poetry should convey its message reasonably simply without turning people off by what you write. If it’s not communicated effectively, it’s not communicated at all.
3. What was it like to have your work published and how did you go about it?
Early on I didn’t send very much away, waiting for a long time before I felt I had something worth sending away. It took me 3-4 years but when I did send it, it worked on either my 2nd or my 3rd attempt. I haven’t much self-belief in what I write and sometimes need someone to tell me if it’s a good poem.
4. This brings me to my next question. How important do you think feedback is for a poet? Do you often show your work to friends or family before sending it away?
Feedback is crucial. I think every poet would benefit from having one person to work with, to share each other’s work and criticize each other honestly and fairly. Of course, there are people who are self-sufficient and work independently. What works for me is my writing group, although I guess I have become less reliant on feedback now than I was a few years back.
5. As we all know, poetry doesn’t make one rich. How do you balance your day job and writing poetry? Do you feel like your creativity suffers because of the stresses of your day job, or vice versa?
I have a professional job. Technically, I have a career, which I know some poets would frown on. I don’t spend my entire life thinking about writing poetry, but I know other people who do, and they make a living out of things that are related to poetry if not actually the poems themselves, but I’m not going to go down that route. I would do an awful lot more poetry if it wasn’t for work getting in the way. I often feel like I don’t have time to do the writing that I want to, and making time for it is not always easy. I should spend more time writing poetry, but I don’t.
6. Who or what are the biggest inspirations for your poetry?
I consider myself what you might call an urban poet. I’m a city boy; I tried living in the country and didn’t enjoy it. I like living in the city more and I tend to be very interested in people and the observation of people. I write very little about flowers, trees, landscape; I’m not a reflective poet, I’m a doing poet, I would say. I write about people and what happens to them. My wife is a better observer of people than me. She can sum people up quickly in a few words. If I had her observational skills, I’d be a much better poet, I think.
As to inspiration…music, movies, popular culture in general enthuses me. I don’t write specifically about popular culture just to be flash, but I do occasionally include cultural references to help connect the poem with the now. I realize this will date the poem very quickly, but my poetry is of its time. I don’t think it will be read in 20, 30, 50 years; I’m not in that rank of poet, but I hope that people will read it for now and be able to take something out of it.
7. Do you think that strong emotion is needed to make a good poem?
I feel that if you don’t have an emotion to convey, you don’t have much of a poem to write. If you are writing something in a cold and analytical way and not trying to convey something of yourself, then you’re not writing poetry.
8. We actually had a debate in class whether one should write poetry “in the heat of the moment”, or afterwards, when the emotions are not as strong and one can look back upon it. For example, if you’re breaking up with someone; or if something else terrible happens.
I’m a conventional sort of person. If I were breaking up with someone, or experiencing some sort of bereavement, I wouldn’t want to reach for a pen and paper straight away. That would come later for me. I would try to operate as a normal human being with normal priorities of someone who is bereaved or has fallen out of love. There would be material in there later on that you might want to use, if it’s not too cynical to do so. I worry about someone whose immediate thought is to write a poem when something terrible happens. That seems a bit cynical, almost mercenary.
9. Well, aren’t we all just a bunch of cynical, selfish old…
Yeah, I suppose so! I’m not, though, but… Just kidding! Poets are a pretty inquisitive bunch, they don’t lose very much. They hang on to every image, every emotion, and they store it and use it. Maybe not every single image will come out as a poem, but they’re all in there. There are poems I know I will write, based on things I observed or things that have happened to me. It doesn’t mean that the emotion is locked away in me. It will come out at some point.
There was an occasion a couple of years ago. A woman I worked with was killed in a horrific cycling accident. I did have images in my head at the time, but I knew it wasn’t the time to write the poem about how I felt. But it did get written eventually, four of five years afterwards, when I felt I was able to express something without seeming like a hawk circling a coffin. I think reacting to what’s going on in the world is important, but reacting at the right time. If you write poems about terrible things that have happened immediately, then it does seem a bit mawkish.
Terrible things like tsunamis or earthquakes do happen, but I don’t think I would be able to write a poem about that straight away. There is a bit of a satellite delay with me between things that happen and the writing of the poem. I’m not one of the people who write in the heat of the moment.
10. Sometimes when a poet puts their work out there, other people interpret it differently and read entirely different meanings into it than what the poet intended. Do you think the poet has the right to put his foot down and say “You are wrong and this is not what it says”, or not?
The poet certainly has the right to say it wasn’t something he intended, but in every art form, it’s the reaction of the person exposed to it that counts. Take classical music, something pastoral and easy-going – someone might listen to it and hear something violent or difficult in it. That’s down to them; it’s their interpretation of the music. Or art, for example Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’, a well-known painting. On the surface it shows a night scene with stars. But you don’t necessarily see the simplicity of a night with stars in Van Gogh’s image; you hopefully see something more complex than that. I don’t think Van Gogh would then come up to you and say “But all I wanted to do was paint some stars.”
If I write a poem and someone takes it into a different direction or takes something from it that I didn’t intend, I’d just be delighted that people have read it and wouldn’t worry about what they took from it. I’d only be worried if people didn’t read my poems.
I would like to think I wrote clearly enough in order to not be ambiguous, but then all poetry is ambiguous to a certain extent. I don’t think you can convey exactly what you mean by writing it. Subtlety and metaphor are all inexact to a point. I’m not a control freak with my poetry, I’m just glad that people are reading it.
11. Would you be able to tell me more about your poem “Listening Post”? Could you recall your train of thought when you were writing it?
Yes, I can tell you exactly what it was influenced by. I met somebody I was at university with a few years ago. In making conversation about what they’ve done since we left university, they said that they spent some time working for GCHQ.
12. Was it not a secret, should they maybe not have disclosed this information to you?
Well, this is the thing, I asked them what exactly they were doing there, and they said “I can’t tell you”. I thought they were joking and I said “Come on, tell me about it”, but they insisted they couldn’t.
So I actually have no idea if they worked in an eavesdropping capacity or not. I just imagined what they might have done, knowing about them from university days, and trying to picture their life as an observer.
There is a wonderful Francis Ford Coppola film from the 1970s called ‘The Conversation’ which is about a person who spends their life undertaking surveillance of others, and the poem is a little bit derived from that idea. I imagined this person was spending their days listening to who they were spying on, fascinated by their life and wanting to be part of it. Maybe they would even want to be in a relationship with that person. In the end, the poem turns back on itself, and the person who is the observer turns out to be the person who is being observed. They pick the phone up and the line goes dead and they hear a click. That’s them being listened to.
This poem has a beginning, middle and end, and characters to whom things happen. This is the kind of narrative poetry that I do. I am very much a realist in poetry, though I do use surrealistic and unusual elements in my poems from time to time.
13. I think I understand what you mean, it’s almost like when you dream about normal things, but then something unusual and surreal happens in the dream, like flying.
And yet I wouldn’t call it exactly surreal. There is a poem at the end of my book, about my parents on holiday, back from when I was a child. My mother took her rings off on the beach and forgot that she’d done so, and left them behind. The tide then came in and washed the rings away.
I wrote a poem about that, introducing surreal qualities. The ring gets cast into the sea and is swallowed by a fish. The fish gets caught and opened and is about to be eaten. All this time the ring is in the belly of the fish. This sort of mythological story is common to a lot of cultures.
My mum and dad sit down to a plate of fish and chips and then there it is, the ring, inside a cod fish they’d just bought. This is the element of the surreal in the poem. It really is about my mum and dad’s relationship and how sometimes you lose things which never do get found. But it’s a slightly strange look at that, a more unusual and surreal way I would say.
14. How paranoid are you normally about editing your poems?
One thing I learned from Colette Bryce is, edit edit edit. Editing is almost as important as writing. The poem is only finished when there is nothing to take out. I edit a lot. For me, very few poems are finished at one sitting, none at all I would say. Some poems go through 8-9 versions, sometimes over the course of several years. I do have some poems that were written quickly, but I’m rarely satisfied with them. Some poets revise even their published poetry. I don’t think I would do that.
Most young poets should definitely spend more time editing.
15. Free verse vs verse forms?
I would say I a semi-formalist. I use rhythm, rhyme, half-rhyme and enjambed lines to achieve that consistency of form. Occasionally, I go mad and write a villanelle or other more fixed forms; I wrote a sestina once, but it was terrible. Having said that, I do write free verse as well. The main thing is that the poem should read well when read aloud. A good poem can be read aloud and retain its meaning. I prefer to read my own poetry aloud. I am not a performance poet, but rather find myself ‘halfway between the page and the stage’. Good poetry definitely has to work in public.
16. Any advice for young poets out there?
Get involved in a poetry group. I was lucky to be invited to a poetry group and it has significantly changed the way I write. If I can use a rather saucy image, poetry on your own is a form of masturbation – but group sex is far more interesting! The contribution of others to your own writing can improve it immeasurably if you can learn to trust your colleagues and be honest with each other.
Write as often as you can, as much as you can, but don’t be too precious about what you write.
August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Kit Fryatt by Masa Mlakar
Author Page – Shearsman
1. How did it make you feel when you saw your work being published and shared with the whole world? Was there any fear present about how people might accept your writing?
I often feel quite alienated from published work, as though it had been written by someone else. Everyone dreads an attack or a bad review, I suppose, but I don’t think that’s quite what you mean. I’m not sure if I seek acceptance through writing. Maybe a bit more through performance, and yes, when I go into a new performance space I feel a great need to be liked, and also that I’m on enemy territory.
2. Could you tell us what you believe makes a great poet?
A certain sort of stupidity, I think. Intelligence needs to be leavened by stubborn confidence in order to produce a new noise, which for me is what innovation in poetry is, a new noise.
3. Have you encountered any difficulties being a writer and if yes, how did you overcome them?
Mainly my own inertia. Coffee and fear of deadlines usually gets me over that.
4. How has your work changed or developed since you began writing?
I’m not sure: I go back to some of the stuff I wrote at 17 and think, actually, that’s not half bad. It’s the stuff I wrote in my 20s that really makes
me cringe: not poetry at all, just attempts at cleverness. Luckily, little of it survives in print. I think performing my work has given me confidence
in simplicity: it doesn’t have to be a dense mesh of reference and patterning. It has to sound good.
5. I have read some of your poems and the one I find really interesting is ‘Nanna Slut’s Long Close Summer’. Could you retrace your thought process while writing and editing the poem?
I’m glad you like that one; I’m not sure it’s a success. But it does have a story. When I was a kid I read Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales,
and I was very taken with the figure of Baba Yaga. In 2009 I used to meet with a group for a kind of anti-workshop: we’d have a few
drinks and enthuse about stuff and definitely not, not, submit any work to rational workshop-type “I think you should break the line here not here”
critique. For Christmas we had a poetry gift challenge: everyone brought a prompt (object or word) in a brown envelope, we swapped them, and each
person had to write a poem based on the prompt as a gift for the prompter. Mine was a coat hanger and an Indian takeaway menu. I had no idea what
to do with the coat hanger, so I hung a coat on it. The menu had a dish on it called Lamb Ra Ra. I thought that sounded like a dance, one that old
women do shamelessly in their mutton-dressed-as-lamb outfits, and it provided the refrain — also a little Boney M, “Ra Ra Rasputin”. Then I wrote a couple of literal-minded rhyming stanzas about Baba Yaga, and I thought this is rubbish, and gave up. I happened to dig those drafts out again last
summer, during the riots in English cities. I kept the first of the original rhyming stanzas, but turned the rhymes into vowel-rhymes and rhymes on the
off-stress. The finished poem still has those off-stress rhymes: ‘mound/POUNDing’, ‘bliss/DIStrict’ ‘DYing/stupeFIEs’. Then I added two more stanzas, trying to find realistic equivalents for Baba Yaga’s mortar and pestle, her chicken-legged house and so on, so there are metaphors of grinding and pounding and a mobile home. Then I ditched the first stanza because it seemed too literal and over-explanatory for the rest. A few words were from an interview with one of the rioters “like, a freedom act / like, do whatever you want”. The title came last. Nanna Slut I suppose roughly translates Baba Yaga — originally, slut in the sense of a slovenly or untidy woman rather than a sexually promiscuous one, but in English you can’t have the first sense without the other. I wanted to voice this speaker’s sense that old women might be able to exploit the inchoate, violent energy of the disaffected young. In some ways their anger is similar: the rioters are “straw men”, she is a “hag” — in Irish the word “cailleach”, “hag”, can also mean the last bale of hay to be taken in from the fields — but she also wants to control their macho energies to her own ends, actually to undo patriarchy, “the estate we lost thirty grand years ago” — the 2011 riots look back to 1981, but Baba Yaga wants to return to a pre-civilisational, pre-patriarchal time 30,000 years ago…: that’s maybe a sort of sentimental or naive idea, certainly ahistorical. I do not endorse this message!
6. In the end, what advice would you give the young and aspiring writers
to keep writing poetry in a society that listens to poetry less each day?
I’m not sure it does listen less. There’s a powerful appetite for verse out there: often expressed at times of stress, joy or grief. I’m baffled
when people ask me for recommendations for poems to read at funerals and weddings (happens a lot): perhaps because poetry is part of my daily life
I don’t understand why you’d want it for special occasions and not the rest of the time. If you don’t have a favourite poem, why read one at your wedding? If your gran never read poems, why do you need one at her funeral? But the appetite is there, and it’s not for me to dictate to it. Maybe poets should listen a bit harder to society before they whinge that it doesn’t listen to them. That shouldn’t be a manifesto for populism or crowd-pleasing, though.
I think too much performance and public work is formally and verbally inert because poets have low expectations of a public they don’t truly respect.
People know when they’re being patronised. Aim high: pitch it high — your readers are at least as bright and knowledgeable as you are.
August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with John Greening by Sophie Wilshaw
1. You have many different responsibilities in the literary world, and are still publishing popular works; how do you manage your time?
I limit myself to a handful of commitments: judging the Gregory Awards, an annual creative writing workshop in Cornwall, and whatever readings I’m asked to give. Nevertheless, it’s true that I’m a teacher, and a school-teacher at that – I also have a family. So there is a great deal of time management involved. I live near my work, which cuts out commuting time, and being away from the metropolis means that there are few temptations beyond the notebook and the laptop. Poems tend to get written more when I’m not teaching, although there have been occasions when one pops into my head (during a lesson once), or some unexpected event forces lines upon me. Curiously, intense fatigue can actually be a very creative state. At the same time, the experience of having nothing to do but write (as at the Hawthornden retreat which your supervisor, Sophie Mayer, also attended) might or might not be a good thing. It’s a wonderful feeling, but the best work doesn’t always come when you’re feeling great. Reviewing and prose in general I find I can write whatever is going on in the rest of my life and I’m pretty good at deadlines (teaching helps that skill). Having said all this, I’m just taking on two new major book editing tasks which might well stress-test me to the limit.
2. Before you were such an influential and recognisable figure in society, how did you introduce yourself to people?
Again, I’m really not, thank God, recognisable and only the tiniest bit influential – the latter through my reviews for the TLS, I suppose, which I’ve done since the late 1990s, when the late Mick Imlah invited me to contribute. I don’t introduce myself as a poet. Who would? Auden refused even to have it on his passport (preferring ‘medieval historian’, wasn’t it?). To utter the word ‘poet’ in England really is the best way to strike people dumb or to clear the room entirely. I’m just reading a fascinating book about Anglo-German relations (Keeping Up with the Germans by Philip Oltermann) and he explores the reasons why the British have to make everything into a joke. Any mention of poetry is usually met with humour in Britain, which is why we are happier with funny poets or poets who behave in funny ways. Shakespeare knew this, of course: he has the mob casually beating up the wrong conspirator, Cinna the Poet, in Julius Caesar, and crying: ‘Tear him for his bad verses…’
3. With this prestige, have you ever felt pressure to finish a piece of work, or make it your best?
I don’t think any writer thinks of him or herself as prestigious (though I used to be a keen prestidigitator! – a fact that impressed Ted Hughes, actually.) I think that if you feel the compulsion to finish a work, then that’s a good sign. I recently tore through eleven poems in one day: I was being driven on by something. But that has nothing to do with deadlines or what people are asking you to write. I do admire the way Larkin worked, doggedly returning to ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ month after month, following the poem through stanza by stanza from beginning to end. How different from the process described in the recent biography of Peter Redgrove, whereby he had dozens if not hundreds of different poems on the go at any one time. And I can’t imagine how someone like Carol Ann Duffy produces so much commissioned work. Or perhaps I can. By avoiding the deepest springs. There’s no harm in a poet being able to turn out some decent occasional verse, as long as it’s not confused with poetry. A Poet Laureate has to, and Larkin knew he couldn’t have done that. Anyway, every piece of work feels like your best for a few minutes after it’s finished. But, as Horace said, ‘Keep your piece nine years’. That’s such good advice, though it only works if you live as long as I have. Don’t rush into publication. That includes the internet. It’s advice Larkin should have followed too.
4. How difficult was it to first get your work published?
Very hard. I had the outline of a book by the time I was in my mid-twenties and finishing post-graduate work on verse drama at Exeter. My work had appeared in a few prestigious places such as Emma Tennant’s Bananas and Lawrence Sail’s much-missed South-West Review, but I could not persuade any half decent publisher to bring out a book. There wasn’t much I could do to convince them, except occasionally get very stroppy. Somewhat ironically, I never managed to win an Eric Gregory Award and only started winning competitions when I had already been taken up by Bloodaxe. In the end it was going to Egypt that did the trick. The work that I produced out there, when Jane and I were teaching for two years with VSO in Aswan, seemed to appeal to editors and pretty quickly Roland John of Hippopotamus Press brought out Westerners. I suppose people are drawn to a book with a theme and the poems in Westerners (it came out in 1982) were entirely Egyptian. I’d originally wanted to mingle them with other pieces, but Roland is a good editor and advised me not to. I’m very fond of that elegant yellow book, and I’ve this year been revisiting it as part of a memoir I’ve written about those years in Upper Egypt. I occasionally remember the struggle I had to get that book accepted, and I have files stuffed with rejection letters. The struggle doesn’t end, however, and I’ve had my years in the publishing wilderness even after apparently bedding down with a major publisher. Where would we be without devoted individuals like Roland, like John Lucas of Shoestring Press or David Perman of Rockingham or Gladys Mary Coles of Headland? Mericifully, my latest collection (To the War Poets) is scheduled to come out with Michael Schmidt’s Carcanet (Oxford Poets ) in 2013, but already I’m beginning to worry whether they will like the follow-up.
5. Do you believe poetry is a dying art?
It is, if anything, the art of dying. Nadezhda Mandelstam said it was ‘preparation for death’. The moment hard times really hit us, people will return to poetry – as they did in the Mandelstams’ era. In communist Eastern Europe they used to fill football stadiums for poetry readings.
6. You have achieved so much already, but is there something you still strive to achieve?
Just one poem that will stay in the anthologies. That’s all any poet needs. There are dozens of poets we only really remember for one piece: from William Dunbar’s ‘Timor Mortis Conturbat me’ to Henry Reed’s ‘Naming of Parts’. But what do I really strive for? As Howard Nemerov said: ‘getting something right in the language.’