August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Declan Ryan by Samuel Jones.
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1. How long have you been writing poetry? Why & how did you start?
It’s probably worth making the point that there’s a fair chance I’m not. Partly I say that out of tiresome neuroses, but there is an important point lurking in there too, that it’s really bloody hard to write a poem, at least one that’s any good or worthy of the name. That it’s probably quite healthy to be a bit overawed by the proper ones which have been written, the ones that when you read them made you want to try to do this sort of thing, and to spend your first few years just staring at them, thinking ‘I might as well give up, how on earth am I ever going to get to that?’
I’ve been trying in earnest to learn how to write poems since 2008, when I studied for a Creative Writing MA at Royal Holloway. I used to scribble unformed, messy things when I studied English at BA. I think the initial impulse, also no doubt equally universal, was some attempt at self-expression, coupled with a lot of time spent listening to the more lyrically adept songwriters (the usual suspects, Morrissey, Tom Waits, et al) and the way they could give you a whole self-contained world in three minutes. I used to write songs a little bit with some friends, and so I think it probably grew out of that as much as anything.
2. How did you get your work published or heard? Did you confront any difficulties?
I’ve not published all that much and I’m grateful for that (having looked back at some of the stuff I’ve written, especially grateful). There’s a lot to be said for the usual route of submitting to magazines and getting the usual rejections, it does harden you up a bit and make you realise that contrary to what you told yourself before you started showing other people your work you’re not an undiscovered, fully-formed genius after all. Possibly I’m a bit cowardly, but I’ve got into the habit of trying to do at least some of the learning bit in private, rather than going hell for leather to put more stuff into the overcrowded world.
In terms of difficulties, I’ve always had that (no doubt standard) initial reaction to rejections, unless I’m unusually volatile, of assuming after the first ‘thanks but no thanks’ that all editors are wrong and/or blind, and that there’s an inner circle who have a register of who’s allowed into the gang, or some other sort of equally bonkers conspiracy. But you soon enough discover that they’re not, and there isn’t, and that you’re just going to have to work harder and probably junk a lot of what you produce on the grounds that it’s terrible. It’s reassuring and dispiriting in equal measure when you get poems back from somewhere a few months after submitting to have the feeling of ‘Jesus, I wouldn’t have taken these either’ sweeping in a few seconds after the knee-jerk barrage of sexual swearwords.
Readings are quite helpful when you’re starting out. They let you get some feedback on the things you’ve been working on but can also be directly beneficial to the editing process; often you’ll find when reading a poem out loud to people that there are lines you stumble over or regret, so you know to snip them or change them afterwards. It’s also a way of sending out a few feelers on the work’s behalf without having to commit to it sitting permanently in a magazine somewhere, staring at you with its terrible line breaks and regrettable similes. I put on some readings quite early on, with a few fellow MA students, as a way of getting a sense of where the work was at, and that was helpful. Part testing ground, part support group.
3. How do you avoid clichés in your writing?
Again, I’m probably not the best judge that I do, but the only way to really avoid being derivative or clichéd is to try and read as much as you can, and learn from it all – good, bad or indifferent – and then develop it in some way into your own way of doing things. It all comes down to reading lots. If you were going to make an album you wouldn’t just listen to Now 46 and a best of The Beatles and assume you were doing something fresh.
4. In the poem ‘Baking with Kathryn’, you focus on the physical elements within an apparently literal event. Can you retrace your thought process in the poem’s writing/editing?
I think with that one the impulse came from the close-up, small-scale, domestic aspect of the setting, and the littleness which there is in that song, ‘Beeswing,’ that I mention in it. So it felt like it needed to be about small, observed, concrete detail. Also, because it was partly inspired by a folk song, it felt natural to make it slightly formal, with the rhyme, a bit sing-song.
5. What is it about free verse poems that draws you more so than more conventional verse forms, modes or styles?
The best thing I’ve read about form is in an interview with Mick Imlah, where he compares a modern poet to a Victorian architect, where there isn’t a single staple native style available anymore and the poems as a result end up all possessing different types of architecture. Anything’s better than rubble, as he puts it. It’s probably a bit wishy-washy to say this, but generally you just have to try to find the right form for the poem, there’s no one-size-fits all answer. Form, rhyme and any heavy, foregrounded crafting suggest an element of certainty which you might not want in the poem – that was always a complaint people made against someone like Auden, with his perfect prosody, that it made him sound so damned sure about everything.
Rhyme and other effects are great for making something memorable, which is still important but doesn’t seem to be talked about so much anymore. ‘Free verse’ is probably a misnomer; if it means that ‘anything goes’ it’s not really a poem. Hamilton is one of the best free verse poets for my money (although I’m clearly biased) because he manages to make his poems seem formal, despite the fact they almost never are, purely by his rigour and the way he makes every syllable and comma count.
6. What advice would you give young writers to encourage them to write poetry?
Well I don’t know if I’d necessarily want to encourage them, unless they already really want to do it. I think often there’s a sense when poetry is touched upon at school, say, that the idea of writing it comes with some implicit permission to just say whatever you want, mostly of a semi-confessional nature, and that that’s what it’s all about. Whereas in truth it’s a craft, and not one with any particularly earthly rewards other than the occasional satisfaction of doing something better, or slightly less badly, than the last time you tried.
If you’re someone that cares about poems and has a love of certain poets from the past or ones who are still writing, that seems like the best reason to try it yourself. Again, coming back to a music analogy, there’s a difference between singing along to a record at home for your own amusement to seriously trying to become a professional, signed, musician. Apart from the financial disparity (probably less now anyway thanks to the ‘net) it’s the same principle. Whatever craft you’re going into, if you’re doing it seriously, will have to become a central part of your life and the odds dictate you’re never going to be carried shoulder high for any of it. So you’ve got to love the nuts and bolts graft of it, the actual making of the poems, and the learning process, as an end in themselves.