August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Jane Yeh by Katerina Photiou
1. How long have you been writing poetry? Why & how did you start?
I started writing poetry when I was around 14. I’d written lots of stories as a child in primary school, but I don’t remember why I took up poetry — we didn’t study any in school (which is shocking when I look back on it), and my parents didn’t own any books of poetry. I’d kept a journal for many years by then; I think writing poems was just an additional outlet for my emotions as a teenager, at first.
2. How much does publishability affect what you write?
I’ve always written whatever I wanted, which often didn’t seem very similar to what gets published in literary magazines or books. For a long time, when I lived in the States, I couldn’t get published at all, and I pretty much gave up on writing for a while out of discouragement. After moving to the UK, I felt really fortunate to finally have my first collection published here. Regardless, when I write I’m not thinking about publishability; you have to write what speaks to you, and in a way that speaks to you, otherwise it’s dead.
3. Where and when do you write, especially when writing about strong emotions – is it immediate, or on reflection/from memory?
I used to be quite haphazard and undisciplined, but in the last few years I’ve forced myself to follow a routine of (almost) daily writing, in the morning or afternoon. When I was in my teens and twenties I used to write and feel “creative” only late at night, but now I find it’s the opposite. I also always used to do my writing at home on a computer, whereas now I write in cafés or libraries, on paper — at home there are too many possible distractions available, like going on the Internet or tidying my room or taking a nap.
Most of what I write is invented, though obviously my imagination is formed from a combination of external sources (things in the world, other people’s experiences) and my own memories and experiences. In this sense you could say my poems are written based on reflection.
4. What inspires your poetry the most, and why? Is there an aspect of your life that is particularly influential on what you write?
What inspires my poetry keeps changing — at university it was mostly the things I studied (Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the history of clothing, art history), as well as the work of my favorite poet, Lucie Brock-Broido. Now it’s often things I read (not necessarily in books — it could be newspapers, websites, blogs) or see (TV, films, plays). I’m writing some sonnets based on trashy ’80s TV shows now, as a matter of fact. I do find paintings and photographs especially inspiring for subject-matter, as jumping-off points — there’s something about a still visual image that appeals to the eye and mind both, where you can get lost in contemplating it.
5. Does it irritate you when someone misinterprets your work?
Intellectually I know that a text can be interpreted in almost any way, and that authorial intent is supposed to be irrelevant, but I would be disappointed if someone reading one of my poems understood it in an entirely different way than I intended — I don’t strive to be obfuscatory in my writing or think that poems are Rorschach ink blots. As a writer, I’m trying to create a mood or voice, or a kind of self-contained world, when I make a poem, so I hope that comes across in some way to the reader.
6. At what point do you decide that a given poem is finished?
Like most poets, I almost always struggle with endings; they usually take me the longest to finish, as I can write and reject dozens of them before finding one that works. I write very slowly and keep rewriting as I go (rather than pounding out a draft and then revising it), so by the time I get to the ending I do feel the poem is finished. (Of course, there are still poems whose last lines I keep fiddling with months later.) One of the drawbacks to this method is that I have a lot of half-finished, totally dead poems lying around, which can’t be salvaged no matter how radically I try to chop them up. I definitely wouldn’t recommend my writing process to anyone.
7. Do you think poetry is a dying art?
No, especially because the Internet makes vast amounts of poetry so easily available to anyone with Internet access. When I was growing up in suburban New Jersey, it was practically impossible to find contemporary poetry to read — the local bookstores and libraries didn’t carry any, much less carry literary magazines, and even in New York there were only one or two small, specialised bookstores that did. Nowadays the Net is a gigantic resource, with sites like Poetry Daily and the Academy of American Poets’ Online Poetry Library that are repositories of good contemporary poetry.
8. What advice would you give young writers to encourage them to write poetry?
To read as much poetry as possible. I feel inspired to write whenever I read other people’s poems. I think if you like language and how words are put together, then reading and hearing poems, which focuses your consciousness on language, will stimulate you.
Another thing is that reading widely in poetry can let you see how many different kinds of contemporary poetry there are, and how many things you can do in a poem — most of us, including me, come to writing with certain ideas about what poetry is, but the reality is that it can be so many things, in terms of subject, style, expression, approach.
9. What do you hope your legacy to British poetry will be?
I think I’d be lucky to have one at all! As a writer, you just hope someone will read and enjoy your work and recommend it to others. It’s hard to see my work having a broad influence anyway as it’s rather out of the mainstream of “British poetry”.
10. What can you express in poetry that you can’t in another literary or art form?
To me, words have a magic that doesn’t exist in other art forms — the complexity of what and how they convey — their instantaneous combination of mental understanding, sense impressions, and feelings or emotions — the way they can suggest, hint, contain multiple ambiguities. I love fiction and other forms of prose, but to me poetry is (in the old cliché) the most heightened form of language, even when it’s seemingly natural, colloquial, or casually assembled. Again, the complexity of a poem’s workings, compressed into a relatively small space, is what interests me in writing; short stories and novels don’t have the same density.
The question of what I “express in poetry” is harder to answer. If I think of my poems as snow globes or shoebox dioramas, it would be impossible to turn them into pieces of prose; they tell stories and have characters, but they don’t really have plots, and without the enclosure of poetic form they couldn’t exist in the first place.
August 8, 2012 § 1 Comment
Interview with Tim Wells by Brendan Pickett.
Author Page – Donut
1. What motivated you to start writing poetry?
Jason King (a 70s detective TV series), and a life of panache & adventure, and the early 1980s Dancehall sound systems, with performers like Eek-A-Mouse. I love the energy and immediacy of deejay toasting… when they catch a moment perfectly.
I started performing “ranting” poetry at these sound systems… which meant I could see gigs for free and meet girls… but soon after I started taking the writing seriously. I’m from a bookish family as well, always reading: which stops one being taken advantage of.
2. There are six prose-poems about Hemingway in Boys Night Out in the Afternoon (BNOA). How has he influenced you?
His persona; his “iceberg approach” to writing; his belief in writing as discipline. Moveable Feast is, I believe, his best book. It’s about Paris in the 1920s. Many people think it’s autobiographical, but is actually a mix of fact and fiction, which I find fascinating.
3. Which other writers inspire you?
The poetry of Martial and Juvenal, (Roman poets) Sei Shonagon and Todd Moore; the short stories of Richard Brautigan, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Isaac Babel.
For their anecdotal qualities… they’re like reggae toasting and pub lies.
5. What’s pub lies?
Two old guys sat in a pub corner… telling the same stories over and over… each week fine tuning their stories’ nuances… gradually honing them to perfection.
6. Is this how you compose?
Yes. I edit a hell of a lot. I call it intensive editing. My style is distillation: I look to get to the essence of what I’m writing about. That’s why I don’t use the word “and” overly. Typically a poem goes through twenty drafts.
7. How do you decide which poems will be in a collection?
Through a lot of arguments with my editor, Andy Ching. Usually I have the final word, but he makes me justify my choices. I trust his critical feedback a great deal.
8. Do you write for performance or page?
First of all, I am not a “performance poet.” The basis of good live work is good writing, so the writing always comes first. However, some poems are more naturally suited to one or the other.
9. Why do you hate the term “performance poet?”
Consider the oral roots of poetry, The Iliad, for example. It was performed, yet is not called “performance poetry.”
There’s power in names. It’s obvious the administration of poetry in this country use the term condescendingly, as a way of encouraging class division. They fail to realise that the wider Chinese Menu of poetry has expanded… in a sexy way!
10. What is the underlying political message behind your poetry?
I’m not preaching a political message – but I do try to express political pressures and desires. More so in the last couple of years because the working-class are being blatantly and openly attacked by Public School wankers. I try to target gentrification in my work, and document how London is changing.
11. Ruth Padel has written that British publishing has “never heard of feminism.” Is British poetry still a ‘boys club?’
After the Oxford Poetry débacle, its hard to see Ruth Padel as anything other than a figure of fun. Interestingly, she doesn’t address the means of production. (I’m much more interested in class than gender.) Being published isn’t a right. I’m interested in people such as Claire Trévien and Kirsten Irving who build their own outlets and media for poetry. There is an excellent crop of working-class female poets at the moment: Helen Mort, Ashna Sarkar, Rachael Allen, Faye Lipson, and more.
12. BNOA is brimming with playful comedy. Why?
I like to laugh at things! I enjoy making people nervous and making people think with laughter. Humour is a very hard craft to write. Ranting poetry was dour, shouty and miserable. That’s why I moved away from it, it didn’t suit my personality.
13. Does using comedy help you to connect to your audiences?
It can make it easier… Stand-up has only one gear: joke after joke. Whereas poetry has many gears, which can twist, turn and manipulate audiences, taking them through numerous emotions, all in the same poem.
Comedy is also useful because academic, or “quackademic” poetry, is continually worried that people aren’t engaging with it. This is due to it being dour and miserable poetry. Although there is nothing wrong with dourness, if it engages with people. Like a needy high maintenance unsatisfying lover, poetry wants to be adored on its own terms: not in this man’s army.
14. BNOA is “unashamedly lowbrow.” Is this you or a persona?
The persona is an edited version of me. I like toilet humour, Carry On films and girls with price-tags on the soles of their shoes. I also read the TLS every week, have an extensive collection of Penguin Classics and once went into the Whole Food Market shop.
15. Is this connected to the melancholic themes in your work?
To a large extent its stage shtick, which is a strong base to work from. Its very easy to be a cultural idiot in poetry, so I’m a deliberate loser in many of my poems, because people will have some empathy with that. I get terribly depressed… which is why I’m a poet… but I do not read self-help books, let me be clear about that.
16. Do you use Pop-culture Icons for symbolic purposes?
I wouldn’t call it Pop-culture… just culture. The culture I grew up in, love and understand. I’ve had this discussion with poets before who say my work won’t last because of those references. I don’t care. If you read Juvenal’s first satire, it opens at an awful poetry reading. One that, if I didn’t tell you when it was written, and changed the names to contemporary ones, then you would swear it was written yesterday.
To answer the question: yes. The archetypes are the same, but the names are different.
17. What advice would you give aspiring poets?
Read and write… And have a business card… I’m shocked that so many people don’t.
18. What do you have planned for the future?
August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
Chrissy Williams interviewed by Jasmine Wynter-Agard
1. What was the 1st poem you ever read? How did it affect you?
The first poem I can remember reading, although it had already been read to me before I read it myself, was from an Italian book of nursery rhymes called “Stella Stellina” (also the name of the poem). I’m half-Italian and grew up with lots of Italian nursery rhymes – very lyrical, lots of end rhymes and playful internal rhymes. I remember enjoying the sound of them and learning them off by heart automatically. They were fun to say aloud. I suspect that looking for the word patterns and the rhythms were also instrumental in helping me learn to read. After that, there were lots of English nursery rhymes and books of “Poems for Children” which built up into work aimed at older readers. We had to read and write poems in school quite often too. I don’t really remember experiencing “my first poem” as such, and I don’t have a “Wow – first poem – epiphany” moment. Poems were always there.
2. How long have you been writing poetry? Why and how did you start?
Aside from poetry writing in English classes at school (still have some copies of poems from when I was six or seven), the first poem I wrote because it felt like it had to be written, as something separate to school or obligations or lessons, because I needed to get the words onto paper, was when I was 16 or 17. Something had happened at a party at my friend’s house and it seemed that by writing the poem about it I was able to make better sense of it. It was 16 lines, in four verses of 4 lines each, and I still remember very clearly the central image that I wanted to build the poem around, trying to choose the right words to make it happen. I showed it to a friend afterwards who gave a non-commital “hmm” grunt, but I remember being really glad to have found a way to get the complicated thoughts out onto paper in a way that was communicable to someone else. I tend to get quite flustered when I speak, and speak too fast, so there was something compelling about the clarity that could come from colliding different thoughts on paper in a deliberate way. I suppose it was all to do with communication and trying to figure out how we do that.
3. How has your work changed or developed since you started writing?
I think it started off being concerned only with the way I decoded the world personally, very self-indulgent and teenage. After I grew out of that I started being more interested in the possibilities I could generate by juxtaposing different words and spaces between them. Trying to tell stories. Trying to create moments. Trying to use specific forms. This was all tied in with learning and reading more at uni. Then I got a bit stuck on this and wasn’t able to write anything personal at all, wavering back and forth for years, not really sure what I was writing for. Now I think, or I hope, I’m doing both though – trying to find the right arrangements for the right words, on subjects that are compelling to me personally. I think it’s making my writing more urgent. I feel more focused now, feel that I know what I want to say and how I want to structure the words on the page. But it’s all linked in to my own self-confidence as a person. I wouldn’t have been able to write in this way even just a couple years ago as I was still too insecure. Overcoming certain personal insecurities has fed directly into the development of my writing, quite separate from learning new techniques etc.
4. At what point do you decide that a given poem is finished?
When it’s finished. It’s like tidying a room. Sometimes you’re just rearranging the mess, trying to make the mess look neater, but you always know when you’ve really tidied a room, really put everything away so it’s right and finished and nothing more needs doing to it.
5. Does it irritate you when someone misinterprets your work?
Hmm. Yes, I suppose it did a bit when I used to do group workshops. Everyone’s trying to show off to the group and invent rules for writing, when I think there are really very few rules that can’t be broken, so long as you break them deliberately and well. That said, there’s usually a valid observation at the heart of every criticism and I always found it useful to write down everything that people were saying so I could go through it properly at home later. Workshops aren’t so much about close readings as gut reactions to things, and that’s always useful to hear.
6. Do you think strong emotion is needed to write a good poem?
No. I think it can often be a starting point, depending on the piece, perhaps what stirred the poet to write in the first place – but writing poems is about putting words on a page in the best arrangement. So, no. I don’t think strong emotion is needed to write a good poem. I think being good at writing poems is needed to write a good poem.
7. What was your inspiration for the poem ‘The Dream Master’s Answer’?
The two basic prompts for The Dream Master’s Answer were two emails I received at a similar time. One was from a friend who was travelling in Nepal the year after we graduated from uni. He didn’t seem to be doing much out there beyond getting drunk with Australians. The other email was from a friend forwarding a random round email showing George W. Bush’s view of the world, which was pretty much “There Be Dragons” everywhere other than America (all pre-9/11). These two things prompted thoughts about what people hope to get out of travelling, and the search for meaning, particularly in an unfamiliar world you have no control over. So, I think the Dream Master grew out of an interest in what meaning can be found when juxtaposing seemingly serious / seemingly frivoulous words and phrases.
8. Out of all the poems you have written, which would you say is your personal favorite and why?
The most recent poem I finish always seems to be my favourite piece. I wrote this weird thing about Angela Lansbury that I was obsessed with, that’s going to be published as both a pamphlet and a poetry broadsheet. Then I wrote a short poem about Moorhens that I thought was the best thing I’ve ever written. After that was a sequence about Murnau’s Faust that I think is even better. Now there’s this poem about kelp which I love and – well, so it goes on. With any luck I’ll write something next week which I’ll like even more. I hope to keep surprising myself. I suppose my favourites will keep changing naturally as I keep reading and learning more, and so (hopefully) improving my writing. Bring on the next poem! The next surprise!