Friday, July 26, 2019

Interview _ Jacob Lund

Jacob Lund’s poetry has been published in Openings, the annual anthology of The Open University and in N2 Poetry, London. He has worked as a reviewer for the Daily Telegraph, and has published on Shakespeare in academic journals. He lives in Brighton.

In this interview, Jacob talks about his writing:

When did you start writing?

I only began writing poetry seriously about three years ago, though before that I had been published as a book reviewer for the Daily Telegraph’s youth magazine Juiced. I have also been a contributor to NATE and EMag, writing mostly on Shakespeare and on literary theory.

After a conversation with the poet, short story writer and memoirist Dr. John O’Donoghue, I went home and found quite a lot of half-finished poems, fragments, titles, images – and realised that a few of them were probably worth completing.

A friend of mine who teaches at the University of Cambridge, Dr. Sean McEvoy, encouraged me to carry on with the work, and I began by giving a reading in Norwich, alongside Andrea Holland, Naomi Foyle and others. The poet Peter Pegnall invited me to do this. At about the same time I had started to contribute regularly to the magazine of The Open University Poetry Society, and my first published work was in their anthology, Openings.

I never really took the decision to want to be published: I just write and hope that others will find something of interest. I think that if I started to try to guess at what people might want to read, I wouldn’t be able to write at all.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

The very first poems I had published were to do with ageing, memory and loss, though more recently I have been engaged with ideas of identity, nationhood and history, and this has coincided of course with the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

Some of the poetry is written, loosely speaking, in blank verse, and for two reasons: first, it is a form that offers wonderful flexibility in terms of rhythm and movement; second, it is the form in English verse that is so frequently associated with argument, ideology and rhetoric – in Shakespeare’s soliloquies or in Milton, for example – and I guess I have more or less consciously taken the decision to try to speak to that tradition, to a poetry that has the power to make the case for change.

I also write in free verse, so that I am able to work with allusions and intertexts, some of which might be in languages other than English. Overall, I guess I am a kind of modernist writer, though I am not sure that this sort of categorisation is all that helpful.

Who is your target audience?

My target audience is anyone who cares to look. I am hugely grateful for people’s responses to what I write, whatever those responses are, but I’m not really motivated to write for particular groups.

In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?

This is a difficult one. I read widely and eclectically in terms of poetry, and I think there are probably many influences of which I am barely aware. I do think, however, that it is my responsibility as a writer to know as much as I can about what has gone before – it’s part of the job.

How have your own personal experiences influenced your writing?

My early poems touched upon personal loss and the subjective experience of getting older, but I have always been conscious that poetry can become boringly self-obsessed. I think that, unless they are for private use, poems need to reach out in one way or another.

More recently, I have visited areas of the UK that are unfamiliar to me, and my experiences there have started to allow me to write in a more observational way, I think. Lately, I have been to the Isle of Grain, Swindon, and Dungeness. These locations appear in a poetry collection I am writing about identity, nationhood and history.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

I am always concerned with the capacity of language to handle the truths of who we are or where we are, and I think that I deal with this simply by continuing to try to write. It doesn’t always work, of course.

The biggest challenge as a writer, I think, is to challenge your readers. I never, ever lose sight of the fact that people who see your poetry will quickly apprehend cliché, tiredness, overused tropes… and discard your work, which is absolutely fair enough!

Do you write every day?

I write every week, certainly, though not in a particularly structured way. A session might include writing up a draft from rough notes, then editing a piece that is well on its way to completion. I also love to prevaricate, which is good news for coffee sellers and BBC Sport, I think. I have a notebook and pen, but the main work is done on a PC: I like the coldness of type: it makes me somehow more critical of what I have before me, and this really helps with redrafting and editing.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

It’s those moments when you realise that you have made people think. Nothing beats this.

Some of your poems are featured in Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction. What would you say the poems are about?

I have two poems in the anthology. ‘Views along the English Coast’ is about the fragility of people’s lives in times of economic and political trouble, and of how in the end we have much in common with those who, too often, are deemed by reactionary political voices to be undesirable.

The other poem, called ‘The Territorial’, takes an imaginary English male figure who represents a sick, post-imperial, far right set of attitudes that are both echoed and challenged by other cultures. The emergence of ultra-conservative and fascist organisations in the UK, Europe and the USA are, I think, my preoccupations where this poetry is concerned, though the ostensible vehicle for responding to these developments is Brexit.

How have the poems been received?

I am absolutely delighted that some readers have been curious about and interested in the work. To say why they have been received well would sound way too much like self-congratulation – not my game at all.

Why is it important for poets to speak up on social, political and related matters?

I think that all art forms can speak to the political discourse of their time – and to other times as well. It’s difficult to make a special case for poetry, except perhaps that it has the capacity to handle political and social issues in a highly compressed way that doesn’t necessarily need to lose the nuance of argument.

In your view, what do anthologies like Bollocks to Brexit add to poetry and public discourse?

I think that the strength of an anthology like Bollocks to Brexit lies in its range of arguments, forms and tones, and in its linguistic variety. It gives the book its chance to engage with a broad audience, at a time when public engagement in politics has never been more important.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Interview _ Deborah Tyler-Bennett

Deborah Tyler-Bennett is a poet and fiction writer with eight volumes of poems and three volumes of short linked stories to her credit. She is currently working on her first novel, Livin' in a Great Big Way. Her new volume, Ken Dodd Takes a Holiday, will be out from King's England in 2019.

Her poems have also been featured in anthologies that include Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction (CivicLeicester, 2019), Leicester 2084 AD: New Poems about The City (CivicLeicester, 2018) and Welcome to Leicester (Dahlia Publishing, 2016).

In an earlier interview, Deborah talked about her concerns as a writer, and some of the influences she draws on.

In this new interview, Deborah talks about her latest book, Mr Bowlly Regrets, and about poetry and politics:

Do you write every day?

I do write everyday: on trains; in cafés; in bars; at home; in other settings. I try and give myself a timetable between teaching Adult Ed creative writing, workshops, and performances, and the writing itself. I think the important thing is to do it. If the session is me writing alone, I split my day between the writing and reading aloud what I’ve done so far. I end when I feel the writing’s becoming stale and I need a break. I think knowing when to stop’s an art like anything else.

How many books have you written so far?

I have just finished the manuscript of my ninth poetry collection and am working on my first novel. I’ve also written three books of linked short fictions set in the world of variety. Also, I’ve had published a poetry pilot for schools and three creative writing textbooks and packs. I was fortunate enough to co-author the Victoria and Albert Museum’s creative writing web package with Gillian Spraggs. See below for details:

Volumes and Chapbooks: Poetry

Forthcoming 2019: Ken Dodd Takes a Holiday (King’s England).

Mr Bowlly Regrets (King’s England, 2017)

Napoleon Solo Biscuits (King’s England, 2015)

Volume Using Record Office Collection, Leicester:

Friendship’s Scrapbook (University of Leicester, 2015, reprinted and re-issued as two volumes in 2017, with extracts being published by the University’s Centre for New Writing in Women’s Writing in the Midlands 1750-1850, 2016). Two of the poems were later displayed on the front of Leicester University’s David Wilson Library and in the new Digital Resource Centre, for International Women's Day, 2018. ‘A Walk with Susanna Watts’ from the collection also appeared in Welcome to Leicester (Dahlia Publishing, 2016). Two Responses to the poems, plus a poem based on images of child migrants appeared in Leicester 2084 AD (CivicLeicester, 2018).

Kinda Keats (Shoestring, 2013): Inspired by Residency at Keats House, Hampstead.

Revudeville (King’s England, 2011): Featured many poems inspired by adult and school museum workshops.

Mytton … Dyer … Sweet Billy Gibson (Nine Arches, 2011). Three portraits in verse.

Pavilion (Smokestack, 2010). Poems set in Brighton and featuring images of Dandies.

Clark Gable in Mansfield (King’s England, 2003)

Selected Poems:

Take Five (Shoestring, 2003); The Staring Owl: An Anthology of Poems by the Poets of the King’s England Press (King’s England, 2017)

Special Museum Volume:

Ballad of Epping and Other Poems (Leicestershire Open Museum Pilot, 2007-2008)

Three linked books of short stories set in the 1940s/ 1950s/ 1960s world of variety:

Turned Out Nice Again (King’s England, 2013),

Mice That Roared (King’s England, 2015),

Brand New Beat (King’s England, 2017).

Museum and Education Volumes:

Words and Things: Writing Creatively from Objects and Art (with Mark Goodwin et al, Leicestershire County Council, 2008).

Speaking Words: Writing for Reading Aloud (Crystal Clear, 2005),

Poetry, Prose, and Playfulness for Teachers and Learners (with Mark Goodwin, Leicestershire County Council, 2004).

Museum Packs:

Leicestershire and Nottingham museums (includes Art and Education packs for Leicester’s Open Museum).

Special Commission, Victoria and Albert Museum:

Co-authored creative writing adult education web-package for the Victoria and Albert Museum with Gillian Spraggs, which included two of my poems on objects, these have since been used for summer schools at Wake Forest University, NC, USA and elsewhere.

See also Wellcome Collection work at the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS).

What is your latest book about?

It’s called Mr Bowlly Regrets, is a book of poems, and came out from King’s England Press in 2017. It has many poems about growing up, memory, and change, some on performers, including Britain’s Bing Crosby, the wonderful Al Bowlly. It also contains a sequence on the First World War, which came from a series of Lottery Funded workshops done for Diseworth and other Leicestershire villages. Those poems often contain images of real soldiers from the villages’ war memorials.

I’ve also just completed a further volume of poems for King’s England, Ken Dodd Takes a Holiday which is due out later in 2019. The poems are mainly about theatre and imagery from the lives of Music Hall and Variety performers – of which an elegy for Ken Dodd (to my mind the last of the Victorian inspired performers) is key to the rest of the poems.

On top of these, I’m working on my first novel, Livin’ in a Great Big Way, for the same publisher. This tells the story of Dad, Rosa, and their daughter, Spring, who live on Velia Street, Sutton-in-Ashfield. When the novel opens it’s 1946. Spring’s beloved Aunt, Reena, is dying, and her husband, Nev, is just back from service in Italy. The family have kept things buttoned-up throughout the war, but as Reena fades, secrets and confessions begin spilling out. Also, Dad has visions of moving up in the world, while Rosa’s happy where she is. This is not to mention Grandad Stocks who lives with Mrs Close, much to the family’s shame, Mrs Jim, next door neighbor and Velia Street’s beating heart, and Butcher Mr Cole and his odd wife – whose dreadful crime will come to haunt them all.

How long did it take you to write the book? 

My forthcoming book of poems has taken me a couple of years but, interestingly-enough, some of the poems are earlier ones I had in magazines and have since re-written. The poems in Mr Bowlly, likewise, took a couple of years to write, and King’s England published it in 2017. The novel was begun on the way back from the Callander Poetry Weekend in Scotland, in 2017. At first, I thought it was a short story, but it got longer and longer. So, in the end I had to admit it was a novel and carry on!

How did you chose a publisher for the book? Why this publisher? What advantages and/or disadvantages has this presented? How are you dealing with these?

Over the years I’ve had many publishers including Shoestring Press, Smokestack, University of Leicester Press, Leicester County Council Press, Nine Arches Press, and others. But the majority-of my stories and poems have been published by King’s England Press, Huddersfield, under direction of Steve Rudd. When they accepted my first volume of poems, Clark Gable in Mansfield in 2003, they published mainly historic and children’s books. Over years their poetry and fiction lists have grown, and I’ve come to trust Steve’s judgement as an editor. He’s allowed me a lot of consultation on how the volumes look, and how my poetry and prose is presented. He’s also allowed me to experiment and been honest over what did and didn’t work. So, I’ve enjoyed working with him and continue to do so.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult? Why do you think this was so? How did you deal with these difficulties?

I think with most of my books of poems I deal with memory and characters a lot. I want the poems to be true to the ‘voices’ of various narratives and narrators. So, I think about who sees, who speaks, and period detail as I work. In Mr Bowlly, I wanted the title poem to bring Al Bowlly’s life, the fact he’s such a great performer and yet didn’t get his fair dues from history (he died in 1941 during the blitz, is buried in a communal grave, and has a blue plaque but no statue), and his wonderful singing voice to life. In performance I sing bits of the poem. If someone comes away from reading the volume to watch a clip of him on YouTube, I’ll be happy.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most? Why is this?

I enjoyed playing with poetic form in Mr Bowlly – there are sonnets, monologues in rhyming couplets, shaped poems, a poem to the rhythm Longfellow uses in ‘Hiawatha’, unrhymed couplets, and poems chiefly in dialogue. I love playing with form and have previously used sestinas and villanelles, which I go back to in my forthcoming book. Form really tests you, makes you think, and alters the poetic ‘voice.’ I review many poetry books and always feel a bit cheated when a poet doesn’t stretch themselves via form. Lots of unrhymed ‘free verse’ (like many poems I find the term doesn’t really describe what a verse with structures you come up with is) can feel much the same to me. So, I like testing the limits of a poem, and form helps me do this.

What sets the book apart from other things you’ve written?

Although most books represent developments and, hopefully, advancements in style and technique, I think Mr Bowlly differed in that I wanted the sections of the book to be read in tandem, but also stand alone.

I also think I dealt with the subject matter of the First World War in a more sequential way. Those poems were important to me as they dealt with histories of real soldiers that I came across during my workshops and I really wanted to get things right. I also realised that I used the poems to memorialise people who may not have got much of a memorial in death, a technique I began with an earlier poem about my Great Grandad’s son – ‘James William Gibson’ (in Mytton …Dyer …Sweet Billy Gibson) – who died in infancy and was buried below the cemetery wall. The soldiers I came across and used in poems for this newer volume often came from Institutions like the Industrial Schools, so, their next of kin might be their last employer.

In what way is it similar-to the others?

I think I’ve looked at similar histories and voices throughout my poetic career – maybe I’m fascinated with the ‘little things’ in history (both familial and wider) which, as my friend Ray Gosling once remarked, might be more important than the big things.

What will your next book be about?

As this will be the novel, I’d say about family life, of the triumphs and tragedies of human beings being able to live and work together. I realised, also, that the book has a lot of images of craft, (sewing, making, cooking etc.) that may go un-sung as a talent because people separate if from art. I collect vintage items from the 1940s, and often go to 1940s events, loving the music, endurance, and style of the period. Talking to historians and re-enactors (there are some splendid displays on the Home Front, from wedding dresses to the contents of a larder) has made me aware that making something from nothing is a skill to celebrate and venerate – yet often it’s passed-over in favour of the more showy-and-expensive object.

I have begun collecting brooches made by women (started when Mum gave me a brooch made by my Great Aunt from fuse wire, a belt buckle, and buttons shaped like flowers) and marvel at the artistry they create from things you would throw away. I wanted the novel to celebrate craft as someone’s art, their talent, and love – hence Reena in the book is a wonderful seamstress, and Mrs Jim comments at what she might have achieved with money behind her.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I think, like most writers it’s carrying on writing. Not many people get to do what they love every day, and I think that’s something to be celebrated and, also, marveled at. Obviously, getting published is significant, as it gives your voice an audience, and I hope never to take this for granted. I’ve also been very lucky in the places I’ve worked and read in from the Wellcome Trust, Brighton Pavilion, and Keats House in Hampstead (where I did a residency), to small art galleries, schools and colleges – I wouldn’t have guessed, early on, that I’d work for any of them.

You have a poem featured in Bollocks to Brexit: An Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction. How did the poem come about?

I was tremendously pleased to be asked to be in the book and another poem on Brexit, ‘Ennui’, appears in my new collection. As a writer and someone who has always considered themselves a European, the divisions occasioned by Brexit have made me tremendously sad. I think that the poem, which I wrote especially for the volume, gave me an opportunity to highlight these divisions as they seem to me.

I hope the poem gives you a whistle-stop tour of what I observed after the vote, and how I consider it is the young who will suffer loss of opportunities, from which European Citizens such as myself benefited, from this most disastrous decision. When you feel that your voice is not being heard above shouting – poetry can give you your voice back.

Why is it important for poets to speak up on social, political and related matters?

Poetry has always spoken out on such matters! From Shelley to Blake, Suffragette poets to John Cooper Clarke, poets speak for themselves but also often for the excluded, and those finding themselves ‘voiceless.’

I think it’s worth considering that people sometimes remember lines from a poem giving protest, such as poems by Sassoon, Owen, and Graves from the First World War and those lines come to represent certain times in history perhaps more poignantly than anything else.

What do anthologies like Bollocks to Brexit add to poetry and public discourse?

In a time of shouting, it’s important to hear something more measured, and in a time when phrases such as ‘will of the people’ are being bandied about, it’s a good thing to remember that not all ‘people’ are being represented. You can read a poem over-and-over again, and think about it, come back to it. I always thought Barrack Obama sounded a better statesman than most, because I felt he’d considered his words with care.

Poetry considers its words with care.

Seamus Heaney talked of the right words in their proper places. I think public discourse, at present, is lacking in thoughtful, measured words. Perhaps it’s up to poetry to fill-in the gap.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Interview _ Deborah Tyler-Bennett

Deborah Tyler-Bennett’s forthcoming volume, Ken Dodd Takes a Holiday, is out from King’s England Press in 2019, and her first novel, Livin’ In a Great Big Way is in preparation for the same publisher. She also has two recent volumes from the same publisher – Mr Bowlly Regrets – Poems, and Brand New Beat: Linked Short Fictions Set in the 1960s (both 2017).

She’s had seven collections of poetry published, some previous volumes being Napoleon Solo Biscuits (King’s England, 2015), poems based on growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, and Kinda Keats (Shoestring, 2013), work deriving from a residency at Keats House, Hampstead.

Her first collection of linked, 1940s set, short stories, Turned Out Nice Again came out from King’s England in 2013, and a sequel, set in the 1950s, Mice that Roared was published in 2015, Brand New Beat, set in the 1960s, represents the final part of the trilogy.

In 2016, The Coffee House Anthology from Charnwood Arts marked the final volume of Coffee House magazine, which she edited for twenty-five issues over fifteen years (this was featured on the Poetry Society’s poetic map of England).

Translations and publications of her poems have appeared in Spain, Ireland, The US, Scotland, Austria, and Romania, where they were broadcast on Radio Bucharest. She’s also read in Belgium.

Deborah regularly reviews poetry and has written books and education packs on creative writing.

Recent poems have appeared in the anthologies Double Bill (Red Squirrel, 2014), Maps and Legends (Nine Arches, 2013), Strike Up the Band: Poems for John Lucas at Eighty (Plas Gwyn Books, 2017), and the Max Miller Society journal, who recently published the elegy for Ken Dodd that forms the title poem in her new book. New poems appear in Leicester 2084 AD (CivicLeicester, 2018).

She regularly performs her work and has appeared at many venues in Brighton, London, the East Midlands and nationally. She occasionally teams up with music hall expert Ann Featherstone to perform variety stories from her first two collections. She also does many workshops for adult and school groups, teaches writing classes for the WEA, and hosts workshops for national galleries and museums.

In 2018 one of her poems was displayed on the side of Leicester University Library, and one at its new digital resource centre, for International Women’s Day.

With Gillian Spraggs, she co-authored the Victoria and Albert Museum’s creative writing web pages. She’s also currently working on a new poetic sequence, The Ladies of Harris’s List set in the eighteenth-century, and a series of music hall poems with Andy Jackson.

In this interview, Deborah Tyler-Bennett talks about her writing:

When did you start writing?

I’ve been writing things down for as long as I can remember being able to write and recall composing poems and bits of stories from the age of about eight. I don’t think I started taking the writing seriously until I was in my early twenties. Then you realise you’re starting to have drawers and notebooks full of stuff and you need to do something creative with it. I don’t think I felt I’d earned being called a ‘writer’ until I’d had a significant amount of work published.

How did you decide you wanted to be a published writer?

I think the above realisation (that you have lots of work and unless someone else gets to read it, it’s a little pointless, and also you have no feedback on what others think of it) drives you to send work out. Personally, I began sending poems to little magazines and competitions. I felt that if I had a body of published work behind me, and people responded to it, then maybe I could send work away for consideration as a collection.

The more I had published in little magazines, the more I felt I was becoming part of a poetic community and, also, most crucially, the more I learned. Editors sending advice and encouragement was invaluable to me. I also considered the range of where I sent to – I had quite a few things published in Ireland and found the magazines there an aesthetic delight. To achieve publication takes a thick skin and the old cliché about all writers getting used to rejections is true – but these make the publications you do get, sweeter.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

I think my writing has changed a lot over the years. At-the-moment, I’ve just finished my ninth volume of poetry and am working on new poems. I’m also writing my first novel. This comes after three volumes of linked short stories. It’s always hard to describe your own work but I think I’ve become fascinated by the lives of so-called ‘ordinary’ people – and have come to believe that no one has an ‘ordinary life.’

I think writing is a great way of conveying past and present – and have noticed two things, recently, in commentaries on my work. Firstly, people comment on my use of Nottinghamshire dialect, as if it’s something unusual to use. Secondly, people often think I’ve invented elements that come from my own background and family history. I feel as if we’re living at a cultural time where, if we’re not careful, and despite the success of writers like Sally Wainwright and Andrew Graves on the script writing and poetry scenes, we’ll be going back to the idea of the arts as a preserve of the privileged and socially connected.

I realise what’s not unusual for me, seems unusual to some, and that there are many assumptions made about writing from ‘ordinary’ life.

I’m also using a lot of images and characters from music hall in my poetry (my new book’s titled Ken Dodd Takes a Holiday) as I do think that this reflects a type of history that often gets ignored, sidelined, or damned with the loaded phrase ‘popular culture.’

I’ve also started to take my painting more seriously and exhibit work and suspect that the colours and textures I use in visual art creep into my poems and stories.

Who is your target audience?

This question is interesting. When I started, I don’t think I thought in terms of a ‘target audience.’ Most poets I know are just glad to get an audience. But I do think over time I’ve become aware that with poetry in particular - I want my work to be accessible to the widest possible audience. I don’t really want someone to leave a reading of mine saying: “I didn’t get it.” Or “I think that was aimed at a poetry or literary-critical group.”

The same is also true of fiction. I like it when an audience laughs, holds its breath, or even joins-in. Maybe that’s the music hall influence again. I like it even more when someone approaches me after a reading to say that they didn’t think poetry was for them, but they enjoyed what I did and would go to a reading again. I try my stories out on local audiences, or reading them aloud at home, and hope that anyone who wanted to read something could do so without fear of being either talked at, down to, or addressed in a jargon clearly meant for a specific crowd.

In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?

Like most writers, I love so many authors (both classic and contemporary) that it’s hard to narrow it down. I think the biggest influence on my poetry and storytelling has been the Orkney writer George Mackay Brown. He wrote novels, stories, poems, a column for his local paper, libretti, dramas and work for festivals. He could catch how people spoke, vibrant imagery of time and place and was fascinated by blurring boundaries between chronological periods. And his images are so vital, instead of saying someone was hungover he describes them as having a mouth ‘full of ashes’, lipstick imprinting a man’s cheek becomes ‘red birds’ – magic!

There are so many contemporary poets I admire, and I like those such as Emma Lee and Andrew Graves who are always experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what they do. Simon Armitage, Mark Goodwin, and John Hegley make me question how I write and what I can learn from people experimenting with language. Carol Leeming makes me think of how I perform and how I can do more, as do Ian Macmillan, Benjamin Zephaniah, and others. John Cooper Clarke, obviously, has an unmatchable status as performer and writer, I’ve always loved watching, hearing and reading him. I think it was Mark E. Smith of The Fall who said he didn’t wholly trust people who didn’t like John Cooper Clarke, and I think that’s sound (oh, that, and Elvis, too).

In prose, I’m still a huge fan of Dickens, as I think he tells such memorable stories full of such vibrant oddities. I did a PhD thesis on Djuna Barnes, and still find her work extraordinary. One book that I’ve found my most re-read is an anthology by John Sampson called The Wind on the Heath, about gypsies and published in the nineteen twenties. The stories and poems in it sing.

Likewise, I write a lot of ghost stories and am a huge fan of the form, loving E. Nesbit, Mary E. Braddon, Dickens, M.R. James, Ian Blake, and Susan Hill. Stars all. I think ghost stories are hard but worth it and reading around the genre helps you know your way around the structures of it. I swap ghost stories with Scottish writer, Ian Blake, and we enjoy a correspondence over the genre.

Sally Evans who edited Poetry Scotland has been a huge influence on my work, reading techniques, and has inspired me as a poet. Her poems do so much within economic lines and lingering images and I’ve never met anyone so welcoming and generous to her fellow poets. For years she and Ian King ran the Callander Poetry Weekend and it was a joy to attend and perform at that.

Lastly, I love European writing, and have always considered myself blessed as a writer to be part of Europe. The culture which includes writers as diverse as Balzac, Marco Vici, Hugo and Colette is an ever self-enriching one, and we have been fortunate indeed to be part of that.

How have your own personal experiences influenced your writing?

I think even if your telling of a certain story doesn’t seem connected to your own life experience, that experience will be embedded in this somewhere. Sometimes stories come directly from my family history, places travelled or lived in, or people met. Other stories might seem removed from the above, but actually- have elements of my experience in them.

Occasionally I write from a current event, and it’s true that living in ‘interesting times’ (a polite way of saying that you turn the news on every night wondering what on earth could have happened today) these ‘event’ based poems grow in number. Over the past year I’ve written poems as responses to the disaster of Brexit and about how lack of empathy leads people to disregard what’s happening to fellow human beings in front of their noses.

Even a poem based in the nineteenth century (‘The Boy Acrobat’s Villanelle’ published in Leicester 2084 AD) ended with an image of twenty-first century child migrants, children whose Dickensian plight can only be ignored via a spectacular lack of empathy.

What are your main concerns as a writer? 

Like most writers, I want to tell a story (whether in poetry or prose) well, and make the reader feel that the read was worth it. I also like putting people and places before the reader that come from my own growing-up, family stories, and local legends. I became aware in my late teens that my Grandma’s language, her bit of Nottinghamshire, and the world she grew up in, was vanishing. Like George Mackay Brown’s Orkney, I wanted to get some of it down before it went all together.

When I was writing my three volumes of stories set in variety, I had a desire to make the reader’s emotional response to the short fictions similar to those they’d get in a theatre – a story might bring a lump to your throat one minute and make you laugh in the next.

As with all such techniques and concerns, writers just have-to keep going, and I know whatever I’ve planned the story might well have other ideas. During the variety stories, an old lady, Grandwem (a cross between my Grandma and Great Aunt, plus some others) was going to be a minor character. She had other ideas and became the mainstay of all three books, the glue holding the family together.

In my current novel, the plan I’d made crashed and burned as a minor character did something awful as I wrote, and I had to go back and revise the whole first part of the book! Like painting, I love the unknown element that creeps in when you write, making me think of the old blues adage: ‘Make God laugh, tell him all your plans.”

What are the biggest challenges that you face? And, how do you deal with them?

I think for writers, challenges can be divided into practical working challenges, and aesthetic challenges.

The second category includes the obvious thing of being true to your ‘voice’ and the stories and poetic narratives you want to tell. In other words, it’s easy to become distracted from your purpose, think there are more fashionable things you could be writing, or forget why you wanted to tell a certain story in the first place. I’ve found it very useful to stop from time-to-time and ask: ‘why did you want to write this?’ I also find Robert Graves idea of ‘the reader over your shoulder’ very useful. Imagine someone looking at your work ‘over your shoulder’ – ask ‘what will they get out of it?’ If the answer is ‘not enough’ then that’s the time for a re-write or re-vision.

The first category I mentioned - the practical working challenge - may cover several bases. How much money do you need to earn to keep writing? Where does funding come from? How much time a week do you spend actually-writing? Is this time enough?

Due to current events, arts funding is going to become tighter, outreach for writers lessening as they are excluded from European opportunities, and I foresee writers who flourish will be previously established, have to work many more hours to stay afloat, or have private incomes and connections.

Reading information from literary bodies already indicates as much. I hope I’m wrong, and that writers beginning as I did from ordinary schools and backgrounds will have opportunities similar to mine. But I think most writers from state schools will struggle more, and that all writers will face challenges we couldn’t have seen prior to 2017. The challenge is (to mis-quote a US President) to do it because it is hard, to do it because it is there – to do it because that’s what you do. And (to misquote a US boxing legend) if you do what you love, strive to be the best at it you can be.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Interview _ Gareth Calway

Gareth Calway is a published poet, novelist, playwright, lyricist and member of folkband, the Penland Phezants.

His works include Doin Different (Poppyland, 2016) and Bound for Jamaica (Collins, 2012).

Like Eric Idle and John Major, he resented his birthday (March 29) being stolen for Brexit Day 2019. These poems are his revenge.

His poems have also been featured in Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction (CivicLeicester, 2019).

In this interview, Gareth talks about his writing:

When did you start writing? 

At school (late 60s, early 70s). I started by imitating lyrics by 'thinking' groups and artists like the Beatles, Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Hendrix, self-publishing these as lyrics sheets on mock-up fantasy albums by my own fantasy band. At the time, the hippie movement seemed all to my youthful and optimistic mind to be embarked on a search for 'the answer' (many were but some weren't) and I honestly didn’t distinguish much between writers I was studying at school (like Wordsworth and DH Lawrence), rock bands and Biblical prophets and psalmodists.

I was motivated to write such portentous lyrics by a would-be gnostic yearning to express and share wisdom, which I was constantly trying to imbibe from poets and lyricists and which interested me much more than mundane life in a teenage wasteland. In truth, of course, I knew very little about life and most of what I read or listened to was beyond my experience or understanding. Not all, though, and as a writer I was regarded by my contemporaries as a sincere and enigmatic 'seeker' after something, if no-one was quite sure what, and by the older generation as unsettling and vaguely dangerous.

How did you decide you wanted to be a published writer?

I loved the engagement of 60s and 70s folk/rock performers (the folk protest scene, Beatles, Dylan, Elvis Costello etc) with their audiences through words that spoke to and mobilised their generation. I also loved learning the history of English Literature at school and assumed that writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Romantic Poets were just earlier versions of such a protest scene. I wanted nothing else than to be part of that, to perhaps one day be listed among the artists who had spoken to and influenced their time.

At University I contributed to the undergraduate writing magazines available and afterwards began contributing to such journals as London Delhi Poetry Quarterly, Encounter, Footnotes, Anglo Welsh Review, New Welsh Review etc and (usually with less success) entering poetry competitions.

How would you describe the writing you are doing now?

Musical, with a unity of sound and meaning - often using forms (like the folk ballad, the rap, the sonnet and the Urdu ghazal) that can be put to music and sung and/or dramatised like an actor's lines.

Who is your target audience?

I would like to connect with young, modern, diverse, multicultural Britain as well as my own generation i.e a contemporary folk audience and to be a 'word on the street' at least as much as in the classroom.

I think poets that matter are those with a vision of who we really are and can be.

I am a poet of Britain, which I love (i.e as a patriot who loves his country rather than hates everybody else's country: not every so-called 'patriot' makes that distinction sadly!) very much including the fact that we have always been defined, diversified and continually improved by embracing peoples and influences from 'abroad'. For example, I write using the Persian ghazal (albeit in English translation) more than any other form and this connects me with the ancient, Eastern tradition of love poetry it embodies as well as its exciting modern re-definitions in fusions of Eastern and Western psychology and culture in Britain, India and everywhere in between.

A language and a literature defines a land: we need a new one to reflect the 'internationally-connected', 'global-embracing' Britain we can become and writing that speaks this kind of 'English' can help to create it. Rooted here, in our unique landscape and history, but speaking beyond to our diverse selves and the world. The 'canon' of English Literature was never narrow anyway – Chaucer, the Father of English Literature is a vibrant new creole of Anglo-Saxon, French, Italian languages and traditions etc. The Tudor sonnet was from Italy (and originated in the Persian ghazal). A poet can help forge and express a new 'national consciousness', help to expand how we think, in the very opposite way from which some politicians - speaking what Orwell would call Newspeak - narrow it down.

What steps are you taking to connect with the audience you would like to reach?

I do most of my poetry performing at folk festivals (and folk clubs) arts centres, museums, history groups, village halls, churches etc - often though not always with and in a touring band - so I have a folk-musical audience more than a 'poetry reading' one.

Folk club audiences tend to be older; folk festivals have a range of ages. I reach a more diverse and international (including a younger) audience by posting my work online … I have regular listeners, viewers and readers in India, America, the Near East, Australia etc as well as in British cities ... and through radio appearances and/or recordings played on the radio (BBC as well as internet radio stations).

The internet is one way of overcoming my geographical semi-isolation from the more obvious and diverse centres of artistic exchange; another is a willingness to travel and tour. It would definitely be easier poet-wise to be in a diverse modern 'happening' city but rural Norfolk does have the compensation of being earthed in the rhythms of country life and the seasons and a lot of untold or under-told stories to tell, if not always the places to tell them in.

In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?

Hafiz, John Donne, Shakespeare, Chaucer, TS Eliot, Yeats, UA Fanthorpe, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and the tradition of the folk ballad because they craft their verse with their minds at full stretch but always from an aching heart and don't forget to tell stories to the tavern, and be (like Hafiz) part of national life "from the road sweeper to the university don."

I also like Dante’s assumption that poetry is a vocation, that the poet can construct a panoramic vision (which, in his case, embraces all of European civilisation in an attempt to embrace the whole of human experience.) His Universe is driven by Love - which the poetry both philosophises upon and actually manifests in passages of heartfelt lyrical intensity and in the terza rima form imitates Italian speech patterns and chats and chants by turn in a heightened but still natural way. This ambitious role for the poet still seems a measure to which modern poets, in a very different world, can aspire, helping to combine our much greater diversity with a sense of shared humanity and combat our tendency to social fragmentation and atomisation. Oddly enough it was James Joyce’s modernist rejection of Dante as the Catholic model of the artist, replacing it with Joyce’s own epiphanic view of art as a ‘priest of the imagination- i.e a modernisation of Dante’s own vocation- that appealed to me.

Without such an aspiration for our art as a wondering, seeking, delighting, sense-making adventure, poetry would be merely entertainment or crossword puzzle clever. (Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those as part of the larger artistic role: we could all have done with more comedy in the Divine Comedy! )

How have your own personal experiences influenced your writing?

I have always seen poetry as a wrestle with self, other, heart, head, form, music and meaning towards self-knowledge and self-expression, the expression of - or making conscious of - a vision. But humour, comedy and not taking oneself TOO seriously are also part of that. I try to balance satire with forbearance and, if I fail, to at least make my 'victims' die laughing.

I want to make people think about the human condition, feel deeply and laugh at human absurdity. I want words to sing and carry emotion, to be a solace in themselves but also to motivate anyone who hears them to be lifted and encouraged into making the world a better place.

I don't like the way 'serious' poetry has developed a reputation for being so difficult that now even English teachers avoid it. I learn mine by heart and perform it like theatre - or with my drum or my folk band as the lyrics to our songs - to try to connect with audiences before they put a barrier of "oh God this is poetry" in the way of letting it touch, amuse or inspire them. In other words, getting poetry back to its roots in music and feeling and spirit as well as ideas and complexity.

I believe poetry is a calling not a business; the true poet seeks his or her soul not how to market it.

Do you write every day?

I write every day. I don't have sessions as such. Poetry is always working away either at the back or front of my mind.

How many books have you written so far?

One comic novel, River Deep Mountain High, set in a state school in the Welsh valleys, 1968 - present, a requited but long unconsummated love story, Bluechrome, 2008.

One short novel for children, Bound for Jamaica, about the Atlantic slave trade, Collins, 2009.

Cromwell's Talking Head, a dramatic monologue 'spoken' by Oliver Cromwell, Diggers 2012.

Various educational books for secondary school English, most notably for Classical Comics (Study Guides about Jane Eyre and the Canterville Ghost) and as series editor / writer of the best selling 8 book "Aiming at Progress in..." series which is the only publication which ever earned me any real money! Collins, 2009.

Nine books of poetry:

City Zen, self-published pamphlet 1982, Zen snapshots of inner city Gloucester;

Coming Home, 3 sections: dramatic monologues of mineral, vegetable, animal stages of evolution (free verse); of historical moments (various historical forms); of spiritual planes of consciousness (ghazals) King of Hearts Publishing, 1991;

Britain's Dreaming, Frontier Publishing, 3 sections: Boudicca's revolt against Rome as a sort of Greek tragedy in classical, lyrical and 'punk' verse; poems about industrial decline in the Eastern valley of Wales; mystical ghazals, 1998;

The Merchant of Bristol, a Tudor sonnet sequence about a 16th century Mayor of Bristol who smuggled leather and grain to Iberia and wine from it. The Day Dream Press, 2004;

Sheer Paltry, Bristol City Football Club, 2004; football sonnets, chants and personal accounts of being a fan;

The House on the River, sonnets and free verse telling the story of Norwich from primeval to present through one house on a river; King of Hearts Publishing, 2004,

Exile In His Own Country, Bluechrome, 2006, a 'best of' collection of all previous;

Doin Different, 39 New Ballads from the East of England, folk ballads telling the story of Eastern England notably Norfolk through historical figures and ordinary folk, Poppyland, 2015;

6 Degrees of Separation; 7 Degrees of Love, Sheriar Press, 2016, mystical ghazals, sonnets and villanelles about a life following the Indian mystic Meher Baba.

What is your latest book about?

6 Degrees of Separation; 7 Degrees of Love is about the 'calling' of poetry as a spiritual vocation and a path to perfect happiness through desperate trials.

I was working on the book from 1979 to 2016 in terms of its individual poem content ... it's a lifelong achievement and story. The final stages or conceptualisation or refining as a collection larger than the sum of its parts took about 3 years.

The book was published in America by Sheriar Press in 2016. Some whole sections had appeared in my earlier collections … like Coming Home and Britain's Dreaming ... Sheriar gave me the chance to put all my 'spiritual' ghazals and poems in one book as a coherent statement, as a sort of odyssey through inner space.

The fact that the publisher is based in America and that my connection with them is distant and online is a disadvantage in some ways but they sell more than my other poetry books to a targeted audience there so it may actually be an advantage not to be physically involved in marketing it myself.

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into the book?

I am not a fundamentalist and yet the book deals with fundamentals - God, spiritual questing, death, divine love, who we are beyond the physical world etc - so I find it a challenge to address these issues without losing the tavern audience.

It would be easy to lose touch with real readers by sounding 'religious' instead of engaging with the real issues of our times, which religious language has become alienated from. A bit like waging a crusade in the name of one's God instead of the much much more difficult task of actually practising the love all Faiths repeatedly prescribe as the cure.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

I love crafting metaphysical words, phrases and ideas into the fiendishly difficult rhyme and metre of the ghazal (or the Petrarchan sonnet) form, wrestling all that profundity into something simple and musical and heartfelt as possible.

I love speaking the resulting 'magical' patterns aloud by heart or having a musician sing and play them. I enjoy this because it's making conscious and easy the wisdom I think we all have and when it communicates to listeners, it's bliss.

The truth is simple but only some pretty intense metaphysical work mastering words, ideas and form can make it so (says he, paradoxically, but then our life itself is paradoxical.)

What sets the book apart from other things you've written? 

This is an interesting question because I think it's because it's all in the present. Much of my work is historical in one way or another, even if only the history of my own life, and it's often set hundreds of years ago. 6 Degrees of Separation; 7 Degrees seems to inhabit an eternal present stretching away beyond the past and the future.

This book is also more intensely personal than much of my work - I more typically invent characters, living in history - and yet oddly more universal as well.

I hadn't really realised this until you asked.

In what way is it similar to the others?

I like working in tight 'musical' forms and metres: the discipline and need for economy helps me distil a lot of feeling.

By nature, I am garrulous, discursive and excursive - always trying to make sense and with a lot of words flowing out – so, the discipline of such form is vital.

What will your next book be about?

Nursery Rhymes - the way they often record real events in history in a gnomic, epigrammatic way. I will explore this with a show with my folk band, the Penland Phezants.

Two of your poems, “Tommy's 100th” and "Breck's Isle" are featured in Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction. What would you say the poems are about?

“Tommy's 100th” was one of those out-of-the-blue experiences where I knew as soon as it started that a poem was going to result. I was at a village memorial, rain and leaves gusting everywhere - the 100th anniversary of 1918 - wondering if there's a moment when remembrance becomes ossified into something else, not so much a grateful salute to the fallen as a perpetuation of dead grievances.

Brexit seemed very much in the air and little remembrance, for example, of those huge parts of Europe with which we were allied though both World Wars, Polish airmen at the Battle of Britain etc etc, or of all the Commonwealth nations who had rallied to defend this land. "The Europe we won (against extreme nationalism) then didn't want" sums up the tragedy of all that for me.

"Breck's Isle" comes from a King Arthur sequence - the Arthur myth (myth defined as an eternal present beyond the past and the future) records the seismic moments when Britain has been invaded and heroically defended but has also absorbed all we've been invaded and enriched by: Saxons, Normans and everything since. For example, Lancelot is both the Celtic god Llugh and the much later Norman knight Lancelot du lac.

We should have more confidence in Britain to cope and grow with age-old change and diversity and learn the mythical lesson of Vorgigern King of Little Britain who tried to shut it all out and perished. We don't live in a vacuum; Britain is greater in Europe than isolated from it. Breck and his isle is my modern mythical version of Vortigern.

How have the poems been received?

With laughter (notably the Daily Mail font line) and with acknowledgement of the 'greater' patriotism the poems expresses; the rejection of the Farage-fake-running-scared patriotism which is so destructive of our national interest...

Also, acknowledgement of the attempt to embrace the whole nation including the Brexit side of the argument and a greater patriotism (a love of modern, diverse, inclusive Britain) that is harder to do than simply asserting a counter-credo to Farage/Bojo et al.

Why is it important for poets to speak up on social, political and related matters?

Because I think poetry, unlike much of our politics, will naturally tolerate nuances and contradictions and express them honestly - even sometimes when the author him/herself may 'think' he/she is doing something else. As Yeats said, out of the argument with others we make rhetoric or politics; out of the argument with ourselves, poetry.

In your view, what do anthologies like Bollocks to Brexit add to poetry and public discourse?

They give everyone a say - including many that are often unheard or have uncomfortable things to say, things that demand your consideration or human allegiance rather than simply your vote. They present a human face to all sides of the story.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Interview _ Katherine Cleave

Katherine Cleave is a Fine Artist living in Barnes. Since graduating from Goldsmiths College, her artwork has been displayed at several London galleries and events. Her work presents an ironic play of words, phrases and images juxtaposed to create a lively stage on which to probe reality. Recent work includes a small collection of poems.

In this interview, Katherine talks about her writing:

When did you start writing?

I started writing during my Thesis in the final year of my BA in Fine Art and Theoretical Criticism. I had based my work on a comparison between the playwright, Luigi Pirandello and the Fine Artist, Jannis Kounellis. The work required a leap of faith but I wanted to show that, in essence, it is not the medium that is important, but the message. I consider myself an artist: sometimes I paint, sometimes I write – with varying degrees of success!

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

I write poetry. The abstract nature appeals to me and I love the collaged effect of words and sounds seeking to convey a moment/emotion/concern. I enjoy playing with a tale, told from a humorous angle with dark undercurrents… the bitter aftertaste is what attracted me to writing.

This year, I decided to put a couple of poems in for some competitions and anthologies purely to access a new audience and I was curious to get some feedback. I googled ‘Poetry Competition 2019’ and then selected a couple of entries based on subjects that interested me. One competition was entitled ‘About Time’ for the Roger McGough Poetry Prize and the other was a call for poems and short fiction on the theme, ‘Bollocks to Brexit’, edited by Ambrose Musiyiwa.

Who is your target audience?

In all honesty, I’m not sure I have written enough to be able to answer this question. As with most art, I suspect it is more a case of certain works appealing to different people depending on their individual experience or interests.

In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?

For a while, Haruki Murakami’s work entitled Killing Commendatore, felt as though it was written for me alone to the point that I intend to recreate the painting as described if only to recreate that feeling.

I often listen to audible books during dog walks since I find it frees my mind to paint the characters and their world to such a degree it feels as though I am there – away from the words on the page.

I also love the juxtaposition of time in David Mitchells’ books and I was also influenced by the conversational tone of Diana Evans recent work, Ordinary People.

Recent membership of The Poetry Society has also proved inspiring and I always look forward receiving my quarterly Poetry Reviews.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

I recently retold a story from my past, which made me laugh out loud although revisiting the past as an adult, inevitably involved confronting the serious consequences of my past actions. I found the experience both refreshing and rather disconcerting.

I also discovered that when I get too precious with part of a painting, unable to go forward or back, a ‘painters block’ as I call it, re-channeling those thoughts into writing has proved to be a successful compromise to an artistic stalemate.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

I am fascinated by several themes such as the creation and appraisal of art; the individual within society; concepts surrounding time; fragility of health; death and masquerade.

I invariably approach a sensitive topic employing humour and farce. Both the creation and analysis are much more enjoyable plus it offers a casual stage from which to deal a hefty blow when the audience is relaxed.

My biggest challenges are, if I am honest, developing a strict regime to write regularly and, more importantly, to actually DO something with it. (I am exceedingly good at creating things for no other reason than the satisfaction of doing it.)

Do you write everyday?

I do not write every day but I do find myself sitting at my computer several times a week when the mood takes me. I tend to have left it to within a couple of hours of collecting the kids, and then dare myself to rush my thoughts out in the premise that I will ‘tidy up’ the poem later. Sometimes the rewrites are radical sometimes minimal. Some are canned before they see the light of day.

My poem, ‘Timeline’, was published this year in About Time, an anthology of shortlisted entries from the Roger McGough Poetry Prize published by Arts Richmond. Another poem entitled ‘Exit, Stage Right’ was published in Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction, edited by Ambrose Musiyiwa and published in 2019 by CivicLeicester.

What are you working on at present?

My current project is a collection of around 30 of my poems with accompanying artwork entitled Thought Threads.

Although the majority of the poems were created or revised in the past 6 months, it has taken me approximately 1 year to put the collection together.

I intend to publish Thought Threads this summer through self-publishing with KDP on Amazon.

I like the idea of the immediacy of self-publishing despite the fact that it lacks the marketing angle or the support of an editor. Maybe that will become more relevant in time when I have a greater body of work but for now I am more interested in having a physical volume with which I can gain feedback.

Your poem, ‘Exit, Stage Right’ is featured in Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction. What would you say the poem is about?

I wrote 'Exit, Stage Right' as a satirical take on Brexit. I wanted to capitalise on the them-and-us in society; the polarised black and white extremes from what is invariably a position of ignorance. I am particularly frustrated with the ‘I support this side and I’m sticking to it regardless’ pack mentality in politics. The endless repeating of meaningless empty catchphrases such as ‘Brexit means Brexit’, ‘Leave means Leave’ etc. has become an increasingly desperate mantra. I picture my poem read by a beery, aggressive, Shane Meadows character crossed with Johnny Rotten as he drunkenly slurs the words to ‘Road Runner’ having ‘forgotten the words’. Sadly the anthem ceases to be amusing when it could signify the financial ruin of many people and the unfortunate rise of racism in our country; hence the rather sad, deflated repetition at the end, ‘Here we go, here we go, here we go’.

How have the poems been received?

I live in London so it’s hardly surprising that most of the poems in the anthology went down very well (although doubtful if the same could be said for our MP Zac Goldsmith, who I am told, has also received a copy!) On a more serious note, despite Brexit being a tentative subject for many families, I was heartened to see we could still all laugh and enjoy the poems, which has since broken the ice and served to heal a few unspoken rifts in the process.

Why is it important for poets to speak up on social, political and related matters?

In order to both understand why we feel a certain way and in order to comprehend a different perspective, it is essential to have discussion. Various art forms provide a useful stage to have that communication in a non-threatening environment. The abstract nature of poetry allows observations to be subtly hinted or bluntly stated or even just offer an alternative version of reality to that expressed on various media platforms.

Politics can divide but there is no reason why it should. It is important to listen objectively in order to fully understand why someone has voted the way they have or feels the way they do. It is invariably the polarisation in society that has led people to lash out in anger – often in a ballot box with dire consequences.

In your view, what do anthologies like Bollocks to Brexit add to poetry and public discourse?

The anthology acts as a sponge, soaking up the thoughts and feelings felt by many but voiced by few. It felt cathartic to be involved in the process and hopefully the combined musings of several writers can channel some of that dissent to make people question our current political crisis and it also highlights the ‘them and us’ which is both mirrored in public discourse and on the streets. ‘We can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them’, as someone wise once said.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Interview _ Trefor Stockwell

Trefor Stockwell studied English at Bangor University, and has recently completed his PhD in Creative Writing. He now lives on the Isle of Anglesey where he concentrates on writing and performing poetry. Currently he is working on a novel.

In this interview, Trefor talks about his writing:

When did you start writing?

I have always written but have taken it much more seriously since University.

My writing efforts are of an eclectic nature: poetry, prose and the occasional article. My audience is anyone who finds my work interesting. Primarily though I write for myself, and if others then enjoy it that’s a bonus.

I have never really wanted to be published for the sake of it, but it became an expectation when I started to do post-graduate work on creative writing.

Which writers influenced you most?

The writers who have influenced me most are: Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie both of whom were cited in my PhD thesis on creative writing.

I not only enjoyed their work for its unique, and sometimes quirky, approach to subject matter, but also it inspired my own approach to the situation I found myself in: at the time I was living in a small Bulgarian village, and was at the time the only Westerner in the valley. Although I was made welcome, I still sensed a feeling of isolation. I was also struggling to come to terms with the changes to the country - this was in the early days of transition to the EU and a change from a centuries old agrarian to a more capitalist society. My writing needed to reflect this change, and the fact that my presence - no matter how sympathetic I was to the culture - was leaving a cultural footprint: the villager were researching me just as much as I was them. My work, therefore, grew increasingly more Magical Realist in nature.

How else have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

I think all writers are influenced by events in their own lives. In my own case I have always tried to convey a left wing political message in my work. I also find that the loss of a loved one in a tragic accident led to some rather dark and cathartic poetry. Both of these elements are to be seen in my poetry collection, Life, Love, Politics and Other Silliness.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My writing is becoming increasingly more political, this is especially so in my poetic efforts. This has become more so since the advent of the Brexit debate and the increasing drift toward extreme idealistic national politics. I have become alarmed with the similarities to the situation in 1930s Germany. Poetry is my way of expressing those fears.

Do you write every day?

I write on most days but do allow myself time away from the keyboard. My biggest challenge is self-discipline; I try to allocate myself a certain amount of time each day and treat it like a job.

I find I must force myself to start, but then find that once I do it’s even more of an effort to stop.

I have published four works: A novel: Clerical Errors, Secular Lies; two short story collections: Bread and Wine and The Tales of Ivan Levsky; one poetry collection: Life, Love, Politics and Other Silliness.

What is Life, Love, Politics and Other Silliness?

It is a poetry collection.

It was written over a number of years. The more personal aspects of the collection were the most difficult to write, but also the most rewarding and cathartic. The collection was published by Dorogoy Press/LuLu in 2018. I completed all the layout work myself.

The main advantage of this, is that I can order as and when required and also sell through Amazon.

One of your poems, ‘When We Weren’t Looking’, is featured in Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction. What would you say the poems are about?

‘When We Weren’t Looking’ was written in response to my growing concerns about where our country is heading since the referendum. It was written very recently, and reflects on the fact that our own apathy appears to be allowing the unspeakable to come about by stealth. It is also about my own fear that the referendum has been the touchstone to a release of national xenophobia and a right wing agenda that harks back to a golden age which in truth never really existed. In my opinion the only way for us as a nation to reunite is take the whole thing back to the people - either as a people's vote, or through a people's assembly.

How has the poem been received?

Difficult to say, but it appears to have found favour with audiences. Why this is, is again, difficult to say, but either they approve, or are very kind – probably a mixture of both.

Why is it important for poets to speak up on social, political and related matters?

It has always been important for people in the arts to speak out. Quite often artists, writers, musicians and the like are the first to notice the defects in society, and are possibly more trusted by that society than the political leaders,

In your view, what do anthologies like Bollocks to Brexit add to poetry and public discourse?

Anthologies such as Bollocks to Brexit allow disparate views to be broadcast more widely rather than relying on the mainly biased opinion of the media, or the meaningless sound bytes of the political class: 'strong and stable' and 'Brexit means Brexit' are two examples of slogans that are completely without meaning, yet are repeated over and over again, until they become perceived as absolute truisms, this is aided by a media that is in the main controlled by the very rich, and entirely influenced by the need for profit.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Interview _ Sarra Culleno

Sarra Culleno is a London-born, Manchester-based UK poet, a mother of two and an English teacher.

She writes about issues that include children’s rights, motherhood, identity, technology and politics. Her work has been published in magazines and anthologies that include Les Femmes Folles (‘Lost in my DMs’, ‘Song of the Young Mother’ and ‘Phone Phantom Pantoum’), Three Drops (‘PMT Virelai’), Hidden Voices (‘Hansel and Gretel, the Woodcutter’s Children’) and in Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction (CivicLeicester, 2019).

In 2019, Sarra was longlisted for the Cinnamon Press Pamphlet Prize and appeared as a featured poet at HerStories Festival, Celebrate Whalley Range, and That’s What She Said (For Books Sake).

Readings can be found on her YouTube channel and through her Instagram and Twitter profiles.

In this interview, Sarra talks about her writing:

When did you start writing?

I've always written, but only started sending pieces to publishers this year.

I'm an English teacher, so I have taught the nuts and bolts of poetry for sixteen years. My two children are now old enough for me to have a hobby which led me to performance poetry and spoken word events.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

It's a mixture of formal and blank verse, on themes of dual heritage identity, motherhood, monogamy, the education system, gender, and politics.

The motherhood poems are autobiographical, as are the dual heritage identity poems. I'm of Iranian-Irish descent which did not seem particularly interesting or unique to me until I left London in my twenties.

My poems on the education system are rooted in my experiences as a classroom teacher and mother of primary school age children.

I hadn't realised the impact Sylvia Plath had on my writing till recently. I can see the influence of her cadences and extended metaphor. Hafsa Aneela Bashir, more recently; her bravery is raw and visceral which made me braver when writing about painful personal experiences such as post-natal depression.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My main concern is producing a finished poem, but I can't stop tinkering with syllable counts, metre and so on even after I've sent them off! I'm very badly organised, so I do not keep track of what I've submitted where... Sooner or later a publisher is going to get very cross with my simultaneous submissions!

What are the biggest challenges that you face? And, how do you deal with these challenges?

Rejections are hard to take, but it's an unavoidable part of writing. It's also a chance to ask myself what I can improve.

Do you write everyday?

I can't write everyday. I have a demanding full-time career and two small children. I get my ideas while driving home. Before I get out of the car I scribble them into a notebook. Once the children are asleep, I'll do my research and choose a suitable form which I hope will enhance the meaning or topic. Finally, I'll sew it together and then review it in a day or two. Then the tinkering starts... And never stops!

I'm writing my poetry collection at the moment. I started it in February and I'm still working on it now. I have about forty poems I'm happy with and many more I've cut. When I have about eighty, I'll submit it for publishing as a book rather than a chapbook. An early draft of it was longlisted for the Cinnamon Press Pamphlet Prize this year. I hope I've improved on it since then.

When I've finished, I'll submit it to small presses based in the North West and London as it will be easier for me to be involved in launch events. The types of publishers which I think would be a good fit, would be women-focused and known for releasing titles exploring gender.

Which aspects of the work you are putting into the poems do you find most difficult? Why do you think this was so?

I ended up scrapping all my spoken word poetry from publishing submissions, and I will not usually read my more formal poetry at performance events. I love both for different reasons, but only a few of my poems cross over. I've tried to include a number of accessible poems in my collection, which are not in the least oblique or literary, hoping this will broaden appeal. I've recorded readings for some of these on my YouTube channel.

I most enjoy writing poetry when an idea emerges of its own accord, and writes itself. It's depressing when there's a "drought", though.

I'm looking forward to the school holidays to start the writing flow off again.

One of your poems, ‘Terza Rima's Woke Blog’ is featured in Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction. How did the poem come about?

I wrote ‘Terza Rima's Woke Blog’, for my pupils and younger colleagues. Neither can build any stability into their futures, and yet they are the hardest working and most conscientious people that I know. I feel their generation is forsaken.

Advertising agencies were employed to peddle Brexit and manufacture consent. Marketing companies know that facts will not sell products, but that emotions sell a brand. There needs to be awareness raised for both sides, that referendums are opinion polls, not unbreakable contracts. Perhaps this is where poets could help.

Why is it important for poets to speak up on social, political and related matters?

It's important for everyone to speak up. But if you have an unusual way of saying it, it's to your advantage.

My worry is that Brexit is what Chomsky might call "a Roman Game of Circus" designed to incite a very narrow but impassioned debate involving both left and right, to distract us all from what is really going on: the stripping of human rights to bring our workforce in line with China and India, and to colonise our publicly owned assets in the TTIP deal. Chomsky, in his explanation of how we are kept passive, puts it better than me, when he says in The Common Good, "Limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum..."

In your view, what do anthologies like Bollocks to Brexit add to poetry and public discourse? Why does this matter?

As a reader, I prefer anthologies as you get a broader perspective on a theme, and experience multiple forms and styles.

Politically, art resonates better than facts, figures and debates. And if Brexit proved anything, it's that people follow their hearts. Not their minds.

The TTIP deal was debated a lot on social media before the referendum - it has vanished entirely since. The debates on public services, spending, living standards, and many other pressing issues are silenced now too. Brexit is the greatest political distraction ever contrived. It was never a possibility or even a yes/no question. It's important for anyone who realises this, on the left AND the right to reach people still arguing about a non-starter distraction. We still have to protect our hard won rights from the greedy, who will happily turn us into an impoverished, enslaved, poisoned and hateful nation.

Brexit is “a non-starter distraction” because it was invented as a Roman Game of Circus, purely to divert debate from other issues. It is an impossibility, but while we all argue about it, our civil rights and public assets are being stripped under our noses. It is useful for the government to prolong their inevitable admission that it was never going to happen, as this cultivates a climate of fear and apathy, which controls everyone (those of us already impoverished, and also anyone left who realises however little we have can be taken away). I believe they will push the deadline forward each time it arrives until they eventually admit they had no intention or means to take the eggs out of a cake which is already baked. So to speak.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Interview _ Paul Francis

Paul Francis is a prolific, versatile poet, living in Much Wenlock. He has published two collections, Various Forms and 5-string Banjo, and a range of topical pamphlets. He is active on the local circuit of poetry readings and has been placed in six national poetry competitions.

In this interview, Paul talks about his writing:

When did you start writing?

I wrote my first poem at the age of ten and haven’t stopped since.

There wasn’t a clear moment where it could be said I decided I wanted to be a published writer. I’ve always read, so I’ve thought of writers as important, and writing as a worthwhile activity. It’s a natural step from there to think, “Why not me?”

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

Varied, enjoyable, most of it transitory.

When I write, I don’t start from the audience. I start from the writing and then go looking for the audience. For most of what I do, the immediate audience is other writers who go to poetry events around the West Midlands.

Sometimes it reaches beyond that, through a series of accidents. I discovered a week ago that the leader of an Orkney Ramblers holiday I went on in 2014 has been reading my Orkney Sonnets to his recent customers. Totally gobsmacking, but good to know.

Which authors influenced you most?

Shakespeare, Shelley, George Orwell for a start. Shakespeare and Shelley (‘Ozymandias’) for the sonnets, Shelley (‘Masque of Anarchy’) and Orwell for the politics.

The range and intensity of Shakespeare’s sonnets have always impressed me – there’s so much you can find in this apparently limited form. ‘Ozymandias’ is terrific. It came out of a challenge between Shelley and a friend – write a sonnet about a recent visit to the British Museum. It’s a powerful, well-organised sonnet that proceeds towards its conclusion, getting better all the time BUT it also plays around with the formal rhyme scheme. It’s not simply three four line chunks with a couplet tacked on to the end.

‘Masque of Anarchy’ is a great poem. short lines, tight rhyming and controlled anger all the way through.

What I like about Orwell is the aim for clarity – look hard, but keep what you’re writing as clear and simple as you can.

How have your own personal experiences influenced your writing?

I was brought up in a very pleasant middle-class home. Lots of books, time for reading, supportive parents etc.

It was only when I went to Raymond Williams’ lectures, and then started teaching in a Nottinghamshire mining town, that I registered how differently many people lived – and what a rough deal a large proportion of the population got from those who were in power.

This is really far too big to take on in this context. It’s about social class and money and power, and the recognition of how they operate in society.

Has there been a change from when I started teaching till now? How long have you got? I’ve written two books about this, What’s Wrong with the National Curriculum? and The Best Policy? Honesty in education, 1997-2001.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Making topical, political subject matter the content of poems which are good in themselves, not just a rant.

I have regular arguments with poetry friends about what poems can and can’t do. My view is hugely ambitious – poems can convey information, develop arguments etc... I need to work on the text, so as to convince sceptics that I might have a point.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Not huge. I’m retired, and have a pension. It’s a comfortable life. I write what I want to, and nothing hangs on what happens to it. I like trying to write different kinds of stuff.

The challenges I face are largely technical. I like regular forms, but recognise the current hostility to full rhyme and iambic pattern. One challenge is to try to face the potential criticism of those elements without sacrificing them – keeping the sense and the movement as active as possible.

Do you write everyday?

Most days. Sessions aren’t formal, and might be short. I’m lucky that I write fast, and always have plenty to write about.

How many books have you written so far?

I wrote three books about education, and various packs of educational materials.

I’ve written an autobiography and a novel, and have had three collections of plays for schools published (by Edward Arnold and CUP).

I’ve self-published two main collections of poems (Various Forms and 5-string Banjo), and fifteen pamphlets of various kinds.

My latest pamphlet is In the Dark, about social media during Brexit. It’s just over a dozen pages. Actual writing time, a few days. Research and thinking about it, nearer three years.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

I love manipulating information, ordering material – with this pamphlet, putting together the reference notes, sorting through the piles of (yes, actual paper) cuttings was a real buzz, and the actual writing itself, finding key images, hearing a phrase arrive in my head, which has the right sound.

In the Dark is very gritty – closely tied to the actual details of the Brexit debate – not appealing material for many readers; but, the pamphlet is accessible, easy to read and has a very clear position. I’m not coy about saying what I’m for and against.

How did you find a publisher for the pamphlet?

I’m a huge fan of self-publication, provided it’s done right, i.e. thought about, thoroughly checked, seen by critical eyes before publication. Given those conditions, it’s quick and cheap. Though, obviously, it can also be self-indulgent and a waste of everyone’s time.

What are you working on next?

Sonnets with notes will be published later this year. What’s different about it is that there are notes on each of the fifty sonnets, but they’re deliberately printed on the same page. To some that will be horrifying, but I compare it to poetry readings, where the commentary of poets on their work is often illuminating, leading to a deeper appreciation of the work. My gamble is that by giving more importance to the notes, I potentially increase readers’ chances of enjoying the poems.

You have two poems, ‘The Pitch’ and ‘Maverick’, in Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction. What would you say the poems are about?

‘The Pitch’ is about the damage of Brexit, to both sides. It adapts the Romeo and Juliet story, of two lovers divided by their feuding families, to the Brexit division between Remain and Leave.

I think Brexit has been a disaster, but that’s not simply because I’d have liked the result to be different. We’ve all suffered from the poisoning of the atmosphere, and these two young lovers are both casualties. Their death is a tragedy, but so is the future we face – uncertainty, expense, no clear gain achieved by massive upheaval.

‘Maverick’ is about Arron Banks – I don’t think we look anything like closely enough at how the Leave campaign was run, and why it worked. It’s not just that they told lies, it was the way they told them. We have to learn from that, as active citizens who can’t simply rely on the media to tell us what’s happening. The Daily Mail picked the BBC as one of the heroes of the Brexit campaign, and that’s a pretty damning indictment of their unwillingness to ask tough questions, and thoroughly investigate the promises that were made. We have to be sceptical and well-informed, if we’re not going to be seriously misled - as we were in this campaign.

How have the poems been received?

Generally, reception has been favourable. For years I was told that people don’t want to hear or read poems about politics. I don’t think that was true then, and I’m certain it’s not true now. Total strangers often come up at poetry readings to thank me for reading stuff about what’s on the news. Some people are allergic to rhymed poems, and I can see / hear the sneer start to form, but in performance the rhymes and the rhythm have their own appeal – especially to non-poets!

Why is it important for poets to speak up on social, political and related matters?

Because we’re citizens, and we need to share, and be together. Those feelings of outrage, anxiety need to be expressed – that’s how we get a better future.

In your view, what do anthologies like Bollocks to Brexit add to poetry and public discourse?

It’s tricky, because we’ve been – deliberately – divided into tribes. Not many leavers will pick up this book. If they do, will they be impressed, let alone convinced? I doubt it. But it does help our morale.

As one of the participants said, I’m sure there’ll be leavers, with their own poems, and a different anthology might try to mix the two, provide a portrait of a range of views. But that’s some way down the road, and a much tougher ask. For the moment, this is a start, and it’ll do.