Contained – My first solo book release!

Contained Cover

Some more exciting news! My first solo book, Contained, is out now through Hesterglock Press. You can buy the book from this link here for £10 (plus packing and postage) or alternatively, £4 for a pdf version. Though, if you know me you can buy a signed copy from me for £10.

Contained is a multi-media project which straddles art forms. Through prose poetry, essay-writing, visual poems and audio recordings it explores the themes of class and mental health – in terms of both the author’s lived experience and a wider discussion. The text and images in book form are accompanied by a QR code which links to the audio elements via a SoundCloud page. The audio is integral to the book, with all parts together forming a multi-sensory experience.

A little bit of praise for the book (and me):

David Turner writes of an experience of being an observer whilst trapped in four walls, where there is no universal or consistent idea of distress; where time expands and living space is reduced to distressed inhabitants and ultra-ordinary objects. – Melissa Lee-Houghton

Wry, chilling, lyrical: in this visceral and vital piece of work [Contained], Turner examines intimacies and violences with urgency and alacrity. – Eley Williams

Contained is incredible. Wonderful. Heart-stopping. It will be one of the books of this, any year. You need it in your life. – Rishi Dastidar

I’ve got three UK book launches lined up so far which you can read about here. Copies of the book will also be for sale at these events.

If you do get a copy of the book I’d love to know what you think of it.

David xx

Some exciting funding news!

IMG_1005

So… it’s taken a few attempts but I am absolutely delighted to be able to tell you that we have received funding from Arts Council England to transcribe and archive the outstanding 30-odd episodes.

Over the course of the next six months Lizzy and I will be working with our regular transcript technician, Christabel Smith to process 30 episodes that we were unable to work through with the first round of funding in 2018. This means that by this summer all Lunar episodes will be accompanied by a transcript – well, all except the few made up of only open-mic events or single poem readings.

Unfortunately, tracking down all of these poets and obtaining permission to reproduce their work and original poems for formatting purposes is sadly beyond our resources.

We now collect all of this information as a matter of course now so hopefully this kind of oversight is now a thing of the past.

The second part of the project will see us process and log 35 episodes prior to archiving within the Sounds Department at the British Library. This is an attempt to secure the archive of episodes against any unforeseen events, such as SoundCloud going out of business. This archiving work will ensure that should anything happen to our RSS feed all episodes will still be available within the British Library archive.

Here’s to the future!

David xx

Episode 123 – Vanessa Onwuemezi

LPP 123 Vanessa Onwuemezi

Episode 123 is now available to download/play wherever you get your podcasts and as always here on SoundCloud. For this episode I’m  in Walthamstow, east London talking to Vanessa Onwuemezi. We discuss how Vanessa came to be pursuing a life in writing and how she judges the quality of her writing.

This episode includes a small tribute to friend and poet Mishi ‘Dulwich Hamlet’ Morath who sadly passed away before Christmas.

A transcript (minus readings) is posted below. If you’d like a full transcript, download that here.

Guest: Vanessa Onwuemezi – VO

Host: David Turner – DT

Feature: Mishi Morath – MM

 

 Intro:

 

 

DT:      Hello, welcome to episode 123 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts, I’m David Turner. You alright? I was going to try and get this episode out before Christmas last year but it felt like it would be too much of a rush so I waited until now to do it properly, as it were.

The reason I was busy is that I was putting the finishing touches to my first collection of poetry which is out with Hesterglock Press. The book is a collection of prose poetry, visual art and essay style writing with the whole book being complimented by a series of recordings and experimental sounds and noises, ‘bleeps’ and ‘bloops’. It’s out officially the 8 February but Hesterglock have agreed to make it available a little earlier so if you’d like to grab yourself a copy for £10 plus packing and postage then follow the link in the episode description.

[The sound of a cassette tape rewinding] Hello, this is ‘meta-David’ interrupting the other David. I completely forgot to mention in this bit that if £10 plus packing and postage is beyond your reach financially then there is a PDF version of the book available for only £4. So, that’s a one-off-cost of £4 and you can read that PDF version on, I believe, any electronic device. Which is an option, right? I’ve just spliced this recording in because I just couldn’t face rerecording the intro. Back to the intro… [Cassette tape loading and playing.]

The recordings are available for free on my SoundCloud page – link also in the episode description.

I’ve got three UK book launches coming up if you’d like to come and say hello. The first is Saturday 8th February at Ye Olde Rose and Crown in Walthamstow, next it’s Cardiff Saturday 15th February at a fantastic new event called CRASH at the Flute and Tankard pub. Finally, a Bristol launch at HOURS Gallery Space and that’s Saturday 14th March. Links to all of these events in the episode description, of course. Of course.

I’m going to be joined by some fantastic poets at these events including today’s guest Vanessa Onwuemezi who will be appearing at the London event. I met up with Vanessa in Walthamstow, east London where we both live to discuss how she found herself to be pursuing a life of writing. You know, like all my other guests.  I’ve always really enjoyed chatting to writers at the beginning of their careers as they tend to curtail my inclination toward fairly heavy doses of cynicism about this industry. Which Vanessa does brilliantly with her optimism. Bloody optimism!

As always this episode is fully transcribed, click the link in the description or head over to lunarpoetrypodcasts.com to download the transcript. You’ll also find, on the website, a list of 80 poetry podcasts produced in the UK and Ireland to fill your time between my now increasingly infrequent episodes. This list, of course, includes our companion podcast a poem a week produced by my wife Lizzy Turner and features some really brilliant poetry readings every weekend. That alone is up to its 81st episode.

I’ll be back at the end of the episode with some exciting funding news and with a few words for poet and my friend Mishi Morath who sadly passed away before Christmas. It just doesn’t feel right talking about that at the beginning.

Anyway, here’s Vanessa.

 

Conversation:

 

VO:

 For this reading please download the full transcript.

 DT:      Thank you very much, Vanessa. Welcome to the podcast. It’s weird saying hello when we’ve already said hello and we’ve been chatting a little while when NFL was on. This seems like a good place to start. Why don’t you tell the listeners how you got into writing?

VO:      I should start by saying I studied Biology at university, which is something we spoke about before.

 DT:      I didn’t want to make it too much of a leading question, but it’s difficult when you know people and you’re coming on to do a professional job.

 VO:      It’s like, what did I tell you? Should I make it known?

 DT:      It’s definitely a good place to start, that you don’t necessarily have a background in writing.

 VO:      Yes, a literary background. I suppose it’s good to start there because how I came to writing, involves a kind of U-turn. It’s not really a U-turn, but it’s the best way to put it. I studied Biology and really enjoyed doing that, but during my degree, I already knew I wouldn’t be making a career out of it. Looking back, I think I could have studied other things as well. Languages, I really liked, or History, but Biology seemed the more sensible of the three at the time and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life, so I did that and I don’t regret that.

I did a Masters in a similar kind of subject, but it kind of moved on from Biology. It was Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, basically a bit more of a philosophical take on what

they call the hard problem, which is consciousness, the mind, and that kind of thing. It felt quite a natural step for me. I was definitely much more interested in the less tangible questions and I think a lot of writers are really.

So in some sense, I was already set up to be a writer or an artist. I think deep down, that’s what I really wanted to do. Nobody in my family was or is an artist or writer, so I think if it’s not close to you or you haven’t seen it done, it’s much more of a wobbly career path as well. There’s no set way to go about it necessarily, if you haven’t seen it done before.

 DT:      You’re just making it up as you go along.

 VO:      Yeah, definitely. I think a big part of getting into writing was realising that’s what I needed to do, that stepping off a more certain path. I considered Medicine. Before I completely gave up any ideas around that, I considered becoming a doctor, did a bit of work experience in hospital. It was my friend’s dad who was the consultant who helped me get this work experience and I was in a clinic with him, seeing patients who had kidney problems.

He left the room for a second and I was with this guy, this older man. He said to me: ‘Oh, so you want to be a doctor, that’s great.’ I said: ‘Yeah’, being polite and he said: ‘You know, because if you want to do something, you should just do it.’ Then he said: ‘If you really want to do it, it’s not hard.’ At that point, I was like: ‘OK, I’m not doing Medicine.’ I think at that point, I moved to France, actually.

 DT:      It’s strange that for some people, what would seem by far the hardest option is, in a lot of ways, the easy option. The path of least resistance is still a difficult path to follow, but had you gone into Medicine, you wouldn’t necessarily have had questions about how you get to your goal. Was there any resistance around you about wanting to be a writer?

 VO:      Most of the resistance comes from yourself and I think family can be difficult for some people. It wasn’t for me. My parents have always been quietly supportive. They’ve never been like ‘yeah, do this’ and they’ve never said ‘no, I don’t think you should do that.’ They’ve always just quietly supported me, which I’ve always been grateful for, because basically, they’ve left me to figure things out on my own without interfering very much.

 DT:      What you said rings true for a lot of writers I’ve spoken to in the podcast, in this imagined resistance against becoming a writer or pursuing a creative path is often due to not knowing how to get there. It seems an impossible dream.

 VO:      Yeah, definitely, especially when you’re very focused on it as a goal. I think that can be a barrier when you’re focused on having the published book, from a position where you’ve not written a sentence or you’ve written a couple of things and don’t really know where to go with it. You’re alone, thinking ‘I don’t know what to do with my life’. All of that can seem insurmountable, but then you start to realise that you then just have to do the next thing.

I worked at a theatre and the guy who ran the theatre, David Land, we had a conversation and he said ‘just do the next thing, don’t worry, you don’t have to have your life planned out.’ Once I started to trust that, it does ring true. You just do the next step. I’m still not published so if I were waiting for that, if that were my goal, and that was the only thing that I could measure my success against, I would constantly be on the back foot and the last 10 years would have been torture for me.

 DT:      That’s probably something we’ll come to later. That’s something I’m asking myself constantly: how do you gauge your own success, especially if there isn’t a profession to exist within? If you’re not published, that’s many people’s view of what being a professional writer is. What are you doing?, basically. That doesn’t mean you’re not doing anything, but you have to reconcile it in yourself as to what your motivations are.

 VO:      Definitely and what your view of success is, I suppose. I don’t have an explicit internal yardstick for success. I think what helped me was to realise that the goal was to write. The goal isn’t to be published. My goal is to write and be a good writer, basically, and focusing on that. That’s because I really like writing and it comes quite naturally to me. Not to say I never worry about what I’m going to do with myself or how I’m going to make a living, all those things are a really important part of it.

Going back to when we were talking about your own resistance and what barriers there are, especially with the arts, making a living, is one of them. I started this in my 20s and I don’t have any dependants, I’m pretty much a free agent, so to an extent, I can worry less about that aspect of it. It is a very material, as well as a psychological barrier, to even starting.

 DT:      If we go back to something you said there about your goal being to write and write well, how do you judge what you think is good? What mechanisms do you use if you’re not at the stage where you’re getting published and getting feedback from editors through the process of putting out a book and reviews and all the bullshit that comes after that? What are your current methods to gauge whether something is good?

 VO:      I workshop nearly every week with a group of friends I met when I did a creative writing MA, so I think that is my most immediate gauge. I think through practice, you get to know when something is… Obviously you think everything is rubbish on some level, but I think I have a good idea of knowing when something is messy or where something needs work and again, there is an internal gauge. If you’re happy with something and it’s said what you needed to say, then that is really when you can stop writing, I suppose.

 DT:      Do you have a constant set of parameters for quality when you’re writing or do they fluctuate from piece to piece?

 VO:      That’s a good question.

 DT:      I suppose I’m thinking more about what your process is as a writer and whether you shift style.

 VO:      Yeah. Until recently, I did. I still am learning to write, but when I was first starting, my style would really vary depending on what I’d read recently and what I’d read that I really liked. So I read [Thomas] Pynchon and all of a sudden, I was writing these really long, tumbling sentences. I read Denis Johnson and then my style changed, but I seem to have settled into something, at least for the moment, and I suppose the parameters are the same for each.

In a way I couldn’t really articulate what they were. I think you just know when a sentence is… I think rhythm is definitely very important for me. I tend not to be satisfied if the rhythm of the sentence I feel is not working or the way the rhythm of the piece works together.

 DT:      Is that a rhythm in your spoken voice or more internal? Do you try to imagine how a reader might read it?

VO:      Yeah, I read it out loud. I read everything out loud generally, usually when I start, I read the whole thing out loud. Often, I will know the rhythm of the sentence before the words and usually, I try and find the words. I know what the gist of the sentence will be and I might try and find the words to fit that rhythm, I think that’s a bit of an obsession. I guess that is a constant parameter.

DT:      We drifted very nicely away from my original, very banal question, but you touched upon the creative writing course you took, so if we jump back to how you got into writing. You got as far as you deciding not to study Medicine. So between there and the creative writing course, what happened to get to that point?

VO:      What happened? Actually, I was working at the time at a theatre. Somebody started in my team who was doing the creative writing course at Birkbeck, basically. This was about five years ago now, four years ago, and I had been writing a bit. I’d written a short story at that point, I think, and some poetry and she was really raving about it. I went to a party and met one of the tutors on the course and chatted with her a bit and we ended up going for a coffee.

That’s, in a backwards way, how I ended up applying. I sent her the story after that. She basically said ‘yeah, if you were to apply, you’d probably have a place’, so that’s how it happened. I didn’t really give it too much thought. I didn’t consider applying anywhere else either. I was just ‘yeah, this sounds all right’.

DT:      What was the focus of the course? Was it general creative writing or did it lean towards poetry or prose?

VO:      It was workshop based, so you’d workshop every week  and it was based around the short story, at least for the first year. I think there were about 30 people in a year, so around 10 people in each workshop and I think two or three people would go every week, so you’d send the story on the Sunday before. On the Wednesday, you’d show up and everyone would rip it to pieces.

DT:      How was that the first time?

VO:      I remember being really nervous. As everyone does, you suddenly have a weird view on your piece. It makes you look at it differently when you know it’s being read. As soon as you email it away and you know it’s being read by a couple of people, you start to reconsider what the hell you’re doing.

DT:      How much did it affect your writing process, knowing everything was going to be read?

VO:      I don’t know, really. Maybe not enough. I still left it to the last minute. Generally, the way I dealt with it, I would send it when I was just a bit fed up. I’d leave it to the last minute, then write all week and weekend until I was fed up, then send it off. In a way, it was a defence because I was so tired of it, I was happy to see it go, rather than terrified to know what people thought of it.

That was the way I dealt with it and actually, in the workshops, people were always very kind and supportive. It wasn’t, for me at least, a bad experience at all. It was a very good one, I think.

DT:      It’s interesting you talk about the defensive aspect of choosing to deal with deadlines in that way. I haven’t done a writing course like that, but I’ve been part of writing groups. I didn’t start sharing any work until I was in my early to mid-30s and it’s hard at that point, when you’re supposedly a ‘proper grown-up’, to suddenly start baring yourself in front of people and not get really defensive when people comment on your work.

I did the same thing, I would just bash stuff out, send it and go ‘if they don’t like it, it’s because it was rushed’. I know a lot of writers who swear by not ever joining any writing group, so you don’t need peer feedback, that’s their view. I’m a strong believer that if you’re going to go through the anxiety of doing it, you should do it properly and not half…I’m caught between saying half-heartedly and half-arsedly. Then just send stuff off and have an ‘easy out’, where you say that wasn’t really a considered piece, if they don’t like it, it’s to be expected.

Did you have to fight against that to get the most out of the course?

VO:      You mean fight against my defensive urges? No, I think I did sort myself out eventually. It really just depended on what else was going on in my life. It was at Birkbeck, so it was in the evenings. Everyone worked so everyone was on a similar page. You couldn’t always give all your time to it. I think I took reading other people’s work much more seriously, I gave much more time and attention and care to that.

Actually, I think after the first few workshops, some of the feedback was really good and helpful. I think when you realise how it can help, you want to send in a story you’ve actually worked on. You don’t want the things they’re picking up merely that you haven’t spent enough time on it. That’s not how you’re going to be a better writer. So I think I quickly realised actually, if I want to get the most out of the workshop, I should spend time on it so they can pick holes in it.

DT:      Similarly, I think the reason I enjoyed any of the writing groups I’ve been part of is because it made me read in a way to give feedback, so I was much more considered. It was the first time I’d ever read in that way.

VO:      It was the same for me.

DT:      Having not studied academically, I’d never had to read with a view to remembering anything. When my wife Lizzy and I lived in Bristol, we started a writing group. I very rarely shared any work with the group, but I kept going to run the group, just to read people’s work, because it informed a lot, as to how I would interview people on the podcast. It just trains your mind to take things in a bit faster. This may be something that a lot of people who have studied take for granted because they may have learnt that at an early age, but I never needed to. It was quite a new skill for me to have to pick up.

VO:      That’s interesting. Also, Biology, I did read a lot, but as you say, you read in a different way when you’re critiquing someone’s work, especially if it’s creative work. There are certain parts of it, like being in the workshop scenario, giving feedback, speaking in front of people and things like that, it’s something that if you’ve done a degree, you will have done before and for a lot of people, that’s more than half the battle.

I’m not that worried about speaking in front of a group of people generally. It seems like such a distant memory now, but I do remember feeling a bit out of my depth. I hadn’t really read that much. A lot of people were really, really well read. They were all different ages, so some people had just had more life to read books in. My academic experience had been really scientific and it is just a different way of thinking about things.

Now I’ve realised that I did really have to learn how to participate in a workshop setting and learn how to critique things. Now when I read something and there’s a comma out of place or I think ‘actually, this might have done better if they’d put that here’ or something like that, I forget or take for granted that’s something I really had to learn. I guess speaking about barriers into writing, that could be one that could put a lot of people off doing a creative writing course.

DT:      Definitely. I think it goes for all skills in life. In the furniture workshop I’m a maker in, I have to keep reminding a lot of the senior makers to not be too hard on some of the younger people. It’s easy to forget how you don’t know anything and people need to be allowed a space. I’ve never been part of a workshop where it’s been felt people can’t make mistakes, but you don’t know that until you’re in there and I think this is one of the barriers we’re talking about. It’s the unknown.

It’s like you’re saying, perhaps had you had a writer to talk to in your late teens, early 20s, when you were first thinking about going down that path, you could have at least sounded someone out. I had exactly the same. This is not about me, but I think it’s important to remember, neither of us are particularly old, but I find, especially when you get familiar with a skill, that it’s easy to forget what it was like not knowing anything about that skill and not being able to talk about it.

VO:      Definitely and it’s good to refresh yourself, I suppose, and good to have conversations like this. It’s also good to try and keep learning new things or keep doing things which make you realise you’re a lay person in many respects, many specialisms. When I started my newest job, I was sitting in a lot of production meetings, people talking about theatre production and there were so many words thrown around, I’d be like ‘what? What is that?’

You might know some because it’s basically construction language, I guess, but people would just talk and I’d be like ‘OK, but how do I spell that?’ You would learn it’s an abbreviation of something and I think at that time, I did realise that even though I had no idea what was going on, I’m quite comfortable with that now. Again, a lot of these resistances are inner resistance. It’s perfectly normal not to know anything about something that’s new. Perhaps a previous version of me might have beaten myself up about that or might have just avoided that situation altogether.

DT:      Similarly, when I have to tell some of the senior makers in the workshop to not be too hard on the younger makers, you have to conversely remind the younger makers to not feel bad about knowing certain things, because even then, within a field you feel you’re almost an expert in, there are always things you don’t know.

There are methods of furniture making I know nothing about, because I’ve either just not been trained to use them or they just pre-date my training and they’re not used anymore. You can go to anyone in the workshop and they will know far more about one aspect than you. Maybe that’s just a lesson for life.

VO:      Yeah, I was going to say that’s everything. When I lived in France, you just had to not know. I couldn’t speak French, so there was a case of just having to ask a question ‘what is that thing?’ in French, having to ask or say to people ‘I don’t understand, can you repeat that?’ Kind of losing your pride, I guess.

DT:      It’s funny with the amount of parallels. Having moved to Norway and learnt Norwegian as an adult pre-dates me focusing properly on writing and I’ve been far less embarrassed about anything in my life now that I’ve gone through the process of learning a second language as an adult and seemingly, in my own head, humiliated myself in public so many times, not knowing what a bread roll is called or not being able to pronounce my Rs at all and they’re really important in Norwegian. People not knowing what I’m talking about because I’ve got a lazy London mouth.

VO:      I had the same thing. I had a stop-over in Paris yesterday, or whenever I flew back, and I asked for, and supposedly I can speak French, but I went to a coffee place and asked for a coffee with soya milk and she was just like ‘huh?’ and I was like ‘Oh God, no, I’ve forgotten already.’ It’s a real baptism of fire, as you will know, and it’s a good lesson. It teaches you to laugh at yourself.

DT:      That’s a very good point. Maybe we can get onto laughing at ourselves as writers afterwards. Not taking myself too seriously is a big thing for me at the moment. It might be a good time for a second reading.

VO:

 For this reading please download the full transcript.

DT:      Thank you very much. We’ll return to one thing we were talking about, when we were discussing ways we read and talked about the books you were reading when you were studying Biology. I’ve spoken to people with a scientific background, I don’t want to put too much of a divide between any subjects, because they don’t exist, but it suddenly struck me it was possibly a very different way of reading, in that I know from speaking to friends who have studied sciences, that fundamental to all of it is to question what you’re reading, in order to question the process.

You wouldn’t necessarily question the text, it’s more the process to get to that point, whereas with creative writing, you’re very much picking apart the text you see within a book. Whether you believe the text or not, the truth is relevant or the fact it isn’t true is…

VO:      The fact that it is fiction?

DT:      Yes, that’s exactly the word. I suddenly couldn’t think what the opposite of non-fiction was. You’re quite right, it’s fiction.

VO:      We could talk that into the ground.

DT:      I was wondering if you’ve ever thought about the influence of that questioning of process has had on your writing?

VO:      So the biological, scientific background?

DT:      That part of your academic study.

VO:      I think actually, in some ways I always struggled with that, the scientific reading. Mostly what I read when I was studying was papers that would be divided up for you, method, a list of equipment and all that kind of stuff and there was a very particular writing style, which I could never seem to get. I’d write essays and my friend would write essays and they’d say ‘your writing style is really good’ and to this day, I do not know what they were talking about.

I think in a way, I leant towards the more literary stuff. Now you see scientists who write popular books who need to be more literary, but the really hard-core biological stuff, I suppose you’re reading, you’re questioning, but I think actually, you can probably argue that mode of thought has invaded everything else. Scientism or intellectualism has invaded literature and ways of looking at art which aren’t really so appropriate for it.

DT:      Do you have any examples?

VO:      I suppose one thing I found when I was workshopping, or actually when I talk about someone’s read something I’ve written, often the first thing people say will be ‘I know nothing about poetry’ or ‘I know nothing about literature’ and that basically means perhaps they haven’t understood what you’re saying, they haven’t got the meaning. ‘I don’t get it’ type of thing.

I feel that’s not the point. If you were to ‘get it’, if you’re reading something and it’s speaking to you and you understand every sentence, then the work hasn’t really done its job. I should be able to read a scientific paper and understand what the scientist thinks they have discovered. That should be plain. You read an essay and should understand their arguments, but I don’t think I should understand immediately what a writer or a poet is talking about, simply by reading the text, if that makes sense.

DT:      Absolutely. It’s something I’ve struggled with since returning to writing six years ago, this need people have for wanting to understand. It seems to be accepted you can listen to a song and not understand every line. It could be emotive and draw something out of you. Even if you don’t remember 75% of the lyrics, it can still be affecting.

There seems to be a huge expectation that you should understand, or the reader should understand everything the writer is trying to say. I don’t understand why that should be anyone’s aim as a writer. I know some people will aim for that.

VO:      The question is usually ‘what is it about?’ Or when a piece of writing is reviewed or critiqued, maybe, often the reviewer will pick out some themes and say ‘this relates to capitalism’ or ‘this relates to a social novel’ or whatever it is. As soon as you’ve done that, it’s the meaning people take away. People get really frustrated with you not giving it up, not saying ‘this is about her dead father’ or something like that.

If I knew exactly what it was about, I wouldn’t have written it or I would have written one sentence. If I could have told you in one sentence what something’s about, then there’s not really any point, is there? So I think actually, writing in a sense has taught me how to read, or how to be a better reader. I still sometimes have a tendency, I think ‘oh, this reminds me of this’, you do have a tendency to generalise or reduce something down into the thin thread you can put into words, or the thin thread you can glean from it, but actually I think the best way to read something, even something scientific, is to read at least the first time, not trying to understand everything, just read it really plainly and that tends to be the best way to absorb work, especially poetry.

DT:      This is something that’s been talked about a lot on the podcast. It’s not something we necessarily need to go into now, but a lot of people have cited the way poetry is taught at schools as the reason for the obsession about understanding things, because the way it’s taught is to unlock this riddle. Things may have changed, it’s a long time since I was at school, but it may be now that some parts of the curriculum are allowing students to read stuff and enjoy it, but it seems as though there is still an emphasis, even if you’re allowed your own individual take on it, there still has to be a take.

VO:      That’s why I hated English Literature at school. I could not hack it. I remember that. Even now, I don’t think I have an incredibly analytical mind and I think when I am forced to analyse things like that, I can’t seem to find the energy for it, whereas some people really can. Also, obviously to be a good critic you need that, but the best critiques don’t look for the thing that they already know. You’re looking to see what the writer is saying or what the writer is evoking, rather than trying to draw out themes that confirm your own viewpoint or understanding of what literature should be saying.

DT:      What do you feel would be the ideal feedback from a reader, with your writing? This would probably change from piece to piece, but as a general thing. There will be a follow-up question as to what you’re aiming for in terms of a connection with readers.

VO:      Any good feedback is nice. You want someone to either be disturbed by something or I think a feeling is definitely better than someone saying ‘oh, I totally get what you’re saying, this is about Freudian psychology’ or whatever. Definitely, you want somebody to feel something. I think the times where I’ve read things and it’s impacted me the most, I remember when I first read The Aleph by [Jorge Luis] Borges, I was just blown away.

There’s no other way I could put it. It’s definitely a bodily thing. I couldn’t at that point have summarised the piece for you, I couldn’t have told you what it’s about or even remembered a lot of it immediately after, but I definitely felt something very strongly. It felt like a truth that has been transmitted to you through your skin rather than with your intellect.

DT:      I tend to find the more I like something, the less I have to say about it. I can’t verbalise why. I just adore Lydia Davis and I can’t ever tell anyone what it is particularly. I’ve thought about it quite a few years now because of having attended these critiquing sessions. I’ve tried to do it a little bit as a thought exercise, to try and put into words why I like something. I have written a few reviews in the past, mainly live events, and I tend to find if I can write 800-1000 words about something, I probably haven’t enjoyed it.

I’m trying to wrench out of myself what certain books mean to me. It’s strange that I have been attracted to writing poetry, because stereotypically that’s mainly people who are trying to express these thoughts and feelings through words, but then it’s probably in a deliberately difficult way. It would never make a review.

VO:      Yeah and also, I think maybe it’s more accepted that you don’t know immediately what poetry’s about. Short stories and novels and narrative are always about something. It has to be about something, unless you’re getting very experimental. Usually the best stuff I read, or the stuff that’s really impacted me, like you, for someone to ask me what it’s about, ‘well, it’s about this man.’ Thinking about [Vladimir] Nabokov’s Pnin, I think he wrote it initially as a short story in The New Yorker and I listened to it on the podcast. If you asked me what it’s about, I’d say ‘well, basically about a guy who loses his suitcase and then gets it back and goes to give a lecture.’ Obviously, that’s not what it’s about.

DT:      Such a good point. There is what happens and there is meaning and they are often disconnected. For some writers, the whole meaning is that stuff just happens. That’s a deliberate style. That’s a very good point you make, stuff is either narrative, seemingly, or experimental. If it deviates from that, it’s considered, I’m talking very much from an English language and British publishing standpoint, you’re either in or out, but it does seem you’re happy to stand outside of that standard.

VO:      Again, it depends. When you’re reading writers you admire or finding new writers that are doing things you’ve never done or never read before, it makes you a bit braver. A lot of the short stories I write are narrative, more or less. They go somewhere or they start with a person. They are stories, I suppose, but then I haven’t really thought too much about whether they are experimental. I’ve been called experimental, but I don’t really think too much about what that means. I guess I just want to get the story done, which is enough, just getting it done, then you leave the labels to someone else.

DT:      In my very narrow experience, the people that call writers experimental have a very narrow view of what experimental means. It’s quite amazing, the amount of poets I see at live events introduced as being experimental… it pretty much solely comes down to them using odd line breaks, there’s very little experimental about the writing. If someone that considered themselves to be an experimental writer, for them to go to the lengths of calling someone else an experimental writer, you’d have to be pretty out there. To impress someone in that ‘club’.

Similarly, the vast majority of writers don’t really care where they are so long as they can keep writing. It’s like you were saying at the beginning, your motivation is just to write and to write as well as you can, that has to meet certain criteria you lay out. There is a narrow band of people that have a very defined idea of what it is to be a writer and they can be quite defensive about the club they are in.

VO:      Definitely. A lot of this, I’m just discovering. The label experimental was at least a year or two ago, fairly new to me, I just knew what I liked and didn’t like. I like a lot of stuff that could be deemed very traditional and other things that could be deemed really out there. Again, what we were just saying, meaning is really the key. Whatever it is, it seems you want that feeling where it’s got in through your skin.

You don’t want the feeling somebody’s telling you how to feel about the sentence they’ve just written or you don’t want to feel like your emotions have been manipulated by a writer trying to control how you read them. You want the transcendent thing. You want transcendence from it. That is the goal.

DT:      I don’t know whether it’s a quote I’ve read or something somebody’s said on the podcast, because my memory doesn’t work that way, but basically ‘there’s a difference between leading people and pushing them’. I’d like to write more short stories, that’s probably going to be my focus more for the next couple of years. A lot of people would think I write more experimentally and whilst I do mainly reject formal narrative, I would agree with you that if it fits with the meaning I’m hoping to drive through – drive, I just said I wasn’t going to drive, I was leading, not pushing – but share with the reader.

If that comes across best with quite a standardised narrative, I would be happy to use that. The one thing I hate about a lot of artistic movements that really disheartens me is when they have a manifesto because it seems to be one long list of things they are rejecting. Similarly, with a lot of artistic movements, it’s a deliberate act to reject everything that’s come before, to invent something new, as though there could be a new way of feeling for a human being.

VO:      Exactly. It’s all really the same thing. I think if you write or make any kind of art, you do think about this. The drive towards experimentation, whatever that may mean today or what it has meant, the avant-garde, modernism, is really the drive towards meaning. I don’t deliberately write the way I do. It wasn’t a conscious choice. It was more of an evolution of style because you want to get there. You want to touch reality and by reality, I mean the reality you feel exists that you can’t see.

There’s no sense it can give you access to it, but you glimpse it and then you’re trying to convey it and your style evolves as the most effective way of doing that, so if I add gaps to the work or write in a very… I think the reason I started, I’ve always written quite surreal work and the reason for that was it felt more real, it gave me more access to what felt real, to write things which were a bit unusual and I think that should be your only driver.

I think a manifesto is nice, I guess it keeps people together. It keeps people out, it keeps some people in. That’s really the only aim and I think whatever umbrella that comes under is fine. Definitely, realism or very traditional writing, I don’t think is as effective anymore. Having said that, I think of writers I really like, Denis Johnson, say, who you would probably say writes realism, writes in such a way that makes it fresh and that’s really what you want, freshness.

There’s a quote attributed to Francis Bacon – the painter, he said the purpose of art is ‘to deepen the mystery’.

I think that’s a good way of putting it. You want to create a vacuum where somebody is drawn in to it. When you’re talking about leading and driving, that’s the way I see it, which is why I don’t like the question ‘what’s it about?’ because as soon as you’ve given someone a meaning, that’s what they take away. You really want them to be dumbfounded. In that respect, you create a space for them to really go into the mystery of it.

DT:      That’s a really nice idea to finish on, giving a reader space to exist in your work and allowing them to do whatever they want, as long as they feel they have the confidence to do it. How we make poetry and a lot of other forms of prose more accessible and more welcoming is a completely different conversation. At least writers are already making the effort to do that with their writing. Unfortunately, I’ve run out of time, but we will take a third and final reading.

VO:      This is a story, At The Heart Of Things, I’m reading an excerpt from it. This story won the White Review Short Story Prize this year, 2019.

 For this reading please download the full transcript.

DT:      Thank you very much, Vanessa. If anyone listening wants to read the full short story, which is fantastic, I will link in the episode description to the White Review website and you can read it there. It’s been so great to hear you read today, because I can really get a sense of the rhythm in each of the pieces, as you mentioned earlier. Thank you so much for coming on, I really loved chatting.

VO:      Thanks for having me, it’s been really nice.

 

Outro:

 

 

DT:      Hello. You stuck around. Grab yourself some vegan Percy Pigs as a treat. As I said in the conversation , I’ll link to Vanessa’s prize-winning short story at The White Review and also to her Twitter page and anything else that I think might be of interest.

The exciting funding news I mentioned at the beginning is that Arts Council England have agreed to fund a project which will see the remainder of the series transcribed and for me to complete the archiving of the series at the British Library. This means that when I finally do hang up my podcasting headphones and millions of microphones, the entire series and the accompanying transcripts will remain available on the British Library  website and hopefully never disappear like so many other audio projects. Just think how many poets’ voices are lost in the mini-disc graveyards of the 1990s. The project will run from February to July so it’s all pretty imminent.

For updates about this series and our, a poem a week series head over to lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, ‘Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook and @Silent_Tongue on Twitter.

And to finish, my friend Mishi Morath. When I first started attending poetry open mic events back in 2014 I naively assumed I wouldn’t hear any voices like mine or those that I grew up around. Not only did Mishi sound familiar, he was one of those people. He was fair bit older than me but was from the same part of London as my family. While his first love was non-league football club Dulwich Hamlet he always talked passionately about poetry and the positive effect that writing and public speaking in the form of poetry readings had on his life. Even if, in his words, poetry did attract too many wankers – though Mishi truly felt there were too many wankers everywhere.

The National Poetry Library on the South Bank in London and the open mic night Poetry Unplugged were almost as important to him as the Dulwich Hamlet terraces at Champion Hill and for anyone that knows how important that club is to him knows that is the highest possible praise. Making this podcast has brought with it a constant stream of nagging doubts, most notably ‘what the fuck am I doing?’, though preserving the voice of a friend seems motivation enough.

I always knew that eventually a guest of the series would no longer be with us and the episode may be one of the few records left of their voice I just hadn’t anticipated it might be someone who I’d miss so much. I sat down with Mishi back in June 2015, for episode 41, in the clubhouse at Champion Hill and we’ll finish with a couple of poems that followed on from us discussing just what poetry had given Mishi. They’re also a pretty good insight into how Mishi viewed his own mortality.

I’ll apologise in advance for the sound quality, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing back then. Until episode 124, sometime in the spring, here’s Mishi ‘Dulwich Hamlet ‘Morath.

MM:    […]to give that speech or whatever if I hadn’t got the experience of reading at poetry nights. So it’s not just about poetry, it’s about improving your life, making you more confident.

DT:      And finding a way to communicate.

MM:    Sort of. People say I do that anyway, but what I portray publicly is maybe not what I feel inside. That’s another thing about poetry, not only do I enjoy doing it, it’s also very therapeutic and if it clears my head a bit, for whatever reason, I’m not going to give specific incidents, in a way it doesn’t matter, cos there are so many different ones, but if I’m feeling down and I write poetry, I feel better.

DT:      On that note, is it one more to finish?

MM:    I’ve got two small ones. Is that all right or am I taking too much time? I’m going to finish with two lovely morbid ones. This one I wrote after there was a phone-in on LBC about support for some bishops on assisted dying. This is called;

 

 

When The Time Is Right

 

As time creaks on

I start to fear

What will happen

When the end is near.

There’s nothing wrong with me yet

No need to panic

I’m not going crazy

From my normal to manic.

But when I die I want it to be quick

Scared of suffering

Terminally sick.

If ever that happens

I don’t want to linger

Time to go

With the flick of a finger.

Is it too much to ask

To turn off a switch

A painless death

Without a hitch.

I don’t want to suffer

Right to the end

Give me the option

Of a man’s best friend.

One last farewell

A time to say goodbye

Small prick of a needle

A bit of a cry.

At the moment you can only do this

If you’re comfortable or rich

Flying off to Switzerland

When pain’s too much of a bitch.

Poor people like me

Have only the nearest bridge

If we want to die with dignity

To sleep in a mortuary fridge.

You preach “god’s” will

Saying your prayer

Watching me dosed up with morphine

As if you care.

Pumping my body

With a multitude of drugs

Prolonging my suffering

From white coated thugs.

You warn me of Harold Shipmans

Stalking the ward

Well just let me take my chances

And die of my own accord.

 

MM:    This last one is quite topical, it’s about when Charles Kennedy died a few weeks ago. It’s called Another One Bites The Dust and it’s about people’s reactions to death and how people were so nice to him.

 

Another One Bites The Dust

 

I hope when I drop dead

You’re honest about who I am

I’ll be the one who’s brown bread

So won’t be able to give a damn.

If you’re one who never liked me

Don’t pretend that you did

Just say it like it really was

When they nail down my coffin lid.

I don’t want a ton of plaudits

Like for that Charles Kennedy chap

If you must say it how it was

None of that pretend you liked me crap.

Because if you’re someone who I don’t like

I’m not going to pretend to cry In truth

I will be smiling

When it’s your turn to die.

It’s not that I didn’t like him

But bottom line was he’s one of them

And even though he’s seems a decent bloke

At heart he was still a Lib-Dem.

Yes, he died far too young

And had a drink problem like me

But it’s not as if I’m celebrating

More indifferent than full of glee.

He was a politician from the telly

I didn’t share his views

In fact the only thing I’m sorry about

Was that it was him & not Simon Hughes.

 

 

 

 

End of transcript.

 

 

 

 

Book launches!!

Contained jjjppeegg.png

I’m delighted to able to say that my book Contained will be published 8 February 2020 by Hesterglock Press. I’ve got a few launch events lined up in the UK if you’d like to come and celebrate with me. Here are the three events I’ve got organised so far:

  • 8 February – London launch at Ye Olde Rose and Crown, 53 Hoe Street, Walthamstow. Free entry but donations to the Arts Emergency charity gratefully received. I’ll be joined by local poets Vanessa Onwuemezi, Emma Hammond and Lizzy Turner.
  • 15 February – Cardiff launch. I’ll be reading at the second instalment of the all-new experimental poetry night CRASH at the Flute & Tankard pub, Windsor Place, Cardiff. Free entry (I think (I will confirm)).
  • 14 March – Bristol launch at HOURS gallery, 10 Colston Yard, Bristol. Entry is £4 or £10 including a copy of the book. I’ll be joined by local poets Shauna Robertson and Tom Sastry.

 

Hopefully see you there. David xx

Episode 122 – Steven J Fowler

Ep122 SJ FowlerEpisode 122 is now available to download/play wherever you get your podcasts.

For this episode I’m in central London talking to experimental poet and artist Steven J Fowler. The pair discuss Steven’s approach to writing and editing (or lack of it), whether it helps to sometimes be ignored as a writer and his work as a curator of European and international literature events.

Below is a transcript of the episode minus Steven’s poetry readings. If you’d like to read a full transcript then you can download it here.

 

Transcript by Christabel Smith

Guest: Steven J Fowler — SJF

Host: David Turner — DT

Intro:

DT:      Hello, welcome to Episode 122 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. I’m David Turner. All right? It’s been three months since I last released an episode and you might imagine there would be some news or updates for me to give, but no. Nothing has really been happening. I’m still in the process of finishing what will be my first full-length book of poems. The word ‘poems’ there has enormous air quotes around it as they’re just getting weirder every time I work on them. It will be out through Hesterglock Press in 2020. If you’re listening, Paul, my editor at Hesterglock, the manuscript will be with you soon, I promise.

What else? I’m learning to play the piano, so lots of practising scales and trying to teach myself how to play Moondog’s ‘Elf Dance’. I’ve been making a prototype of a chair this week, so I’m fighting the urge to tell you how annoying that has been and I’ve been dreaming about how to make the underframe. The life of a joiner, eh? Oh yeah, I or we or Lunar Poetry Podcasts no longer uses Instagram as it bores me, so in terms of social media, you can find us at Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook and @Silent_Tongue on Twitter. You can of course find lots more information over at lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, where you will also find a full transcript of today’s episode.

This week’s guest is Steven J Fowler. Steven is a multidisciplinary artist that works in the muddied waters between poetry, theatre, film-making, visual arts and performance. He’s also the curator of hundreds of live literature events around the UK and Europe. Steven appeared in episode 33 of our companion podcast series, A Poem A Week, hosted by my wife Lizzy. In that, Steven reads his poem ‘Old Time Wrestles New Time’, which doesn’t feature in today’s episode and you should definitely check out that recording and the other 70 poets that are on Lizzy’s series. Links in the episode description line.

Steven and I met up at his studio round the back of St Pancras station in a very busy part of London, so apologies in advance about the traffic. I don’t think the noises are that intrusive. Also, it gives you an insight to the soundtrack of Steven’s creative process. Imagine him sat at a paint-spattered table as the black cabs pass slowly below. We discuss whether work is ever really finished, or is it just published, so beyond our grasp. Whether or not there is any benefit to just being ignored as a writer and being content with the way you work, regardless of the advice of others.

We also get round to briefly discussing the Nordic Poetry Festival that Steven is organising this year in the UK and will take place 11-17 October at various venues. It’s going to be fantastic and I’m lucky enough to be reading in collaboration with Bård Torgersen at Rich Mix East London, 12 October. Maybe I’ll see you there. If you enjoy this episode or any other, please do help us out by telling friends, family members, work colleagues and squidgy cats.

Word of mouth is the best form of advertising for podcasts, especially this one, and this is not for my benefit, but for the wonderful guests I’ve had on the series. They deserve to be heard by as many people as possible, right? I’ll be back at the end of the episode with an outro and obviously all the way through, but for the moment, here’s Steven J Fowler.

Conversation:

Poem Redacted.

DT:      Thank you very much, Steven. Welcome to Lunar Poetry Podcasts. Thank you for joining me and all the listeners, wherever they are, if indeed they are. Starting interviews is always the most difficult bit. Often I don’t know people at all and this is the first time I’m meeting them, but I know you a little bit now, and it’s always a little bit of a worry, the initial questions that always flash through my head first seem a bit inappropriate for people you don’t know.

SJF:      Please ask me inappropriate questions.

DT:      Not even inappropriate. I know you well enough to feel you are resilient to any of these questions anyway. My question, I wanted it to be: Why all the nonsense?

SJF:      That’s a good question. Yeah, I mean I can’t help but feel that that question is not really about poetry, it’s about something wider.

DT:      Possibly, but I felt it was a good inroad into the wider aspects of your work.

SJF:      That’s true, yeah. I suppose my instinct that might answer the actual question that you’ve posed would be to ask why you would ask that question, not to say that I can psychologically analyse why you did it, because I know you a little bit too, would imagine it comes from your own sense of intrigue, your own engagement with a notion of a non-sense. But also, any time anyone has ever asked me a question, unfortunately, because I am painfully sober and hyperaware, I tend to think first, why are they asking me about the nonsense when they’re the ones bringing the nonsense to the table?

Maybe that is the answer to your question, but I think to compress nearly a decade of careful and unfortunate consideration around my work into the answer of a genuinely important and good question that you’ve just posed me, I think that the brain, where my existence resides, is full of nonsense and that the notion I can control the universe’s experience, which is endlessly difficult and confusing, into a kind of sense beyond just the limits of communicating, would be arrogant and maybe stupid, which I am both at times, but try not to be.

And given that I consider poetry to be the language art and we communicate in language, I try to use poetry for something other than communication and it seems like it’s probably more useful than to utilise it for things that are not the sense of talking.

DT:      It’s interesting, I think out of the hundreds of people we’ve had on the podcast now, I would say that by far the majority view is that poetry is an act of communication and it’s really interesting to talk to someone that believes the opposite.

SJF:      I suppose for me, it would depend what we mean by both the word poetry and the word communication, right? It does communicate something, but so does me falling over. All things communicate something. I think this is about the notion of intention for me. All I’m, I suppose, trying to say is if the meaning of a poem can be done in a conversation, it’s a failure and most poems are a bit like that, no? Most poems are communicating something similar to a conversation and that to me is valid, if done with great skill or in a certain tradition, I find it fascinating and interesting. Just personally, as a person who makes things, I don’t find that very interesting.

DT:      I feel these kind of qualifications that I always give are a bit redundant now, but just so we feel a bit more relaxed in the conversation, neither of us are projecting our own thoughts onto what other writers should do. I’d like for everyone, I say ‘everyone’, I’m including the listeners here, to feel like they can talk about their own work without having to- but I don’t mean other people should follow these routes, blah blah blah… Because I often find myself talking about my own work and excusing myself in some way. Other people don’t have to follow the way I think. Do you feel that’s an issue in general around the way poets interact?

SJF:      I think that’s an issue around all human beings and culture in general. For example, a lot of the time when people tell me: ‘God, isn’t poetry quite competitive or tribal?’, I always say: ‘Compared to what?’ I’ve never done a job where people didn’t talk shop. I’ve never done a job where people didn’t sleight others who do it because they do it slightly different from them. I take it as a human condition.

I don’t think the things I think about do put other people down, for a variety of reasons, the main reason being I think my ideas or interests seem to operate on a slightly different, lower level than other people, actually, not higher level. So I think people have a very refined engagement with the idea of literary criticism and how poetry works, whereas I’ve tried to be a bit less theoretical and more instinctual, so I’m interested in, for example, the idea of authenticity, which is a silly and ambiguous idea, but it’s instinctual, so if I see someone who’s doing, say, a spoken-word poem, a lot of people have associated me as being against spoken word because there are certain elements around this methodology which are so far away from what I do that they assume so, where actually if someone is authentic in what they’re doing, I don’t really care if they’re doing in spoken word, ballet, cooking, flying a kite.

That’s attractive. It’s beautiful and it’s exciting and it generates things for me to do, but if someone is working in a tradition and it isn’t authentic, and I’m just using authentic as one of many criteria, then I just move on immediately to the things that do excite me. I don’t spend any time being negative or critical. That is why sometimes, I think, people take certain things I say as critical against other practices because we’re working in different conditions.

Also, I do say that a lot, exactly as you described, when I say something positive, I’m not trying to put other people down, it’s because I want to be polite. I really, really believe in that. For example, I’ve always refused criticism. I’ve never written an article of criticism for money because if I take money and do a job of work and I don’t like something, I have to lay into it and I have to do that by mentioning someone’s name. Life is short. I have no interest in that at all.

DT:      I got into making the podcast because I started writing reviews of live events for what was then Lunar Poetry Magazine. I had to stop because I felt if I’m going to be really honest, and it wasn’t like I hated everything I saw, but it was like if I’m going to be honest about things, it’s going to be too blunt and I didn’t see the point in doing that. What I really wanted to do was have a conversation about people and their work instead and meet them face to face and actually talk over ideas.

SJF:      I think it’s a failure in me that I won’t do it because I see that negative criticism should be out there, especially at the moment. People need to take responsibility for the space of how things are made, certain trains of thought and critical spaces, so I’m not advocating this as a position. It’s actually a very personal thing and it’s an enormous failure. I’m a coward because the previous jobs I had before were so combative and so volatile and were constantly engaged in conflict, and I enjoyed them, I’m a conflict-orientated person, whether it’s because of something that happened to me or whatever, that’s the case.

So I don’t want any conflict now. That’s my choice. Poetry for me, literature in general, making art and stuff, is a life of putting ideas out that will conflict with other people’s ideas. But it’s not personal to me, I don’t care. So I do think people should be highly critical. I like it when people are critical of my work. I love it, in fact, because I don’t really mind. Actually, I take that as a huge compliment, but I don’t think my work has become widely understood enough that people can be critical of it. I think they just think ‘I don’t get it’ and then they leave it. That suits me also super fine, because I don’t really care.

DT:      That brings me to two points, actually. If we go back to the point you made about believing your work sort of occupies almost a slightly lower position than more refined taste, one of the reasons I mentioned the word ‘nonsense’ is because I wanted to get talking about the idea of playing. You mentioned how serious people are about the way they view their work and how it becomes more and more refined, there seems within that process there is less space to play and it seems really important in your work, especially your latest book with Hesterglock Press, ‘Unfinished Memmoirs of a Hypocrit’[sic], maybe just talk a bit about how freeing yourself up to work is a starting point.

SJF:      Yeah, it’s something I’ve thought about so much. Thank you for the generous question. It comes from hopefully not waffling, but from how I got into poetry. I discovered it later than a lot of my peers, in my mid-20s, about 10 years ago, and I discovered everything at the same time. So I did spend a lot of time engaged with the theorising around it and trying to read back, but I was discovering all kinds of poetry immediately. There is a massive absence of, shall we say, certain bands of aesthetics in poetry, for example, genuinely funny poetry is almost impossible.

Comic poetry isn’t funny. It’s funny in a really unfunny way. Negative aesthetics don’t exist in poetry. What’s the equivalent of a horror film for poetry? Have you ever got to a poem that’s deliberately trying to make you feel upset? Not to inculcate the emotion of sorrow, but make you feel bad, as a pleasure. You never get it. It doesn’t make any sense because poetry is just a means, it’s a refraction of language, it’s a mulching through, just like shooting with a camera or making a sculpture.

I was always intrigued by that. I really think a lot of that is the constipation of theory. There is so much theoretical underpinning that goes around poetry and that’s important in many ways, but what I found is it creates a culture of people who are afraid to do certain things. They are afraid to look silly or be silly or play or make mistakes or be rough or messy. My work is engaged fundamentally in ideas that I hope are really complex, but I hope they’re complex in a way that everyone can understand because existence is complex for every reflexive mammal.

Every human being, every single animal, lives a complex existence and we can do that without alienating people theoretically. So I think that’s how I started to find a road into it. A lot of the things people have done to give their work kind of intelligence stilts, to put it up in the air, had actually put it into a place that most people couldn’t reach. The problem is then people conflate that with accessibility or conflate it with the ivory-tower argument or class and that really frustrates me. It’s actually only being a teacher in creative writing and teaching in different institutions where I’ve realised and formulated an antidote to that, I think.

Trying to teach students who are often from a working-class background why sound poetry or concrete poetry or avant-garde poetry is good, requires you to create arguments of purpose for your own work. So that’s given me a great gift, teaching other people why I think the things I do are important, although not ever teaching my own work, of course, because I’m not a dweeb.

DT:      It resonates that you talk about class and such. When I first got back into writing in my early 30s, having spent 10 to 12 years working with performance and visual artists as a technician but also a producer, I found that suddenly all these barriers I’d broken down as someone from a working-class background and no formal academic qualifications in any subject, as regular listeners will know, I served a joinery apprenticeship, then ended up getting back into the arts that way, it took me a long time within these art settings to shake off a lot of this class bullshit I carry around with me.

It’s very real bullshit, but it’s bullshit nonetheless. I shook it off and I got to work with some really amazing performance artists and we did some really wild stuff and you realise that those things are for you if you want to go out and take them. But as soon as I started writing again, I felt pressure and I could feel myself moving towards more, like we were saying, more refined types of writing, perhaps subconsciously trying to prove myself in some way. It took a couple of years to think well no, I can play with this writing as much as I did with visual stuff and more physical stuff.

Now, a lot of my focus with the podcast is trying to show people from similar backgrounds as myself that these other, weirder types of poetry, or more odd types of poetry, are equally accessible to anyone. It’s just, it seems to be, for a long time, that section of writing has been owned and controlled by people who have been deliberately putting up barriers. You’ve been around the literary scene longer than I have and you are a bit more knowledgeable of the history of it. I’d be interested to know, if I said to you I felt like there were barriers, class barriers, towards more avant-garde and experimental writing in this country, would you argue that I’m wrong in that?

SJF:      Yeah, well you know we both share a background that’s atypical for people involved, especially in more experimental poetry, but I think fundamentally this is about the level of analysis. What you’re saying is practically true, but I don’t really think about it. I create things that do the opposite, rather than lamenting situations I’ve been in where I know people deliberately misunderstand me to further their own agenda, which probably comes from certain class experiences that they’ve had, so I prefer to talk about life experience or work.

I’ve definitely been in environments when I’ve been alienated and ostracised because my concerns and interests, shall we say physical violence, people seem disgusted by the idea it exists. You know, they’re more offended by the idea that I might bring up physical fights than the actual fact they are happening down the road from where those people live, just they never see them because they live a different kind of life. Sometimes I’ve felt people are against me mentioning them because they think the mention of them is an advocation for them, which is insane, because I’ve witnessed and been around more violence and seen its terrible consequences.

Or like the constant presence of prisons in my work, things like that. I understand that’s probably to do with what you’re saying, to do with class and class concerns, but I don’t care about that. It don’t bother me none. I’ve had no one against me, no one really trying to ostracise me, I’ve been embraced by 90% of the people I’ve met and the other 10% have just ignored me, which I take to be quite a nice way to respond to someone you don’t like, or whose work you don’t like.

Yeah, so it’s probably true, but actually, I’m really, really, really engaged with the notion of finding every single person I can who’s got an open spirit and soul and creates authentic, interesting work and trying to offer them opportunities and spaces to share what I’ve found and been part of. Some of those people are from really, really privileged backgrounds and some are from really working-class backgrounds. So yeah, I definitely think you’re right and if I was into that kind of discussion, I’d go super deep on that, but I’m not. I’m really not. I refuse all those things. I’m not saying you were saying that, it’s definitely been an experience of mine, but it doesn’t really matter.

DT:      Your experience probably echoes with mine as well, but I wonder whether a lot of that is to do with luck. When I first started to really seek out more experimental stuff, Lizzy and I had just moved to Bristol, so I found Anathema and Paul Hawkins in Bristol. Before that, I’d been to a reading and met Isabel Waidner and then came across your work. All of these people couldn’t be more welcoming. I’m still examining why I felt like there were barriers because just about all my experiences have proven the concerns weren’t as large as they had been in my head.

SJF:      I think you’re right though and you’ve mentioned two amazing human beings and brilliant writers, Paul Hawkins and Isabel Waidner, both people who are very much concerned with what you’re saying and I’ve learnt a lot from speaking to both of them about their experiences. I suppose, without sounding a bit stupid again, I assume there’s always going to be barriers. Like I assume I’m going to have a barrier because there are barriers between humans all the time.

I’ve never been in any situation, ever, where there hasn’t been a barrier if I wanted to find one and at the end of the day, I suppose again, not really about poetry but about life in general, I just want to make things, I just want to do things, because I suppose my first couple of years in poetry were surrounded by people who were massively theoretical, I mean as theoretical as you can get and I found that fascinating and I learnt a lot. I realised also that it led to a lot of bitterness for some of them and also others never really did anything.

So I suppose my whole events curatorial practice was based around the idea that I was like, oh I see there is an absence of something, how about I do it and then here we go? Then you find out there is some other problem. That’s with those people. No disrespect to them, but it’s just a way of being in the world and I’m so lucky. My body is healthy, my mind is clear, I’m surrounded by genuine warmth and positivity and I have lots of opportunities. I’m not trying to sound super-positive, I’m not all that positive as a person, but that is a fact. I’ve got no complaints at all about class boundaries and things like that.

DT:      You mentioned a couple of times your curatorial practice, we’ll come onto that in a minute, because that’s vast enough on its own. You’ve mentioned a couple of times now about people not liking your work and then ignoring you and you actually not minding that. I wanted to ask what are the benefits of being ignored as a writer?

SJF:      Yes, again, without being too overly analytical, one has to think through what it means to be ignored. Is there some world out there where people aren’t being ignored? Everyone, to a certain extent, is being ignored. There are people, I think you’ve had Raymond Antrobus on your podcast, who’s just had an incredible success with Penned in the Margins, who published one of my books, back in the day. That is just joy for everyone. A good human being, writing good work. The rising tides lift all people.

So there are examples, like with Raymond, whereby mad success can then be compared to yourself and you’re like wow, I’m being ignored. But how many Raymond Antrobus success stories are there? There’s like a couple a year. A big thing for me that I learnt this from is prize culture, literary prize culture. I never thought I would ever be up for a prize really, because my work’s too strange, so I began from a perspective of well, I will be the first ever who will be successful with prizes writing weird work.

Then I noticed a lot of my peers, who’d maybe started earlier, had different opinions, it would hurt their feelings. Every year they would feel snubbed. I would say: ‘There’s only one person who gets it. Only one.’ Of all the things that could happen, this should not affect you. I mean, I’ve definitely witnessed it, seen people release less books, do less things, move in a certain way. I understand that, I do understand it. But it’s those kind of things that then make me understand a clearer view of what is being ignored and what’s not being ignored.

I suppose, if we were being colloquial and generalised, you could say that my work has never really gone into a middle space, a Guardian review page type press. That’s my fault. I’ve published too much, my work is too weird, I probably don’t edit my work well enough, blah blah. I probably do too many things at once. I’ve just come to accept that is an authentic expression and my way of making work. At the same time, I’ve made a living from it, I’ve travelled round the world, I’ve worked with incredible people, I’ve gotten on with 90% of the people I’ve met and I’ve met a lot of people through it. I have also completely not been ignored, not at all.

What I’m trying to say is, the first thing first about being ignored, not being ignored, it’s an ego thing, it’s a subjective thing. If you feel bad one day because you got rejected from a thing, you feel like you’re not appreciated, again that’s a human condition, it can be mastered. So I don’t feel that very much, but what I do think is that if you lie in a fallow space, a middle space, where people don’t quite know what you’re doing, they’re not quite sure what you mean, you have the opportunity to constantly reinvent the joy of making things, writing things.

I get enough attention that I’m constantly busy and engaged, doing lovely things like this, thanks again for asking me by the way, but then also, I’m not under brutal scrutiny or the pressure to sell books. Last year alone, I was making a film, I made a feature-length film with my friend Joshua Alexander called ‘The Animal Drums’. We’ve got Iain Sinclair in it. Iain Sinclair is obviously this legend, he kind of invented this geographical writing. Brilliant poet. One of the most important poets of the British poetry revival, he has been incredibly generous to me. An incredibly supportive presence.

We were talking, just offhandedly, before we started filming and he said to me: ‘You should always take note of how lucky you are that you can write whatever you like. You’re free. You don’t have a press telling you “that’s too strange, that’s too weird”.’ My editors support my gestures, they help me edit but they give me freedom. So the joy of not being super-commercially successful is that I’m creatively free. That is, if you can appreciate it, an incredible gift.

DT:      Your point about prize culture, it’s very understandable why people would get jealous or bitter for not winning these things. You can see easily why a new writer looking forward might aspire to that as a marker of success, which is a shame because it can only let you down. Like you said, there’s only going to be one winner of each prize and who knows how these things are being judged?

Of course then, if you do have that kind of success, what pressure does that then put on you to produce a similar type of work? Does it push you down one avenue? I was hoping for that question to lead in this direction, to talk about freedom within your writing. Again, going back to the opening question about nonsense and leading onto play, and this idea of freedom, you feel like one of the freest writers I know. I think the reason I feel that is because you don’t feel tied to writing and so many people are bound not only to writing, but to poetry, which seems like a terrible curse on someone. I know some people are genuinely that focused and that directed, but it seems a very narrow space to live in.

SJF:      I don’t want to get pretentious or too deep, but I understand that if someone is engaged say in the profession of writing – with fiction it makes a lot more sense than poetry – but some of the guidelines would be ‘if I get a prize, then I get a better publisher, sell more books, then I’ll be able to write more books, then I won’t have to work in a shop’. I think not only does that make sense, because it’s brilliant, it’s kind of truthful, but again, I know it sounds silly, genuinely, my work is about me finding a path towards contentedness and gentility and decency to other people.

It’s not the main reason, it’s just a wee part of it. What I eat and how I exercise and how I sleep and the people I spend my time with, these are all nodes in a genuine daily commitment to have a better existence, just because I want to be happy before I die, because I’m going to die really soon, relatively. So if I then only wrote in Times New Roman 12-point font and indented, even though I had the desire to handwrite a book, say, that would be really weird because there’s no comeback on that. There’s only so much you can get.

To get back to your point, I’ve known people who’ve been mad successful, hugely commercially successful, I had the privilege of collaborating with some people who are hugely successful and happiness is relative. I think a lot about the concept of tolerance. I’m writing a book at the moment about prescription drugs and a brain and thinking a lot about the word tolerance. You tolerate joy and it wears off. Your success goes. Everything goes. You get used to everything.

So to a certain extent with me, I just try to keep my guideline as these deeper ideas. Intuition and instinct and exploration and innovation, these silly words that sound like a car advert, they are actually the driving force behind why we start doing all of this. How do we keep that light alive? If that’s who we are, if that’s what our authentic expression of things is. It is mine, because I’m brutally impatient and I want to discover new things and meet new people and live a good life through this work.

Well, that’s going to lead me to do a lot of different kinds of work, as you say, not limit myself and not worry if someone does say in my ear, which they have done pretty consistently: ‘Don’t publish more than a book a year or you can never be with…meh’ Or: ‘Don’t organise events as well as publish because people will think you’re just trying to promote your own… Don’t…’

Yeah, all right, I hear what you’re saying. You’re scared and that’s fine. I’m just going to do what I’m going to do. People will either be with it or they won’t be with it. I hope they’re with it. If someone has a dog, I’d rather have them as a friend than an enemy.

DT:      That’s the perfect time to go into a second reading.

SJF:      I might read something from my brand-new book that I’m writing at the moment, which is due to come out in 2020, with Dostoevsky Wannabe Press, who publish Isabel Waidner and a lot of amazing people.

DT:      A fantastic publisher.

SJF:      Just a brilliant publisher, based in Manchester. They’re publishing a book of mine called ‘I Will Show You The Life Of The Mind On Prescription Drugs’. That book is a result of a residency I did at the Wellcome Trust and a lot of explorations in a field that I’ve kind of called the name ‘neuropoetics’. So it’s like neuroaethetics, but it’s about how language functions in the brain and how we might utilise language arts as a way of exploring brain function.

We are unable to reproduce this reading at this time. Apologies.

DT:      Thank you very much.

SJF:      Pleasure.

DT:      Because you’ve read new work there and you’re talking about a book you’re working on, which seems like a state you’re constantly in anyway, I could probably ask you any day, but what are your feelings around the idea of finishing something?

SJF:      That’s something I’ve thought about a lot. Thank you again for asking a question that’s on my mind often. I think because I like this notion of constant work, like I enjoy the idea of being prolific because it’s just the way my brain functions, it’s the way that I’m motivated, I have maybe a different relationship to the notion of the finished poem or the finished fiction or the finished anything.

I like it when context decides the content. I like it when the deadline is the time it’s finished. I like it when the editor decides. I’ve had lots of experience with presses and they have been almost 100% positive. I’ve had great relationships with people I’ve worked with at presses, even though I’ve worked with lots of different ones. When an editor comes in and rips things to shreds, they think I’m going to be upset about it, but I love it. I love it.

I mean, I can choose whether to accept or reject, but a lot of the time, I accept because that means it’s finished. They’ve come in and engaged with it in a way that makes it something else.

DT:      That’s a very good way of looking at it.

SJF:      So for me, the notion of the finished work is maybe slightly different than a lot of people, so I know that a huge part of their poetry is this dichotomy, this split, and again I speak to my students a lot about this, between the draft and the final version and it’s something that people tinker with, the capitalisation of certain words and the play of things.

I just had a collaborative poem with Max Porter, who’s an amazing writer, taken for Poetry magazine in America. Their editing is incredibly finite, almost to the point where I was laughing really loud, because every single time you sent something back with their corrections, they said: ‘what about this comma? Can we spell it the American way for “labour”, without the u?’ I was just like ‘whatever you like, whatever suits you.’

I don’t care. I know it does matter a lot to other poets. I know why it does, but it doesn’t matter to me. American or English spelling of labour? I don’t care! Why do I care? I mean, that’s not why I wrote it and I’m not fussed about that at all, so maybe I have a more transitional view of what finished is than other people. The finished bit is the one in the latest book. It’s on the page, I’m not working on it anymore, it’s obviously done. What about you, what do you think?

DT:      It’s interesting. I find my writing is a place that exists further from higher standards, so as a furniture maker, I have a very defined idea of what finished means, because finished means a point at which someone is going to enjoy what I’ve made and they have to live with it. It has to be durable, look right, there are a number of fluctuating criteria, but they are all very high standards, each of these criteria.

People are paying a lot of money for the furniture we make. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, I like to think I’m good at it and what I make I’m hoping people can pass down through generations, etc. I don’t want that to exist in any other part of my life. Those standards are really exhausting, very tiring and I like that my writing is an escape from that.

I share your view, well, you didn’t quite mention it, but I think we’re probably going down the same path here, but once something’s on a page, I’m free of it and I don’t have to go back to it. I find the overwhelming relief that it’s gone and done far outweighs if I ever find a mistake in something. If I ever do read over something and think ‘Shit, that wasn’t right’ or ‘I should have changed that’, the relief that it’s gone and out of my mind outweighs any worry I would have about regretting anything that I chose to do.

SJF:      One of the weirdest things I’ve found is some of the books I’ve edited least, I think my favourite book I’ve ever written is called ‘Minimum Security Prison Dentistry’, it was published by Anything Anymore Anywhere Press. He asked me do I have a book, it’s 2011 and I’d just finished my first year in poetry and I published two other full-length books that year, which ruined me forever, basically, because you shouldn’t ever do that. Your debut book should be important.

I was oh yeah whatever, I’ve got this different stuff and mashed it together and sent it to him. ‘I love it, I love it.’ Any mistakes of it, the aberrations, it’s the best thing I’ve done and that was a huge lesson to me because the other book I did that year with Knives Forks And Spoons, ‘Red Museum’, that’s one of only two books I’ve done where I might do another version one day. Or I’ll go in and mash it up. I think that’s a big thing to me.

I don’t have set rules or patterns for things, it’s an adaptable process. You finish certain books and whatever the mysterious process is that took you to making them, especially a poetry book or collection, because they’re really weirdly constructed when you think about them, the order. People never talk about that. ‘I spent weeks on order, that follows that’ and what, four people read the book and they don’t even read it cover to cover? They pick it up at page 67 and go ‘that’s good’.

I was like ‘yeah, but that follows the poem about the egg and that’s the bacon poem’, you know what I mean? There’s this stupid process that’s mystical and strange. I’ve just learnt to embrace that and as you say, when your book comes out, you’ve got it on the page, you open it, you don’t know how you’re going to feel and that changes mood to mood, day to day, year to year. I just reserve the right that I can go back in and meddle with things if I want, but most of the time I don’t because I’ve got a new idea.

DT:      These things are at the forefront of my mind at the moment because I’m getting to the point where I’ve finished my first book, which will come out with Hesterglock.

SJF:      Congratulations and a great press.

DT:      A really good press. I’m asking myself exactly the same questions. Do I spend endless amounts of evenings after work ordering these poems or do I think well, people probably aren’t going to notice? I suppose the question is you’ve got to do whatever makes you happy in the moment.

SJF:      Exactly.

DT:      What I would like to try and achieve is some way of, what I like about shorter projects and pamphlets, I’ve done a couple with other people, is that they feel like they exist more in the moment, because you can finish them faster and you can get them out more readily. They come out fairly quickly after they’ve been written, whereas what’s coming out for me with Hesterglock has taken a much longer time to write and it spans a longer amount of time. It feels a bit like things are being shoehorned together a little bit. I think that’s what those types of books are, often.

SJF:      I’ve changed so much about that, but I do think about it a lot. I mean, it’s a good time to have good friends. I’m always pitching off stuff to people, especially people who aren’t involved in poetry at all, or even literature, and just say ‘what do you think of this?’ If you get really negative stuff back, you know you’re on the right track. I think also this can be expanded metaphorically about the notion of publishing a book in general.

The amount of people I’ve known also that have said, not to say that all my friends are negative, like I said with the prizes, but who are disappointed by the reception of their book and why maybe it’s good to have pamphlets before that. I had that. I had a crisis with a book and what it was and what the point was. I had a really profound experience with a poet called Anselm Hollo who was like the anti-laureate of America and lived the most amazing life.

He left Finland just after the Second World War to live in Germany, then lived here in the 60s and 70s, then moved to America and I put on the last-ever reading he gave before he died and I read every single one of his published books after he’d died. I felt myself powerfully in them, where he was, what he did. I realised then that his authentic expression of publishing a massive bibliography was, even if it was just me reading it, a profound and powerful physical, ambiguous expression and legacy.

Then I realised ‘wait a minute, I want that.’ Tomaž Šalamun, another person, has 45 books he published in his life and has his library in Ljubljana. I’ve been there and looked through his books and spent days reading them. You can read a person’s life through their work that way. Then I suddenly realised, lightbulb, it’s all right to publish two books a year if you want, every year. I mean yeah, 1000 people won’t read them, who cares? You can’t be there when they read them anyway.

It’s something I say to my students a lot. You’re in a job whereby the best moments your work will create for other people, you won’t witness them. There’ll just be some professional critic in The Guardian with an ideological purpose, writing reviews whether they like you or don’t like you as a person or have heard about you and met you, but the actual people who read you, you never know. So do it out of motivation. So yeah, I think about those questions a lot.

DT:      Since you mentioned putting on Anselm’s final reading in this country, this is probably a good opportunity to start talking about your curatorial work and events you put on. Could you give a quick, very brief breakdown of what types of events you run and how they run? I’ve got a couple of questions to follow on from that.

SJF:      Sure, no worries. So I basically started about 10 years ago a project called Enemies that was all about collaboration, essentially, but it was also a way to kind of Trojan-horse experimentation into live readings because I found the traditional, salon-orientated reading to be pretty unsatisfying and uninterrogated and I think 90% of people agree and are thinking of their shopping lists. We all know this kind of stuff, I don’t need to go on about that.

So really it was about internationalism and collaboration, trying to get people from different countries to come to England, work with British poets, and then that grew and I started doing tours and going to other countries to do collaborations. That was an amazing way to navigate the universe and work with other people. Then I started a project called Poem Brut, maybe two or three years ago, which is about material and a lot of things we’ve already talked about, context and content, experimentation, mess, things being hand-made, things being physical.

One of the constituent elements of any reading or performance is proximity, physical space, three dimensions. That’s what Poem Brut is about, as well as about cognitive differences. Enemies evolved into the European Poetry Festival, which was a concentration of that collaborative European energy in London. I’ve done lots of commission events, loads of events where people have asked me to come in to start a series or start themed live-literature things, so yeah, it’s been a massive, expansive part of my practice really.

DT:      What I found interesting about all of these different events you’ve put on and this is quite a selfish view because I run the podcast, blah blah blah. It’s interesting the amount of documentation that goes into it. These are successful and very well-attended life events, but there also seems a real emphasis on filming stuff, recording stuff, getting stuff locked down and preserved in some sort of way. As preserved as digital media can be. We won’t get into the nature of all that stuff. I just wanted to ask how important legacy is in your work and if it’s different for the curatorial side of your practice and your own writing?

SJF:      For my own writing, I still think I’m too early into it to understand ideas like that. Maybe I slightly mentioned that with the Anselm Hollo anecdote and why I publish a lot of books. I don’t envision a moment when my work will be useful or important to people in the future. I’m pretty sure it resolutely will stay about where it is now. I really try not to care either way.

With the events, actually I document for two reasons. One is because I really, theoretically, want to embrace their transitory nature. I think as you say, by acknowledging the limitations of the documentation, they are fundamentally simulacrous shadows of the live thing. It’s more of a way of giving the poets and artists who are engaged with it a note of respect, like here’s a thing that has recorded what you’ve done and you can use it to navigate the modern world of being a poet or an artist.

Also, a kind of engagement with professionalism, but really, the most important thing is because I resist all critical theorisation around my events, like I’ve turned down conferences on my events, I’ve turned down reviews, articles. If you scour the internet, the 600-700 events I’ve done, you won’t find many reports because when people ask me, I say no thanks. They’re not Utopian. I’m against Utopian ideas, they lead to disappointment.

It’s a transitory thing, it’s in time. We get together, we have a nice evening, we do some interesting things, we support each other, we do challenging work and then it’s Tuesday. I don’t care. The videos are precisely there, frozen in time because there is no theoretical underpinning to the events in anything but a more colloquial, professional way.

Also, when I started, I had a couple of experiences with people who told me, for example when I discovered the work of Tom Raworth, who’s very important to me, I scoured the internet for videos, for recordings. I didn’t find that many, then I’d meet people who knew him very well before he passed away and they’d be like ‘yeah, I have got a box of recordings.’ Then you’d go and it’s disintegrated. So recently, my You Tube archive, which is about 2000 videos, the National Poetry Library are going to put it in their collection and have it there for the future. That’s lovely, that is a legacy. I don’t care though. It’s just the way it is, I don’t think it’s that big a deal.

DT:      Legacy is a bit of a weighted word, I don’t really mean that, I’m just really struggling for an alternative. It resides in my mind though, I couldn’t really care less where my work sits, but the work I do with the podcast, I’m very, very engaged with preserving it. Perhaps preservation is a better word than legacy, preserving some sort of document of what you’ve done, primarily the voices of the people who’ve been involved in the events, rather than yourself, which is what I’m trying to do with the podcast.

SJF:      I think that’s great. When I followed your podcast and congratulations on what you’ve done with the podcast and the longevity of it, because that’s a huge constituent factor. People start them, do 30, then they’re like ‘I’m not getting any feedback. I’m not getting vibe, I’m going to leave it.’ In way that’s what I mean by saying I’ll take the You Tube videos and I think oh, maybe David will take this as an act of respect, I recorded his work and put it online in a resource he can access and makes him feel good about doing my event or engaging.

That’s where I stop thinking because it allows me to keep doing it every time as a practice, whereas if I was thinking I’m going to record the finest voices of my generation and put them on a You Tube channel, I would perhaps be oh, I haven’t moved the needle in terms of contemporary literature, why are they not speaking about me on the Bookseller 10 years later? I don’t care about that. That’s a big part of it, I want my events to be…

There’s an ambulance, a London ambulance. Yeah, I want my events to be transitory and engage in that, but I like being seen as a professional as well as an artist, someone who works on what they do and develops it, as I think you do too.

DT:      I’ve spent a lot of time trying to shake it off, but I’ve had to embrace it. I think it’s an unnecessary yoke I carry with me, feeling like I need to prove to everyone that I’m working hard and visibly work hard because you can’t, unless you’re going to sit in a shop window at your desk and write with everyone watching you, people won’t…

This is what I find strange about creative pursuits, it’s very seldom you’re seen to be working. I was very guilty when I first started the podcasts, that I was trying to visibly put out a lot of stuff. Not really for my own promotion, I really wanted to promote other people’s work, but I felt like it became exhausting because it was slightly for the wrong reasons. Once I addressed that and rebalanced it, I had a much healthier relationship to the whole thing.

Similarly to what you’re saying, I had to set a few ground rules which allowed me to say that’s out now, it’s gone and done and I can’t sit around to see whether I’m increasing the listener figures for this episode and whether I’m making inroads into possibly selling advertising. Once I let go of all of that…

Going back to your earlier point, I wanted to do this to be content. I don’t want to do it to be unhappy because I’m striving for things that are unattainable. I want to have the conversation and make it as accessible as possible, with points people can interact with.

SJF:      I think about this a lot, how do we get this balance? Because there is meaning in work. A lot of people aspire to be free of that kind of stuff and that was my goal. I wanted to use this pursuit to not have to work a 9am to 5pm job, because I was doing that for the first seven years of my writing. It was only three or four years ago I stopped doing that kind of work.

Now I teach, which some people see as a real hard grind, but uni teaching, I’ve had great joy doing it. It’s a great privilege for me to do it. I think about that a lot too. This constant pressure, is that why I do so much? I think about that in my head all the time. Is it that I feel guilty that I get to write a lot? Actually, no, it’s not the reason, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about it because there is clearly value and meaning in working hard and having that mentality of grinding.

I love that kind of feeling when you’re making something and you’re in it, but I’ve also had brutal suspicion and maybe one or two fallouts with people who perceive their artistic practice as some sort of grind. I’m like it’s not a grind! Oh my God, if you think that you’re a miner…

DT:      I used to work in a bronze foundry, I used to pour bronze. Since then, I haven’t moaned about any job. That was grafting. It’s not to take away from the amount of effort that people put into things, but people definitely have a skewed idea of what some people have to do for a living and the amount it takes out of them.

SJF:      Yes indeed.

DT:      There are some poor fuckers who, like you say, are in the ground for their whole working life.

SJF:      Exactly. My family’s family are paramedics, nurses, soldiers, teachers. I’ve laboured, I’ve worked on the doors. Everyone has it hard. I think that includes artists and poets because it’s all relative, but my feeling is if you’re not suspicious about what you do, unless it’s really hard, then you miss a trick in your soul. Because if you’re a nurse, working double shifts, you don’t have to worry about this question because you are just under unbelievable pressure.

But if you’ve got that mentality and you’re a writer, you’re like oh no, I’m melancholy because I sit in all day and I don’t do anything and I’m writing another book that no one reads, that’s a fair suspicion. There’s nothing wrong with that, but saying it out loud? Or living that lifestyle, like you’ve got it tough? I don’t know, maybe because I’ve done jobs where I felt I was drowning constantly, it makes me feel a bit queasy, I’ve got to be honest.

I’ve got a bit of an ethical problem with that. This is a huge constituent of my work, actually, the notion of perspective. I really think about that a lot. That’s why I like my work having this strange feeling of kind of menace and confusion because I want people to at least have a moment where, if they don’t understand it, it creates a kind of perspective of what they do understand. Maybe that’s a good function of my work, I think about it all the time.

If you read a poem that says ‘As I floated down the river, I thought of my love’, I’m like I get that, you’re remembering someone you loved, how sad. Then you read mine and it’s just squiggle, squiggle, squiggle, I don’t get it, at least then you’re creating a notion of perspective because in my lived life, exactly speaking to what you’re describing here, that’s so important to me. Perspective. We are going to die. That’s the only thing that bonds us together, that’s a beautiful thing. People in the majority of all time and place have had it 1000 times worse than I have it. How do I deal with that and still express my concerns? That’s a huge thing about what my work is about.

DT:      Let me know when you get the answer.

SJF:      Never! Exactly. When I’m in the ground. Sorry.

DT:      No, it’s fascinating. I just worry we could really go down a hole.

SJF:      Let’s do it, David, let’s turn it into a metaphysical podcast.

DT:      We’ll have to do a part two of the conversation.

SJF:      Any time.

DT:      What I’d like to just talk about briefly at the end here…

SJF:      Are we at the end? You’re breaking my heart.

DT:      We’re not at the end of anything, we are purely at the beginning.

SJF:      The beginning of the end.

DT:      Yeah. Talking about the live events, it’s vital we talk about how underpinning so much of what you do is collaboration and not only collaborating with other people, but you smashing other artists together, mainly around Europe. I know it does go wider than that, but with the European Poetry Festival, maybe we’ll talk briefly about the importance you see in collaboration.

Now we’ve touched on you admitting you’ve driven yourself into the ground by working too much and trying to prove yourself, this idea of why you feel collaboration is so important to your work and also to avant-garde writing in general…

SJF:      I suppose I was always confused that I was the only one who was interested in collaboration, in a medium that is inherently based in solitude. But then it’s based in solitude in a way I’m confused by the way people speak about it. The problem of other minds and philosophy or whatever, it’s the fundamental problem of all existence. I don’t know what other people are thinking.

I don’t know you’re not a robot right now, David. There’s no way to be inside other people’s… You’re nodding because you are an automaton. This is an issue. That’s what communication really is. We all know that most of the time when people are communicating, they’re not listening to each other. We all know we read body language, blah blah blah, we’ve read all these articles about this stuff.

The reality is that we’re a pack animal. We have a collective mindset. When we’re isolated, we feel bad about being alive. Poetry is an engagement with an internal and personal language experience. That’s what it fundamentally is. To me, collaboration is a way of mediating that. It’s an addition, it’s not to replace. Writing is a lonely task, no matter what your writing is, fundamentally. Like existence is. You’re born alone, you die alone, you don’t share a mind.

To me, collaboration is a way of literally and clumsily overcoming that. What I’ve learnt through doing it by accident, in these Camarade pairs, where I pair people off who’ve never met before and ask them to create a work with no criteria apart from a time limit, what I find is the very nature of collaboration removes a tension from the kind of practice that the poets seem to think their work represents who they are, so they write a very certain kind of way, because that’s who they are, that’s how they see themselves and when they collaborate, they get up and do wacky stuff.

They will go full weird-po, as I like to say, because they’re doing it live, it’s almost never in print and that’s not an accident even though most people think it is and they’re sharing responsibility. They can blame the other person. Maybe this is just a personal opinion or cheeky of me, but a lot of people I’ve invited have very formal print practices and they work they do live with collaborative partners is better, freer, more entertaining, more alive.

Collaboration has a methodological purpose. It’s inspiring, it’s collective, it’s human, it’s fun, it’s engaged, it changes the tenor of events. It also has a change in the way people write. It’s also about responding to how weird it is that poets and writers don’t really collaborate when almost every other art form does.

DT:      It’s been nice hearing several poets that you’ve invited say, almost apologetically, ‘I’m really surprised to have been invited to take part’. They probably don’t view their own work as being particularly stage-based or with some sort of performative aspect to their work and it’s really nice that the collaborative aspect can draw that out of them or doesn’t, just forces them to be part of it and often that’s enough. You just need the impetus to get up and perhaps have the shield of someone else standing next to you or perhaps lying on the floor or jumping around on table.

SJF:      Or crying.

DT:      Or riding round in one of those scissor lift things that was at Rich Mix last time.

SJF:      Someone built their own walking poem and walked around with a little castle. That’s the thing, it’s a protection in a way, but why not? There’s no doubt that collaboration has been a gateway to my own and many other people who’ve been involved in Enemies and the European Poetry Festival towards doing a more engaged version of a live poetry, which we have a responsibility to do, I think. To me, that means something very specific again. It’s like a version of what we’re doing with the book. It’s been an amazing, accidental exploration.

DT:      How long has the European Poetry Festival been going on for?

SJF:      We’ve done two, so the third year will be next April.

DT:      Coming up very shortly in London is the first Nordic Poetry Festival, which is an extension, is it?

SJF:      It is. It’s an experiment. It’s a sister festival because really, I got asked to do that. A lot of the poets who had come from Scandinavia and the Nordic region really enjoyed it and I’ve been invited to organise similar things across Scandinavia over the last three or four years. I’m really open to doing other kinds of sister festivals like that, with different regional specificities.

DT:      Just because this particular event is looming, maybe we should break away from having a proper conversation and go into a bit of spiel, dates, venues and stuff.

SJF:      Thank you. So the festival starts on October 11th at Burley Fisher Books, then has a second event in London, October 12th, Saturday night at the Rich Mix, the big Camarade, which I’m very happy you’ll be involved in, David. It’s fantastic, with your experience of living in Norway and so forth.

Then we’ll go on a mini tour, Norwich at the National Centre for Writing, who’ve been an amazing supportive partner of a lot of my events and these festivals, on Monday 14th October, then 15th we go to York to the Jorvik Centre, which is so funny and so good and I know all the poets probably won’t get round to hearing this podcast, so they won’t know that it’s this giant, beautiful in-joke for me that I bring all these avant-garde Scandinavian poets and take them to the Jorvik Centre, where it smells like sour milk.

I’ve actually booked the ride. They don’t know that when the reading finishes, I put them on the mechanical ride. That makes me glow inside. Then we come back for one last reading in Kingston-upon-Thames, where I teach at the university, so it’s part of the Writers’ Centre, which I run there too. Yeah, it’s short, a burst, like 30 poets coming from all over the Nordic region. There is some incredible work happening up there, it’s going to be really fun and all the events are free.

DT:      I really cannot recommend highly enough that you go and check out some of these events if you can. If not, try and find some of the recordings that will no doubt be made. Links to everything we’ve been talking about today, including links to Steven’s work, which we haven’t really touched on in terms of where you can find things, but stick around, it will be in the outro. Possibly. It’s weird talking about things I haven’t even thought about yet. They will be in the outro, they will exist.

SJF:      You will make it happen.

DT:      You can find those links in the episode description, people that are listening. It’s the end.

SJF:      It’s the end. Thank God it’s the beginning of the end. Thanks again for having me.

DT:      I’ve been really looking forward to talking to you properly. We talk fairly often, but that was the whole point of getting the microphone, it was to pin people down for an hour.

SJF:      I’m glad you’re back in London.

DT:      Me too. We’re going to finish with a reading please.

SJF:      So this is a poem from a book I published this summer, 2019, called ‘I Stand Alone By The Devils, And Other Poems On Film’, by Broken Sleep books. Thanks to them for suffering under my work.

Poem redacted

Outro:

DT:      Hello. You stuck around. Grab yourself an ice-cold Capri Sun from the fridge as a reward. I hope the traffic noises and squeaky chair didn’t annoy you too much. I also hope you enjoyed the conversation. I certainly enjoyed recording it. It’s a conversation I’ve been wanting to record for a while, so I’m glad we both found the time. We’re both pretty busy at the moment.

I’m a bit disappointed, looking back, that I let the issue of class slip by. I suppose that’s been spoken about enough in the series previously and Steven and I wanted to discuss other things, but I regret not pushing him more on the idea of recognising issues around class and ignoring them, even if ignoring them is based on providing platforms and spaces that counteract these things. Perhaps we should all be a bit more outspoken about these things, I don’t know.

For more from Steven, go over to his website stevenjfowler.com. If I started now to list all of his work, we’d be here for another hour so I will allow you to go and seek that out for yourselves. One thing I would check out is Steven’s appearance on episode 12 of Matthew Blunderfield’s Scaffold podcast, in which he talks about a residency he did at an architect’s studio and what it means to attempt to write future-facing poetry. It’s a really fascinating discussion.

I’ll be back before the end of 2019 with episode 123. I still have no idea who will be joining me though. That’s a deliberate choice now. I’m trying to not allow the podcast to take control of my life too much, so I’ll just be seeing who interests me and who is available nearer the time. That’s quite enough for today. Be good to yourselves, I’ll speak to you soon.

End of transcript.

 

Episode 65 of ‘a poem a week’

Screenshot 2019-06-30 at 09.02.06

Episode 65 of our companion podcast a poem a week is now available to download wherever you get your podcasts. This week it’s me! (apologies) I’m reading a poem called ‘The twat in the (beanie) hat’ taken from a joint pamphlet called ten cups of coffee available from the brilliant folk at Hesterglock Press from Bristol. The pamphlet includes 10 short prose poems by media, all illustrated by my wife Lizzy. The poem in this week’s episode and its accompanying illustration is featured above. Listen on Soundcloud here or through your podcast app of choice.

 

apaw david

Episode 121 – Astra Papachristodoulou

121 Astra PapachristodoulouWe’re back! Episode 121 is now available to download wherever you get you podcasts.

For this episode I’m in Walthamstow, east London talking to experimental poet and artist Astra Papachristodoulou about the importance of collaboration and the visual look of words on a page in her practice. Astra is pretty determined not to be restricted by conventional definitions of what it is to be a poet and happily exists on the boundary of different media, so it was interesting to hear why she’s so keen to introduce rules and constraints into her writing.

Below is a transcript of the episode, minus the poems that Astra reads. If you’d like a complete transcript then click here.

 

Transcript by Christabel Smith

 

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Astra Papachristodoulou – AP

 

Introduction:

DT:      Hello, welcome to Episode 121 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. My name is David Turner. It’s been a while since we last talked. How are you lot doing? A lot has been happening since episode 120, back in November 2018, including me and my wife moving back to London from Bristol. I say London, but it’s actually Walthamstow, which is almost the countryside. Taking the break from releasing new episodes also coincided with the end of the funding I was receiving from Arts Council England, so one last thank you to them for their support.

This means I’ve gone back to my previous life as a joiner, a furniture maker, and if you like early 20th-century, modernist furniture, made from curved plywood, then check out the company I work for, Isokon Plus. I mentioned the move and going back to full-time wok because it’s relevant to the shape the podcast will take in the future. Realistically, I’m only going to have time to release episodes quarterly. I might be able to turn around some shorter, bonus episodes, but I think a new one every four months is what I can manage around life, work and my own writing, without it becoming a burden.

I hope that while I’ve been away, you’ve all been supporting and listening to our companion podcast, A Poem A Week, produced by my wife Lizzy, in which poets read their own poems or a favourite by someone else. If not, you can rectify that straightaway, innit? You can find that series wherever you get your podcasts or over at our website, lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, where you can also find a list of over 50 poetry podcasts, produced in the UK and Ireland.

Also on the website, you can find a full transcript of this episode alongside over 80 more episodes, link in the episode description. For today’s episode, I’m in conversation with an experimental poet, performer and artist, Astra Papachristodoulou. We met up in Walthamstow last month to chat about the importance of collaboration and the visual look of words on a page in her practice.

Astra is pretty determined not to be restricted by conventional definitions of what it is to be a poet and happily exists on the boundary of different media, so it was interesting to hear why she’s so keen to introduce rules and constraints into her writing. I was actually  quite nervous in the build-up to recording in such a long break, but I am very happy to be making episodes and chatting to you through your phones, tablets and computers again.

If you like what you hear, then do me a solid one and tell your friends, family, colleagues, etc. Word-of-mouth recommendations are still by far the best way for podcasts to reach new listeners and I say this, not for my own benefit, but for all the wonderful guests that have featured on this series. I’ll be back at the end of the episode, but for now, here’s Astra with a couple of poems.

Conversation:

[Download transcript for poems]

DT:      Thank you very much, Astra. Thank you for joining me on the podcast today. I’m going to start off with a question I haven’t asked in many years on the podcast. When this series first started a long time ago, listeners will know the first question in every interview was ‘Why poetry?’ We stopped asking that because it felt like it became too gimmicky, even though it threw up some really interesting answers. Just knowing a little bit about your work and having chatted to you a bit before, I felt like it was a good start for our conversation. So I just wanted to ask you: ‘Why poetry?’

AP:       So it’s interesting. I don’t know if we’ve talked about this before, but I did my BA in Theatre Studies at Surrey, but I’ve always been fascinated with writing. As a child, I started writing small, one-act plays when I was at high school. At one stage, one of them as well at school, which was cool, and when I came to the UK to study theatre, I just had that fascination for writing and working in a theatre environment in the future, but I realised that theatre relies a lot on teamwork and you’re dependent a lot on the help of others with staging and I find I enjoy working alone most of the time.

So I felt like poetry worked for me in that way. You know, I get that inspiration at 3am. I bring my laptop, I write and it’s a solitary activity, which you can then share if you want to. With collaborations for example, you can use that writing that you produced alone and work alongside someone else and get that piece of teamwork, which I think is very important. Or you don’t and you just go and share it by yourself, which is fine. Either way, but personal preference, I chose that path because it worked for me.

DT:      It’s interesting to hear you talk about the appeal of being able to work alone, but having seen you almost exclusively perform as part of a collaboration with other  people, I suppose there isn’t a conflict there, is there? It might to seem to some people that it’s a contradiction, but in the initial work and initial writing, it’s nice to have that freedom to work alone and not have the restrictions of having to meet up and be part of all these things.

AP:       With collaborations, especially with poetry, I find that it’s very rare that people would intervene with your work. It’s usually people bringing their works together and not really intervening with each other’s writing or each other’s practice because you have a lot of collaborations with music, with visual arts, etc, so it feels a bit more organic this way, especially if you like having control over your work, which I personally like.

DT:      I don’t want to guide the conversation too much, too early, but we may come on to definitions of poetry a bit later on and what it means to be a poet and write poetry, but at this initial stage, if we ignore those wider questions, in your own personal work, your own personal practice, do you see yourself as a poet that collaborates? Or do you see yourself rather as an artist that collaborates with other artists and you just happen to have already written poetry? Because the performances I’ve seen you in don’t seem to be that rooted in a regular poetry tradition, in this country at least.

AP:       I don’t see myself as one thing, to be honest with you. With each collaboration, it’s like I have a different facet. Most of the time, I see myself as a poet working with someone else. It often happens that I work with people from different disciplines, like recently, one of the performances you attended at the Poetry Café was with two great musicians, Oliver Fox and Sean Tomlin.

So most of the time, I see myself as a poet working with people from different disciplines, but there are times I act as an artist, especially when it comes to visual poems, because I work around visual poetry a lot and I see it more as art, rather than poetry.  For example, when I take part in exhibitions, I see myself more as an artist than a poet. It’s the beauty, especially of experimental, avant-garde poetry, the definition is so broad, you don’t have to feel pressured to squeeze into one box.

DT:      I’ve got something else I want to lead on to, but as a follow-up question, after you finished your BA, at what point did you find this avant-garde slash experimental scene? You’re quite heavily involved with collaborative projects with the same artists and writers and that happens naturally to everyone, we all find our own little niche. What do the kids say, you find your tribe on Twitter or whatever? How quickly did you find that and did you feel you could have done the same thing within theatre, or did it have to happen within poetry?

AP:       I think a lot of it depended on the tutors I worked with in both of my degrees. I really didn’t feel that my tutors in theatre connected me to a wider network outside the university, whereas as soon as I joined the MA of Poetic Practice at Royal Holloway, it was under the leadership of Robert Hampson, who is fantastic, by the way. He was, I think, the key who introduced me to people like Steven Fowler, who I work with regularly, and that network of avant-garde poets.

I know a lot of poets that have stumbled across the scene, but it’s really hard for it to happen organic[ally] without someone grabbing you by the hand and showing you the ropes and introducing you to this network.

DT:      Coming back to what you mentioned before about visual poems and how that’s a big part of your work, I’ve interviewed quite a few people as part of the series whose visual work is as essential to them as their written work or their performance work. It’s obviously a very hard thing to talk about in an audio medium, so on the podcast, we tend to, not brush over it, but it’s hard to explain what you mean without really lengthy descriptions of what a poem might look like.

I think it’s worth talking about because you started by reading two fantastic poems from your pamphlet Astropolis through Haverthorn Press and they are very, very visual and concrete in style and structure and it would be a shame to have any readings and have that book in the room and not talk about the visual structure in some way. Maybe you could explain what the book is, first of all, and how it came about? I think that might give some insight as to what it looks like.

Usually, along with the transcripts that accompany the episode, there are always transcripts of the poems, but maybe I should add images instead, so whoever’s listening could also go over to the transcript now and bring up the pdf and see the images of the poems we’re talking about, it might be useful.

AP:      I started developing Astropolis while I was at the Poetic Practice course actually. That was my final creative project. It’s supposed to be songs from a neo-futurist opera and I was inspired by the Italian Futurists, who I stumbled across while doing the course. They were fascinated with technology and I think technology today is a very vital part of our lives, more than ever. I started researching the neo-futurist term to see whether there were any echoes of the Italian Futurists today and I didn’t really find anything solid in poetry, either a book or someone who focused their practice on that particular movement.

So Astropolis is really an experiment of visual poems that try to define what neo-futurism is and although technology plays a very important part of the project, ecology plays just as important a role because I think now, with climate change, technology can be used in a positive way to try and help reduce some of the ecological damage. I try to express that notion through responding to smart buildings, so neo-futurist architecture.

Each of the poems is trying to embody the structure of that building. So there is a play between architecture and poetry, but it is a project in progress and I would like to explore that notion a bit more, hopefully. I’m starting a PhD in September in neo-futurist poetics, I think that will give me that space to explore Astropolis a bit more and hopefully come up with an even larger work of visual poems.

DT:      One thing I’ve noticed through reading your work and seeing your performances is that there are a lot of imagined and fantasy worlds you’re writing about. We’re not going to talk about Space just yet, I’m going to save that for the second half, but was it necessary for Astropolis to have a very real root for each poem that existed in this world, in order to talk about what an imagined future might be?

AP:       I think that in order to explore what the future might hold, I have to look back at the past and the buildings hopefully help with providing that past element in the work. The book really plays with the past, the present and the future and this is one of the elements I thought might help build that three-dimensional space for the poems.

DT:      I thought it was a really interesting hook as well, to use what are, at the moment, ultra-modern and brand-new buildings, but placing them, because the book is written at what point in the future?

AP:       So 2092.

DT:      2092, so then they suddenly become historical artefacts, even though to us, they are ultra-modern. It was an interesting starting point and as a bit of further clarification, each poem uses a different building from around the world. Why do you think that ecology and the environment play such a big role in the work of avant-garde writers at the moment? It seems to me that environmental issues are reflected far more heavily in the experimental writing I’ve seen than in more mainstream stuff.

AP:       That’s an interesting question, actually. Straightaway in my head, I’m identifying all these really interesting, experimental poets, who work around ecology, like Sarah Cave or Julia Rose Lewis. Probably, it’s because of the form of experimental poetry, although a lot of these writers don’t focus on the visual element. I do think the form of concrete poems helps express notions a bit better.

DT:      Do you think it feeds into this attraction to collaboration as well? I’m highly aware I might be accusing mainstream poets of not caring, and that is not what I’m doing, but perhaps through that desire to collaborate with other artists and be part of a wider community, it’s quite natural that it then links your work into thinking about being part of a community. Your practice itself is not…it seems to be with experimental writers that their practice is very rarely inward-looking, which is quite in mode at the moment, it’s quite fashionable for more mainstream poetry.

AP:       I agree with you, in a sense. Straightaway, I’m thinking of the European Poetry Festival, the last one that happened in April. There were quite a few poets that performed collaborative pieces around eco-poetry. All I’m thinking is Vilde Valerie Bjerke Torset for example, that literally pulled apart pots of Basil, which was quite an interesting image. I definitely think these outward notion of collaboration probably helps target subjects that concern us all and affect the community. Climate change, that multiplicity of voices is quite beautiful. That’s probably why you see more eco-poetry in avant-garde poetry at the moment. Maybe. That’s just my idea.

DT:      Now would be a good time for a second reading.

AP:       I’m going to read an extract from my neo-futurist manifesto, which was commissioned by Sidekick Books and was developed for their No, Robot, No anthology. It’s amazing, please go get a copy.

[download transcripts for poems]

 DT:      Two initials points come into my head. Because we said we were saving the reality of Space and what exists outside this planet until the second half, we should start there. As we established in the first half of this conversation, or at least established our own beliefs between the two of us about the proliferation of ecologically-minded poetry within the avant-garde and how we writers, because I put myself in that circle of writers as well, if we’re concerned with our place on this planet and amongst other human beings, your writing seems to take a leap outside that atmosphere, and consider where we are all sitting in the galaxy and wider universe, I was wondering, as I started the conversation with ‘Why poetry?’ maybe we should say ‘Why space?’

AP:       Because I think Space is the next stage and it is going to happen at some point, I don’t know when, but it is going to happen, moving to exo-planets and many scientists, like Stephen Hawking, for example, he was the one that predicted human race eventually moving to exo-planets, which is quite a fascinating idea. I really wish I lived at this point where we were packing our bags and moving to Mars. I wouldn’t mind the location, it’s this exciting space, planet in Outer Space. How would you feel about moving to Space?

DT:      I don’t spend that much time thinking about Space, but I got a bit distracted during your answer. I was at a talk recently, hosted by the fantastic writer Isabel Waidner, and they were talking about how during the 80s, splits between different kinds of literature became drawn out via class and educational divide and how sci-fi was seen as a lower form of writing and how it was deemed that was what you would write if you failed at university, imagining what it was like.

Coming very much from a working-class background, it surprised me because I had no interest in sci-fi or anything like that at all, but it’s also interesting to think about those class distinctions between experimental and more mainstream literature. I think what I’m concerned with is that I’m not against moving somewhere else, I’m just hoping we haven’t messed things up so much that we have to. It brings up ideas of what utopia might be and whether there’s just no chance of that, here.

It does seem for a lot of experimental writers, this idea of imagining some sort of utopia seems to weight quite heavily in people’s work and that’s maybe reflecting the damage and why they’re so obsessed with the damage that’s happening now to the planet.

AP:       It’s been a very popular subject. Straightaway, I’m thinking of Burning House Press and how they recently published an issue edited by Paul Hawking, which was around the future and space. There were some really lovely contributions to that issue. With No, Robot, No! anthology, there is a very big selection of writers concerned with the future, I suppose. I don’t know whether the political situation at the moment gives you an extra incentive to try and imagine how things are going to be in the future.

Obviously, with my work, I’ve gone too far away from the immediate future. That is hopefully something that concerns a lot of people at the moment and might be interesting for readers out there.

DT:      The second thing I was thinking as you were reading that, whilst I put myself into the same writing tradition as you, one thing I’ve never been able to get my head around is why the avant garde are so obsessed with manifestos. Even using them like a crux to build an idea around, regardless of whether you believe what you just read is an actual manifesto that you wish people would follow, this idea of being instructive as to how people should think about the world around them. I’ve always found it quite strange, this openness and the liberalism that’s inherent in experimentation, but then it often comes with a list of instructions.

AP:       Yeah, probably because a lot of conceptual poetry is a series of instructions. I look back at myself and the way I produce some of my poetry, by setting rules and going out there and following those rules to the very end. That’s probably why. A lot of avant-garde artists do like restricting themselves to a box, to be able to then escape it, in a way. I’m not speaking for everyone, that’s just my experience. I love instructions and I like a good manifesto as well. I’m not saying that my manifesto is good, but it’s interesting, it’s a form of prose I really enjoy.

DT:      You definitely see the attraction you have towards constraints in your writing come through your two pamphlets from Sampson Low, Almost A Dream and Almost A Nightmare. It might be a natural point to start talking about those two small booklets as well. I’m not going to explain your own work to you. Maybe you could tell me and the listeners about the form and the structure and what role musical theory and notation play in how these two booklets were put together.

AP:       So I would say with both Almost A Dream and Almost A Nightmare,  they are what I call collaging poems. Not all of them. The one I read on A Poem A Week last week, Heliolatry, it was a bit more language-focused, but a lot of the others are comprised of lines, which most of the time I have Googled or noted down. The restriction I set around those, to answer your question, so with Almost A Nightmare, I try to focus around language, about the Moonlight Sonata, the third movement, then text around the Great Fire of London and then sexual texts and try to extract language from sources that were discussing these three themes and bring them together to create something hopefully unique.

With Almost A Dream, I was a bit more free in the process of making them and although a lot of them are collaging poems, their sense of instruction wasn’t as strong. But I think a great example of what you’ve just said was a book that’s going to be published by Guillemot Press in September called Stargazing, which I have restricted myself to a small window of a set number of lines and the whole book is comprised of ‘aperture’ poems, which fall into a very simple, clean square and that’s probably the most restrictions that I’ve set to myself. Usually, although I set a list of instructions while creating poetry, nothing was as restrictive as these aperture poems.

DT:      So that square you’ve decided to restrict yourself to, is that a void into which you’re writing or are you using that open square to select smaller pieces of writing from a larger body?

AP:       A lot of the writing within that square space is supposed to be part of a larger text. It’s a bit like a black-out poem in reverse, if that makes sense, but metaphorically, it’s supposed to be a window through which you watch the sky at night and the way then the stars start to come together and create images, so I think the form works with the content because the poems are around the story of Icarus and Daedalus, which many of the listeners might know about. Yes, I do think form helps bring the content alive.

DT:      So this next book is your own little poetic telescope, is it? You’re scanning the sky with it.

AP:       That’s a great way to describe it, yes.

DT:      I really like that, I’ve always been attracted to artworks where the majority of the work is obscured and you can only view parts at a time. It’s quite interesting this point, also, I suppose that’s ultimately where the whole conversation is revolving, it’s nice that it’s come up at this point, how much of your work is informed by the form and that it’s not only a very interesting way to display the work at the end, it’s a vital part of the construction of the work as well.

AP:      Yes, 100%. Form for me is sometimes more important than content. Maybe it’s because I have an inclination towards visual art. Inclination’s not really the right word, probably a taste for visual art and the aesthetic is very important for me. I usually try and marry those two flavours of form and content.

DT:      It’s nice to come across a person’s work who’s clearly happy to live on the boundaries and intersections of two ways of working and not being afraid of… You hear a lot from artists about not wanting to be pigeon-holed between one thing and the other, but that’s not quite the same thing as being happy to live in the gaps between as well. I think sometimes that can be considered as a negative view or interpretation of your work, or somebody’s work, but it’s quite nice when you see people fully embrace it like you do with your work. It’s visual and it’s literary and it’s performance and what comes out at the end is what it is and it’s nice to see you stand by it and be quite proud of what it is at the end of it.

AP:       Thank you. Yes, for me, it’s very important to keep yourself open to things. I think with the restriction of performing visual poems, with your question, that popped up in my head straightaway, some people may be wary of creating visual pieces because if they’re strong performers, I think that freedom of expression sometimes opens doors you didn’t know existed. What I found with my visual work, at first my worry was how do I perform these?

At the launch of Astropolis last year, actually it was last year to the day at the Peckham Pelican, my worry was how do I perform these poems? I have to fill a 15-minute reading slot and how do I do that? That opened a whole door of me thinking of creating object poems and bringing those on stage, rather than me trying to extract some of the lines from the visual poem, which wouldn’t really work because the form was just as important as the content for those poems.

It opened that door for me to think of object poetry and the use of props to be able to create that same aesthetic that you’re trying to portray on the page. I would definitely encourage people to think of form as well, because it’s quite liberating.

DT:      Something I’ve been thinking about a lot with my own writing is how to embrace the contradictions in what I think about because it’s quite interesting, in the last 10 or 15 minutes hear you talk about your love for instructions and constraints and finish by talking about freedom to use props and do whatever you want. I think it’s nice to come to a point where you realise that these contradictions are integral to what you do.

I think I’ve spent a lot of my writing trying to define one way that I think about things and that just isn’t true, that isn’t how I live my life. I don’t have one way of thinking about  anything in life, I don’t know why it should be part of the way I write as well. I’m not going to say too much more because I’m going to end up plugging my own writing and that’s not what I’m here for. Unfortunately, we’ve come to the end of the conversation. Thank you so much for joining me, it’s been really fascinating.

AP:       It has been and thank you so much for the invitation, it’s been great.

DT:      We’re going to finish with a third and final reading.

AP:       Since we’ve been talking about restrictions in writing and we mentioned Stargazing, which is going to be out by Guillemot Press in September, I thought I might share with you some of the poems from the book.

Outro:

DT:      Hello again. You stuck with us to the end. Grab yourself a biscuit as a reward, or a cookie or whatever. That was the wonderful Astra Papachristodoulou. Do yourself a favour and go and see her perform if you get the chance or at the very least, check her out on You Tube. If you’d like to get yourself one of the pamphlets, you can buy Astropolis from Haverthorn Press, both Almost A Nightmare and Almost A Dream from Sampson and Low. As you heard at the end there, her latest will be Stargazing, out through Guillemot Press later this year. Astra has a fantastic page on her website, dedicated to her publications, so I’ll link to that in this episode description and I’ll also link to the next couple of things I’m going to mention.

As we’re talking of experimental poetry pamphlets, my wife Lizzy and I just published a collection of 10 poems by me and 10 accompanying illustrations by her. It’s called 10 Cups of Coffee and you can get yourself a copy through Hesterglock Press.

If it’s of interest, I was recently interviewed by Naomi Woddis for her show The Two Of Us, in which she talks to writers and artists about how they manage their mental health. We chatted mainly about how writing poetry and producing this podcast both impact and help my mental wellbeing. I really enjoyed the chat, but I think I will always remain too embarrassed to listen to the recording. You can do that for me. Let me know what you think.

I think that’s it for episode 121. You can continue to follow us on our website, lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, at Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook and Instagram, @silent_tongue and @apoemaweek on Twitter.

Until episode 122 and the autumn, be good to yourselves.

End of transcript.

Our recording set-up

I’m (fairly) regularly asked what recording equipment I use to record for this podcast and a poem a weeknormally by people looking to start their own podcast but also by folk that are simply interested in how podcasts are put together.

I have a standard email that I send in reply as it’s slightly complicated, because over four years of podcasting I’ve used different set-ups for different situations – one-to-one interviews, round-table discussions and recordings of live events. Anyway, it’s probably worth having this information available as a public post.

Below is a list of how I’ve done things, this is not intended as a list of instructions on how to produce a podcast, just a few options for producers looking to start out or develop an existing set-up. I’ve linked to some places where you can buy the equipment I use with prices but you can definitely get everything cheaper if you shop around or buy second-hand.

I’ll break this post into three sections: 1) Having ‘no budget’, 2) Having some Arts Council funding, 3) Having some more Arts Council funding…

1) Having no (or little) budget (total £310):

When I started Lunar Poetry Podcasts, back in 2014, I already owned a Blue Yeti USB microphone (£100) and an iPad Mini (£300) so it made sense to make use of this equipment. I tried a few different recording apps but settled on Voice Record Pro (£7-10). I used this et-up exclusively for episodes 1-76, which is, you know a lot!

The Blue Yeti is a very good podcasting mic and will plug directly into your laptop or with an adaptor your smart phone/tablet. It is however pretty heavy and cumbersome and most importantly is designed to be kept in one position and not for ‘in the field’ recording. Early episodes are full of bangs, thuds, donks and plonks as guests dared to wriggle in their chairs and touch the table that the mic was stood on. If you’re looking to record at home straight into your computer this is a very good microphone.

Voice Record Pro is very rudimentary compared to other editing options but was all I could afford or was capable of downloading onto my iPad. It allowed me to set recording volumes and cut out mistakes but not much else.

Had I not received Arts Council funding I would have stuck with the set-up. Speaking of which…

2) Having received some Arts Council funding (£1103):

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In the summer of 2016 I received a substantial (to me) grant from Arts Council England which allowed me to invest in new recording equipment and develop the series in general. I moved away from the iPad and the Blue Yeti mic completely.

The following set-up was used for almost all episodes 77-114.

I bought a Zoom H6 recorder (£280), four Røde ‘lavalier/lapel’ microphones (£560) along with the necessary MICON-5 connectors to use them with XLR inputs (£88). This set-up requires XLR cables of varying lengths (approx £50) and good quality headphones for monitoring the recording, I opted for Sennheiser HD-25 (£125) as I had no headphones of my own at that point.

I absolutely love my Zoom H6, it has four separate recording channels as well as it’s two detachable microphones that come in the box when you buy it. The four channels allow you to set the levels of each microphone separately – boosting quieter guests and turning down louder ones. It’s also very easy to record directly from a PA at live events if you’re looking to record readings or Q&As.

Most podcasters won’t require four microphones but I wanted to introduce round-table discussions so the Røde lapel mics seemed the best way to fit four microphones and a recorder into a small backpack and travel around the UK interviewing poets. I really enjoyed using the lapel mics as they’re very easy to set up, take up no table space and are very indiscreet and far less intimidating than a ‘proper’ microphone.

The downside to these microphones is that they are very sensitive to movement (rustling, laughing, breathing etc.) and as they are omni-directional they pick up all background noise. They are very good options if you’re unable to carry a lot of equipment or your guest would prefer not to stay sat in one fixed position in front of a mic stand.

When I received this funding I invested in a laptop (I haven’t included this in the budget as it’s unusual to not have access to a computer and the options here are too numerous if you need to buy one). I began to use Audacity to edit with, it’s a free, open-source programme and is used by many podcast producers. I think it’s a great piece of software to learn on as it’s very intuitive and visually very clear.

However, if you’re using it a lot it won’t take long before you find its limitations. For example I found it a little tricky to layer up different tracks and most importantly the in built noise reduction options are very basic. This basically means that it can often be hard to remove the mic ‘hiss’ which you get with all microphones and portable recorders.

3) Having received more Arts Council funding (£1087):

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Episodes 115 onwards.

In January 2017 I received another grant from Arts Council England which allowed me to pay for a much more experienced producer to evaluate and report back on the way I was recording and publishing episodes. The result of this consultation meant reinvesting in equipment…

I already had the Zoom H6 recorder (£280) and XLR cables (approx. £50) and Sennheiser HD-25 headphones (£125). The main issue was sound quality, especially when it came to guests reading their work on the podcast which was to become central to the, then, new a poem a week series.

I sold three of my Røde lapel mics and bought two BeyerDynamic M58 microphones (£300). These microphones are amazing! They’ve made a huge difference to how guests sound. Recordings are much clearer and resonant now and I feel like guests are being far better represented in the recordings. I record for up to one and a half hours which is too long to ask guests to hold microphones so I also bought two table top mic stands (£50)

For editing I now use a combination of Reaper (£42) and iZotope RX6 (which may now have upgraded to RX7) (£240). I’ve been very happy with my choice to move over to Reaper and I think it offers the best value over the multitude of other options. RX6 is an absolutely brilliant piece of software which allows me to reduce background noise without overly impacting on the voice of host or guest and also allows me to reduce heavy breath noises during readings and ‘mouth-clicking’.

 

Like I said at the beginning, this is not a ‘how-to’ guide, just an insight as to how I’ve gone about things starting from a position of complete ignorance. As a podcast producer you’re still going to have to ask yourself which platform you’re going to host on and how you’ll go about making transcripts available (please make transcripts available!). These issues though are for another blog or even for other people to answer.

David xx

Episode 120 – Tom Sastry

Ep120 - Tom SastryEpisode 120 with Tom Sastry is now available to download wherever you get your podcasts. Early October 2018 I met up with To at his home in Bristol to discuss his debut pamphlet Complicity (Smith|Doorstop) and the links between his writing and performance style. Tom’s debut full collection A Man’s House Catches Fire will be published by Nine Arches Press in October 2019.

This is the final episode of this ‘series’. Lunar Poetry Podcasts will return April 2019.

A full transcript of the episode can be found below, minus the three poems Tom read during the recording. You can download a transcript including the poems here: https://lunarpoetrypodcasts.files.wordpress.com/2018/11/lpp-ep120-tom-sastry-transcript.pdf

 

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Tom Sastry – TS

 Introduction

DT:      Hello, welcome to episode 120 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. My name is David Turner. As regular listeners will know, this is the last episode of 2018 and the last episode, in fact, until maybe April 2019 as I’m taking a break after four years of fairly intensive podcasting. Those of you that need to supplement your poetry podcast hit should head over to our companion podcast, a poem a week, which you can find wherever you found this podcast.

My wife Lizzy and, very occasionally, me, will continue to bring you a poem every Sunday. As well as that, you can go over to the Lunar website and take a look at our poetry podcast finder, a directory of over 30 poetry and spoken-word podcasts, produced in the UK and Ireland, with more due to be added in the coming months. Do get in touch and let us know if you would like to hear me talking to anyone particular in 2019.

I don’t know whether I should be whispering or not. There are two little squirrels in front of me and I don’t want to frighten them. The perils of recording podcasts in English parks. The main reason I’ve chosen now as a good time to take a break from the series is our current Arts Council England funding has come to an end. I just want to say a very quick thank you to them for their support. We’ve produced so much that just wouldn’t be possible without that money, not least a huge improvement in sound quality in the last five episodes. Beyer Dynamic M58 microphones, if you’re wondering.

This was never part of any wider plan, but a recent development has meant I’ll be using the upcoming break to get together my first book of – mainly – poetry, which will be published in 2019 by Bristol-based publishers of innovative and experimental poetry, Hesterglock Press. I really like Paul and Sarah at Hesterglock, so I’m looking forward to working with them a lot. While we’re on the subject of financial support and books, just a quick reminder that our anthology of poems by former podcast guests, Why Poetry? The Lunar Poetry Podcasts Anthology, is available for £9.99 from Verve Poetry Press and, allegedly, some bookshops.

Buying that book will directly support covering the cost of transcribing future episodes. Get over to lunarpoetrypodcasts.com to find over 80 episode transcripts, including this episode. That’s the admin done. Today’s guest is Bristol-based poet Tom Sastry. I met up with Tom at his home in October 2018 to chat about the links between his performance style and his writing, his debut pamphlet, Complicity, and far too much chat about seagulls. Completely my fault.

As happens quite a lot when recording, there was something we wanted to chat about but weren’t sure if we could because we weren’t sure when the episode would be going out and we didn’t want to give away any secrets, but I think by the time you’ve downloaded this episode, it should have been officially announced that Tom’s debut collection, A Man’s House Catches Fire, will be published by Nine Arches Press in October 2019, which is great news, because he’s fantastic, as you’re about to hear.

Anyway, that’s it for announcements of poetry books coming out in 2019. How about we get on to the episode? Here’s Tom with what I now assume is the titular poem from his upcoming debut.

Conversation:

TS:

To read this poem download the full transcript here

DT:      Thank you very much, Tom. Thank you for joining me on the podcast. We’ll get round to you introducing yourself. I’m not going to introduce you because I’m terrible at introductions. I didn’t mention this before we started recording, but my mind’s a bit distracted. So I was walking down Broadmead on my way here – for those that don’t know, that’s the main shopping street in Bristol – and I was eating a pasty that I’d bought from Greggs because I’d got out of bed and not had any breakfast and rushed out and suddenly needed something to eat.

I felt something approaching me from behind. A seagull landed on my head and took the pasty out of my hand, in the view of everyone. It struck me that for that moment, I was living in a Tom Sastry poem because not only was that ridiculous, that a seagull might have hit me on the head and stolen my pasty and everybody laughed at me, but it also involved the melancholy and loss that exists through a lot of your poems.

I was very hungry and I’d lost my pasty, but also the shame I felt from the schoolkids laughing at me. It was a terrible time for it to happen because it was school-run time so there were a lot of 12-year-olds laughing at this grown man that had been hit on the head by a seagull and had his pasty stolen.

TS:       It’s real life. I think I should approach Greggs with that story and see. I know Jo Bell and others have had work from Nationwide. I feel I could be the face of Greggs.

DT:      Yeah, you could be the face of Greggs and it’s how you credit your work. I think I would rather not be known as ‘the man who had the seagull hit’. I’ve made it known now on the podcast, but I trust my audience not to laugh at me.

TS:       I trust my audience to laugh at me. What I’ve done and I don’t know if this touches on how page poets can function in a spoken-word setting, but in Bristol, I think I’m best-known as a spoken-word artist, rather than a poet. Outside Bristol, I’m a page poet. Essentially what I do is read these miserable, very slow, very pagey poems and then I just tell lots of jokes against myself in between. This seems to work tolerably well, so no, I don’t know where I’d be without seagulls crapping on my head and without my imaginary, fantasy life as the voice of Greggs.

DT:      Also for me, as a Cockney who’s moved to Bristol, it’s a year now since my wife and I have been in Bristol, it feels like I’ve finally been through an initiation test in that a seagull’s whacked me on the head and nicked my pasty. I feel I belong now.

TS:       I’m from the South East of England, I’m not from London, I’m from that sort of doughnut where London is too close for these places to have any life of their own, but too far away for you to actually be in London. I think it’s a fairly unenviable condition, living in the commuter fringe of London, so I’m very pleased to have left. When I first moved to Bristol, there’s a poem I’m not going to read because it’s dreadful, but it was one of the first poems I wrote and it’s about that feeling.

I was in Montpelier, Bristol, for anyone who’s from Bristol, the first place I lived, and I was standing at the top of Richmond Road, looking over, you get quite a view from there, you can see the hospital incineration tower and lots of other beautiful landmarks of Cotham at the other side of Gloucester Road. The seagulls were screaming away. It’s actually the first time I’d heard seagulls inland because it was just at the point where pigeons were still in control of most of the country, at that time, the seagulls hadn’t yet really challenged their empire.

Now, you feel a bit sorry for pigeons because a little fat pigeon will be pecking away at some grain and all of a sudden, 60 seagulls will threaten to pick his eyes out. Now, pigeons are underdogs, but at the time, pigeons were the evil empire and seagulls were exotic, from the sea. I heard these seagulls clacking overhead and thought ‘I’m by the sea’. It was another couple of weeks before I tried to get to the sea from Bristol. If you look on the map, it looks like Bristol is right by the seaside, but if you try and get to the seaside from Bristol, it’s harder than you think.

DT:      My wife and I both moved to Bristol, I had this idea, because I used to live in a small town in the south of Norway called Kristiansand. Having been born in Central London and grown up in the South East of England and only experiencing the sea after a two-and-a-half-hour drive with my nan and my aunt and them smoking in a Ford Fiesta and drinking cups of tea as the rain lashed at the windows of the café, that was my only experience of the sea.

Then living Kristiansand, I really understood why people had this connection with it. I’d always thought it was where the land stopped and it was a barrier, but you got a sense there of people’s connection to it, people who’d grown up there, it was an extension of their landscape. I had exactly the same thing, I thought ‘If I move to Bristol, I’ll be really close to the sea’. I’ve seen it once in a year, because it’s such a pain to get to. I think we had to go to, what’s the one on from Weston-super-Mare?

TS:       Burnham-on-Sea? Or Brean?

DT:      It’s a long way, isn’t it, because you look on the map and that’s actually just the Bristol Channel you can see and no one wants to touch that.

TS:       Not unless the council has dumped several trillion tons of sand from somewhere else on the mud and then it could be tolerable. I don’t want to mock the seaside towns of Britain because they have a hell of a time, but it’s not what you expect. Then again, I blame poetry for this actually, or a particular notion of poetry which comes from the Romantics, a lot of English people have this idea they should enjoy blustery, elemental weather.

This is because they are victims of poetry and they think having lots of cold rain and hail whipped into your face by a strong breeze while you shudder in the comfort of your knockoff, not-quite-Gortex anorak, is actually you getting in touch with nature. It’s not. It’s nature telling you to fuck off and you shouldn’t do it. We have this idea that if we subject ourselves to the unpleasant aspects of being in the outdoors, we’re in some way actually getting closer to the land and moving away from the suburban people we’ve become. I think this is almost the exact opposite of the truth.

DT:      It’s an interesting idea that poetry is something we need to endure, like the British seascape.

TS:       No, I think poetry is something we should enjoy. Basically, everything that people who aren’t deeply immersed in poetry think poetry is, is dreadful. Rhyming doggerel on greetings cards, the idea of being passionate in a hailstorm, all of these things are completely ridiculous and I’m not in any way criticising actual, popular poetry done by actual popular poets, but the whole received idea of poetry, an unenthusiastic teacher lecturing on what a poet really meant to say, all this stuff is not very good and of course, poetry has a dreadful image problem.

Also, rather like Britain, it’s true of Britain itself, Britain has a terrible image problem, largely because of its own misdeeds, to be fair, but then again, there’s lots of dreadful poetry for which people ought to atone, but the brand persists, people continue to believe in poetry, people continue to believe in Britain, even though, if you grew up in Australia or New Zealand, there’s no particular reason to believe that Britain even exists. It probably doesn’t touch your consciousness very much.

You just have faith that Britain is there and one time in your life, you might visit it and you might be conned by all those old poets into going for a walk on that cliff top and getting whipped with horrible, icy rain in your horrible, knockoff anorak, but actually, the idea, the mythical idea of the place is more real to you than the real thing and I think that’s true of most people with poetry. When you’re actually engaged with poetry, you realise it’s much more complicated and multi-faceted and interesting and exciting than you were ever led to believe.

I’d like to think some of the poetry that’s being written today will replace the Romantics and sweep away that received idea of what poetry is really about. All of a sudden, in 200 years’ time, people will be taking clichés from contemporary poetry that we don’t even recognise yet and go: ‘Oh my God, is that what poetry is? I’m not interested in that, I don’t want to know anything about that’ and the real poets of 2200 will then have to fight against those clichés, in order to establish they are part of a real, living, vital art form.

DT:      I’m trying to imagine what will become clichés in the future. We’ll think on that. In your own writing, do you feel any obligation to try and dispel some of that myth around poetry? Not so much individual poems, because if you look deeply enough, you will find poems you love in all styles, it’s not a problem with individual poets, it’s collectively. Do you feel you’re writing to combat that in any way?

TS:       I don’t think you can really do that. It’s interesting. Bristol is a city where the poetry scene, or certainly the live poetry scene, is very much a spoken-word scene. It’s most of my social life, to be honest, it’s what I do, I go out, read poems and talk to people who like poetry, which is very nice. It means I can live in this bubble where everyone actually likes and appreciates poetry and finds it a helpful thing that’s a positive influence in their life.

I think the most important thing is not so much what poetry is, it’s how you should approach it. The absolute worst way to approach poetry is reverentially. Like the meaning of the poem is already established and people in the know know exactly what it’s about and you don’t know what it’s about and your job is to recreate in your own mind this correct idea that people have already got. That’s the absolute worst way of approaching poetry.

I think everyone who’s listened to this presumably has an interest in poetry and we will all remember people who were very good at sidestepping that idea of a poem as a puzzle that needs to be solved and we will also remember the people who were not so good at it. The nice thing about that is that it’s social. I think it’s much easier to understand the meaning of something if it actually occurs in a social context. People get together at open mic, they share their poems, some people, perhaps, have been doing it for a little longer than others, but there’s a nice equality in the poetry scene.

There’s no sense of  ‘I’m the feature act, therefore you approach me on your knees, with humility and “please, sir, can I buy a copy of your book?” Well, of course I will sell you a copy of my book, thank you very much.’ It’s not like that and I appreciate that very much. I think that makes sense of things because it becomes an act of communication, something people do and share and talk about and it becomes part of their lives. I think that’s a very healthy way of sharing poetry.

I can’t imagine sitting in my remote farmhouse, penning my romantic lyrics, then sending them off to magazines then the ox cart comes by in three months’ time and I find out what anyone else has made of my poetry. No wonder they were all mad. It’s a dreadful way of sharing and understanding poetry.

DT:      If you’re writing in isolation, even sitting with a group of writers at a writing retreat, you’re still writing in isolation because you’re writing in your own head. Is writing poetry still a communal act for you?

TS:       Sharing it is. I don’t know the answer to this. It’s quite a common question, ‘who do you write for?’ I have absolutely no idea.

DT:      You seem like a poet who attends a lot of public events, you share a lot of your writing.

TS:       If you think about page and performance, there’s a big Venn diagram and the bit in the middle, which really can survive either on the page or in performance, is what you might call oral poetry. It’s not necessarily written to be read in a particular style or to be performed, but it is very much written to be heard. Then, obviously, at one extreme you’ve got poetry that really is very much bound on the page, probably for the mundane reason that layout is an important part of the poem and it’s very hard to recreate layout without an enormous PowerPoint and I don’t think we’re yet ready for a style of poetry performance that involves the use of PowerPoint to show the audience what the layout would look like. I think we’ll never be ready for that, actually.

On the other side, you’ve got poetry which is so theatrical, it’s really impossible to imagine it having anything like its intended effect without performance. Most poetry, whether it’s described as page or performance, spoken word or whatever, is actually in the middle. It’s oral poetry and it’s there to be read out loud. That doesn’t mean all poets are natural performers. Some people are terrified by the idea of getting on stage and performing. Some people are not terrified and perhaps should be.

I may be one of those, but without meaning to, my work very much falls into that bit in the middle. It’s written to be read on the page, but it’s also written to be heard out loud and I suspect that’s because I compose without meaning to, by ear. I don’t do it, but I imagine people who are very adventurous with layout have, in addition to that oral sense, a much more developed visual sense of the poem as they’re putting it together, which I don’t have. It’s not something I can do.

As a poet on the page, I am astonishingly conservative. If it’s not all justified to the left, it’s extremely rare. That’s largely because I have absolutely no idea what I would be doing if I did anything else. Two hundred, 300, 400 years ago, everything justified to the left. If I’m in doubt about laying out a poem, I record myself reading it and I use lineation and stanza approach to reproduce, as closely as I can, the way I read it. If I can vary that in a way that adds value, I will, but my default is usually it should look similar to the way I read it.

DT:      Most of my writing visually just appears as blocks of text, but I do exactly the same thing, That’s why live readings are important to me. I’ll read them and if I naturally want to put breaks in, I’ll put spaces in the poem based on how I naturally want it to be read, which can seem quite dictatorial towards the reader, but it’s more of a suggestion. I don’t intend it to be so hard and fast, but it’s very difficult, that’s a problem I have with the idea of something being printed down, it becomes very concrete and it’s not as fluid as I would like things to remain.

TS:       I’ll often do something different when I can see a purpose to it, when I really want to scramble that. I feel there are two things you can get wrong. You can either get it wrong visually or you can reproduce the poem on paper in a way it’s unreadable out loud. I don’t feel very confident as far as the visual aspect is concerned, but at least I know that if I reproduce it the way I would read it, I can’t get more than one of those two things wrong.

At least I know it’s readable in that pattern because I read it myself. There’s a kind of comfort in that. That’s the baseline and if I can improve upon that, I will. If I’m really stuck with the layout of a poem, I usually think it’s because it wants to be reproduced in that form.

DT:      I think we might take a second poem.

 TS:       OK. This poem is called;

To read this poem download the full transcript here

DT:      I really love that poem, I’m really glad you read that. I am always very keen not to request poems from people because I want the guest to represent themselves in the moment and it’s important there’s a space in the podcast for people to change their mind about their own work and read whatever feels right in the moment, but had I requested one, it would definitely have been that.

Also, in this really awkward way, we can’t ever dispel these notions of what it is to do something ‘properly’ and when you’re running a podcast, it’s hard not to ape radio shows and talk of things like ‘natural segues’ and that there should be some sort of klaxon that shows you up for the fraud you are because this is all random stuff, but it is a natural segue there to talk about your pamphlet, which is called Complicity, published by Smith Doorstop as part of their Laureate’s Choice series. Could you explain a little bit about how that came about?

TS:       Yes, it came about owing to, I bought my way in. I attended the masterclass at Ty Newydd, the National Literature Centre of Wales, taught by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke and at the end of that session, Carol Ann Duffy asked me if I would like to be put forward for the Laureate’s Choice, which I had vaguely heard of but I didn’t know what it was. Then several months later, I was contacted by Peter Sansom saying, ‘OK, we’re doing this, I gather you want to do this, do you have some poems?’

It’s interesting, because a lot of poets – and I don’t know, I’m not an expert in publishing, but a lot of poets do have an involvement in publishing and I don’t – feel that even for first collections and first pamphlets, there’s a lot of pressure to theme. You kind of think ‘goodness me, first collection, bit of greatest hits is all right, people are finding their voice’ but apparently, and I’m in no position to dispute it, there seems to be a feeling that those who have a coherent set of poems around a coherent theme, have an advantage over those who don’t.

I didn’t have to worry about that. I’d been offered a pamphlet as part of the series and I spoke briefly to Peter and said ‘do you want me to come up with a coherent grouping or do you want my best poems?’ He said ‘I want your best poems’ so that’s what the pamphlet is. The title Complicity is, I thought there must be two or three poems, a title of one of the poems, which could, under certain conditions, be the title of at least one of the others. I literally went through all the titles. There’s a poem called ‘Complicity’ and I could think of at least one of the other poems which could also have been called ‘Complicity’ had I chosen to do so. That’s how it came to be called Complicity, that’s the story.

DT:      It’s a common thing in poetry to put undue weight on a title which is almost something that’s just a result of a desperate search for a word to come up with for a title, which I think a lot of titles are anyway, but if you do want to put your own weight on it, like ‘Complicity’, who does that refer to? The reader or yourself? As someone like myself who doesn’t have any formal educational background in literature, I don’t have this insight of a lot of people who’ve been through their MAs or PhDs, they’ve sat whole seminars on how to put together a pamphlet submission. Presumably you haven’t been either because of the way you approached it?

I’ve been lucky enough to run little collections of 20 poems, say, that I might submit to go into a pamphlet and I’ve been surprised by the amount of feedback I’ve got on what connects these poems. And the questions you’re asking of yourself there. What happens if you’re a writer that isn’t concerned by connections? I’m very happy with disparate ideas. There are themes because it’s me being anxious in my own head.

TS:       You could be a great singles band and the last thing you would want is to be told you need to put out a concept album. I hate concept albums.

DT:      There’s something that doesn’t sit right about this idea of having a conceit to what the collection might be at the outset. This is something I’ve been thinking about as well. The very academic side of what poetry is, it seems to me that somebody else views your work and decides what it means. You don’t decide what the themes are in your work. I, as a writer, don’t particularly want to be part of that. I don’t agree with it. I wouldn’t want to set out to look at a body of work.

I suppose that’s also denying the reality that someone’s go to sell that and they’re going to need a tagline or a sales pitch.

TS:       I do think that’s different. The academic thing, it’s slightly bizarre in an art form like poetry where, if you take all the money there is in academia for teaching writing and even more so, for writing about writing and for critical writing, and you compare it to the money that’s actually available to poets for writing, the resources available for the two are so vastly out of proportion. Sometimes, we get a bit confused.

We complain about some poetry being academic, but actually, the real complaint is that we, as a society, value writing about writing more than writing itself. I think that’s a slightly mean thing to say, because of course why should those two things be in competition? Why should critical writing be in competition with creative writing any more than spending on armaments or any other thing that attracted less public funding?

Nevertheless, it creates a slightly odd situation, that there are more people experts in writing about the writing of others than there are people creating work. Massively so. I think we just have to be aware of the fact that can create an over-analytical framework. The publishers in poetry are slightly different. As you say, it’s ‘I want an angle to sell this’ and I think that can be a little bit dubious. One of the things I’ve noticed as a mixed-race poet is that most of the poets who are published, especially the younger poets – not that I’m that young – but most, especially younger poets that look like me who are published, there is an angle to their work.

Part of the way their work is presented to audiences, in blurbs, in performance gigs or blurbs to publications, is very much about race and race politics. That’s fantastic in the sense we can talk about these things in the poetry world and in other places they’re taboo, but it’s also slightly oppressive in the sense that if you come from that background, that’s all you’re really there to write about and speak about. I think that’s an example of the marketing thing, perhaps being indulged more than it should, if we were really aware of what we’re doing by doing that.

I think theming is the same. If you’ve got that academic background and you can be your own academic and find your own themes and you know how to do that, then perhaps you could take what could be quite a disparate group of poems that don’t really have a theme and make them appear coherent. You can play that game and perhaps if you can’t, that might be slightly harder to do because there’s this thing that you’re only just understanding yourself what each of these individual poems is there to do and to see them in a bigger context is actually quite difficult and it can feel like an imposition on your work.

We can all do it. Anyone can play the game of taking two or three poems that have something in common with each other and say ‘this is the theme of my collection’, placing those poems one at the beginning, one at the end, one where the staples are and trying to fool people into thinking of the thing as a coherent whole. It’s not a difficult game to play, but for some people, that could feel like ‘oh yeah, this is actually quite nice, I’m making connections in my own work’. For other people that would feel like ‘I’m imposing something on my work, it doesn’t feel like mine anymore.’

I do wish there was more scope for people to produce collections and especially pamphlets, which are just ‘this is my best work. I’m not going to tell you anything about the connection between them. You can work it out if you want, you can get your own idea of who this poetic persona is, whether it’s me or not, who knows whether we are writing personi or not, but I’m not going to tell you’. I suspect it is more about selling books and talking about books than it is about the actual integrity of that collection, this desire for coherence.

DT:      I was just thinking as well, perhaps there is a freedom as a writer to write a very heavily-themed collection of work for the purpose of moving away from it afterwards and feeling like you’ve closed a door. Of course, this all comes back to the individual choice. It shouldn’t be something that we have to enter into as a matter of course as writers.

TS:       I have to say, I’m in a very privileged position in that I do what I do and I fall into it quite naturally and my work seems to resonate equally. I’m certainly not near the top of either tree, but my work seems to resonate equally with both audiences and that’s not because I have made a conscious study of how to do that, it’s just the cards have fallen in quite a nice way for me, which means I can perform in different settings and I seem to fit there.

To some extent, I think people in my position are the lucky ones and those whose work is very much for the page or very much on the theatrical side of things and may not translate to the page quite so well, I think they have a harder time of it. Those of us who are in the middle actually have an easier time of it. There are different craft skills you’ll learn in different places and I think this is the thing. It’s one thing to say that there shouldn’t be an implicit hierarchy and I think it’s another thing to say they are the same thing.

They are sort of the same thing for many people, myself included, but definitely, if I read at a small literary society and there are probably 20 people there, older, most of them would have been writing for decades, there is a more precise use of language. It’s not to say there are not spoken-word artists who use language in an absolutely forensic way, there certainly are, but in the main you will generally find a more forensic and precise use of language in those places.

If you go to an event that’s largely a spoken-word event, you will find not just a higher standard of performance, but you will also find a greater attention to the sonic qualities of language and the thing I would love to teach page poets, even ones who read very well, is links. Actually, what you say between poems. You’re not introducing a poem, you’re not necessarily explaining a poem, you’re actually creating a performance, creating a persona that people can spend time with.

You’re in people’s company. So the idea that either you read a poem without any introduction or your introduction consists of an explanation of what the poem you’re about to read is about and you haven’t really thought about those remarks until you get to the poem, the one thing you will find at a spoken-word event is that people are so much better at what happens between the poems. There’s just a gulf the size of the Atlantic there. That’s not to say you can’t have both of those skill sets, but I think there is no question that certainly for most new artists, there is an enormous amount to be learnt from going to a setting where there is a slightly different culture and a slightly different set of expectations and producing work that works on those terms, in those settings, even if you then come back to what you know.

I really buy the idea that there’s no hierarchy and there shouldn’t be a status hierarchy, but I always get a little bit worried when people say ‘it’s all poetry’ as if the two cultures have nothing to learn from each other. I think they’ve got a great deal to learn from each other. You also find different voices. If you go to page-poetry events, you will hear the voices of older women writing their life experiences, in a way you won’t at a spoken-word event. Spoken-word events are more inclusive in lots of other ways.

You don’t want to go so far to say these are the same thing, that you think if you know one, you’ve got nothing to learn from the other, but you do want to get rid of that idea that one is better than this other.

DT:      I’ve met a number of people choosing spoken word for PhDs, I’m thinking of Katie Ailes who’s in Scotland at the moment with the Loud Poets organisation up there and Lucy English, who’s teaching at Bath Spa and is a Bristol-based poet. What worries me is it seems – and I don’t think either Katie or Lucy are doing this – that these critical papers are talking of spoken word in a way that was traditionally a language used for poetry, because I think what will happen is spoken word will appear to fail because it’s not the same thing.

I think we lack a critical language about spoken word and I think it’s too easy to dismiss spoken word because it can’t be tied down and analysed in the same way as a poem on a piece of paper can be, or something that was deliberately written to be filmed. It may have existed in the moment, but it was always going to be archived and most spoken word is very fleeting, isn’t it? It isn’t supposed to last in its original form, it’s supposed to last ephemerally in your mind.

TS:       You talk about film. I’m not a big fan of performance videos. Every time I’ve seen a poet and I’ve seen their clips, I’ve had the same experience, which is ‘Oh, clips are all right’ and you see them, and I think even more with poetry than with music, it’s really, really hard to capture on camera a performance film. I’m not talking about an abstract poetry film, where there’s a filmmaker’s art involved, but it’s really hard to capture a film of a performance that actually conveys the directness.

DT:      A camera will never capture what the audience captures, will it?

TS:       I’ve had that experience so many times, of not being particularly excited to see someone, because I’ve seen the films and thought ‘that’s all right’ and then actually seeing them in the flesh and having a totally different experience. I’m not actually convinced that particular style of filming poetry by pointing a camera at a performer when they’re performing, or the kind of performance-poetry film that’s very fashionable at the moment is the old 80s pop video one, where the poet’s taken out of the theatre and they’re walking along, there’s some kind of setting, usually an urban setting, but they’re basically talking into the camera while supposedly doing something else, but actually not, it’s just a performance on location and I think that’s a really weird, bizarre thing to do to poetry.

Sometimes, you get these bits of pseudo-dramatisation, so you have the poet talking to camera, then there will be these fleeting glimpses of someone who’s supposed to represent a character in the poem. I just find that really weird, it’s like those 80s pop videos where Lionel Ritchie would…there would be a little drama. Do you remember the video to ‘Hello’? Surely we can do better when it comes to capturing the energy of performance than that?

DT:      You’re veering dangerously towards the pop video that breaks down halfway through and goes to a scene in a restaurant or to conversation. It’s that idea that a music video could be something different. All you’re really doing is ruining the thing people loved, which was the track all along. I don’t want to get into the politics of the Nationwide advertising campaign, but if you set aside the question of whether you want to be involved with advertising any company…

TS:       Anyone who is trying to make a living out of writing, who gets a gig working for an organisation that isn’t actually, so far as we can tell, doing great evil in the world, I think I would not criticise them for taking the money for one second.

DT:      I have heard an interesting argument, that the way the videos are filmed, the way the adverts are filmed, it seems to be suggesting this is just this poem happening in a ‘real-life’ situation. Of course it’s not because there’s a camera crew there. I’m going to talk about Matt Abbott specifically because I know him and I don’t want to talk about the other poets because I don’t know them that well, but Matt’s one of the first four and he’s sitting on the doorstep of a house and seemingly, the advert is trying to approach everyday life. But of course there’s nothing real about it.

TS:       It’s like a musical, isn’t it? Someone’s talking, your character’s doing something that’s supposedly realistic, or a stylised version of real life and all of sudden, someone launches into a song. It starts off very low and you’re not even sure it’s going to be a song and all of a sudden, they’re going ‘waah!’ It’s the poetry equivalent of that. Actually, what we’re doing is a strange, truncated snippet of musical theatre with a poem.

I think every single one of those poets, if you’d given them a similar brief but it wasn’t a commercial brief and they weren’t there to do whatever it is that’s going to be most effective at selling mortgages or bank accounts or whatever it is Nationwide is hoping you’re coming through the doors to ask for, every single one of those people would have done that differently if you’d given them a budget and said ‘make a film of your poem’. Of course they would.

I don’t know what the ethical problem is with that particular style of presentation. It’s just possibly not what the poets would have done.

DT:      Ethically, I don’t feel there’s really a question. You’re either happy with doing that work or not because advertising is not real. I’ve worked on car commercials as a prop builder, I was not particularly happy with it, but you’re either in that business or you’re not. I chose to get out of the business because, like you were just saying, one company is not necessarily better than another and you could perhaps float around and have one job every four years where you’re working for some amazing charity, but you’re still working for a film company and they are still taking their money from someone else.

It’s all very muddy water. That’s why I chose to mention Matt. I think Matt will trust me enough to know I’m not criticising his decision to do the work, it’s just interesting there have been very few people talking about what that situation has done to the poems, to the poet’s message.

TS:       I’ve always assumed that if someone approaches you and says ‘I want your poem for this piece’, like Greggs come to me and say ‘I want your poem because that poem really says Greggs to us’, then I think you sacrifice the poem. If they say ‘we want your skills, we want you to write something which fits this film’, then obviously you’re not giving up a work of art to them. You’re offering your skills. We know what the issues are with that. You might make a judgement as to who they were and what they were and do it on a case by case basis.

If you actually give them something, I think it’s not yours anymore because, quite plainly, the meaning of anything… If I give a poem to Greggs and that poem is seen by millions of people in an ad break, as opposed to the 100s of people I’m performing to in theatres, quite clearly the meaning of that poem is ‘Buy Greggs’ products’. It no longer means whatever else I thought it meant, and it might mean ‘Buy Greggs’ products because they give you all these nice, complicated feelings that are in this poem’, but it still means ‘Buy Greggs’ products’ and clearly you’re happy to endorse that message because you did so at the beginning of this podcast and the seagulls are clearly listening.

DT:      I need to clarify, it was an endorsement of Greggs, not an endorsement of seagulls. Nor was it an attack on seagulls. I’m not denying the seagull’s right to see food and try and take it. I attended a book launch recently by a Bristol-based writer called Tim Dee and he’s just written a book about observing seagulls in urban environments, which again goes back to questioning whether Bristol is connected to the sea or whether it is in an urban landscape.

Most of the book is questioning whether we reduce seagulls purely to scavengers because they are sitting now outside their natural landscape, we don’t see the other side of their life. We don’t see other aspects of their communal nature with each other, we just see them fighting over food or our discarded food and how we frame them in our own landscape. It’s fascinating. I feel bad I judged that beady-eyed, mean-faced seagull. But I’ve just decided that shape of face is mean, but he just has a beak.

TS:       In the garden outside this house, you get seagulls flying overhead. They are very beautiful if you just look up at them. There’s nice light, we’re Northern latitude, it’s very soft light and you look up and they’re flying overhead, they’re very graceful. But they’re like us. They’re an aggressive species that use the power of the crowd to intimidate others. We can identify with this because we are very similar. We’re entitled to our own experience of seagulls, however much we may lack an understanding of what’s really going on from the seagulls’ point of view.

DT:      As humans, we want to be Corvids, to see ourselves as crows and very intelligent, but as people, and definitely poets, we’re much closer to seagulls in that we’re picking and stealing stuff. I think that’s why I felt bad in myself that I felt angry this seagull had stolen my pasty, yet I would take that idea and reappropriate it.

TS:       I think seagulls are more like people who chase likes on social media than they are like poets.

DT:      As a podcast producer, I am also that kind of person.

TS:       I think the poet is the first seagull, the seagull who thinks ‘ah, there’s a bin here, I’m going to look through that bin’. They don’t even know what they’re going to find. They rummage around in that bin and come out with something and the other seagulls are going ‘you idiot. Bin? What are you doing there?’ Then all of a sudden, they’re like ‘that’s quite good, I quite admire that’ and then the first seagull gets pushed to one side because no one wants to admit the seagull got there first.

You’ve got this big crowd, coming up with a really crude version of the first seagull’s message, which is ‘dive into the bin and get stuff’. The first seagull was more motivated by the beauty of discovery, by the uncertainty, the ‘is this bin a source of food or not a source of food?’ What does it mean to be a seagull, hovering on the brink of what might be food? It’s more interested in playing with that Subway wrapper and discovering what it feels like and feeling that ketchup on its feathers than it is in actually just grabbing something.

The people that come in afterwards, they just want to use that idea and turn it into something very simple, ‘we’re all going to dive in, have a massive fight, come out with the food, spread the stuff all over the city centre, if any of the pigeons come near it, we’ll kill ‘em’. I think the social-media popularity-seekers are most of the seagulls and the poets are the pioneer seagulls who get there first, but maybe don’t always get the benefit from it.

DT:      I definitely think my experience of that seagull today has been coloured by the fact that all through the summer, there were similar stories from tabloids about seagulls stealing food from people at the seaside. Had I had any idea that seagull was somehow avant-garde and the first seagull…

TS:       He wasn’t the first seagull to go after a Greggs pasty.

DT:      Exactly, but had it been, I would have held it in much higher esteem.

TS:       It was the Jonathan Livingston Seagull of Bristol in, what are we in now? The Nought-eenies? Then again, the thing we’re sort of on the edge of here is that the language that is used to describe seagulls exclusively describes the experience of being plagued by seagulls and does not in any way describe the experience of being a seagull.

We all recognise there’s an analogy, or maybe not even an analogy, maybe it’s exactly the same thing, the way that you will worry about a seagull and the way of course that vulnerable, voiceless groups of humans will be written about. I suspect the seagulls are relatively untroubled by the way the Metro describes them as a pest and a menace. Unless there is actually an organised seagull cull inspired by that language, it doesn’t really touch the seagulls’ lives very much, because they’re not really that interested in what humans think of them as far as I can tell.

Maybe I’m wrong. I suspect I’m not. It’s kind of strange we can recognise that othering and recognise it’s something that’s deeply threatening in other contexts, but it’s seagulls and unless you are a passionate ornithologist… I always worry I’m talking about the ear, nose and throat cavity, but I’m not, I’m talking about birds, so that’s good. Unless you’re really passionate about seagulls, it’s not a big thing, but it does say something.

If they were cats, for example, you wouldn’t be able to write about the inconvenience they cause, purely without showing some empathy for the cat itself. We may have wandered a long way off track.

DT:      I think it’s great because we would have just talked about the correct use of language in terms of imagery and ideas anyway and it’s much more interesting to talk about it in a more concrete way. I think that was more focused than most poets.

TS:       I’m a very unconcrete writer. I wouldn’t be so grand as to say I’ve got a subject but, and I think this comes from the spoken-word scene, where there’s a lot of pressure to have a story, to have a kind of writing that’s to write a subject that’s very closely connected to yourself… I think sometimes it goes too far and people feel under pressure to write their own trauma, which I think is really unhealthy.

I don’t mean that writing your trauma is unhealthy and sharing it where you wish to is unhealthy, but I think people feeling under pressure to do so is very unhealthy. Of course, there are many, many people who are on the point of talking about or disclosing things that have affected them very deeply, but of course, there are many other people for whom those things remain impossible to speak about for all kinds of reasons.

One of the things I write a lot about are, there are a lot of people in my poems to whom you could have an inference that something awful has happened, maybe an external event, maybe something internal to them, but the poem isn’t going to tell you what it is. That’s something I’ve noticed in my writing and something I’ve encouraged in my writing quite consciously. I think it’s important to write some of those experiences of dealing with really bad things without necessarily feeling you owe the audience the reveal as to what has actually happened.

There’s an awful lot of that in my writing. If I had come to the stage of understanding my own writing when I put this pamphlet out that I have now, it would have probably been the organising principle of the pamphlet, but of course, early in your career, you don’t always have that understanding of what it is that’s linking together a lot of these things or you don’t have the language for it.

Poets are as rubbish as everyone else at finding plain, simple language about what’s going on for them, especially as writing is so much of an exploration. If you knew where you were going, you wouldn’t need to write the poem. There’s no need. If there was simple, universally understood language that expressed perfectly the thing you were going to say, then why on earth write a poem about it? It doesn’t need a poem, it needs you to say it in that simple, commonly-understood language. Poetry is all about finding language for things for which language isn’t readily available.

DT:      I think all poems ever do is highlight the lack we have in a language we feel covers everything.

TS:       You know that poem, and it’s been written by so many poets in so many different ways, it’s the poem about ‘there’s a word in this language that you don’t speak, oh reader, which I’m going to write in italics to show it has an untranslatable meaning and this word says something we need 1000 words to say. Wouldn’t it be great if we had that word?’

No. No, it wouldn’t. If we had a word for everything, all we would be doing is shouting nouns at each other and everything that as writers, we value, as that struggle to connect with each other through words and everything we value in conversation which is that we see each other straining to say things and we get a glimpse of it and think ‘yes! I’ve got something from you there’, that would all go.

We’d just be going ‘perfect word, perfect word, perfect word’. It would be crap, rubbish. We do not want to import all of these perfect words. What’s exciting is the sudden revelation that that is something you have to make complicated, that is simple for someone else and this thing flows both ways. That insight is fascinating and that’s what all these poems are about, but the actual ‘wouldn’t it be nice if we had a word for everything?’ No, please save us from having a word for everything.

DT:      I think we may have highlighted the cliché we were searching for earlier, certainly one of them. It particularly annoys me.

TS:       Untranslatable words in italics to show how untranslatable they are? Yes.

DT:      This is probably more to do with Sunday newspaper supplements, but the word ‘hiraeth’ in Welsh, which is that being homesick but more of a longing, a melancholy, and also the Scandinavian word ‘hygge’. For someone who speaks Norwegian, it’s particularly annoying because, One, absolutely, why do we need a word that explains this sort of cosy, by the fireside feeling, which exists predominantly in countries where a cabin in the mountainside would make you feel like that?

It’s also a complete mistranslation and misunderstanding of what Norwegians mean by that word. This idea that we would package it through scatter cushions and sofas and candles and re-appropriate it in that way comes back to that idea that as a poet, somehow you can unlock the meaning in this one word that doesn’t exist in the language you’re writing in predominantly, that only you can bring it to the reader and package it in a way that takes it out of all context.

TS:       Of course you’re failing if you’re using that word, if you’re putting that word in italics and placing it in the poem, unless the whole poem is about your relationship with that word in that context… The whole purpose of a poem is to explain whatever it is you are trying to communicate in the language you’re writing in. So if that word remains, starkly untranslatable, in italics, that to me is an admission of the poet’s failure. I’m going to make myself really unpopular because all my poetry friends have written poems like this.

DT:      I’m going to have a horrible time this week. I’m going  to be going through my poems and discovering all the Norwegian words I’ve put in in italics, but that’s my own issue. Time is doing that thing where it continuously moves forward, so we’re going to finish with a third and final poem. We’ll just reiterate that your pamphlet, Complicity, is available through Smith|Doorstop as part of the Laureate’s Choice series.

I’ll put a link in the episode description to where people can buy that. Can people find you on social media? Do you do that as a poet?

TS:       No, actually. I will at some point join Twitter, but I’m scared of Twitter. I don’t really believe in brevity, which is a strange thing for a writer to say. Generally, in my experience, people who think you talk more sense the fewer words you use are arseholes. It’s like people who ‘tell it straight’. I think we should all use more words. I think we should all speak and hear more words.

DT:      What I will do for Twitter users is share details about spoken-word gigs or readings. I’ll read them out in the outro. You can just listen to the end of the episode. I’ll just thank you now Tom for joining me. Actually, I’m joining you, in your living room.

TS:       We can maintain the fiction that I’m here in Lunar Poetry Towers, gazing out at the skyline of Bristol from a height so enormous that the fact we’re in W1 is no obstacle. Some very intrepid, high-flying seagulls are soaring several thousand feet beneath us.

DT:      Crumbs of pasty round their beaks.

TS:       Absolutely. That’s what’s really happening. Everything in this conversation makes perfect sense if you know where we are and what we’re doing, it just doesn’t make sense otherwise. I’m going to finish with a poem whose first line is also its title, which means I’m not going to introduce it;

To read this poem download the full transcript here

Outro:

DT:      Hello, you stuck around. I’m still being eyeballed by squirrels. I hope you enjoyed the final, pre-break episode. As I said at the start, I’ll probably be back with this podcast in April, though I have some live recordings of some events on my hard drive at home, which I may release as bonus episodes in the new year if it doesn’t feel like too much work. I am supposed to be heaving a break. That’s a reminder for myself. I’m not very good at taking breaks.

For updates, find us at Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Instagram and Facebook, @Silent_Tongue on Twitter and over at our website, www.lunarpoetrypodcasts.com. At all of those places, you’ll also find updates about my upcoming book, whatever shape that takes with Hesterglock Press. Find our companion podcast, produced by my wife Lizzy, @apoemaweek on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you again to Arts Council England for their continued financial support since the summer of 2016, with some breaks. I won’t go into that now. I definitely have forgotten to mention something, but sometimes in life, you just need to let things go, right? Speak to you lot next spring, when the leaves will hopefully be back on the trees and not under my feet. I’m going to do an Adam Buxton impression now.

End of transcript.