Episode 115 – Jane Yeh & Roy McFarlane.

LPP Jane Yeh   new itunes lpp

Good morning listeners!! Episode 115 is now online… You can download and subscribe via all the major podcast channels including iTunes, Stitcher Radio, Overcast, Acast and SoundCloud.

(My apologies for my slightly ‘glitchy’ voice during the conversation with Jane. I’m working hard to rectify this and will hopefully have an improved version up soon.)

This episode is in two parts:

Part one – David Turner is in London chatting to Jane Yeh about assuming personas and writing characters iton her poetry, why fiction is such a common starting point for her poems and the influence that fine art, particularly ‘old-master paintings’ has on her creative practice.

Some links relating to this section:
www.janeyeh3.com/
twitter.com/JaneYeh3
www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?owner_id=838
tornn.me/

Part two (00:48:07) – David Turner is in Birmingham at this year’s Verve Poetry Festival interviewing Roy McFarlane in front of a live audience. Roy explains how important it is for him to try and convey the sounds of his home city through his poetry and how, often, characters in his poems are a composite of many people.

Some links for this section:
www.roymcfarlane.com/
ninearchespress.com/publications/po…ext%20time.html

At the bottom of this post is a transcript of the conversation – minus the poems – alternatively, download a full transcript here.

The episode music is an original composition by Snazzy Rat. You can find more from Snazzy here:
snazzyrat.bandcamp.com/
www.facebook.com/snazzyrat/

Transcript:

Transcript by Christabel Smith.

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Jane Yeh – JY

Introduction:

DT:      Hello, welcome to episode 115 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. My name is David Turner. How are you lot? I recently got some feedback from a very knowledgeable and experienced podcast producer about the series, relating to how it’s hosted, edited and produced. Part of that process involved us agreeing that these intros sound far better when recorded outside, so here I am in Victoria Park in Bristol, South West England, trying to avoid the screams of the kids attending the primary school, which sits at one corner of the park. The reality of trying to record a voiceover whilst birds chirp and sing in the background is that I am now sat on the ground as I talk to myself in a bush.

Today’s episode is in two parts. Coming up later is Roy McFarlane in conversation with me at this year’s Verve Poetry Festival. First though is a conversation recorded April 27th of this year in central London with Jane Yeh. We met up in Covent Garden to discuss her second collection of poetry, The Ninjas, out through Carcanet Press and her upcoming third collection, which will be out in 2019, also with Carcanet.

There’s a little sausage dog just running past, you may have heard it.

I’ve been looking forward to chatting to Jane on the podcast, as many of my more recent interviews have been with writers who focus on themes rooted in the exploration of their own identity and while this is a vital process for writer sto work through, it is sometimes easy to feel like the only way you will get recognition as a poet in the UK is if your writing practice is very much inward facing. Jane’s style of writing runs contrary to that assumption, as it explores fictional settings with voyeuristic, often lonely, characters at the centre of her poems.

I hope it’s also clear from the conversation that it’s often only through interviews such as this that writers dissect their own writing practice, as they’re usually too busy writing to consider these questions unless prompted. As a listener, it can be common to think ‘I’m not a proper writer like these people because I don’t ask these questions of myself’. The reality is that most people don’t ask themselves these questions. Most poets I know, which is quite a few now, are simply overwhelmed by the fact that they haven’t forgotten how to write a poem, to sit around asking why they’re doing what they’re doing. I hope that makes sense.

As usual, I will use this opportunity to ask that if you like what you hear in this episode or any of the other 114, then please do tell your friends, family, work colleagues about the podcast. Or maybe go and leave us a lovely review on iTunes. I have no marketing budget and word-of-mouth recommendations are invaluable.

Here’s Jane.

Part one (00:03:25):

JY:        Hi, I’m Jane Yeh and I’m the author of two collections of poetry, Maribou and The Ninjas. The first poem I’m going to read is;

For a transcript of this poem please see the full transcript over at – https://lunarpoetrypodcasts.com/episode-transcripts/

DT:      Thank you very much for joining me, Jane. It’s always a struggle to start these conversations, but I’ve been reading your second collection, The Ninjas, out through Carcanet Press and a couple of things I downloaded online. One poem was up on Poetry London and another on Boston Review fairly recently. It’s made a real change reading the way you write in character so much, compared to a lot of stuff you find at the moment, which is, and understandably so, for a lot of people, an exploration into themselves and their own identities.

So these poems have stood out a lot compared to the stuff I read for pleasure and professionally. Maybe we could start by chatting about why you choose to write as characters.

JY:        I know, I guess it’s something I’ve done almost from the beginning of when I started writing, although when I really started, as a teenager, of course like most people I was writing about my own feelings, like having a crush on someone or wishing I had a boyfriend or whatever. I guess to me, because I know my own life and experiences they’re not that interesting for me to rehash or even elaborate on directly, so I guess I’ve always been interested in writing about other characters or imaginary characters.

I read a lot of fiction, I always have, ever since I was little, so I guess in a way I’m a little bit more like a fiction writer than a poet, just because I like to make up fictional worlds and characters. It’s also kind of weird though, because obviously a lot of the poetry I read, like you say, is people writing about themselves and it’s really brilliant and super-interesting, but somehow I don’t feel like trying to do that about myself or my identity.

DT:      I think it’s important to point out at the moment, because I was a bit worried about how I would word that question, because it’s difficult to start talking about things like this without making one way seem better than the other and that’s not what I’m trying to do. It’s interesting to see how strikingly someone like Luke Kennard straddles both, what was he saying recently? He has this internal critic, which appears as a fully-formed character in his poems, so that’s an interesting tool as well, but yours is very consistent through all of your poems.

JY:        Practically, yeah. I do have a handful of poems which are more autobiographical or personal, but not a lot.

DT:      It would also be untrue to talk about your poems as complete fiction as well because things from your life must appear in them. There was definitely a difference between the two more recent poems I read online. In The Ninjas, there seemed to be – it may just be the fact I’m away in London, away from my wife at the moment – an underlying theme of lonely moments within those poems.

JY:        Yeah.

DT:      These themes that run through which I’m assuming would lead back to the author, rather than the characters themselves.

JY:        Again of course, there is always something of the author in the characters and stories they invent, even though they don’t seem to be autobiographical. Especially in The Ninjas, but also in Marabou, I would definitely say one of the main themes is loneliness or being almost an outcast, or being apart from the mainstream of society or the world.

DT:      I definitely got that feeling of ‘outcast’, a lot of the characters seem to be voyeurs in themselves. You seem to be observing characters which themselves are observing the world around them. A poem that stood out particularly in The Ninjas was Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward D. Boit, where you imagine what the young girls in the paintings might be thinking. It’s in four parts and then four scenes, in which you elaborate a bit on the characters. Sargent’s paintings come up a little bit more and there are further references to images. How often do you take images as a starting point?

JY:        That’s also something I’ve done for a long time and actually at the moment, I’m doing it more deliberately. I’ve always been interested in art history. What I was taught was pretty canonical Western art history, such as painting and Old Master paintings, which I really like and feel really drawn to. When I started writing these poems, again in those first two collections, they’re mostly these Old Master-type white-male artists, so in my new collection, the poems I’ve been writing, I’ve been trying to focus more on contemporary art and also not entirely paintings.

Some of it is installations or videos or films. I’m very drawn to or inspired by visual images. Obviously, you can be inspired by anything that’s a visual image, like an ad or a poster, but something that is already in a sense a work of art, has this extra power in a way that’s attractive.

DT:      That process of taking visual art as a starting point, does that happen physically in a gallery space or would you reflect on it afterwards or go through catalogues?

JY:        Mostly, it is actually working from reproductions, so jpegs on a computer pretty much. The Sergeant painting, The Daughters of Edward D Boit, I had seen a long time ago in person, in Boston, where it hangs, but only once really, many years before I wrote the poem. So a lot of time it’s working from reproductions or even in a way, like my memory of what something looked like.

Again, with this same poem, I had a little postcard reproduction of it from the museum gift shop, but when I wrote the poem, I actually deliberately didn’t look at it or keep looking at it whilst I was writing the poem because I didn’t want to be influenced by it too closely. So actually, in the finished poem, if you look at it, some of the description doesn’t actually fit the painting because I kind of misremembered. There’s no doorway that one of the girls is standing in, it’s actually just space.

DT:      It’s interesting, if I’m stuck for subjects to write about or struggling for inspiration, I spend a lot of time in galleries, looking at paintings. It’s one of my favourite things, to write from paintings, and Leon Kossoff will always strike something in theme it’s really textural, almost sculptural. I think that’s why I need to be in front of the paintings, because I like to see the depth and volume. He painted alongside Frank Albach and they paint in a similar way. They paint portraits and landscapes, mainly of building sites in post-Second World War London, post-Blitz London.

I had a discussion with a friend, who also writes from paintings and they do a similar thing to you, have postcards or jpegs. Their process was needing to remove the scale and the gallery from the image. It was this uniformity of having stuff on screen that allowed them to draw stories out of the images. I wonder how much that plays?

JY:        It’s not that so much, it’s more the convenience of having a jpeg or a postcard you can look at when you want to see what it looks like properly. Most of the time, I don’t know what it is really, because when I look at art in real life, especially paintings I love, what you’re saying, what actually interests me in the brushstrokes and texture and everything like that, but when I’m writing a poem about it, that doesn’t really come into it.

DT:      It’s interesting to hear that you’re perhaps writing from a memory.

JY:        It’s definitely already mediated by my memory. Obviously, I’m not trying to make some exact reproduction of it in words, because what would be the point of that? I’ve only started trying to think about it, or theorise about it, recently, so I don’t really know what my conclusions are. It’s one of these things, in the same way I write these dramatic-monologue poems or poems about characters, I’ve just been doing it for a while or just started doing it for who knows what reason, it’s like you start theorising about it afterwards, if you have to.

DT:      It’s only when someone invites you on a podcast and forces you to think about things. This is an important point about these conversations, that quite often, the subjects that come up when you’re talking about things, aren’t part of your process necessarily, are they? You just do things you’re drawn to and hopefully get enjoyment out of as well. I don’t know why I like looking at Leon Kossoff’s paintings while I sit and write about them and I don’t think I would want to think about it too much because it would take some of the enjoyment out of it.

I was born near Tate Britain so it’s quite nice to be in that location, knowing my dad bunked off school when he was a kid and snuck in there to get away from the truant officer.

JY:        When it was just an abandoned industrial building?

DT:      No, so Tate Britain, the older. So these characters that come up within your writing, I’m wondering whether you’re writing as yourself as another character or are you viewing them? Are you putting yourself into those personas?

JY:        I guess there’s a sense when people talk about writing dramatic monologues, like poems, I use this terminology too when I’m critiquing students or something like that, you talk about trying to inhabit the voice of this other character that you’ve created, or speaking in this character’s voice, and in a way that’s true, or the most obvious way of putting it, but when I’m writing, that’s not exactly what I’m doing or trying to do. I write really slowly, line by line or sentence by sentence, and I almost feel some kind of voice is being created by one line and then what the next line is, or what comes up in this one line or statement, what this kind of voice is saying.

But it’s not like oh here’s the voice of this lonely robot, or whatever, and now I’m going to speak in it. Do you know what I mean? It’s almost more that in the process, it turns into the voice of a character or into some kind of character, but it’s not like I have a preconception of it that I’m aiming at. I imagine people in acting classes must have some exercise where it’s ‘oh, here’s the character you are, now speak in their voice’. It’s not like that, it’s more the opposite in a weird way.

DT:      That’s interesting because with a lot of people who are doing spoken word stuff or anyone that’s done any improvised stuff, it goes back to that thought of acting, anyone who’s done that would read your work and perhaps assume you had a conceit to begin with and an ending point and you found a way to let your character through that. It seems more that you start from quite a small starting point, then allow the whole thing to develop.

JY:        I would say that’s definitely true. I don’t just start out with a whole conceit in mind or any kind of end point at all. Like you say, I guess it’s very improvised, so moment to moment, obviously many moments, because I am such a slow writer, but it’s quite haphazard as well, it leaves a lot to chance. If I think of some strange line that day that might be interesting, the poem is going to turn into that, or some character’s going to come out of that.

DT:      Is it the writing process that’s slow or does it also take the ideas a while to germinate?

JY:        What I’m trying to say, again it’s sort of weird because I haven’t really thought about it myself until now, I guess it’s that ideas are only coming through each sentence I’m writing. So I guess you could say both of them are slow because they’re coming together at the same time.

DT:      What’s the mechanical process of your writing? Do you have a few pieces on the go at once or stick to something until it’s worked through?

JY:        Usually, I’m only working on one thing at a time. Occasionally, there will be something and I’ll put it aside and then be doing something else, or if I have a deadline, occasionally I’ll be doing one thing in the morning and one in the afternoon, but in a way, I do just work out one really slowly and worry away at it, which I don’t actually think is the best process. It’s literally the opposite of what I recommend to students because I don’t think it’s that effective, but it’s the way I’ve fallen into working unfortunately, so that’s what I keep doing.

I’m thinking when I finish this current book, and am embarking on a new book, I want to change my process and see if that does anything.

DT:      Did you have a pre-decided theme or idea about what the collection should be about or did it just suggest itself as pieces became finished?

JY:        Each of these three books, I didn’t have any preconceived theme or project. It’s just like the poems I’ve been writing for the last several years. Obviously, they have their own commonalities and themes that emerge when you see them en masse, but it’s not any kind of project or concept.

DT:      I don’t know why I keep asking that question. It seems to, at best, bore people and at worst, annoy them. It always seems that question only comes up when you’re trying to sell a book afterwards, suggesting a unifying theme to a potential buyer or reader.

JY:        I think it’s an interesting question. I feel increasingly here, and before that in the US, most of the poets I know are often writing what they see as a collection that has a project or unifying theme. That basic idea, they aren’t just writing a bunch of whatever poems come to their mind. They have more of an arc or some kind of aim, I guess you would say. It’s kind of cool. A lot of these collections with that feel are really strong and interesting. For me, again, it’s just somehow I can’t come up with an idea like that I feel strongly enough about.

DT:      Speaking recently to Mary-Jean Chan, reflecting on her daily pamphlet, and is very concerned with her debut collection coming out through Faber, we were chatting about how for a lot of poets, the first collection is the most personal and an exploration of themselves and they can get that out of the way and get on to maybe considering ‘well, I’d like to explore this theme or that theme’. It also might be a consequence of funding opportunities that become available to you once you’ve published the first collection. Someone might come to you and commission an idea or a project.

JY:        Yeah or often, if you’re applying for grants or other funding, you have to say you have some idea for a project. Again that probably is part of it with the American poets especially, how many of these contemporary American books have this kind of project.

DT:      How much do commissions and projects play in your practice?

JY:        In terms of financially, or supporting yourself, the money, at least for the things I’ve been asked to do, there’s either no money or minute amounts of money, so it’s not for that. What I like about it, I actually love it when people are ‘Oh, I’m doing an anthology on this theme, would you be interested in contributing something or writing something for it?’ or other kinds of commissions. I really like having some kind of external suggestion.

Again, the way I don’t write about myself or my feelings or experiences really, so I am always looking for something else to write about, or even just a starting point or jumping-off point. Again, that’s definitely one of the reasons I’m drawn to writing about art or art pieces, because it’s something totally external to me, but I can grip onto as a starting point.

DT:      It’s useful, having those prompts external to yourself. It’s something I need to get back to more. I get too bogged down in thinking about myself too much, I don’t find it very healthy, plus I don’t think people particularly want to read about it much. There are two sides to my writing. I have a way that’s very confessional, but also really enjoy writing fiction, which is bordering on short stories.

There’s a huge amount in the way you write that really appeals to me and I would prefer to spend more time exploring that. I think there might be quite a few people listening that feel a pressure to write about themselves because that is the predominant fashion. I think it’s good to talk about ways of looking for prompts externally to yourself. Even if it’s not with a view to being published, it might be healthy for writers to take a break from thinking about themselves, the internal ‘I’.

Are you conscious of when the switch was made to know what led you to start writing more fictionally? Any advice for people that might want to try writing more like that?

JY:        One thing I’ve noticed a lot from teaching is when you give people exercises that force them not to be writing about themselves in a confessional way, they often produce really good stuff, that’s really different from the way they were writing before. Always, they will say ‘I really enjoyed that, it was interesting’. That doesn’t mean they’re going to spend the rest of their life writing dramatic monologues, but trying something different is really worth it when you’re working on your craft.

DT:      Do you have an example of an exercise you might give?

JY:        Yes, there are ones, like every teacher ever has used them, I’m sure, writing from visuals. Every student picks their own image, again it can be a photograph or an image of a painting, or it could be an ad or a poster if they want, totally anything, then go away and write a poem that’s inspired by it in some way. It’s as simple as that really. Again, I think it is probably natural for most people, especially when they’re starting out, to just write in the ‘I’, first-person voice. So even just being directed specifically to not use that as your starting point can be fun or exciting for people.

DT:      That’s really interesting. Before we move on to anything else, we might take a second poem.

JY:        So the poem I’m going to read is called A Short History of Style. The sub-title is Joey Arias, at Jackie 60, New York 1997. So Joey Arias is a performer and performance artist and in the 1990s especially, in New York when I was living there, he was famous for doing a one-man show where he was singing the songs of Billie Holiday and he could vocally imitate her to a remarkable extent, but he himself wasn’t physically impersonating Billie Holiday, although he was in drag, but his own drag, not trying to look like Billie Holiday. This is kind of a memorial to those performances.

We are unable to provide a transcript of this poem at this time. Apologies.

 (00:27:12)

 DT:      Thank you very much. It was interesting earlier to her you talk about working from sentence to sentence. Another note I made about a few of the poems in The Ninjas and then audibly within that poem, there seemed to be a gathering together of those sentences, not that they’re completely disparate because there’s a lot of work going into the order of them, but there’s something ringing in my mind because I was at an event recently, put on by Toast Poetry, which had Remi Graves, Mary-Jean Chan and Joe Dunthorne reading.

There was a short Q&A afterwards and Joe Dunthorne was talking about going through old notebooks and stuff that doesn’t work and put aside sentences or images he likes. He’s got a folder on his desktop, which will be saved ideas. I wonder whether that’s any part of your process, whether you will hold onto things, or how you feel about discarding ideas.

JY:        That’s really cool. One of my friends, this American poet Amy Woolard, for a long time she worked like that. I don’t know if she still does, but like what you said Joe Dunthorne would say, keeping this whole notebook or file of really good lines that you’d had to cut for one reason or another from a poem. I sort of used to keep a list of some good lines that I was hoping to use again, but actually, it never really worked out. I like the idea of that and the idea of collage and these fragments of poems, but again, for whatever reason, it hasn’t actually worked out for me.

I think when I’m writing, especially more recently, so the poems I’m reading today are all going to be in my next collection so they’re more recent, I’m definitely interested in this idea of thinking of the poem as a collage of these lines or sentences or images and trying to be less linear and less logical in terms of the construction of the poem.

DT:      That’s fascinating to hear because I was wondering whether I’d just projected that onto some of the poems I’ve been reading in the last couple of days, this idea that things could have been shuffled around. You definitely get a sense of that, but it’s very interesting to hear you talk of working in a very linear fashion and going from line to line, then having this feeling that things could have been reassembled and reorganised.

JY:        Actually, I guess recently in all of these new poems, the editing I do or the revising I do, is more about changing the order of the sentences or lines than other kinds of editing that one can do. So sometimes I do literally switch the order of some sentences to see what happens.

DT:      Going back to the visual arts, you were saying it’s not just paintings. How much do abstract and collage images play into the way you think about writing? From The Ninjas, it may have just been the painters I was familiar with, but it seemed much more figurative in that respect.

JY:        Yeah, in a way it might be partly the kind of art I’m writing about now, the contemporary art, tends to be less figurative, or maybe I’m subconsciously seeking out less figurative work. I’m not really sure, to be honest. I feel I need less figuration to be able to create a story or characters out of than I used to in those earlier poems. For instance, one of my new poems is inspired by this installation in a small, basically a one-room gallery, so there are different pieces arranged around the room and none of them are figurative per se, except a cast of a foot.

There was a wheelchair that was cast in bronze, or painted gold, or something like that. Different objects. But the poem itself is about a man, or a boy, so I guess maybe it was interesting to me to create something that was about a person, even though the visuals I was working from don’t directly represent people.

DT:      This ‘cut-up’ or collage aspect of your process of working, how much do you want to communicate that to the reader? Does that play any role?

JY:        Actually, only super-recently, I’ve been trying to think a little bit more about the form of the poem on the page or what it looks like on that page. On the one hand I kind of like the fact that most of the poems I’ve been writing, even though they kind of are like this strange collage, they’re almost rigid-looking on the page. They’re set out in stanzas and the first letter of each line is capitalised, which is considered old-fashioned nowadays. I kind of like the sense of order that gives you, but actually, I’m also just starting to be interested in these much more open forms, especially as contemporary poets, who are doing really interesting work, use them so much. The idea is coming into my mind more, so I’m only just starting to experiment with them, where the phrases and words are spread out a little more on the page, not like concrete poetry, where it’s making a little shape.

DT:      Giving air and space inside.

JY:        Yeah.

DT:      Forcing people to pause.

JY:        Yeah, yeah.

DT:      It’s fine if your process is to get to a traditional-looking poem, but if you want to communicate that to the reader, it’s very hard in a traditional book to express that, because everything’s very defined, it’s printed there and there’s no movement in it necessarily. Have you considered taking your poetry off the printed page in order to express more this feeling of collage?

JY:        What do you mean?

DT:      More taking it closer to what some of these installations are that you’re taking your inspiration from, allowing some live movement within a text.

JY:        I guess I haven’t, to be honest.

DT:      It just popped into my head because I’ve been thinking about one particular artist [Ed Atkins].

JY:        It’s an interesting idea. I guess if I thought more about performance or maybe were a better performer, I might be trying to do something more radical. To me, the outcome I want is something that is satisfying to me or to other people when you read it on the page. Again, I guess it’s old-fashioned, but to me, the way it’s performed is always going to be secondary really.

DT:      I also meant not just in the performance sense, but in the way people are allowed to read the work, whether there is some way of controlling more how people interact with the words, even without your presence.

JY:        Actually, I remember just recently I was in a seminar about Oulipo, that movement that started in the 60s or 70s maybe. I hope I have his name right, I want to say it was an academic named Dennis Duncan who had studied a lot about Oulipo and then was giving us a basic summary. He brought in a book and I can’t remember, it might have been by Raymond Aquino, but it might have been one of the other figures, it was actually really amazing, where the book was I think meant to be 100 sonnets, it was all French, but each page of the book was slit, so each line was basically like a flap.

It was like you could be assembling your own sonnet out of 14 lines, but from all different poems in the book, by moving the flaps. It was super-cool and I thought how cool that would be to do as a project. Maybe for someone else, not for me. The idea of that, the way it’s kind of modular, and also has this degree of chance.

The thing it reminded me instantly of was the poet Crispin Best he has this thing online, I assume on his own website, where he literally wrote 1000 lines, they’re quite short, one-sentence lines of poetry and there’s a randomiser. You can put them in a certain order to write, maybe a 12-line poem each time. It was really excellent actually.

DT:      There’s a very interesting digital poetry project at the moment called ToRNN, based in Bath. It’s a student [Meghan McKeague] there on their MA course and she’s designed this poetry bot which has taken, I want to say the work of Keats, it may not be Keats, but it’s a very well-known poet and it’s like data entry. You enter the works of this poet and it regenerates poetry. The computer doesn’t know what makes good poetry, there are just certain rules.

Whenever anybody talks about collage now, in terms of poetry, these things come to my mind. It may not be the author themselves that comes up, it may be more of a collaborative process to go through in working with someone else in order to show that cut-up nature of the work, otherwise it’s just hugely laborious.

JY:        The thing that was really interesting to me about this randomiser that Crispin made, well obviously he’s a good poet, so all the lines were just interesting and strange separately, but it really was amazing. They were in quatrains, so four-line stanzas, it was pre-set to do that I guess, so you would see these four sentences in this order, then you’d be ‘ah, interesting’. Each one would be about a totally disparate thing, like some thought about pizza or a dog, but then as soon as you put them together in this particular order, it generates this whole other idea or image. I do really like the thought of that.

DT:      Yes, my question was definitely more aimed at what you want the relationship to be with the reader, rather than questioning why you haven’t done any of these. It’s interesting to see what writers’ different aims are, how they want that relationship to work. With these changes you’re considering with your upcoming third collection, how has that process been with your publishers? Have they been fine with any changes that have been made? I don’t think I’ve spoken to any poets about the process that goes on between each collection and how easy it is to change direction or suggest new ideas

JY:        I guess I’m lucky. They’re pretty laissez-faire. They’ve never seen a manuscript and said ‘we don’t like this’ or ‘this isn’t commercial enough or I don’t know what enough’. They pretty much are happy with what I’ve been doing, I feel really lucky. I sort of assume they must understand implicitly that of course anyone that is writing is going to develop or change their practice from book to book. That’s just natural or par for the course. They haven’t actually seen the final manuscript of this book yet, so we’ll see, but I’ve been assuming and they act as if it will all be fine.

DT:      I don’t know whether Carcanet is a team or whether it’s individuals, but have you throughout the three books worked with a single person or does that change over time?

JY:        Again, it must be different at every publisher, but at Carcanet, because they’re quite small, at least since I’ve been with them, it seems like there are basically two people that edit things. There’s either Michael Schmidt, who’s also the director and then there’s always a second editor who works there, so it’s always been the second person that was my own editor, but that person has changed over time. In my first book, it was Judith Wilson, in my second book it was Helen Tookey and now the current editor is Luke Allan.

DT:      Obviously this is different from writer to writer and publishing house to publishing house, but what do you mean when you say you work with an editor? What role do they have in the final manuscript? Are we talking about changes to poems? Scratching out lines? Or are we talking about fitting them onto pages and the order of the book?

JY:        Again, even with the particular people that I’ve mentioned, I know other writers that have worked with them and had different experiences, but this is just my experience personally. With none of the editors I’ve had has there been that much back and forth, they’ve kind of let me do as I please and haven’t really requested many changes or edits to things, so very light touch, I would say.

DT:      What is your personal editing process? Do you have people you share work with or do you rely on small readings at poetry events? How do you develop the sound and flow of your work?

JY:        I don’t really have people to share work with anymore, since I left the last post-graduate programme I was in. Obviously when you’re doing a degree or course of any kind, you have this in-built set of people you can show your work to, then once you leave that, you’re often on your own and often you have to develop your own network. I have a lot of friends who are poets, but we don’t actually share our work with each other, for whatever reason. I’m kind of just reliant on myself. It would be nice to have people I share work with.

It’s hard at the same time because everyone is so busy. Even people whose work I really like, or who I like personally, if they were asking me to read their work all the time, it would be hard finding the time and the headspace and all that kind of stuff. So when I was writing The Ninjas, which already now is a long time ago, I don’t know how I fell into this, but actually for quite a while, I would write a new poem or finish a poem and send it to an old friend of mine, who’s named Ed Park, he’s a novelist who lives in New York, where I used to live.

It wasn’t to get his feedback or edits or anything at all, it was more like ‘here’s my poem’ and he would basically just send back an email like ‘great’ or ‘this one is really good’. It was just general encouragement, but then after a while, I stopped doing that as well.

DT:      My wife and I moved to Bristol last autumn and in January, I started a writing group, so as part of the group, we all share poems and offer feedback. That’s useful in itself, but I tend to use the sessions as a way of reading people’s work and giving feedback because it means I’m thinking about poems, so when I come to interviews, I’m always thinking about writers, so I don’t actually share a lot of work at the sessions. Similarly to you, I also have a couple of friends who I will just send the work to and they will send a ‘red heart emoji’ back or something.

I don’t get any feedback, but what it means is I don’t feel like I’m just doing the writing for myself in a vacuum, I’m actually sharing it with people, regardless of the feedback, so I guess that’s important as well, purely because the process of writing any book is quite drawn out. It would be easy to lose all contact with any reader in that development stage. I suppose it’s important to have that immediate connection.

We’re running out of time, but just to give a proper plug to the upcoming collection, does it have a title yet?

JY:        Right now, it’s a working title, but I think it will end up being the actual title because for a few years, while I’ve been working on the manuscript, I still haven’t been able to come up with a title I really, really like. So by default it’s just taking the title of one of the poems, so the title might be Discipline. Again, I’m hoping to come up with something else, just because I hate that pressure of having the title poem in a collection. That’s what it looks like, it is, for now.

DT:      That will be available when?

JY:        March 2019.

DT:      Through Carcanet Press. I’ll put a link to Carcanet on the website and your website in the episode description, rather than reading them. No one ever understands websites when I read them on audio, for some reason. So there will be clickable links in the description so people can just find stuff and it’s a lot easier. To finish off, we’ll take a third and final poem.

JY:        This poem is just called A Short History of Destruction. Actually, sorry, I didn’t think this would have much of an intro, but when you hear a poem out loud, it’s easy to miss odd words that people say. In the first stanza, I use the word étagères a French name for a piece of furniture with open shelves that is traditionally used to display ornaments. In the middle of the poem, I use the word ‘ewer’ which means a water jug.

For a transcript of this poem please see the full transcript over at – https://lunarpoetrypodcasts.com/episode-transcripts/

DT:      Thank you very much, Jane, for joining me and good luck with the development of your third collection.

JY:        Thank you so much for having me on the podcast, it was really fun.

Link (00:48:07):

DT:      That was the wonderful Jane Yeh. Next up is Roy McFarlane. We got together to chat in front of an audience at the second Verve Poetry Festival, which was held in Birmingham in February of this year. This is the third of four live interviews I recorded at what I think is the broadest and most inclusive poetry event in the UK. Roy has a real ability to reflect the voices and noises of Birmingham, his city of birth, and I enjoyed chatting to him about characters in his poems being a composite of many different people.

I think about this question a lot with my own writing. One of the foremost questions I put to myself is: Do I have the right so somebody else’s story? I haven’t come anywhere near to answering that. While I ponder, here’s Roy from Verve Poetry Festival.

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Roy McFarlane – RM

Part two (00:49:20)

DT:      Hello Verve, how are you doing? Louder, louder, keep going. This is day four, is it not, of Verve? It just seems to be wonderfully endless. Today, I am joined by a local legend, Roy McFarlane. Hello Roy, how are you doing?

RM:     Hello.

DT:      I’m going to read Roy’s bio. I think most of you know who he is, but there’s going to be listeners I have to be held accountable to. Roy Macfarlane was born in Birmingham. Now living in the Black Country, he’s held the role of Birmingham Poet Laureate and Starbucks Poet in Residence. His first collection, Beginning With Your Last Breath, was published by the wonderful Nine Arches in September 2016.

He is the first commissioned writer for this wonderful anthology I’m holding in my hand, It All Radiates Outwards, which was the product of the Verve Poetry competition, which asked for poems about cities. We’re going to begin our chat with an extract from his poem.

RM:     Thank you very much.

We are unable to provide a transcript of this poem at this time. Apologies.

 DT:      Thank you, Roy, I really love that poem. When I attended the reading for this anthology, I worried that too many people’s views and musings on cities were going to be too personal and too inward-looking, but you really captured the noise of the city in your poem, by just focusing on a couple of people. I thought it was an amazing thing to do. How important is the soundscape around you in your poetry?

RM:     Specifically in this particular poem, I think the poem came to life in the very essence of Birmingham city. I’m always amazed when I walk through the city, when I see Christians and Muslims having their little stands, talking about the hereafter or religion. All that language. I think that was the thing I wanted to bring out in that poem, the powerful thing about language in this city. I read an article about it. There’s something like 120 or 123 languages abounding in this city and I just wanted to capture that, that din of identities bouncing off each other, it’s still a beautiful thing.

I don’t believe there’s a city that’s monolithic, one language, one identity. That’s the essence of cities, people come, whether it’s from the rural, from other countries or whatever, that’s what cities are about. So much diversity comes into a city to make a city beautiful and grow and evolve. That’s what a city is all about.

DT:      I think Birmingham is one of the few places in the country I’ve visited that’s reminded me of what Brixton used to be. Outside Waterstones, that’s what Brixton tube station used to be like. That noise. I interviewed the poet Tim Wells up at Stoke Newington in North London and on the recording, I apologised to listeners that there might be a bit of noise in the background. He corrected me and said ‘it’s sounds’. It’s an important point. It might be something that people that grow up in cities take for granted. A lot of people would consider that noise and not a soundtrack. Is that an important thing to try and communicate in your writing?

RM:     Yeah. I’m thinking a lot of poems I’ve read, whether from the Romantics to the present day will capture rural, all that, birds, I mean I couldn’t name half the birds that they talk about and all that rural setting.

DT:      A pigeon poem?

RM:     But they’ve captured something with all that extra noise that’s going around, that gives their poem an atmosphere. I was thinking, what about us? Equally the sound effects, what’s going on around me in a city. The number-one thing told to a poet when they’re going on a journey and writing poetry is: write what you know. No matter how much I’ll read all these incredible poets of the past, half of the things I don’t know. I’ll understand the craft, the content maybe, but I don’t know that.

This is what I know and I will do everything I can to translate that into that form, that poem, so yes, it’s so important to capture the atmosphere, the environment around me in my poem. I want to catch diverse voices. I’m very much a voice person and I have characters.

DT:      When you say write about what you know, it’s a very common piece of advice, but I was going to follow it up with: how do you write about who you know?

RM:     I write about people around me. The characters that come up in my collections are usually a combination of individuals I know. So I either pick the best of them or the worst of them and then make a character and that character starts to walk through my collection. In, Beginning With Your Last Breath, there’s a guy called Bevan and you’ll see him crop up in three or four of my poems. Bevan is literally a collection of four or five of my friends. It’s what we lived through the 80s, being black in the Midlands kind of thing and the struggles, but the joys. We loved our basketball. I wanted to talk about that and I showed it in my collection, but we also had police officers following us around. I needed to show that.

The music we grew up on, Motown, soul, R&B, Marvin Gaye. I needed to show that. You’ll find Marvin Gaye going through all my collections.

DT:      He should be going through every collection.

Any characters that exist in poems you love or you write yourself, do they have to be composites of different people in order to aim for a form of universality?

RM:     That’s an interesting question. Yeah. It’s an interesting question.

DT:      Quick-fire!

RM:     I’ve always gone for several people to make that individual. There’s Patterson I can think of, that’s about a guy we used to go to, actually that’s a composition, I just realised that’s not Patterson, it’s a composition of two or three guys. So there’s something about me doing composition that comes through these characters. I’m not sure if it’s about getting the best out of them or getting a diverse feel. I guess that’s part of us being poets or storytellers, you pick as many truths as you can, but you make up other parts as well, to make that character exciting.

DT:      If you’re really concerned about the people you’re writing about, you perhaps don’t want to write about them as individuals because you don’t want to give too much away about them personally and maybe it’s easier to compose a character out of different elements because you’re protective about them?

RM:     That’s interesting. I keep saying interesting, I do apologise. It made me think, I’ve been blessed with one or two relationships with some beautiful women during my journey and one of those ladies when I started my poetry, said she was worried about getting into the book. ‘You always write about people around you and is it safe to be a lover of yours, because we’ll end up in your book?’ The last poem I’ll read is about somebody who’s real. What was the question again?

DT:      Is there an element of protecting the person you’re writing about by adding other elements?

RM:     Sometimes, I may protect people. Sometimes I just write. Again, it’s important to write the emotional truth. It’s something somebody taught me. If you faff about with it and don’t really write the truth, then people know you’re making it up. So if a character has to be the wife, the partner, somebody I hated or was angry with, it’s going to go in there as well as the composite individuals. It’s quite interesting who I protect and who I don’t. That’s the best way of answering.

DT:      What are the differences and similarities between writing a love poem to a city in a love poem to a person?

RM:     There are equal metaphors, innit? You’ll see that in my next collection about certain journeys of love. I’ll use landscapes, cities. In the last collection, there was something about Birmingham city and the way I fell in love with a woman, but equally looked at all the different things that were happening in the city, from the busker who’s playing his saxophone to walking around the art gallery, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, all of that was included in this love poem that was talking about love with this woman, but also about the love of the city. I think they’re equally the same. Were you not expecting that?

DT:      I try to go to everything with an open mind, Roy. I don’t expect anything in this life anymore. I’m jaded, jaded by poetry. I think I’ll spoil the mood if I go on with another question. Let’s wrap up with a love poem.

RM:     The following love poem is something I perform on the circuits all the while. Somebody told me they read this yesterday morning, so I thought let me read it again, from my perspective. It’s often known as ‘The Tights Poem’ as well. As I Did The Night Before.

We are unable to provide a transcript of this poem at this time. Apologies.

DT:      Thank you very much.

Outro (01:04:18):

DT:      Hello. You stuck around to the very end. You’re part of a very select group of people. Treat yourself to a biscuit. This episode and the accompanying transcript have been made possible through the funding I’ve received from Arts Council England.

You can download that transcript over at our website, lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, where you can also follow the blog I update sporadically. If you want to follow us for updates on social media, you can find us @Silent_Tongue on Twitter and Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Instagram. There is a Facebook group, but I’m probably going to pack that in soon as it’s pretty much a waste of time, what with the evil algorithms and all that.

That’s it for today. Come back and join us for episode 116 – 116, it’s crazy – in which I’ll be talking to the incomparable Ross Sutherland about his poetry and his fantastic podcast series, Imaginary Advice. It will also be the fourth and final interview from Verve, with C.I. Marshall.

But for today, that’s it. Tchüss.

End of transcript.

Intro music (finally!) by Snazzy Rat.

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So… 114 episodes into this enormous podcast project I’ve finally(!) added some intro/outro music. It’s been a crazy three and a half years and I simply haven’t had the head space to even begin looking online for anything that might fit the series/interviews.

I was talking about this recently to friend and LPP collaborator Abi Palmer and she mentioned her friend Snazzy Rat whose music I fell in love with.

Snazzy very generously composed an original track called Moon Museum which I’ve already added to my latest episode Developing Your Creative Practice and the next episode (115) which features Jane Yeh and Roy McFarlane (online Friday, June 29th).

Go over to our SoundCloud page to check out the music on the episodes and also one of my favourite tracks by Snazzy, Autobarn. 

Do get in touch and let me know what you think of the new sounds.

Much love, David xx

Ep.114 – Developing Your Creative Practice

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In the latest episode of Lunar Poetry Podcasts I met up with Gemma Seltzer at the London office of Arts Council England (ACE) to discuss their new funding scheme ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ (DYCP). In this blog post I’m going to try and break down some of the points made in the conversation and how this new scheme differs from the more established ‘Project Grants’ (or Grants for the Arts as they used to be known).

As regular listeners will know, since July 2016 I have had three successful ‘Project Grant’ applications, as well as two refused, so I’ll also try and give some personal insights into the process.

Episode 114 can be found through all the usual channels, including here on SoundCloud.

A full transcript of the conversation can be found here.

ACE guidelines for the funding scheme can be found here.

DYCP, which began earlier this year, is a four-year scheme in which individual artists (and regular collectives, though only a single individual can be named on any application) can apply for between £2,000-10,000. The scheme has at its disposal £3.6m per year, which will be distributed across four ‘rounds’ during each of the four years. Applicants must have three years’ ‘practice experience’, though this experience is open to the interpretation of the applicant and no further guidelines are given by ACE.

As always, applicants must have a ‘Grantium Applicant Account’. If you are already registered then you can use your existing account, but if not, bear in mind it can take up to 14 days for a new account to become active, until which time you won’t be able to begin any applications.

Another important factor to remember is that applicants are only allowed two applications in any 12-month period, whether successful or not, so it’s important that your application is as complete and ready as it can be. Throughout your application it will be important for you to express why you need this funding now, and why, if you go head-to-head with another applicant, you need it more than them. Round one of applications has already passed.

Round two of applications opens at 10am on July 12th and closes at 12pm (noon) on August 16th 2018.

Round three of applications opens at 10am on October 11th and closes at 12pm (noon) on November 14th 2018.

So, how is DYCP different from the previous ‘Project Grants’ that so many already know? Well, the first point is, as the name suggests, that the focus is much more on the personal development of the individual and their creative practice. Gone from the application are the questions and demands on the applicants to project (and at times guess) audience and participant engagement within the proposed project. This focus often led many applicants to crowbar in educational workshops and public-facing events in order for their project to qualify for ever-decreasing amounts of public money.

With this burden removed I can already see how much easier it is going to be for writers to get funding to finance research projects, or even time away from other forms of employment to write, concentrating on projects without any certain or even probable audience interaction. This is probably the perfect opportunity to apply for funding to explore the collaborative project with that illustrator you’ve been meaning to get around to that may only yield 50 hand-bound pamphlets, without having to run workshops on hand-stitching book spines.

This new scheme also removes the burden of any potential project being UK-based. ACE have stated that they welcome applications that will use funding from DYCP to explore working relationships/projects outside of the UK. All pretty vital with Brexit looming on the horizon like a visit to the clap clinic (it’s going to happen (it’s got to happen)).

DYCP, unlike ‘Project Grants’, offers 100% funding, removing the applicant’s obligation to find 10% of the overall project cost. (‘Project Grants’ require applicants to source at least 10% match-funding.) I think this is mainly an attempt to aid lower-income applicants in their application. While it’s certainly true that this will help a number of people, it is also true that if applicants come from low-income backgrounds they will also be hindered by a lack of industry connections, knowledge of funding schemes and the language and tools necessary to apply successfully. We will have to wait and see how effective this new condition is in levelling the playing field for applicants from marginalised backgrounds, but it’s a good start.

A very welcome change of direction for ACE and their insistence with Grantium as an application portal is that they’ve made the questions for the application available to download. This means you can take the questions away with you and draft your answers even if you don’t have easy or regular access to a computer. Be aware that the Grantium portal requires answers to questions which adhere to a character count (including all letters, spaces and punctuation), rather than a word count.

If you’re using Word you can easily change the word count to a character count, or if you’re using a tablet or smartphone it’s possible to, as I did with my first application, download simple apps which will count the characters as you type.

You can find and download the list of questions here.

After my first ‘Project Grant’ was finished and evaluated, I published a full breakdown of the costs, including travel, participant fees and equipment costs. If you feel like you’d benefit from taking a look at this breakdown then you can find and download it here.

Finally, if you have any questions, get in touch with ACE – their helplines are very useful. If you don’t feel you can contact ACE then do get in touch with me via the contact form on this website or on Twitter @Silent_Tongue where I’ll also try to instigate some sort of conversation with other artists and producers that have experience of applying for funding.

All the best, David. xxx

 

Episode 112 – Mary Jean Chan & Sandeep K. Parmar

 

Episode 112 is now online featuring Mary Jean Chan and Sandeep K Parmar. As usual it’s available to download on all major podcatchers including iTunes, Acast, Stitcher and SoundCloud here. This episode is in two parts:

Part one – Last month I met up with Mary Jean Chan in central London to talk about her debut pamphlet, ‘a hurry of english’ (Ignition Press), finding queer and gender-bending identities in classic English literature and how it feels to be demanding space as a published queer writer. Mary Jean also reads three poems:
(00:04:00) – Rules for a Chinese Child Buying Stationery in a London Bookshop
(00:28:11) – Dragon Hill Spa
(1:00:30) – Tea Ceremony

www.maryjeanchan.com/
www.brookes.ac.uk/poetry-centre/ignition-press/

Part two (1:02:06) – In February I was up at Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham and interviewed Sandeep K Parmar in front of a lovely crowd of festival goers. We discussed whether poems are always retrospective or if they can ever exist in the moment, what role live literature events play in the development of Sandeep’s writing and how Sandeep balances the dual roles of writing and literary criticism. Sandeep also reads two poems:
(1:05:20) – Invocation
(1:15:49) – Against Chaos

www.poetryarchive.org/poet/sandeep-parmar

 

Here is a transcript of the conversation which you can also download as a pdf here:

 

Transcript by Christabel Smith

 Introduction:

 

Host: David Turner – DT

 

Guest: Eshiva Love-Light – EL

 

 

DT:      Hello, welcome to episode 112 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. My name is David Turner. Police sirens, everywhere we go. In today’s programme, I’ve got chats with Mary-Jean Chan and after that, a short conversation with Sandeep K Parmar, recorded live at Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham.

 

Before those, I have some very exciting news. I’m starting a mentoring scheme, in which, over the course of 2018, I’m going to do my very best to try, try, try and teach someone how to make a podcast all of their very own. Today, I’m joined by Eshiva Love-Light, who is the lucky – hopefully lucky – mentee, who’s going to explain what her new project is and how it’s going to function. Hello, Eshiva.

 

EL:       Hiya, David. I’m definitely a lucky mentee. So,  it’s a bi-monthly podcast series entitled Elevated Thoughts and it composes 16 episodes of around 3-7 minutes. The series will feature poets who self-identify from the BAME community, especially focusing on those from African or Diaspora areas. It has an overall focus, reflecting themes of access, representation, collaboration and diversity.

 

DT:      Sounds fantastic. You will have a social-media and internet presence, I’m gathering, as it’s 2018?

 

EL:       Definitely.

 

DT:      Any early details?

 

EL:       Definitely we’ll have a website, elevatedthoughts.com, and a Twitter too, just to keep up-to-date with the birds.

 

DT:      We’re being quite vague about details because it’s quite early in April and I’m off to Berlin tomorrow, so we’re recording this introduction a bit earlier than we expected, but all links to the website and social media around Elevated Thoughts and where you can catch up on all Eshiva’s thoughts regarding this project will be in the episode description below wherever you are playing this episode.

 

Talking of social media and the internet, you can find us at @Silent_Tongue on Twitter and Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook and Instagram, as well as over at lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, where you can also find a transcript of this conversation. That transcript and indeed the entirety of this episode was made possible with the aid of a generous grant from Arts Council England, specifically the South West office, as is that new, exciting Elevated Thoughts mentoring project that we’ve got going on.

 

If you like what Lunar Poetry Podcasts does in this episode or in general, please do shout about it to your friends and colleagues, either to their soft, meaty faces or through the cold, hard screens of their earth-poisoning devices. It really helps the series find new listeners. When I’m looking at the SoundCloud statistics page again at 3am, if the listening figures are rising, I perhaps won’t feel like I’m wasting my life. Not completely, anyway.

 

Today’s episode kicks off with me chatting to the absolutely wonderful Mary-Jean Chan. We met up mainly to chat about her debut pamphlet, A Hurry of English, which is out through the brand-spanking-new Ignition Press. We wind our way through the motivations of people asking her why she writes in English, finding queer and gender-bending identities in the writing of Shakespeare and how it feels to be demanding space as a published queer writer.

 

We also touch on how and why as writers we write about home, either concretely or as a concept, and how other writers give us permission to write about certain subjects. Here’s Mary-Jean.

 

 

Part one (00:03:38):

 

Host: David Turner – DT

 

Guest: Mary Jean Chan – MJC

 

 

MJC:    My name is Mary Jean Chan, I’m a poet and editor from Hong Kong. I have a pamphlet out right now with Ignition Press, with Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre and also, my first collection will be coming out with Faber next year, Rules for a Chinese Child Buying Stationery in a London Bookshop

Please see our downloadable transcript for this poem 

DT:      Thank you, Mary Jean, thank you for joining me/us.

 

MJC:    Thank you for having me.

 

DT:      I’m going to have to warn the listeners we know each other a little bit now and I may seem too relaxed to be professional, but I’ve been really looking forward to chatting to you in some capacity, in the podcast anyway. We’ve been chatting about you being part of it for a little while now, but it’s been really nice we can line it up with the release of your debut pamphlet and all the other excitements we’ll come on to chat about afterwards.

 

I have managed to make some notes for a change, which I’m really terrible about, especially if I feel I know someone, but I’m really glad you chose that poem to begin with, because I’d made a note about it. The line ‘Enunciate, he must hear what you have to say if you are to be helped’, let’s begin there, because it really stood out in a poem which is quite pointed all the way through, but for some reason, that line jumped out at me.

 

MJC:    Interesting. I think this has to do obviously with a reflection on me being an ESL speaker. I mean, I was born and raised in Hong Kong, but my mother doesn’t speak English. My father does and at home, we would only speak in Cantonese. Sometimes, I would play with my other dialects, so I would speak in Mandarin Chinese or Shanghai Chinese, Shanghainese, to my mother. So English was always the language I was kind of learning at school, it was the language I had to perfect, especially because I went to an Anglican all-girls school, so prior to the handover of Honk Kong back to China in 1997.

 

I was one of those, I suppose, pre- and post-Colonial babies, because I had seven years of my schooling where I wasn’t in a school that basically valued Chinese as much as English. It was all very implicit, but there was a sense that English was the better language. You had to make sure your English was good and then Chinese, as long as you spoke it well.

 

So yeah, I think there was always that thing at the back of my head and this is a poem supposedly in the voice of the speaker talking to a child and teaching her how to behave in a London bookshop. This is all imaginary, but obviously, lived experiences come into that. Of this perceived white gaze and how the female Chinese body, or child, is supposed to behave.

 

DT:      So English was very much an aspirational language, something to reach for?

 

MJC:    Right.

 

DT:      Also what stood out to me in that line is the sense of what you need to do in order to show you want to be helped, as if that is implicit in the transaction. You’re there to be aided in some way.

 

MJC:    Yeah, I suppose, because the line prior to that is ‘Our Father, who are in heaven, and is white and beyond skin’, I find that quite interesting because now, reflecting on the person that Jesus was, he probably had darker skin. I definitely had this very pristine image of Jesus as a white man, growing up, and our school was Anglican Christian, so there was always that sense of English fuses in with the image of the white God and that is the aspirational thing, that you want to one day be able to speak on equal terms with an older white man, for example, that is the ultimate goal.

 

Obviously, I realise that’s laden with colonial biases and all of that, but that’s how we were raised in the school at least. Things have changed now, but that was how I grew up.

 

DT:      Maybe that’s why that poem stuck out, because it plays into feelings of aspiring to speak English, but also aspiring to feel part of that culture where that language has come from and be part of the shopkeeper culture, which couldn’t really be much more middle-class English, especially around bookshops.

 

MJC:    You also get this cultural image of the benevolent white old man, maybe he runs a candy shop. Because I grew up in Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, you get all these images that are somehow part of my repertoire of children’s books, so maybe that seeped into the poem.

 

DT:      I was initially going to start the conversation off around the line in How It Must Be Said, ‘what does this say about me, this obsession written in the language I never chose?’ which seems like a starting point, not for the whole pamphlet, but important parts of it. We just started talking about English as a second language there.

 

MJC:    I think it’s interesting because putting this together, I was working with Alan, but the title came quite quickly. My draft title was A Hurry of English and initially, when Alan, Alan Buckley, my editor, hadn’t seen all the poems, he was like ‘that can be the temporary title and we’ll see if it works’, but it sort of stuck. The line itself is a bit odd because A Hurry Of English, what does that even mean? It’s sort of syntactically a bit odd.

 

It came to me, that line ‘My desires dress themselves in a hurry of English to avoid my mother’s gaze’ and I suppose that does reflect years and years of reading things I thought were transgressive, you know, queer literature or even just Shakespeare, but knowing that there were undertones of homoeroticism, the gender bending, really enjoying that, but also I was doing the right thing, because I was studying for my English Literature class, but there was a sense of that being transgressive.

 

Because it was in a language my mother couldn’t read, I felt very safe, I felt like I wasn’t betraying anything. This was me perfecting my English, but at the same time, I didn’t have to betray my own identity as a docile Chinese girl. Obviously, these are all stereotypes, but there was that sense growing up that I could keep these two worlds apart and neither would affect the other.

 

DT:      It’s interesting. Obviously, I don’t have the experience of having English as a second language in that way, but the pamphlet, even just talking for a couple of minutes about it, the structure of it makes a lot more sense. It comes up in a lot of guests’ writing and the way they talk about it, having that protective place within their own writing or within literature in general, with stuff they’ve found they love, especially queer writers, as well as finding someone else talking about what the queer self is through their writing. You found it in something that was also seen as aspirational in Hong Kong, being part of the great English canon of Shakespeare.

 

MJC:    Yes and oddly, I think that gave me courage because I wasn’t out and out doing something that was wrong or perceived to be wrong. It was like I was doing my homework, I was reading the English books and actually, at some point in my teenage years, I started, the ratio of my Chinese to English books started widening, the gap started widening, so for every five English books I read, I read one Chinese book. In the past, it used to be more even. I think maybe there was a sense at some point I couldn’t reconcile the two worlds or it would be difficult to do so.

 

I’m sure there’s a lot of Chinese queer literature out there, but at the time, I didn’t feel safe enough to explore that, so English became almost the language that was that ‘love that dare not speak its name’. That’s from a poem by Lord Alfred Douglas and because I found these traces, I was like this is going to be my queer voice, a repository for my queer desires.

 

DT:      Following on from that initial exploration into other queer identities you found through literature, I’ve notice a lot of people often say about other writers, when you first start writing to a point where you’re first becoming published, there’s a chance to reinvent yourself as an artist or writer. I wonder if that’s missing the point as it doesn’t acknowledge the number of writers that find their first opportunity to truly identify themselves and it’s not a reinvention, it’s simply an expression of who they’ve always felt they’ve been.

 

MJC:    Yeah, I think so. Maybe there is that gap between the reader and the writer because a lot of people I know have written in their teenage years, They wrote in their diary or they wrote poems. It would be hard to find someone who’s never tried writing something, but then to make that your identity and also, I was saying just now, off the record, this is actually quite an exposing experience, even though all these poems have been published, most of them, in different journals and magazines, somehow that always felt safer because they were these odd bits and bobs tucked away in a larger entity and people might come across it if they read the whole thing, but then also they might not read it or they would skip.

 

But there’s this whole unified, seemingly unified thing, which is a pamphlet that for the first time puts all of these different poems together and that for me feels like wow, someone can actually, if they care to read it, they would find a lot about myself but also, I suppose, my imagined selves in all of that.

 

DT:      How do you reconcile the aspect of how demanding your work becomes once it’s a single-author pamphlet or book? Because you’re not flanked by other writers or sharing a space. Because now as a queer writer you are demanding space in a way that you may not have imagined previously.

 

MJC:    It is a very vulnerable experience and I think I was quite surprised at feeling this way because the aspiration was always working towards a pamphlet and then eventually, a full collection. I didn’t think I’d be so lucky that things would come together so quickly because Ignition Press was dreamt up by Niall Munro at Oxford Brookes and they made the press happen very quickly, really over the span of six, seven months and we were invited to submit and all of that.

 

Yeah, to answer your question, I suppose, it just feels like suddenly there is no place to hide. People will be reading the pamphlet and knowing that this is your work and so it’s not like you’re in the Poetry Review and somehow other people’s writing also gives yours legitimacy, in a way, or the editorial and the way it’s framed will give you a sense of ‘I’m amongst other writers’.

 

I think the thing is my mother has increasingly been able to translate some of my poems. I don’t know quite how she’s doing it. Either my father is translating it for her or someone else and she picks up these bits and bobs. It’s interesting because I think now she’s recognising my identity, a large part of it is my writing and she’s increasingly wanting to be in dialogue with me about why I wrote that, or what have I actually written, whereas in the past when it was a poem here or there that I would submit, that would be a very private thing almost. Even if it was published, my mum wouldn’t know about it and it wouldn’t be an event.

 

DT:      And the act of being published drags you into the public view as well. There are so many pictures of you and you’re doing public readings, which hopefully I will have mentioned in the introduction. Suddenly, you’re centre-stage and it doesn’t naturally sit in my mind as an accompanying part of what it means to sit down and write a collection as seemingly honest as yours.

 

I don’t like to use the word honest with poetry, because it’s irrelevant, but as something that’s trying to confront a lot of difficult issues around identity and self-identity and how that might affect your home life as a child. That doesn’t seem to fit naturally with then going and talking about it on podcasts or stages in front of strangers.

 

MJC:    It is an odd thing. There’s a part of me that thinks I really value these opportunities, you know, being interviewed or being invited to speak, because then you get to communicate your ideas in a different forum for people who might not take the time to read the whole thing, you actually get to share a few poems on stage and they actually get to listen to it. It’s a different experience listening to something than reading it.

 

There’s also the strong urge to hide, to say no, I can’t do this, not particularly because I’m afraid of public speaking, I’m sort of an ambivert so I’m OK with speaking in front of crowds, it’s more the sense of, especially the Q&As when people ask you questions, you feel very exposed. Or sometimes the questions are so loaded, you don’t know where to begin.

 

One thing that came up quite a lot and still does, is ‘Why don’t you write in Chinese?’ or ‘Will you write in Chinese?’ It’s not just a sense of local audiences expecting me as a Chinese person to write in Chinese but, my parents, my mother, would say you’re bi-lingual and I can write in Chinese, so why English? Why not start writing in your own mother tongue? That becomes very fraught for me, precisely for the reasons I’ve talked about.

 

I’m asked to choose or I’m asked why my allegiance is not the way people perceive it should be, for example.

 

DT:      This actually came up in conversation with Zeina Hashem-Beck. She gets this question constantly about why…

 

MJC:    I love her work, by the way.

 

DT:      It’s fantastic…but why write in English when you grew up speaking Arabic as a first language? There are a lot of overlaps between the answers you just came up with there. I would be interested to see how those questions develop when you’ve now got a ready-made, long-form answer, as to why you may have chosen to write in English. Why do you think that question comes up?

 

MJC:    I think several things. One thing is there aren’t maybe that many ethnically Chinese or East Asian writers in England who are poets, first and foremost. Sarah Howe is definitely one of the most famous ones, she’s a mentor of mine as well, but this assumption that OK, you clearly come from a bi-lingual background, you’re an ESL speaker, I mean almost the question is ‘What made you put in that extra effort and what makes you want to have to fight to stay in this realm that’s not naturally yours?

           

And also obviously, there’s sometimes a hint of slight racism, casual racism, like ‘You look Chinese so you must be bi-lingual’, sort of a question of ‘Why are you here because you must be from China?’ Obviously that overlooks the British Chinese, overlooks so many communities who are ethnically one thing, but they speak English and that’s their only language. And then the question asked by a Chinese person from Hong Kong is utterly different. It’s almost like, well, we have a history of over 5000 years and we have all this literature and yes, the Tang dynasty of poetry, all that I grew up with, why are you abandoning that for Shakespeare?

 

Almost Tang poetry versus Shakespeare and why do you think Shakespeare is better than us? It’s that implicit sense of ‘why have you gained another heritage?’ I’m trying to answer that through my poetry. My schooling was very particular. It wasn’t like my parents sent me there for no reason, because it was a very good school and all the good schools in Hong Kong, they’re not international schools.

 

It still remains the case that they are faith schools and they are all missionary schools, all established by the British during the colonial era, and that’s not a coincidence that you find a lot of students in these schools, they have very good English, it’s true, but also they’re conflicted in terms of their identity, because of the way they’ve been taught, I think. Bit of a long answer.

 

DT:      I’m glad you spoke of both aspects because it’s easy in poetry and literature, in the South East of England particularly, to only get that view of ‘come on, we want to embrace other languages, we’re desperate for Arts Council funding, show us some otherness through your writing’, but I suppose there’s also a lot in your answer that fed into the ideas or feelings that make a pamphlet more exposing, because it brings up so many of these issues about why, if you’re going to demand a space, are you doing it in a second language? Why are you not being true to yourself – but the self other people are imposing on you?

 

MJC:    Exactly.

 

DT:      Then this feeds into…

 

MJC:    …the notion of the other.

 

DT:      Yes, and what it is to find your queer voice. We’ll focus for the moment on how your mother is now more able to access your writing. I don’t do this often, but I’ve noted a lot of lines from the pamphlet because a lot of things stood out. We’ll take these as starting points, if you don’t mind. This is from your poem Practice: ‘I would head back home with a deepening sense of dread, my bruises fading to quiet’.

 

I’m wondering why we as writers try and write about home in that way. Who are we trying to talk to, the people we’ve left/turned our backs on/been pushed away from? Whatever’s gone on, are we trying to talk to them or are we trying to explain to our readership what that was like?

 

MJC:    I think I read somewhere that someone’s first pamphlet or collection is usually their most personal or apparently personal, which is what Sharon Olds says. Because people rarely write their first thing as a themed thing. It’s usually stuff you’ve been collecting over your entire life, or however long you’ve been writing, and then that coalesces into something seemingly unified because it’s written by you, but usually people’s first things are the most fragmented, oddly, because there’s no clear theme. The theme might be family and queerness, but even that is quite broad.

 

Why do I write these things? Now that I’m looking at it, I’m seeing what it is as a totality. I do wonder ‘Who was I writing it for?’ First and foremost, it was probably just a way of processing things, because that poem in particular is about fencing as a sport. I was a fencer for over a decade in school and the reason why I started writing this poem in particular is that I was speaking to Natalie Teitler of The Complete Works programme, just over coffee one day. I’m not part of the program, but she was asking me what do I enjoy doing? I thought it was a bit of an odd question because we were there supposedly to talk about poetry.

 

I told her I used to be a fencer and she was like ‘OK, you should write about that.’ I was like ‘No, there’s nothing to write about because that was the sport I did.’ She was like ‘No, no, go back and think about it.’ Oddly, the poem came very quickly because I realised fencing was so laden with symbolism, the way you camouflage yourself, the way you fence based on your gender. Obviously, it’s very binary so there are women fencing teams and men fencing teams and there are feelings there.

 

There were people who were like me, I was exploring my queerness, but obviously not exploring it, so I was hiding from it through all the gear you wear as a fencer. You don’t see any patch of skin once you’re suited up and the duelling that happens between the two fencers on a piste, it’s almost a kind of relationship, so I was like ‘woah, this is very fruitful for what I’m trying to explore.’ It was almost logical, being given permission to write about fencing as a sport, then I realised actually there was a lot there I could explore.

 

DT:      It’s nice when people give you permission to write about things you would have considered banal. This feeds into the pressure of ‘please tell us about the otherness in your practice’ to suddenly be told ‘no, just write about that thing you did, that hobby or that sport you were made to play at school’ because it’s your life and of course these things will come out anyway, but they will hopefully come out in a way you’re more comfortable with.

 

MJC:    Exactly. There’s a poem I haven’t included in this pamphlet, I might include later in my full collection. It’s called The Calligrapher. For a while, I was toying between writing about fencing and writing about calligraphy because I’ve practised both for over a decade and there’s a sense of well, for an idealised Western audience, they would be expecting the calligraphy poem and by writing that calligraphy poem, it also satisfies something in terms of what my parents expected of me, which is to portray a certain kind of Chineseness to the world, then I was like well, actually, I wrote that poem and still I’m quite pleased with it, but the fencing poems were the ones that came organically, because it almost subverts both expectations, like maybe a Western audience wasn’t expecting that you would be a Chinese fencer.

 

DT:      I love the universality of that as well, the whole thing of being at school and fancying someone, but showing it through stabbing them a little bit and chasing them around a sports hall with a fake sword. That’s just what obsessive love is at that age. What age were you?

 

MJC:    This is like teenage.

 

DT:      That’s what I was imagining, I just wanted to check.

 

MJC:    Well, not even knowing that was love or desire, because it was so forbidden.

 

DT:      Obviously there’s a different element to the queerness, but I think a lot of love at that age, that obsessive lust for someone, feels forbidden because you don’t feel able to act on it either way if you’re a young teenager. I think that’s what really came through in that poem, It felt like you were writing just about the act and those things came out of it naturally, rather than trying to write, it feels like a pressure, especially on queer writers, to try and write about queerness in a different way.

 

MJC:    It was a very organic process, so that surprised me in how the two dovetailed so well.

 

DT:      The images of the blooming bruises I just thought was amazing, especially when it’s implied the bruises are blooming beneath the costume, unseen, and all of this is happening beneath the surface. There’s a lot of stuff happening beneath the surface in the pamphlet. I think we might take a second poem.

 

MJC:                Dragon Hill Spa

 Please see our downloadable transcript for this poem

DT:      We can’t go too much further in the conversation without talking about your mother. I don’t want to focus too much on your personal relationship, that’s not what we’re here for and if people read the pamphlet, they’ll get enough out if it because I do think the poems do speak clearly enough for themselves, but as writers in general, this idea of your mother and this shroud-like image that comes through, there’s a duality to your mother in these poems.

 

She seems both oppressive, yet detached, and a constant, but also a distant and that seems clear through poems that are set while you’ve been in London, but also at home. I wonder why we obsessively write about these things we’re seemingly trying to escape? I’m worried about framing that question, because I’m not trying to suggest you’re trying to escape your mother through these poems, but there’s a feeling which is quite common through a lot of people’s writing.

 

MJC:    Yeah, it is very interesting. You can look at it from a slightly psychoanalytic point of view, that the mother-child relationship is always a very fraught one, it’s one of the most important ones. What was it that DW Winnicott said? Before you realise there’s a mirror, the child sees that the mirror is the mother’s face, because that’s the first object you attach yourself to. I’m probably butchering this a little bit.

 

I’m interested in that relationship, that intensity, and you know when you talk to queer youth in general, it doesn’t really matter which culture you’re from, the fear with coming out is always, well, often, the fear of disappointing your parents and usually, it’s the mother. You can see any person talking about that and somehow, it’s always fraught, it doesn’t matter what gender you are or where you’re from, the sense of ‘I can’t tell my mother’.

 

I’m curious about that as well, why we feel that sense of loyalty, the sense of ‘I can’t betray her by being myself’ and also there’s an actual act of departure, we all grow up and we all leave. Because the mother is usually the person – obviously, it’s different in a queer relationship, you might have two fathers instead – but growing up in the family I did, my mum was a quintessential housewife, we spent so much time together while my father, he’s a doctor, was out working. That bond to me always felt so intense.

 

When you picked up on that sense of my mother was everywhere, she was and she still is. I almost say things like ‘this is my mother’s room’ and my partner would be like ‘no, it’s your parents’ room. Where’s your dad?’ Or ‘this is my mother’s something something’, but actually it’s my parents’. My father feels, not that he’s not there, but he doesn’t feel that same emotional impact on me in terms of seeing him everywhere.

 

Maybe going back to poetry, it’s a sense of I want to write about my mother because there was a lot I couldn’t say for many years and I turned to writing as a way of comforting myself, a way of figuring things out, a way of almost apologising, a way of almost writing this unseen letter to my mother, explaining everything to her, so that one day, she might understand. You know, a way of setting myself up for something, that eventual coming out. All these poems are from prior to coming out, the seeds of those poems.

 

So yeah, maybe it’s a way to justify myself, to explain myself. Also, and this is one thing I haven’t talked about in any interviews so far, my mother, her first job in Hong Kong, was a writing job. She was a scriptwriter for a local television station. So my mother is actually an amazing writer in Chinese and she’s now currently writing a drama script, which potentially might be made into a play on stage, but obviously very casually and as an amateur writer, because she’s not in the writing profession.

 

Knowing my mother wrote for a few years and that was what sustained her, that was a weird coming full circle.

 

DT:      Does that feed into writing in English as well? It gives you a distance from your mother’s writing career?

 

MJC:    Maybe subconsciously that is a thing of charting out my own space. Certainly, I know my mum always encouraged me to read and oddly, would buy me English books and you’d think how would that work, because she wouldn’t know what was on the jacket cover? But she would buy me these English books because she liked the cover art, for example, but that act of so generously trying to introduce me to another language as well, is to me quite fraught and quite poignant. She could have just bought me Chinese books, but she also bought me English books, which is what is interesting, I think.

 

DT:      I suppose it comes back to this idea of the perceived impression that writers are trying to reinvent themselves. It’s interesting that we use poetry as a way of reinventing others in our life, sorry, what was the title?

 

MJC: Conversation With Fantasy Mother.

 

DT:      Yes, Conversation With FantasyMother does that very well, in which you write to a person, that is freely listening to you, in a way you might want to happen. This is playing on my mind a lot. I chatted to Caroline Bird a lot in the most recent episode, not specifically about relationships with parents, but more confronting ideas about shame and guilt in poetry, wherever they come from, but this is also feeding into I have a lot to write about my own relationship with my mother.

 

I never have and as yet, have not been able to and it left me quite emotional after reading some of the poems in your book, because you’ve done some of the things I wish I could do myself and still feel unable to do. It may also be clouding the way I’m asking the questions. I may be making them slightly too personal?

 

MJC:    I’m thinking also, some of these poems, I do use the mother figure as a trope as well, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be my mother and some of the things I include in here, she has never said. I got bogged down in quite a few poems a few months ago, probably, when somehow I fell into the trap of thinking what was the actual truth? What did she actually say or not say and then realising through my current supervision, I’m a PhD candidate as well, I work with Jo Shapcott and she’s an amazing mentor and poet.

 

She’s like ‘Mary Jean, remember poetry is also an act of creation. It’s like fiction, you have the permission and the right to invent and imagine. Once I let go of that ostensible need to write documentary truth, then more poems came up, the fantasy mother poem came up because for me, that could be a poem written about any mother. It really is just about the universality of queerness.

 

DT:      I think that’s why this pamphlet feels so complete, because it talks of these things in a very universal way. It doesn’t feel too much like a diary, which it perhaps can do if you’re trying to document the truth of what really happened. For the listeners’ benefit, I’m doing air quotes at the moment. There’s something I haven’t managed to free myself from when talking about that and it may be I’m finding it too difficult to move away from the truth, whatever that means.

 

I completely agree, the truth isn’t that relevant in terms of trying to communicate a feeling, the truth around events and what people have said, as long as you’re not libelling people and coming up with complete falsehoods, I think you do need elements of fiction in your writing to make it relatable to readers.

 

MJC:    Also, not forcibly make it a universal piece because specificity is so important and I can only really write from my own experience, but I’ve increasingly realised that sometimes, poetry is about hope as well, it’s about what you hoped could have happened. It’s about your vision for maybe a better world or a more compassionate world, so sometimes people will do magical realism for example, or the surrealist art, that kind of freedom to imagine a scenario and to convey something through that.

 

Artists have been doing it for ages and fiction writers as well. For example, Sophie Collins, she had her recent debut collection from Faber, there were a lot of moments I was wondering ‘did this really happen?’ but that’s precisely what she is trying to subvert, the idea that the ‘I’ is not meant to be a documentary ‘I’ and all these, especially women, who write about themselves, it’s automatically taken that it’s ‘this is your intimate document of your life’, whereas men can write fiction.

 

I think all of that is in the background as well, but obviously for me, it’s even more layered because it’s not just about white men and white women, I’m also queer and there’s all those other layers added on that. I’m not naïve enough to think that… Obviously, I’m a woman and I’m writing about my mother, it’s all too easy for people to say ‘this is the document of your life and your mother, all of this is true’.

 

Maybe because that is easily perceived as such, my mother can feel conflicted and betrayed and that’s stuff I’m currently dealing with, but yes, I still feel in order to write at all, I need to free myself from those constraints.

 

DT:      My dad’s mum died when I was about 16. She was notorious for telling stories where the things she was telling you she said, she didn’t say them, but you wouldn’t class what she was saying as a lie. They were embellishments in order to get a point across and I’ve always found the way I write to be closer to the way people tell stories in pubs, that idea that when you walk away from not an argument, maybe just a confrontation with someone you don’t really know and you’ve been a bit surprised, you come away and you’re like ‘this is what I should have said, I should have bloody said this’ and that’s what I feel poems are . They’re in the moment when you’re able to be clearer about things and that involve embellishing what’s happened or adding details.

 

MJC:    I think poetry, this is my work, so I can’t be divorced from it, but it’s also a thing that once someone has written something, then it’s out in the world, it’s its own entity, so as much as you can take responsibility for it, you also need to let it go and it needs to do whatever it does, in relationship to another reader. That is the work I think poetry does. I’ve read poets from around the world, across cultures and for those poets’ work to speak to me, for example Adrienne Rich, who is always the person I speak about, who really opened up poetry for me.

 

She was writing in the 1960s, white lesbian, feminist in America. She’s Jewish as well. I couldn’t be more culturally different from her, but her voice spoke to me. It was something I slept with, I had her books beside me when I slept, on my bedside table and for that to happen, it’s something about language, it transcends a lot of these things we think are immutable and I think the work she did for my life and on my life, it’s just something maybe I hope my writing will do for another person. You just have to let it go. I can’t define what it might do or might not do.

 

DT:      It’s so odd, imagining that something you’ve made may have that effect, but it’s really beautiful. That leads nicely into something I wanted to ask about. Without breaking the flow, my sibling Tiegan is doing some work experience. I’m 19 years older than Tiegan and this idea that they are doing work experience for me is making me feel incredibly old, but as part of the work experience, I asked Tiegan to come up with some draft questions for you, based on the pamphlet, then I did some feedback.

 

It wasn’t my intention that the questions should come into the programme unless they were relevant and this one is relevant. The original question centred around the mental health of queer people, specifically. It, sort of, opened up into this idea of how as an emerging or established writer, do you use your position to reassure readers who don’t have a voice that there is someone who’s experiencing the same thing?

 

MJC:    I think when someone starts writing, certainly the mentality I had when writing all these poems, it wasn’t this sense of ‘wow, I’m going to create a document that’s going to save someone’s life’, but because so many other writers have done that for me, literally sometimes I think books shore me up, when I’m feeling anxious or worried or just kind of frazzled, I go into a bookstore or library. Being surrounded by books, I feel safe because of the sense of these documents accepting me, these breathing things are sensibilities who will accept me for who I am.

 

Maybe the hope is, I can only really write from what I know and what I believe in, but increasingly now, there are people who are queer and Asian and they either message me on Twitter or talk to me in person and they say ‘your work is important to me’ or ‘your poetry really touches me’. Obviously there is a sense of surprise, because you’re not prepared for that. You don’t have, as much as people talk about readership, you really don’t have a readership in mind when you write, I think.

 

If you’re thinking too much of your readership, it’s going to cause a writer’s block, but I am touched and I feel yeah, if that’s what my work is doing, then I might be on the right path. At the same time, because I’m still struggling with my own, I suppose, sense of shame, over being queer, let alone being a queer mouthpiece, there’s almost a sense of ‘oh gosh, what am I doing? I’m really putting myself out there now, I’m really going against some of the things my parents…’

 

You know, they would be content for me to write poetry, but not to speak about being queer. Maybe that’s one step too far, but it’s all part of the same thing and I think if I stopped speaking about being queer, that would also be false and that would not make sense. Having observed how poets act and behave, they do become touchstones for other people. When people ask me who are my favourite poets, there are just so many, because they all do something different for me.

 

Sarah Howe, for example, gave me permission to write about Hong Kong. Emily Berry gave me permission to write about my mother. Just in the ways they do it, you know? It’s not just thematic, it’s the ways they’re able to access that material is so new and so special, I was like ‘wow’. I didn’t know you could do that with such an old theme, for example. Obviously Adrienne Rich, writing about female relationships, again, I had no idea you could write a love poem like that… her Twenty-One Love Poems. I suppose, if one day my work becomes that for someone, that’s perfect.

 

DT:      Having spent time in psychiatric units, my own mental illness being prevalent through my whole life and those of loved ones, it really annoys me when people miss the point that these individual stories from other backgrounds and experiences are not merely an attempt at diversity, they’re actually an attempt to communicate with people in a way they may relate to.

 

It makes me furious, and I’ll try not to talk about this too much, but this misunderstanding that access to this kind of writing we’ve just been talking about, whether it’s different aspects that may give you permission to write about Hong Kong, or your mother, then the queer writers you enjoy as well, then the idea that access to literature that doesn’t sit within – and I’m going to do air quotes again, because I hate using this word – the ‘norm’ of what is the established canon here, is merely an attempt at diversity when that isn’t what people are asking for.

 

They’re not asking necessarily for a diverse canon, what they are asking for is representation and access for people. Like you’re saying, this is not an over-exaggeration to suggest this may be a lifeline for someone. I’m not putting the weight on your works specifically, this could be any writer that talks about any experience.

 

MJC:    I think it’s very interesting you brought that up and the notion of diversity because obviously, I’m very conscious of the landscape now, increasingly, and being a part of different schemes, like the Ledbury Emerging Critics scheme, again spearheaded by Sarah [Howe] and Sandeep Palmer. You sometimes do feel very small, because you think these are the statistics, the odds are stacked against people who are not white, you can go down the list, not queer, not disabled, for example, but that’s the norm.

 

Then everyone else who owns multiple identities has become well, it’s almost like writing is overwhelmingly white and the establishment is as well when you go into publishing, but I’ve been very fortunate because I think I’ve had mentors who’ve been able to help me, I suppose, realise the odds, but also try to not be weighed down by that too much. My agent, for example, Emma Patterson, is mixed-race, she is very able to talk to me about these issues of being a writer of colour, being an agent of colour, and how do you resist being exoticized or exoticizing yourself, but also trying to tell the story of who you are?

 

You know, we even have these debates about whether or not you should ever mention rice in a poem. You have poets who fall on completely different sides. You’ve got people saying never, ever mention mango or rice because you’re giving people an excuse to exotify you. Then I think I do eat rice all the time.

 

We would never put that much pressure on someone’s piece of bread because that’s what they eat every morning, but because we’re writers in a world that’s not equal, our bowl of rice gets so laden with symbolism that sometimes, I do still include tea and rice, even though I know that’s a label, but because I drink green tea all the time and I eat rice every day.

 

That is the truth for me, as a person of colour. It would be fake to put in spaghetti and bread, because even though I eat it as well, that’s not for me something I want to write about. So long story short, I think you’re very right to pick up on that token diversity that we’re supposed to perform as writers of colour, but I definitely want to resist that and I don’t know if I’m succeeding. But that’s something I think about as well.

 

DT:      I think what annoys me further in that is that it shouldn’t be left to the poets themselves, because this is where I think as an industry we’re falling into the realms of purely diversity for diversity’s sake because you have a lot of well-intentioned, well-meaning producers and a lot of writers of colour getting some fantastic opportunities, mainly still in the South East, which needs to be sorted out, it needs to be more nationwide and more representative of what the UK is, but I think there are too many people being protective of their own jobs in the slightly higher tiers, the publishers and editors.

 

I think until you have those roles filled more representationally, you’re still going to get writers that feel like they’re being exoticized. I spoke to Byron Vincent about this. We both had similar backgrounds, we’ve [got] mental-health problems and working-class backgrounds and how that then feels, how you go from a very heavy working-class background to poetry, then the conflict of how you’ve grown up and this field you’re trying to move into and this pressure on the working-class writer to be miserable.

 

There has to be pain in your work, there has to be trauma, because people who haven’t been through those experiences only understand the attraction of the trauma in your work and there may not be any trauma. There has been trauma in my life, but it isn’t because I’m working class, it’s because I’m bi-polar and hadn’t faced up to that early enough and I tried to hide from that. That’s where the trauma came from and I should be free to choose.

 

Until you have people in positions, I mean Kit De Waal is doing some amazing work for writers of colour and there’s a big overlap working-class stuff she’s doing at the moment and I’m really excited for this Unbound, Common People anthology that’s going to come out soon, and there is work happening there, but it still feels so slow, doesn’t it?

 

MJC:    You’re so right and precisely you pointed out the fact that whether you have writers of colour, that’s the start, but you also need people who are in the business of publishing and all that who will look at your story and understand the point of it is precisely your complexity, not your skin colour. Even though we want to value writers of colour, we shouldn’t be in the business of valuing each other because of a certain type of skin colour and that’s who you are.

 

Clearly, we want more human stories across the board. If you’re a writer of colour who wants to be accepted by the establishment, you need to perform your identity, you need to be a certain way so we can package you and market you and draw certain audiences. It also has to do with the capitalist framework of buying and selling books.

 

I’m also increasingly aware, it’s very apparent to people who don’t live in the metropolis of the colonial empire, for example in Hong Kong, if you write in English and publish in Hong Kong, you do know that the legitimacy you get from that is not as much as if you were published in the States or the UK. Your work is repatriated. So you can go back and say ‘look, I’ve been legitimised by the establishment that is not here, not home, and I’m going to bring that work back and then people will read you’.

 

That’s how it works. It’s capitalism, it’s politics, it’s also history. I think a lot of post-colonial writers face that same issue. They’re actually from India, but Oxford University Press needs to publish it in London before it can be brought back home to India and celebrated. There’s a reason why I’m here in London, there’s a reason why so many writers from other parts of the world come to these centres because there’s also a sense of there really is no other way you can make something viable.

 

Obviously, I left for other reasons, it’s not just that I needed to come to the centre of empire. It’s also the understanding that I would get better training here, you could meet other poets that you’ve read for your GCSEs, which would not happen were you back home, but that’s a reality and I think people need to talk about the complexities of publishing and the power relation that occurs.

 

DT:      One of the reasons I had such a good time recently at Verve Poetry Festival is that shift of power. I mean, I’m from London, I was born in Westminster, I couldn’t be any more central and I do love this city. We’re in London now, I love where we are, I love the city, but it doesn’t sit very well with me, even just in the UK, you can’t have this huge imbalance where poets from Yorkshire, Derbyshire or Cumbria feeling they have to move to London in order to have a career. That isn’t right. Having that shift of control, I do think certain people just need to stand up and take it.

 

Verve hasn’t happened because the Poetry Society decided they wanted something to happen in the regions. That isn’t what happened. A couple of people got bored of the fact they had to keep going to London and thought ‘let’s start something’. Unfortunately, not everyone feels like that’s in their power, to start something like that. It’s what we’re saying, as a young or emerging writer, no matter your identity, I think people are starting to feel more comfortable about getting published, but that doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily got control over your work.

 

MJC:    No, so much of it is contingent on privilege of all sorts, institutional privilege, economic privilege, social privilege. A lot of reasons why I’ve got to where I am is I have a tremendous amount of institutional privilege. I’ve been to quite a few universities where those networks allowed me to then get things published. I was part of the Oxford University Poetry Society, there you met people you otherwise wouldn’t have met who are active in the literary world.

 

Despite being a queer woman of colour, I am Chinese and I’m not naïve enough to think that doesn’t matter, because even though we talk about BAME or people of colour, obviously there are different realities. I’m from Hong Kong, born and raised there, I left when I was 19, so I did grow up for a significant part of my life not feeling like I was a minority. I was a majority in Hong Kong.

 

I think that has an impact. We were talking about mental health and all that, it has an impact on your psyche. I didn’t grow up Asian-American or British-Chinese, feeling all the time that I was invisible. I was clearly visible apart from being a woman, I wasn’t out, so I was a straight Chinese woman ostensibly. That gives you a lot of power, obviously not in relation to Chinese men, but you see what I mean.

 

Then coming to the States, then coming to the UK and realising I was part of a minority, that actually took a mind shift. Initially, when people kept telling you to come to women of colour meetings when I was in the US doing my undergraduate study, I thought they’d gotten it wrong. I was like ‘I’m not a woman of colour, you mean maybe Asian-American’, but they were like ‘no, you are a woman of colour’.

 

Obviously, you eventually realise a lot of different things, like I’m a queer woman of colour, but yeah, so the mental-health aspect you were alluding to earlier, I think I have a lot of things to deal with in terms of shame in relation to being queer and all of that, but I don’t suffer as much from a sense of ‘I’m a racial minority’.

 

DT:      Interesting. There’s a lot of overlaps here from when I had a conversation with Andra Simons, who’s from Bermuda originally. He, in his words, wasn’t black until he came to London. He grew up on an island where he was in the majority. In his mind, his creative practice revolved around, and these are his words, being a ‘fat, gay man’. That was what set him apart as a young man and that’s what formed his identity.

 

Being black wasn’t even a consideration for him until he moved to London, so when he came to the UK, to suddenly be identified and exoticised in London, in the gay community as being a black Caribbean man. This idea of shame and I think we’re going to finish on this question, because it’s nice, it’s poetry, we don’t want to finish on a high!

 

I just wonder, this comes up with a lot of people, but is poetry the right place to be confronting shame? Or is it just a place to dwell?

 

MJC:    OK, I suppose to answer that question, I’ll just refer to one of my favourite writers, Jeanette Winterson, who is a novelist, a lesbian. A lot of people know her for her first book, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. She actually, I have heard her live at an event ‘Is literature basically something that traumatises people?’ because you have a high correlation between artists and suicide and all that.

 

I think what she said was literature is always on the side of health. It is always a means to live better. The reason we find a lot of trauma being written about, it’s not that it helps us stay in that place, I really don’t believe that, I think we write through things. I think there might be tears shed, there might be realisations, there might be feelings of shame, but really it is much better to be conscious of them than to have them stuck inside you.

 

I believe in psychotherapy, for example, and that is all about bringing unconscious things into your consciousness and then you can make different choices about your life. I think poetry has helped me make so many different choices that I would not otherwise have had the courage to make. As a reader and now a writer, I’ve been able to write through shame, write through trauma, all these different aspects of my life, and have a much clearer sense of where I am and who I am, in relation to other people as well.

 

Obviously, poetry is this invisible community because I read so many poets of colour, writers of colour, poets in translation, and you just feel you’ve got so many friends, so many mentors, invisible mentors. I can go anywhere in the world and I can bring my Adrienne Rich, I can bring my Emily Berry, I can bring my Mona Arshi, then they will be with me, confronting whatever I’m confronting in my life.

 

I think that for me is why poetry is always about health rather than shame or illness.

 

DT:      Dammit, you’ve made me finish on a high. We’re running out of time, so we’ll finish with a poem please, Mary Jean.

 

MJC:    OK, thanks. I’ll end with this poem that ends the entire pamphletTea Ceremony

 Please see our downloadable transcript for this poem. 

DT:      You have one of my favourite reading voices and I’m really glad the snow didn’t keep us apart this weekend and we’ve been able to record this interview.

 

M JC:   Thank you so much.

 

 

 

Part two (1:02:06):

 

Host: David Turner – DT

 

Guest: Sandeep K Parmar – SKP

 

 

 

DT:      Hello, you stuck around. If you want to hear more, you can catch Mary Jean reading at the various launch events for the Carcanet New Poetries VII, such as The Crypt on the Green, April 30th, or All Souls College, Oxford, May 4th. I’m not going to list too many dates as I’m recording this intro far too early in April. As mentioned before, Lizzy and I are off to Berlin tomorrow. The best thing to do is go over to http://www.maryjeanchan.com/appearances for a full list of reading dates. Do go and check out Mary Jean reading, she is fantastic.

 

I don’t normally use this series for self-promotion, but I’m going to bend my own slightly self-imposed rules on this occasion. I’m very happy to say I have some writing coming up in the first of a new series of pamphlets entitled Cities, published by Dostoevsky Wannabe. The first of this series is based in Bristol and will feature work by myself, Sarer Scotthorne, Vik Shirley, Clive Birnie, Paul Hawkins, who is editing the Bristol Pamphlet and most excitingly, my wife Lizzy, who is also the editor of our accompanying podcast, A Poem A Week.

 

If you want to come and see us all read our work, then get along to Rough Trade in Bristol, on Saturday April 28th at 2.30pm. With that being plenty of blowing my own trumpet, next up is a conversation with Sandeep K Parmar, which as I mentioned before, was recorded live at this year’s Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham.

 

We met up on the world’s tiniest festival stage to chat about how poems change over time and how our relationship to them may change in the time it takes to write, edit, publish then finally launch a collection of writing. We touch on whether poems are always retrospective, or if they can ever live in the moment, and what role live literature events play in the development of Sandeep’s writing.

 

At the beginning, I wrongly introduce Sandeep as a senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool. She is in fact a professor there. If you are the kind of person that likes to write reviews on iTunes, why not write one for us? We’ve already had some fantastic reviews left by our lovely listeners, which you can see over in the Feedback section on our website, or indeed over at iTunes.

 

Do go and check out Elevated Thoughts. Here’s Sandeep.

 

 

Conversation:

 

 

DT:      Hello, Verve, how are you doing? Give us some noise, come on. Really good. I was going to make a rule at the beginning, no normal poetry audience nonsense, by which I mean make lots of noise, but Verve are instilling that excitement in you anyway. I am now joined by Sandeep Parmar, a poet, critic and senior lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool.

 

She has published two collections of poetry, the first of which I think we’re going to hear from in a moment, The Marble Orchard. The second, I don’t know how to pronounce that…

 

SKP:     Eidolon.

 

DT:      Eidolon, which won the Ledbury Forte prize for Best Second Collection. We’re going to start with a reading.

 

SKP:     So I’m going to read the first poem from my first collection, The Marble Orchard. It’s called Invocation.

 

We do not have permission to reproduce this poem.

 

DT:      Thank you very much, Sandeep. ‘Trenchant penurist’. I really like that phrase.

 

SKP:     It’s a really good question, I’m not entirely sure what that means, especially since it’s been many years since I wrote it, but I think that’s really good, that idea, it’s something James Brookes was talking about in the last panel, sometimes language just comes to us and it doesn’t even necessarily communicate something to us, beyond the idea of the sound or some sort of association. I’m not actually able to define that.

 

DT:      When was this collection published?

 

SKP:     2011.

 

DT:      So it’s been seven years, then add on however many years since you wrote the poems, it must be strange revisiting it. Does it take on a new meaning for you when you come and read live?

 

SKP:     I think so. For this collection as well, it was an accumulation of many years of work and definitely the poems that I wrote quite early on in that, probably the oldest poem is from the late 90s, so I was certainly a different person from the poems I wrote at the end. I guess that kind of event of the lyric or the poem, is something that unless you can kind of climb back into it, you don’t really remember what it is it means, so when you revisit that, it seems like a remote person in a remote country.

 

DT:      It’s something that comes up a lot in the series, talking to other poets, that because it’s such a drawn-out process releasing the collection, years spent just writing the poems, then the editing process starts, then actually putting the book together, you can sometimes – I’m not accusing you of this, because you’ve come in rejuvenated – but you can see often that poets are maybe a little jaded with what they’re coming back to, because it’s been such an exhaustive process. Is it nice to now come back and have that gap to revisit older stuff or is it still riven with angst inside of you?

 

SKP:     I think in some ways it’s more pleasurable to read from this book than it is perhaps to read from the collection I’m going to be reading from tonight, which is the one that won a prize and I’m having to read from quite a lot now. This is the kind of non-prizewinning, the book that nobody read, so it feels kind of like I’m doing it some sort of service by reading those poems, but no, I suppose probably for any poet, the experience of reading from a book is a kind of state of being you’re no longer in and the work you’re producing at the moment is always going to be the most exciting to you.

 

Sometimes, that takes a long time, sometimes you don’t feel comfortable enough to be able to read from those poems, but I’m already well ahead of both of these books and reluctant to read from them, actually.

 

DT:      Can a poem ever be reflective of the moment you’re in or is it always looking back at something?

 

SKP:     Well, we talk about the lyric in sort of a traditional way. The lyric form tends to be a presence that is always looking backwards, so that present moment that is always receding into the past and taking versions of us with it. It’s still, the moment of writing, whatever it is that drives you to put those words down on the page, is a kind of moment in itself, so there are kind of two moments, three moments, being balanced by the poem at the same time.

 

You can kind of try to remember why it is you wrote it, you may not be able to conjure the state it refers to necessarily, or in fact the moment the state refers to tangentially as well.

 

DT:      But we’re not saying all poems are memories, are we?

 

SKP:     No.

 

DT:      They’re not an act of remembering, are they?

 

SKP:     I think in the really traditional sense, poems can be, but those are not the poems I’m interested in writing, although having said that, I’m probably going to read another poem that’s very much along those lines. No, now I suppose the difference between this book and my second book is I discovered lots of Modernist women writers, who formed the basis of my scholarly research, and so think now more about how to shape language, how language shapes us in the process.

 

I’m much more a kind of language or experimental poet and poem-inspired practice so no, I really detest that kind of intimate, supposedly genuine, but actually quite artificial space that the lyric creates. I avoid it as much as I can and I find it really aggravating to read it in others as well, though I try to be polite about it.

 

DT:      This shaping of language, what role do live readings and events like Verve Poetry Festival play in helping you shape language?

 

SKP:     I suppose in a way, even if you’re the kind of poet who’s doing process-driven work, where you’re really trying to exclude the ‘I’ or the lyric speaker or the poet’s voice, whatever that means, no matter how you fit into style and method and technique, you’re still thinking about a kind of audience, a kind of reader, and in a sense, being at a festival, you’re confronted with those people, sometimes, who may read your work or may have read your work and that changes the context for you to the work you’re writing, sometimes in ways that are really uncomfortable, sometimes in ways that are quite generous on their part and quite rewarding on the part of the poet, or of course that can all go horribly wrong.

 

But I think poetry, certainly in Britain, is a community, a small community, places like this are times when you see people who you’ve been reading and that’s always quite nice and I guess it gives us an embodied sense that the poets we read are real people. Speaking as a critic, I think that’s really useful for me to remember, that it’s not just the text I’m looking at, but actually the kind of person who is there, doing something, conjuring in some way the work.

 

DT:     Talking of yourself as a critic, is that something you do as well as writing poetry?

 

SKP:     Yeah, I write about early 20th-century women’s writing, women poets, so Nancy Cunard, Hope Mirrlees, Mina Lloyd. I also write about contemporary poetry and race, and I’m a reviewer, so I review for lots of different places. I think that my concerns are always the ways in which the work is going to be most appreciated and how to provide that kind of context and how to redress the historical imbalances, how we read, because books in themselves, we encounter them in all kinds of different ways and the critic’s job, whether you’re a reviewer or a scholar, is to put those things in context.

 

There’s no such thing as an originary kind of genius in any sort of book. Everything responds to something else and it’s the critic’s responsibility to be able to recognise those things and give that context to the reader.

 

DT:      Another thing that comes up in the series is most poets hold a dual role, they’re editors and writers, they’re critics and writers, producers and writers. Are you able to be a critic and writer at the same time or are they two separate roles? Obviously they overlap, but…

 

SKP:     Yeah, as a kind of state of being. In my experience at least, being a critic changed the way that I wrote and I felt that I wasn’t able to be… I definitely read myself more in terms of thinking about the tradition after I became a critic, which is a shame, I think you lose something when you become an academic particularly, with academic writing, because you’re so focused on being coherent and reasoned, whereas in effect poetry for me doesn’t come from those kinds of places.

 

The way that language arrives for me as a critic is very different, it has an effect on how I write as a poet, but having said that, there are a lot of really great poets who manage to combine those things in the lyric essays, with Nuar Alsadir’s work, Claudia Rankine’s book Lyric Essays and so in a way, that’s kind of exciting because there is a generation of writers who feel they can hybridise those forms and bring in philosophy and a critical voice or a lyrical voice that isn’t necessarily broken into verse or lines, which is also quite exciting.

 

DT:      I hate those people that can do both, they’re the worst. Since running this series, I found it began to really stifle my own writing because I started to think in quite a mechanical – that’s the wrong term, but I can’t think of a better term and we’re running out of time – but the thought processes around writing became very much ‘how would I structure a programme? How would I communicate that to an audience?’ I started to apply those things to my own writing and then you stop playing, in a way.

 

SKP:     Yeah, I think you feel less free to play. I suppose you learn the rules better and you learn new rules and knowing the rules helps you break them. So I suppose in some ways, it’s just about turning that to your advantage somehow. It doesn’t do anyone any good to write work that feels not banal, but that it’s been done before. So actually it’s a challenge for the writer to be able to stand up against any form of tradition, canon or even those writers that are marginal to it, to be able to say ‘here is something I’m contributing that is fairly new or relevant’.

 

DT:      Unfortunately, these chats are too short. So we don’t run over, we might finish on a reading, if that’s OK.

 

SKP:     Thank you. I never write in form, but I’m going to read a poem that is a very bad, it’s a failed ghazal. Against Chaos.

 

We do not have permission to reproduce this poem.

 

DT:      Let’s all go and join in the celebrations for Jane Commane’s launch in that room over there. Thank you.

 

 

 

End of transcript.

 

 

 

 

 

Me being interviewed about making a poetry podcast…

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I was interviewed over the weekend by the lovely folk at Nothing in the Rulebook about this here podcast, how it started and why it has developed into what it is. You can read the interview here if you so wish.

In the interview I explain a bit about how the podcast started, how it’s changed and what my motivations are for carrying on with a project that doesn’t always fill me with complete and utter joy 🙂

Oh… and I also talk a little bit about my mental health… surprise!

David xx

Episode 111 – Jackie Hagan and Nuar Alsadir

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Good morning everybody! How are you all? I’m very pleased to say that episode 111 has just gone online. It’s in two parts, part one is me chatting to Jackie Hagan and part two is a short chat with Nuar Alsadir recorded in front of a live audience back in February at Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham. The episode can be downloaded via SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, Acast, Overcast… and hopefully anywhere else you download your podcasts! Here’s the episode description, followed by a full transcript of the conversation:

Part one

David Turner talks to poet and playwright Jackie Hagan talk about Jackie’s new play, ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’, which she’s just started touring. The play, presented by Unlimited and Big Feast, is based on interviews with over 80 people and in it, Jackie examines the impact of benefit cuts on disabled people and others on the margins of society. Perhaps predictably, considering the theme of this work, we discuss class – a lot. More specifically, when the idea of class entered Jackie’s consciousness and the effect it had on her gall bladder and mental health.

Dates for ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’:
23 and 24 March 2018 at the Attenborough Centre in Leicester as part of De-Stress Fest
25 March 2018 the Alhambra Theatre in Morecambe
29 March 2018 at the Creation Space in Basingstoke
30 March 2018 at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield
17-21 April 2018 Camden People’s Theatre in London

Part two [00:58:33]:
David Turner is in front of a live audience at the Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham talking to Nuar Alsadir about writing for an imagined reader and treating our notebook and pen as tools of the trade.

Transcript

Intro:

 

 

DT:      Hello, welcome to episode 111 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. I’m David Turner. I hope you’re well. This episode is in two parts. Coming up at the end is a short conversation with Nuar Alsadir, recorded live at this year’s Verve poetry festival. More about that later, so stick around until the end. First up is a chat with poet and playwright Jackie Hagan. Jackie is originally from Skelmersdale, just outside Liverpool, or Skem as it’s known locally and throughout this conversation.

 

We met up in a function room in Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre to talk about Jackie’s new play, ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’, which she’s just started touring. The play, presented by Unlimited and Big Feast, is based on interviews with over 80 people and in it, Jackie examines the impact of benefit cuts on disabled people and others on the margins of society. Perhaps predictably, considering the theme of this work, we discuss class – a lot. More specifically, when the idea of class entered Jackie’s consciousness and the effect it had on her gall bladder and mental health.

 

We also get onto what it’s like to be a working-class person moving in poetry and theatre circles, though we did also attempt to imagine what it must be like when the tables are turned and middle-class people are surrounded by scallies and Herberts. Jackie and I are both bipolar, so steel yourselves for tangents aplenty. Before I forget, if you’re looking to hire a function room in Manchester for an event, the folk at the Royal Exchange Theatre are very helpful and really accommodating and rent out rooms very reasonably.

 

I wouldn’t recommend recording a podcast in the room I used though. As you’ll hear, the acoustics are very sharp, but it’s a great space for meetings and you’d fit a killer Iceland-based buffet in there. You can catch ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’ at the following venues: the 23 and 24 March 2018 at the Attenborough Centre in Leicester as part of the De-Stress Fest, 25 March 2018 the Alhambra Theatre in Morecambe, 29 March 2018 at the Creation Space in Basingstoke, 30 March 2018 at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, and 17-21 April 2018 Camden People’s Theatre in London. I’ll list all of those dates in the episode description.

 

This episode was only made possible with the aid of funding from Arts Council England, specifically their south-west regional office. If you’d like to keep up-to-date with everything that’s going on with this podcast and our fledgling A Poem A Week series, follow us at Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook and Instagram, @Silent_Tongue on Twitter or go over to lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, where you can also download a transcript of this episode.

 

I’ll have to take a run-up to this bit. Download and subscribe to everything we’ve ever done over at SoundCloud, Stitcher for Android devices and iTunes for Apple users. Oh dear, that’s boring. Please do us a favour and tell your friends, colleagues and loved ones about us. It’s the best way to help us reach new people. If you want to make us really happy, head over to iTunes and leave us a lovely review. I feel a bit dirty now so as a palate cleanser, here’s Jackie Hagan. It might just be the first time she’s been introduced in that way.

 

 

Conversation:

 

 

JH:       Hiya, I’m Jackie Hagan. Where many of you have got a tube of meat, I have got a steel pole. I’ll let you figure that out for yourself. I’m from Skem and I’m a writer, performer, playwright. This poem is called ‘I Am Not Daniel Blake’ and it’s about all the things that us council-estate people do that piss people off.

 

We do not have permission to reproduce this poem.

 

[0:07:58]

 

DT:      Thank you very much, Jackie, thank you for joining me on the podcast. I really love that line and image about Schrödinger’s scratchcard and buying yourself hope. It’s really nice. It’s quite odd to hear that poem read in this room we’re sitting in. It’s luxurious, oak-panelled.

 

JH:       The plushest room in the world.

 

DT:      I believe it’s the former executive suite of the Royal Exchange, the boardroom.

 

JH:       It’s very brown, isn’t it?

 

DT:      Very brown and trying to be imposing, but it’s not very imposing anymore.

 

JH:       It feels like a headmaster’s room in a boarding school or what it would look like on the telly.

 

DT:      We will definitely have to imagine what that looks like on the telly, the pair of us. We were chatting briefly before we started recording and you mentioned you were from Skem. You mentioned it again there. It seems like a natural place to start after that poem.

 

JH:       Totally. I love Skem. It’s an overspill town from Liverpool that was built in the 60s because there wasn’t enough social housing in Liverpool. They just kind of picked people up and plopped them there. It’s actually in Blood Brothers, that’s where they moved to in Blood Brothers and they’re made up. They’re like: ‘Oh my God, look at all this green!’

 

At first, it was one of them Utopian new towns, but the people who designed it were up in the air, they weren’t down on the ground, you know what I mean? They had the best intentions, but they fucked it up really. It just became people fighting, you know? You know what happens when people don’t have enough money and resources and are all repressed and everything, they just kick off. So it became like that.

 

I didn’t know that I was working class when I was a kid, because it just never came up in conversation. There’s no class system really in Skem. There’s just people with slightly nicer shoes. Everyone’s poor. I had slightly nicer shoes, so I thought I was fine. Alan Bennett says this so I’ve stolen it off him: Skem’s like my inheritance because, my God, a lot of what Britain is, is flavoured with Skem. You’re not going to get an actual inheritance, so you may as well get some of it, you know?

 

I’ve told you this before, but the audience don’t know this, it’s studied on the Geography GCSE syllabus now as a failed social experiment, which I think is amazing, but in the bigger picture, it’s not. My source for that was a fella in a pub so it might not be true.

 

DT:      Surely these fellas in pubs must always be believed.

 

JH:       I get most of my information from there, then most of my history comes from Blackadder.

 

DT:      So was it a shock when you discovered you were working class?

 

JH:       Yes. I went mad. I don’t mean I kicked off, I mean I went mental. I went to university and it took me two years to figure out why I wasn’t fitting in. You act differently. The whole class thing, it’s not just money, is it? There’s loads of cultural differences I hadn’t cottoned on to. You might think ‘Oh, what a stupid girl,’ but I do live slightly in a different dimension in my head. Just stuff like you meet someone, you’ve never met them before, you slag off whatever’s going on around you to bond, rather than being lovely. I hadn’t learnt that yet.

 

I mean, my dad died at the same time, so that’s not handy, is it? I burnt down a kitchen and ended up in a psychiatric ward and it just went on for ages. It went on for about a decade. But it was horrible. It’s awful finding out that other people have had loads more opportunity and stuff. They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going skiing in a minute.’ It’s like, ‘Fucking hell, I’m going to my job.’ So yeah, it was awful.

 

DT:      Having chatted briefly before, I think we’re from fairly similar backgrounds. But I was born in Westminster in London. We lived in Housing Association, but we lived behind the Houses of Parliament basically, Old Pye Street off Victoria Street. You could walk to Big Ben in two minutes, you could walk to Buckingham Palace in about 10 or 15 minutes, so growing up, you couldn’t escape the difference.

 

JH:       And it was looming over you as well.

 

DT:      I’ve got no concept of what it’s like to suddenly find out, but it seems to be just as insidious and damaging even if it’s slow-burning. I can imagine the extreme shock, or try to imagine it because I think I had a similar thing when I was first diagnosed. I knew I had mental health issues but when I was first diagnosed with being bipolar, that appeared to send me crazy, having to face up to this truth about yourself. You may have been aware of it slightly, but it hadn’t been forced upon you to accept it. Suddenly it was just dropped on you.

 

JH:       It’s like the world is suddenly a different colour, isn’t it? You’re suddenly seeing everything anew. Like at the end of a story when you find out the twist. I’ve been diagnosed with a lot of things in the mental world. You get a button now that’s settled on bipolar for the minute, but actually, I want to go off on one about that. So women and girls get diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Loads, it’s loads higher than for lads. Lads hardly ever get it. It’s a bit of an umbrella term. It seems to be that you’re put into that category when they don’t know what to do with you. You’re just being a pain in the arse.

 

One of the big traits is that you are manipulative. I think this ties in with loads of other stuff. Being manipulative, obviously doctors just say that is a bad thing, but if you’re in a world where the person, or the system, has got what you need, that doesn’t have to be food and shelter, it could be validation. There’s loads of stuff we need. Or love. So if you can’t get that, well, you’d be manipulative. It’s a smart choice, isn’t it, in terms of class stuff? You’ve got to go about things in odd ways. Your body and mind are always trying to heal themselves, but sometimes things get in the way and so whatever trauma, or your immune system is just a dickhead, like mine is, and so your mind will do something.

 

I have, as a common hallucination, I hear applause, which is really nice and really egocentric. That’s like mental health gone right. The body goes about it in funny ways. My body produces far too much collagen. You’d think that would make me have nice lips and stuff, but it’s really damaging. I just think that manipulation is an interesting thing.

 

DT:      I definitely notice the difference between women in my family that have been diagnosed with similar conditions to mine. The term manipulative was never used for me, but I saw it used for women. I think there is a definite issue with people’s motivations being questioned as to why you’re asking for help.

 

There’s a big issue, I think, with mental health services in this country with men always being able to find redemption through asking for help, in a way that isn’t available to a lot of women. The motivations behind why you might be seeking medication or therapy. Validation is seen as not being completely on the level, in some ways. You must want something else, or you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

 

JH:       It’s all so old-fashioned, isn’t it? I know society clings on to old stuff, but mental health services are way behind aren’t they, what are they playing at? I have had good psychiatrists, I just think some of them could be a bit… It’s a surprise, isn’t it, that they’re not better at people and interaction with people, seeing as they’ve chosen a job that’s to do with people and psyches. I think they should do all the psychiatrist stuff you do and at the end, if they ask horrible shit, which they always do, and you become a bit monotonous and stoic and robotic about telling them horrible answers about things that have happened in your life, but I think it would be nice if they sort of looked you in the eye at the end and said, ‘I’m really sorry that happened to you.’

 

I think that would change appointments loads. I don’t know, I guess it might be about boundaries or something. I’ve had ones that have said that. I had a really cool one who drove an orange Beetle and had long ginger hair and a pin-striped suit, so obviously I fell massively in love with him and started giving him presents, then I wasn’t allowed him anymore, which was awful.

 

DT:      Obviously, the people of Skem played a big part in the writing of that poem you just read. How much does your work feed through those people?

 

JH:       It feels weird saying ‘those people’. Yeah, totally, but I don’t want to slag off Skem and say everyone’s an ‘alcy’.

 

DT:      But I found that to be quite tender. Even though you were talking about those sides of things, it wasn’t exploitative.

 

JH:       Yeah, but some people would be like, ‘I haven’t got a big massive telly,’ and all that. You need the whole show that I do to genuinely try to change opinions. If people from Skem listened to this, they’d be like, ‘what a cow.’ I think I’m from a bit of working class that’s different. My God, the words working class and middle class cause bloody chaos, don’t they? Because obviously, there’s loads and loads of different levels. I’m just opening a bracket and not going off on one, I’ll close it.

 

My boyfriend’s from Southport and he set up the free newspaper in Skem, so it was dead handy, because he knew what Skem was, because it’s quite a weird, isolated place. It’s not just working class. Obviously, I’ve never come across as middle class somehow. Just because he knew what Skem was, that helped. I think I’m from quite a poor version, we’re not aspirational. In no way would my mum want to be middle class, that would be like the worst thing in the world for her.

 

I clung on to my working-class identity so much at university, you know with lager and lard, all that sort of stuff, that I had to have my gall bladder out. Lager, lard, Angel Delight and repressed class fury isn’t good for your guts. Now I’ve opened too many brackets here, haven’t I?

 

DT:      I think it’s completely the right thing to bring up, that in that term ‘working class’, that is not one group of people.

 

JH:       I’ve got it, it’s all right. Sorry, that was like going ‘shut up’, wasn’t it?

 

DT:      Tell me to shut up, that’s fine. Just because I own the microphone doesn’t mean I should be allowed to just carry on speaking.

 

JH:       There’s a version of working class, maybe on the level where Peter Kay was, where you don’t want to be middle class at all, you’re not aspirational, you’re just about getting by. Also, the way they put us across on Benefit Street, we’re not like that either. You do nice things. You’ve got a bloody bin with nice red fringing on it and stuff like that. Yeah, I think I’m from a version of working class that’s not often seen, so I have to put all the bad things in, because that’s what people are pissed off about. I’m not going to put the nice, red, fringed bin in, because that’s not what needs to be explained. They don’t care about that. Skem’s [INAUDIBLE] everything, the end!

 

DT:      I might put out two versions of this interview. One will be five minutes long where you just wrap everything up succinctly, then we’ll put out an extended version.

 

JH:       This is the first question, isn’t it!

 

DT:      That’s alright. You mentioned this poem is part of a larger show, so it might be a natural thing to talk about that.

 

JH:       Yeah, so the show is called ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’. I’ll come to the title later because it’s nice to talk about that, but it’s not the biggest thing in it. I did a couple of shows before that, but it took a while to build up to actually talk about this stuff. I went round and interviewed 80 people on benefits, disabled, people on the brink and just working-class people as well. And people who had interesting things to say about class, because I think being working class, then being shoved into a middle-class environment because that’s your job or whatever, is a bizarre place to be in.

 

In the arts, you have to like drag up as middle class to get through and network and things. I’m really, I’m going to say steadfast instead of stubborn, I think that’s nicer, about not doing that, but I do see how that holds you back and how people perceive you as frigging lairy and unprofessional and stuff like that, and it’s just rubbish. So this show has real voices from the interviews put in so you hear them and the spotlight’s on these voices. The stuff is brilliant, beautiful, heartbreaking and funny. Dead funny. Then I speak in between about various things.

 

At the start, I give you not a warning, but a thing I tell you, like I do know that middle-class people have problems too. I want to make people relax. Even though it is not a safe space, it’s not about going, ‘middle-class people, we hate you,’ because that’s not useful. This idea, which is constantly everywhere, that middle-class people have had everything handed to them on a plate, or there’s no problems if you’re middle class, that just totally invalidates someone’s struggle or any sort of suffering or you know, just hard graft to get where they are. It just ruins it so we can’t have a conversation about class.

 

I try to put that on another table – it’s all funny, by the way, it’s a comedy show – put that on another table so we can talk about class, but what I don’t do is talk about definitions and I’ve realised that is just as in the way, so maybe I’ll do a few poems about that in the future.

 

DT:      In what way do you mean ‘definitions’?

 

JH:       That thing I was saying about working-class and middle-class terms. They get in the way. Imagine whatever, Facebook, or you’re at a pub table on Christmas Day if you’ve got a family with lots of different types of people, and as soon as you start talking about class, everyone starts shouting at you what their class level is. We all have to set out where we are, and guilt is edging in, it just becomes a bit like when you ignore a homeless person because you haven’t got any money or energy to do it.

 

I could definitely do a comedy version of that, an outline of a middle-class person, an outline of working-class people, what we all think it is and if it’s light enough, we can get all that stuff on the table and go, ‘look we’re just people, let’s try and figure this thing out. Let’s try and figure out the attitude thing.’ When I say the attitude thing, I mean like class isn’t just about money, it’s about expectations and what you could be. Are you factory fodder or are you headed for something like this room that we’re in now?

 

And opportunities given to you and are you perceived as a human? The biggest thing, and I do address this a bit in the show, but I’d like to really unpick it more in future because I’ve realised how fucking big it is, is this idea that if working-class people just would work harder, then they could become middle class. It’s like ‘Why give them anything? They just need to work harder,’ forgetting the fact someone is working as hard as they can. Or if you feel society is looking at you as not being worth much, how can you have any self-esteem yourself, how can you fight against all of that when you’re knackered? Obviously, the problem is much more complex than ‘just work harder’. That’s just a way of not making yourself have to deal with this massive problem we’ve got in society.

 

DT:      It’s really poisonous, isn’t it, this idea that in order to be accepted, and to improve yourself, you have to redefine yourself? You can’t be accepted as being working class, you have to climb that ladder, be aspirational, seek to achieve something. It feeds into the idea, ‘don’t complain about your low-paid job, get another job,’ as if that’s an opportunity or a possibility for a lot of people.

 

JH:       As if you’ve got time to do that as well, just go to 30 interviews this week.

 

DT:      It came up on Twitter recently. Sabrina Mahfouz wrote a long Twitter post about how she’s constantly asked what it’s like being a woman of colour – I think I’m remembering this bit right – child of a migrant, working within theatre and working in the arts. No one ever asks her – and this was her reason for the post – no one ever asks her what it’s like being working class in the arts. That’s what she sees as being the real barrier. The general gist was that the class barrier she faces feeds into all of those other issues. To her, that’s where it starts.

 

JH:       Yeah, totally. I get – I’ll give away the answer to the riddle, I’ve got one leg – I’ve got one leg so I get invited to loads of diversity things. The way I said loads then. I do appreciate those things, keep booking me, but yeah, loads of talking on panels and stuff like that. I get invited on the leg ticket, so I go and I do a few gags about the leg and then I start talking seriously about class because no one’s ever, well they have now, because I haven’t shut up about class for a year and a half, and I’m not going to shut up about it. It’s like I have to say the word first because it’s an elephant in the room that no one really cares about as well.

 

It’s nice, I’ve got a really good gaydar for working-class people who’ve had to drag up as middle class to get by. I can spot you. It’s great because often we smoke. You can go out and just be working class together for a minute and it’s a delight.

 

DT:      This has come up quite a lot in conversations, mainly because I’m the one leading them and it’s just my experience…

 

JH:       Yeah, and you’re good.

 

DT:      But one thing that doesn’t get spoken about that often on the podcast, mainly because we’re talking about people’s work, but I’d like to pick your brains a bit on it. We’ve just discussed what it’s like to be working class in a very middle-class scene, especially poetry and theatre. Out of all the arts, it’s probably only then contemporary dance that could get any worse for a working-class person. How is the other side of the coin when you then come home as an artist?

 

JH:       I thought you were going to say what’s it like for middle-class people being in a room full of working-class people? Because that’s hard.

 

DT:      That’s what I’m hoping for in a future conversation because I’m very aware it can be equally as isolating and exclusionary.

 

JH:       Part of it’s not knowing the etiquette isn’t it, and people being wary of you. On the question you didn’t ask, when I went round in the interviews, my sound man is a fucking gorgeous human, dead lovely, he’s a big fella, you can’t miss him, I think he probably says he’s middle class, but in Skem, he’s really perceived as, ‘ooh, get you,’ but less camp than I just did. So in every interview I had him next to me, holding the mic, trying to disappear. He’s surprisingly good at disappearing, so yes, it was like oh fuck, this is going to be interesting.

 

I mean, people are fine. I think it’s when people are in a group situation that they have to do that bravado thing. I understand. I love bravado. I think it’s heartbreaking, but I love watching it and writing about it. But on a one-to-one… I’ve run out of steam there. So what’s it like going home? Oh my God, me going back to Skem now, so it’s been quite a while, I don’t mean… I go back to Skem all the time, I’ve been this arty-farty wanker for quite a while now, I said the word ‘integral’ in front of my extended family four years ago and that’s been my nickname ever since. So it’s a jokey, nice, constantly taking the piss.

 

I mean, also I’ve got loads of mates who are not into arty stuff, who are just normal, well to me, normal, working-class people. Very working class. I just forget and I come out with stuff, like I’ll say ‘aesthetic’ at the Labour Club or something like that, so yeah, I’ve got plenty of people around me, reminding me.

 

DT:      Do you ever catch yourself really ‘estate-ing’ it up?

 

JH:       Oh yeah, Christmas Day, my accent went all over the place, then I felt like I was being too posh. But I was doing the dinner that day, so it was already stressful, you know? I still really want to impress my mum and our Mike, my brother, it’s the performer’s personality, isn’t it? You just want to impress your family all the time, so you do it by doing gigs above pubs when they’re not even there. I dunno if it’s like I’m trying to fit in, I’m trying to remember me as Skem and I’m going ‘all right there, lad?’ I also want to impress them because I’ve done all this shit, so I’m like, ‘oh yes, the aesthetic of my new piece…’ I’m bonkers in Skem.

 

DT:      We’re now getting around to 2018’s version of what is now an annual event. This happened a year ago. I’m really happy for it to have happened to the series, but we’ve been shortlisted for a British Podcast award which is a great thing, the only independent literature podcast to be nominated in 13 categories, I was really made up about it. I’m really close to my aunt, my mum’s sister, I tell her everything. The look on her face! She knew it was really good, but she had no concept of what it was. We were talking earlier, not only is it an arts-based thing, but still in a medium that people still don’t quite understand what a podcast is. They know it’s sort of like the radio.

 

I’m hyper-aware of not questioning the reason people don’t engage with the arts, they can do what they want with their life, it’s not a failure on their part, but it’s funny that I do what I do, it sits in two areas that people don’t have any idea about. Doubly obscure. Word got around the family, because it’s on social media and stuff and family members follow the podcast stuff on Instagram and Facebook, everyone was really pleased this thing had happened, but no one understood what this good thing meant and what it was about. It was really funny. I found myself going, ‘it don’t matter, it’s just some old bollocks,’ but I don’t mean that, I only said ‘some old bollocks’ because I was down the pub.

 

JH:       Flippancy is a very working-class thing, isn’t it? You’re not allowed to care or be passionate. You can be passionate about football.

 

DT:      You’re allowed to mention a thing once, it gets the reaction it gets, then you drop it. You can’t keep bringing it up. But I found that one thing that sort of linked me, or tied me back in, even though my life was becoming more engrossed in poetry, this art form has taken me further from what I felt my roots were, but that isn’t actually what’s happening, that’s just what’s in my head. But I thought, as long as I go to the pub still on a Sunday and have a chat with the same people, it’s still alright. But I’ve stopped drinking now so I can’t go to the pub and I’ve lost that tie.

 

It’s this idea of what have I got to continue to do to still be alright in people’s eyes. I think the reason I’m thinking about it is because I’ve noticed a lot of people who clearly aren’t working class within poetry sort of dropping their H’s because the pressure’s there, because that’s where the funding is. The funding is there if you’re from a, whatever the Arts Council think is marginalised. There’s also the issue around people who are working class but don’t necessarily look or sound it, that problem they have. I’ve spoken a lot with Josephine Corcoran who runs And Other Poems, who grew up in a low-income household, a Catholic family with loads of kids, and next to nothing growing up, but if you met her, she sounds really middle class. It’s just the part of the country she grew up in, she doesn’t have a particular accent. I was really surprised when she told me about her upbringing. I’d completely pre-judged.

 

I think it’s really good to know that funding is going towards platforming whoever we consider to be marginalised, but it’s sort of forcing us to wear our identity as a badge and that’s not always that positive. Do you think this work around how we identify as working class has a finite period? Is the aim to continue to identify in this way or is the aim to reach a point where it doesn’t have to be spoken about?

 

JH:       Personally, I won’t want to make art about the same thing all the time. Something else will piss me off. Bound to, isn’t it? Do you know what, you get mascot-ised, you become like a token thing for whatever it is you’re going on about. I don’t mind doing that even though it’s shit, but I’m happy to do that if it means I get to do whatever show I want. I was the token disabled person for ages. I’m a bit sick of that. I think you just do it until you’re going to cry sick out of your eyes and hope you’ve done something good in that time, I think.

 

DT:      How do you manage other people’s expectations of your work? Do you physically withdraw for a while? Presumably you’re not creating work that’s that different, it’s still your voice, it’s just about how you emphasise particular parts of the work. Do you physically have to withdraw from performing in order to come back and redefine, in order to avoid the same bookings?

 

JH:       Do you know what, I’ve just gone with intuition. I’ve got a producer who tells me what to do. He seems to know what he’s doing. I don’t think this is a good thing. I don’t think people should aim to do this, but I just kind of ‘rrrrr’ until I burst. I’m not as clever at managing it.

 

DT:      The main reason I ask is because probably quite a few people listening will be thinking the same thing, because of the way funding works. Just because there’s a pressure on all of us I think, where do you earn your money? You very rarely earn money through book sales or ticket sales. A lot of the R&D is Arts Council-funded, a lot of the tour costs are Arts Council-funded. There are other funding bodies, but it’s mainly the Arts Council and the process of going through that application is just a series of ticking boxes. It’s not to knock, I think there’s a lot of really great work that comes out of the Arts Council, but-

 

JH:       I think you should credit funders slightly more. I don’t know how to say this without going ‘I’m awesome,’ so just be aware I’m trying not to say that, but they do also just choose good work, don’t they?

 

DT:      I think it’s more the middle layer. I think the funding bodies do a really good job of spreading money out, but then there’s the pressure on producers, I found that pressure, of then trying to direct a project to be representational rather than diverse but then hit those diversity quotas. That feeling then filters down to the participants of the project, that’s a natural thing. If I take myself out of the production role and put myself in more of a writerly or artistic role, how do I avoid the pressure of being the writer with bipolar? Because I’m so clearly defined by that and I’m happy to talk about it, you drive yourself into those boxes almost, don’t you?

 

JH:       Yeah, my mate’s show was sort of about this. Sophie Willan, she’s dead good, she’s not a poet, she’s a comedian, about the way you get branded as different things. I think I’ve been lucky in the fact that the things I’ve wanted to go on about are the things the funders want me to go on about, it’s just accidental. That doesn’t mean it’s not like sophisticated work… people just love a bit of Skem and I do as well. People love disabled people. They don’t, society hates us, but funders like us.

 

DT:      I’m really glad you brought up the false leg, because on an audio thing, I don’t know how I’d visually tick that box.

 

JH:       It’s normally got little lights on and stuff like that. It’s a new leg and it’s shit and it’s not getting decorated until it starts to behave. It’s horrible, green with a big bulbous thing on it. Yeah, I’ve got a big false leg and I don’t mind, I quite like it actually.

 

DT:      I’m going to send that two-minute clip to the Arts Council in my evaluation. See? Since we’re talking about funding, maybe we should talk about the Jerwood, is it a prize or a commission? Congratulations, by the way.

 

JH:       It’s a fellowship. Like Lord of the Rings. They give you loads of money. So to put cards on the table, they gave me 15 grand.

 

DT:      Along with Jane Commane and Raymond Antrobus?

 

JH:       Yeah and 15 grand is like, what the fuck? Someone did say to me, ‘You do know that to some people, that is not a big massive lot,’ and I was like, ‘Fuck off!’ Still, my God. For me, what that meant was, this is like that bit on The X Factor, like ‘poor me’ because I’ve got one leg because I’ve got systemic sclerosis which is an autoimmune disorder, which is life-limiting, so it’s like you die sooner, which is like ‘oooh.’ I’m not blind, I’m not going to go through all the things I haven’t got, but my eyes are shit, that’s what I’m trying to say and my hands don’t work.

 

I’ve got loads of shit wrong with me basically and chronic fatigue and that, so what the money meant was I don’t have to run around the country doing workshops and panels and all that stuff. I do love doing that stuff, but I need a rest. I need to just frigging sit down for a minute. I do a lot of stuff for free, I’ve done over 1000 workshops for free. So that meant I could have a rest, which was just amazing. Also they give you mentors, pay for mentors, so I’ve got Clare Shaw, do you know her? You should interview her, she’s dead good, from Burnley, she was the second biggest baby every born in Burnley. You should get her off that fact. She’s amazing.

 

I feel embarrassed now because she’s my mate as well. She’s mentoring me, kicking me up the arse, so I’m writing a new poetry collection, and Henry Normal because I’ve got a sitcom with him as well. It’s what, in the tube?

 

DT:      Yeah, cos it’s not in the can yet, is it? It’s in the tube before it ends up in the can.

 

JH:       It’s sort of quavering at the start of the tube. So that’s what Jerwood is. Joy Francis runs it, she’s just one of them people, you talk to her for five minutes and it changes your life. We were talking about, I feel like I’m not doing as much here, because you’re nice. You know on a radio thing, I had to do loads of gags, all whistles and bells and it was like a persona, a bravado, acting a bit stupider than I am and she saw that and she was like, ‘all that extra, you know you don’t have to do that,’ but she put nice things in, like ‘you’re a smart cookie, I know you already know this, so you don’t have to do that.’ It was like, ‘oh, I’m a smart cookie!’

 

So yes, they’re just dead good and it was so much validation for me because I thought I was crap, so it sort of added to the role. I need outside sources because I haven’t sorted myself out yet, to keep telling me I’m good.

 

DT:      I follow the Jerwood Foundation quite keenly and I know quite a few poets and writers that were up for that, that reached the shortlist.

 

JH:       I saw people coming in for the interviews and waiting and it was like, ‘ooh, what am I doing here?’

 

DT:      It’s a really big thing.

 

JH:       Some people will hate me now.

 

DT:      Maybe at the time.

 

JH:       Thanks!

 

DT:      No, but it ties into that idea that for a lot of people on the shortlist, £15,000 is a huge amount of money, but I think it’s important to talk about the fact that for a lot of people, it isn’t much money. The first lot of Arts Council funding I got was £13,000. £3000 of that went straight on equipment, so I was left with 10 grand to pay other people, some for me, but most of it was for travel. I couldn’t believe it, I’d never seen that amount of money in my bank ever, it was insane, but when you think about it, it meant I was working for about £2.20 an hour. It’s not much money for the amount of work that goes into the project.

 

It wasn’t why I wanted the funding, it wasn’t to turn it into a job, it was to make it happen and give me more time to focus on it, but one issue around the funding, it’s not the problem for the funder, it’s the idea that more needs to be done to realise how desperate a lot of people are for this money, because it’s the only thing that’s going to pay your rent, allow you to remain as a full-time artist. Sometimes the attitude of some funding bodies is we’ve done a really good thing, we’ve given £3000 to this person, pat ourselves on the back, and you think it’s still not really going to do much.

 

JH:       Artists On The Brink. That should be a podcast, shouldn’t it?

 

DT:      I think that’s pretty much what this is anyway. The main reason I was asking about mentoring is just yesterday, I had a meeting with a young producer in Bristol and I’m going to be using some of the Arts Council funding to start a mentoring scheme, to help someone else start their own podcast. I found someone that’s, similarly to me, from a low-income background. I’m suddenly thinking I now need to pretend I know what I’m talking about, or at least look like I know what I’m doing because I haven’t actually spent much time explaining to people my process around the podcast. It just sort of happens. Now that I’m in a position where I have a responsibility to sit down with someone, and…

 

JH:       There’s all the electric cable part of it to explain, and whatever that means.

 

DT:      How not to hang yourself with your own cables whilst interviewing someone is the main thing.

 

JH:       Yeah, but it’s the talking to people. You do it differently.

 

DT:      What role do you see yourself in as an artist? Do you see yourself as mentor?

 

JH:       Even just on the bus, I’m being a frigging mentor because I get asked. I’m not slagging off all these people, but I’d say I get five messages a day on Facebook asking ‘How can I get my work published? How can I be in the place you are overnight?’ I also don’t like the thing ‘overnight success’ because I have grafted my fucking arse off. It’s been 12 years. I’ve hardly said no to a gig, until I got ill. That’s the answer, often. If you love it, work your arse off. There are things you can tell people about publishers, I can do that. I think that’s got missing somewhere because people see Kate Tempest and stuff like that and say, ‘I’m as good as them, why aren’t I there?’ Or, ‘I’m better than them.’

 

It’s four types of inspiration isn’t it? It’s like watching people who are way, way better than you and becoming really despondent, watching people better than you, like the normal type and you’re like, ‘whoa, I really want to do this now,’ watch people who are shitter than you and being like, ‘oh fuck this, this whole art form is crap,’ to people who are shitter than you and going, ‘yeah, I’m going to do this!’

 

DT:      There’s this other podcast called The Comedians’ Comedian, and similarly to this, it’s just chats, quite relaxed, but there’s always a question about ‘how did you get started in stand-up?’ I would say 95% of his guests, and he’s had a lot of people on, would say, ‘I went to a stand-up night, and thought everyone was shit and I could do better than this.’ There’s a particular type of ego that leads you to want that kind of validation from the audience. That’s probably a natural segway into asking you what your relationship is with the audience and what kind of validation you look for from your work.

 

JH:       It’s changed loads. I think I’ve become a tiny bit of a grown-up around that area. To begin with, it was totally, ‘look at me, look at me, I’ve got something to say, I feel like no one else is saying this, look at me, I’ll do a little dance for you,’ which is the same as say, every time I’d get a taxi or something like that, it was just how I lived. I think it’s a bit bipolar and I think it’s a bit the youngest child, that seems to be a thing. Some people didn’t get enough attention as a kid, but with me, I got a lot of attention as a kid, I was on stage and stuff. My mum’s bipolar as well, so I had this flamboyant… I feel like the 80s were like cerise and electric blue. When I came home as a little baby in a Moses basket, because that was all the rage, they put it in the middle of the floor, they turned the telly off and they looked at me instead. That was the role.

 

So to begin with, it was all about that. I’d love it if people came up afterwards. And then it sort of changed. When I was doing the leg show, ‘Some People Have Too Many Legs’, I sort of, maybe did it too early because it was like, I was writing it when I was in hospital and didn’t know if I was going to die or not. I was clinging on to it a bit, but I think it was a good show. People were coming up afterwards and they’d tell me all about stuff. My life at that time was 100s and 100s of people telling me their story and it can kill your brain a little bit. It’s like empathy fatigue, especially when it’s a thing you’re trying to process and you’re doing on stage every night.

 

So then I started wanting to be on my own a little bit. Then with this show and then with the play, it was weird because it’s a play and you’re not in that, you’re not present, I wasn’t there half the time. Then with this show, my mind, it’s like I’ve finally thought about it in a considered way. People clap. Wonderful. People have to clap, that’s the tradition in life and people join in, so I’m kind of like, ‘OK, that’s what happens at the end.’ If they’re like ‘wooo’ then OK. But also this show, the fact that it’s not a safe space and I’ll go there. It’s not the type of show you go ‘woo hoo’ about, it’s the type of show you go ‘fucking hell’ and sort of leave and ruminate over. I hope.

 

The other reaction is people come down crying, going – sorry, I sound like I’m saying I’m amazing – but some of the reactions are like, ‘I’ve never felt myself represented on the stage before,’ except we don’t really say it that way in working-class land. It’s that sort of sentiment and that is lovely. I fucking love that. It is a little bit exhausting and makes me feel like, ‘shit, I’m in a position of responsibility, OK, let’s fucking bring it,’ but now I’m like fine.

 

I can’t see… People laugh when they’re happy and clap. There’s no noise that people make when they’re inspired. That’s a joke. I was trying to do it deadpan. I don’t mean that, I just mean it’s in their own heads. It’s more of a big-picture relationship with the audience. If people hate it as well. I just want to start a fucking discussion about class, so that was a very long answer.

 

DT:      No, it was perfect. I was just going to say to the listeners, if you want to go and make a noise for being inspired and be involved with this discussion about class, you can check out ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’. We’re not going to mention dates, because what I will have done is mention the dates that are still available in the introduction to this episode, so you should already know the dates and venues. It sounds great. People should definitely get along to see it if they can. Follow us or follow Jackie on Twitter and the other places we exit now, in the ether.

 

JH:       Are we still doing the thing?

 

DT:      Yeah, it’s fine, I’m really professional, I just slipped into it.

 

JH:       I thought you were just talking. And the sitcom.

 

DT:      And the sitcom as well. We exist online.

 

JH:       And the kids show.

 

DT:      We haven’t got round to that. People need to check you out online.

 

JH:       I still don’t know if we’re doing it.

 

DT:      Yeah, it’s still happening. Thank you, Jackie.

 

JH:       Thank you, David.

 

 

 

Part two [00:58:33]:

 

 

Host: David Turner – DT

 

Guest: Nuar Alsadir – NA

 

 

Intro:

 

 

DT:      You stuck around. Thank you. Next up is a short conversation with Nuar Alsadir. Late last year, I was completely made up to be invited to record some live interviews at the wonderful Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham. I was lucky enough to go along to their first event last year and it remains one of the best literature events I’ve ever attended.

 

The organisers, Stuart Bartholomew and Cynthia Miller, asked me to come along and host four 15-minute conversations with Sandeep K. Parmar, Roy McFarlane and winner of the Verve Poetry competition 2018, C.I. Marshall. And of course, Nuar. The loose idea for the conversations was to ask each writer about the role that live literature events play in their writing, but as you’ll hear, it quickly fell apart. But in a good way.

 

Instead of editing them together into a single episode, I’ve decided to put them out as sort of bonus tracks at the end of this and the next three episodes. It seems like the right thing to do, though I might regret it. Sometimes, you just have to make a decision and stick with it, right? Up now is me and Nuar talking about writing for an imagined reader and treating our notebook and pen as tools of the trade. Tell your friends about us.

 

 

Conversation:

 

 

Hello, everybody. Welcome to Lunar Poetry Podcasts at Verve Festival in the wonderful city of Birmingham. I’m joined for the first interview in a series of four this year by the fabulous Nuar Alsadir. Nuar is a poet, writer and psychoanalyst. Her collection ‘Fourth Person Singular’ was shortlisted for the 2017 Forward prize for Best Collection. I was going to say this interview wouldn’t be as shambolic as my reading earlier. It might be. We’ll start with a reading please, Nuar.

 

NA:      Sketch 27. A man entered the subway car at Borough Hall, was about to sit, but just as his knees began to bend, the train jerked into motion. He stood up as though regaining composure after a brief humiliation, as though it were somehow shameful to be subject to gravity’s impersonal force, caught in its grip, an object controlled by physics.

 

DT:      Thank you very much, Nuar. This is the most intimate stage I’ve ever stood on. It’s almost like being on a milk crate. I have to remember that for the majority of the audience for this, it will be in audio and descriptions of where I’m standing are of no use to anybody. The series of four talks we’re doing for this weekend, I was asked by Stuart and Cynthia to provide an idea of what we’d talk about. I suggested that, because we’re at a literary festival, we would talk about the importance of those festivals to the individual writer, so we’ll begin with that question, Nuar. I’m excited for the answer, I sort of already know… What role do these types of festivals play in your development as a writer?

 

NA:      This is my first festival so it’s to be determined.

 

DT:      When writers do this to me on the podcast, it’s my favourite thing. Just to leave me floundering. I do have to remember there are people watching me so I can’t bask in it for too long. You were saying before that you’re usually more isolated, did you use that word?

 

NA:      Reclusive.

 

DT:      How does that inform the way you write?

 

NA:      I think it informs it completely. I don’t know how to answer that question, that’s so hard. I am reclusive, so I write from the reclusive space that I occupy and the work is coming from an internal space where I’m addressing an imagined reader that understands me. What Bakhtin called the ‘super addressee’, someone whose complete understanding and goodwill is part of how I imagine them.

 

DT:      Did you at any stage of your writing development design a reader in mind to write for?

 

NA:      Yeah, I think I always have a reader in mind that I’m writing for, but it doesn’t necessarily match up with a person in the world, so when the work goes into the world, whether at a festival or in publication, it’s going to reach readers who are real people in the world and not just my imagined reader. And I go… because I can’t control who’s going to read it and how they’re going to read it, but I think when I’m writing it, I have control over my addressee, who I’m imagining as I’m writing.

 

DT:      I’m looking at this wonderful… I was going to say sea. Fishpond of faces in front of us, it’s quite an intimate room, it’s not that big – I just find it hard, how you would ever write without looking at these people, and how this is your first experience.

 

NA:      This is my first time looking at the audience, actually. I was blocking them out.

 

DT:      This actually came up in a conversation with Caroline Bird, which will become Episode 110 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. We were talking about the idea of an imagined reader that you might be writing for. How do you avoid the safety that comes with designing that reader yourself? How do you challenge yourself?

 

NA:      Why would you want to?

 

DT:      OK.

 

NA:      Why would you want to imagine an unsafe reader? What would that do to your speaking, writing self?

 

DT:      Isn’t it natural for most people to eventually move towards the safe zone?

 

NA:      I don’t know if I can speak for other people, but why would you want to do that in your writing? I’m not quite sure. To imagine judgement or criticism, I don’t know how that would be a goal, or helpful.

 

DT:      I think more that I was wondering how you maintain that reader as being… pleasing that reader, how that becomes a challenge or stays a challenge if this person’s imagined in your head. Because it would be easy to imagine them being really pleased with what you write as well.

 

NA:      I think that if you’re not worried about pleasing the reader, if you’re worried about or concerned with being understood, pleasing isn’t really part of being understood. I feel like pleasing the reader is about narcissism and wanting to be rewarded and to win, win in the eyes of others and I feel like I write out of a very different space, where I’m trying to communicate and connect. If I imagine the reader to be someone who in my mind is alive and feeling and attempting to hear me and see me and understand what I am expressing, then hopefully it’ll be universal enough that it will reach the universal part in other people who weren’t part of my imagined reader, but have some core of universality and humanity in them, which hopefully the work will reach.

 

DT:      Do you have any other writers you share your work with, obviously we’ve established that you don’t necessarily share it with live audiences, but do you have other writers you share your work with in order to maintain that sense of universality?

 

NA:      Well, this book, ‘Fourth Person Singular’, when I wrote it I actually didn’t show it to anyone until I was done and then I showed it to one friend, who’s a writer, and my editor and that was it. Then as it went through production, there was an intern at Liverpool University Press, who was a senior there, Natalie [INAUDIBLE] and she worked on it as well. That was it.

 

DT:      I’m finding it hard to completely process it, because most poets I talk to claim to be reclusive, but you’re really seeing this one through. You live the life. Would you be able to explain a little bit more about the process behind this collection? About the form that it takes, and the structure.

 

NA:      It’s largely a book in fragmented form, so there are some fragments that make up a long poem in the beginning and then there are a few lyric essays and some what I call sketches, which are actually written in a sketch book, but they’re verbal sketches as opposed to drawing sketches. Then there’s an autobiography in footnotes, which is something that had come to me in a dream. I dreamt I wrote my autobiography and the pages were blank and the text was all in footnotes.

 

It kind of took its own form, but I also was writing it in a short period of time because I’m a massive procrastinator and I was coming up against the deadline for the book, I had a little over a month and I had to write it or miss the opportunity. I kind of went into an isolated space and I didn’t do anything else while I was working on it. I think it comes out of an enclosed state of mind and time period. Sometimes I look at it now and I almost don’t remember writing it. Although I recognise it as mine, it’s sort of separate for me.

 

DT:      I find it interesting when writers talk about moving into writing in sketch books, freeing themselves from lines. Is that a conscious decision or did it reflect this idea that you’d seen what the story might be?

 

NA:      I’m actually really obsessed with drawings and notebooks. When I go to museums, I try to find the drawings of the artists I love. I feel like they’re really intimate and I love when the drawings have places where something has been erased and it’s smudgy and you can see the layers of the process. That’s what I love to look at and to contemplate. I think in some ways this book was really my attempt to make the work I would like to read and that I enjoy. Even if it’s visual art or writing.

 

DT:      Do you sketch as well?

 

NA:      No. I used to make pottery, that’s the closest I’ve come.

 

DT:      I’m a furniture maker. I carry sketch books around with me, but I hate drawing, it turns me inside out because I’m really bad at it, basically. I’m still obsessed with this idea of creating images. I think that’s what first drew me to poetry. I was determined to create images with my words. I was still trying to draw it in a way.

 

NA:      That’s really interesting. Heidegger actually has this moment where he talks about a carpenter and he says that if a carpenter wants to make something with wood, the carpenter can have an idea in their head of what they want to make and then the idea goes from their head to their hands. But once their hands touch the actual wood, the wood has its own volition, the grains go in a certain direction. It can be wet, it can be dry, so in touching the wood, an idea then has to be altered, so the idea has to go from the hands back to the head and be altered.

 

So an idea should always move in two directions, from the head to the hands, then from the world back to the head in order to be adjusted. If you’re really writing something to have it work in the world, you have to also be listening and taking in what the world is telling you.

 

DT:      That’s really fascinating. I think it sort of ties in with my obsession about the right type of paper and the right type of pen.

 

NA:      I have that same obsession.

 

DT:      What’s your pen of choice?

 

NA:      At the moment, I’m really into those Le Pen pens. They’re really thin, fine-pointed pens.

 

DT:      Why anyone would want anything other than a fine nib is beyond me. You can leave if you have anything above a fine or micro nib.

 

NA:      And they have some great blues, French blue, Peacock blue. I think they call it Peacock, I call it French in my own mind. I like that colour. That’s what I’m into now, but notebooks, I’m having a hard time with. I keep trying, I have to switch it up, I can’t keep writing into the same notebook. I feel like I go through phases, in the same way that my process, sometimes it’ll work for me to wake up at 5am every morning and write first thing. And then it’s almost like I exhaust that and it doesn’t work anymore, then I have to change it up and develop a new process.

 

I have to do the same thing with paper and pens. I’m in between notebooks. I’ve been trying a few, but I’ve realised that what has been working is no longer working and then what I thought would work really doesn’t. I think I had an idea of what I was going to write next and I felt like it should go into a certain notebook, but then it’s not right.

 

DT:      I can’t believe we have to stop now. It’s very frustrating. I could go on about pens and paper forever. I’m holding a small notebook in my hand now.

 

NA:      What do you have there? Describe it for the listeners.

 

DT:      I’m not going to because it’s horrible and I’d have to mention the brand name.

 

NA:      Moleskine.

 

DT:      As if anyone’s listening from Moleskine. We’re going to finish with a reading.

 

NA:      I’ll read another sketch. Sketch 64. Pleasure and disgust, the border of desire, of aesthetics, where beauty and the uncanny meet. Is this the brink one must always live on, bear and bare? The vulnerability necessitated in feeling alive. When I’ve bared myself, I feel a compulsion to send out a flurry of signals to adjust the reception of others, to scramble the image that may have been momentarily revealed of me.

 

DT:      Thank you very much, Nuar. Thank you, Verve. Give yourselves a round of applause.

 

 

 

End of transcript

 

 

Interview with Caroline Bird – Episode 110

LPP Caroline Bird

Episode 110 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts with Caroline Bird is now available to download on SoundCloud here, iTunes here and on Stitcher (and hopefully anywhere else you download your podcasts). We met up in south east London to chat about her wonderful latest collection, In These Days of Prohibition. The conversation took covered truth in poetry, confront shame and guilt and whether we’d all be better off if poets admitted when they don’t understand poems.

There is a full transcript available to download here or a transcript, minus Caroline’s poetry readings below.

 

 

Transcript:

Episode 110: Caroline Bird – 19/02/2018

 

Transcript edited by Christabel Smith – 19/02/18

 

Host: David Turner – DT

 

Guest: Caroline Bird – CB

 

 

Intro:

 

 

DT:      Hello, welcome to episode 110 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. My name is David Turner. How are you lot doing? Before I introduce this episode, I’ve got some great news to share. Lunar Poetry Podcasts has been awarded a Grant for the Arts by Arts Council England. This means that everything we release in 2018 will be funded by the money we received in this grant. We’ve got some great guests lined up for this year, but rather than listing names now, I’m going to suggest you go over and follow us @Silent_Tongue on Twitter or Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook and Instagram or over at our website, lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, where you can also download a transcript of this episode.

 

Getting this money means I will be able to get around the country to interview people, rather than waiting for poets to come to Bristol. The funding will also be used to develop the new A Poem A Week podcast, in which we bring you, you know, a poem a week. As with all Lunar Poetry Podcast episodes, A Poem A Week is available to download or subscribe to via Soundcloud, iTunes for Apple users, Stitcher for Android users and hopefully, anywhere else you get your podcasts from.

 

There is also an exciting third project in the making. I can’t talk about it at the moment. If you follow us on social media or on the blog over at our website, you’ll find out as soon as we make it public. Another initial use of the funding and, I’m really sorry to any of you that aren’t interested in any technical stuff, but I’ve used the money to buy some pre-amps for my microphones and invested in some new editing software, which should mean this and all future episodes should sound clearer and louder than those in the archive, which is great for those of you listening on public transport on your way to work, or with toddlers demanding milkshakes and yogurts.

 

For those of you that are interested, I’m now using Reaper to edit audio files, which I’m pretty happy with. It’s much better than Audacity, which I’ve been using so far. In this episode, I’m talking to poet Caroline Bird about her latest collection, ‘In These Days of Prohibition’, out through Carcanet Press. I met up with Caroline at her home in South-East London to talk about how the collection developed and how the writing and editing process was different from that of her previous four collections.

 

I’ve been waiting a long time for an opportunity to talk to Caroline, after seeing her chair a conversation at the National Poetry Library a couple of years ago. I really love ‘In These Days of Prohibition’. I can’t recommend it highly enough, so I was excited to sit down and have a chat with Caroline about it. Also, having been lucky enough to travel the country and speak with hundreds of poets, very few people are spoken of as fondly as Caroline by other poets. She’s definitely in the same category as Jacob Sam-La Rose and Malika Booker in that respect, so it was great to be able to sit down for a couple of hours and find out for myself why so many poets regard her so highly.

 

In this conversation, we cover the usual poetry staples of guilt and shame and denial and how all those things get in the way of us loving ourselves. You know, the usual cheery stuff. I’m going to stop talking now. Before I go, if you enjoy this conversation or any of our other 109 episodes, please do tell your friends. Word-of-mouth recommendations are invaluable to us. After a few months of being a little bit sporadic in uploading episodes, the Arts Council funding will guarantee that there will be an interview uploaded once a month for the rest of 2018. Tell your friends that, eh? Here’s Caroline.

 

 

Conversation:

 

 

CB:                   Eye Contact

           

       See PDF transcript for poem text.

 

 

DT:      Thank you very much for joining us, Caroline.

 

CB:       Thank you.

 

DT:      We’ll start with a brief introduction about yourself. I’ll have to find a new phrase for that, because I keep saying ‘about yourself, by yourself’ but I think people know what I mean.

 

CB:       I think it’s clear. It’s the beginning of our chat, so it makes sense in context. I’m Caroline Bird, I am a poet and a playwright. I have five books of poetry published and my most recent came out about six months ago, it’s called ‘In These Days of Prohibition.’

 

DT:      I’m going to slide it across the table because I really love this book and the main reason we’re chatting today is because of ‘In These Days of Prohibition’, out through Carcanet. I had a Twitter conversation recently with Jane Commane from Nine Arches and we were talking about – I think it was Raymond Antrobus who instigated this conversation – trying as much as possible to read poems in chronological order, reading collections from start to finish and trying to get a sense of what the poet wanted.

 

Then the whole conversation started about people dipping in, especially if you’re in a book shop and you don’t know who it is, it’s natural to dip in, and I agreed completely with Raymond’s point, because of the editing process I’ve been through with this, I’ve talked to a lot of editors about the compiling of books, but also had to admit I never do it myself. I’m too greedy, too impatient. But this one, I started and just sat at the table and read it, handed it to my wife Lizzy and she did the same thing, and you could see the look on our faces, the tension was building up as we wanted to talk about the poems to each other. I really loved this book, it’s fantastic.

 

CB:       That makes me really happy. It makes me really, really happy that you read it in order because I think that’s so important with poetry books. You wouldn’t start a novel and just open it in the middle and go ‘I don’t know what’s happening,’ because you know there’s going to be an arc to it. Even though generally there’s not a narrative for a poetry book, definitely thinking about it in terms of the journey of one poem to another, and the poems also have a kind of chemical reaction to each other, they start speaking to each other. It’s such a long process, putting the order together.

 

What I do is I lay all the poems out on the floor or sometimes on the walls, like that scene from ‘A Beautiful Mind’ when it’s like, ‘ooh, he’s gone mad,’ and then I kind of pounce on the poems, like, ‘that one needs to go there, that one needs to go there.’ This book was especially ordered, because, this sounds clichéd, but I was crawling towards some kind of hope, but I had to go really, really dark until I could get there. The last few poems of the book, I actually wrote last and the book couldn’t finish until I’d found them. I think it really is important to read books in order, otherwise you’re not actually experiencing the full book.

 

DT:      You mention about the final poems being written towards the end of the process. How natural is that? Obviously, not every poem is written in the order it’s gone into the book, because that wouldn’t be an editorial process.

 

CB:       It would be a chronological process.

 

DT:      Actually, I’ve got a really fantastic collection by Anne Sexton at home, which is more like diary-entry poems. It’s an exercise in just laying out stuff in chronological order and I think it’s interesting to see why that doesn’t necessarily work. Even though it’s a fantastic book, it does highlight, there’s a statement by Anne at the beginning that says that this isn’t the right way perhaps to lay out a book, but it felt natural because of the emotion at the time.

 

Who helped you through that process? Is it something you do yourself? One of my favourite poetry pictures is a photograph of Tom Chivers and Melissa Lee-Houghton walking through ‘Sunshine’. It’s laid it out on the floor and I really loved that aspect. Did anyone walk through those poems with you?

 

CB:       Not with this book, no, actually. It was quite a personal process. Obviously, my editor and my publisher helped me go, ‘are you sure about that line? Maybe this needs to be swapped around,’ kind of the forensic bits afterwards. But in terms of the order, I think it’s also because it’s quite personal, so it’s in three sections and originally, I gave each section a really crude title. The first section was called something like ‘Intoxication’ – I knew this wouldn’t be the final – no, the first section was called ‘Inebriation’, the second was ‘Intoxication’ and the last one was something like ‘Redemption’ or something really, really crass and crap.

 

It was just so I could know, in these broad strokes, the worlds that I was treading on in each section. Then afterwards, those horrible titles got replaced with epigraphs. The first was a quote from John Ashbery which says, “Suppose this poem were about you, would you put in the things I’ve carefully left out?” which I love. The second section was a quote from a Leonard Cohen song that says, “Is your passion perfect? No? Do it once again.” The last section was from a James Tate poem which goes, “But we still believe we shall come through it. I signal this news by lifting a little finger.” That expressed what I was doing in each section, with a lot more subtlety.

 

DT:      That’s really enlightening to hear. It’s something you don’t see much from collections, shoving your work in, as it were, and talking about it, but you do need those stage directions for yourself almost, don’t you, in the writing and editing process? At least even if those titles are now hugely embarrassing to you, they are a really good insight of what your basic narrative, drive, was through the book. I really like that idea about what you were talking about, the last title being themed around redemption in some way. I really loved how the book aimed towards a feeling of wanting redemption but didn’t expect it through the creation of this book, because a lot of books do expect that just by compiling something, redemption will come from that.

 

CB:       Yeah, I had to stumble on it because I didn’t feel it. So much of the book is about shame, you know, shame around addiction and shame around fucking up a relationship and cheating and you know, letting yourself down and all that stuff. Often, writing poems, there’s an element of self-punishment to it sometimes. You’re not always writing to make yourself feel better, sometimes you’re writing to underline an insult that you have towards yourself, but then the poem will speak back to you as you’re writing it and often is kinder to you than you are to yourself.

 

DT:      It’s funny how different events and talking to different people, seemingly disparate, come together. I saw Luke Kennard last week in Bath and he was talking about adding character voices, or second characters, in order to question himself as a writer. Something just linked between what you said there and these voices, feeling this feeling of overwhelming guilt throughout the whole book, but it’s not a sorrowful attempt at seeking redemption. It’s quite an honest attempt at showing how you can feel guilt, but not necessarily continue to carry it.

 

You don’t have to push aside the guilt to move on from it, you can accept it. But there’s something interesting that you just said there about having this nagging voice and showing up your own failings, which Luke uses this other voice to do. He finds it necessary to use this other voice, but you seem to be able to use your own voice very well.

 

CB:       Well, I think that’s a new tactic with this book, or rather, I shed a tactic that I had in my previous books, where there’s a misunderstanding that poems that are surreal are somehow not personal. Actually, sometimes they’re so personal that you have to wear three masks in order to say what you want to say. It’s almost like being on hot sand and it hurts so much, all you can do is dance. Definitely my last collection before this one, everything was still so raw, I couldn’t write poems that were directly speaking to pain. They had to come in from an angle.

 

So there are poems that are all about the same stuff, but I would write about a woman who thinks she’s Nina from The Seagull, who ends up going around supermarkets, saying sorrowful things to people at fish counters. Then the poem becomes so odd and sprawling. It’s the same feeling but it’s like wearing three masks. Then with this book, I thought, ‘I have done that, so maybe the next angle is a little less angled and if I just make my mask a little bit thinner, what will that do?’ Probably in the next book, I’ll be completely impenetrable, but yeah, for this one I decided to occasionally look myself in the eye and occasionally end on a line that wasn’t a swerve.

 

One of these things is about final lines. Generally, if a poem felt painful to me, the penultimate line would have the emotion in it and the last line would be a look away or a punchline or a laugh or snigger, like the pendulum swinging off. With these poems, a lot of the time I decided to grab the pendulum while it was bang in the centre and end there and see what that did. I’m not saying that either way of writing is better, it was just new for me.

 

DT:      It’s interesting to hear that conscious decision. I don’t tend to make notes before I interview people because it spoils the flow of conversation, but I did put down a first and last line, mainly because going back to a conversation with my good friend Melissa Lee-Houghton, it’s something I don’t really agree with. We were having this discussion about the importance of a good opening line. I think this book has a fantastic opening line and a half, which is brilliant, which I won’t read because I won’t do it justice.

 

I’m going to spend five seconds looking for this, because there was a last line, just because you mention it, that I really felt did exactly that. It ended with a bang and a pop. From ‘The Fear’: “Last night in bed, your arms hurt like a jolted seatbelt.” I don’t know whether I’ve taken what you said in the wrong way, but it did feel like deliberately, that couldn’t go anywhere else. You can’t go anywhere from that point. It’s so beautiful. It really sums up those feelings of guilt associated to loving someone and inflicting yourself on them, which seems to be a common theme here.

 

People that have dealt with addiction or any kind of mental health problems, it’s something I’ve dealt with in the past, in dealing with my own bi-polar, the guilt. I can’t think of a better way to put it than inflicting my own shit on someone else’s life because it is unfortunately a huge consequence of falling in love with someone and them falling in love with you.

 

CB:       Yeah, it is a recurring theme, feeling undeserving and all that stuff, but there’s also a recurring theme of denial, because denial is really imaginative. Think about all the things we say when we’re trying not to tell the truth. A lot of the first half of the book plays around with that and plays around with the links between denial and imagery, so the first poem in the book, to tell you a little preamble about how it came about. So in my early twenties, I went through a series of unenjoyable adventures. I ended up in a rehab facility in the middle of the Arizonian desert, right?

 

When you get to these places, you’re given a questionnaire and it had all of these very frank questions about how I’d been treating myself, suicide attempts and all this stuff. Obviously when you get to one of these places, you’re in the least honest place mentally that you could be and you are so shifty inside your own mind. I went back to my room in the rehab and I translated this questionnaire into a poem, right, so I think a line about psychosis became, “Have you started to look at pigeons like they know something?”

 

A question about suicide became, “Does the ceiling occasionally ripple?” I translated the whole thing and then the counsellor found out that I’d been doing this to all of the worksheets, I’d been creating all these surreal poems and he called me to one side and said, “What are you doing?” and I was like, “well, this is how I understand the world, I’m a poet.” He said, “It seems like you are not partaking in the therapy, you are deflecting by writing.” He took my notebooks away from me and my poetry books by other people that I’d brought and forced me to be alone with my thoughts, which was horrendous.

 

He accused me of using poetry to hide from myself. Then a couple of years ago, this was like a decade later, I remembered that, what felt like an accusation at the time of using poetry to hide from myself and I thought, ‘I think there is some truth in that.’ Just in the way you have this desire to confess things but not to tell any of the facts, especially when you’re writing, for want of a better word, surrealism, or hyperrealism. You’re putting this mask onto the pain and presenting it to the world and you’re dealing with the unspoken all the time.

 

Maybe there’s an element of, if you’re constantly dealing with the unspoken, there is an element of not speaking it to yourself either. So that was part of the reason why, with this book, I wanted to be conscious of that, so some of the poems are evading, but they’re conscious of the fact they’re doing that. There’s one about these four girls who are trying to find Buddha in the middle of the desert and they’re searching for this temple and they think it’s going to solve all their problems and make them be clean forever. Then they get to the temple and decide they can’t smoke in there so they’re not going to bother. Then the poem ends on a kind of, ‘what can we learn from a little fat man anyway?’ It ends on a little swerve.

 

That’s a little bit what I’m talking about in terms of denial at the end of a poem. Sometimes, a poem will get to the door of the temple, if you like, and it’ll go ‘It’s alright, see ya’. So I wanted to write poems about denial, using… Do you know what I mean? I’ve talked myself round in a spiral, but as the book goes along, I think it starts to shed that tactic and use surrealism to tell the truth, rather than to skip around it. I wanted to prove that counsellor wrong and go, ‘Do you know what? I can write like me and reveal myself as well as hide. I can do both.’

 

I suppose deciding to do that, the by-product was, of course the shame starts to get eroded because when you decide you are good enough to disclose, you start to be able to look at yourself more in the mirror.

 

DT:      That’s the point, isn’t it? It’s OK to both be evasive in your writing and confrontational, as long as it fits what you’re writing about. I think with the four women in the desert, that swerve fits perfectly because they’re all there evading what’s wrong.

 

CB:       Of course. It doesn’t make sense for poems to be relentlessly honest all the time in an easy way, because people can’t do that. People can’t be always simply authentic, whatever that means, and put all their cards on the table in every poem, because it doesn’t reflect how life is.

 

DT:      It’s actually something I’ve been speaking a lot about on the podcast and with poets in real life. One of my main gripes with spoken word and poetry slams is this pressure to be honest and confrontational, because you end up with what you’re saying there. If there’s a pressure that you have to write in a certain style, it won’t fit every poem you’re writing. It’s a danger for every writer to feel, ‘this is my style.’ I either make a joke out of everything… Because it’s like your personality, if you’re the kind of person who makes a joke out of everything, you won’t deal with everything. If you’re the kind of person where everything’s just laid out there, it won’t do you much good either, being the opposite. It’s all about, situationally, which suits.

 

CB:       Yeah, also I think there’s a slight misunderstanding of the word ‘honest’ because no one is relentlessly brave. That’s kind of an oxymoron. If you can do it all the time, then it’s not bravery, is it? And some subject matters, talk about form fitting content, the pain is clearer in them if they are more evasive or held more lightly, like it’s on fire. If you communicate a very difficult truth in a very simple way, what you’re saying is I’ve got to a place where this is easier for me to hold and to look at. Sometimes, that does happen.

 

In this book, I have a few poems where I feel like I’ve got enough distance from what I’m talking about to hold it at arm’s length and talk about it plainly, but that’s not going to happen all the time. Sometimes, you’re going to be in the midst of it and things are going to be flying around your head and the poem’s going to reflect that, the poem’s going to be the opposite of emotional recollected in tranquillity, it’s going to be emotion recollected in a room full of constantly slamming doors and horns going off, you know? That’s going to reflect that kind of truth or sometimes, a poem’s going to be about denial and as a result, it’s going to try to trick you every step of the way and not let the audience in.

 

Poetry is about attempting to be honest. Who knows when you’re being honest anyway? Sometimes I write a poem and think, ‘OK, I think that’s what I think,’ and the next day I’m like, ‘what a load of shit, what a load of bollocks,’ and then that makes you write the next one, because you’re kind of constantly going, ‘that thing I wrote yesterday, the river has changed since then. I need to step into a different river now and create a new poem.’ That perpetual hunger and that perpetual feeling of not really having grabbed the air properly, makes you keep writing.

 

Whereas I think if we put this expectation on poets to feel like they have to be truth-tellers, they’re more likely to write poems that feel false. Human beings aren’t truth- tellers. I mean, there are a few people where you’re like, ‘Oh my God, you are uncannily sorted.’ Sometimes I’ll meet a poet like that and hear their work and I’ll go, ‘all right, I believe you, you are rare,’ but most people aren’t like that.

 

DT:      No and I think the danger comes when assumptions are made about certain poets and collections being completely honest.

 

CB:       The word is very strange.

 

DT:      I find this expectation for poets to be honest to be completely…

 

CB:       What does honesty mean in that context? Does it just mean being plain about stuff, because actually that’s not going to capture the full difficulty of being alive all the time, is it? Neither is being relentlessly difficult and obscure, either. I’ve used the word ‘relentlessly’ about six times in the last five minutes, forgive me. When I get passionate about things, I start sounding like a wanker. I say ‘relentlessly,’ ‘constantly’ and sometimes I say ‘inherently’ so forget that.

 

I think it’s confusing because sometimes I’ll teach teenagers and they feel they’ve got to go to the most dangerous subject matter, but they’ve got to find answers in their poems and they feel a huge burden of responsibility, not just to the piece of paper and what they’re discovering on it, but to a future audience and to other people who may have experienced similar problems, that they feel they should be speaking to. They have all of these burdens that they bring to poems and it stops you being able to be liked and to play.

 

You need to be able, when you’re writing a first draft, to take your pain or whatever you want to write about and juggle with it and look at it from all different angles and mix it around like a Rubik’s cube and split it open. You need to be able to be careless with it and reckless and rash. If you feel like, ‘Oh my God, this is the truth and I’ve got to treat it like a precious object made of glass and skin,’ then you’re going to lose your sense of humour, for one thing, and you’re going to be careful and carefulness is something I think you want to reserve for like your sixth draft, or your seventh draft, not your first draft. But that’s not their fault, it’s this weird thing we’ve got going on now.

 

DT:      I used to do a lot of improvised stuff on stage and I really enjoyed making stuff up as I went along, but it was the process of getting deeper into editing this series and looking for people and thinking of conversations, it made me really careful. My writing became really stunted and it took me a long time to get back to being able to play around with things and start throwing ideas at paper. What I began to do was just write diary entries, try to forget about the act of writing a poem, then pick parts out and shave things down and try to add to them. I really relate to that statement, I think you’re completely correct in saying there is a pressure to be honed immediately.

 

CB:       Yes, whereas you need to have a big block of marble at first to be able to make the sculpture out of it. You might read a poem and it’s the most delicate, beautiful, sculpted, but it doesn’t – I’m not going to speak for every poem, sometimes poems do come out like a blaze of lightning and just appear – but most of the time, they don’t start like that at all. I think if you know what you want the poem to be, or what you want it to say before you start it, you’re going to limit the discovery process.

 

You want to be able to just hang out in the privacy of your own imagination, like randomly opening doors and boxes, and also, not to think anyone’s going to read it. If I knew that all of these poems were going to be read, even though obviously I do want them to get published, when I was actually writing the poems, each one I would say to myself, ‘This is just for me, no one’s reading this one,’ otherwise I wouldn’t want to write it.

 

There was this feeling when the book first came out, when I was out on stage reading them out and thinking, ‘God, this is very personal,’ I’d go, ‘Well, why did you put them in a book, you twat?’ If I’d written them with an audience in mind, it would have changed what I said.

 

DT:      I’d like to talk about that some more, but can we have a poem before we do move on?

 

CB:       Yes. I’ll read a little sonnet called:

 

 

To Be Explicit

 

See PDF transcript for poem text.           

 

DT:      I love that so much. I’ve been sharing it with so many people. I just, yeah…

 

CB:       Thank you. I don’t often read it because it’s just… filthy.

 

DT:      Yeah, but when else can you read it other than on an educational podcast? Tell me if I’ve made a wrong assumption, but do you find it odd that people pick up collections like yours and read poems as statements rather than starts of conversations? Maybe that’s where this desire for honesty comes from, because they feel like you’re telling them something rather than asking of them.

 

CB:       Yeah, definitely, I have a poem upstairs on the wall called ‘A Fragrant Cloud’, written by James Tate. I must have read it thousands of times because it’s outside the bathroom and every time I read it, it takes me somewhere else. I get something slightly different from it and it’s never stopped doing that. For me, that’s because it’s alive. When poems are working, they’re like people. You meet them on different days and they change, according to who you are on that day and what mood they seem to be in and how you’re perceiving them and what you’ve learnt since you last saw them.

 

They don’t have a fixed message to them. That’s why poems use imagery as their main form of communication, because they work on a dream level and you can talk about the things in between the stuff we pretend to know and add pictures to the wordlessness. The idea of a statement doesn’t quite fit into that. If you can paraphrase a poem, there’s no point writing it. Have an article or a great quote or something. A poem, you want people to dream it, then wake up from it, then go, ‘ooh, what did that mean?’

 

Of course there’s an enjoyable element to people trying to figure it out, but only if they don’t think there’s a fixed answer. I think often the reason why people feel conned by poetry is because perhaps us, as poets, we haven’t quite made it clear that we find difficult poems difficult too. I don’t understand what John Ashbery means, but I enjoy the poems; I understand the mystery of them, I enjoy the mystery of them, I understand that they feel like experiences and they change, but I don’t solve them in my head.

 

I think we don’t say that enough. When we read these really obscure poems, it’s not like we’ve figured out a code that we haven’t let anyone else in on. So of course people are going to be looking for statements in poems if we’re not taught to enjoy mystery. We’re not taught that in schools, are we? Poems are often taught like crossword puzzles.

 

I saw this horrible thing on the internet a few days ago where a mother posted her son’s homework and it was to write a sonnet and it was a graph of 14 lines, with boxes for each word and how many syllables should be in each box. I just thought, ‘oh God, that actually looks like a crossword puzzle as well,’ and that would kill poetry for you, if you feel it’s a butterfly that’s got to be nailed to the wall or that somehow you’ve got to start with something incredibly clever and then translate it perfectly into a poem that can then be decoded back into a statement when actually, poems are much closer to dreams. We know that all our anxieties and passions and yearnings are inside it but we can’t quite locate which bit communicates what.

 

DT:      What can we do as poets to change that? One of the problems I find in art galleries is if you over-explain things, it’s taking away the point. In trying to make things more accessible, often you remove the mystery, which is part of the magic. Do you have any feelings of, what can be done in order to make it- not more accessible, I suppose that is what I mean, but that’s not quite the right word. What would make it more approachable to people?

 

CB:       It’s about us talking more about what we don’t understand. That sense and narrative conclusions is something we put onto the world, rather than something that is naturally there. Actually, at the core of most things is this eternal question of ‘what the hell?’ Remember when you’re five years old and you look at your own hands and suddenly think, ‘Oh my God, I’m me, looking out of my own eyes.’ You still haven’t figured out the mystery of eyeballs, and it gets so freaked out in this magical way of thinking about consciousness and, ‘I’ll never be anyone else or inside anyone else’s head and this is so strange.’

 

Then as we grow up, in order to function, I think we put the filters on ourselves as blinkers and we don’t access the strangeness all the time unless we go off the rails or fall off something. We stop remembering that we all felt like that and that we are all terrified of death and we all can’t remember how we got here and we all don’t know what’s in the sky and all of these simple, child-like questions, ‘whys’, They were never answered, we just stop asking them.

 

If we can tap back into that, which everyone feels; poetry is, I think, could be properly enjoyed by everyone, not by changing what it is but by us changing this expectation of sense, that everything has to be decoded. For example, every night everyone dreams and we all know that somehow our brains have this surrealist painting alter ego that translates our days into essentially these kind of strange art films, but then we wake up and we forget about it and get on with our normal day. But we spend half of our lives in this place of mystery. If it was allowed more that you can read a poem and go, ‘I’ve got no idea what that’s about but it reminds me of having no idea what my relationships are about or having no idea how I feel about this,’ then we could enjoy it more.

 

So often, I’ll read poems by my favourite poets like, for example, James Tate or Selima Hill and I still could not tell you in plain words what they mean at all. There’s this poem called ‘I Take Back All My Kisses’ by James Tate and it starts with the line, “They got me because if the forest has no end I’ll go naked.” I remember reading this when I was 13 and thinking, ‘Yeah. That’s how they got me. They got me because if the forest has no end, I’ll go naked too.’ I don’t know what that means in plain words. I just know that I understood it in the centre of me somehow. Don’t know, don’t know how.

 

DT:      I spend a lot of my time reading what is self-titled as experimental literature and sometimes, my wife will pick up what I’m reading and say, ‘I don’t get it, it makes me feel stupid,’ and I completely get that and I keep trying to remind her that the only difference between her and I is that I don’t let it make me feel stupid. That’s not like I’ve got some control over what I’m reading. But it’s really interesting you made the point about being a child and viewing yourself. I still distinctly remember reading encyclopaedias as a kid and not understanding anything, but really enjoying phrases and the language of it.

 

I think that’s what’s taught out of us isn’t it, often, in school? That we lose the sense of finding beauty in the rhythm of words and it becomes a logic puzzle to be solved. I think in that part, if you can’t get the logic or the mathematics or the algorithms behind it, of course it can make you feel stupid because you’ll feel like you failed at something. It disempowers you from the ability to say, ‘well I just don’t like that. I’m not an idiot, it’s just not for me, I’ll move on and find something else.’

 

CB:       Exactly because as much as I enjoy a mystery, there’s a lot of poetry that I don’t enjoy the mystery of. It won’t hit me on a deeper level, but it doesn’t make me think, ‘Oh, I’m never going to read a poem again.’ Just like when you’re a teenager and you listen to music and flick through songs on your iPod – not that I had an iPod, but I don’t want to say Walkman.

 

DT:      Mini disc player?

 

CB:       Sure, sure. Who had one of those? You just feel like, oh, that doesn’t speak to my ears on some level. You just trust your instincts because you know that you’re allowed to have taste and that’s a part of being a person. The music you don’t like is just as much you as the music you do like. That is very clear when people are young. The same should be able to be said of poetry. You’re allowed to hate 98% of it because the 2% of it then you’ll love with a total passion. It’s not a judgement call, it’s just what speaks to you.

 

You’re allowed to go into a library and flick through books or just read the first poem and instinctively read more or instinctively not read more until you find something. There’s an image at the end of Donna Tartt’s book ‘The Goldfinch’, where she says that when art speaks to you, it’s like a man in an alleyway kind of going, ‘pssst! You! Come over here!’ and handing you a secret scroll or something. It feels like no one ever has discovered this poet before. The secrecy of that and the frisson of it, most people have had that with music, but it’s also wonderful when you have it with a poet.

 

DT:      A less literary way of putting it that immediately sprang to mind is Art Brut’s song ‘My Little Brother Just Discovered Rock n Roll’. It’s really great because I’m 19 years older than my sibling Tiegan, and to see them go through a process of discovering music, that I’ve been through, and realising that’s why my dad laughed at me for certain things. Going back to this idea of making things more approachable, I really do wish a lot of poets would share more their discarded drafts with an explanation as to why they don’t work. That’s a really invaluable insight because the act of discarding drafts that don’t work and discovering what isn’t right for you is equally as valuable as discovering what is right.

 

It’s this whole thing of going through and just deciding what the 98% of your own faults are not right to be put down and maybe that could be part of explaining. If you can explain what you didn’t want in a poem, it’s as good an explanation as to what was left and give people the space to interpret it. It may be a way to explain what the process was to building that thing without revealing the magic behind it or pulling the carpet out.

 

CB:       I do agree with you. I also would not want to do it myself because all of those previous drafts, that’s when I’m in the privacy of my own imagination.

 

DT:      Sorry, I think not previous drafts to poems, but completely discarded poems. You’re still showing the working up to something and it would perhaps remove some of the sheen from it, but we’ve all got poems when it’s like, ‘that’s just not gonna go anywhere.’ It’s still a difficult act to share.

 

CB:       I agree that it’s really important to talk about failure. One of my favourite poets is called Wislawa Szymborska. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. She stood up to collect her Nobel Prize and said, “I don’t know anything about poetry. Inspiration comes from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’” That’s a direct quote from a very long speech about how every time she starts a poem, she has no idea what she’s doing. That not knowing and really starting from nothing is one of the hardest things to do because actually, we’re so scared of failure that even if we think we’re just writing whatever comes into our head, often we’ll be guiding it.

 

It’s a bit like staring at a clear pond. You know that somehow, just by staring at it, you have to make objects lift to the surface and you’ve done it before somehow, but you can’t remember how you did it, but you’re not sure if you can do it again and most of the time, we’ll try and cheat. We’ll get out our handbag and go, ‘Well, I’ll just throw a few objects in first, just to make sure there are some in there,’ then you’re writing a version of a poem you’ve written before or you’re pre-empting the discovery and it’s not going to be magical, but there’s always that element of creating something from nothing and sometimes, the poem is going to be an absolute mess.

 

Sometimes, one little object’s going to rise to the surface of it and you’ll get a dribble of two good lines and then it will all sink back under. There’s no guarantee and so the failure has to be part of writing. There has to be a whole book you didn’t write or a whole book you didn’t show anyone for the book you end up publishing because otherwise, it wouldn’t be a process of discovery and you wouldn’t be taking any risks. You’d be trying to write a successful poem and that’s always going to be awful, isn’t it?

 

DT:      It scared the life out of me the first time I spoke to someone who’d been published a few times. I wonder who it was, maybe Melissa Lee-Houghton, but this idea of me saying, in terms of volume, ‘When do you feel you have enough to show to the publisher?’ I think this person said, ‘if you think in terms of 100, 120 poems.’ I was like, what? The point of whoever this poet was, was that you’ve got 50 or 60 to go in a book, and another 50 or 60 that just didn’t quite work out, but you can’t just be thinking you’re going to knock out 60, or however many poems that go into a collection, that’s not how the process works. For every one that might work, you’ve got maybe one and a half that don’t, if not more and that doesn’t even include the various drafts.

 

CB:       Sometimes, I’ll have a poem and I just can’t finish it for whatever reason, or I’ll keep writing the final lines and they will just feel false in some way, like they’re not making the poem come to life and I won’t know why, so I just have to put it in a drawer. Maybe it’s because I haven’t lived whatever it is or thought whatever it is that I need to be able to come back to that poem and know who it is.

 

If we go back to that metaphor about you need a big block of marble to make a statue out of. If that first draft is a big block of material and then you’re sculpting it into a face, that’s what the poem is, and you’re going, ‘who are you? What do you look like?’ Then you’ll get to the seventh draft and you’ll see a face staring back at you, but somehow you don’t recognise them yet. You might have to go away for six months and then you come back and you just slightly make an alteration to the nose, and then you’re like, ‘ah! There you are! You’ve been there the whole time!’ When you finish a poem, talking about discovery, it’s a feeling of recognition, something you didn’t know you knew, often, or someone where you’re like, ‘oh, I’ve met you before!’

 

DT:      Someone said recently a poem should teach the author something they didn’t realise they knew and I think it’s a beautiful point. I’ve often found things I’ve written that I’m most content with, I feel they couldn’t be in any other form. This is probably an important thing to talk about as well, how often… you don’t always know yourself, not only how poems you like by other people work but you sometimes don’t completely understand why something you’ve written has come together. Everything is a line in your life. I spoke to Helen Mort about this, ideas germinating in her head and she was very open about how slow her writing process could be sometimes and how a nagging feeling will eventually work its way forward and become something, and sometimes it will become a poem.

 

I was reading something recently about how to be a good conversationalist and apparently, you should have callbacks, and that’s why stand-ups put it in their shows. And I’d like to finish on something which ties in to the beginning of the conversation, because we were talking about writing process. Was there any pressure build-up reaching your fifth collection? Not towards the publisher, because they’ve obviously got faith in you, but expectations of audience and expectations you might put on yourself as an artist?

 

CB:       I think there’s two sides to it. There is an element of relaxation, having written five books, because it makes you think it’s probably not a fluke. I can probably do this and I’ve probably written enough that people think I’m a poet even if they don’t like anything I’ve written, I’m allowed to teach poetry courses and teach teenagers and pass that on, so there’s a safety in terms of the job, as safe as being a poet can ever be. It’s an unwise profession from the bank’s opinion certainly. But then there’s the secret side where you go, ‘I don’t know if I can write another poem. I don’t know if I’m going to get better, I don’t know if I’m going to get worse.’

 

There’s no certainty in terms of what’s going to rise to the surface of that pond. All I know is I want to keep changing. I feel secure enough in the fact I can’t escape myself, to know I can experiment with different approaches and it can still sound like me. I’ve got no interest in trying to recreate what I’ve done before.

 

I’ve got, in terms of prizes and things like that, you do end up wanting those things after the book is finished and it’s quite scary to want it because no one goes into poetry for the money, the fast cars and the fame, that doesn’t make any sense, so it’s bizarre when you feel that need for recognition in yourself. It feels ugly.

 

I hope that won’t become a major part of my head. I’m far from perfect so I’m sure it will drag me down at various points, but genuinely the best bit of writing still for me is mid-poem when I’m hooked in, I know it’s going somewhere, it’s a bit like windsurfing, when you’re in the harness and the footstraps and you’re just hanging on.

 

Obviously, you’re still having to use all your skill and muscle memory, but also, you’re planing, you’re going somewhere and there’s the excitement of that discovery and not knowing what image your next image is going to generate. Or the exciting bit when your mind is super-alert to language and you find yourself seeing words on signs and in books and writing them down, and going, ‘I can use that and that,’ and being in the middle of the broth.

 

I just want to keep on finding new ways to feel like that. I think teaching is really important to help with that. When I was 13 and first went on a poetry course at the Arden Foundation and found fellow poets who also wrote in secret and we realised we could be a secret society together, I felt so honoured to be able to be a part of that world and be able to read poems and have them speak to me. Even though I couldn’t watch an 18 film, I could read ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg and have access to all this rage and bitterness and loss and regret, and I felt so grateful, I felt like this could save my life.

 

Throughout my whole life, even when everything else has fallen away or made no sense, poetry has been the one constant that has always made sense to me because there’s no expectation for it to make any sense. So I want to hang on to that sense of fucking hell, I’m so lucky, and the only way to do that is to keep on teaching and sharing that. It’s bizarre, isn’t it, when you’re passionate about something and express it and on some level, it’s not quite communicating the full extent of your feelings?

 

DT:      I think I’ve interviewed more than 120 poets and I’ve never spoken to someone so obviously enthusiastic about poetry. It’s made me feel emotional actually, it’s really beautiful.

 

CB:       It’s weird because being enthusiastic feels really unsafe because it’s so uncool.

 

DT:      I don’t think you’re ever more vulnerable.

 

CB:       Exactly. When I do slip into that place of thinking about achievements and whether or not I will be recognised, I go into the opposite side of myself. You go into that kind of, ‘I’m sitting back in a chair, let me tell you about poetry now.’ For me, that’s not where the love for poetry came from at all. It came from the leaning in and not knowing anything. So if I start feeling too relaxed, too established, too any of those things, I’m going to stop being able to do it. I’m going to lose the only bit of myself I’ve always thought was worth something.

 

It’s bizarre. I wonder how many other professions have the potential downfall enclosed in the success, this idea that once you start thinking you can do it, you will stop being able to do it. That’s the closest I can get to an answer.

 

DT:      Sorry, I’m just nodding like a doe-eyed Disney princess. I’m in love with what you’re saying, I think it’s amazing. I think it’s the perfect place to stop. It’s hard to move on from talking about things like that. Thank you so much. It’s been really wonderful talking to you. I was worried I’d built you up a bit too much in my head, having read this collection so closely to interviewing you. We’re going to finish with a poem please.

 

CB:       I think I’ll read:

 

Megan Married Herself

See PDF transcript for poem text.

 

DT:      If anyone heard wailing in the background, it was Caroline’s cat. We have completely unreasonably asked him to be quiet for an hour and 20 minutes. Thank you so much, Caroline. It’s one of these occasions when I can’t understand why everyone isn’t making podcasts and chatting to people they really like. Thank you.

 

 

END OF TRANSCRIPT

‘Long Live The Queen’ by Andra Simons

apaw Andra Simons.jpg

Episode 3 of our a poem a week podcast, featuring Long Live The Queen by Bermudan poet Andra Simons, is now available to download.

You can catch it here on SoundCloud, iTunes or just about anywhere else you download your podcasts. The poem was taken from part two of episode 84 of Lunar Poetry Podcastsin which Andra talks about identifying as a fat, queer, islander and the lack of representation of his body type in gay spaces.

You can also hear Andra talking about access to live literature/arts spaces in episode 89 of LPP.

 

Ep.109 – Byron Vincent

Byron Vincent

Episode 109 is now available online at SoundCloud or via iTunes for Apple Users and Stitcher Podcasts for Android users. David Turner is in Bristol chatting to documentary-maker, performance poet and director, Byron Vincent. Byron talks about the role that slam poetry played in his development as a writer and how it allowed him time on stage to shape his writing style. The pair also discuss writing as a mental health service user. Byron reads two poems: (00:40:35) – ‘Wot’ & (00:42:50) – ‘Citroën DS’. A full transcript can be downloaded here or a version (without poems) is available at the bottom of this post.

Transcript edited by David Turner

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Byron Vincent – BV

 

 

Introduction:

 

 

DT:      Hello welcome to episode 109 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts, I’m David Turner. Happy New Year, at least we all hope it’s a happy one, eh? Today’s episode was recorded on the 18th of December last year, but these things take time to edit and release. Also, with the podcast, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything worth putting out over Christmas because everyone’s busy or so it seems. Today’s episode is with the wonderfully talented Byron Vincent, we met up at the Workhouse Kitchen in Bristol to record the chat.

If you’re in Bristol and you’re looking for something good to eat and a coffee or something, or juices and all the other stuff that cafes do, you should pop along there, it’s really good.

I met up with Byron just before he went to perform a gig and we chatted about class, mental health, trauma… I think we might have chatted about some lighter stuff as well but I can’t quite remember. We laughed a lot, so it must have been funny and I’m sure it wasn’t just the laughter of two ‘service users.

Byron has recently had quite a long break from doing spoken word stuff as he’s been away working in theatres and on the radio, with documentaries and such. It was good to chat about what he’d been doing and why was coming back and it was really good to see him at the gig afterwards.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have that much time to chat because there were some travel issues with Byron getting into Bristol so we ran out of time a little bit. To save some time we didn’t record any poetry readings but Byron kindly recorded a couple of poems and emailed them to me, so they’ll come up at the end of the interview. So, when the chat’s finished stick around for two poems. Links to Byron and Milk and as much as possible that’s mentioned in the chat will be in the episode description.

As usual if you want to find out more about what’s going on with the podcast go to ‘Lunar Poetry Podcast’ on Facebook or Instagram, @Silent_Tongue on Twitter, or http://www.lunarpoetrypodcasts.com where you can also download a transcript of this episode and just about all the episodes in our archive.

One bit of news for 2018 is that myself and my wife Lizzy have started an accompanying podcast to run alongside this series called ‘a poem the week’ in which we’ll bring you a poem a week. So far, episode one features Byron Vincent reading his poem ‘Wot’ which will come up at the end of this program. Episode two is me reading a fantastic poem by Susanna Galbraith called ‘to’ which features in the latest issue of The Tangerine Magazine. You can find all those episodes over at SoundCloud by searching ‘a poem a week’ or following the links in the episode description or following a poem a week, all one word, on both Facebook and Twitter.

I’m quite excited by this little side project because it will return me and Lizzy back to why we first got interested in poetry and that was the individual poems themselves and really the whole basis of running this podcast was to just provide a platform for poems and for people to share their work. Whether it’s the author themselves reading their work or that week’s host.

As usual, if you like what we do, whether it’s this Lunar Poetry Podcasts series or the new a poem a week, do us a favour and tell your friends. It really helps. It works better than any other form of advertising and we’ll love you forever. That’s enough from me… well here’s some more of me but least Byron’s taking up most of the space. Cheers.

Conversation:

DT:      Hello Byron. How are you doing?

BV:      I’m really well thanks.

DT:      Thanks for joining us.

BV:      Glad to be here.

DT:      I was going to comment on the weather outside but it’s really misty through the windows so I can only presume it’s still cold.

BV:      Yeah, you can feel it, even though you can’t see it.

DT:      We’re meeting up in Bristol, because as regular listeners will know this is now where the podcast is based, but maybe we should just talk a bit about your connections to the city and why you’re here doing the gig?

BV:      So, I’ve got a lot of connections to the city, I came here in about 2005, I think, and in fact the very first week I was here I went to a poetry night at Bristol Old Vic. There’s an old guard of Bristol poets who I love to bits, Julian Ramsey-Wade, Lucy English, Rosemary Donne. I went to a slam and I’d never been to one before, I didn’t know what it was that I was attending. I just saw them and thought, “maybe I’ll have a crack at that” and very quickly became immersed in the poetry scene here.

I’m not a mad fan of slam poetry, by the way, but it was really good for me at the time, just to give me a little bit confidence, get me out on stage. I went through my little ‘derivative phase’, as everybody does, of looking at other people and soaking it up like The Borg. It was useful and handy and has led to a career.

DT:      It’s a really welcoming space if you want to just get onto a microphone isn’t, it?

BV:      Some might argue too welcoming! But, yeah, it is very welcoming and Bristol is a very friendly town and [it had] those gigs in very rough pubs where you would have to shout over bar fights and whatnot. I think it’s become more civilised since then.

DT:      It’s a shame, isn’t it?

BV:      Yeah, it is a bit.

DT:      South London used to be like that. I remember a gig we did and the pub was still rough enough to get some really angry comments from the bar. Even that place has changed now, that’s completely gone. I quite like it when people tell you that they don’t want you reading. If that’s not what they want, they should be able to tell you to tell you.

BV:      Well, I’m very strongly of the opinion that you shouldn’t force poetry on people that don’t want to hear it. It’s cruel and it’s not fair. Throughout the many years I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen that happen a lot. Just as an aside, once for a popular poetry organisation that shall remain nameless, that used to have a lot of wacky ideas about where to send its rota of artists. They would always put you into positions that were soul destroying.

There was a place in London called, Shunt, I don’t know if you remember it was under London Bridge. It was this vast array of catacombs, it was a nightclub. They put me in a ‘Britney Spears Mic’, they had Helen Mort standing on a podium, I can’t remember who else was there… Molly Naylor was there, sat on a shelf. They made me stand on the bar like Tom Cruise in Cocktail, literally preventing like a ten-deep bar from getting their drinks with the power of poetry.

Can you imagine this sea of really drunk people really angry, that they’re not getting a drink, and me in a ‘Britney Spears Mic’ sort of trying to do iambic pentameter or whatever? It was just a nightmare. A lot of that used to go on.

DT:      Actually, that was the particular problem in that pub when we did that night, was that the woman that ran the boozer and she told people to please be quiet while people were reading poems and that she would serve them in between poems. People just lost their shit, because… of course they would, it’s their local.

BV:      You can’t prevent people from their booze in a local boozer without causing some kind of resentment.

DT:      For how long did you the slam gigs for and how long did it take you to find more of a natural home?

BV:      I did slam for a couple of years because… To explain all of that… My personal background is, I didn’t go to school much. I was kicked out of school at 15, I wasn’t very literate when I left school because I’m dyslexic. So, moving into a world where… I performed before but not to the same extent. Moving into that poetry world…. I didn’t really know it. I’d read bits and always soaked stuff up and I was a fan of reading but I wasn’t writing anything like [the poetry] I enjoyed. I was writing for performance and I still do, my favourite poets and my favourite poems have got no or little relationship with my writing.

So, I did that for a couple of years and I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was probably performing for the wrong reasons. I was enjoying the gratification you get from a kind audience and the attention I got. I never called myself a poet but other people were and that was gratifying to me because of my lack of, well because of my personal history. Because I, very much so, was told that I was thick and wouldn’t amount to much. So, on a very superficial level it was gratifying.

DT:      Bits of that resonate with me and I think and [while] I do agree and get what you’re saying and it’s easier when you’re not the one saying about yourself. But I would counter that with saying that it’s not all superficial, is it? There’s a very important role that those gigs play in making you realise that literature could be part of your life. If you’ve been told previously that it shouldn’t be or, in your words, “you’re too thick” to engage with it.

BV:      Yeah. I’d always written poetry, even when it was a dyslexic scrawl that looked like smashed spiders on a page. I’d always written poetry and then in the early 1990s I did get up and do some stuff at [music] gigs but it was very angry. I was straight off the estate back then and I was carrying a lot, so it was really of that political ranting lilt with a smidge of surrealism because I can’t help that, I can’t curb it. [Then I started] experimenting with who I wanted to be and what my voice was.

But that world of slam poetry is [just] three minutes of entertainment and it creates a certain voice, you know, it pushes a certain voice. I never had ‘slam voice’, thankfully but I did fall into a couple of cliché coffins, you know. But it’s a process, getting better at writing, in all forms and it did help, it certainly helped me in terms of getting up in front of a crowd.

DT:      It’s really odd, there aren’t many art forms where you’re thrust in front of a microphone and now video cameras and camera phones to be forever on YouTube at such a novice stage of your career as it were. And younger writers starting out now… so many spoken word gigs now are filmed as standard, even the open-mics. I just can’t help but wonder how they’re going to have a chance to get past that [developmental stage].

BV:      Personally, anything that was written more than two weeks ago is my juvenilia, that’s the way I see it. It’s binned. It’s been a long and evolving process and some of the early stuff… You know what, now I’m so far away from it, there are gigs from ten years ago that I couldn’t watch at the time or relatively closely after, because my cringes would get cringes. [But] I saw a couple and yes, they are of a type of performance that I wouldn’t do today but, you know, I’m not as embarrassed as I used to be about them. They’ve got a lyricism and a charm.

DT:      Do you think it just takes time to accept that that’s part of the process and you have to go through that embarrassment?

BV:      I think so. I’m far enough removed now and I know who I am and what I want and what I’m attempting to achieve and all of the mistakes I’ve made have been a part of me getting to that place so I’m less uptight about it, you know.

DT:      What’s that comedy rule that trauma plus time equals funny? Maybe you just need time to pass or maybe there’s so much to be embarrassed about that you just have to let some of it go?

BV:      [Yes, I agree] otherwise I think I’d just be overwhelmed by embarrassment if I let it bother me.

DT:      I just reconcile myself with the idea that I’ve done far more embarrassing things outside of writing that this is just the tip of the iceberg and [the writing] doesn’t matter!

BV:      Well yes and because of the nature of a lot of the work I make both in and out of art, a lot of the documentaries especially and a lot of the autobiographical ‘arty’ stuff… my life’s an open book, I don’t have any secrets. I’ve got a Wikipedia page that tells the world I’m a bi-polar, former heroin addict, so I can’t wander the world shamed by my past. It wouldn’t work for me.

DT:      I read [in public] for the first time at Poetry Unplugged where a lot of people in London start, currently hosted by Niall O’Sullivan that and it’s been alive for 20 years. Mainly because if you Google spoken word or poetry gig in London it’s the first hit and it’s every Tuesday and you can go and slink around at the back come up. But I’d been in… the most recent time… spent some time on a secure psychiatric ward and been encouraged to write as part of that and I came out and saw someone doing some performance poetry and thought, “shit seems great, I wouldn’t mind trying this as a way of communicating.”

I think the reason I like watching you… I’ve seen you live once but I like watching your videos. I like the way you bridge… you categorise it as oversharing or your life as an open book while adding elements of surrealism to it and the daft elements. I found it really difficult, I couldn’t add those elements at the beginning and it felt really, raw.

BV:      Yeah.

DT:      I think my question was supposed to be, was it a conscious effort to add the humour or surrealism?

BV:      You know, political poetry is usually pretty awful and mine was no exception. I was just angry and I felt like I had a right to shout that at crowds of people and that imposing some kind of rhyming structure on it made that acceptable and it doesn’t. In fact, it makes it worse. So, I’m very conscious of this and the second time around, you know, I was very conscious of anything that came out of my mouth and I wanted to be sensitive that I had an audience in front of me. I was overly sensitive about that at first and I went too far the other way and was avoiding things that I wanted to express.

Then I got to a point where I couldn’t do that anymore, to just get up onstage and not say the things that I needed say. So, when that happened I went through a process of trying to make… and it was rocky, I made some bad stuff and some things I’m not very proud of, but it was essential because I really wanted to get to a point where I was making things that meant something. Which in itself is a cliché and I feel a little bit sick just saying it out loud, but also, we’re in entertainment.

Primarily, everything I do is supposed to have this little journey where people have a feeling, and that might be laughter or it might be warmth and then it’s flipped into something that means something else and that transition is the important bit for me. Usually these days it’s fear and love, in its most basic form, you know, we’re all just to some extent these frightened, destabilised people and I’ve got a lot to say about fear. I’ve got an anxiety disorder and I’m diagnosed with a panic disorder as well. I collect diagnoses like Pokémon, I have loads of them.

I believe that fear is responsible for all the terrible things in the world, anger comes from fear generally and trauma and all these things that cause great ills in society. I want to share… we all go through these things to some extent, so I want to create a sense of that through language in some way and then say, “it’s all right though because we’ve got people, we’ve got each other”. And I know how crass and cheesy that sounds but I would be being disingenuous if I told it any other way because that really is what I’m trying to do. So, I have to just fess up to it now I think rather than be cool and cynical about it.

DT:      I’ve spoken a lot about this with… do you know Emily Harrison?

BV:      Yes, via social media.

DT:      I’m quite good friends with Emily and we talk a lot about both being diagnosed bi-polar and we seem to have spent the same amount of time in hospital and have got fairly similar backgrounds… This idea of trying to speak truthfully which is partly being open and honest and I’m really open with people about my mental health issues and those of family members without being oversharing regarding other people’s private life. I think the only way anyone is ever going to get understanding of this is if we all talk about it and we all share it.

But how do you how do you share it in a way that doesn’t fall into the accepted narrative of how does Emily put this? ‘The Good Survivor’, or something like that. As if the only way you can be accepted with a mental health issue is if you’ve overcome it somehow and you haven’t lived with it or embraced it and I think that’s what I found hard putting into my writing is how you then show…

BV:      Because audiences want to feel safe and people want to feel safe but I kick against that and there’s a reason why, there’s a lot of… I did a panel [talk] the other day and the Being A Man conference at the Southbank Centre with Jack Rooke hosting it, who is another poet and spoken word performer. There were four of us on the panel and we all kind of agreed that it’s great that men are talking more about [their mental health] because that has been a hindrance in the past.

It’s great that people are talking more in general about their mental health and feel free to do that but just having conversations isn’t enough and I feel strongly… I work as an ambassador for some mental health services and I’m not quite sure about how I feel when things are going awry and I do feel things are going awry in that we have this very sanitised view of what mental health problems are these days.

Stick somebody ‘a survivor’, I hate all these terms, next to a celebrity, somebody who is… you know it’s past tense but. It’s not marketable, is it? Poor mental health is a messy thing and it’s a cruel thing and it’s upsetting and it’s disturbing and it’s awful but it’s never sold as any of this by the charities. Of course, I understand why, they want to market things in a way that will get them money so that they can put that money in a good place and that’s not a bad thing. But in terms of the art we make, we don’t have to fall into that category, nobody’s saying we have to. I want to tell the truth because without that, what’s the point? What’s the point in talking about it all? So, I do talk a lot about the smelly guts of it.

DT:      I think that’s what surprises me, that more people that talk about the issues don’t also use surrealism because the two things go hand in hand, I feel. There’s no disconnect, I think, in your work that it becomes…

BV:      I’m glad you say that. It’s all part the same thing to me and part those little arcs on stage that I’m trying to create they do mirror to some extent the little arcs I have when I’m not very well. You know, a journey up to mania and then the big crash back down, I might reverse it for this stage.

DT:      Yeah. I suppose it depends what my mood is as I’m watching [your work] or listening to it but a couple of times it has felt like someone’s recorded something from my head. That internal dialogue I think is really important but I would say also that this ties a lot into class as well because I think a lot about working class roots and how that can be expressed within an extremely middleclass art form. But this idea that to be working class is to be miserable through your art and to be mentally unstable is to be constantly miserable and that isn’t my life, that wasn’t my life growing up.

There was a lot of trauma of growing up, but my family also laughed a lot, I had a great time, at times, growing up. There was a lot of shit going on around it but it’s just that this accepted narrative isn’t recognisable to me.

BV:      Because it’s not our narrative, we didn’t write it, that’s why. Especially with class… and another thing! Especially with class, we [the working class] are ever more ostracised from the public conversation. We are becoming economically ostracised and culturally we’ve been ostracised, demonised as well, scapegoated, for decades now. You look at the 1980s, right, watching an advert and there’d be some northern working-class voice representing what it means to be salt of the earth, trustworthy and reliable. Now, when you get that same voice it’s only ever represented puking in a Faliraki gutter or fighting in the street or doing something that is related to this ‘Benefits Street’, angry, stupid low-culture-narrative.

I’m all for redressing that because it’s not ours, we have become a cliché but we’ve been painted that way. Most literary fiction is some Uni lecturer disappears to the Isle of Arran to have a big think about something there are never any working-class stories. I’m really excited at the moment about people like Jackie Hagan, do you know Jackie Hagan? And what she has to say on class.

I’m putting together a book of essays… I robbed of the idea of Nikesh Shukla… about class and I’ve got some great people, Jackie’s one of them. There are loads of good people, the full spectrum, you know.

I’ve had my run-ins with the sharp end of underclass culture but you know if you’re a third-generation drug dealer from a Peckham estate or if you’re a lollipop lady from a Hebridean town, you’re both working class but the only thing that you’ve got in common is the fact that your voice has no cultural capital, you know. We’re a broad church, the things that we have in common, generally, are… well the one thing that we have that unites us that relates us to poetry is we have a really incredible inventive use of language. Slang is working class and it’s constantly evolving and it’s a beautiful and brilliant and clever thing.

DT:      I don’t think we’ve got time to go down this route too far but… slam poetry plays no part in my writing. I don’t go to slam events, I don’t take part but I do spend a lot of my time defending it because I find a lot of the criticism is hugely classist and a lot of the criticism thrown at slam poets is based around the use of language and the themes that they’re talking about.

But, the other side of that and one thing I do worry about with slam is that the more the BBC and other media channels pick up on it, the more that trauma narrative is rewarded. Because you are rewarded with performances at the Royal Albert Hall or prizes or the chance to get on the telly and adverts. It seems prevalent [to me] that the only narrative that the BBC can understand is one of trauma because, “of course that’s what you’ll be talking about because you’ve grown up on some estate in whatever city around the country” and it does worry me that that’s what’s going to be picked up on. And whilst that’s a huge and important part that people have got a chance to come and talk [openly] about trauma, that is not the only thing that happens that these poetry events and I do worry about those two sides of things.

BV:      Yeah. I think you’re right to worry about it because, you know, they are the people that are commissioning the programs and there’s a culture of head tilt, “let us let us explore your sordid past”. So, there does need to be a balance to that, it’s really important and it’s good that you’re thinking about it and that people out there are thinking about it. And more important than thinking about it is making work to counteract it, which people are doing.

DT:      Absolutely, I see it all the time. It’s just the annoying thing is and this is just the reality of all art forms… I know lots of promoters that are spending their whole life building something up and should the BBC… I don’t mean to just keep picking on the BBC… but should they just choose to come and make a half-hour program on TV, that is what would be seen by the vast majority of people and that will be taken as what this art form is. I think it’s a shame that so much good work gets ignored because it can’t be packaged into the narrative that’s wanted by those producers.

BV:      Yeah.

DT:      But I also know Radio 4 producers in Bristol who are doing a really good job of trying to show the breadth and depth of poetry in this country and they’ve only got a certain amount of time because there’s only so much poetry that you can get on the radio, never mind the telly.

BV:      It’s not the money spinner I hoped it would be, poetry.

DT:      We were lied to Byron!

BV:      Where are my riches? Where’s my rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle?

DT:      Actually, talking about the radio, I suppose that’s quite a good point to talk about the documentary work that you have done and most recently was the fantastic programme, ‘The Glasgow Boys’ maybe we could just chat about how these opportunities come up? Do you feel like that’s a complete diversion in your career or is it still part of what you do as an artist?

BV:      There’s always been an element of autobiography and there’s always been an element of talking about myself in public, so I guess not in that sense. You know, I am addressing a lot of my own personal history and I feel very lucky, in a way, that I get to address the stuff that I’m passionate about in documentaries on the radio.

DT:      You’ve recently come back to spoken word after having a break. Has that mainly been working with charities in these organisations and radio producers?

BV:      Yeah, for five years I’ve been making theatre. I direct theatre, I work a lot with the BAC [Battersea Arts Centre], I’ve worked with a youth company Homegrown and directed stuff there. I’m currently working on several plays and I made radio… bits and bats… you know, I’m a sort of jack of all trades, master none really. That’s my thing. Again, it comes a little bit back to personal history, I never really had a proper job, I’m 42 now and I don’t really know where my life’s going or what I’m supposed to be doing.

I do enjoy the work I make, I really enjoy it and I do feel privileged to be able to do it but it’s not any real coherency to it. You know, I’m going to make more documentaries and some people know me from making documentaries, some people know me for doing spoken word stuff. But who knows what will happen in the future?

DT:      This is partly thinking about [class]… I’m always worried that… Part of being diagnosed as being bi-polar is always wandering around wondering when people are going to find me out and that this [metaphorical] curtain is going be pulled back and everyone’s going to go, “oh yeah, we knew it was bullshit all along”… but it’s really heavily ingrained in the writing [process] as well…

But I wonder if it’s also tied in with the fact that I didn’t finish school, I was allowed back to do a few GCSEs and then I went and did the carpentry apprenticeship, so I’ve got no literature background other than I read all the time and I love literature. But I think because I didn’t do A-levels and then I didn’t go to university and I didn’t choose literature in that way, I don’t feel pinned to it either. Does that play into how you define your career?

BV:      Not only do I not feel pinned to it but I don’t feel like I belong in it, either and I feel that way about a lot of things. Less and less so, I guess, as the years go by but there’s still an element of, “what am I doing here?” If I’m sat in Random House [Penguin Publishing’s main office] or something, I get giddy but also trying to play it cool. Though, almost everywhere I go I feel like that because I feel like an interloper in most places.

DT:      Yeah that’s definitely something that resonates with me. I suppose the reason I jumped into podcasting was because I didn’t really think about whether I had a background in broadcasting or journalism because I was already pretending to be a poet so it didn’t matter if I pretended to be something else.

BV:      That’s exactly how I feel.

DT:      Maybe because I served an apprenticeship, I’m very concretely a tradesman, I’m a carpenter and [because of] that working-class hangover I still find it hard to introduce myself as anything else. Even if I’m at Random House or if I’m meeting the Arts Council or meeting a group of publishers. It’s funny, if we do a roundtable introduction, I always feel like I should introduce myself as a joiner or mention the fact I’ve got a City & Guilds certificate at home.

BV:      But, that’s the thing, I’ve never done anything real so I don’t [even have that]. My friend Karen McKlusky calls it the ‘terror of error’, the fear of failure or the feeling that I’m supposed to succeed at something. Nobody expected me to do anything good, you know, so everything’s a bonus to me. So, I don’t have fear of failure, so there are positives as well. I am able to throw myself into a situation that might intimidate other people because I don’t have any expectations about the outcome.

DT:      Maybe because I don’t have any training in journalism or broadcasting I find myself, rather than asking questions I make assumptions and then allow the guest to completely knock it back… but in my mind, it seems like that constantly battling and trying to prove yourself as an artist, is almost the same thing as trying to work with ‘at risk’ people. When you’re working for a charity and trying to engage these people in something.

When I’ve been feeling well and I’ve been involved with outreach programs and just gone to talk to people, there’s a similar thing going on in my head that I feel at literature events where I’m trying to convince that person I’m part of what they’re feeling.

Perhaps what I’m trying to say is, does this sort of background help you when you’re trying to then engage with people.

BV:      I know what you’re saying about… You know, you may have been in a position yourself where you’re sat around in a room with some mental health professionals, trying to convince them you’re sane, whilst drugged. I’ve been in that situation and I’ve been in a lot of situations in my life where I’ve had to ‘fake it till I make it’, kind. That’s a real skill, I think, or I hope it is because I use it a lot. I’ve had to use it, I’ve had to pretend that I wasn’t a broken, underclass, former recidivist, you know.

When I first started turning up at venues and engaging in conversation with people about things I knew nothing about and had no cultural connection with and listened to people’s prejudices as well, because they didn’t really know where I was from and what that meant. Yeah, all of that helps, being a lateral thinker and being able to communicate in a way that is hopefully in some way engaging to an audience is exactly the same skill as telling a psychiatrist that you’re fine to get out of hospital.

DT:      On the other side of that as well… because, definitely the amount of times I told youth workers school psychiatrists or whoever they were claiming to be at the time that I was fine and nothing was happening at home. That definitely plays into… I used to do a lot of improvisational stuff on stage… You know, I can get up and tell a story for five minutes, that’s easy. I could stand up for much longer if the open-mic slot allowed.

But thinking directly about The Glasgow Boys documentary. How does that, if in any way, does that allow you to engage with people. Does it at all help you engage with people afterwards or are you relying purely on the fact that you understand part of what they’re going through?

BV:      It’s funny, I’ve got quite severe social anxiety and doing The Glasgow Boys, I just really enjoyed talking to those lads because it’s easier for me than talking to people in the world that I actually live in. So, in that sense it was very easy and they’re very open, you know, because of the journey that they’re on, they’re very open and empathic communicators. They don’t really have many secrets and that bravery in the way that they communicate, I respect it and I try to be that way.

So, actually in that situation… and we’ve got a shared history, we’ve got a shared trauma and that’s a bond, you know. I didn’t have any issue talking to those guys, but other people… I mean get me in a group dynamic in a situation that I don’t understand, and I don’t really understand most situations, and I’m a mess. I’m much better one to one, yeah. But, yes, I can skip around things because I learnt those skills you know it wasn’t unusual for me to lie to a social worker when I was younger.

DT:      This whole series which has been going for three years now and is basically based on me wondering out loud how anything connects in my own life and just trying to bounce those things off other people.

BV:      I enjoyed it… Sorry, to interrupt… There is a correlation and a serious one in terms of the art and those interactions and that is that I really enjoyed that fantasy space that I was creating and the narrative of what I was imagining at the time and going anywhere. It was like I was creating an avatar and I could put that person wherever I wanted to put them and they had a great life. So, there is a correlation there because it’s not just writers that have had difficult pasts, I think we all as writers enjoy creating universes that we might like to exist in parts of or even ones that we’re terrified of.

DT:      Yeah. I suppose then maybe it’s natural for some… As we were saying, not every writer comes to writing because of some form of trauma but it is probably a form of escapism for everyone, especially the live stuff and story-telling nights are almost pure escapism. But I suppose, maybe for people that have experienced that kind of trauma, for a select few then having the opportunity to tell other people’s stories… You know, if you’ve gone so long without a voice yourself… and this is a big part what the podcast exists for is because I felt for a long time I didn’t have a place to speak and it’s nice now that I’ve got the opportunity to hand the microphone over to other people.

BV:      Yes, and that’s a good thing. I’ve got a real strong belief in the power of stories and to relate it back to The Glasgow Boys, I went into… I arrogantly demanded a meeting with the Commissioning Editor at Radio 4 and went in and said, “This is what I don’t like about radio 4. It’s always some middle-aged, privately educated white guy goes into an environment, deconstructs the situation academically. Talks about it as though it’s an academic situation even if it’s a deeply personal situation to the people they’re living in, and what I want to do is I want to enable people to tell their own stories”.

“You know we can get artists in, we can get writers in to empower them and get them to tell their own stories in a way that will benefit them culturally, spiritually, economically, the whole lot. So, they are improving their lives with their own stories”. And he nodded his head and was in agreement through it all and I was like, “I want a six-part strand”…

And he was nodding his head and at the end he just said, “Yeah. No, no. I agree there’s a lot of that and we need to change it but you’ve never produced anything in your life. You’ll have to work with somebody”. So as a compromise I got one thing and I got to work with a producer, who I love and is a great guy. But that’s my aim eventually…

I love telling stories and I’ll always do it but I’m really really really really interested in empowering other people to do that. And I think you know marrying writers as mentors with people who’ve got a powerful story to tell…and by that, I mean the right writer as well, it’s got to be somebody you absolutely gets it and who is empathic and not exploitative and not coming in with their own agenda, other than to do a nice thing, to do a good thing. Then I’m all for stories that advocate for people, you know, that advocate for people whose voices have been silenced in some way. So, I’d love to do more stuff around that.

DT:      I think that’s a really nice place to stop.

BV:      Okay, great.

DT:      We’ve run out of time anyway and you’ve got a gig to go to tonight. We’ll give a quick plug to Milk which happens regularly in Bristol so if you’re visiting or if you live in Bristol and you want a regular poetry night to go to then check out Milk, they’re on the social media. But thank you Byron, thank you for joining us.

BV:      It’s been an absolute pleasure, thanks for having me. Continue reading “Ep.109 – Byron Vincent”