Episode 119 – Shagufta K. Iqbal

Ep119 Shagufta K Iqbal

Episode 119 is available to download now via iTunes, Stitcher Radio, SoundCloud or wherever else you download your podcasts.

David Turner chats to Shagufta K. Iqbal. David met up with Shagufta back in early October 2018 at her home in Bristol, to discuss her writing and the collaborative nature of providing platforms for other writers, focusing on the role she played in founding the YoniVerse collective, a platform and support network for South Asian women writers.

A transcript of this episode (minus poems read during the recording) can be found under this post. For a full transcript including poems download here.

For more from Shagufta:
www.shaguftakiqbal.com/
twitter.com/shaguftakiqbal
www.yoniversepoetrycollective.com/

 

 

Transcript:

Transcription by Christabel Smith

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Shagufta K. Iqbal – SKI 

Introduction:

DT:      Hello. Welcome to episode 119 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. My name is David Turner. How are you? We seem to be hurtling towards the end of the year and the trees in the south west of England are now resembling the interior of 1970s’ caravans, but I’m sitting in the blazing sun, which is momentarily nice, but probably signals doom for the world and us.

This month’s guest is Bristol-based poet Shagufta K Iqbal. I met up with Shagufta back in early October 2018 at her home in Bristol, to discuss the many facets of her career, which I won’t go into now as she covers that perfectly herself in her own introduction coming up in just a moment. As well as her writing, we chat a lot about the collaborative nature of providing platforms for other writers, focusing on the role she played in founding the YoniVerse collective, a platform and support network for South Asian women writers.

It’s also been a while since I’ve had a guest on that would define themselves as firstly a spoken-word artist, so it was great to hear another writer’s thoughts and experiences of making the transition from successful stage presence to published author. Before the conversation, a huge thank you to everyone who’s bought a copy of our anthology Why Poetry?, either from a bookshop or direct from the publisher Verve Poetry Press.

Just a quick reminder that our funding from Arts Council England ends this month. After that, we’ll need to look at other ways to fund the various aspects of the series. My main focus at  the moment is to secure the money to continue to transcribe the podcast. Each episode currently costs around £80 to transcribe and it’s something I don’t have the skill or time to do myself. All the money we make from the book will be reinvested into making the series as accessible as possible, so if you buy a book, you’ll be directly playing a big part in that accessibility.

Link to the book in the episode description. Side note: if you can’t afford to buy the book, then ask for it at your library. I’m sure they’ll get it in for you. I’ll be back at the end of the episode to share a poem from the book. Speaking of transcripts, you can download a full transcript of this episode over at our website, www.lunarpoetrypodcasts.com

Also, don’t forget to check out our companion podcast, A Poem A Week, in which we bring you, you guessed it, a poem every week, from the likes of Andrew McMillan, Deanna Rodger, Raymond Antrobus, Emily Harrison, Will Harris and Meryl Pugh. All episodes can be found wherever you get your podcasts or over at our website. Something’s flying overhead. That’s probably enough from me. Here’s Shagufta.

Conversation:

SKI:      I’m Shagufta K Iqbal. I’m a poet, experimenting with film sometimes and a writer, workshop facilitator, founder of YoniVerse. I’m mostly here to talk about the Jam Is For Girls, Girls Get Jam poetry collection, which is a debut poetry collection and it’s titled after a poem called Jam Is For Girls, Girls Get Jam. It’s probably one of the first spoken-word pieces I wrote. I really like it for that reason because it forced me to go down into another way of writing poetry that wasn’t just page poetry, it was much more conversational, it was about speaking with your audience.

I started writing a poem many, many years before this and I couldn’t finish the poem. I think I was too emotionally caught up in the narrative of that piece and I put it away. It revived itself through this and came and spoke to me in this way. It’s about being Punjabi, about being brought up in the UK as third-generation Punjabi and Punjabi culture is, particularly in rural parts of Pakistan, where we’re from, very farming based and so the men would go out and work the fields and do all the hard labourers’ work and the women also would do all of the hard work, but for some reason, they would get the vegetables and then men would get the meat.

They would get the jam for breakfast, the men would get the eggs and so when we came over here, that mentality stayed, even though the lifestyle and the culture here had changed. So I think one of my biggest reasons for being a feminist, even though I didn’t really like eggs, I was making a very strong point about why we still continued with these gender roles, even though they no longer needed to exist in this society we lived in. So it’s called;

To read this poem please download the full transcript here.

DT:      Thank you very much, Shagufta. It’s always amazing to hear people read for the first time away from an audience, because I’ve often seen my guests speak at spoken-word events or more staid readings, it’s always a very different thing when it’s one-to-one and you’re sitting in someone’s very lovely home and they’ve welcomed you in. What do you do after a poem like that? It seems very glib to say ‘Hello, welcome to Lunar Poetry Podcasts, let’s get going’.

Maybe we use that point to start because we were speaking very briefly before I hit ‘record’ about this question of who we’re trying to talk to and why are we choosing the method, or any method, to talk to people. Throughout the archive we’ve had a lot of people who would class themselves first and foremost as spoken-word artists or poetry slammers or performance poets, it’s been a while since we talked directly about how we make the transition from stage to page. I’d like to acknowledge this conversation will go nowhere near discussing any divide between those two things, I just think it’s interesting to talk to someone who started in the way you did, in your initial interaction with poetry, what was the attraction to come to a book? Perhaps we could just talk a bit about how you got started first and we’ll naturally come towards the book.

SKI:      I suppose for me, writing is very much about making sense of the world as I know it. For me, it’s a really good way to process my own emotions and feelings and thoughts on a subject matter. I started writing, for me, I think I go between stage and page and at various points of my life, I feel more comfortable in a stage space and other times, I feel more comfortable in a page space.

I think all spoken-word poets should be comfortable with page because I think if you’re going to perform something, you’ve had to have worked on it on that page or on the phone as they do these days. I’ve started doing it myself so I can’t say anything about that. That’s where the writing came from and I studied at Bath Spa University so I was doing a lot of page poetry at the university and exploring my voice through that.

Bristol had a really good spoken-word scene, we had Lucy English and Glenn Carmichael, who were pioneering a lot of the slam that was happening. I started going along to those events as a really good way to hear poets that weren’t dead poets and contemporary poets and poets living in the same communities and societies as me and the issues that were pertinent to their lives and how that interlinked and intertwined with some of the concerns or some of the questions that I had.

That seemed like a really good way to learn about my contemporaries and therefore learn about my own work. So that’s kind of how I got into spoken word. I really like spoken word because I feel it stops you from being a lazy writer, because you are so aware of your audience and not just at the writing stage, but at the stage where you’re engaging with the audiences. I think it’s interesting reading to somebody who’s just a singular person in front of you and then trying to engage with an entire room full of people, a theatre full of people.

I think it forces you to work really hard and forces you to think about the way you’re communicating your work, otherwise you can end up being very much in your own head. I suppose also being a writer who is a woman of colour, sometimes you feel that you’re very aware of your audiences about the nuances they get in your work, whether it’s landed in the same way that you’ve actually spoken out what you think is the truth.

I think I’ve sometimes deliberately tried to seek out audiences who are similar to myself in background, so that I feel the stories I’m telling are maybe authentic or land with somebody else in the same way and actually, I’m not making this all up, it’s not just me who’s kind of saying ‘oh, this is the truth’. It’s a very vague way of saying…

DT:      There’s a couple of very important points in that. Let me try and divide them clearly so you can respond or ignore them. Recently, the poet Niall O’Sullivan, who for the last 14 years has hosted Poetry Unplugged in London, a regular open-mic night, has been writing a series of thoughts and ideas about spoken word on Twitter, which he does quite a lot, but more recently, he’s been hitting some really interesting points.

His contention that a lot of spoken-word artists and fans will claim that they like the art form because it links them to a very, very, very old oral tradition and his point is that spoken word is rooted in writing, it’s rooted in the page because unless you’re improvising, most work has been worked on either pen and paper or, like you said, smartphones and tablets.

The second point was that you have that immediate connection with the audience, they’re there, you can’t hide from them, it does force you to acknowledge them in a way you might not do, writing in your traditional poetry garret, all alone, when you’ve isolated yourself from the world because the world doesn’t understand you.

Perhaps what is missing for a lot of people that get into spoken word, and maybe it’s an attraction for getting stuff on a page, is that editorial conversation you might have, of OK, this is how something hits in the moment, this is the emotion it drags out of our audience, but where do you go if you want to talk about the longer-lasting effects of that poem? Through Twitter, you might hear something, but it’s unusual to hear what lasting effect your poetry has had on someone.

SKI:      OK, three questions. Let’s start from the beginning with a lot of spoken-word poets saying it’s going back to oral traditions of storytelling, Beowulf for example and other cultures which are rooted in oral traditions. Yeah, I suppose there’s a truth to that. I also think spoken-word is slightly different. I think a lot of that storytelling, that traditional oral storytelling, had not always but mostly had a really nice rhythm, a really nice rhyme, I’m thinking of the Koran, for example, so a lot of people who don’t speak Arabic know the entire Koran off by heart sometimes and that’s quite amazing to me because it’s a big old book.

It’s through the rhythm of it. It was there to be embedded in your mind. A lot of spoken-word poets now don’t use that rhyme and use free verse, so I feel that it’s not so easy to remember. You’ve got to experiment with the page and you’ve got to experiment with seeing it written down. We live in a society where writing is very much part of our culture and our canons. So that’s one thing.

About the audience, speaking directly with the audience, in one respect I think it’s really good because it forces you to engage directly with an audience, but I have also noticed sometimes when I start to go to regular poetry nights, sometimes, the same thing will come up again and again and again and there’s a danger of people performing in silos and working in these spaces where it’s just echoing back the same sentiments and getting a click from an audience for saying something that’s being going round on social media or being politically current in your work and maybe losing the poetry. I think that’s where the danger is

When I say you need to write with it, it’s you need to spend time. Even if you’re somebody who doesn’t particularly need to see your poem on a page, you need to spend time in saying ‘what is it that makes this a poem?’ and not such a series of political statements and there are times I’ve gone to poetry night and thought ‘that person’s brilliant, they got the entire audience up on their feet and really engaged and in agreement with them, but at what point was that poetry? At what point did they make me see the world in a different way or did they just lay witness to what’s happening around them we all agree with?’

I think that’s where sometimes for me, the danger lies, with being in those public spaces of just talking with an audience because you lose the poetry where you sit down and you see a line actually written down on a page and you’ve read that line somewhere else or you’ve seen it on a hashtag, on an Instagram post, it feels like you need to work harder, that’s not good enough. That’s what I feel about the danger sometimes of being too performance-driven.

DT:      I’m nodding, I don’t want to take over too much with any of my own opinions, but I do feel there’s a very real danger that spoken-word poetry falls into eliciting only emotions from people because that can be done through rhythm and pace and repetitive action. That is not to take away from the fact that if you are able to do that to an audience of 60 to 1000 people, that’s an amazing thing to be able to do.

 SKI:      Yes, but does that make you a poet or does that make you a performer?

DT:      At what point did you start asking those questions of yourself?

SKI:      Probably  towards the end of when I wrote the collection and started taking the collection out and started performing it and felt sometimes in performance, the work was lost and I really wanted to say ‘I’ve got a book so if there’s a poem I really like, why don’t you spend some time with this poem?’ I think also because I’ve got a background in literature, there are times when I’ve gone back and read a poem or gone back and read a book and reading it the second, third, fourth time, you pick up something new every time.

There’s something quite nice about spending one-to-one time with a piece of literature or a piece of spoken word that’s moved you because you can listen to something online and it moves you the same way. So I think that’s when I started having those questions about what performance meant and at what stage I needed to attend to being a performer and being a writer.

DT:      Before you started asking those questions and considering more the different layers in your work and how different poems may function differently in different settings, do you feel like had you asked that question of yourself earlier, do you feel like you would have got any answers? Do you feel there would have been a support network of people that could have helped you to begin to consider, without physically printing a book?

SKI:      I think the lead-up towards a book, so lots of things are happening at the same time. The book is almost 10 years of writing, so there were times when I thought ‘this poem shouldn’t sit in this book’, but actually it’s part of an ongoing journey within the narrative of the book because it’s such a long period of time and that’s the thing with most spoken-word artists who are recently getting books out. Salena Godden, who’s been performing for a very long time, has released her first collection after so many years and so her voice must change within that.

I learnt a lot working with Apples and Snakes, I remember doing a project with Jasmine Gardosi who is a Brummy-based poet, a brilliant performer and a brilliant writer, and I remember she performed a piece of poetry, I was holding my breath the whole time, she really took you on this journey and I remember how powerful she made her words.

Sometimes I think when you are a writer, you just quickly want to get your words out there, just let everybody know ‘this is the story I’m telling, this is what it’s about’, whereas she really played with suspense and how she sometimes dragged a series of events out and stopped and just how in charge she was of her tone, how in charge she was of the way in which she delivered that work. Then I saw Deanna Rodger perform as well, who is now also a Bristol-based poet, but originally from London and she performed a poem, she wrote it originally as a love poem and performed it as a really cynical…

So we were doing this thing with Blahblahblah at the Wardrobe Theatre, which was on Valentine’s Day, so it was Love Vs The Cynics’ team, so we did a slam. I think she didn’t have a cynical poem, but she turned her love poem into a very cynical poem criticising love. The only thing she changed was her tone and the way she delivered it. Everything else is entirely the same, she didn’t change a single word of the poem, but the way she delivered it, I thought it’s just incredible when a performer is able to do something like that, just by using their tone and not changing the words.

DT:      Part of the purpose of having the podcast is to include, without any divide and seams between them, people who would be considered purely page poets and people who would be considered purely performance-based, was to create a space where these conversations could be had, rather than having to wait to see a performer who challenges you on stage, because even if you see that on stage, you’re not necessarily going to have the space to talk to the person about what it meant to you, how it might influence you and how many of us have friends that understand our work deeply enough and would understand the questions we’re asking of ourselves as writers and artists.

That leads me to asking how much of the collection is you responding to wanting to produce a book and a collection of work where there was a vacuum and where you felt that conversation should be had? You can take that in any direction you want, but I’m thinking purely as an act of writing and being published and how that feeds into starting up an initiative like YoniVerse, which seems to be about maybe identifying a vacuum and providing a platform to talk through space and ideas?

SKI:      OK, so with the writing, I think if you were a spoken-word poet and writing in the 90s and you’re writing in the early 2000s, you are not writing for a poetry collection, because you will never be published. You just never had any inkling you were looking at a poetry scene as it is today, even though poetry has had its ups and downs and spoken word has had revivals, especially when it looks over the Atlantic, there are things we imitate that happen in the States, but I didn’t write for a collection, I wrote because I felt I wanted and needed to write and I enjoy the process of writing.

So when Burning Eye books came up and now you’ve got Verve Poetry Press and quite a few presses publishing spoken-word poets, it’s really exciting for spoken-word poets because you realise you are producing something that’s lasting and it comes together in one book, rather than all these bits of paper you have everywhere or bits of poems on phones. I wasn’t really writing for a vacuum in that sense of filling in a gap, because I was always aware that as a spoken-word poet, there are only particular audiences you would be able to engage with.

I’m not Carol Ann Duffy, I’m not Shakespeare, I’m not going to have access to all the audiences that they had access to, so I was always aware that I am possibly writing for a small community or somebody on my doorstep or literally those small spaces, because literally nobody know who you are or what your work is. Unless you’re very good at knowing your marketing, you’re not going to get out there, so I think the collection really came into fruition when I saw some of my contemporaries being published.

I remember thinking ‘wow, Vanessa Kisuule’s been published, Rebecca Tantony’s been published and Lucy Lepchani’s been published and these are people I know. I drink with them, I’ve had tea with them, so possibly, maybe I could also be published. I started then working on the collection as it is and started to really focus on doing that and put together an application to the Arts Council to get time to write and I think that really made me think about my work as a professional writer.

That’s the other problem with being a writer, you always think ‘oh, it’s something I do on the side’ and it’s not something that’s serious, it’s just I dip into it. When I spoke to a colleague or friend of mine, she said ‘why don’t you get some protected time to write? Submit an application to the Arts Council, that’s what they’re there for.’ I think I hadn’t really thought of myself as a serious writer up until that point, so that’s when the collection came into being. In terms of the, we were talking about finding audiences and finding spaces where we feel there is a gap.

DT:      What I do know about the YoniVerse, is it’s not simply an attempt to put events on, it’s not audience-focused, it’s participant and artist-focused and it’s about providing an event, I don’t mean safe space in the way it’s come to be politically charged now, but having a space where people feel comfortable. At what point do we go from this conversation about how we interact with the audience, how do we become community-focused as a producer and collaborative artist?

SKI:      OK, so I think for a very long time, for some strange, naïve reason, I thought ‘I’m the only female brown poet who’s writing poetry’ and then I was being booked for gigs, I mean all poets face this, but I think if you come from a disadvantaged background, where you are maybe a minority background or have a disability or from the LGBT community, you’re always wondering at the back of your mind ‘am I being booked to headline this gig because I’m ticking a box or am I actually a good poet?’

It’s something you’re always trying to grapple with and I remember just wondering this and going on Facebook and just Googling other South West poets and I came across a poet called Amani Saeed, who was in Exeter at the time and she was doing a few gigs that I’d also done. Part of me was ‘argh, she’s going to take all of my gigs, she’s the new young brown poet, I’m no longer needed because there’s only ever room for one of us’ and then I thought ‘actually, let me reach out’ because at the time, I was working on a few projects in Bristol with other South Asian women.

They weren’t necessarily creative spaces, but around public engagement and creating communities. I think I realised growing up, particularly watching 90s’ politics, where it was a lot of fighting over the same pots of money and funding and often, people would be brought into an organisation as the mouthpiece for a certain community and then they would become a gatekeeper. You had a real issue around mentorship and a real issue around, sometimes I would go into an organisation and there was an older brown woman who I thought I could reach out to and she would help me and tell me how she got to the stage she’s gotten to and actually, there wasn’t that solidarity there, I think because it was a rivalry.

I know where that comes from and why that’s been set up in that way, so I thought ‘I’m not going to do that, I’m not going to be that person, I’m going to be kind’. So I reached out to Amani and we met up and had a chat and it was amazing. All the qualms, the doubts you have as a writer… our stories really resonated with each other and we started having a conversation about ‘do you think there are more of us? How many do you think there are? Where do you think they’re based? What do you think if we all came together and started writing together?’

Initially, we just started looking out and stalking people on social media and there are now tons of us, but at the time, we found Shareefa Energy who’s based in London, she’s incredible, Afshan Lodhi, who’s based in Manchester, Shruti [Chauhan] who’s based in the Midlands. We had Anjoli who’s also based in London and Sophia Thakur who’s also based in London.

We came together and every time we reached out to one of the poets and said ‘this is what we’re thinking of doing, coming together and collaborating and supporting each other and having a network where we help each other out or if there’s any stage of my journey that can help your stage of your journey, let’s provide that support’. It started off as a Facebook group and now it’s a WhatsApp group. ‘What’s the YoniVerse?’ It’s a WhatsApp group, basically, lots of memes get sent round.

It was an amazing revival of my work and I think writing together with that group of women really changed the way I wrote and being part of the, so what we do is we encourage other writers and emerging poets to come forward and use the spoken word Golden Tongue, which has a house at Rich Mix, and also we do the writers’ group, so we host a writing workshop on a monthly basis. At the moment, it’s on a bit of a break. It’s due to start again in the new year at the Free Word Centre. We encourage people to come together, write together, and provide a space for them to perform, where they feel safe and comfortable to do that.

It has changed the way I write. I think often when I was writing poetry before, if I made any cultural references, I would then within the poem, explain that cultural reference. Actually, that was kind of detrimental to my art because it’s like telling a joke and then explaining your joke within the joke. It stops being funny. It changed my writing in that I started to write much more concisely and expected my audience to get what I was saying because that’s the space I was performing in.

DT:      I think it’s really important to bring up ideas like feeling like being the only one. It’s a direct result of the way so many panel-talks and events are put on, that there is only ever one example of anyone that doesn’t fit the societal norm traditionally attached to poetry. My maternal grandfather is from Spain, so all his brothers are Spanish and I grew up around flamenco guitars and singing. On my father’s side is a very, very London, working-class background and family and I couldn’t see any of those voices on either side of my family represented in poetry.

I’ve since found them, but it takes a lot of searching and if you don’t know where to begin looking, you’re never going to find it. What spoken word allowed me to do is to introduce that language I’d grown up with, a way of talking and communicating and to deliver that outright and then develop it into something that’s now more considered, but it has allowed me to write in a way I don’t think I would have learnt without the immediate reaction of an audience.

I wonder how much that then plays into the reason I started the podcast, which is a community idea, it’s a collaborative idea, I feel every interview is a collaboration with a guest. I don’t feel like it’s something I’m producing on my own, because it isn’t, because that would just be a monologue from me. I don’t even know if that’s a question, but if there’s anything you feel rings true…

SKI:      What you’re talking about in terms of your maternal grandfather and the flamenco and that element of art seeping through is really interesting. I kind of felt I was between two spaces, maybe you felt that in the same way. I’d go to poetry nights, poetry recitals, for example, I remember being young and going to see Carol Ann Duffey recite poetry, I’m a big fan of Carol Ann Duffy’s work and then going to what would happen in our local community, called mashyras they were poetry nights, people would come together and it was spoken word for me. Somebody would go up on the stage, they would share a poem, it was usually dominated by men, it was a very male-driven space and the audience were so interactive

Like here, we click, the audience there were like ‘stop, stop, stop’ to the poet, ‘start from the beginning, I want to hear it all from the beginning’ and halfway through the poem. The poet would start right from the beginning and it was great because they were like ‘yes, they really like it, they want to hear it again’. There were two different spaces where it was happening and I was in between, not really able to fit in either one, so I think that was where the YoniVerse came in terms of, you’re right, finding a space where there is a balance between the two of them.

I think what’s really interesting is that poetry was perceived as a very academic thing, in both of those spaces. In the South Asian, it was very male-dominated and then you used to have lots of people who wouldn’t book me but would book a spoken-word poet who was male and would usually go and perform at Islamic events or fund-raisers and they were often talking about politics, about Palestine, and my poetry didn’t fit into that space, but also it didn’t fit into particular spaces here. That’s why the YoniVerse really works for a lot of South Asian women, well, female poets, we say ‘womxn’ with an x ,so it’s open to non-binary and trans women

Then I think what we try to do is play with those two spaces, try and bridge that gap and bring one into the other space and realise there are poets, that we don’t know our poets. The amount of times I’ve spoken to a taxi driver who is a poet, has been writing poetry, has told repeated lines of poetry to me, so you find poets in the spaces you don’t even imagine exist. Writing is something we’re all compelled to do in some way, many of us are.

DT:      At least communicating with people. With a bit of distance away from someone and a pen and paper, they can communicate much more openly and be honest in a way that’s more representative in their head to how they feel and they can do that in a poem in a way they may not be able to face to face. In case there’s anyone listening and they think they’re the only one, as a reader or writer, how would people get in touch and find out what’s going on?

SKI:      So find out through our social media accounts, so we always update events coming on. We run monthly events at the Rich Mix, again it’s all up on our social media, and we’re currently working as a collective on a show we’re looking to tour and we’re also working on a poetry collection.

DT:      I’ll put links in the episode description. For anyone that doesn’t know, Rich Mix is a venue in Bethnal Green in East London.

SKI:      Sorry, I’m very London-centric.

DT:      It’s difficult when you know London intimately, I’m aware of it myself. There would probably be a lot of crossovers if people want to revisit our 100th episode, which is with Rachel Long, founder of Octavia Collective, and two members, a huge amount of crossovers. I believe with Amani Saeed especially.

SKI:      Anjoli goes between Octavia and. We also work with Zara who goes between the two spaces. Octavia very much inspired this, but we felt the need to have a South-Asia-specific space and that goes back, I think, to the fact I grew up in the 90s, I felt 90s’ politics was a little bit lazy and that we all were politically black and by being politically black, we were missing all the nuances and prejudices that the South Asia community have. I felt that we needed to address those things, but Octavia was very much the reason why I thought a collective was the way to go.

DT:      The point you just made was very eloquently put and I would have done it quite cumbersomely. We’ll take a second reading if that’s OK.

SKI:      I think at this point, it would be appropriate to have a short poem that I’ve written for my daughter. I probably wrote it because I had very much started this conversation with the other collective members, this idea about why we are creating a collective and what the purpose of it is. A huge part of it was when I was working in schools and doing workshops, I noticed South Asian girls were still the ones who, so many years after I left school, were very reserved, even when I would come in and they would see a brown face delivering a workshop.

But at the end they would be full of questions and I wondered why they weren’t taking up spaces in the same way and all the things they’re having to navigate to make sure their voices are heard and how taking up space is very difficult for South Asian women, not just in British society, but in our own communities and how European beauty standards is also something that keeps getting pushed on South Asian women.

So when I was pregnant with my daughter, people kept giving me advice about how to be a mother to a daughter and a lot of the advice was around her skin complexion and I would be told things like ‘drink more milk’, which was supposed to make my child come out lighter skinned. I thought ‘no, I probably shouldn’t be having sex with a darker-skinned man if I was going to have a lighter-skinned daughter’, that’s not how it works. But it was amazing how a lot of the advice I was being given was around how she was going to look and how she needed to be lighter skinned and how that was going to help her in society.

I remember growing up with very much bearing this in mind between me and my sister and how we had inequality. I’ve met many sisters, there will be a lighter-skinned one and a darker one and how that puts a rift between their relationship and so that’s a really long-winded introduction for a short poem, but it’s called Truth and it’s dedicated to my daughter.

To read this poem please download the full transcript here.

DT:      Thank you. In the second half of the conversation, let’s focus on the direction your writing is taking now. Jam Is For Girls came out in 2017, so as is the natural order and pace with which poetry collections are written, that probably reflects stuff that is a few years old now, so I wonder if we could talk about how you see yourself as a writer now and how that has been different and also influenced by having your debut book being a collection of poetry.

SKI:      I suppose once you have a book, you can say to funding bodies and also your mum ‘I am an official writer, I count for something now’ and it allows you to really work on the ways you write and create art. I’m currently writing a second poetry collection, but I really want to take my time with this one. This one took 10 years to write and I’m saying I want to take my time, but I want to take my time on each poem and work with mentoring.

I want to work through courses, I want to work by getting funding to make it happen and make it exist in a way, you know, you’ve worked to look at it as a collection, rather than ‘I’m just writing because I have the impulse to write’. I think that’s the way the second collection is coming together. My voice has changed very much from when I was writing 12 years ago and the stories that will be reflected in the new collection are reflective of a new generation or a generation of women who are in similar spaces as me, in their 30s.

I really want to pay homage to a lot of the stories from Punjabi culture, which I’ve always grown up knowing, but never felt had a place in my writing because I felt like my writing was very British. Now, I want to mix the two. The first collection was actually broken into the different rivers of Punjab, so Punjab literally means ‘five rivers’, ‘punj’ meaning five, ‘ab’ meaning rivers, so rivers play a really big part in my writing. So almost all the five rivers in Punjab, which is a region that crosses between India and Pakistan, so a lot of people are devastated at the fact that five rivers that flow into the Indus are now so separate from each other.

All of those rivers have their own myths and their own stories and their own love stories, so you have Heer Ranjha, which are kind of Romeo and Juliet stories and I really want to talk about the idea of romantic love and what that means in the world we live in today. So that’s one collection I’m writing as a follow-up from this one, The second piece I’m writing is a coming-of-age novel, which is a very different way of writing. I think with poetry, I really enjoy it and it’s those short bursts of emotion or thought you can get into a small poem, sometimes a longer piece, a three-minute or I’ve worked on poems that are 10 minutes long, but it’s quite contained.

Every word, every line, has to work harder because you’ve got to make sure everything is utilising the space correctly in the poem, but writing for a sustained period of time and meeting other novelists and authors who are pulling their hair out because they are at year number three with their same novel is an interesting area that I’m now discovering in my own writing. This poetry collection is very much the basis for the novel and it’s been something that’s been brewing at the back of my mind for a very long time.

I think I was doing the thing all poets do now, where we all have a solo show, so I started working on a solo show and every time I would sit down to write a script for the solo show, using this poetry collection, it kept writing itself as a novel. I couldn’t get it to write as a script for theatre, so after repeatedly doing that process again and again, I decided actually that if it was writing itself as a novel, let me try and experiment and see if I could write it as a novel.

So I’ve started writing a few pivotal scenes and then said ‘actually, you’re a creative, you’re a professional writer, so see if you can get any support in this’ and then submitted to the Arts Council’s new Developing Your Creative Practice grant, which I love. It is relatively new.

DT:      Was it January this year, the first round?

SKI:      Yes, so they usually have the grants for the arts, which is very project-driven, very much about creating an end product and this is allowing artists to just experiment with their art, to experiment with their voice, it’s almost like creating art for the sake of art, rather than how many bums in seats or how many audience members.

DT:      There’s a critical difference with this funding, isn’t there? You don’t have to imagine an audience because there is no obligation on you.

SKI:      Yes, it’s literally you being able to go away and just experiment and try new things and not have to have an end product, which is always the pressure. The amount of times I’m working with creative… Essentially, you’re applying because you want to write, but when you are applying to do a project or get a grant for the arts, what you’re doing is everything except for the writing. So you’re running the workshops, you’re going into schools, doing all the other things, but you’re not doing the writing.

This has been a godsend. I feel really lucky I was selected and offered this fund. I’m working with an amazing author, Sarvat Hasin, who is the author of a novel called This Wide Night and has had a new one come out this year. She’s been mentoring me in making sure that I’m hitting those milestones because I think it’s quite easy to talk about your novel to people all the time, ‘I’m writing a novel’ but not actually writing it, so having somebody who’s been through that process break down some of that process to you has been really useful.

DT:      For anyone listening who’s interested in Developing Your Creative Practice and what that might mean to them as an artist, if you go back and listen to episode 114, it’s me in conversation with Gemma Seltzer, then of the Arts Council who instigated that funding. It’s like a half-hour breakdown of the difference between that and the existing project grants and what the difference is and some tips on applying and whether it’s relevant for you, because we’re talking about ideas of community but where do you go for this information?

It was very important for me, as someone who’s had, luckily enough – I say ‘luckily’, it’s actually a huge amount of work – three project grants from the Arts Council to fund this podcast project. It was very difficult to find information the first time I applied. Had I had access to a certain amount of information, I could have shaved five, six months off the initial application process. Anyone wanting to know any more about project grants can go to my website, there’s a page on there called Series Evaluation, where I’ve published the first year’s spending for my project.

It breaks down the costing and gives you an idea of what the Arts Council will actually fund and what you’re able to use the money for. That’s a side note. Again, I’ll put links in the episode description just because it feels relevant to the conversation we’re having.

SKI:      I think it’s hugely important. In fact, when I received the funding, one of the things I put together was, if anyone wants to look at my application form, you’re more than welcome to, because it’s such a daunting thing, but once you see what some other artists have submitted for, I think it makes it much more accessible and easier to know there are people who are doing it who are saying ‘look, speak to me if you need advice’. I think it’s so important that people tap into that pot of funding and find out who your literature representative is as well, that really helps if you chat to them.

DT:      Definitely. I just want to go back to a quick point you made about how you view the way you’re writing. You said you want to take your time. That is sort of a funny thing to say when the first book took 10 years, but it’s a common thing I hear and something I experienced myself, that almost feverish engagement we have with spoken word when we first start, there’s all these gigs you don’t know about, all these people you don’t know about and the whole thing can feel like a whirlwind.

There was a decade for you, four years for me, even if you took Salena Godden, for whom there’s almost 25 years and if you spoke to Lucy English as well, they would have the same feeling of how quickly that would all pass by and the conscious decision to say ‘no, I need to slow down now’.

SKI:      It’s not a slowing down necessarily, it’s about focused time. When I say ironically ‘it took me 10 years to write this collection’, but I was writing on the side of being a student, of having a full-time job, of having a full-time life, so when I say I want to spend more time on individual poems, it’s that I want to dedicate my time as a writer, so it’s got my full attention, rather than me sitting on a bus and scribbling things together and then editing in a café very quickly somewhere.

It’s about me approaching my work in a very informed way, looking at the process of writing and looking at myself as a writer and allowing myself that space to be a writer rather than putting things together where I have possible time.

DT:      Also, actively seeking mentoring relationships with other writers and placing yourself in a community because while it seems natural for you and I to say a spoken-word poet is a poet and a poet is a writer and a novelist is a writer so we’re all part of the same thing, in reality that’s not true. Not that anyone is shutting the door on you, but we all go to different events, we go to different types of readings, different panel discussions and it takes time to step out of one scene and get to know people in another.

SKI:      Yes, there are lots of things I don’t know about. I don’t know about the world of the novelist. It’s very different. I think I am still at the stage where I’m not rushing to find out about the scene. I’m spending more time to find my own voice as a novelist and does it have a right to exist as a novelist or should I be going back to what I’m used to doing, which is poetry? It’s about finding my own voice and then when I’ve found that, where it sits in a community of other writers who write novels or novellas.

DT:      You spoke earlier about developing the bilingual nature of how you communicate. Is that feeding into the ideas around the novel or is that a more lyrical theme within the poetry?

SKI:      It’s a more lyrical thing within poetry. I’ve got two heads on at the moment. There is the poetry side, which I’m trying to keep to poetry. Obviously, I will always approach my storytelling as a poet and I love imagery, I love playing with all of those. Sometimes, I’m writing a piece which is for the novel and I think ‘this is a really good poem, actually, I should just use the separate bit as a poem’.

So it’s difficult to do that, but I think what’s really interesting is that I was going through the poetry collection and I’ve got a poem in here which has one or two lines completely written in Punjabi and I had an index at the back and I haven’t included that in the index at all. So there’s no translation and I remember thinking ‘oh, I haven’t translated that for my audiences’ whereas other bits and pieces and other words, I had translated. I think within my poetry, I started to go between the two different languages and because it made sense in my head, didn’t realise that it would not make sense with every single audience member. It’s quite interesting I was thinking in that way.

DT:      I find it fascinating. Having come to a second language quite late in life, I learnt Norwegian in my late 20s. It feeds more interestingly into this conversation, again, what is our relationship to our audience? How much are we telling them as a poet? At what point do you feel in your development as a poet and writer that not everyone has to understand everything? Again, your point earlier, do you really want to ruin all your jokes by explaining everything seven times and making it clearer and clearer?

Then in that process, that journey, becoming more confident and knowing perhaps people will Google certain things if they don’t understand them. Actually, as a poem, is it any less for not knowing what certain words mean? A lot of your readers don’t know what a lot of English words mean.

SKI:      Also, growing up, I say Punjabi, but we speak Pothwari, which is a kind of Punjabi, an oral language, then being a Muslim meant we learnt a lot of Arabic, but we learnt Arabic with a completely Pothwari accent and Pothwari alphabet, so whenever we speak or say any of the prayers or any of the words to Arabs, they have no idea what we are talking about, even though we think we’re speaking Arabic. Also, whilst we speak it, even though it looks the same as Arabic, we don’t know what we’re saying, so I’m used to praying, used to saying things that I have no idea what the meaning is, but it’s very emotive.

There are times when I’ve heard a prayer or I’ve been in the space where I’m hearing the Arabic language which always has a religious connotation for me, that I don’t understand, but it doesn’t mean it hasn’t had an effect on me or it doesn’t mean anything to me. I think being able to be in that space where I can consume a language without understanding the exact meaning of it has made me feel I can do that with my audiences and it should be fine.

DT:      We need to trust readers more, don’t we? And listeners. The times I’ve had people read poems on the podcast in languages other than English are normally the ones where I get most feedback because people get in touch to say it was really nice to reengage as a listener and question why you’re listening to something when you know you’re not going to understand. With the poet Mosab Al Nomairy whose interview was in English, but all his readings were in Arabic, he’s a Syrian poet and I got so much feedback about the way people engaged and the emotion that dragged out of them without any ‘meaning’.

Something I’m thinking about a lot is the limitations of our language. Even though you think by using standard words that you’re getting across meaning to people, often you’re not. We convince ourselves we’re being clear and we’re not.

Before we finish, I want to make sure we mention the recent Burning Eye BAME poetry competition that you judged and the three winners, Hanan Issa, who wrote Where I’m Coming From?, which I really enjoyed, it’s really good, Caroline Teague and Adrian Earle who otherwise goes by the name Think/Write/Fly, he’s based in Birmingham and runs the Verse First podcast.

Can we chat a bit about your experience as a judge, how you were invited and whether there were any criteria placed on you to make your decision or whether it was a free role.

SKI:      I’d been working on and off for Burning Eye and have a really good relationship for a long time and I think we had a conversation about how, until I started looking, I wasn’t aware of South Asian poets and you have to look and it’s about your networks. Originally, I was based in Bristol, my networks were Bristol. Then you go and speak to people beyond those networks, beyond those circles and it grows.

I think Burning Eye books are aware they are a spoken-word publisher, but they try to make sure they are, especially if you look at the spoken-word scene, it’s so diverse, you’ve got females forefronting a lot of spoken word as well, you’ve got the Kate Tempests, the Hollie McNishs, you’ve got many people of colour who are amazing writers, I’m thinking in particular the Jerwood winning poet, Raymond Antrobus. So the voices that come out of spoken word, it’s unlike the canon, where you’ve got to have an established literary background. You come in and if your work resonates with an audience and it’s powerful and strong, you can come in and break into that industry. Publishing should reflect that.

Burning Eye are very much aware they are publishing to reflect it. They wanted to make sure as a publisher they are doing that, so when we started having this conversation about the pamphlet, they were very aware they wanted to expand their knowledge of who is a person of colour and a writer out there and look to publish beyond just the South West as well. They do that anyway, but they wanted to look at particularly voices of colour, you’ve got Heaux Noire who run between London and Birmingham as well, and Birmingham’s got a really good poetry scene. Up North, you’ve also got really interesting voices.

It’s something I’m aware of in our collective. We’ve got Midland voices, Northern voices, Amani’s got a New Jersey accent. It’s really brilliant when you hear those new voices come together. In terms of how that was judged, I got the manuscripts, I wasn’t aware of who was submitting what, so there were no names attached. It was a brilliant experience. I spent the entire summer, just myself and Bridget [Hart], reading through poetry. I was like ‘this is the good life. This is my job, I’m reading poetry’. It was so much fun and so exciting.

I think I expanded my knowledge of who is a spoken-word poet and working in that industry, I think there are quite a few emerging voices and I’m really glad to see there are people emerging as poets and looking to push themselves and take up things, whereas before, we would always doubt ourselves. For me, the three who won were very experienced poets and clearly had spent a lot of time with poetry and read a lot of poetry and really thought about what it meant to be published.

That’s why those three were selected. We put together a shortlist and then from the shortlist, we knew who each manuscript belonged to and what their background was and made a decision about the winners. They were all really deserving. We weren’t aware of their backgrounds until that shortlist was in place.

DT:      The geographical spread of the three writers is really interesting.

SKI:      That was purely by chance. It wasn’t strategic that we wanted to have the Midlands, Wales, London, it was genuinely the works that resonated and spoke out.

DT:      I think it’s going to be a really important thing if you are an emerging writer or unpublished because very often, things are London-focused. It seems very positive. Before we take a third reading, I want to thank you very much, I’ve had a great time chatting and there’s so much more we could have talked about. It’s a shame these things can’t go on for three hours. I don’t think the listeners would indulge me on that.

SKI:      We’ll have a cup of tea and continue our chat.

DT:      And there’s always opportunity to revisit things in future as well because there’s a lot to think about in this conversation. As writers and artists, our ideas change so much as the process goes along. If people want to check you out, where can they do that?

SKI:      I’ve got a website, www.shaguftakiqbal.com and I’m on social media as Shagufta K Iqbal Poet. Instagram, I use a fair bit, I tweet occasionally and I’ve also got a Facebook page, but I’m not so on top that.

DT:      Me too, the Facebook page for this podcast has gone right downhill. I’m not sure people can even see it with the algorithms the way they are.

SKI:      I think you’ve got to keep paying to get people to see it. That’s where you can find me, otherwise you can find me in Bristol or at Golden Tongue in the nights we run in London. I was going to read a particular poem, but I think I’ve changed my mind after the conversations we’ve been having. I’ll stick to the original one, because we’ve talked enough about what language means.

So the poem I’m going to share is called Empire and it’s something it’s taken me a very long time to write, a poem about colonisation and the effects it had on the Indian sub-continent. What that means as a Punjabi as well, where Punjab has been split into so many different sections and the lasting effects of it. I wrote this poem in the only way I knew how to write it, as a relationship.

To read this poem please download the full transcript here.

Outro:

DT:      Thanks a bunch for sticking around. If you’re interested in checking out the pamphlets we were chatting about, which were a result of the competition that Shagufta judged, get yourself over to burningeyebooks.wordpress.com for updates about publication dates, about what are sure to be fantastic short collections from Hanan Issa, Adrian Earle and Caroline Teague. For updates from us, find us at Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook or Instagram or @Silent_Tongue on Twitter and go to A Poem A Week on Facebook or Twitter for our companion series.

If you can afford to do so, do please support us by buying our fantastic anthology Why Poetry? I’ll be back, probably at the end of November, with episode 120. I haven’t lined up a guest for that episode yet, so it will be a surprise for everyone. The next episode will be the last before I take a few months off. I haven’t really had a break in the four years the podcast has been going. What with the workload this year and getting the book out, I’m a bit cream crackered, as we say in London.

More details on that break next month. Here’s an idea, why don’t you get in touch via social media and let me know who you’d like me to talk to in 2019? It seems like a long way off, but it’s only 12 weeks away. Here’s that poem from the anthology I promised you. It’s Apparition by Zeina Hashem Beck.

To read this poem please download the full transcript here.

That’s it. Be good to yourselves and others. See you later.

End of transcript.

 

Publication Day!!

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I’m really happy to tell you all that our brand new anthology ‘Why Poetry?’ has been published today. From today you’ll be able to request it at your local bookshop or order it direct from the publishers VERVE Poetry Press for £9.99 (probably the best deal for us and the publisher. The anthology is being published to celebrate our 4th birthday, 1st October.

The process of  putting this book together has been wonderful and made all the more special that I got to work on it together with wife Lizzy (host of our companion podcast a poem a week). To be able to bring together 28 former podcast guests in one publication, pairing poems with quotes from the contributor’s interviews, has been a dream.

Buying this book will not only bring you a fantastic collection of poetry and an interview with me about the history of the project but a significant amount of the proceeds will go towards ensuring that the series remains transcribed throughout 2019. Supporting us by buying the book means supporting us to remain as accessible as possible.

Full list of poets included: Travis Alabanza, 41650085_1891872641121793_686660851385499648_nSandra Alland, Khairani Barokka, Zeina Hashem Beck, Leo Boix, Mary Jean Chan, Donald Chegwin, Grim Chip, Rishi Dastidar, Susannah Dickey, Nadia Drews, Joe Dunthorne, Harry Josephine Giles, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Keith Jarrett, Anna Kahn, Luke Kennard, Sean Wai Keung, Nick Makoha, Roy McFarlane, Paul McMenemy, Kim Moore, Helen Mort, Abi Palmer, Amerah Saleh, Giles Turnbull, Lizzy Turner, Jane Yeh.

Thank you all so much for listening over the last four years and a huge thank you to anyone that has already bought the book.

David xx

 

Episode 117: Andrew McMillan

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Hello! I’ve just uploaded the latest LPP episode which, this month, features the wonderful Andrew McMillan. We met up at his home in Manchester at the beginning of July to chat about his brand new, second full collection of poetry Playtime (Cape Poetry). It’s a brilliant book which I highly recommend reading. Below is a transcript of the conversation, minus the three poems Andrew reads. If you’d like the transcript including poems then download it here. David. xx

 

Transcript:

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Andrew McMillan – AM

 Introduction:

DT:      Hello, welcome to episode 117 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. My name is David Turner. How are you lot doing? Where to start with this one, eh? Myself and my wife Lizzy have been busying ourselves with Why Poetry?, the Lunar Poetry Podcasts anthology, which will be out September 27th, in time to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the podcast. I suppose I should seize this moment to remind you the anthology is available to pre-order from Verve Poetry Press for only £9.99 including free delivery, so get yourself over to their website or follow the link in the episode description.

The book charts the history of the podcast in the form of a transcribed conversation between me and friend of the series Abi Palmer, which weaves its way through 28 poems by former guests. Poets in the book include the likes of Helen Mort, Jane Yeh, Mary Jean Chan, Nick Makoha, Luke Kennard, Travis Alabanza and Melissa Lee-Houghton. It’s a unique line-up of poets and I honestly don’t know where else you will get a book quite like this one. Proceeds from the book are going towards ensuring the series remains transcribed for as long as possible.

As well as the pre-order option, we will be exhibiting at the Free Verse Poetry Book and Magazine Fair at Senate House in London September 22nd  at which we will have advance copies available to buy. So if you’re coming along to that, do stop by our table and say hello. On to today’s episode, in which I chat to one of my favourite poets, Andrew McMillan. I met up with Andrew at his home in Manchester at the beginning of July to talk to him about his second full collection of poetry, Playtime, which is out through Jonathan Cape.

In 117 episodes, this is the first time I’ve met up with a poet to specifically discuss the transition from debut collection to second book. I found Andrew’s reflections on confidence in his writing, audience expectation and reaction and placing growing demands on readers just fascinating. As with his debut Physical, Playtime deals with what it is to be a man in general, what it is to be a queer man specifically and how as boys, they or we learn about other male bodies, only this time around, more so, as it were.

This collection is a more focused attempt to deal with these themes and I feel lucky to have spent time with Andrew, listening to him explain how he attempted to refocus that gaze. If you enjoy this conversation or any of our other 116 episodes, please do spread the word, either on social media or in the fleshy, real every day. It really helps us reach new listeners. As always, a full transcript of this episode is available over at our website, http://www.lunarpoetrypodcasts.com. Here’s Andrew.

Conversation:

AM:

To read Andrew’s poem ‘Martyrdom’ download a full transcript here.

DT:      Thank you very much, Andrew. We briefly discussed before that I don’t like to request poems from people and it’s mainly because I like the surprise. I would have chosen that one. The surprise is always really nice when a poem I wanted comes up without demanding it. Firstly, I should say congratulations on the publication of your second full collection, Playtime. Because I haven’t had this kind of conversation on the podcast before, it seems natural to brazenly ask you to give us an insight into what you see as the changes from your first collection, Physical and into Playtime.

AM:     Yeah, so the poem I just read, Martyrdom, was the first poem I actually wrote for the book and I wrote it during a time I’d gone away to finish the first one, so it kind of crosses over in terms of the timeline quite a bit. This is much more about childhood, early adolescence. I guess Physical ended up being about me and people like me in my early 20s and I became much more interested in thinking how it was, how it is that we grow into our sexual selves or our physical selves, as it were.

I think Physical wasn’t really that sexual, people just thought it was because of the cover, whereas this one is much more explicit, much more personal. I feel much more vulnerable about it. It strikes me now when I still read from Physical a bit that some of the poems are quite general, so they might talk about the bodies of someone, or the bodies of men, whereas this is a lot more narrative, I think, and it feels a lot more personal, at least in some of the startings of some of the poems.

DT:      Very interesting to hear you say that because it’s always nice to give the author the  chance to set that tone, but the few notes I have made for this conversation revolve around the fact that there isn’t a definite cut-off point between Physical and Playtime. There seems to be a merging, especially in the first section of Playtime, and it’s really funny to hear your view on how you view the different collections of poetry, because it seems to me now, some of the things I’ve seen written about Physical actually reflect more what Playtime is. Where the crossover lay, it seemed to me you were trying to be more focused on those points and maybe reiterate.

AM:     I think so, yeah. It’s interesting because in many ways, Physical was received in a way that was utterly unexpected to me and it was a glorious three years with it. In many ways, I think what happened was there was the book, then the reaction to the book and those are two separate things, in a way. There’s like the book and the imagined book, what people imagined it was. I think it’s right that a lot of what was imagined about the first one, I almost carried or tried to take forward into this new one. It is a continuation in many ways, it’s almost like a prequel, because it’s about a younger self, I guess.

DT:      How did the reaction to Physical inform the writing? Did it have any conscious effect on the way you were writing?

AM:     It gave me a certain confidence to know that it must be all right. It just gave me a certain confidence in the sincerity of it and so, Physical came out at a time when it felt like there was an emergence of a new sincerity in poetry, which I was really attracted to, so Hannah Lowe and Liz Berry and Helen Mort, this very sincere voice and I’d done three pamphlets before Physical came out and I remember when the first one came out, when I was still at Uni, it got this one review that basically said ‘this is just kind of teenage angst, why would anybody care about what someone thinks about themselves? It’s just too emotional.’

I really took that to heart, like I think you do with criticism and just thought it’s not that, I need to be less sincere, then it needs to be less honest and actually, Physical was just the book I felt I wanted to write and the fact that it did what it did when I began to write again, I knew it was OK to be writing into that territory, I guess. It gave me permission to trust it, but I didn’t feel any kind of pressure, I feel much easier about this one. I felt a real anxiety about that first book.

DT:      My question was slightly loaded towards anxious feelings, it wasn’t quite what I meant. Also, within that, does Physical free you up to write more definitely in the poems in Playtime?

AM:     I think so. I just think Playtime isn’t going to win anyone over, so the people that really didn’t like Physical will really hate this one, I think, which is fine. It will be a quieter thing. I think first books have a very certain energy to them because it’s often a new voice, whereas this one will be quieter and I’m going into it with no expectations of how it might be received. I just feel easier about it. I just feel like it will have a readership because of what happened to the first one, so people, whether they like it or not, will still buy it, I guess, to a certain extent.

Then whatever happens, happens. I was talking to Jean Sprackland and she said this really interesting thing to me, she’s my line manager at work, as well, in my other life, she said to me after the first book, ‘it’s just a building of  a life’s work and so some books will be quieter than others and some books will be looked at more than others, but it’s just a building of a life’s work’. I liked that a lot and it made me calmer about the whole thing.

DT:      When Physical came out, I got an excited email from the poet Bobby Parker, we’d been chatting a lot and he said ‘you have to read Physical’. It was funny, when I got hold of Physical finally, because of doing the podcasts, my ‘to-read’ list is growing and growing, and unfortunately, the stuff I want to read for pleasure and not for interviews always takes a back seat. When I finally got around to reading Physical, it wasn’t the book that Bobby had promised me and it wasn’t worse or better, just a very different book. It seemed Physical could be interpreted a lot more, whereas you seem to be even more demanding of the reader with Playtime.

AM:     I’ve not thought of it like that, but I think that’s really interesting. I think Playtime, there’s less wriggle room in it, I think it points directly at some things that are quite uncomfortable and just says ‘look at this’ and there’s no way of not, apart from turning the page and not reading the poem. I think that’s definitely true.

DT:      In my notes and in my reading for this interview, I was trying not to focus on Physical too much because I want to focus on Playtime, but there are a couple of lines, particularly in Strong Man, I really loved the image of the line ‘what is masculinity if not taking the weight of a boy and straining it from oneself?’ There are a few lines like that which can’t be taken in any other way in Physical, but they appear very regularly in Playtime, these emphatic statements.

AM:     Not consciously when I was writing it, but I guess I feel more secure in my own voice or what I want to say. I’ve always been attracted to lines like that in poetry that don’t have any simile or metaphor and are just a kind of plain statement of fact. One of the things that really interests me in poetry is how they can make something, how you can strip every adornment out of it and have it still be kind of poetic. I love lines like that, that to me seem true, rather than being beautiful images.

DT:      Also, the reason I mention that is because I always like to think of people who are perhaps getting to the point of publishing a pamphlet or thinking about what it would be to have a collection come out and it’s important to them to realise that those people they may be trying to emulate or looking up to, perhaps aren’t as sure in their voice as the reader might think. I think it’s important to have that conversation, about how your view on your own ability will change over time.

AM:     I think so and it’s interesting, because I think when people first start out, or people are published, I think there’s a view that you walk through a kind of magic door and on the other side is a land of incredibly confident, self-assured people. Actually, the more people you meet, even if they’ve got eight, nine, 10 books, they’re all poets because they’re incredibly neurotic and nervous and unsure of themselves and they use poetry as a way to figure stuff out in the same way we do. You learn more as you go through, how to bluff it slightly in public, but I think everyone is still just as anxious and nervous and unsure about what they’re doing underneath.

DT:      This idea I’ve built up reading Playtime about being quite demanding on the reader, you seem to be more definite about the form of the poems as well, there’s a lot more space, almost like you’ve erased the stage directions, but there seems to be instruction to people how to read these poems.

AM:     Yes, I mean the breath space and stuff is just something that developed from the pamphlets through to Physical and then through to this. I like that idea of instructions for the reader because I always think of it like scoring a piece of music. You’re very rarely in the same room as someone who’s going to read the book and so you have to at least hint to where you think they should pause or where you would like there to be a moment of reflection. So getting rid of all the punctuation and just using these kind of breath-space things, to make it sound more like natural speech and try and give the reader some sort of clue as to where to pause and where to stop and where to keep reading.

DT:      Recently, I spoke to Jane Yeh about the element of collage or the cut-up element of her poems, in which it seems as if you can interchange lines and it’s something similar going on in Playtime. Although it doesn’t feel as though you can switch the lines around, the removal of punctuation and these breath gaps gives you the impression you could start lines in different ways. It could be a different emphasis. Although it feels as though you’re demanding something of the reader, you are allowing a freedom within that, to maybe start at different points and revisit scenes.

AM:     I’d not thought of that at all, but that’s a really interesting point, it makes it quite democratic, which I quite like.

DT:      I tend to make a lot of statements. I’m happy for them to be refuted. I think that’s where my idea of a more confident speaking voice came from as well, in allowing you to go back and start a line halfway through or put the emphasis somewhere else, but retaining those spaces, seemed a much more confident act.

AM:     I’m glad it seems more confident, I do feel more confident, but that is really interesting. I like that idea, that it moves towards the democratic poetry in a way. As an aside as well, I would say that Jane was one of the first-ever poets I read properly and her first collection has this incredible line in it that says something like ‘extinct in geological time’, which is this kind of perfect ending to a poem. It’s one of the first contemporary poetry books I ever read and I think she’s fantastic.

DT:      I don’t normally go in for this idea that every poem has to end on a killer line, but this poet I was talking to disproved that, because every poem did end on a really great line and it worked. I think picking out those words and lines and statements I mentioned earlier in Physical and more often in Playtime, it’s interesting that you seem to have bumped those sort of lines with that weight further up into the poem.

AM:     Particularly because there’s quite a lot of white space in the books,  even visually on the page, the poems often end quite quietly and I quite like that. I like that each poem fails slightly and doesn’t quite get towards where it wants to be so there has to be another poem that kind of tries again. The first poet I really read properly was Philip Larkin, who I know is very unfashionable these days, but has this great ability to go ‘der-der-der-der-der and here’s the meaning of life’. His final lines just leap off somewhere.

Mark Docherty has that same quality and I always wanted that, I wanted to try and somehow emulate that, to have that kind of confidence or swagger, not to undercut a poem with humour or bathos, but just to be confident to step off the end of the pier and go ‘this is the meaning of life’ or ‘this is why I’ve shown you it’. I think moving them up sometimes into the body of the poem switches it up slightly.

DT:      Caroline Bird, that’s who I was talking to.

AM:     She’s full of wisdom.

DT:      She should have my job, actually. In These Days Of Prohibition, it was a conscious effort to not give the reader any room to move. It was a conscious decision for the whole collection and I suppose that’s what interests me, not necessarily the difference, but what the writer’s motivation is for that. Obviously, this doesn’t happen in every single poem, but in the poems in which you do bump up what would be a final line in some other poems, is that for your benefit or is that for the reader?

AM:     I guess it comes from a conscious decision to stay in the poem for longer than I should, which I think is really important. When I was judging the National last year, 15,000 poems, however many it was, a lot of which were very, very good, but really plausible because they end on what should be the end line and they’re watertight and they’ve been edited to death and they’re fantastically brilliant, but they just don’t live with you afterwards for many different reasons.

One of the reasons is because the poet hasn’t sat in the poem for long enough, they’ve got out too quickly or they’ve got out as quickly as they could, because the subject made them uncomfortable. I think more and more, I’m just trying to stay in it and just keep writing, even notes or phrases longhand, after the poem feels like it should have finished, to see, to try and surprise myself and then I think the reader might be more interested in it.

So not knowing where the poem’s going to end up when it starts, so maybe that middle line that feels quite strong or it’s quite direct, might be where I know the poem’s going initially, but then it’s about you want to sit in it for a bit longer and say what you really want to say. That’s what makes it interesting, not really knowing what the poems are going to be about until they come out or until it goes off in a weird direction.

DT:      Very interesting point and it does tie in neatly with how I was reading Caroline’s latest collection, in that I rail against this received wisdom that you have to edit, cut down, cut down, make something neat. Funny you mention judging a competition because a lot of it feeds into that idea that a person may only see one poem of yours and it has to be neat and tidy.

What appeals to me normally is work that just continues and doesn’t subscribe to that. What surprised me about liking Caroline’s was she did it in order for the poems to end awkwardly, not neatly, and I really liked that taking that received wisdom of something very short and sharp and neat, but making it uncomfortable to read and to end on.

AM:     That’s so interesting. Bobby, who you mentioned earlier, would be another really good example, where the poems feel like they have a kind of extension, beyond where another poet would stop. I don’t really think there’s any point, and nor can I do it at all, to sit down and write a poem by going ‘I’m going to write a 20-line poem about this and it will end with this line’. I think that leads to very plausible, but quite dull poetry that doesn’t surprise me so it won’t surprise the reader, it doesn’t move me, so it won’t move a reader.

Whereas you see in Days Of Prohibition, which is such a great book, that ability that I’m always surprised by the end of the poem and Mark Docherty’s poems have the same quality, where you get to the end  and think ‘how on earth have we ended up there? Because we started there and we’ve ended up somewhere utterly incongruous to that, but it makes sense.’

I don’t think that can be engineered beforehand, I think that can only come from sitting and writing and writing and maybe cutting a lot of that out. The other half then has to be edited to make it tight again, because otherwise it’s too baggy and kind of messy, but the editing shouldn’t come in too early, before the poem knows what it wants to be about. There’s no rush with it, I think.

DT:      There’s a danger with that almost stereotypical view of editing that you know what a poem should be before you start. What possibly could come out if you’ve got an idea of what the finished object should be?

AM:     That’s what I’ve always wondered. Some people can and it must be an easier way to write, to sit down and go ‘right, I know what I’m writing now, it’s going to be this’ and then kind of dash it out. Any time I’ve ever, ever tried to do that, it’s just not worked or it’s led to something that I would never show to anyone, it’s never made it to the light of day, it’s just become an exercise or something to kind of be harvested from later.

DT:     I’m going to take a second reading before talking more specifically about Playtime. Did you feel the mechanics of your writing changing between the two collections at all? We’ve already established there’s quite an overlap between the two.

AM:     There was a moment when I really, really struggled. I’d written that Martyrdom poem that I read out before, which opens the book, then, I don’t know why, but I got it in my head that the next thing I did had to be radically different. So I went down weird roads. I decided I was going to write a sequence of historical sonnets about women. They were terrible, as one might imagine. Then I thought ‘I’m going to do x or y’, just floundering and floundering. Luckily, I’ve got a really good relationship with my editor, so I can send him stuff, Robin Robertson at Cape, as I’m going along and say ‘Look, I’m lost, what’s happening?’

He said this really helpful thing to me, he said ‘look, it will be different, because you’re already a different person than you were three years ago, you’re going to write new stuff, but you have your sensibility, so don’t panic’. That was so freeing. I came home and I think immediately wrote a couple of poems I would have been scared to write before, because I felt like they were too similar. So I went through this phase of really trying to radically change and realised ‘actually, I still want to say the same things, it will just shift naturally because I’m going to shift naturally.’

I think with this one, there was a definite attempt at trying to focus in on specific moments, which there hadn’t been in the first one, so the first one was more general memories, whereas this second book was definitely ‘this happened this day and I’ll write about that or this particular incident’, which involved this time around, much more sitting in very, very uncomfortable places for quite a long time, which I don’t advise as a writing technique, ethically.

This one was much more focused in on… Some things would occur to me, like ‘God, I remember that, I remember when that happened’ and then I would just sit with that memory for quite a while and see what came out. Again, the first one was much more taking the experience of me in Manchester in my early 20s and trying to somehow generally capture that, whereas this one feels much more tightly focused, I guess.

It’s only three years, but I feel like I wrote this one much slower, or the individual poems came individually, rather than in clumps, like they sometimes did with Physical. Also, the panic really was that Cape do not that many poetry books a year and so you have to sign the contract so they can officially put you into the schedule and so, when I signed the contract for Physical, it was a book, like me giving over a product and me signing a contract and that kind of made sense logically.

Whereas this one was really signing a contract on maybe five or six poems, which utterly freaked me out. There was no rush with it, it could have come out next year, the year after, there was no rushing me into it, but that having nothing, starting again. Most of Physical was written in three or four years, it wasn’t a lot of juvenilia and stuff crammed into it, but it’s the kind of life’s accumulation of stuff you’ve got to play with.

Suddenly, with the second one, there’s nothing. I had that one poem I’d written when I was finishing the first one and I’d never had to do that before. I guess it was just learning how to do it again or seeing if I even could do it again or thinking ‘if it is only this first book, maybe that’s enough’. But it did come back.

DT:      It’s amazing how no achievement will prepare you for the next step. It doesn’t really matter what you’ve done before, if you’ve suddenly then got to produce something again. I find it with the podcasts. If I get a lot of feedback about a particular episode, it does nothing but scare the life out of me about the next one, that I’ll suddenly forget how to talk to people or it won’t flow or I won’t edit it correctly.

AM:     That’s the thing, I think every poem, people have said this much more eloquently, but every time you write a poem, you immediately forget how to do it. You have to learn again. Maybe we were going to talk about this later on, maybe not, but the whole prize culture thing is such a weird thing anyway, or it did for me and it was fantastic, but it comes in such peaks and troughs. Like The Guardian thing, that’s exciting for a few weeks, but then you have to come home and empty the dishwasher. It’s not life-changing in the way that winning an Oscar would be in another art form or winning the Turner prize, it doesn’t really shift anything.

Being shortlisted then not winning is a weird thing in itself because there’s a lot of hype leading up to it and then you’re really happy for the person who wins… I remember after one of them me and my boyfriend just went to the cinema to see a Helen Mirren film. We’d had the award ceremony, we clapped who won, then we were like ‘oh, let’s just go to the cinema’. It’s a very weird, intense bubble for four or five minutes and then you have to leave it, thankfully, because it’s an odd space to occupy. You have to put all that aside when you write. It would send you mad if you tried to write towards prizes or even held in your head what anyone was going to think of it.

DT:      I suppose all prize-giving bodies, because of the way they work, focus on a very unnatural distillation of any point of your writing career because they’ll have arbitrary dates you have to get work published within for them to be part of the shortlist, so it’s not you that gets to dictate what gets read and how it gets read.

AM:     That’s the thing, I think. This is interesting, say me and Sarah Howe’s book came out the same year, but we were on different years of our shortlist, which was weird because it was kind of mid-year to mid-year, the Sunday Times one, I think it was. Genuinely, the best thing prizes can do, or the best thing they did for me, is just allow me to meet people I now feel really close to, like Max Porter, because Grief Is A Thing With Feathers came out in the same year, or Jessie Greengrass whose short-story book was out that year.

Sarah and Matthew Siegel from America, and people like that, you come to feel very close to certain people because it’s such an intense time you’re kind of throw together in. And no one remembers. I’ve been introduced as having won stuff I was never shortlisted for, been shortlisted for stuff I won, like nobody really remembers, which I actually find quite comforting. In the grand scheme of things, it just doesn’t matter.

DT:      I’ve spoken to a few people about prizes, but I always try to allow people to bring that up themselves. I’ve always made a point that I don’t invite people on that have won anything because that’s out of my control, it has nothing to do with the reasons I would want to speak to anyone and it’s such an arbitrary thing as well, who decides.

AM:     Having been on both sides of it, having judged stuff, you realise not how arbitrary it is, because everything I’ve judged, I think the winners utterly deserved, but how much it’s about that conversation in that room or how much it’s about the negotiation and the conversation around justifying why we like something and not something else, why it should be this and not that. Having been on both sides of that, so much of it is just luck or who the judges are or what mood they wake up in that morning or what they decide they should like or support.

DT:      I think it’s important to point out the act is arbitrary, even though the choice is very, very considered. Saying the process is arbitrary is not questioning the ethics of the judges in any way. It’s just only a very small number of any poems or collections could get nominated for anything.

AM:     You’re not comparing like for like is the other thing. It’s not like you’ve asked five people to draw a picture of a house and you’re going to judge the person whose looks most like a house. You’re judging wildly different things against each other, so in the end, say with the National, you can only think ‘has this poem done what it wanted to do as well as it could have done?’ That’s the only way to judge stuff really, because you can’t really put two utterly different poems up against each other and go ‘which is better?’ What does that even mean?

Also, that means different things to every single person. It’s a shame, because I think on both sides, prize culture and poetry, people get either very het up about it or put a lot of weight on it or a lot of disappointment onto it and all you want is for people to be reading your stuff. Reading good stuff as well. That was an answer to a question you didn’t ask, wasn’t it? I’m sorry.

DT:      It’s good when things go that way, it means I don’t have to think as much, which is great. After that slight but very interesting tangent about prize-giving and judging, we’ll take a second reading then get back to, I was going to say my notes, but my notes don’t make any sense. We’ll get back to something else.

AM:     Get back to something. I’ll read this poem that I wasn’t going to read, but I keep forgetting it’s in the book, so it’s the poem I’m most nervous about in the book because it’s about something very, very few people know about me, even some of my very close friends and so every time I pick this book up, I remember that I put it in and you can’t take it back now because it’s been printed. So Transplant that’s on page 19.

To read Andrew’s poem ‘Transplant’ download a full transcript here.

It’s the first time I’ve ever read that out loud.

DT:      Really? It does feel that stands alone somewhat in Playtime, but it connects a lot of ideas and actually, perhaps even more than Martyrdom, it feels like it connects Playtime to Physical in what is it to be a man, what is masculinity, what is it to go from being a boy or adolescent to being a man? What I like about Playtime is how it seems to be much more about how it is to interact with other men and not men in a general sense, because you are interacting with individual men and those interactions can do nothing but raise ideas of your own vanity, whether you are vain or not vain and how much you read into those ideas of attraction. You seem the most bare in a lot of ways.

AM:     That genuinely is the poem I feel most, not worried about, that’s the wrong word, but most vulnerable. I genuinely have to remind myself it’s in the book because I kind of block it out.

DT:      There are many poems within Playtime that could be considered more intimate or baring, but…

AM:     Yes, for whatever reason, that’s just the one I feel… But then it’s going to be in the book, it’s going to be online at Granta as well, it’s going to be out in the world, people are going to see it, but yeah, first time I’ve ever read it out loud, except to myself.

DT:      It’s odd, there are always these small elements about our personalities and experiences that are far more embarrassing to us. That poem probably won’t mean much to many other people in that they won’t feel that anxiety.

AM:     It’s true. So there’s a poem in the first book called Urination, which starts off with this fear of bumping into someone in the urinal and it just started off with me having that social anxiety and writing that down, then reading it out to a lot of people and realising actually, a lot of men are scared about that, even if they don’t talk about it. It came to me to think of stand-up comedy where it’s the principle of ‘I will say something and it will be funny because you will recognise it but have never articulated it’, so kind of anecdotal, observational comedy.

Often times, poetry works like that as well, to a certain extent. I will point at something and go ‘this is what happened to me and I’m ashamed of it’ and even if people can’t relate to the direct experience, they can see themselves in that kind of discomfort, I guess.

DT:      There’s a study into men’s behaviour at urinals and how odd it is if you walk into a public bathroom and there are three urinals and one man is standing in the middle, because it’s socially unacceptable to do that because there is so much pressure on how you behave in that moment, when you’re exposing yourself and expelling waste from yourself.

AM:     More and more, I was interested in that idea of how is it that boys find out about each other’s bodies? Girls, it seems to me, from a naïve, non-intelligent point of view, it seems to me they are much easier with each other’s bodies. Girls will hold hands, help each other get changed or choose outfits. Boys don’t do that, so the only way they touch each other’s bodies is through contact sport or fighting.

I was sat next to these two blokes on the train the other day, I think I tweeted it. It was this extraordinary thing where he sent his four-year-old son to learn mixed martial arts, like boxing and fighting, and he said ‘he’s walking around now with his fists near his chin.’ I thought ‘what is happening to kind of men in the world that they feel that is what they have to do?’

The girls go to ballet, but the boys learn at four years old to fight each other. It struck me as this extraordinary thing, that he was really proud of. I’m more and more interested in the way boys will learn about each other’s bodies, because they do, but often times, it’s in secret or clandestine.

DT:      To lead on, reading Playtime and the poems Watching MMA and Clearance and Phone Box, the way men interact and learn about each other’s bodies, the images that kept coming up into my mind were the paintings of Francis Bacon and the images he used as a basis. For people who don’t know him, he used a lot of the early photographic and film studies of movement, which included almost-naked men wrestling and how he believes that most reflected his attraction and his learning how to be physical with other men, because it had to be done through this pseudo-aggressive or plain aggressive manly act, attacking each other before you were allowed to be intimate.

AM:     The photographs he had done in his study or in the studio when the blokes were wrestling are really important to me, a really important touchstone. That whole idea has been really important, through Physical and this book as well.

DT:      It was definitely reading Watching MMA where suddenly I made that connection. The poem opens with describing the two fighters as ‘just being any two drunks outside the pub having a scrap’ then the line ‘like lovers reuniting’. It made me think that was what was eating away at the back of my mind, I couldn’t work out what I was trying to make the connection with.

AM:     It seems to me that MMA is just the gayest thing ever, innit? I love this paradox that it’s this incredibly hyper-masculine thing, that any time I’ve ever watched it, more so than boxing, which seems to me to be two blokes stood punching each other, mixed martial arts, because it’s often times about grappling in a hold, tends to be nearly-naked men just rolling about on top of each other, often times for quite a long time. It just strikes me as incredibly homoerotic in a way I find fascinating because it’s on that intersection between violence and sex, which is what I’m really interested in.

There’s a great quote, and I’ve forgotten who said it, that ‘sex often looks and sounds like murder’ and I’m really interested in that intersection, so actually, I guess one of the new things in the new book is pursuing that much more, through a couple of the poems, the more violent aspect of it.

DT:      I suppose there’s that element and that question as well, as a man, what do you need to experience before you can submit to another man? The central aspect of MMA is physically forcing someone to submit and all that’s missing is what happens after.

AM:     It’s what happens after. I find that really interesting. I was just reading Terrance Hayes’ new book, which is astonishing that Penguin have just done American sonnets. There’s this great line. Again, we were talking about final lines and sorry, this doesn’t make good podcast listening at all, but I’m just going to find it. ‘I can’t speak for you, but men like me, who have never made love to a man, will always be somewhere in the folds of our longing, ashamed of it’. I just thought God, that’s interesting, because that’s coming from a different point of view, a kind of heterosexual point of view, but it just struck me as such a beautiful line and it’s such a good book, American Sonnet For My Past And Future Assassin.

DT:      I’ve been lucky enough to see him read some of those, they’re really fantastic. I saw him at an event, part of the Golden Shovel Anthology with Peter Khan and Patricia Smith, it was really amazing to watch him. Again, it’s almost hypocritical of me, after railing against that kind of short, sharp, pointed writing, he does such a great example of what that can provide.

Going on from that idea of what it is to submit, the pride men and boys are taught to take in their battle scars and bruises, led me on to thinking about your poem Phone Box, in which it describes the contact between yourself and another person and because they’re soaking wet from the rain, the traces they left on you.  It’s a really interesting exploration. It took me back to Physical and ‘what is masculinity if not straining the boy away from you?’ As young men, we spend years pushing the boy away and what it is then to allow a man towards you in that context.

AM:     A secret is that’s the only poem in the book that’s entirely made up, I just invented that one.

DT:      It’s far more image-laden.

AM:     It didn’t happen to me, so I had to make it a poem. I’m interested in what happens when bodies collide with each other. It seems when bodies are put in front of each other or forced to interact with each other, especially strangers’ bodies, I’m fascinated by what that does to people. It’s the root cause of everything that we’re living through at the minute, so the rise of Trump, the rise of the Alt-Right and an exposing of people like Harvey Weinstein who’ve been behaving appallingly for years.

It’s at the root of toxic masculinity, which is learned. People aren’t born with it. It’s learned behaviour from society and I’m really interested where that comes from. Then if you learn where it comes from, how do we then begin to solve it?

DT:      That idea of toxic masculinity, one theme that arises through a few poems is the idea of going for a  blood test and this idea, I think it struck a chord with me because I used to take Lithium, so I had to have blood tests every three months. Lithium is a poison and you’re basically waiting to find out if the poison has had too much of an effect on your body, then you have to stop taking it. You were talking about finding the root. Sometimes, it seems as though men are waiting for the bad, whatever is toxic within them, to be extracted rather than to be looking for it themselves.

AM:     I think so because we’re told, well, it’s different for gay men and that’s a whole different conversation, but I think certain men are told they shouldn’t look for it, that they can’t be vulnerable. It seems to me that we’ve abandoned our young men to pornography, that there’s very little, I know this is changing, but certainly when I was in school, there was no adequate sex education, not even for straight people, let alone for LGBT people and that if we are abandoning the responsibility of sex education to pornography, how can we be surprised when young men turn around and expect certain things of women or expect women to behave a certain way or expect their own bodies to look a certain way?

They’re being taught a false ideal, which is incredibly violent, incredibly misogynistic. I’m not anti-porn in any way, but if we’re not backing it up with any proper sex education, we’re going to turn out a generation of young men who will have utterly, utterly unrealistic expectations and ideas about what sex or intimacy or love should be. As a society, we’re utterly failing to properly educate and prepare young people for what their bodies are going to do anyway. They’re just not going to do it safely.

DT:      It’s very worrying that even though the education system seems to be picking up the slack and saying we need more sex education, it seems to be reflecting a culture that wasn’t so influenced by pornography. It seems quite an old-fashioned view of what that means.

AM:     It worries me, again I’ve written about pornography, I’m not anti-porn at all, but it would worry me that 12 or 13-year-old have access to smartphones, access to the internet. I could find out about being gay in a very benign way and talked to young, innocent people online and then stared going out when I was 16 and kind of figured it out for myself. If you just type something into Google, in two clicks, you could find something incredibly violent or looks very horrific because you don’t understand what it is that you’re looking at and then become scared. I think that’s really dangerous.

My entire sex education was putting on a video in school. The only thing I remember of it is it said: ‘When a man becomes sexually aroused, he might become flustered and want to take his jumper off.’ That’s all it said. I found that to be mostly true throughout my life, but that doesn’t in any way adequately prepare you for the real world and that’s failing particularly, I think, young queer kids because the more I think about this, the thing about even if sex education fails heterosexual kids, they’ll mostly be able to look around and see examples in older siblings or in their family or just in wider society.

If it fails young queer kids to that extent, and they can’t look around and see other examples, they just become lost. I didn’t even know what that word meant, I didn’t know what that word gay meant until I was like 14 or 15 and then I look back and go, actually, a lot of these poem are, well, I knew when I was seven or I knew when I was eight, but just didn’t have a language for it, and that worries me a lot as well. I think that’s what’s beginning to shift.

DT:      I think that’s what’s so important with the kinds of writing that are getting published now. Following on from what you were saying there, even as a heterosexual adolescent, even if you’re not getting sex education, you can look to the media for ideas about what romance is or intimacy is, but as a young queer kid, you’re not going to see that in many places. There’s a bit of an age difference between myself and my wife and she doesn’t remember the series This Life. That was the first time I’d seen any intimacy between two men.

There were these elements of shame and it seemed quite an aggressive act at times, but then it seemed to go through those emotions. I can’t remember seeing anything like that again for years and it’s so unusual to actually see these and this is why I think it’s so important that there are more chances in literature, not just in poetry, that these stories can be told, because then at least in private or through libraries, people can go out and find these more realistic stories. This is what I like so much about Playtime, it confronts this idea of violence that leads to intimacy, or violence that results through shame, but it also tries to give a more realistic view. It isn’t always that stereotype.

AM:     I got excited walking to Waterstones. I was working in Newcastle and went into their Waterstones and bought Richard Scott’s book and had this moment where I thought ‘God, even four or five years ago, or 10 years ago when I was first starting to shop for poetry, there weren’t those kind of books on the shelves. It felt like such an exciting moment, to buy that as a book. I had a real moment of thinking ‘God, we’ve come a long way very quickly’. There’s still a lot of work to do in terms of representation, I think, but the fact a book like that, because it’s by Faber, it will be on the table and kind of facing outwards and things like that and it will be unashamedly about what it’s about, it felt like such an important moment.

It really struck me when I was just kind of buying it, how five years ago, it didn’t look like that on the shelves. You wouldn’t have find those kinds of books by these young, queer poets, but it feels like we’re in a moment that feels really interesting at the minute, with Danez [Smith] and Ocean [Vuong] as well, but from our own, home-grown talent as well.

DT:      I’ve not always been a fan of the way the big publishers operate, but  when they do pick up a title like that and Richard Scott’s Soho is absolutely brilliant, it does so much because automatically, if it’s a Faber book, it’s stood up on its own, not just slid into the bookcase.

AM:     That’s important, I think, and it’s just a great book.

DT:      We’ll finish with one point. I try not to centre myself in any of these conversations and over what is early four years now, when I was first reading Playtime and then was reflecting on what it meant in context of being a second collection following on from Physical, I was finding it quite hard to make notes. I was surprised because I really loved both collections and I felt like it was really easy to engage with them. But I was wondering whether there was something in me, going back to this conditioning as a boy and adolescent, that was stopping me from engaging. There was almost a block in my mind that wasn’t allowing me to write notes or questions, because if I was writing questions about these, they felt too close to my own experiences. I don’t know whether you’ve had much feedback from people about how they’ve read the poems.

AM:     That’s interesting.

DT:      It wasn’t easy to read and contemplate these ideas of how closely intertwined libido and violence and grief are. That was a really hard thing to try and disengage with in order to think about the listener and the conversation.

AM:     That’s interesting. I mean, it’s not been, you’re one of the first people who’s had it, that’s not seen it before. The people that had copies are the people that kind of helped me do the various editions of the manuscript. It’s interesting, there are poems I find myself not reading out to audiences. One of them is the Transplant poem, but I think that’s for different reasons. There’s the kind of sequence of – it’s not going to sell the book at all – the sequence of masturbation poems in there, only because it’s about finding out about one’s own body and kind of how we go through that.

Someone I won’t name said very funnily ‘the sequence should be called Wanks For The Memories.’ I wish I’d called the book that, but I didn’t. I find myself not reading those to an audience, because I almost think maybe I’m still slightly uncomfortable with some of those or some of those ideas. Sharing them with an audience publicly feels quite odd. In terms of feedback, again I think it’s that idea, I mean often times, I’ve been running a few workshops recently, I did one with Caroline in fact, a week, where we talked a lot about truth and daring in poetry and one of the things that’s kind of struck me is women will get called ‘confessional’ and men will get called ‘brave’.

That’s the kind of gendered reaction to how we deal with this kind of poetry. I was influenced a lot by people like Sharon Olds, so in that quote unquote ‘confessional/apparently personal’, whatever it’s kind of called, vein. The only real point of that kind of poetry is to, you know, if I was writing about nature, I would show you a tree because I think that tree says something about the beauty of creation, or whatever I’m interested in. The only reason to kind of show stuff about yourself is because you think it can say something about something bigger, otherwise it’s just a diary entry, or just a kind of blog post, it’s not a poem.

I guess with everything I’ve been writing or trying to think about, it might feel like it is just metaphorically masturbatory, just kind of about me, but really the idea is to go ‘this is this, because I think it says something about intimacy’. I guess, almost like that Urination poem we were talking about, you have to try and put yourself on the line and say ‘I think it’s this’ and other people will generally look at it and say ‘actually, no, it is, that’s what it feels like’. There’s a poem I put on Twitter a few week ago, one from the book that’s about when I had an eating disorder when I was younger, and a couple of people got in touch with me privately and said ‘no, actually, this is what it feels like’ or ‘that felt true’ or ‘that felt interesting’, which was nice, because they could see themselves within that thing I was trying to show them.

The book’s not out in the world yet. It will be by the time this goes out, so I might be in hiding, it might have gone horribly wrong, but we’ll have to wait and see. Yeah, I find it interesting there are poems I still feel too uncomfortable to read out to audiences, because I don’t know, I think it’s one thing to have it in a book, I think it’s one thing to have a bloke stood in front of you, reading something at you. I think that changes it.

Readings are always about the audience, never the person who’s reading, so my job isn’t just to inflict the poems on them. So I think there are some that will probably only ever have a life in the book and maybe the masturbation suite is one of those kind of things.

DT:      It’s really interesting, it’s connected a lot of things in my mind, and I think because I don’t have a physical book, I haven’t been published in that way, the only way I currently share work is to do a reading and I think I was reading things in Playtime and connecting with them very strongly, but feeling like I could never write that because I could never read it out. Really fascinating to hear about how some of these poems may only ever exist on the page, for people to read them privately or in groups or whatever. It’s interesting to hear you talk of not wanting to ‘inflict’ certain things on audiences.

AM:     I think so, you just have to be aware of your own position. There’s a whole other conversation about poets doing readings and I always think my job is to, not entertain as in make people laugh, but it’s about the audience, not about you, which I think is really important. Also, just being aware of the position. If you’re stood on stage, as a man, reading something, why would you want to do that, to an audience that, just because of the demographics of poetry, is going to be predominantly women and probably predominantly middle-aged women?

Why would they want to stand there while a 29-year-old bloke stands on stage and reads a sequence of masturbation poems? They can look at them in their own time if they want to or not, but I think part of it is about giving them the choice. More and more, I’m interested in, if I were straight and I wrote these poems, would that change the reception? When I’m 70, if I’m still, God willing, asked to do an occasional reading, do I read them and that changes them? Is that weird?

If I read Urination and things like that, I’m fascinated by who has permission to be publicly intimate as well and back to that idea of men being brave and women just been confessional as a way of kind of marginalising their voices. I think the whole idea about who gets permission to say what and how we receive it is really interesting and when I am a lot older and I re-read some of these poems out, that will change them, by their nature that will change them because they feel very embodied in me and how I present them. There’s not an answer in that, I guess.

I’m more and more interested in that idea of the power of the poem embodied in the person at the age they are or the kind of person they are and what that does to them then publicly through someone’s life, whether I’ll look back on these in 30 years and be like ‘God, really?’ Or whether these will seem tame and it’ll just be a constant progression of radical self-disclosure somehow, I don’t know.

DT:      You just have to make you sure you go on tour with Richard Scott.

AM:     That would be great!

DT:      If you go on after him, it will all be fine.

AM:     It will be fine, won’t it? I’ll always just seem vanilla.

DT:      I think we’re running out of time now, so we’re going to finish on a final poem, but just to say at the time of recording, Playtime is not out, but as you’re listening, it will be available to buy. It’s published by Jonathan Cape. I want to thank you very much, Andrew, it’s been fascinating talking, I really enjoyed it.

AM:     Thank you for having me and for coming up to the Northern powerhouse.

DT:      Oh yeah, we’re in Manchester.

AM:     Yeah, you can hear the Mancunian wind. Just because it came up in conversation, I’ll read the poem about my eating disorder. So the official statistics would be that 1.6% of men will have eating disorders. I would say the percentage would be much higher if we took in other forms of body dysmorphia, including steroid abuse at the gym and things like that, but the official statistics would be 1.6%.

To read Andrew’s poem ‘What 1.6% of Young Men Know’ download a full transcript here.

Outro:

DT:      Hello. You stuck around to the end. That means it’s biscuit time. That was the wonderful Andrew McMillan. If you can afford to do so, I really do recommend buying Andrew’s books or if you are able, requesting them at your local library. They are stunning. For those of you that don’t know, we have an accompanying podcast edited by my wife Lizzy, called A Poem A Week, in which she publishes, you guessed it, a poem a week.

As with this podcast, you can download and subscribe via all the major podcast apps. One more reminder that our upcoming anthology Why Poetry? is available to pre-order through Verve Poetry Press, featuring poems by the likes of Donald Chegwin, Nadia Drews, Keith Jarrett, Joe Dunthorne, Rishi Dastidar, Zeina Hashem Beck and Susannah Dickey. I didn’t realise I was this close to a building site when I started recording this.

As usual, I would like to thank Arts Council England, specifically the south-west of England office, for their continued support of the podcast and Snazzy Rat for the series intro and outro music. You can find more from him on Bandcamp. I’ll be back at the end of September with episode 118, which will possibly, just possibly, be an interview with me about the history of Lunar Poetry Podcasts, as it will be our birthday episode. Four years old! But that’s only if I can get over the embarrassment of editing myself. Either way, I’ll speak to you in September. Much love.

End of transcript.

 

Ep.116 – Ross Sutherland & C.I Marshall

Ross ep116

Episode 116, featuring Ross Sutherland and C.I Marshall is now available to download/ listen to via all the usual means, including iTunes, Acast, Overcast, Stitcher or here via SoundCloud. Further down this post you will find a transcript of this conversation, minus the poems read  by Ross. For a full transcript follow this link. Pre-order our upcoming book, which will celebrate our fourth anniversary, ‘Why Poetry? – The Lunar Poetry Podcasts Anthology’ from Verve Poetry Press for only £9.99, including free shipping.

Episode notes:

This episode is in two parts:

Part one – David Turner is in Peterborough chatting to Ross Sutherland about his podcast ‘Imaginary Advice’ and how it now informs his writing. The pair discuss Ross’ recent British Podcast Award in the ‘Best Fiction’ category, how sound engineering can help with character development and pushing literary ideas and devices to ‘breaking-point’.

Links relating to this section:
www.imaginaryadvice.com/
twitter.com/rossgsutherland

Part two (1:06:54) – David Turner is at Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham talking to Consuelo Marshall about her Verve Poetry Competition winning poem ‘Myself as a Playboy Bunny’, in front of a live audience. The pair also chat about the influence of San Francisco and long distance running on Consuelo’s writing.

Pre-order ‘Why Poetry? – The Lunar Poetry Podcasts Anthology’ here –  vervepoetrypress.com/product/why-po…age-in-the-uk/

For more info about the podcast –
lunarpoetrypodcasts.com/
twitter.com/Silent_Tongue
www.facebook.com/LunarPoetryPodca…s/?ref=bookmarks

Download a full transcript here –
lunarpoetrypodcasts.files.wordpress.com/2018/…t.pdf

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

Transcript: 

Transcription by Christabel Smith

Part one:

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Ross Sutherland – RS

DT:      Hello, welcome to episode 116 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. My name is David Turner. How are you lot? I’ve got a couple of announcements before we get on to the episode. Firstly, I finally added some intro music. You probably noticed. Regular listeners would have heard it on the last episode, but I got hold of it quite late, so I didn’t have time to work it into the chat. The music is taken from a track called Moon Museum, recorded exclusively for us by an artist called Snazzy Rat. If you like what you hear and want to listen to more by old Snazzy, get yourself over to his BandCamp page. See the episode description.

The next piece of news is very exciting. We’re publishing an anthology later this year to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the podcast series. I will return at the end of the episode with a list of the poets involved, but they’ve all appeared on the podcast and they’re all excellent. The majority of the poems are previously unpublished, so there’s lots of new work there. The book titled Why Poetry? will be out September 27th through Verve Poetry Press for £9.99, which is very reasonable.

There’s also going to be a deal whereby if you pre-order it, you will get free delivery. The bargains never end. As well as through the website, you will obviously be able to buy the book in, I was going to say all good bookshops, hopefully it will be available in the rubbish ones as well. For more information, get yourself over to Verve’s website or click the link in the episode description. It’s going to be a really fantastic book and the level of poetry in it is very high.

So, on to today’s episode. It is in two parts. Coming up later, I chat briefly to C.I Marshall at Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham. You see? Pieces in the jigsaw. It’s all making sense now. First up though is me in conversation with Ross Sutherland. We met up in Ross’ home in Peterborough, an area of England that is hard to pinpoint. It’s not quite the Midlands, not quite East Anglia, and they really don’t like it if you give up and say it’s near Cambridge.

We met in June this year to talk about his award-winning podcast series Imaginary Advice. If you haven’t listened to Imaginary Advice before, you’re really missing out. It’s an amazing exploration into what can be achieved with music, voice distortion and brilliant story-writing and telling combined. It’s an oasis in the desert of long-form interview podcasts, true-crime stuff and let’s face it, men shouting over each other. It was fascinating hearing how this medium is now shaping the way Ross writes and the way he is now thinking about performing.

His Best Fiction win at this year’s British Podcast Awards was very much deserved. If you enjoy this chat or anything else we do, then do tell people about us. It really is the best way for us to reach new listeners. Here’s Ross.

Conversation:

RS:       My name is Ross Sutherland. This poem is called;

Please download the full transcript in order to read this poem.

DT:      Thank you very much, Ross. This doesn’t happen to me very often, but I sort of assumed I was going to be biting my lip through whatever you were reading and trying not to laugh. I normally don’t corpse, but I nearly went then. That was really good. I’m going to start off by saying congratulations on your recent British podcast award.

RS:       Cheers, thanks, dude.

DT:      A win in the Best Fiction category, is that right?

RS:       That’s right, yeah. You could argue that my podcast is not a fiction podcast, because it sort of covers a bunch of stuff. I tell stories on it, definitely there’s fiction inside it, but it’s also got essay-writing in it and it’s also got poetry in it as well, but there is never going to be a category which I fit into well, so that was the closest, I think.

DT:      How does it feel to be the best UK liar that has a podcast?

RS:       Very good, yeah, absolutely, that is how I should introduce myself. I really love being able to increase the quality of a lie with some sound production. I really like the editing part, actually. That’s kind of become my new passion. The amount of stuff you can solve or realise about a bit of writing when you’ve got to listen to yourself saying it, over and over again.

DT:      I should say now that your podcast is called Imaginary Advice. I don’t know if you have this, but there are a couple of podcasts that I like and I really hope there is a large crossover between my listeners and their listeners, because I sort of want the same people that like that thing I like to like what I’m doing. I would hate to think the people who were really into Imaginary Advice think that I’m a prick.

RS:       They don’t think that, they don’t think that. I can guarantee they don’t think you’re a prick, David.

DT:      Do you have that relationship with other podcasts as well? You sort of wonder about their listeners and the life behind the podcast.

RS:       Yeah, I do, I’m really obsessed right now with this Twin Peaks podcast from Brighton called Diane. I just love it because it’s so much more than a podcast about Twin Peaks. It’s much more about using some of the elements of Twin Peaks to talk about mythology and psychology and to really explore a whole bunch of different stuff. It’s really, really well researched and also seems to have its core of a big, big following behind it of Twin Peaks fans, both here and over the world.

I suppose with any podcast, after listening to it for a little while, you do build up that intimate relationship with these voices that you’ve never actually met, right? I use podcasts at my most fragile, intimate moments. Yes, walking to work or when I’m stuck on a train or in the bath or going to bed. It’s these quite sensitive moments that I then go ‘argh, I need to shut out the noise, let’s listen to somebody else’. I’ve convinced myself that they’re my mates and I want everyone that listens to my show to listen to theirs and I wish it was the other way around as well.

DT:      I have to clarify, I’m from South London and I don’t care if anyone thinks I’m a prick anyway. I was born into that acceptance that people probably do and you sort of have to ride it out, so that’s fine. I tell you what we’ll do, maybe you could give a brief description a bit deeper into what Imaginary Advice is, when it started and why it started.

RS:       Yeah, so I started it about four years ago, about the same time as you. I’d been a writer for about 15, 16 years and at least 10 of that has been without a day job, which basically means frantically trying to piece together enough small bits of work to stay afloat. The longer you do that, the harder it is to go back and undo that particular mistake. I had, over the course of those years, created all these very, very small little commissions, which were for a particular project, which had been released, maybe heard by like 30 people, and had never had another purpose for them again.

I was feeling increasingly like the platforms that were available to me as a writer, performer, poet as well, if you want to call it that, were actually quite limited. If you want to stand up and do a poetry reading as part of an ensemble bill then, maybe you’re going to get 20, 25 minutes to read something that fits in that environment. Or maybe an essay commissioned or a poem in a magazine, but the boxes are still quite rigid, so I really wanted to find a place where I could take all those commissions and put them into a new place where they could grow a little bit and connect them to my main body of work.

So it started like that. I had a couple of anecdotes and poems and stories that I then recorded for the podcast and I found it just so, I don’t know what the word is, it opened up so much for me about what I could do as a writer and the idea that I could have something that was basically like an essay, but then, in the middle of that essay, I could drop a poem into it and the poem functions a little bit like a dream sequence. It enables me to tackle the same questions, but in a different type of language and with a different kind of logic, and finding out ways of putting together different styles of writing became really exciting to me.

DT:      Obviously, our podcasts are very different in style, but it seems as though they started, not only did they start at the same time, because I had actually remembered the first few episodes going out and Dan Cockrill saying to me ‘have you heard Imaginary Advice?’ because he’s been listening right from the beginning and he mentioned it to me, for those who don’t know, Dan Cockrill is one of the gang that started Bang Said The Gun in London, which was really great.

RS:       One of the navigators.

DT:      Yeah. So there’s that aspect of you just wanting to find a space to archive some work and just have it there and publicly available, but the reason I started these interviews was I used to write reviews of spoken word events and I was given quite generous word counts, like 1500 words in a review, which is a lot to put down, but I found that limiting and I just wanted my own space where I could decide if I wanted to go on for another 10 minutes, I could because nobody was going to stop me.

People might press stop and stop listening, but at least I had that space. Of course, with all of these projects, there’s a certain amount of ego attached, but at what point did it stop being a place to put old work and a space for you to actually do something new?

RS:       I don’t know, I think it has been a gradual, parallel processing thing, but you’re absolutely right, just that freedom to keep going and see what comes out. For me, it is also about this idea that in a podcast, through sound design, yes, you can use music and create audio beds, but you can also do really crazy stuff with time. You can have two scenes happening in two completely different time periods, like overlapping with each other, something that just from listening to Radio LAB, oh my gosh, they’re able to have three different environments which we are moving between in conversations, happening over the top and you can still distinguish them.

Even through having my voice and slightly EQ-ing my voice differently, was able to help weave together different voices. The more I found that I could almost save bits of writing, which I’d done, which didn’t really make sense, and I was able to use that sound design to pull them apart, then that gave me the tools to think more in those terms and to create stuff more bespoke in that format. I think the difference for me also was I fell in love with it because it felt like all the best parts of stage and all the best parts of what I get from the page, so from the stage, it got to be in my voice and you got to hear me come through the writing and to give it that extra vector, I think that was something I really missed on the page.

Simultaneously, what you got from the page I think in radio is that intimacy, that idea of it feeling like a one-to-one conversation with someone else. I think that Ira Glass quote, in relation to telephones, but he talks about telephones, the most intimate form of communication because you’re literally whispering in someone’s ear. He’s really talking about radio there, but I think that level of intimacy, you don’t necessarily get in a gig, unless the gig’s going really badly and there’s just one person in the audience, which happens. I think marrying together those two just made me fall in love with the format.

DT:      Even the biggest stage stars when they perform are never going to perform a gig where 100% of people in the room have come purely for them. People are going to be there with their partners or their friends and just giving someone a chance. That doesn’t happen with podcasts. If someone keeps listening to your podcasts, it means they’ve chosen to keep you often, like you’re saying, maybe through earbuds in a public place, they’ve chosen to slide off with you. We’re then whispering in your ear and it’s a completely different thing.

My question about that would be where do you see your natural home? If you had an unlimited budget, would you be trying to do this on stage? How much of it is this is an affordable way of developing these ideas?

RS:       Maybe that’s how it started. Simultaneously, I’ve made theatre and the theatre I’ve made was meant to be the same thing, meant to be taking stuff I liked about poetry but expanding it in a different format, but theatre actually has a completely different set of protocols and stuff like that. Everything in theatre is a metaphor for something else. That’s not necessarily the same way I would treat creating a radio story. These days, I would say I think audio is the form for me and I’m doing some live shows of the podcast over the summer, so I’ll be able to tell you better in a couple of months’ time.

I’m going to enjoy that because I’ve missed live audiences and there are definitely things I like doing with video as an element I miss working in, in this format, for the podcast. I kind of feel like finally, when I was 35, I’ve found this style of writing that I really like, so I got there in the end. I couldn’t have found it that much sooner because I wouldn’t have been able to afford the kit or it didn’t exist.

DT:      I’m being quite careful with this not to geek out into a podcast chat, but there are very serious considerations here, aren’t there? We were just having a brief chat about which type of editing software we both use and it’s only been very recently, in the last couple of years, that really affordable versions of very, very good editing suites have become available to producers and the artists, because that’s something that’s interesting about podcasting, I think.

The artists become producers, almost exclusively, in a way you can’t do in other mediums, unless you’ve got a huge budget or you’re a stand-up and you don’t need anything other than a microphone in a room and even that, you need to get around the country presumably. You need to publicise it and pay for advertising. But this that we’re both deeply engaged in feels much more egalitarian, as long as you’ve got the initial income to buy some equipment.

RS:       Yeah, but you know, if you’ve got a smartphone, my first couple of episodes were recorded on my smartphone, sat in my wardrobe and I edited it on Garage Band, which came free, I suppose I’ve still got the laptop, but yeah, it does feel like we’re in the middle of this huge boom of that and I love live gigs, but touring becomes increasingly hard. It did also come as a result of, I ran a night at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club for six or so years with a group of poets, which was called Homework, where we set ourselves a new writing exercise every month and it was great for us, it was the reason we kept writing, it gave us new deadlines, it was so important to me.

But as it got harder for everybody for everybody to clear enough space in their diary to be able to do that, even though we knew it was good for us, you know what diaries are like and life in general, we just couldn’t continue, but then radio, well, I call it radio, it’s not even radio, is it? It’s not radio at all. But podcasting basically means I get a gig once a month with about 700 people and I can pay myself a little bit for it.

DT:      We might come on to those issues later, but it’s odd how things, the coincidences when I have guests on the podcasts, so I don’t particularly plan which poet should follow which, because it’s all down to people’s diaries and when they can do interviews and I try to keep a mix of guests, but often it’s other factors that dictate that. But I’m going to have to do that weird podcast thing where I say that my latest episode, which hasn’t gone out yet, is with Jane Yeh.

RS:       I love The Ninjas. It’s such a great book.

DT:      And I’m really excited about the book she’s got coming out in March 2019. She’s working on her third collection and we talked a lot about how she is a fiction writer first and foremost. That aspect of her poetry where she’s assuming characters is really fiction-based, so it’s odd you’re back to back and there was no actual decision there. My guests have gone sort of ‘confessional, confessional, confessional, fiction, fiction’ and it’s a really nice break because I think I mentioned this in the last conversation, but it’s easy as an emerging writer to perhaps think well, if it’s not confessional, it’s not going to get picked up and where’s the space to just play around?

RS:       Yeah, in relation to that, I did some teaching not that long ago for a group of young writers, emerging writers probably, like 18 to 21, and all of them in their sets pretty much had a poem about the most traumatic thing that had happened in their life to that point. They were intense, intense things. I’m presuming somewhere along the line in the workshops they run, someone has encouraged them to do that. Towards the end of the week, we were going to have kind of like a show and tell, come read a poem, and there was one poet, she was like ‘I just can’t keep getting on stage and saying this’.

It’s just like yeah, right, if you are a performer, it’s Groundhog Day and you are forcing yourself back there again and again and again. It’s not like ‘oh, it was cathartic to write it, now it goes in a drawer, goes in a book and I’m glad I got it out there’. It’s like no, you have to relive that moment again and again and again. When does that stop being cathartic and liberating and when does it become this kind of repetition compulsion where you’re just stuck with it? I have sympathies for anyone who’s been working in confessional for a long time who then goes ‘I want to change voice here a little bit or do something else’.

DT:      I think it’s hard to redirect that mirror, whichever way we’re choosing to shine our creative practice.

RS:       Yeah, because it will always be about you. The party can’t start without you. Whatever it’s about, it will still be about you. Absolutely. It’s tricky. These things form really early on about what our entire relationship with writing is. It’s really deep down in the psyche as to what it is about the art form that makes you happy.

DT:      With Imaginary Advice, I suppose…Every time I say it, I keep hearing…

RS:       My weird robot voice.

DT:      Yeah, I couldn’t put it better than that. Your weird robot voice. People go and check out Imaginary Advice and you’ll know what I’ve got stuck in my head, but I suppose what people are tuning in for is there’s a real variety across the type of writing and the ways things are recorded and presented, but there are repeat characters if you like and I presume they are facets of your personality and who you are and your identity.

One thing I find really fascinating, maybe because it reflects something deep in me, is the slightly neurotic writer breaking down throughout the  presentation of the piece and the repetition of these things and I was just wondering from that – I’m making an assumption here, you can just say I’m wrong if I am – but that seemingly blending the confessional, not the confessional but the inward-looking with the fictional, and whether you feel that could ever work on stage or whether you feel that’s purely something you can only develop through trust with a listener perhaps.

RS:       That’s interesting. I think in terms of combining half-truth with fiction, that is something I feel I do on stage and partly for reason we were just talking about. It’s like if I have to get on stage every day for 24 days of like the Edinburgh Fringe, I’m going to twist to the truth to protect myself. I know the truth when I say it, even if I’m saying the other version of it, but I want to give myself a little bit of distance. I want to be the character.

If you’re a live performer, I don’t know, that level of sheer, complete honesty and fragility, particularly going up in front of a crowd that may not all be there for you, they’re not necessarily your mates. When they come in, some may know your stuff and will be giving you the benefit of the doubt, some people are here almost against their will.

DT:      Particularly poetry, solely poetry audiences. Not the most supportive of people.

RS:       This is the problem, isn’t it? We’ve got such a broad church, we have a lot of factionalism. There’s not really a huge amount to unite us because it’s this nebulous, grey area in between lots of other art forms, where lots of people are almost passing through or ideas start off as poems then actually crystallise into other stuff, but it’s in that weird grey area. When someone says to me ‘there’s a poetry night on near me, do you think I should go to it?’ Like ‘No!’ You should find out who’s on the bill and Google them and listen to their stuff and decide. The fact there’s a poetry night on near you, that could be anything from avant-garde noise poetry to stand-up in rhyming couplets to I don’t know what, it could be anything. Do more research.

Audiences are an unknown quantity and it’s difficult to put yourself out there like that and I think that’s naturally why poets that spend a lot of time on stage callous over their actual personalities a little bit, sometimes in a bad way, because I think you become weird exaggerations of yourself, and sometimes things become more exaggerated, but I think in every circumstance, it helps to play a part a bit. I feel that does apply. It’s easier in radio, definitely, and I do love the fact that with each new episode of Imaginary Advice, I try to change the format. Now I’ve been doing it for four years, formats are resurfacing, things I’ve liked in the past that I want to go back to, but that freedom is difficult to replicate

DT:      I think now would be a good time to take a second reading.

RS:       Yeah, absolutely. This is a new thing I’ve only just been working on this week because I’ve had a big break from just writing poetry. I feel poems have come out accidentally in doing other work, but I wanted to sit down and fall in love again with writing for the page, writing poems more in discreet units. So what I’ve been doing is at Christmas, I got a book of family wordsearches and I’ve been taking one wordsearch and reading along the lines and trying to decipher it, almost as if it was a poem that had been encrypted.

So sometimes it’s about adding letters in between or decoding in various ways. It tends to come out as gibberish, then in the next draft, I push it out even more and add more lines to make more sense of it.

DT:      Has it gone so far that you’ve developed any rules for yourself or are you just letting it flow?

RS:       Yeah, the rules are coming out in that I’ve become much more comfortable with first drafts being utter gibberish, then taking quite a long time with the second draft and allowing myself more rules about moving lines around and adding new lines if necessary. To begin with, the poems were just me trying to enjoy language and I set myself that as the end goal, like ‘don’t worry, Ross, just enjoy the process’. Now, some of the more recent ones have been revised enough times that actually, they’ve turned into stories and feel more like me in conversation with myself, rather than just deciphering. So let me read you this one. It’s called;

Please download the full transcript in order to read this poem.

DT:      Thank you very much. You’ve sort of touched on this already and it almost feels like a really naïve question, but just a bit of history, the first question I ever asked was in October 2014 to Pat Cash and it was Why Poetry? That was the fundamental starting point for too many interviews, before I had the confidence to think of more nuanced ways of saying that. I want to change that round a bit. I’d like to know where poetry starts in your writing, if you know.

What do you see in the podcast and in your own writing as being poetry, because it’s quite a broad term with your poetry, isn’t it? I’m not being negative, I think it’s a really pleasant thing, a really wide view of what poetry is.

RS:       I think what’s quite nice these days is maybe I don’t have to worry so much about that. I tend to say ‘I write poetry’ rather than ‘I am a poet’. I feel it’s a lot nicer to define myself by the verb as opposed to the noun. It makes it a lot easier to a certain degree. As someone who, not so much these days, but definitely in the past, spent a lot of time doing poetry workshops in schools, sometimes with quite young kids, but really any age in a school, any pupil asked to write poetry, that’s going to come with a lot of anxiety about ‘who am I to do that?’ Part of my role there is basically to try and throw all of poetry under the bus and say ‘you call yourself a poet by writing and that’s it.’

The confidence which comes from sitting down and beginning a thought you don’t know the end of, for me, that I feel is what starts to be the centre of what a poem is. It’s that kind of, if I was going to be all hippy about it, it’s more like a dream space where you don’t know where you’re going and you’re working intuitively into something, which is why I say almost all ideas begin for me as poems and then some move off into different formats and the ones that stay as poems remain crystallised in that original state of exploration.

DT:      That’s interesting, the nub or essence of an idea. I think one of my biggest points if anyone ever asks for feedback on their work, especially what would be considered more spoken-word stuff, is that the idea was good, it was just never an idea for a poem and the fact they stopped at a poem was what shackled that idea. It could have gone in many different directions, but trying to be a poet and control that idea was perhaps what let it down.

RS:       Yeah, I mean I feel it always helps with a poem to know what the door is, the way into a subject, but I don’t know which poet says, maybe it was like Billy Collins, I don’t know, maybe he was quoting someone else, about how a poem tries to escape its own subject matter, which is why when someone knows the end of a poem before they’ve begun it, then it’s like ‘I don’t think this should have…’

DT:      Like the build-up was just to get to that end point.

RS:       Yeah, it’s like ‘this should have been something else. That point should have been the start or you should have worked in a medium where I feel like you could have explored that further’. But yeah, it’s a thorny thing, isn’t it? I suppose you probably spend a long time specifically trying not to think about it too much at the risk of then killing any urge to do it in the first place.

DT:      Throughout the 116-odd episodes, I’ve tried to stop myself giving caveats of what we’re saying, but I think it’s important in moments like this to say ‘if you don’t agree with these ideas about your own writing, that’s fine, because out of the 200+ guests I’ve had on, every one’s got their own version of what the answers to these are and I think that’s perhaps what stops people answering fully, because they don’t want to sound like they’re dictating to other writers how they should be writing. What I’m asking is how you feel about your own writing and it’s not that I want answers for myself or the listeners, it’s just interesting to see how everyone works in such different ways.

RS:       This is it, isn’t it? It’s like I love a very, very open definition of poetry. I feel like it’s just that exploratory space. You could also say that for me, it becomes a poem when it’s outside the flow of capital. That is probably also like a bit of a definition of it. I don’t know whether therefore if a poem was commissioned, whether that means it stops being a poem, but certainly, the less money involved in it, the easier it is for me to tell you if it’s a poem.

DT:      Moving on and taking that idea of exploration, I’m thinking definitely about specifically your podcast episodes where repetition is explored. How important is it for you to find and locate a breaking point in a narrative? It almost seems like you’re trying to break the piece in where you’re getting to. I’m thinking specifically about, is it Seven Trips to Spar?

RS:       Me Versus The Spar. I think there are seven versions, yeah.

DT:      It’s not only a particular highlight of mine of your podcast, but it’s one of the best things I’ve listened to in ages. I really do love that and what draws me to it is that idea that you could just keep doing that until it completely breaks down and it almost does at some point as well.

RS:       I’m a huge fan of the OuLiPo, that’s the origins of a lot of that stuff and it really inspired my work, so for anyone listening that’s not familiar with the word, it means ‘Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle’, it was a group of French writers who began in the 1960s and they set themselves up as a kind of anti-surrealist movement. They didn’t like the surrealists. Well, the surrealists were saying ‘we’re accessing our unconscious minds, we’re breaking through the bourgeois mindset by painting our dreams and we’re totally free.’

The OuLiPo were interested in the same thing, but they were like ‘no, you’re not free by just removing the rules. You’re just becoming slaves to rules in your subconscious that you don’t understand’. So the OuLiPo flooded their work with rule-based systems and created all these arbitrary rules around it as ways of disrupting their natural thought patterns and therefore avoiding cliché, because they would make it fiendishly hard to write, by putting all these obstacles in the way. Then just in the way the mind has to think around the obstacles, you’ll end up in more interesting parts of your brain.

That’s kind of the OuLiPo thing and I fell in love with various techniques they’ve gone and done. I really love the univocalisms, which are poems that only have one vowel, I find them really fun and interesting ways of thinking about writing. I loved Raymond Queneau’s exercise in style, which is exactly the same as my Spar thing, it’s a very short anecdote which then gets told over and over again in different styles. I think I like loops and retelling the same story over and over again from this way of advancing a story in a kind of lateral way, as opposed to a linear way.

So actually, a very, very small text, but then by revisiting it, either in a different genre or with a slightly different angle over and over again, you get to explore different aspects of that same thing. It is about breaking it eventually. It’s about exhausting…

DT:      It’s what Georges Perec said, isn’t it? His book was Exhausting A Place In Paris, where he sat in a square, he was an OuLiPo, part of that movement and tried to describe every single thing he saw, to the point where everything lost all meaning, because if you’re actually seeing everything, you’re not seeing anything. The reason I bring that up is if any listeners are interested, you can go back through the archive to somewhere in the 60s, between 60 and 70 in episodes, there’s an episode about collaboration.

I’m sure you know them both, but Sarah Lester and Nathan Penlington on the 40th anniversary of that Georges Perec book, they repeated the exercise over a weekend in Hackney Town Square, [An Attempt At] Exhausting A Place In London, which is out through Burning Eye and it’s a really interesting look at how you can just exhaust an idea and eventually, it may loop back on itself. It’s all about loops, isn’t it? You can exhaust an idea and suddenly by continuing with it, you can reenergise it in a lot of ways.

RS:       I love working in that kind of way. What actually inspired me to do a lot of that stuff as well does actually come down from this aspect of live performance that an audience doesn’t see, which is repetition. That idea, like when I’ve toured with a bunch of people and we’re doing the same show every single night, and you gain this kind of real, granular interest in other people’s performances, and when someone else does their bit on stage that night, slightly different, that becomes really interesting and I think that idea of how through repetition, things can shift and change, that I absolutely love.

One of the things I like about using repetition is allowing one audience member to experience what that’s like. I did this theatre piece years ago and it was called Comedian Dies In The Middle Of A Joke and it was a seven-minute show. It was set in a working men’s club, a stand-up comedian comes out on stage to do a routine, I’ve already told them in advance this is a reconstruction of a murder, that after seven minutes, someone in the audience stood up and shot the comedian, but before you get to the gunshot, the show stops. There’s a sound like a record being wound back and the entire show resets and then everybody moves one seat along and it starts again.

This time, you’ve got a different person playing the comedian and we’re all in a different space in the room. The thing is, the comedian is actually just an audience member as well and they’re reading the routine off an autocue. There are various points in the script for people to heckle. The only thing that’s unscripted are the heckles. You can’t heckle at any point, you have to heckle when you’re sitting in the right seats and it’s the right time. What you find is over the seven performances in one sitting, with one audience, the heckles get smarter and smarter and funnier and funnier as people try and break the show.

They know what the comedian has to say in response to their heckle, so they can make them sound even more stupid by setting it up. What I really loved about that idea was that level of prescience, is that a word? The fact that the audience feel like gods for that little time. They know everything that’s going to happen and the confidence that comes when you know the structure so well that even they can feel comfortable playing with it.

DT:      I wonder how much of that attraction for you comes from, you have a background in fine art, right? Is that what you studied?

RS:       No!

DT:      Did you used to write in Liverpool?

RS:       I briefly taught electronic literature, so a kind of English and Cultural Studies course, that’s when I was doing my PhD, but I studied at UEA, I did Creative Writing.

DT:      I might just leave this bit in. Like I said, I don’t mind if people think I’m a prick. That’s interesting actually, because I had made an assumption and it’s interesting how I was wrong, so I was going to say that I’ve found with a lot of writers that have a background in having studied Fine Art is the overlap of what happened in the early 70s with Performance Art when the process was the thing and the final act wasn’t actually part of the artist’s practice, it was just the bit that sold tickets, the public-facing part of it.

It seems to me with the repetition and this idea of you showing your drafts, is that through the podcasts and through your performance work as well, that you’re trying to give the audience the process as well. A book isn’t perhaps enough at the end. The final piece isn’t enough. You’re inviting the audience into the process of making a piece.

RS:       That is true. It turns out no, I don’t come from a background of Performance Art, but that is absolutely on the nose and if I was being cynical, I’d say maybe that’s because deep down, I secretly believe that writing poetry is more fun than reading it. On a different day, I might not answer that one, but I love the idea of, I don’t want to meet the audience at the end, I don’t want to sand off all the edges and make the thing perfect and then hand them something which is this completely-made thing.

I think because the journey of exploration I go on when I write, I want them there with me as I’m exploring it. I want them to see the moment that I finally work out what it’s about and that is about opening up the process. That is partly why I like using at least sometimes in my writing career, why I really enjoy using form is because form writes that large, particularly in something like univocalism when you can only write using one vowel. People can see you struggling to tell a story and having to find these workaround solutions to getting through scenes and they’re there with you in your room, writing it, when they see you doing that, but not being presented with this perfect work of art.

I guess because for me, teaching poetry to young people, that’s so much of the uphill struggle, basically trying to expose the wires. One of the exercises I run with students is to get them to take an existing poem and then just write the opposite poem, take every line and reverse it. Some of those would be obvious and some would be really, really hard, like ‘what’s the opposite of February?’ I always feel like through the act of writing, it’s like playing a musical instrument, it’s like what are you going to do to begin with? You’ve got to learn the standards. It’s only through playing and being inside of the music that you can work out how to do it. I always feel writing through learning is the best way to do that and so, as much as I can make my audience also writers, the better.

DT:      As you said earlier, on a different day, you may answer these questions slightly differently, so I’m not locking you down in this one way of thinking, but had it not been for Penned In The Margins and your having such a large attraction to the process of things, do you think you would have found it that easy to be published? Because there don’t seem to be many publishers in the UK that are taking those kinds of chances on writers and allowing them to develop those ideas, in that like you’re saying, if you’re interested in what leads up to the book more, you need quite an understanding publisher.

RS:       Yeah, you do. I was really lucky that I met Tom at the right time in my life. My first collection was one of the first ones, I don’t think it was the first one that Penned In The Margins put out, but it was at the very, very start of that imprint and so I think we met at the right sort of time. I think Tom also being someone who’s not only interested in being a publisher, but also interested in producing live literature and theatre and who kind of understands this dual process of both finding how page and stage fit together.

I’m really lucky and all the books we’ve made have been experiments, with us trying to locate that voice and trying to find ways of allowing poems to… There’s something very exploratory about how I try and write and experiments, you never usually hit the ball in the middle of the bat, do you? There are going to be mixed results and being able to work with Tom to basically help cast off the bad ones, I feel really grateful. I presume maybe now, I feel slightly out of touch in terms of poetry presses and what small, hip, young presses are doing stuff.

DT:      I’m wondering, actually. You’ve definitely got people like Offord Road Books, Test Centre in particular, who are very interested in producing vinyl LPs alongside collections of books.

RS:       Their stuff looks beautiful.

DT:      Beautifully presented. I’m just wondering whether, because you’ve been involved in writing and publishing poetry for a lot longer than I’ve been in doing this podcast and sort of examining it, I do wonder if perhaps then when you first started working with Tom, whether the scene was more open to experimentation and whether it’s become more unified now. It definitely does feel more like there’s a particular style and I would be happy for people to come on the podcast and prove me wrong, but I do feel like things are becoming restricted for writers.

I’ve always loved what Tom’s doing at Penned and what the guys are doing at Test Centre because it’s nice to know there is something going on and they’re proving you can sell books as well. Not only are they printing them, I hope they’re not running at a huge loss, I’m hoping they’re turning over. I’m rambling.

RS:       Not at all. It’s so hard, isn’t it? I don’t really feel, at the end of the day, advice I always give to any sort of young writer who is feeling like the gatekeepers aren’t returning their calls, who feels like the scene is getting smaller and smaller, it’s always like ‘yeah, was ever thus’. Eventually, I think it just comes down to creating your own platform, whether that’s setting up your own imprint or running your own night or setting up your own podcast. As we said, the church of poetry is so broad, so big, and yet, it’s very hard to join existing clubs.

DT:      Just because I would like to give people a bit of faith and a bit of confidence, if you are writing experimentally, do also check out Hestorglock Press in Bristol and Dostoyevsky Wannabe in Manchester, especially if you’re looking at crossovers between essays, prose-writing and poetry.

RS:       The Dostoyevsky Wannabe stuff is great.

DT:      And it’s all affordable, they’re trying to make accessible books by selling at 2% over cost or something. It’s crazy. You can get most of their books for £4 or £5 on Amazon.

RS:       Did you say they were based in Manchester?

DT:      Yeah. They’re really good. They published something of mine, but that’s not why I mention them. They’re a good publisher despite publishing me. We’re running out of time. I just wonder, because I’m asking these questions of myself as well, with the podcast and the audio stuff, if we move away from it being a podcast and this experimentation of audio and musical bed and voice distortion, have you tried to think of some ways that can return to the page in any way or do you think that’s the limit of it, that has to be where it exists?

RS:       I think interesting stuff always happens at the boundaries between art forms and so I think it’s exciting to try. I don’t know what will come out of that, but I’m always interested in taking stuff that worked in one form and seeing exactly what happens when you migrate it across. I don’t know. I think so. It starts to almost blend as art writing and that’s funny because that’s a world I knew absolutely nothing about and yet, I should look at because I should be looking at how art writing could be translated into sound.

I think there are definitely loads and loads of artists grouped around that area on the other side, the page side, who are doing stuff with writing over the top of other writing or are kind of using text in a much more experimental way, using text with image and stuff like that. I know the sort of Poem Brut night which runs at Rich Mix would probably be analogous to that kind of stuff in terms of exploring.

DT:      My wife Lizzy and I were part of a Poem Brut night in Bristol and Paul Hawkins and his partner Sarah run Hestorglock Press. Paul has published Steven J. Fowler, who set up Poem Brut, so he put on an event in Bristol and it was a really interesting point at which mainly performers, stage performers, were encouraged to put stuff up on the walls and try and represent their vocal or audio work in image form, because it exists in this fabulous archive online, Poem Brut, the crossover between handwriting and the spoken word and glitches and slang and broken-down text and found text and collages.

It’s an amazing project. I hadn’t thought about that before, but now you bring it up, that perhaps is what led me to think I would like to see some Imaginary Advice try to return to the page, because it seems like ideas that on the face of it seem like they won’t work, there has to be something there, doesn’t there?

RS:       Too right. Only when something becomes impossibly hard does interesting stuff come out of it. Exactly. I’d like to give that a whirl because I think it might fail. Just for one year of my life, I would like to commission myself to do a project that I actually knew how to do.

DT:      Unfortunately, I think we’re running out of time. Before we take a third and final reading, we’ll just wrap everything up. Listeners, if you want to see or find any of Ross’ writing, the best place to go is to the Penned In the Margins website. All the links I’m about to mention will be in the episode collection so you can go down and click. Do go and check out Imaginary Advice, there’s a website link to that in the episode description. Any podcast app that’s worth its weight has got a link to both Lunar Poetry Podcasts and Imaginary Advice. If they don’t have it, don’t use them, find a new app. Just before we go, Ross, is there anything you’d like to mention coming up?

RS:       I’m doing a couple of live versions of the podcast. That’s me taking a similar kind of approach to writing which I do in the podcast and trying to move it to a live space, which means using video and some other stuff as well. I’m doing one at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 14 August and then 13th September at Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester and then 14th September at London Podcast Festival.

DT:      I have to say, one thing that’s constantly coming up is this Anthony Burgess centre. They seem to be having the best, not just because you mentioned it there, but honestly, I keep hearing it come up and there seems to be a lot happening in Manchester. That Anthony Burgess Foundation seems to be booking the best people.

RS:       It’s an awesome space.  I’ve only done something there once before, but it was great. Already, even back then, which was years ago, it felt like a really important meeting place for writers in Manchester.

DT:      Thank you for joining me, Ross. This has been 18 months in the planning. Well, not much planning, but 18 months since first invitation, but it takes a long time to meet up sometimes. Really enjoyed it.

RS:       I really appreciate it, man. This is called Dedication. Sorry, David.

Please download the full transcript in order to read this poem.

DT:      Dear listener, try and imagine that being read to you three foot away.

RS:       That was more intimate than even I expected.

Part two (1:06:54): 

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: C.I Marshall – CM

 Intro:

 DT:      That was Ross Sutherland. If you get the chance to see him live, then take it. He’s a great performer and I’m sure his live podcast shows are going to be unforgettable. As mentioned, you can check all live dates on his website.

Next up is the last of four short conversations recorded at this year’s Verve Poetry Festival and in this instalment, I chat to the winner of the Verve Poetry Competition, CI Marshall. It was great fun getting to know Consuelo over the couple of days we were in Birmingham together and listening to her talking about marathon running, San Francisco and the Playboy Club in the city was illuminating. Here’s Consuelo. Me again, then Consuelo.

Conversation:

DT:      Hello, Verve, how are you doing? Come on, cheer, cheer, cheer! We’re nearly there, we’re nearly free from poetry, but you’ve got one more bit of nonsense from me. This is the fourth and final…I’m wondering if I should mention this because they might not go out in order when I release them… I said fourth and final, so that’s dictated when that has to be released now… the fourth and final short conversation with poets at the wonderful Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham.

Today, I am joined by the fantastic CI Marshall, originally from Northern California, who has travelled here from Chapel Hill, North Caroline. Consuelo was the winner of the Verve Poetry Competition 2018 and we’re going to begin with a reading of that poem.

CM:     Thank you, David. Myself As A Playboy Bunny.

Apologies, we are unable to reproduce this poem at this time.

 DT:      Thank you very much, Consuelo. I used to always say to people ‘I don’t care about first and last lines, don’t keep telling me poems need to begin and end well if there’s enough meat in the middle of them’, but people keep contradicting me by writing really excellent last lines. I really love that ‘fast, fast as an autumn wind whipping the bay’. Would you mind explaining a bit to the audience and to the listeners how this poem came about?

CM:     I’d been wanting to write this poem, I’m trying to think, maybe for 45 years and I didn’t started writing until 20 years ago, so I’ve had this running around in my head, because I actually did interview to be a Playboy Bunny at the San Francisco Playboy Club, which is really hysterical. So the poem is supposed to be funny and people don’t laugh, but maybe that’s because they don’t remember Playboy Club.

An interesting thing I told the audience and those of you who heard me when I read, I just love this, I’m very interested in architecture and the 1966 Playboy Club in London was the final design of the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, which I find to be very, very amusing. He was a very serious man. His work was all concerned with light and space, it’s beautiful if you’ve never seen it, so I thought that was interesting. So what happened was, I had never been able to write this poem, so when I saw the Verve contest on Twitter, I thought ‘cities, I know about cities’ and San Francisco is one of my favourite cities.

If you haven’t been there, it’s very, very beautiful. It’s got beautiful bridges and the bay is beautiful, it’s got the best coffee in the world and it’s got steep hills and great car dealers and of course, now it’s too expensive to live there, but anyway, that’s what happened. I sat down and obviously, they didn’t hire me, for obvious reasons, so I had to put an ending to it and I was a very serious marathon runner. I remember I just had this vivid image, just before the AIDS crisis hit in ’78, I had this vivid memory of Mayor Mesconi placing, it was on a gold ribbon, the medal around my head and then a month later, he and another supervisor Harvey Milk, were shot in their offices. So I guess it was a great thing for me to do so well in the marathon, but it was also tragic and very American that they were shot.

DT:      You said this had been germinating in your head for a very long time. Is that usual for your writing practice?

CM:     I think someone who’s lived the type of life I’ve had, which has been extremely varied and extremely different from most people’s lives, when you get to a certain age, these things keep coming up in your head. And I teach, so I love to tell the students about things that happened when I was younger, the same age they were, and how different it was then. So yes, I have a lot of food for fodder, I guess we would say in the States. I have a lot of experiences, a lot of really unusual people. Some of those people are quite well-known people.

I just heard a young woman out on the street, you have great music here. She was singing Free Falling. I’m a huge Tom Petty fan. I don’t know what the money means here, I don’t even know what it was, I just threw it in her guitar case and told her ‘Yeah, Tom Petty forever’. I’ll get off on a tangent, but I was on the Strip in the 60s and the Rolling Stones were walking down the sidewalk. I saw Jim Morrison and Whisky A Go Go and there were 25 people there. I’ve written a poem about him and that’s another poem I haven’t completed, I mean, I’ve stuck away some place.

DT:      I once saw The Ordinary Boys walking across Clapham Common.

CM:     That sounds good to me.

DT:      Very self-indulgent of me. I was wondering if there’s a connection between the long-distance running and the germination of ideas, because I’m a middle-distance runner myself and I have a very similar relationship to writing as well, I think, in that I don’t write for a while and things have to sit with me.

CM:     When I ran marathons, I didn’t use my mind. The watches weren’t that good, so I would take a Sharpie and write my splits, which would be my times that were supposed to be 10 miles, 20 miles, that whole thing, but I didn’t use my mind. I ran Boston. I ran too many, that’s probably one of the problems in terms of brain cells, but what I learned later in life was I couldn’t run anymore because you deteriorate the vertebrae in your spine from the impact. No one told us that, I found that out.

So I started doing yoga, I got my certificate. I’m very interested in that. The biggest thing yoga taught me was introducing my body to my mind and having them being the best of friends. Because I’ve been able to do that through the practice of yoga and actually, I’m stronger now probably than I was when I was running 125 miles a week. And the breath. I wasn’t really cognisant of my breath when I ran, which sounds absurd, but I wasn’t. So it’s that blending of the mind and the body. Running, I either wasn’t conscious of it or didn’t use it, but now, I use it a lot in my writing. A lot. It makes me sit down. There are a lot of things I use, that balancing of my mind and being able to tell my mind what to do and it will actually do it.

DT:      That point you made about writing the split times on your wrist, I often talk about long-distance running to people in terms of it’s not a slog, you’re not running 10k, 20k, 40k, you’re breaking it down in your mind into splits, into kilometres or miles, much in the same way you might break a collection or a manuscript into smaller pieces and break down the points of your life into smaller, manageable parts.

CM:     I think one thing I would say when he was saying that, it triggered again, these cells kick in and I think I can actually grow new ones now, anyway, the fact that you can pull these things out and they come back to you and you can actually write them and you can control them much better than you could have before. That’s a major thing. The other thing I was going to say too is the discipline. There’s no way you can run a marathon unless you’re really disciplined and of course that takes some mind control too.

That discipline and that time, like ‘I have to get this poem in the calendar in Poets and Writers’ and I’m always looking at that, I have it on my own calendar and all these ways to make me do it. It’s that sense of time, that big digital clock they invented in the 80s, I always see that, because it’s on the finish line when you’ve run a marathon, so I always see that digital clock and that helps me be able to finish a manuscript, to be able to finish a poem, to meet the deadlines.

DT:      Talking of finishing, we’re running quickly out of time. We’re going to take a second and final poem. I’m really annoyed, because I want to keep talking, but we’re going to have to finish. Thank you, Consuelo.

CM:     Thank you. This, well, you’ll know who it is, it’s in the title, so I’ll just read it.

Apologies, we are unable to reproduce this poem at this time.

DT:      Thank you, CI Marshall, thank you to Verve 2018. I love this festival, it’s brilliant.

Outro: 

DT:      That was CI Marshall. You stuck around to the very end. Grab a biscuit, etc, etc. This anthology I was telling you about, I’m not going to list all the names of the poets in the book because there are too many, but just as a little taster, we’ve got work from Helen Mort, Travis Alabanza, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Nick Makoha, Luke Kennard, Khairani Barokka, Zeina Hashem Beck, Susie Dickey and Mary-Jean Chan, to name but nine of the 28 poets. If you want to know more about the book or what else is coming up in the series, get over to lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, where you can also find a full transcript of this episode.

You can always find us @Silent_Tongue on Twitter or Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook and Instagram. This episode and the accompanying transcript were made possible with the generous support of Arts Council England, specifically the South West office. As I said earlier, if you like what we do, do tell your friends. It helps a lot. If you want to go even further, why not leave us a review over on iTunes.

Thanks again to Snazzy Rat for the music. I’ll be back at the end of August with episode 117. These episode numbers are so far beyond anything I ever thought I’d achieve, they seem a little bit ridiculous now. In episode 117, I’m going to be chatting to Andrew McMillan about his brilliant second collection, Playtime. Thanks for listening. I still can’t believe anyone does. Much love. Bye.

End of transcript.

Why Poetry? – The Lunar Poetry Podcasts anthology.

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I’m delighted to be able to announce that we have an anthology of poems by former podcast guests coming out September 27th through Verve Poetry PressThe book will cost £9.99 and is available for pre-order now here, and includes free shipping. It is edited by myself and my wife Lizzy, editor of our accompanying podcast series, a poem a week.

Poets featured in the anthology, in order of appearance: Helen Mort, Sean Wai Keung, Lizzy Turner, Grim Chip, Paul McMenemy, Donald Chegwin, Abi Palmer, Travis Alabanza, Keith Jarrett, Anna Kahn, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Nadia Drews, Nick Makoha, Harry Josephine Giles, Luke Kennard, Amerah Saleh, Khairani Barokka, Joe Dunthorne, Zeina Hashem Beck, Kim Moore, Rishi Dastidar, Sandra Alland, Giles L. Turnbull, Susannah Dickey, Mary Jean Chan, Leo Boix, Roy McFarlane and Jane Yeh.

Obviously featuring only 28 poets from an archive of over 200 poets and writers is only ever going to give a snapshot of what has been achieved since October 2014 but I hope this snapshot is well-rounded, interesting and, most importantly, representational of what is happening in the current poetry and spoken word scene in the UK.

A huge thank you to Stuart at VPP for the initial invitation to begin compiling so much great work, much of which is being published for the first time. And for all of his hard work so far in trying to make the book a reality.

A big thank you also to Abi Palmer who has not only written the foreword to the book but also interviewed me for what has become an extended ‘introduction’ which now runs throughout the anthology in four sections (hopefully not demanding to much space!).

Below is the ‘official’ blurb about the anthology:

To celebrate their fourth anniversary Lunar Poetry Podcasts has teamed up with their poetry sibling Verve Poetry Press to produce Why Poetry?, a collection of poems by some of the UK’s most exciting and vibrant voices. This anthology highlights the breadth and depth of the series, offering a snapshot of the range of talent contained within the archive.

Since October 2014 Lunar has rejected the usual model of telling the listener what is good and offering hosts an opportunity for self-promotion. It focuses instead on showcasing what is happening now in poetry and spoken word, in the UK and further afield. Lunar is a platform for ideas to be developed and questions to be asked. Round-table discussions of important subjects (ep.105 – ‘Access to Publishing’) sit alongside recordings of live poetry events (ep.84 – ‘20 years of Poetry Unplugged’), though one-to-one long-form conversations remain at the core of the project.

In order to reflect the ranging topics and issues discussed in the podcast, the subjects of the poems within vary widely; from the various facets of identity such as class and gender, as in Nadia Drews’ Punky Sue, I Love You, or Zeina Hashem-Beck’s Apparition, to more surreal depictions of love and loneliness, as in Donald Chegwin’s Waking of Insects. The poems’ subjects and ideas are underpinned and elaborated on by the featured quotations.

By pairing the poems in the book with quotations taken from the 28 featured poets’ Lunar episodes, Why Poetry? highlights the inextricable link between process and final draft. Poets discussing their process throughout include four ‘Next Generation Poets’, major prize nominees and winners, and most importantly a number of writers without pamphlets or collections. Writers who consider themselves ‘page poets’ sit alongside spoken word artists and poets known more for their performances than their journal appearances. Those who teach workshops and attend residencies accompany those whose ‘other jobs’ are in cafes and offices. In true Lunar style the lines here are blurred when it comes to what makes a poet a poet and why.

Why Poetry? is the first public outing for many of the 28 poems contained within the covers of what is a unique book, reflecting a unique archive of poetic ideas, ideals and methods.

David xx

 

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

 

 

‘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”