Episode 123 – Vanessa Onwuemezi

LPP 123 Vanessa Onwuemezi

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

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

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

Guest: Vanessa Onwuemezi – VO

Host: David Turner – DT

Feature: Mishi Morath – MM

 

 Intro:

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, here’s Vanessa.

 

Conversation:

 

VO:

 For this reading please download the full transcript.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 VO:      That’s a good question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      How was that the first time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VO:      It was the same for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VO:

 For this reading please download the full transcript.

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

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

VO:      The fact that it is fiction?

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

VO:      We could talk that into the ground.

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

VO:      So the biological, scientific background?

DT:      That part of your academic study.

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

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

DT:      Do you have any examples?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 For this reading please download the full transcript.

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

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

 

Outro:

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      And finding a way to communicate.

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

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

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

 

 

When The Time Is Right

 

As time creaks on

I start to fear

What will happen

When the end is near.

There’s nothing wrong with me yet

No need to panic

I’m not going crazy

From my normal to manic.

But when I die I want it to be quick

Scared of suffering

Terminally sick.

If ever that happens

I don’t want to linger

Time to go

With the flick of a finger.

Is it too much to ask

To turn off a switch

A painless death

Without a hitch.

I don’t want to suffer

Right to the end

Give me the option

Of a man’s best friend.

One last farewell

A time to say goodbye

Small prick of a needle

A bit of a cry.

At the moment you can only do this

If you’re comfortable or rich

Flying off to Switzerland

When pain’s too much of a bitch.

Poor people like me

Have only the nearest bridge

If we want to die with dignity

To sleep in a mortuary fridge.

You preach “god’s” will

Saying your prayer

Watching me dosed up with morphine

As if you care.

Pumping my body

With a multitude of drugs

Prolonging my suffering

From white coated thugs.

You warn me of Harold Shipmans

Stalking the ward

Well just let me take my chances

And die of my own accord.

 

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

 

Another One Bites The Dust

 

I hope when I drop dead

You’re honest about who I am

I’ll be the one who’s brown bread

So won’t be able to give a damn.

If you’re one who never liked me

Don’t pretend that you did

Just say it like it really was

When they nail down my coffin lid.

I don’t want a ton of plaudits

Like for that Charles Kennedy chap

If you must say it how it was

None of that pretend you liked me crap.

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

I’m not going to pretend to cry In truth

I will be smiling

When it’s your turn to die.

It’s not that I didn’t like him

But bottom line was he’s one of them

And even though he’s seems a decent bloke

At heart he was still a Lib-Dem.

Yes, he died far too young

And had a drink problem like me

But it’s not as if I’m celebrating

More indifferent than full of glee.

He was a politician from the telly

I didn’t share his views

In fact the only thing I’m sorry about

Was that it was him & not Simon Hughes.

 

 

 

 

End of transcript.

 

 

 

 

Book launches!!

Contained jjjppeegg.png

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

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

 

Hopefully see you there. David xx

Episode 65 of ‘a poem a week’

Screenshot 2019-06-30 at 09.02.06

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

 

apaw david

Episode 120 – Tom Sastry

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

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

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

 

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Tom Sastry – TS

 Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversation:

TS:

To read this poem download the full transcript here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TS:       Burnham-on-Sea? Or Brean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      I think we might take a second poem.

 TS:       OK. This poem is called;

To read this poem download the full transcript here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      Crumbs of pasty round their beaks.

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

To read this poem download the full transcript here

Outro:

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

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

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

End of transcript.

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

 

BBC Radio Bristol.

My wife Lizzy and I were invited onto BBC Radio Bristol to chat about LPP, a poem a week and our upcoming anthology ‘Why Poetry?’ as part of Laura Rawlings’ Monday Book Club. Even though the time always races by when you’re on the radio we had a lot of fun and Laura, who is a fantastic interviewer, made us feel very welcome. Lizzy even managed to squeeze in a poem and I got to mention the episode transcripts that are so important to us. If you’d like to listen you can follow this link… we pop up in the final 15 minutes!