Contained – My first solo book release!

Contained Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David xx

Episode 123 – Vanessa Onwuemezi

LPP 123 Vanessa Onwuemezi

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

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

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

Guest: Vanessa Onwuemezi – VO

Host: David Turner – DT

Feature: Mishi Morath – MM

 

 Intro:

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, here’s Vanessa.

 

Conversation:

 

VO:

 For this reading please download the full transcript.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 VO:      That’s a good question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      How was that the first time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VO:      It was the same for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VO:

 For this reading please download the full transcript.

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

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

VO:      The fact that it is fiction?

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

VO:      We could talk that into the ground.

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

VO:      So the biological, scientific background?

DT:      That part of your academic study.

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

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

DT:      Do you have any examples?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 For this reading please download the full transcript.

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

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

 

Outro:

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      And finding a way to communicate.

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

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

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

 

 

When The Time Is Right

 

As time creaks on

I start to fear

What will happen

When the end is near.

There’s nothing wrong with me yet

No need to panic

I’m not going crazy

From my normal to manic.

But when I die I want it to be quick

Scared of suffering

Terminally sick.

If ever that happens

I don’t want to linger

Time to go

With the flick of a finger.

Is it too much to ask

To turn off a switch

A painless death

Without a hitch.

I don’t want to suffer

Right to the end

Give me the option

Of a man’s best friend.

One last farewell

A time to say goodbye

Small prick of a needle

A bit of a cry.

At the moment you can only do this

If you’re comfortable or rich

Flying off to Switzerland

When pain’s too much of a bitch.

Poor people like me

Have only the nearest bridge

If we want to die with dignity

To sleep in a mortuary fridge.

You preach “god’s” will

Saying your prayer

Watching me dosed up with morphine

As if you care.

Pumping my body

With a multitude of drugs

Prolonging my suffering

From white coated thugs.

You warn me of Harold Shipmans

Stalking the ward

Well just let me take my chances

And die of my own accord.

 

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

 

Another One Bites The Dust

 

I hope when I drop dead

You’re honest about who I am

I’ll be the one who’s brown bread

So won’t be able to give a damn.

If you’re one who never liked me

Don’t pretend that you did

Just say it like it really was

When they nail down my coffin lid.

I don’t want a ton of plaudits

Like for that Charles Kennedy chap

If you must say it how it was

None of that pretend you liked me crap.

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

I’m not going to pretend to cry In truth

I will be smiling

When it’s your turn to die.

It’s not that I didn’t like him

But bottom line was he’s one of them

And even though he’s seems a decent bloke

At heart he was still a Lib-Dem.

Yes, he died far too young

And had a drink problem like me

But it’s not as if I’m celebrating

More indifferent than full of glee.

He was a politician from the telly

I didn’t share his views

In fact the only thing I’m sorry about

Was that it was him & not Simon Hughes.

 

 

 

 

End of transcript.

 

 

 

 

Book launches!!

Contained jjjppeegg.png

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

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

 

Hopefully see you there. David xx

Episode 122 – Steven J Fowler

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

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

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

 

Transcript by Christabel Smith

Guest: Steven J Fowler — SJF

Host: David Turner — DT

Intro:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversation:

Poem Redacted.

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

SJF:      Please ask me inappropriate questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      A fantastic publisher.

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

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

DT:      Thank you very much.

SJF:      Pleasure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SJF:      Congratulations and a great press.

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

SJF:      Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SJF:      Yes indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      Let me know when you get the answer.

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

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

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

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

SJF:      Any time.

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

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

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

SJF:      The beginning of the end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SJF:      Or crying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SJF:      You will make it happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poem redacted

Outro:

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

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

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

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

End of transcript.

 

Ep.118: 4th BIRTHDAY SPECIAL EPISODE

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To celebrate the fourth anniversary of Lunar Poetry Podcasts (01/10/2018) I chat to Abi Palmer about how and why LPP began.

We discuss how the podcast has evolved since October 2014 and the changes made because of growing audiences and funding from Arts Council England.

As with any episodes where my own life experiences play any significant part, the role of my mental health ‘struggles’ and working-class background feature heavily in this conversation.

We also talk about the brand new anthology of poems by 28 former podcast guests, ‘Why Poetry?’ (VERVE Poetry Press), out now in bookshops nationwide.

Below is a transcript of the conversation, minus the three poems I read during the episode. If you would like the complete transcript you can download the here.

For more from us:
lunarpoetrypodcasts.com/
twitter.com/Silent_Tongue
www.facebook.com/LunarPoetryPodcasts

Order ‘Why Poetry?’: The Lunar Poetry Podcasts Anthology here: vervepoetrypress.com/product/why-poetry/

For more from Abi:
abipalmer.com/
twitter.com/abipalmer_bot

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

 

TRANSCRIPT:

Producer/Guest: David Turner – DT

Host: Abi Palmer – AP

Introduction:

DT:      Hello, welcome to episode 118 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts, my name is David Turner. Today’s episode is a very special one as it celebrates our 4th birthday. Celebrates four years of podcasting, celebrates 118 episodes recorded in eight countries, celebrates 13 hosts and well over 200 poets in our archive and, ridiculously, it celebrates over 30,000 times somebody pressed play on an episode.

As many of you will already know, we have published an amazing anthology, ‘Why Poetry?’ through our favourite indie publisher VERVE Poetry Press which is out now in bookshops and also available through the publishers themselves for £9.99 – link in the episode description.

In the process of putting the book together Stuart Bartholomew at VERVE asked me to write an introduction to the anthology which made me feel really, really awkward as I’ve always tried to put guests and their work before me and my opinions. A compromise was reached and we decided that anthology contributor, author of the book’s beautiful foreword and bloody good friend of mine Abi Palmer would interview me and the transcript of that recording would form an extended introduction weaving its way through the 28 poems and quotes from the contributors in the book.

This brings me neatly onto today’s episode. The resulting recorded interview turned out to be a pretty good record of the history of the podcast and a very good explanation of why I started it in the first place. Most remarkably for two people that talk as much and as tangentially as me and Abi it actually made a lot of sense. Now as embarrassing as it’s been to edit an interview in which I’m the guest, I’ve been assured by some regular listeners that there will be some interest in this episode. If though during this episode you feel it’s all a load of insufferable self-centred nonsense then rest assured it won’t be happening again and we’ll be back to normal next month.

One important note about the anthology is that my wife and co-editor of the book, Lizzy Turner and I have pledged to re-invest all money we make from sales back into transcribing the podcast throughout 2019. Our Arts Council funding ends next month and we can’t be sure we’ll ever even apply never mind receive more so buying the book will directly support keeping the series as accessible as possible. As always you can find a full transcript of this conversation over at lunarpoetrypodcasts.com

I’m going to be back in the middle of the episode with more names of poets featured in the book and to read another poem from it. But as a taster here are the first 14 poets in the book: Helen Mort, Sean Wai Keung, Lizzy Turner, Grim Chip, Paul McMenemy, Donald Chegwin, Abi Palmer, Travis Alabanza, Anna Kahn, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Nadia Drews, Nick Makoha, Harry Josephine Giles and Keith Jarret whose poem ‘Granddad’s Conspiracy of Yams’ I’m going to share with you now;

 

To read this poem download the full transcript here.

Accompanying that poem is a quote taken from episode 61 from way back in February 2016 and it begins with me saying to Keith: Something I’ve thought about a lot is why people ask, “what are you trying to say with your work?” and not, “what are you trying to ask with your work?” To which Keith replies, Exactly! I’m full of loads of opinions but I’m not exactly full of answers! The more I respond to what’s going on around me, the more questions I find.

 And aping all good stand-up comedy sets, there’s a call back to that later in the episode. Here is me and Abi, we join the conversation shortly after she asked me what motivated me to start the podcast.

Conversation – Part One:

DT:      So back in the spring of 2014, that’s when I first read at a poetry open-mic night, at The Dragon Café, which is a mental-health support group. Then the following week, I read at Niall O’Sullivan’s now legendary Poetry Unplugged. I suppose between then and the summer, I was attending as many open-mic nights and poetry events as I could and because I hadn’t had much exposure to poetry, but I was just desperate to know more.

I wanted to know why people kept coming to these nights. I felt like every time I’d seen an open-mic with 10 to 20 to 30 people read, there were at least two people every night I was desperate to have a conversation with. I wanted to ask them these questions, things I was wondering, and I didn’t know enough about poetry, so there were gaps in my knowledge, and I desperately wanted to ask these people these questions and there wasn’t the space to do that.

Once I’d befriended a few poets, early on I met Sean Wai Keung and Anna Kahn they were probably the first two ‘actual’ poets to come and talk to me at an open-mic night and we started having these conversations in the intervals, I don’t think either of those two smoke, but I have this image in my mind of people huddling round with roll-ups outside poetry events, having these conversations.

Once I started being, not allowed but invited, by other people, I just thought it was ridiculous if other people didn’t get to share in those, because I realised immediately that I was lucky to be allowed into these conversations and, for reasons we’ll no doubt talk about, there are huge amounts of people that can’t access those conversations and I wanted them to be as public and accessible as possible. I felt like if I started this project, the slightly more selfish thing about it, was that I could get poets to myself for a couple of hours and just bombard them with these questions.

In lieu of me having any literature qualifications, I failed my English Literature GCSE and haven’t done anything in terms of literature since I left school, it felt like this could be my own, personal, Creative Writing MA. I acknowledged straightaway that was quite a selfish thing to do, but I reconciled my conscience by making these conversations public, no matter how silly or foolish or naïve I sounded at the beginning.

AP:       One of the things you said has come back to me in various forms over several years, that at some stages during the process, you presented yourself to me as somebody who didn’t much care for poetry, so my favourite David Turner quote ever is ‘My name is David Turner and I fucking hate poetry’. That is from a review, where you reviewed a night you really enjoyed. So my initial impression of you was someone who was intensely passionate about something that you were also intensely objective about and trying to be quite neutral in your approaches to these conversations.

I guess something that’s interesting about what you just said is that you went into it attempting to extract information back out from people and have access. Something that’s always fascinated me about the podcasts as a series is the range of voices you get and the diversity of types of poetry. Could it be a fair assumption that the conversations are the bit that’s always interested you?

DT:      It’s funny, part of me is slightly embarrassed that I used to so proudly go around saying how much I fucking hated poetry, but it was true and it’s still true, but it’s true for slightly different reasons now, the deeper I’m in it. When I first wrote that sentence down, I wrote it on several reviews that I did for Lunar Poetry Magazine, back in 2014, which was another reason that the podcasts started, because I was writing reviews of poetry events and spoken-word nights. One thing that led me to have these conversations was that the word count, although it was generous, up to 1500 words, which is exceptionally long for a review, it wasn’t long enough to talk about the things I wanted to talk about.

Going back to the point of, ‘I fucking hate poetry’, I hated poetry with air quotes, what it stood for, how exclusive it could be and how if you said you were into poetry, in most people’s minds, it was a very, very defined and narrow thing. I chose not to put air quotes around it, because I didn’t want it to seem tongue-in-cheek or like I was trying to back out of it and didn’t have conviction, because I really had conviction.

I hate poetry in the same way I hate fine art and I love fine art. If people ask me what I mean, I don’t understand how they can’t see how closely the love and hate are interlinked. What I think has changed now about what I hate about poetry is slightly different, because if you view what I said early on was a rejection of the established idea of what poetry is, I have to accept that now, four years into running a poetry podcast, I am establishment, not that I’m an established voice or opinion, but I am as established as anything I would have rejected at the start.

What I hate now about poetry are still those things about refusing access to certain people, still this defined and narrow view and all along, my motivation has been to meet people, because I find most people I meet intensely interesting. The conversations I have, I don’t ask facile questions, I don’t ask things I don’t actually want to know about people. I really want to know these things and I think everyone, as much as possible, deserves to have their say about this thing they love.

This is what I mean about not being establishment, I am a gatekeeper, because I run a series and I choose who comes on. I want to be as generous a gatekeeper as possible because whilst it’s very noble to say ‘let’s smash the system and remove all gatekeepers’, all you’re doing is setting up a new generation of gatekeepers and with every blow to the establishment, you just set up new little cliques and fashions and groups. Basically, I was just trying to reject that, I suppose.

AP: That goes back to this idea, you’ve mentioned in the past that when you started up Lunar Poetry Podcasts, you wanted it to have the feel of a zine, so a few aspects of that have been really interesting as a listener. Can you talk about what you mean by that?

DT:      My main motivation at the beginning was content over production values, to a certain extent. It was equally at the beginning as much by design and wish as it was by financial circumstances, because unfortunately with podcasts, you can’t start unless you have a microphone and a recording device and access to the internet to upload it. That doesn’t mean you can’t start an interview series, because you could have a tape cassette recorder and you could walk around and meet people, but how you distribute that becomes an issue.

Within that, the thing I loved about zines was because there was no motivation for financial gain, it was just about a subject a person loved and putting out the cheapest and most accessible version of that conversation, opinion, idea, drawing, image. I really loved that and really wanted to embrace that. I suppose one reality of making a podcast is that very lo-fi interviews, I’ve been going back through some older interviews in the course of putting this book together, and Christ, there are some shockingly bad recordings in terms of quality and it’s all my fault.

You do at some point have to accept that if you want to reach as many people as possible, which is sort of the idea of the zine anyway, is that you have to embrace the fact I probably needed to up my game production-wise. I needed to get new equipment, look towards spending some money where possible, to make the conversations as widely accessible as possible and whilst it’s nice to have a little bit of atmosphere in a conversation, it can’t be inaudible.

AP:      So, your role as a podcaster and primary interviewer, it sounds like you wanted to ask a lot of questions and get access and democratise that access to some extent. Has that changed in any way?

DT:      I’ve realised that what it means to make something accessible is not what I envisaged at the beginning. In exactly the same way as what I was rejecting in the term ‘poetry’, or the idea of poetry, the idea of what access is, is far broader than I imagined at the beginning, because most of what you’re talking about when you’re talking about access are not things I experience myself.

I’m able-bodied, my hearing is deteriorating, but I still have pretty good hearing and I’m white and cis-gendered and I’ve learnt along the way how insulting it is to claim you’re making something accessible when it’s not to someone and how disheartening and upsetting and one of many, many repeated blows that person receives in their life.

I suppose that goes back to production values as well. I probably at one point felt that if I just made something, just transcribed an episode, that would make it accessible and of course, it goes a long way, but it isn’t what that is.

Can I say, I’ve also learnt how to shut the fuck up? Because that’s very hard!

AP:      It’s a really interesting thing, my next question is, I noticed that when you’re the interviewer, you do put parts of yourself into the podcast without ever having performed a poem because you find common ground with people, despite the fact you have a really diverse range of performers. The conversations seem to flow very naturally a lot of the time and yet, you’ve got this range of poets, not from one particular scene, but from a range of scenes, the widest diversity of styles, of genres and of backgrounds of poets I’ve seen in an organised poetic structure, which it is, ever. How do you know what you’re looking for when you choose your speakers?

DT:      There is one very, very easy answer and that’s if I ever hear anyone, or overhear anyone talking about how they consider their work, pretty much it’s a green light to come on the podcast. I made a very conscious decision right at the beginning that two things would happen: I wouldn’t read my own work, promote my own work, and I would not only have people I liked on the podcast, because it would have run for about 10 episodes, then stopped.

That doesn’t mean to say I’ve had people on that I hate. The beauty of what poems and poets are is they’re so wide-ranging, even if you don’t particularly find anything in someone’s work, if you sit down long enough to talk to them, there will be areas where you will find overlaps in interest. So that’s the main thing I look for, someone who considers the process of what they do. Outside of that, there is obviously the selfish element where I’ll choose someone whose book I really love, or I’ll see them perform and think ‘I have to talk to that person, I love their work’.

AP:       I’ve had the privilege of being involved in one of those round-table discussions, where you basically put a group of people who’ve never met each other in a room together, sat in a corner, did the sound and let them talk. You said you sometimes let people do the choosing themselves, in that particular instance, did you do the choosing?

DT:      I had a Skype conversation with Harry Josephine Giles, who was the host of the ‘Access to the Arts’ episode that you were a guest on. I allowed Harry to explain to me what they felt was important to that discussion and I allowed Harry full editorial control of the conversation, then we spoke about possible guests and I suggested a few names. Out of those names, we decided to invite yourself and Andra Simons.

The reality of putting together an episode like that means there are financial constraints and logistical constraints. Harry lived, and still does, in Scotland, so the choice was for me to travel to Scotland and have an all-Scottish, local-to-Harry line-up, made up of poets, or for Harry to travel to London and us find poets based down there. That was the option we chose. There have been other episodes where ‘Poetry in Schools’ for example, Jacob Sam-La Rose had full control invited Miriam Nash and Keith Jarrett, I had no say in that, nor did I want any.

That’s the thing, I suppose, I’ve had different roles in the podcast and I am host, editor and producer, sometimes all at once, sometimes I’m just one thing.

AP:       How do you juggle that?

DT:      It’s really hard. It happens more naturally now, but I don’t think it’s necessarily any easier, it just suddenly becomes habit. It’s still exactly the same amount of energy. The nature of a single host/editor/producer-based podcast is that you have to be present in the conversation, aware of background noise, make sure your guest is comfortable, the recorder is on, still on, still on, listen to your guest, do not stop listening to your guest.

Make sure the recorder is on, listen to your guest, then and only then, do you get to think about what questions you might want to ask. I don’t make notes generally, I like to go in and for it to be a natural conversation. I don’t know how relevant this is, but I liken it a lot to the improvised stuff that I used to do, in which whilst you’re improving in the moment, you’ve probably got an idea of what your middle and end point is to be, then you improvise within that, so I will have an idea of who my guest is and what they might want to talk about, might not want to talk about, which is also important, then how they want to talk about it. Then it’s all about getting from the starting point to the middle point to the end.

AP:      That’s a really interesting thing. I keep coming back to this idea of the podcast and its relationship with zine culture. In that as well, even in the role of editor/producer/host and having to juggle it all and put it together and do it like a series of, not a collage because it’s a linear interview process, but that thing where from start to finish, you’re assembling a production, an object that goes out into the world, you’re collaborating with somebody else and it feels like a collaboration when you’re listening.

It’s a two-way conversation, it requires both people, sometimes it’s a multiple-way conversation, but it feels like there’s a democracy to it that doesn’t always exist for instance in a poetry performance, where you have to sit quietly and watch one person and read the room as to whether you clap at the end of the performance. Then the next person who’s been chosen goes up and then you get an interval when you’re allowed to talk for approximately five minutes and then you sit back down.

It’s not that. You’ve created a platform that’s far more democratic. I like the podcast as an object for poetry because you can pause it, you can move it around. Has the podcast format been important to you?

DT:      I’m really glad you brought up the term dialogue, because that’s what I wanted. I wanted to avoid too many things I’d seen at spoken-word nights. The reason I don’t read my own work, or out of 116, 117 episodes, the reason I’ve only read a poem three times on the podcast, and that’s in very special circumstances, is because I didn’t like going to events where the host would read the first three poems of the night and centre themselves and detract from the guests. I really didn’t like that, so I rejected that idea.

My main editorial thought when I’m in a conversation with someone is I’m not actually in conversation with my guests, I’m in conversation with the audience, which as the audience have steadily grown over the last four years, so has my awareness of that obligation, because I do see it as an obligation. If you’re demanding an hour or an hour and a half of someone’s attention, you need to bear them in mind. You have to centre the audience.

Hopefully I’ve always been able to give people enough time, it hasn’t always worked out like that. Too many podcasts, too many people are involved with projects that are basically just producing a monologue. I’ve definitely been guilty of taking over conversations too much, talking too much. It’s really hard to shut up if you really like someone or if they’re sparking ideas at you.

It’s also hard if someone’s very shy. It took me a long time to learn how to bring someone out of their shell rather than talking over the top of them to fill in the space.

AP:       That’s something I’ve admired, knowing you, because we’re both talkers. It’s interesting to listen to you and watch you step into the professional role and take space.

DT:      It’s a performance.

AP:       OK, so it’s a dialogue and a performance at the same time. That’s very interesting. What have you learnt about your audience?

DT:      That they’re really loyal and really, really exceptionally broad-minded, because they seem to equally stick with any guest I put in front of them. It’s amazing to think hundreds of people tune in. Most of my audience must not know most of my guests because I don’t necessarily know people before I get to talk to them. There are a lot of people who’ve been on the podcast when I haven’t really known much about their work.

People continue to listen to back episodes and I can see through the stats that most people stick with most of the episodes. One thing you learn is about people’s listening habits, how people return to subjects and return to episodes. Not everyone shares their identity through the devices they listen on or the software they listen on, but I will see through my stats service that they have returned three or four times to a particular episode.

It’s really nice. That’s the exact difference and why I love podcasts over radio, because there’s a pressure to be live and be present for the radio, a podcast serves the same purpose as a journal in that you can lay it down on the table and come back to it when you’re ready. Another thing I’ve learnt about my audience is that it’s global. Right from the very beginning, I’ve had people in Malaysia, India, Australia, America, Argentina. Apart from the two polar continents, there are listeners on every continent, which is insane and it’s really beautiful to be able to give a poet the opportunity to communicate with those people.

I do get properly emotional if I think about that side of things, it’s too much to comprehend then I end up being glib and sarcastic to not cry. It’s just too much. I cannot get my head around it.

AP:       And they’re strangers.

DT:      Right from the beginning, I expected friends to listen for a while, family members out of a sense of obligation to listen for a little while, but what? Would you give people 10 episodes? That’s too much to stick with it unless there’s actually some meat there.

You do have to avoid as a podcaster the evil that is an over-reliance on your statistical analysis through whatever hosting platform you use because that is just numbers and it will drive you insane and it’s very unhealthy. But what it does, one of the few positives it gives you, is you can see people come back and that there’s a natural ebb and flow of the way people interact with the thing you make, which you’ll never get, for example, from a collection you release. If you’re an artist, you don’t get this information.

You get sales information, but you don’t know how many times people have picked up your book. I know how many times a good percentage of my listeners have picked up the podcast, it’s really fascinating and sometimes, all-consuming.

AP:       I’m very aware that you’ve spent a lot of time providing platforms for speakers from a really diverse, not in terms of content, but of who they are. You’ve provided a platform for some very difficult conversations that aren’t happening in many places in the arts. Can you talk to me a little bit about that, how you’ve increased the diversity of your podcast?

DT:      If anyone asks my advice on how to run a successful podcast, an interview-based podcast, and that is that you have to listen to your guest, because if it’s just a list of questions, the audience will know that you’re not, the guest will know and everyone’s interest will wane, including your own. If you’re going to have conversations around difficult subjects…. These are not difficult subjects per se, these are subjects that are very emotive to people and when they’re done wrongly, they are very, very painful to the people they affect.

It just seemed the natural thing for me to do and I can’t believe that more organisations don’t do it. Some do it very well, but a lot make a lot of mistakes. They don’t listen to the people they’re trying to address. If you want a very, very simple example, if you’re trying to talk about access for the hard of hearing to an audio production such as a podcast, you cannot have that conversation unless it involves primarily someone that is hard of hearing.

I mean primarily, to give them full editorial control and to give them the platform, not give them the chance for a soundbite, not give them a chance to give you enough opinion that you can then chop up and frame your own editorial viewpoint, it’s to give them the microphone and let them talk about how that’s affected them. Also, an extension of that, to acknowledge that it is a single person’s experience of the world and that every other hard-of-hearing person listening to that or engaging with that conversation will probably not have experienced it in quite the same way. There will be a lot of overlaps, but they will have their own experiences.

That’s why Harry Giles was invited to our Access to the Arts. That’s why Khairani Barokka was invited for Access to Publishing. That was why Paula Varjack was invited to talk about artists being paid, because all three of those people already made it their point to publicly talk about these subjects.

That means you’ve got somebody whose informed about the subject. It also means you’re not burdening that person to come up with a whole episode for you. Essentially, once they leave, you profit from everything they’ve done. That was another thing, I didn’t want to be profiting from everyone else’s experiences because that is unfortunately what a lot of organisations do as well. By virtue of the fact of you seeming accessible, you bask in the glow of your own accessibility and I don’t want that. I want something to be accessible and I don’t want the credit of that conversation afterwards.

I do want to be known as an accessible producer because I think it’s the right motivation for life, professionally and personally. I don’t want to be the one that takes the credit for any conversation somebody else has led or contributed to with their own experiences.

AP:       Something you did at the end of the first year of Arts Council funding was to publish publicly on your website a list of stats of the demographic of speakers you had and where the money went, an honest breakdown of exactly where it went. It was notably diverse in some areas, you talked about where there was room for improvement. It was the frankest summary of how an Arts Council budget had been used that I’d seen. What was your intention in doing that?

DT:      My intention was to instil some sense of accountability in other producers. If we just talk about the demographic of the guests and hosts, for example, it was a very, very hard thing to put together because it took a lot of trust that my guests and hosts knew that I wanted that information for the right reasons, not to make myself look good because you could twist that information to any purpose you want.

Also, it’s not a very nice thing to say to someone they’re invited on first and foremost as a writer, then a follow-up email saying ‘could you please identify yourself in all these different ways so that I can prove I’m doing what I’m doing?’ That took a lot of trust on the part of the people filling out the surveys, which were all anonymous. I waited until everyone had submitted their information before I looked at the results and they were all collated, so I don’t know who identified in which way.

The main motivation was to then turn around and say ‘this is what I set out to do’. I tried to frame it that way, that this is what I set out to do, these are the areas where I think I achieved those aims, equally these are the areas I felt like I failed, or had fallen short, I don’t think I failed in any area, but I did fall short on a lot of things and I tried to highlight what I’d learnt along the way. Like we said earlier in the conversation, a lot of the things I was asking of myself to do as being accessible and having some sort of representation in the whole series, I was far more aware of those things by the time all the questions had been answered, then it was too late to revise the questions, so I was stuck with quite a narrow view.

Although it is wider than a lot of organisations have asked, it was still quite narrow in what I subsequently learnt. The biggest thing I learnt from having an amazing group of hosts and guests come on through these round tables, particularly the round-table discussions, but also the individual one-to-one interviews where we talked about similar subjects and themes, like accessibility and representation, is that every single one of those guests and hosts stated the fact they accepted that mistakes would be made, it was how you then faced up to those mistakes and if you were just honest and held your hands up to say well, we need to improve in these areas, people can live with that.

Everyone knows everyone makes mistakes. There is a pressure on you then to not continually make those mistakes. Although sometimes you learn more and more about people and certain themes and subjects, it can become daunting and almost terrifying to think if I fuck this up, people are going to be really upset, but similarly, the more I learnt about people, the more confidence it gave me to face up to things. People really respect that.

AP:       When you talk about how you interview people, how you don’t necessarily come with a script or agenda, there’s a vague outline but it happens live, it sounds like the same sort of thing has happened with the conversations around accessibility. You’ve had to listen and adapt the conversation as you’ve learnt more. Would it be safe to say it’s been a user-led experience?

DT:      I would say as much as possible, yes, but as part of accountability, it would be wrong for me not to say I have to accept it’s not a user-led experience, because I’m still editing stuff. It’s a collaboration, where I aim as much as possible to have it, even it if ends up 51%-49%, in favour of the guest or audience, that’s better than nothing. Ideally, I would aim for more like 80%-20% with my final 20% being just the mechanics of editing and putting something out, I don’t think you can actually achieve that.

That’s what’s led people to engage with the series, as participants, is I acknowledge that right from the beginning. All people want to know is you’re going to do your best to present them as they want to be presented, but the only way they could be properly represented, or presented, is to give them their own show. I give them an episode, but they don’t get the show. They get the platform for the time they’re on it.

It’s important to acknowledge that because it gives you a more realistic idea of what it’s possible to achieve. If you go around saying ‘Look at me, I give everyone this platform’, you’re making it about yourself and centring yourself as a gift-giver and we don’t want to go down that fucking route.

Middle ‘introduction:

DT:      Hello, I hope you’re enjoying the conversation so far, as I said at the beginning don’t worry if you’re not… it won’t be happening again!

Due to us not planning to publish this conversation in its entirety it did break down a lot and there were also toilet and tea breaks, most of which I got rid of through the magic of editing but this little break here, well nothing could save it.

I thought I’d take this opportunity to thank VERVE Poetry Press for giving me the opportunity to put together ‘Why Poetry?’ and for that opportunity to allow me to work so closely with my wife Lizzy. It’s been a wonderful if very consuming experience. I’ll also use this space to give you the names of the other 14 writers in the book, they are:

Luke Kennard, Amerah Saleh, Khairani Barokka, Joe Dunthorne, Zeina Hashem Beck, Kim Moore, Rishi Dastidar, Sandra Alland, Giles L. Turnbull, Susannah Dickey, Mary Jean Chan, Leo Boix, Roy McFarlane and Jane Yeh. It’s a pretty stellar line up.

Before we re-join the conversation, I’m going to share another poem from the book by Nadia Drews, this is called;

To read this poem download the full transcript here.

And that’s accompanied by a quote from episode 86 back in October 2016  in which Nadia says: Music and politics are the things that have shaped anything that I’ve put on paper. I was brought up by my mother who has had a lifelong commitment to socialism […] In middle age, what I’m still trying to act on are those impulses from my teenage years. I think the world is rotten to its core and I believe that music and other art forms, like poetry, can play a role in lifting people’s spirit to change it.

We re-join the conversation just after Abi has asked me what effect receiving funding from Arts Council England for the first time had on the way I produce the series.

Conversation – Part Two:

DT:      I can’t say anything other than it revolutionised everything I did. It made all the ideas I had possible overnight. It was amazing. The Arts Council have their flaws and the application process is littered with issues and problems, but there is no way I could deny the positive effects having that money suddenly had on the project because it meant I could go and talk to the people I wanted to and it didn’t matter if they were in Northern Ireland. I could travel to Belfast, travel to Leeds and dedicate a whole episode on poets who also worked as playwrights and have an episode specifically about poets as playwrights in West Yorkshire.

I could only have dreamed about having such a niche subject, which turned out to be a really rich couple of conversations. I couldn’t just wait for people to come to me in London.

AP:      And you’re taking your audience with you when you turn up. You’re opening up a world of poetry that isn’t just London. Even as someone based in London, the Yorkshire theatre episodes are interesting, in knowing there is a niche scene out there which as a listener, you wouldn’t have been able to access. It’s hard enough just in London, sometimes, just to get out of the house. As a disabled listener who can’t get out of the house, sometimes the Lunar Poetry Podcasts can be a lifeline.

You get adopted into a clique and then can’t show up enough and that’s a disgusting part to me about the creative scene in a country that has some arts budget. It’s disgusting to see how many decisions around who is allowed in and who isn’t is based on who turned up at the right pub on the right day. That comes with a whole host of problems, so having a podcast that’s managed to avoid those pitfalls is exciting. It stops it being lonely and being about anyone’s gang.

That’s leading me to the next question, you have identified on the podcast as someone from a working-class background and also someone who’s had mental-health obstacles and you talk about that very openly. I wanted to ask how that has affected your access to arts, how was that for you growing up?

DT:      I’m lucky that I come from a household where both my parents read a lot, mainly romance novels and horror novels, so I was surrounded by books. It goes back to just because you identify in some way, your personal experience will be different to those that identify in the same way. Whilst it’s a very valid and true narrative that for some working-class people, the only reading material was a newspaper on a Sunday, that is not the case…

Just because you’re working class, it doesn’t mean in any way you’re unable to engage with the arts. What it probably does mean is you engage with a very particular type of the arts. The same could be said of middle class and above. It’s just there probably is a stereotype and it’s definitely one I encountered, that poetry is trying to be too clever and if you are into poetry, you yourself are trying to be too clever and that is aspirational and that can be really poisonous when identifying strongly as working class.

As I said earlier, I failed my English Literature GCSE and went on from school to serve a joinery apprenticeship, so became a joiner. I did, for three months, do half of a Fine Art foundation course. I broke my elbow falling off a scaffold and couldn’t finish the course, but I was offered places at Wimbledon School of Art and Goldsmiths to read History of Art, but I turned those things down. The reason I mentioned the fact I failed my English GCSE and didn’t go to university is because I was having, both times, borderline emotional breakdowns.

That’s how my mental-health obstacles have impacted the way I interact with the arts. They have physically stopped me interacting with life and by extension, the arts, because my mental-health obstacles, specifically for me bipolar type 2, has incapacitated me at times, has disabled me physically and mentally and emotionally for obscenely long stretches of my life. It stopped me engaging with anything, never mind the arts.

I wrote a lot in my late teens. In my early 20s, I used to write reviews of art exhibitions I went to for my own amusement. I’ve always been able to generate or form ideas in my head through a dialogue. I’ll either talk to myself or write a conversation with someone else and that’s come out in reviews as well. Then I had a really severe emotional breakdown, I suppose I was about 24. It was the first time I ended up in hospital. It was only a short stay but it was a big thing to happen.

I stopped writing at that point. I didn’t write again until I was 33. The spring of 2014, I was admitted to the Maudsley psychiatric hospital in South London and I spent five weeks there. In there, I was encouraged to write. I had issues with compulsive and impulsive thoughts and I was encouraged to write these down because I couldn’t articulate them at the time. I’ve never really had any problem talking about my mental-health state, but at that time, I was emotionally exhausted and couldn’t articulate it. So I was encouraged to write these things down and when I left, I had these notebooks of lists, of phrases and sentences, which looked like poems but didn’t read as poems.

This is one of the things about this being a journey, or an education, for me in poetry. I now know that they are just found poems, ‘list’ poems. I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know what these things were that I was writing. Going back to the start, I then went and saw an open-mic event at the Dragon Café, which was a support group I attended and I saw someone read a poem. It was one of the few times in my life where it really felt like a lightbulb had gone off in my head.

I realised that what I wanted to do was talk to people and that perhaps there was something in this medium that would allow me a way of articulating a truth about what I was feeling, but communicate in a way that wasn’t centring myself and was accessible for other people to recognise aspects of it. Having spent five weeks in that hospital, a secure psychotic specialist ward called John Dickson, it taught me very, very plainly that not everyone that goes through those things has the ability to talk about their experiences afterwards.

I sort of came out of that feeling as though I had an obligation because if I ever felt I could talk about mental-health problems, then I probably should. I suppose the last four and a half years since coming out of the hospital, what I’ve been trying to learn along the way, is what was an appropriate time to share those feelings in conversations. What is the right way of talking about your own experiences that would allow space for other people to talk about themselves?

I haven’t found the answer and I am probably unlikely ever to find that answer, because of course it varies from person to person, experience to experience and moment to moment as well. Again, it goes back to your motivations. If you’re seeking that, people will probably sense it and trust you more.

AP:       That’s a really beautiful way of addressing a destabilising experience and also it really resonates for someone who also has to physically check out of a scene and come back in. I think having a physical record of the conversations you’ve been having since 2014 and the learnings you made that in a way, does enable other people to track that journey, that’s a really valuable thing to have.

DT:      Something that’s suddenly fallen into place in my head is that when I first started interviewing people and Lizzy, my wife, was my main co-host, mainly because we were both happy to work for free on this project, and we didn’t mind, because poetry had become our life anyway and it wasn’t an intrusion to have these conversations. Early on, the first question would always be ‘why poetry?’

I’ve sort of stopped asking that, or I do ask it, but in more nuanced ways and I try to tailor it to each guest, but it was really important for me to find out why would you be doing this? Why are you here, sharing these ideas, to what aim, to what end? Because there’s a really strong link with your mental health, because there’s nothing more poisonous than wondering what the fuck you’re up to, but questioning what you’re doing, questioning your own motives, because that can really eat away at you.

You’re absolutely right, it was really nice to look back on this archive of evidence of what I was doing and why I was doing it and when I came out of the hospital – I’ve never really thought of it this way – but I needed something to do. I needed something to fill my time that wasn’t destructive. I needed a space where I could talk about those destructive things, because that’s what my poetry is. Not that it’s destructive, but it is facing up to these hard things in my life.

I think this project, this series, has given me a way to keep shouting into the void that is the internet: Why poetry? It really could be: Why anything? It’s the why that’s the important bit. I don’t understand why people listen, why people come on as guests, I don’t understand why I’m doing this, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s happened and I can’t say it isn’t happening, because it’s there, isn’t it?

It’s a very real thing that’s happened in my life, a very real thing that’s happened in my life that my mental-health issues and my predilection to look at more negative things in my life and focus on them, I can’t turn this into a negative because it hasn’t been a negative.

AP:       The Why? question is almost every poem ever written, isn’t it? What you’ve got is a series of Whys? framed in different language. When people are reading their poems and you’re having different Why? conversations with each guest, that’s what a poem is, isn’t it? Different ways of having the same conversation and using language to explore this big, existential hole we’re in. Why do we need arts funding? Why is it so important that in this country, we have access to things that aren’t solid fact?

I think the politics of the podcast is also an interesting aspect. An interesting thing about poetry is it’s something that’s lorded by both the left and the right wing in different ways and it’s held up as this high art, but also this waste of time.

DT:      This has been the most productive waste of time in my life. I think we’re really lucky as humans in the West that we are afforded a space to waste our time and it should be embraced. It’s difficult, sometimes, if you say to a poet ‘It’s really great you’ve got a way of wasting your time’, people take it personally, as if you’re saying it’s not any good or there’s no point.

It’s the very thing with how we view what art is in the West because it’s a very Westernised view of what this kind of artistic representation is, but it is what you do in your spare time and this is why class politics is so important to me, because not everyone is afforded the time to play around.

Not everyone is afforded the time or permission to waste their time, whether that’s because they’re from a background where it’s heavily frowned upon and they’re judged for what they’re doing, or they physically can’t engage with something, or they are not allowed to identify their own gender or sexuality in public. Or – and I suppose you have to be open-minded – they’re not also allowed to write a love poem to Theresa May. I don’t know. As disgusting as I imagine that piece of work may be, it’s important that someone would be allowed to do that. You can’t deny that person this shit they want to make.

AP:       I was going to say a really profound thing, but I’m suck on that love poem now! I was just thinking about the luxury of self-expression linking to the luxury of self, that’s what it is, isn’t it? The luxury of being allowed to be exactly who you are, even if that is a love poem to Theresa May. The only way we’re going to answer the Why? questions which lead to language around, for instance, the new language, the fact that non-binary is a recognised term, is a new experience for a lot of people. The fact there are words for certain types of trauma, certain types of experience. If we didn’t play with language and create space for questions, we wouldn’t have the language to identify what’s actually going on in our lives.

DT:      Politically, if you see campaigns about other governments and other regimes, to varying and horrifying degrees of punishment, very often what we’re complaining about is denial of freedom of expression and it’s really poisonous for people. It’s so destructive to somebody’s being to be denied the chance to define themselves and express themselves the way they want to and if I can play any role in allowing someone to express themselves in the way they want to, I view that as more important than anything I might write myself or any chance to be published or lorded as a podcaster.

Some people may not believe you and I don’t give a fuck what they think, because I know in myself that is my motivation. That is what I want to do, give people the chance to chat, even if that’s a chance for someone like Donald Chegwin to come on and do his King Prawn poem, something that might seem really stupid to some people, or not stupid, but less important than certain things.

AP:       Also it’s worth acknowledging the experience of Lunar Poetry Podcasts now being archived in the British Library. They’re now a body of literature that’s been collected. What did that mean to you?

DT:      I was hugely proud of that. It, sort of, runs up against my naturally self-deprecating personality, but I really felt I’d achieved something, because it meant these disparate voices were suddenly in a really established archive. It meant that someone like Mishi Morath, someone that doesn’t even class themselves as a poet and in his own words is ‘just an open-micer’ is now in a national archive, which will be, until we’re taken over by the ants, forever preserved.

AP:       Ants love podcasts.

DT:      My aims when I started were to learn to make a podcast, to make 100 episodes, that was completely arbitrary, I don’t know why I chose that, and to be accepted and archived somewhere. I don’t know why that was in my mind. It just felt like that would be… I tell you what, I think it would be that was then my permission to make something and whilst you shouldn’t go through life wanting permission, it is a very real thing.

You do want that affirmation and more than that is the permission to do something. I think that’s why I felt so strongly that I had an obligation to give other people a place to talk, because I felt like I had no right to be here, because of my background. It’s not you can’t be published as a working-class writer, it’s none of those things, but whilst that is now becoming an easier thing to achieve, it is not the accepted status quo in production and editorial roles.

You are not given the permission to run something as a marginalised voice. It isn’t that I don’t feel I can be a writer, I feel I can because I physically write and you’re not defined as being a writer by being published and you’re not defined as a writer through anything other than writing is what my belief is. Taking the next step up, when you’re in some position of responsibility and in control of a project, that is not available to people.

That is still only available to a very select group of people in this country. I think I needed that permission and that kind of affirmation to be able to turn around to anyone who ever questioned anything I’d done and just say ‘well, they think it’s worth archiving’. When I had a meeting with them, they sat down and sold themselves to me, because they knew I had a collection of voices that they hadn’t gotten hold of before.

There are many poetry archives within the British Library and they were themselves surprised that there were so many poets they hadn’t heard of. That made me really proud. I was really happy that day.

AP:       We’ve now come to the point where we’ve got an anthology about a podcast about poetry that is now going to be a collection of poetry. What made you want to put a book out in this form?

DT:      Right from the beginning, I didn’t shy away from the fact I wanted to keep the word poetry in the title, so it became Lunar Poetry Podcasts because when I started, the fashion was to talk only of spoken word and to frame it as a spoken-word project, but I wanted to root it firmly in the act of writing poetry and the tradition of printing poetry on paper because whilst the oral tradition in poetry is much longer and the oral tradition of storytelling is much longer, it was only the advent of the printing press that made any form of literature accessible, because it meant you didn’t have to be sitting in the presence of the person telling the story.

I didn’t want to lose touch with that. It seemed natural to go from the written word to the spoken word to the recorded voice to a digital form, to then return back to a paper form. It seemed the natural thing to do. All of this is pointless speculation without a publisher and it wasn’t until Stuart at Verve Poetry Press said ‘we’ll do it’. I was like ‘yes, OK’ because while I had an idea of what it might be, you may as well just be imagining anything at that point if you haven’t had a firm offer.

Things like including quotes to go alongside the poems was an idea Lizzy, who’s co-editing this book, had. She suggested it would be a really good idea to have them in. I didn’t dismiss it, but I didn’t imagine a publisher would want to go with that idea and then Stuart said he loved that idea as well. It was just a really perfect way to frame the poems, retain another dialogue, not just dialogue through the poetry but retain elements of the dialogue and root the anthology firmly within these conversations again. That was really nice, that something that leapt to Lizzy’s mind immediately, we were able to put that in place.

AP:       I’ve seen the range of writers that are included and some of the quotes you’ve pulled. I was really interested to see some of the quotes are a lot about the diversity of poetic practice, there’s a lot about process, so not just Why? but How? It’s fascinating to read as an external observer who doesn’t know which poem has been chosen from each person and see it framed like that. Has that been a big part of it for you? It was exciting to hear that’s a big part of it for Lizzy as well. You’re a husband and wife team, you married a year ago tomorrow.

DT:      I met Lizzy at Poetry Unplugged.

AP:       So poetry has been a big part of your relationship and the support network you provide each other, I’m also fascinated by and in terms of the dialogue and roles you have. Is the dialogue about practice a big part of the anthology for you? I want to pull Lizzy into that question as well.

DT:      The editorial and production process in the podcast is far more weighted towards me. It’s a project I started and it is identifiably my project. Lizzy has provided a huge amount of physical, logistical support. She is beyond anyone, the person I’ve ranted ideas to endlessly and she’s enabled me to talk things out and given me a space, because I don’t talk about my own ideas that much on the podcast, I need a space to work things out.

We have those conversations over dinner, over breakfast, on the way to work and at night and there wouldn’t be a podcast without her. It would have fizzled out. I don’t think I would have been able to maintain the energy without having someone else involved. When it came to the anthology, I wanted to make sure she was more involved.

I would say the selection first of all, we each wrote down 30 names of people we would invite to the anthology, then we compared them. Any overlaps went immediately into the invitation list, then the remaining five, six or seven, we discussed and debated about who we should add to the list. As poems started coming in, we each read the submissions independently and again, made a top four, depending on how many submissions there were and the ones we agreed upon went in. We’ve got fairly similar taste. Where there were divergences, we discussed them further and re-read them. At some points, we said to each other ‘This person is probably more to your taste and it should be your choice’.

So there were a couple of times where we allowed the other person to choose the work.

AP:       Your invitation to submission definitely didn’t mention anything to do with the poems having to have featured on the podcast. Are there poems that have featured on the podcast?

DT:      I would say maybe two, three possibly. Most people have been really generous and submitted new work. Some people have submitted previously published work and that will all be credited and listed in the back of the book if people want to know. It just seemed natural and in keeping that we said to people ‘all we want to do is give you page space, we don’t want to tell you what to submit’.

It reflected more the desire behind the podcast, to just say we want you to be part of it, but we want you as much as possible…and again it’s about this collaborative aspect that ideally, we would just give you the page space for whatever you want to show, but in reality, you’ll have to submit some work and we’ll see what’s appropriate and what fits. We’d like to have some idea how it’s framed, but essentially you get to choose the four or five poems you submit and it won’t be anything other than the things you’re happy to submit. It’s about finding that blend.

A lot of people that come on, I have favourite poems and there are things I’d love them to read to me, but I won’t request them. I want the person in that moment to be happy with how they’re represented. We wanted to have that as much as possible in the book as well. There’s a huge range of writing. If you think Helen Mort was a guest in episode three back in December 2014 and her work is hugely different, there’s no way of saying ‘Can we have something like what you did?’ but she’s since had another fantastic collection, No Map Could Show Them and numerous other publications. Her way of thinking about writing I’m sure has changed immensely.

AP:       Both being a guest and also listening to the podcast as a collection and a series of dialogues is the sheer number being churned out one after the other and the sheer number of conversations, how they’ve grown, how they’ve evolved and the different shapes conversations can take. It’s a good reminder that art isn’t a fixed object and that we, whether we’re listeners, whether we’re actually engaging with the form that’s being discussed or whether we’re an audience, we’re not finished yet, any of us.

DT:      You’ve just reminded me of a quote I pulled out for Keith Jarrett and I think it’s a really beautiful summation. I had said ‘I can’t understand why people ask you what are you trying to say with your work and not what are you trying to ask of your work.’ His reply was ‘I’m full of loads of opinions, but I’m not exactly full of answers. The more I respond to what’s going on around me, the more questions I find.’ It’s almost so succinct, it makes the podcast irrelevant. It just says what everyone has said constantly for 100-odd episodes.

AP:       I wish that’s what arts education in this country did, I wish it’s what GCSE English did. I’ve tutored GCSE English for years and having to explain to disaffected 16-year-olds that poems aren’t trying to tell you one thing is a constant job. I wish they printed that at the beginning of every GCSE syllabus in every country.  I wish I’d known that when I was 16. The fact there isn’t a locked door. This is the myth of poetry, that there is a locked door and either you get it or you don’t and you’re constantly trying to solve a riddle like Sherlock Holmes. But the idea of poetry being a riddle is so offensive and sad and so much part of education and what’s wrong with aspects of literature education.

DT:      It’s an idea that’s supported and perpetuated, isn’t it? The more that was held up as an example and benchmark, the more poetry was written in that style. By far the biggest regret that most poets had on the podcast is that poetry has been traditionally taught so badly in schools and taught as this exclusive club you can only join if you understand and fully engage or can pretend to, with a very select band of dead poets. That is not a rejection of those poets’ works, but most of those poets are writing in a way that supports a particular type of government and a particular idea of what empire was, national identity.

It’s so easy to imagine why people reject it. That doesn’t mean that everyone will come round to love it, because that’s the world we live in. Some people will never want to engage with poetry and that’s fine, but I do think if you taught something closer to the breadth and depth of what poetry actually is, then more people would respond positively to it. I hope that’s what the podcast has done for some people.

AP:       That’s a really nice point to end it on. Is there anything you wanted to add?

DT:      No, I think we’ve covered everything. We should have done, it’s gone on for a while!

Outro:

Hello, you stuck around. Grab a biscuit as compensation for sitting through me talk for an hour! Thank you so much to everyone that has downloaded/listened-to/shared an episode over the last four years. I’ve really loved having the space and time to talk to you all and share so many wonderful poets with you.

If any of you out there are thinking of starting a podcast I would say just go for it. Bear in mind that it’s a lot of work but anything in which you’re going to pour your creativity into is a lot of work. Don’t let that put you off. Also, don’t listen to anyone that says it costs thousands of pounds to get started, that’s just rubbish. I produced my first 76 episodes using smartphones, tablets and a USB microphone. And if you don’t have those then get in touch with other podcasters, they’re a very friendly bunch and likely to help you out in some way.

That’s it for today, for more from us visit lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, find us at Lunar Poetry Podcasts on FaceBook and Instagram or @Silent_Tongue on Twitter. I’ll be back next month with episode 119 chatting to Bristol poet Shagufta K. Iqbal.

I’m going to leave you with a poem by one of my favourite poets Susannah Dickey which is accompanied in the book by this quote from episode 108, November 2017 in which Susannah says:

It’s not the most important thing, to be published, because it’s the act of writing and what that gives you […] It’s really lovely to feel like you’re getting closer to that stage of producing the kind of material that you really respond to; because, while you like to feel like your work is saying what you want it to, it’s also a really nice thought that someone else might be responding to it similarly, in the way that you respond to others’ work.

Which is quite a nice summation and open-ended question as to why people not only write but try to share their work…

This is;

To read this poem download the full transcript here.

 

End of transcript.

 

 

 

Publication Day!!

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

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

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

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

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

David xx

 

Episode 117: Andrew McMillan

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

 

Transcript:

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Andrew McMillan – AM

 Introduction:

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

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

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

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

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

Conversation:

AM:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM:     She’s full of wisdom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      It’s far more image-laden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM:     That’s interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM:     That would be great!

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

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

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

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

DT:      Oh yeah, we’re in Manchester.

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

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

Outro:

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

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

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

End of transcript.

 

Why Poetry? – The Lunar Poetry Podcasts anthology.

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

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

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

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

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

Below is the ‘official’ blurb about the anthology:

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

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

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

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

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

David xx

 

Ep.114 – Developing Your Creative Practice

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

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

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

A full transcript of the conversation can be found here.

ACE guidelines for the funding scheme can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find and download the list of questions here.

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

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

All the best, David. xxx

 

Episode 112 – Mary Jean Chan & Sandeep K. Parmar

 

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

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

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

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

www.poetryarchive.org/poet/sandeep-parmar

 

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

 

Transcript by Christabel Smith

 Introduction:

 

Host: David Turner – DT

 

Guest: Eshiva Love-Light – EL

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

EL:       Definitely.

 

DT:      Any early details?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Part one (00:03:38):

 

Host: David Turner – DT

 

Guest: Mary Jean Chan – MJC

 

 

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

Please see our downloadable transcript for this poem 

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

 

MJC:    Thank you for having me.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MJC:    Right.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MJC:    I love her work, by the way.

 

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

 

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

           

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MJC:    Exactly.

 

DT:      Then this feeds into…

 

MJC:    …the notion of the other.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MJC:    This is like teenage.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MJC:                Dragon Hill Spa

 Please see our downloadable transcript for this poem

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MJC: Conversation With Fantasy Mother.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 Please see our downloadable transcript for this poem. 

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

 

M JC:   Thank you so much.

 

 

 

Part two (1:02:06):

 

Host: David Turner – DT

 

Guest: Sandeep K Parmar – SKP

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Conversation:

 

 

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

 

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

 

SKP:     Eidolon.

 

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

 

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

 

We do not have permission to reproduce this poem.

 

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

 

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

 

DT:      When was this collection published?

 

SKP:     2011.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

SKP:     No.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

We do not have permission to reproduce this poem.

 

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

 

 

 

End of transcript.