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


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.


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


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.


Interview with Helen Mort – Ep.03

As we’ve recently gained a few new listeners I thought I might post a few notable episodes from the archive. This interview with Helen Mort from December, 2014 sees Helen chatting to David Turner about poetry, class, neuroscience and includes three readings from her collection Division Street (Chatto & Windus).

Download the episode here on Soundcloud. Download a transcript of this episode here or see below for the the transcript (minus poems).





DT:      Hello this is the Lunar Poetry Podcast, I’m David Turner, and this month I’m in Sheffield with the wonderful Helen Mort. Just as a quick side note, because of time restrictions in the podcast my questions regarding Helen’s poetry will mainly focus on her book Division Street published by Chatto & Windus. We’re going to kick off with Helen giving us a short introduction into her work and background.


HM:     Yeah. My name’s Helen. I was born in Sheffield and then I grew up in Chesterfield, just down the road. So, I suppose growing up Sheffield was always a bit like the glamorous older sister to Chesterfield. It was a place where you went out and… Or where you were able to go on the bus on your own when you are old enough, that can place. It’s always the bright lights really. And now I live back in Sheffield again after spells being in different places, including in a year when I was poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust in Cumbria and Grassmere. And where I wrote quite a lot of the poems that became my collection Division Street.


So, it’s quite interesting because I was living up in the lakes but writing all these poems about Sheffield and South Yorkshire, and Derbyshire. So, my work has always been quite informed by this particular bit of the world. So, I think it’s quite nice that we’re doing this interview in rainy Sheffield today.


DT:      It’s pretty wet, isn’t it? It does look really Northern outside.


HM:     It does, yeah.


DT:      Oh, and on that note, we’ve got a whippet in the room. Charley the whippet. It’s raining, we’re drinking tea and there’s a whippet on the sofa. I just mention that just because if you hear any strange licking noises or growling, it’s not… It’s not us. He might introduce himself.


OK, I’m going to begin with a really needlessly long anecdote about a guy I met recently in a pub in Kennington in South London. As I looked across the bar I noticed a guy wearing a t-shirt which had ‘Orgreave 84’ across the top of it. And… I don’t know, maybe he was in his in his 50s or 60s this guy. So, I went over to him and asked him about the t-shirt, if could I have a closer look. It was like one of those sort of graffiti style hooded figure who was throwing the stone which was quite apt. But… We ended up chatting about your work and your poem ‘Scab’ in particular, and Jeremy Deller‘s re-enactment, which we’ll come to you later. And he was surprised and pleased that people like us, and by that I mean people too young to have any living memory of what happened at Orgreave and other pickets, but he was pleased and surprised we still know what went on.


What I’m wondering is how much influence does your wider family’s working class background and roots have on your work, and also do you write about these subjects, I was mentioning ‘Scab’, in order to educate the unfamiliar or rather to reassure those that were involved in the picketing that those events haven’t been forgotten?


HM:     Yeah, I think it’s a bit of both and especially… That’s a really good point which is made, this idea about wanting to reassure people that things haven’t been forgotten. I’d say that’s probably the main reason, or one of the main inspirations, behind writing ‘Scab’. I actually wanted to write about it for quite a long time and everything that sort of happened to me just confirmed that. And I remember reading David Peace’s amazing book GB84 at the time when I was thinking of writing about it and I thought: Wow, he’s written about the miner’s strike brilliantly, I’d love to be able to write something myself. But I put it off for ages, I really hesitated because I felt like, as somebody that hadn’t lived through the strike myself, and as someone that didn’t have immediate family members involved in the strike, I felt like a bit of a fraud or like I didn’t have a right to write about it.


I know that there are other poets, who were involved in various ways in the strike in the 80s, that have tried to write about it and it took me ages to recognise that: Hang on a minute, that’s exactly why I should. Because I wanted to show that growing up in a bit of North East Derbyshire that was physically and… More than physically scarred by the impact of the pit closure… I remember as a kid never really understanding what all these weird land masses were just down the road from where we lived. And the words that my parents would use to describe them, I didn’t really understand it. It’s like that’s a land-fill site and that’s open casting and I’m like: What’s open casting? And it was actually very close to the village Arkwright that they moved across the road to make way for open casting after the pits had been closed. There was quite a lot of controversy about that when I was growing up.


So, all those things I wanted to show, I suppose, that the legacy lives on. And that it’s important to me just growing up with the aftermath. It’s important to lots of people, as you say, of our generation and that it’s not being forgotten at all. And it may be the fact that I wasn’t there could in some ways be a virtue and it could provide a way of writing about it that had a different perspective, and actually a bit of distance because you do get that problem sometimes don’t you that things are… And I, you know… I can’t imagine if I’d been there in some way or witnessed it first hand, I almost don’t know how you would begin to put it into words because it’s too terrible. So, in some ways I thought I’ll try.


DT:      Yeah, I suppose there’s that side of it, isn’t there? It may be it is, actually once you start, easier to write about it if you haven’t been there. Because what you’re doing is retelling stories you’ve heard, or… Not editing out things but you’re putting… It’s easier for you to put the worst things together, in a poem, because it’s not as emotional for you, whereas for a lot of people there would have…


I mean, actually going back to this guy in the pub, Johnny Eagles I think his name was, which is an amazing name. He immediately started having a blazing row with this guy who sat next to him, who was a Tory. And they… I think they had known each other for years and years but just by me mentioning Orgreave, I mean he had the t shirt on, but by me mentioning the fact to him, they immediately went back to that argument. Which they had probably had 30 years ago, you know? And it was as bitter then, so you can understand why people haven’t let go.


HM:     I think in… I’ve heard various people say to me that they don’t like the cover of my book because… I should probably describe this for the benefit of the podcasts because you can’t see it, but the book cover uses a really famous image by a wonderful photographer called Don Mcphee, which is taken from the battle Orgreave. And it’s got two policemen in their hats face to face with a miner who’s got a fake a policeman’s hat on with his NUM stickers on it and they’re squaring up to each other. And to me that epitomizes this, yeah, huge divide and the rift that’s never really been healed since that civil war in the 80s. And… Yeah, I was told it’s a bad cover because it’s going to divide people and it’s going to polarize people. I thought: Well, that’s may be appropriate in some way, I’m not sure I mind that.


DT:      But I think it’s appropriate but I also think one of the messages from that image is that image could be flipped, if you switch the hats around, if it wasn’t for his sideburns, the miner…


HM:     Yeah.


DT:      You wouldn’t nec[essarily]… You know they could be on either side, they were all men, they were probably all from the same region. They have been divided by decisions above them, haven’t they? And…


HM:     And I think that was one of the things that I find most poignant about… Or upsetting about the strike, that the communities got ripped apart by… Yeah, by things that were beyond their control in some way. Yeah, I always like that image for that reason but also because there’s something a little bit playful about it as well.


DT:      It’s quite furry as well, isn’t it?


HM:     It’s a moment that’s quite funny as well as very sad, so…


DT:      Right, so we’ll get into your other work in a moment but I’d like to focus though on this poem ‘Scab’. In the poem, you talk about going off to study at Cambridge University and the crossing of a personal picket line for you. How much of a personal conflict was your move to Cambridge from Derbyshire? And how much guilt did you feel at the time regarding the issue of cutting your roots, whether that was real or not.


HM:     I think it was… So, it’s interesting in terms of the poem that when I first started to write it none of that stuff was in there. I was just trying to write about Orgreave. And then later, because I think you mentioned [Inaudible] Jeremy Deller’s film about Orgreave, so I was trying to write about those things. It just felt like something was lacking. And it took me a while to work out what that was and I realised, it’s like well, what makes you uncomfortable about this? Why do you want to write about it?


I think often poetry does come from a sense of discomfort or an itch that you can’t scratch or just something like that. And it just came to me at one point, I’m not sure when, there wasn’t like a massive thunderbolt revelation but this realisation crept up that it was to do with my feelings of, not so much guilt maybe, but alienation and isolation that I felt when I was at university.


DT:      The word guilt is too strong.


HM:     Yeah, although maybe it isn’t. I don’t know actually, it’s certainly a kind of guilt. Because maybe the reason that guilt does strike me as an apt word is that I’ve got this really clear memory of when I found out I’d got my offer to go to Cambridge. It was close to New Year’s Eve and I was spending New Year’s Eve in [INAUDIBLE] Working Men’s Club, which is now being knocked down and they haven’t cleared the rubble away so it’s really surreal when you walk past. For a while I was living… Recently I was living quite close to it. Every day I’d walk past the rubble of this building, it was really strange.


Anyway… I was there with my friends from school and I didn’t tell anybody, I didn’t mention it to anybody, that I got this offer and that I was probably going to go to Cambridge University. And I thought I should surely… I should be really excited about that and I should be really proud about that, or something, but I wasn’t in some way. I think because I felt like in some way the people I was with were going to think that I was better than them because of that. So, I suppose there is a guilt in that way. And then when I was there, which I think is reflected in the poem, I knew it was a great opportunity for me and I really enjoyed some aspects of it. But I did feel quite… At times, quite socially isolated in a like I didn’t fit in.


And actually, it was really weird for me because I was used to… At home in Chesterfield, I was used to people at school calling me posh, and stuff like that, because I did my work and I got on with things and whatever. And then suddenly when I went away from them, I went to university I felt the opposite and I felt like I didn’t fit in with the rituals and things.


DT:      I think that’s quite a good point actually, I suppose. I mean, I’m a few years older than you but we’re the same generation as such. I found that a lot of people, of our age, that have grown up in a very working class family, feel slightly guilty maybe because we grew up in a time when you’re really not working class, even if you have that working-class background, you’ve grown up in, what essentially 20 years ago, 30 years ago, would have been a really middle class upbringing. you had plenty of toys when you were a kid and you got good education, you could go to the doctors whenever you wanted.


So, that guilt you’re being forced to leave your roots, as such, because you’re never going to be as working class as your parents. If you, you know… But if you… At the same time, you go to university you’re never going to fit into that traditional middle class or upper middle class setting either. So, you’re left flowing between and you do have that, I suppose it takes a while, to gauge what identity you’ve got. I think most people just reconcile that they are still working class in attitude and outlook on life. It might take a while to get there and I suppose as artists, whichever way you choose to work, it’s a natural process to go through to try and…


HM:     And you use your art because I suppose that’s one of the things I was trying to do in that poem in some ways. I suppose the poem’s about lots of things, but it was this sense you think: Well, what is class really and what do I feel about that? And it’s very complicated. And so the poem’s a way of saying: Well, perhaps it’s just sometimes you don’t feel like you particularly belong anywhere. but you can’t win you are sort of on both sides that in turn made me think back to, yeah, maybe more political situations and things where you also can’t win. And it’s all kind of like that, so… I don’t know that poetry ever helps you to resolve anything or get to the bottom of it. But it certainly helps you express the questions if not the answers.


DT:      Yeah, I don’t think I have ever answered anything with poetry, only confuse myself.


HM:     I do have a poem in which some students in Sheffield thought that they could work out the answers to a pub quiz from the questions in my poem. And they were really upset when they found out I’ve made up this pub quiz question, ‘We wanted the answer’, gutted.


DT:      Actually that… If we’ve got time you could go into that. I quite like that issue of truth in poetry and whether we need to tell the truth, I suppose, because I’ve noticed a lot of people get upset if they find out you’ve lied to them. A poem, which is ridiculous because if you were writing flash fiction or a novel there’s no expectation to be honest.


HM:     Absolutely and 90 percent of the time you are… you’re not lying to them, but you’re not saying exactly what happened, it’s a dramatised version of it in some ways.


DT:      Our lives are boring that’s why we write poetry.


HM:     Exactly.


DT:      Anything else other than talk about our life. Actually, that was an unintentional link into this next one. There’s a real sense of storytelling from your work. It’s almost as though with a few minor changes to the wording you could, and I mean it as a compliment, you could just be chatting in the corner of a local somewhere. I’m thinking in particular of ‘Stainless Steel’… ‘Stainless Stephen’, sorry, poem. Where there’s a blurring of the line between story and myth, quite common after a few beers. How do you feel about that assertion?


HM:     I really like that you’ve picked up on that, that’s… Because you’re never sure if people get things from your work or not. And that’s it, there’s something that I’d quite like if people did in one way. I always think… I’m very interested in pubs as… not just in general, well, I am… As a place where things happen and where everything happens. And, you know, it’s no coincidence, is it? If you watch Eastenders, or whatever, stuff always happens in the pub.


Definitely, and it really got brought home to me when I spent a year living in Grassmere in the Lake District, which is a very small village, and the pub was… If you wanted to find out anything, if you wanted to see someone, bump into them, if you wanted to know the gossip, you just went to the local pub because there’s just one really. And I suppose I have always liked the way that people do tell each other stories at the bar, and you can get talking to anyone, like you say like the guy you met in the Orgreave t-shirt.


And I actually wrote a pamphlet a few years ago called Pint for the Ghost and the idea of this pamphlet was that all the poems in it could be things… Stories that people might tell you in a pub after hours and that’s where ‘Stainless Stephen’ comes from. It’s from that in that particular pamphlet. So yeah, I think I’m interested in that because I think people’s throwaway stories are things that they say after they’ve had a few pints or whatever are really important and they’re really interesting. Sometimes more interesting than more crafted storytelling.


DT:      Yeah, but do you… Actually, going back to what we were talking about before, do you feel like you have an obligation to carry on that kind of storytelling in order to keep contact with, you know, your friends and family from your childhood. Is there a link in that way of writing that connects you?


HM:     I don’t think it’s conscious but I think it’s ingrained. Maybe I’ve just spent too much time in the pub, that’s obviously… But no, I think maybe it is on some level. Maybe you want to… I think there’s always part of you that’s trying to write poems that people that you know, perhaps all people that you care about, would understand or would be able to relate to them in some way.


DT:      I mean, I certainly feel in my writing that if, for instance, I go to the pub whenever I can on a Sunday, my uncle and his dad go religiously every Sunday and I sort of have a feeling that if they… I mean, they have no interest in reading my poetry but if they did, I would expect my writing to be clear enough for them to understand. Or to be written in a manner, not that I consciously try and change anything, but it’s just because it’s ingrained anyway it’s coming out in style.


HM:     Definitely. You get it writing… I think writing habits probably get formed quite early on, probably before you know that they have done in some ways.


DT:      I suppose once you become more comfortable with writing, I suppose then it just becomes your language anyway.


HM:     Yeah.


DT:      And you’re just speaking through the paper anyway, aren’t you? It probably comes back to how you learn to speak and talk.


HM:     This is;


Stainless Stephen

Poem can be found here

DT:      You’ve got a really… A great efficiency of language, if I can put it like that. One example I’d like to give for the listeners for context is from your poem ‘Other People’s Dreams’. You… I’ll try and do this justice, ‘Your hair is jet black for disguise. You are the photographer in your mother’s nightmare angling the camera at a door.’ And I don’t think anyone reading that could fail to connect with this simple description of the idea that one can appear in someone else’s dreams as well, inhabiting a different physical form. I suppose it comes back to what we were just talking about there, has that style of writing developed consciously? We may have just answered that actually, but…


HM:     No, I do think that’s a different question. Thinking about efficiency or paring things back. I suppose you could say that I’m really lazy as why use 3 words when you could use 1. No, I think it’s probably to do with a lot of the writers that… I suppose that I first read people like… Seamus Heaney actually was one of the first writers that I read. And then maybe later on people… I admire a lot of poets who write very differently to me, that might sound odd, so for example Raymond Carver and his poems or Bukowski, I have always really admired Bukowski. And they might sound like weird models because I don’t write anything like that in some ways. But when I think about a lot of the writers that I admire they are often quite striped back and quite, sort of…


And again, maybe it’s sort of related to trying to… Trying to be poetic of course and say things the way that sounds nice, hopefully. Whether I succeed or not is a different matter but to pay attention to sound and rhythm but also to use natural patterns of speech as much as possible. And again, you know, I can think of poems in Division Street that definitely don’t do that and they sound overly poetic. But sometimes I think, yeah, you feel like… I sort of feel like I’ve achieved what I wanted to when I’ve written something that’s conversational but also musical. That’s the ultimate aim I think for me. So, maybe it comes from the writers that I like to read and that kind of thing.


DT:      I didn’t study literature so I’m not really sure how the whole process works. But did you have any strong influences from teachers or tutors or any kind of mentors in terms of how you use your language, in the way you’re talking about now or is it just from what you were reading.


HM:     I have never really studied English either, I did psychology when I was at uni and before that my school didn’t really… I don’t mean this in a way to bad mouth it because doesn’t mean that the teaching wasn’t good but they just didn’t the scope really to focus that much on poetry. I think the poems that we used look at in school were really really old, I remember looking at Christina Rossetti and all these ballads and things like that. And Tennyson and things like that. And maybe that had some influence on me because it’s quite musical again and I’ve always been interested in music but…


Yeah, I’m not really sure. I often feel quite an impostor as a writer because I feel like having not studied English at university or anything like that, there’s all these gaps in my knowledge. there’s all these great poets that I’ve just read a bit of because I’ve tried to fill in the gaps later, or I’ve read them and frankly haven’t understood them or there’s writers I’ve still not made a proper effort with because it’s easier to read, you know, whoever it is whose work you really love and you admire and that you get that instant gratification from. So, I sometimes feel like I have not worked hard enough at reading the canon if you like. So, I suppose I couldn’t really pick out one moment from school or from higher education or anything like that that switched me on to poetry. But now have lots of helpful poet mentors who have taken me under their wing, I suppose.


There was a fantastic writer who’s just published a book called Michael Bailey who I met when I lived in Cambridge and he used to do these little workshops in his house. I would be just a couple of people that knew and him sitting round and he would just read you poems that he thought were really good. And talk about why they were really good. And a lot of that would be quite pared back, imagisitc sort of short lined stuff because that’s the style that he writes in. And so maybe that some kind of influence in the kind of thing I like.


DT:      Yeah, I often feel a little bit of a fraud myself because I’m doing a poetry podcast and I got a D at English… U at English Lit, D in English Language, I haven’t studied anything, but…


HM:     That surely makes you better qualified to judge it properly.


DT:      Maybe, yeah, but I think what you’re saying… I think a lot people find quite refreshing anyway because, you know, it’s… Poetry like all literature and all art… You should take it as you’d find it anyway. And if you like parts of it you should enjoy it and shouldn’t be forced to… I’m quite uncomfortable with this idea that you should have been well-read. About a lot of things, you know, it just to enjoy poetry because it doesn’t work you wouldn’t say to someone you must have seen every style of painting to enjoy it pointillism, or something like that. Actually, so while we are talking about education. Education or lack of or whatever, I was thinking that you work on a regular fairly or regular basis with education projects in local schools. I’ve got some questions about that but maybe you could tell us a little bit about the projects and how you got involved in them.


HM:     Well, I do all sorts really and I’ve sort of fallen into all of it by accident. I always knew from when I started writing a bit more seriously that I wanted to teach in some way, and I wanted to share my enthusiasm for poetry with other people. So, the first thing I did was I volunteered to work, no, I didn’t volunteer, I persuaded them to employ me, that’s right. Probably by pretending I knew what I was doing when I didn’t. There was a charity in Cambridge that used to work with trying to provide creative workshops for people that didn’t have access to them that often. So, I ended up working… That was my first proper job doing any kind of teaching, I was working on an estate in Huntington with a group, every week, and usually just one person turned up so it was quite dispiriting but it was a good introduction.


So, I suppose I first did adult education and then later worked for the Open University, and taught on one of their online courses. So, I’ve always done a lot of online teaching and still do. And then the schools work has happened more recently because I was lucky enough to… I applied for this great role called Derbyshire Poet Laureate which happens every two years in Derbyshire they get a new person to do it. And one of the reasons I wanted to do that was I knew it would involve a lot of schools work and I really wanted to work with primary and secondary schools, and partly because I would have loved that when I was a kid. We never had a writer come into our school and work with us. And I just thought what a great thing to do and I also thought it would be good for me and I’d learn a lot from the kids and I have so it’s worked.


DT:      Yeah. And actually, on that point, I mean, do you think that enough poets get involved with educational programs and if there aren’t why do you think that is?


HM:     I think I could imagine them being put off. I don’t know how many do. I seem to know a lot of people that work in schools with that could be the people that I know.


DT:      I guess once you start then you…


HM:     Yeah, you know more and more people that do. And it can be daunting because you do… I’ve had this feeling loads of times where you go into a school and you just think: Oh god, what… You know, they’re going to be bored by me, they’re going to hate this. Especially, I have to say, older kids and teenagers. I Really like working with 10, 11 year olds that are really responsive. It’s sometimes a bit more of a challenge when you get older. But I think everybody should because it’s such a gift to you as well as hopefully to the kids. People always get more from it than you think. You know, even the kids, especially sometimes, the kids that don’t want to join in at first and that are really put off by it.


So, that’s why I’m really interested in, I don’t work for them myself, but initiatives like First Story. That have relationships with schools and build on that and try and get a program going year on year and they take the schools on residential courses as well. I think stuff like that’s brilliant. And the other thing I found interesting since I’ve been working in schools round Derbyshire is that often it’s not the… This isn’t a surprising thing in a way really, it’s not the schools that are supposedly the best academically that are the best to work in. In fact, often it’s quite the opposite.


And I… My favourite workshop I’ve done in the last few years was in Shire Brook Academy down the road from where my mum and dad live. And I was talking to the students there about memories of mining and Shire Brook as a mining community. I was just staggered by some of the things that they wrote about what’s happened to Shire Brook over the past 30 years. And it’s lost a lot of aspects of heritage; what it’s like now what it used to be and how much these students of 12, 13 knew about their history and about where they came from. It was really inspiring.


DT:      I suppose that goes back to this whole idea of storytelling then, doesn’t it? If you can open kids minds to the fact that it is just a form of storytelling, they can do that anyway, you know. They are probably perfectly placed to do that. If you just allowed them to have a voice. Do you find you have to… Actually, [INAUDIBLE]. Do you find you have to stay away initially from any form of structure or meter or… And just to get the interest first.


HM:     Yeah, I don’t tend to get and I could be wrong in this, I don’t know if it’s the best approach, but I don’t tend to get too hung up on, even, making sure that they’re writing what might be generally considered poetry. I’m more interested in storytelling, I suppose, so just what they want to say about, for example, in that case where you come from or whatever it happens to be.


But actually, you kind of find the reverse as well, I go into a lot of schools where the students actively want to write in meter or in rhyme because they think that’s what poetry is or they don’t like poetry. I’ve had people say to me: ‘Oh I don’t like poetry that doesn’t rhyme, it’s rubbish.’ They’re sort of seeking that out. And I suppose in those cases I always just try and say: ‘Well, yes that works for you and it’s the best way to express yourself, brilliant. If it’s holding you back from saying what you want to say then maybe for now you should forget about that structure. And maybe think about it at a later stage when you’re editing your poem.’


DT:      I mean, I don’t know how much you’ve seen of the sort of regular teaching of poetry at sort of GCSE level but do you think anything in particular could be done to improve the teaching. I mean, not from poets visiting, I mean, from the teachers point of view.


HM:     I don’t know, I do think it’s good that they get to… As far as I know, a lot of schools now take their students to a kind of road show with some of the poets whose work is in the anthology that they study at GCSE, and they get to do things like that. I think encouraging people to listen to more poetry, resources like the Poetry Archive is a really good thing, just because, as we all know, sometimes poems just make more sense when you hear the poet reading them and you hear them explaining them.


I think anything that can enable people to relate to them in that way, it’s got to be good. So, things like that and like… That’s why I quite like the Poetry by Heart competition they have now where they get people to learn poems and then say them. Because I do think there can be an enjoyment in that if you’re not just being forced to all learn the same poem by rote. If you’re being encouraged to choose a poem that you’ve got a connection with, for whatever reason it speaks to you and it engages with you or it says something about you and your life and you want to internalise it and remember it and then, you know, possibly keep that poem forever. I think that’s got to be a really interesting thing.


DT:      And I think that’s a good point actually about once you know the thinking behind a poem or what the poet trying to achieve… The main reason behind the podcast actually is because I think if we can get enough poets to talk about what they’re trying to do…


HM:     Yeah.


DT:      It’s much easier to understand work then because you’ve got a connection with them, you know, and if you hear them maybe read a couple of poems, it’s easier to access the rest of their work. I think and even more complicated stuff. I think there’s a real lack of… Because I come from a fine art background, I only started writing recently and performing, but it’s much more common within fine art, it’s expected of artists to explain and engage in conversation. Not all do it, some of them think of the people, you know, they’re not… It doesn’t seem to exist as much with poetry.


HM:     Yeah, there’s always more mystery around the process, isn’t there? I suppose the thing that springs to mind when you say that about art and things, is that… Someone whose work I love as a whole, not just be the artwork but the process around, it is all the stuff that Grayson Perry does for TV. Where you see… I love seeing how he turns his ideas about something into this artwork. I think it’s magic. And you see him getting false starts sometimes or getting frustrated about the process but then somehow, he finds the right form for whatever idea he is trying to express, in his case it’s a physical form. But I always watch things like that and I think well there’s not that dissimilar from what you do with a poem sometimes.


I mean, some poems do just arrive actually. Sometimes I don’t know I’m going to write something until I do. But others like the example we talked about with ‘Scab’ at the beginning, sometimes it is a long process of working out how you are going to put something into words and what things are going to come together and what you want to express. So, I always think wouldn’t it be great if you could do something… Yeah, a documentary like that but with poetry, wouldn’t be as visually appealing though would it? Yeah. Also, I don’t think poetry’s got a Grayson Perry really, so. [INAUDIBLE]


DT:      Maybe I should start recording the podcast in a dress. Possibly. We’ll move on from that, I think, that image. So, you were inspired or maybe you said you were enabled to write ‘Scab’ after seeing Jeremy Deller’s video piece called The Battle of Orgreave in which he re-enacts running battles between police officers and striking miners in Orgreave South Yorkshire in 1984. Without stating the obvious, I mean, what was it about that work that inspired you or allowed you to…


HM:     This links nicely back to what we talked about at the very start which is, I was struggling to work out how was going to try and write about these things that I care very passionately about. But also felt a bit anxious trying to write about. And about the same time when I was mulling all these ideas over, I went to the BFI Archives in London and it just so happened that they’d got a mining special in the archive and I must have sat there for about eight hours watching mining film after mining film. And right at the end I found Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave and it was brilliant not just because it’s such a powerful film anyway and because what he’s doing is totally bizarre. He’s going to re-create this very emotive battle in the place where it happened with people who were involved. I mean, that’s crazy, isn’t it?


But also, because it is tied into this idea of mine that we… When terrible things happen to communities they do get re-enacted over and over and over in the memories of the people that were affected in future generations. Like those kids from Shire Brook, I was mentioning, that still knew everything thing about the strike even though, you know, they’re the generation on from us, they’re further away from it in some ways. So, yeah, I wanted to show how conflict never gets forgotten and it gets played out in other ways as well. It gets recycled and the anger gets bottled up and then the anger gets turned into something else. And I thought that Jeremy Deller’s film is a really good, sort of, motif for that in some ways.


DT:      Yeah, no I, it was… No, I was really glad when I heard you read ‘Scab’ for the first time because Jeremy Deller is one of my favourite artists anyway and the re-enactment is… Here’s just a little bit of background in case anyone’s listening and doesn’t know what it is. It involved miners that were in the original strike and civil war re-enactment enthusiasts. And he got them to re-enact these running battles across fields, and it was crazy. And it was quite brutal and it’s… And you can see the anger still… The emotions still run high for the people that were there. And there were a couple of points where you could see the guys that were just for re-enacting aren’t really sure they want to get involved.


HM:     That’s my favourite bit, when they say: ‘Well, it’s a bit different from wielding an antique sword in a castle somewhere in Doncaster.’ They were a bit nervous and that really comes across. I actually met Jeremy Deller at… The most intimidating time I’ve read a poem I think was in Chesterfield Winding Wheel. At an event to mark 30 years since the strike with lots of ex miners there and they ask me to read ‘Scab’. And they also have Jeremy Deller there talking about his film and I just thought: Oh no, they’re going to crucify me, they’re going to think it’s a liberty and… How dare you, it wasn’t like that. And actually, that wasn’t the case. People were just happy that, as you said at the start, that somebody was still talking… Yeah. And Jerry Deller was lovely because I also got worried that he might not like the portrayal of his film in the poem or he might disagree with it but no he was fantastic.


DT:      I get the impression… I have only seen interviews with him but I get the impression that you spoke about the film in a way that he would want it to be spoken about that.


HM:     That’s good.


HM:     Actually, while we’re talking about art and Jeremy Deller and such. I mean this is a personal gripe for me, I mean, I find it… It comes to a surprise that more poets and artists don’t collaborate, more often than… Take the work of the other person as a starting point and then how do you… I mean you might not really have an opinion on this but how do you feel about that?


HM:     I really like… I’ve not had that much opportunity to work with artists but there’s a poem in Division Street called ‘Seven Decapitations’. And that was written in response to the work of a brilliant painter called Tom de Fresten. And he’s brilliant because he’s very active in approaching writers and saying look… He is prolific he produces new work all the time. I’ve got these paintings why don’t you respond to one or… And his latest project that he did called The Charnel House. It was great because he did a bit of both. So, he’d approached quite a lot of writers and got them to respond to some of his artwork. And then he’d also then himself picked out lines from the poems and incorporated those into the book. So, it was a two-way process of collaboration. And I really enjoyed working like that because I think you find very often at the beginning you’re really not sure what’s going to happen. And I think that’s good because if you already knew how are you going to respond there’d be no discovery in it.


DT:      Absolutely.


HM:     And very often it prompts you to write something that you just wouldn’t otherwise have done.


DT:      Do you feel that the writers or poets are maybe a bit guarded about giving their work to someone to mess about with?


HM:     Yeah, maybe but I’ve never minded that because once you’ve written it and published it then it’s kind of not yours anyway. You know, the reader can misinterpret it and then it’s partly your fault if they have because it’s ambiguous and… Or they can mistake your motives. They can assume things, like we said earlier on, that they’re autobiographical, which they aren’t. And so, in some ways, it’s no different to that, this process of collaboration. And it would be just as bad for the artist because surely they don’t know how are you are going to respond to their work and you might imply things about them, terrifying.


DT:      I think it comes back to that point where maybe within the fine arts it’s just a bit the more expected… Accepted, sorry, that people will do that to your work because you’re putting it in galleries. It’s actually one reason that I moved away from fine arts and went more into writing because there’s a bit more immediate, especially when you’re reading live. Putting stuff in galleries is quite… You have this disconnect with your audience. You put it up, you have an opening evening, you meet people and… But then you walk away and it’s there for two months and you never hear again, unless there’s a review. You never hear what people think. Whereas with live poetry, I’m not talking about publishing books, but live poetry you do get an immediate feedback.


HM:     I find it strange as well, as a visual artist, you could effectively lose bits of your work forever. If you sell a painting to somebody it is then their painting, isn’t it? You haven’t actually got it anymore. That must be really weird


DT:      And I think that’s… It’s actually what I like about my writing. It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks it’s always mine. You do have… You really have the ability to do it, which is maybe why you are able to remain guarded as a poet because it’s always your child. It’s always your creation and it’s always personal. It doesn’t matter how many books you sell, the poem still exists in your head.


HM:     This is a poem called;


Other People’s Dreams

Poem can be found here

DT:      You spoke in an interview with Granta back in 2013 about the idea of poetry haunting you, about being visited by the idea for a poem that won’t leave you. Try and give our listeners an insight into the creative process. I’m not asking you to tell people how to write poetry. Just a brief description of the development of an idea into…


HM:     It’s a good job you’re not asking me how to write poetry because I don’t know. If I did know that I would just try and write brilliant poems all the time. For me a lot of my beginnings for poems do come from sound, almost like an ear worm or something, something that won’t go away. So, it does sound like a cliché but quite often I’ll be doing something else, I’ll either be walking or maybe running or out somewhere or sometimes it happens, which is a bit embarrassing, when I’m listening to somebody else read another writer or somebody talk.


I’ll get this thing in my head and have to sort of run the lines over and over in my head until I settle into a pattern. It is almost as if I can see them in my mind’s eye, kind of, slotting into place, a bit like some kind of Tetris type thing. I’ll often not write it down for a long time. I kind of repeat the lines over and over in the hope that when I do finally come to write it down, I’ll have forgotten the weaker stuff, the stuff that’s stuck will be the good stuff, or the better stuff anyway. But sometimes you do just have to try and write it down as soon as possible. And it’s terrible when you’re at an event and there’s lots of people around, I just need to write this line or I’m going to forget it. So, often it’s quite a stressful process.


DT:      I was going to say actually I didn’t know whether it was just the way it was put up on the Granta website or whether… I got the impression that inspiration wasn’t necessarily a very pleasant thing all the time.


HM:     I think it is tied up with… I don’t know if you find this as well but it’s also sometimes, it’s tied up with a bit of anxiety about… I always think that poems are better before you’ve written them. When the poem just exists in your head as this idea of the poem you’re going to write, you think, wow I’ll say all this in it. And obviously, the real thing’s always going to be a bit of a disappointment, you don’t quite express yourself properly. You don’t feel like you’ve done it justice. There’s this horrible gap, isn’t there, between what you understand and what you see and what you’re able to express to other people. It’s just a continual, sort of, stress.


DT:      And I suppose that once you get into writing regularly, as well, having an initial idea will just bring back that memory of knowing that you’re not going to be able to do a very good job of it. It brings that… That anxiety is coming up immediately whether you try to realise it or not, you still get that pang of…


HM:     And yet depressingly I think that if you are somebody that loves to write, the reason that you’re doing it as well is because you still feel that that’s your best way of getting close to saying what you mean. Because you feel like you really bad in conversation, you’re really bad at talking to people and saying what you mean, verbally perhaps. So, it’s kind of you’re one chance to get it right, so if you screw that up then that’s it.


DT:      Quite often people will say to me: ‘What have you been doing today?’ ‘I’ve been writing.’ ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ ‘No, you don’t understand.’


HM:     It’s not that easy.


DT:      Yeah, talking about thought processes and stuff, on your blog Poetry on the Brain, and with your background studying psychology, you talk a lot about neuroscience and the study of writer’s brains a lot. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve read too much about that but if you’ve got anything you’d like to say about that. How much does that influence your… Does it influence your writing at all or is it just a side interest?


HM:     It is just a side interest, really. I’ve got a bit worried when I started studying… When I say studying neuroscience this makes me sound like I’ve been in the lab cutting up brains, definitely not. It’s purely from a theoretical perspective. I’ve just been reading other people’s papers or people’s work and I find it really interesting… The attempts that are being made to understand things about what happens in our brains when we write, I think that’s great. I think we should never forget that correlation doesn’t always mean causation, just because two things are going on doesn’t mean one’s making the other happen. Otherwise you could be very reductive about writing processes, which are still really mysterious.


And I did get worried at first that if I read about these things I’d become too self-conscious myself, when I’m thinking and when I’m writing. But that doesn’t seemed to have happened really, I still forget it all when I’m in the process of writing a poem. Maybe because, as you sort of implied talking about your own writing, it’s really all-consuming when you’re trying to write something, you don’t have room for all these side thoughts and… So, I just find it fascinating. It’s as much of a mystery to me as what happens when a poem’s being written. Literature and neuroscience are both really mysterious things. And the more you read just the more questions you get about it.


DT:      I mean, the reason I brought it up was 1. to mention the blog because I think a lot of people would be really interested in it and 2. to highlight this idea that this… There’s is a quote, I can’t remember who the quote’s by, but this idea that Stephen Hawking had A Brief History of Time, which is probably one of the most complicated books you could ever try and read, was a huge bestseller. People are not scared of big ideas. They are not scared of complicated ideas yet they’re scared of poetry.


HM:     Yeah.


DT:      And all it is that we haven’t… The argument is, in this quote, that artists, all artists, haven’t thought about what they do enough in order to explain it to the general public. Because I… This is just a personal feeling I’ve got and I’ve got no evidence. I would say that most people would be happier trying to understand your blog, Poetry on the Brain, than read your poetry.


HM:     My poetry. Yeah, definitely.


DT:      And the neuroscience is probably far more complicated. But for some reason people are less scared about these and it might just be because we have some sort of basis of knowledge regarding our science education at school.


HM:     Yeah.


DT:      And biology, we sort of know what the brain looks like and there’s electricity running through it, even if we don’t understand how that works. There’s a basis there.


HM:     Yeah. And it links back to what you mentioned earlier on I think about terms of engagement in poetry and education and things like that and hearing… I said about hearing people read their poems. It is very often you do just need to give people a bit of a hand, a way into stuff. I remember working with a book group in Chesterfield not that long ago and none of them had ever read poetry before. They were really worried about discussing it and trying to… And at the end of it I just went in and talked about where a few of my poems had come from and a bit of context and why I’d wanted to write about those things. And I think to some of them it suddenly made a bit more sense. And I’m sure that all poets can… Do do things like that and… You’re completely right it’s just about finding the right way in.


DT:      Yes. Final question. Who or what has been the biggest influence on your writing and who would you recommend to our listeners to check out? It could be any… We’re not talking about writers here it could be any artist.


HM:     That’s such a difficult question because there’s probably so many. Really strangely, I think one of the people who’s had the biggest influence on my writing is not a poet at all, it’s probably the folk musician Richard Thompson. Whose music I really love and I just love the way he puts difficult things, and also stories, into a form, musical form in his case. Rather than this sort of just… Although his lyrics are brilliant and really really good as well. And I guess I’ve always grown up with that because My dad loves his music, he was always playing folk music when I was a kid and it filters into your head. And then as I got older I found his music just a real sort of reinvigoration, an inspiration when… Those times when you’re not really sure what you’re doing and what you’re about and what you want to say. I often end up going back to him as a kind of touchstone in some way. So, yeah, maybe I’ll say it’s him.


In terms of people that I’d recommend to listeners to check out. Wow, there’s so many. If they’re interested… They may have been listening to this podcast because they’re interested in things to do with the miners’ strike, if so, I really recommend a pamphlet by someone called Paul Bentley called Largo which is about his experiences of the strike. And he intersperses it with things about music that was out at the time. So, that’s really really interesting.


If they’re interested in the brain and the mind but it’s relevance to culture and art then I recommend a book by Ian McGilchrist called the The Master and his Emissary, which I write about a heck of a lot on my blog. Which is a really interesting theory on society as much as the brain. And other things that I’ve been reading recently… I do tend to read more non-fiction and fiction than I do poetry, but the last couple of collections I read was Kate Tempest’s Hold your Own, I really enjoyed that. And thought the poems left me quite enthusiastic about what you can do in poetry, so I got very absorbed in that.


And also, a collection by an American poet called Joshua Mehigan, who I think is just brilliant. He does amazing things with form and language and he’s just clever without showing off about it, which I always think is the best thing for a poet to do. So, they’re my current… That’s my current reading list and a couple of older things, I guess.


DT:      Interesting. That’s it, just… Well, thank you again Helen Mort and Charley the whippet who was really well behaved, he’s just asleep on the sofa there. He did have a little scratch around at one point, which you might have heard. I suppose… Yeah, just a few plugs, you can check out… It’s www.helenmort.com, isn’t it? The website? And then Poetry on the Brain is the blog and, like I mentioned at the beginning, you can get Helen’s book Division Street through Chatto and Windus, it’s on sale in a lot of bookshops and through evil Amazon. Yeah, and this has been poetry… Lunar Poetry Podcast.



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