Episode 120 – Tom Sastry

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

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

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


Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Tom Sastry – TS


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



To read this poem download the full transcript here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TS:       Burnham-on-Sea? Or Brean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      I think we might take a second poem.

 TS:       OK. This poem is called;

To read this poem download the full transcript here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      Crumbs of pasty round their beaks.

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

To read this poem download the full transcript here


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

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

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

End of transcript.

Episode 115 – Jane Yeh & Roy McFarlane.

LPP Jane Yeh   new itunes lpp

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

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

This episode is in two parts:

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

Some links relating to this section:

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

Some links for this section:

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

The episode music is an original composition by Snazzy Rat. You can find more from Snazzy here:


Transcript by Christabel Smith.

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Jane Yeh – JY


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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Jane.

Part one (00:03:25):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JY:        Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JY:        When it was just an abandoned industrial building?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      Giving air and space inside.

JY:        Yeah.

DT:      Forcing people to pause.

JY:        Yeah, yeah.

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

JY:        What do you mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      That will be available when?

JY:        March 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

Link (00:48:07):

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

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

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Roy McFarlane – RM

Part two (00:49:20)

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

RM:     Hello.

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

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

RM:     Thank you very much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      A pigeon poem?

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      He should be going through every collection.

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

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

DT:      Quick-fire!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      Thank you very much.

Outro (01:04:18):

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

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

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

But for today, that’s it. Tchüss.

End of transcript.

Episode 105 – Access to Publishing

Access To Publishing - Fin

So, the last episode of the series has gone up online and what an amazing end it is. Khairani Barokka is joined by poets Raymond Antrobus, Sandra Alland and Giles L. Turnbull for a discussion about access to publishing in the UK. Link to transcript here. The quartet discuss the variety of barriers they have faced or addressed during their careers. Taking the recently published anthology, Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back, as their starting point, they move on to cover magazine submissions, live reading, poetry competitions, and the often ‘tokenistic’ approach to diversity within poetry publishing. A description of the header image, also used as the episode artwork, can be found at the bottom of this post.

This episode has been a long time in the planning and I’m just so happy that it’s happened and that it has marked the end of the Arts Council funding I received last summer. A breakdown of which can be found here.

Below are listed some excellent resources relevant to the discussion but first I wanted to list the places you can find the four wonderful guests and gigs they’ve got coming up which I just didn’t have time to squeeze into the podcast introduction…

Khairani Barokka (Okka)’s website can be found here, she can also be found on Twitter @mailbykite. Okka’s book Indigenous Species is available, in various formats, from Tilted Axis Press. Her debut, full-length, poetry collection Rope is due out with Nine Arches Press in October 2017.

Sandra Alland‘s website can be found here, and you can find Sandra on Twitter @san_alland.

Sandra and Okka, who are two of the editors of the anthology Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back, will feature, along with several anthology contributors, at Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh on Wednesday September 27th, from 6:30pm-9pm. Access includes: BSL interpreting, BSL content, projected text of poems, captioned films and audio description. This is a relaxed event with quiet space provided. £4/£3 concessions. More info at scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk

You can also catch Sandra appearing on a panel as part of a film event highlighting the representation of bisexual and queer disabled experiences, for Bi Visibility DayVisibility and Representation takes place Friday 22nd September | 6.30-9.30pm. LifeCare, Edinburgh, 2 Cheyne St, EH4 1JB. Venue wheelchair accessible via lift. Films subtitled, BSL interpreting provided.

Giles L. Turnbull‘s website can be found here. Giles can also be found hanging out on Facebook and Twitter @Bix_cool.

Giles will be reading at Putney Library on the 11th or 12th of October (date tbc, see website) as part of the extended celebrations around National Poetry Day. You can also catch Giles reading at Voices on the Bridge in Pontypridd in October and Abergavenny Writing Festival, 19-21 April 2018.

Raymond Antrobus’ website is here and he’s on Twitter @RaymondAntrobus. Ray is gigging all the time so the best thing to do is check dates on his blog or get in touch via Twitter. Raymond is the co-editor of Magma Poetry Issue 69 – The Deaf Issue due for release in November.

Resources recommended by the team behind this episode:

1. In the podcast discussion, Sandra talks briefly about research on the barriers faced by trans and/or non-binary people in further and higher education. If you’re interested in more details about some of this research being done in the UK, including about people who are trans and also disabled or D/deaf, you can follow Scotland’s TransEdu project as the research is developed. Go to www.trans.ac.uk for more information.

 2. In the podcast the group discusses the excellent accessible content of the online literary magazine, Deaf Poets Society. Find it at deafpoetssociety.com

 3. For people searching for audio content in publishing, San suggests an offshoot of Manchester’s Comma Press called MacGuffin. They have a website and apps that feature text and audio recordings of poetry and short stories. For details go to commapress.co.uk/digital/macguffin/

Artwork Description:

Access To Publishing - Fin

The accompanying artwork is a square image roughly divided into quarters. Everyone supplied black and white pics.

The bottom-left corner is the podcast logo, a black circle on a white background. In white lettering on the black circle is ‘L.P. Podcasts’.

The bottom-right corner is Okka, an Indonesian woman sitting on some tree trunks (in Camberwell), right arm across her knees and looking to her right deep in thought about poetry or maybe dinner (definitely dinner)! Dark-coloured, long-sleeve top under a yellow vest style dress.

Top-right corner is Sandra. The image is shot from above so Sandra is looking up and straight into the lens. White with short and medium-dark hair, eyebrow piercing above the left eye, dark jumper over a checked shirt. Trousers and boots. Walking stick in left hand. Reminiscent of Manchester-based indie band LP covers from the 90s. Photo by Tiu Makkonen.

Top-left corner is divided into two portrait-format pictures. To the left is Raymond, shot from chest up. Ray leans against the edge of a stone doorway. Short dark hair, dark shirt open over a crew neck t-shirt, pendant hanging from a leather necklace. Ray seems to be asking us to buy his latest collection or his latest pop record.

To the right of Raymond is Giles, also shot from the chest up. Giles is sat in front of the architrave surrounding a box sash window and wears a wool jumper over an open-necked shirt. All of which seems to tell us that Giles has thoroughly enjoyed this rural writing retreat and we should all join him next year when the theme is ‘Birch Trees. Nature’s Lampposts.’

End of artwork description.


Thank you again to everyone that has listened or taken part in the series in the last 12 months. It has been insightful, exciting, tiring, frustrating but mainly just brilliant. Much love, David.






DT:      Hello, this is Lunar Poetry Podcasts. I’m David Turner. Hello to our regular listeners and anyone who’s tuning in for the first time. Today’s episode is the last one to come out of the funding we received last summer from Arts Council England. A big thank-you to them for the financial support over the last 12 months.


I will, incidentally, be publishing a breakdown of what the funding was used for. You’ll be able to find that over at our website from September, so if looking at spreadsheets and pie charts is something you’re interested in, then go over to http://www.lunarpoetrypodcasts.com . where you can also download a transcript of this episode, along with over 70 episodes from the archive.


After today’s episode, we’ll be returning to uploading one per month. I’m in the process of applying for more funding from Arts Council England and depending on whether that’s successful or not, I’ll be giving more details about what form the series will take as soon as possible. You can follow the progress of that application by following us at Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook or Instagram and @Silent_Tongue on Twitter, though regardless of the funding application, the series will continue, as will the transcripts.


One final piece of news before I introduce the episode. The British Library has chosen to archive the entire series in their national audio collection. This is a pretty big project and will take a few months to process, but it won’t affect the way you access these podcasts. I just wanted to mention it because the archiving of podcasts is still unusual and if you lot hadn’t continued to listen, I wouldn’t have continued with the series and I wouldn’t be sitting on a series that contains over 200 poetic voices, many of them working class and/or from marginalised parts of society. I’m just made up that these voices will now be part of a national collection.


So, today’s episode. It was recorded in a space given over for free at the Albany Theatre in Deptford, South East London, by the literature organisation Spread The Word, who do fantastic work. You should check them out. Thank you in particular to Aliya and Laura for their help and advice there. We’ve spoken a lot in the last 12 months about access to the arts and literature and I thought this topic would be the perfect way to wrap up this current series, if you like.


This discussion, ‘Access to Publishing’, is hosted by poet, artist, former Lunar guest and friend of mine, Khairani Barokka, or Okka, as she likes to be known. Okka is joined by Raymond Antrobus and Giles L. Turnbull, and also Sandra Alland who, along with Okka and Daniel Sluman, co-edited an anthology of poetry and essays by D/deaf and Disabled writers called ‘Stairs and Whispers’, out through Nine Arches Press, to which Ray and Giles were both contributors.


Taking Stairs and Whispers as a starting point, the quartet go on to discuss many of the barriers that writers from marginalised groups face when trying to get published. Talking from personal experience, the discussion aims to give an overview of some of the issues faced by writers all over the UK. This of course is a starting point for further discussion and not a final statement on any subject and an hour or so is not enough time to cover everything and go into enough detail on each particular topic that came up in the discussion.


If you have any feedback or would like to get involved in the discussion yourself, then please get in touch with us via social media and our guests will engage when they have time and energy. Okka, Sandra, Ray and Giles all have gigs coming up, which I would like to plug, but that would make this intro even more rambling than it has already become. I will, however, write a blog post listing all this information, which you can find over at http://www.lunarpoetrypodcasts.com.


Alternatively, follow the link which I will post in the episode description. That’s probably enough for now. If you like what we do, please support us by telling people. Word-of-mouth recommendations, either in person or via social media, really is the most effective form of advertising for us. Support the arts and literature. Again, thank you all for listening. I can’t believe we now have over 100 episodes. I’ve really enjoyed doing this. Here’s Okka, Sandra, Raymond and Giles.






KB:      Hello, my name is Khairani Barokka, I go by Okka, you may call me that. A while ago, David and I had a conversation about interviewing some people we respected and admired, about issues related to access to publishing. Who gets published? What are the barriers to getting published? How do people get published in different ways, and what impact that has on the form of literature, the content.


And so, I have the pleasure today of interviewing three other associates. I will be asking all three of them about their experiences and opinions related to this. So first of all – elephant in the room – all four of us have worked on a book that we’re all very proud of, called ‘Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back’, out with Nine Arches Press right now, go buy it. It was co-edited by myself, Sandra Alland and Daniel Sluman and features 54 contributors, contributing essays, films and of course poetry.


It is the first of its kind, we think. It’s probably the first major UK anthology of D/deaf and Disabled poets. We’re very proud of it, so go check it out. But this episode will not be specifically about that book, although of course it will discuss issues that we have all written about and addressed in the book, whether directly or indirectly. First of all, I’m going to ask you to introduce yourselves in your own words, what work you’ve been doing, what work you’ve got going on and why you’re interested in doing this podcast in the first place. So, maybe start with you, San.


SA:       Ah, no time to think. Hi, I’m Sandra Alland, I also go by San, I’m a writer, inter-disciplinary artist and curator. My work tends to focus on creatively-accessible and intersectional arts and community organising, examining the intersections of things like sexuality, Disabled and D/deaf cultures, gender, gender diversity and variation, and then race and class.


I write and sometimes read and perform poems and short stories, I also make short documentaries, usually focusing on D/deaf and Disabled people, but not always, mostly focusing on artists, and I make a few poetry films as well, and also curate film programmes, visual-art shows and cabarets.


GT:      My name’s Giles L. Turnbull. The ‘L’ is important because if you Google ‘Giles Turnbull’, there’s another Giles Turnbull whose life seems to follow a bizarrely coincidental route to mine. So I use the ‘L’. I’ve been Blind for nine years now, so I’ve written poetry as both sighted person and Blind person. My poetry doesn’t often touch on the blindness, but I often write in prose about the experience of Blindness on my poetry.


RA:      My name is Raymond Antrobus, I am a poet, a teacher and a person. I was born D/deaf, my deafness has gotten progressively worse. I don’t want to use the word worse, but yeah, I have to do hearing texts every six months to make sure it’s where it’s at. I’ve only recently started writing about that, in a similar way to what Giles just said about that not always being at the forefront of what is being written about.


I’m really excited about this conversation, because I don’t think I’ve ever sat in a room where’s there’s so much- San used the word intersectionality, and there’s so much intersection here in terms of disability but also experience.


KB:      And yes, I should mention that I myself identify, have been identifying for the past six years, as a Disabled woman-lady-woman. As a Disabled woman. I’m Indonesian and it wasn’t until I came to the UK that I got proper medication and accessibility for a lot of things, so this is all new and wonderful for me, it means I get to meet people like you. But yeah, writing about a past that does not involve access to what I do now, publishing and the arts, is something I am continually grappling with as well and I’m doing a PhD at Goldsmith’s about that.


So without further ado, let’s get into it. First, I would like to quote a few statistics from our friend Dave Coates, he runs the poetry review blog Dave Poems, that’s davepoems.wordpress.com, and he’s really done amazing work, researching from January 2013 to July 2017, four years’ worth of reviews from The Guardian for one, and then so many other insights that he’s got his data set from eight platforms of poetry.


With this data set, he’s discovered that articles written by people of colour are extremely under-represented in terms of overall articles. Only 4.3% of all articles written about poetry books were written by people of colour, a total of 44. The proportion of books by poets of colour reviewed is 8.1% of all books, which is still pretty shocking.


The proportion of female critics, or women critics that he’s recorded, is 41.5%, a much lower percentage for particular platforms, and likewise, the proportion of books by female or women poets that have been reviewed is 38.6%. Women critics review men and women almost evenly, but male critics, well, unsurprisingly, I’ve got to say, overwhelmingly review other men. Do better, dudes!


All of this, as he says, should remind us of just how homogenous this community has been, which for people outside poetry, they might not know, that the poetry scene is still quite homogenous. And so I think this conversation is important because we’re talking about what are the factors that lead to that, and what is changing right now, what can we do to make publishing, particularly for poetry, more inclusive and accessible, so not just talking about Disabled and D/deaf experiences, but also across gender lines.


I mean, there isn’t data here for non-binary poets, I think David has acknowledged, and for Disabled and D/deaf poets, but I’d like to hear your thoughts if you would like to go one by one and say something about what access and inclusion in publishing mean to you. I think I’d like to start with Sandra.


SA:       I was thinking about what access is. It can be so many things, but it includes reducing, and ideally removing, barriers, physical and mental barriers, social barriers and that includes monetary and governmental barriers, I think we often don’t talk about those as much, and linguistic and/or communication barriers, participation in all facets of life, and then for inclusion, for me, leads on from that.


I always like to think of it as leaving no one behind, so thinking about and acting upon how to make something possible for as many people as possible. Ideally, everyone. Also, within that, destabilising power structures so that the same privileged narratives aren’t happening again and again. And then in publishing, because I thought it was interesting you asked what is publishing, so I started to think about that as well, things like books, journals, magazines, zines, chap books, online things including blogs and all of that.


I also started to think about publishing as including grant applications, applications to agents and awards, because these things often have such a huge impact on whether or not someone actually gets published in their book form, whether they’ve had access to those things as well, so they’re sort of offshoots of publishing.


KB:      We’re going to come back to so many things you just said, I’m so excited that we’re getting right into the meat of things, especially as I think maybe people listening will like more clarification on the linguistic barriers that may be evident to us, but may not be evident to some listeners. Giles, if you’d like to…


GT:      I always think inclusion is probably the most important thing. It happens on both fronts. You’ve got to encourage publishers to publish more of the less published writers, but you’ve also got to get more writers in those areas believing that they can publish. I first became aware of this when I looked at contemporary Blind poets and I Googled it and I found out about Homer and Milton.


I thought, ‘Is that it?’ I’m happy to say that my name now appears on a Google search like that, but there’s got to be more than that out there and I think there must be work needed, because I’m sure Blind people are writing poetry out there. They need to know that their route to publication is possible. They can do this. It isn’t, it shouldn’t be, some sort of barrier that they’re going to run up against. Working on both ends of the attack at the same time, the publishers and the writers, is important.


KB:      Thank you. Ray?


RA:      For me, one of the things that’s kept me going as a poet for so long is I genuinely had this belief there was nothing else I could do. I started more as a performer. I wasn’t interested in publishing anything because that’s not something I saw as available to me. I would write my stuff, I would learn it, and then I would be in front of an audience and the powerful thing about that for me, was because I was D/deaf and had so many different challenges and my confidence was really low in talking to other people, I’d lost almost every job I’d had from the ages of 16 to 20 because of my deafness and so it was kind of like, if I’m going to survive, I have to be a good poet and I have to be able to communicate with people.


It’s interesting now I’m at this point where I am publishing books, I am teaching, I am engaging with so many other people, but it’s been a journey and I do feel like I wouldn’t have had to have gone through as much had I seen more examples of D/deaf poets and more access, which is what we’re here to talk about. I hope that makes sense.


KB:      It does. It really resonated with a lot of my experiences too, like not seeing examples out there, low confidence, misunderstandings, jobs. So in terms of what Sandra was talking about with linguistic challenges to publishing, I’m really interested in hearing from all three of you about how you finally broke through to a point where you felt the way you wrote was validated in a poetry world that is still largely homogenous and has been.


I’d like to start with Giles in particular, because you and I spoke earlier about how you have written as both a sighted writer and a Blind writer, but only became published as a Blind writer and I thought that was fascinating and I’d love for you to speak more about that.


GT:      Yes, sure. I’ve been writing poetry since my high-school days, which is going on for 27 years now. For the most part, I was doing it for my own enjoyment. I did it as a way of relaxing after a busy day at work. But as my sight failed and I had more time, and had developed more confidence in my poetry, I decided I wanted to actually get it out there and try and get it some publications. So it’s been about five years since I’ve been published anywhere. It’s different.


I can’t comment on what it was like getting published as a sighted writer, because I never was. I guess I can imagine what it would have been. I know what difficulties I face now that I wouldn’t have faced if I was doing it sighted. Technology is usually the demon in this conversation. A lot of websites are not designed with good accessibility in mind. The easiest example is those random-word capture images that validate that you are human.


How on earth can I read that? There isn’t any kind of screen capture that will convert it into text for me. There used to be a Twitter app and I can’t even remember its name anymore, you could connect to it and say “I’ve got this capture challenge,” take a screenshot of it and then a human operator on the other end of the direct message would send the capture code back to you in text that you could paste into the box.


That was absolutely fantastic, but that’s been gone for probably five years now. There are alternatives. There’s a website called http://www.captchabegone.com, which I’ve never tried, but a lot of places these days, you will often see ‘Get an audio image’ and it will read out a set of numbers that you have to listen to and type them in as you hear them, and they are manageable, much easier than the mixed-up, slightly scrambled words that a sighted person has to deal with.


So I approve of that, but I don’t know if it really benefits the publisher, whether it really lowers the amount of spam they get, but it’s difficult, if the website’s not designed right. That’s the most obvious example, but if they’re not easy to navigate, it can take a very long time to read a whole page of a website to find information you want. If they’ve used headings correctly, that makes it easier for a blind person to jump, the screen reader will help you navigate from heading to heading, so you can find the heading you want with the submission information, but if there isn’t, you have to listen to the whole page and it’s hard work.


KB:      Thank you. Ray, you were speaking about the challenges of going into poetry and not really thinking about publishing and I thought that was super-interesting. What caused the shift? Do you feel a lot more comfortable now that you’re in Poetry Review, you know that your work is validated? What was that shift?


RA:      I think that shift was looking wider at the kind of poet… I think the kind of poet that I wanted to be changed. I was very much, in the first few years, about slam and about live poetry. I felt passionately about that space because again, it was something I had, I could kind of claim ownership over, without too many concerns and I think I looked at the publishing world, because I did have poetry books on my shelf, growing up, but that always just seemed like another world.


So I guess that shift might have been when I started seeing other poets who were also slamming. I started touring. I went around Germany and Switzerland, that side of Europe, and I noticed how many poets I was seeing, who are respected slam performance poets, also had books. I needed to see those examples and I think that planted something with me. Then, funnily enough, just as I was coming back, Burning Eye started and Clive from Burning Eye…


KB:      The publishing house.


RA:      …yeah, asked me, no one’s ever asked me before, ‘do you have anything we could publish?’ I just so happened to have been working on these… The timing was just gold. So I gave him what I had, he published it and it became a book called ‘Shapes and Disfigurements of Raymond Antrobus’. And I’m still really proud of that book, of how so many things came together, including the design, the front cover of the book, was designed by a man who’d seen me read poems, said he’d enjoyed them so much that he wanted to give something back of his own creation and ended up making this cover.


So it was just like organic collaboration. Now I’m passionate about making sure that other people who have other different kinds of challenges, including deafness, feel like they can submit, feel like they can become published poets as well as performance poets.


KB:      We’re going to come back to that, because I think encouraging other poets and creating more of an inclusive community is something that’s common to all of us. I want to talk about strategies for that later, but Sandra, you’ve worked for years on multimedia, interactive, intersectional experiences. There’s so much I want to ask you about challenges to inclusion in publishing. I know a lot of your work is collaborative as well. I wanted specifically to ask about that.


SA:       I’ll add a bit to what Giles was saying about barriers in terms of forms and online stuff, because I also use voice-activated software, trying to get naturally speaking, which I collaborate with! Although that’s not the kind of collaboration you were talking about… It doesn’t work with a lot of online forums as well. I think there’s been a lot of problems with things like Submittable for a lot of different programmes, and apps not working, and then the grants and awards, a lot of this is all online now and the autofill forms are not great and they don’t work with everything.


It’s also the socio-economic barriers. They’re assuming everyone is online in the first place. That’s a really huge thing, because there are so many people who aren’t. At my local library in Glasgow, there’s a queue to use the computers still. People don’t have that kind of access. Thinking about that as well. In terms of collaborations, coming back to linguistic barriers, I’ve worked with a lot of D/deaf BSL users and there’s hardly ever call-outs for magazines in BSL and there’s no information.


There’s also not audio information for people who are Blind or visually impaired, because not everyone is able to use the assisted technology or magnifying glasses or whatever, so thinking about these different ways of getting into things in terms of collaboration, it’s ensuring there are interpreters so people can have proper conversations and that sort of thing as well. Also, easy English, English that’s accessible to people with learning disabilities, that kind of thing is really important.


KB:      I want to speak specifically about the process of submitting. Raymond, you had that wonderful coincidence, Kismet, of Burning Eye approaching you directly. We’ve been working with Nine Arches and Jane, who’s open to these things. I would like to ask specifically about whether you think publishers are conveying themselves as accessible and inclusive?


Sandra’s about to burst out laughing, because the process of submitting… I know you talked about Submittable. I want to speak about how publishers… for example, one thing you wrote about in ‘Stairs and Whispers’, Sandra, was this need to tour.  I started out in performance as well, but it was really hard and I kept doing it because of this expectation that this is what poets do, rather than ‘how can I protect myself and do this better?’


I want to know if you think those conversations are happening more and more with publishers. If I can add one more thing, I would like to see more people in positions of power in publishing who come from different backgrounds and I want us not to only be ‘submitters’ and ‘the poets’. I want us to be publishers. That hierarchy needs to be more inclusive, I think. Are we still completely outsiders to some extent? Are publishers stating they are more amenable to, quote-unquote, ‘diversity’ – I hate that word – but you know, getting people from more socio-economic backgrounds, racial backgrounds?


SA:       I would have to say no. I think people who are from the backgrounds that are being included in term ‘diversity’ are often doing this work, but I don’t think other people really are. There are amazing D/deaf and Disabled publications, Deaf Poets Society, that are doing things that are completely accessible, they’re so amazing, everything they do has audio, they’ve got it all covered.


We ensured there was a lot of access on this book, but that was from us working towards it. People aren’t just doing this, I think, a lot of the time. I think people are trying to be more open-minded about including more kinds of people, perhaps, but they’re still not doing the work to find the people and to make themselves accessible to people in general. There are exceptions, of course, but overall things are still kind of bland, I think, to be honest.


RA:      Just this week, I found out a friend of mine, Sophie Woolley, who is a full D/deaf playwright-poet, she just won mentorship with Penguin Random House. There are some examples in the wider scheme of things, lots of issues, but there are some things. Even speaking for myself, I’m editing the next issue of Magma, that’s been really interesting to be on that side of the table, to be someone who’s asking for submissions and being someone reading those submissions and curating that space, with everything that we’re talking about around this table in mind. That’s interesting.


KB:      So you’re co-editing it with Lisa Kelly and both of you are also in ‘Stairs and Whispers’, which is wonderful. I think the different editorial approach of allowing non-D/deaf people to write about deafness is really interesting and I want to ask you about it. Different to how Sandra, Daniel and I curated ‘Stairs and Whispers’, we wanted it very much only D/deaf and Disabled poets, writing about anything really. Can you talk a bit about how you came to that decision with Lisa?


RA:      That was tricky. I think the way in which the compromise with this issue is, like you say, even with ‘Stairs and Whispers’, it’s the first time we’ve ever done this, so it’s the start of something. I can tell you that 22 of those poets are D/deaf without being published and also first-time publications. 22.


KB:      Wow, out of how many?


RA:      I’m not sure I can disclose yet how many. It was also very difficult dealing with rejecting a good number of poems, of writing, of material which was credible and important, but didn’t, I guess, live up to the standard of the publication, the standard they were looking for. It was challenging. I’m proud of what we’ve done, but what was really important for me, and I said this going in on this project, is that this cannot be a one-off thing.


Going forward, this needs to be a landmark in the way in which access is granted by, this one issue changes the landscape from here on. It’s ambitious. Like you say, we couldn’t take on the entire crusade as it were, it had to be like, ‘I’m going to do what I can with this one thing and begin a conversation or begin an exploration.’


KB:      I think that’s all any person can be expected to do. Even if you think it’s a small thing, it’s quite impactful. To do it with heart and to do it properly is difficult, but hopefully, it will multiply. Just seeing how other people are awoken to… ‘Oh, an anthology can be multimedia, oh, there are so many D/deaf and Disabled poets writing, oh, there are trans people writing, LGBTQ people writing, there are Black-Asian minority ethnic poets writing…’


It’s funny that people seem to think we don’t exist unless something like this comes out and shows actually, there are so many of us and we have always existed. Giles, when you submit, do you feel like they’re friendly and open to the idea of, a) that you’re a Blind writer conveying your art, and b) that it’s not a charity thing to accept, that the poetry has to be a high standard?


GT:      That is true and maybe it’s a reflection on the type of magazines I submit to, but I, probably 95% of the time, feel that the editors are very, very approachable. I have had some experience that they’re not, but most of the time, if I’m having trouble with submitting something, they’ll work around it with me. The bigger problem I have, well, it’s not a problem, but obviously I can’t read a printed copy and probably the number-one guidance thing that editors want is that you’ve read a copy of their magazine.


I’d like to do that, but that means I have to ask them, ‘Can I get an electronic format, ideally PDF, because then my screen reader can read it aloud?’ I know it does sometimes feel I’m kind of writing begging letters any time I want to submit something somewhere, but I’m comfortable with that. That’s the only way you can do it. I would like to encourage publishers to think about that and make their publications available in electronic format.


There are a lot of concerns about piracy, in the same way there was about mp3 files in the early days of file sharing with bands on the Napster website and things like that. Publishers do say they are aware of pdf copies of their books being shared without being purchased. That is trouble and I want to explore that and talk to publications about ways around that, because it is important, because without that, there’s no way I can read their magazines, but as I say, probably 95% of publishers, maybe even more, are happy and very quickly prepare a pdf copy.


Most of the publication process goes to pdf stage before it goes to print, so it’s no big hassle for most publishers, but they’re always really happy to work as best they can.


SA:       I was thinking that when people pass things around for free, it’s often people who wouldn’t be able to buy something or wouldn’t buy it anyway, so I don’t think there’s necessarily this loss of sales that everyone feels a bit rabid about. It’s actually in some ways really good for a book to be passed along in that way. It’s the way a lot of indie musicians became known, was people passing things along and saying: ‘Hey, listen to this, hey, read this.’


It can only help the publication in the end, unless everyone’s reading it for free, which isn’t the case anymore. People still want a hard-copy book. A lot of people want a designed, e-reader, e-book, they don’t want a pdf. I don’t think it’s going to be an overwhelming thing.


GT:      It’s like the whole ethos of public libraries, which are sadly in decline too.


SA:       Exactly. You can all read it for free there.


KB:      Libraries, yes, absolutely. So another thing I wanted to bring up is higher education and its connection to publishing and the poetry world. I know Ray went to Goldsmiths, I’m doing a PhD at Goldsmiths, I got my Masters from NYU, all not possible without scholarships, but the availability of stuff like that I want to speak to. Also, whether there’s a sort of elitism in requiring higher education, what divides and what benefits poetry in higher education has for inclusion and access.


RA:      Actually, I just realised that what you just said earlier about when did I first feel able to publish something, like submit to magazines specifically, and I’d never considered it until Jack Underwood, who was my dissertation adviser, he just read some of my poetry and said: ‘Have you heard of The Rialto?’ I was like no. ‘I’m going to submit.’ He did it for me. He submitted.


There’s a picture of him in this room. That guy on the wall took my poems and submitted them to the Rialto for me. They were all rejected and he said: ‘Don’t worry, I could paste the wall with all my rejection slips. Try again.’ Second time I did it, they actually wrote back a note. They rejected it as well, but they said: ‘This is interesting. There’s something here.’ Third time I submitted, I got in.


But it was being coached into it and the fact I was coached into it, I guess from within an institution, academia, there is something to say to that because I often felt, again, that those places weren’t for me until I found myself in them through the back door. Even my route into Goldsmiths university, I didn’t even get any GCSEs, I did a whole heap of interviews and written interviews to get in, to make a case that look, I am capable of doing this work at this level.


I wrestled with it a lot. I’m someone who’s been very proud of my auto-didacticism and I felt like I’d be giving that up, going into an academic space, but now I’ve gone through it, I’m so glad I did because it challenged so many ideas I had, and myths and narratives I had about where I belong, where my work belongs. I feel like I’ve only benefitted from it.


KB:      That’s wonderful. Giles, before this podcast began, we spoke about you potentially applying to an MA programme and your decision to try and go for that.


GT:      I’ve never really formally studied poetry. I mean, I’ve been writing it for over 25 years now, and it’s going quite nicely, so I don’t really need an MA to boost it, but I’m in no doubt that studying, spending a year working on it, would make an impact on my poetry, it would change a little bit how I write and give me broader ideas to write about, but there are two other aspects.


Everybody always says poetry isn’t a paid job, you cannot survive. You can be a librarian, you can be an accountant, but you can’t really make money from your poetry, and that is very true. I would hope that if I studied a Masters course, it would open a few more doors into publishing kind of roles that I would not have much chance with without it. The third angle to that consideration is my blindness.


My big weakness at the moment is my independent mobility. I used to be a lot more mobile when I first lost my sight, albeit it with slightly more sight than I have now, and I want to regain that. I think that living on a university campus, getting out of my room and having to get to classes every day, into the library, interacting socially with other people, would have a huge impact in my life. So it feels like on three strands, it’s a really good thing for me to think about for this coming academic year.


KB:      Good luck. Sndra?


SA:       I think it’s a difficult question. There’s the socio-economic barriers, there’s people who cannot afford to go to university and there’s not enough scholarships to go around, and coming out with debts of £40,000 these days, it’s an awful lot to put into something like poetry. As well, you mentioned barriers in terms of getting around, that sort of thing, for a lot of trans people, non-binary people, there’s a lot of research being done that people are dropping out of university or not going, because of the social barriers to studying and that sort of thing.


If someone decides to transition, for example, and they have to deal with, basically, prejudice around them and changing a lot of things officially, or if they’re a trans person but nobody knows they’re a trans person, they have to show documentation that says something different than their name and their gender that’s on the documentation, these kind of things. Universities are becoming gatekeepers now and this comes into things to do with race, as well, and nationality.


They’re checking people have the right to be here, they’re checking people’s genders, they’re checking all kinds of things that are quite problematic and interfere with people being able to study. The mental-health impacts of that are huge, also the economic barriers to it. I think in terms of poetry being studied, it’s great. It’s great to see a lot more people feeling they belong in that canon as well, which is incredible.


I do think that with some creative writing programmes, although maybe it’s more on the undergrad levels, is the tendency towards sameness that’s a bit problematic, like there’s a kind of churning out of a kind of poetry that you can just go ‘oh yeah, that’s the programme you studied.’


KB:      Speak more about that. What kind of sameness?


SA:       Well, it depends on where they’ve studied, but a lot of the time, people are writing to please their professors. They’re writing to please a specific person, maybe just one person, or several, and in a specific way they think is the way, or the university thinks is the way. It’s the same kind of thing with acting courses and things like that. They produce a certain kind of… And you’re not maybe getting that raw writing that happens with people who haven’t been formed in the same way.


RA:      That’s not exclusive to academia, that’s general.


SA:       That’s true.


RA:      I also think what is exclusive to the academia and that sameness is still the required reading list of poets. Really? It’s like John Berryman, yeah sure, and I’m not saying those poems don’t have anything to offer, but when it’s all, when its exclusively that…


SA:       That white male canon.


KB:      White male straight.


RA:      That’s not changing. That’s what’s interesting to me. That’s not changing.


SA:       And how often are you seeing Milton taught? Otherwise, you don’t see Nuala Watts on the reading list yet.


KB:      Shout out to Nuala Watts, who’s a Blind poet.


GT:      I reviewed her pamphlet a little while ago for the Sphinx website.


KB:      She’s also a Stairs and Whispers contributor. This  a secret marketing of Stairs and Whispers by the way, we just love our poets so much and she has a fantastic response to Milton’s sonnet on partial blindness.


SA:       Again, this is the way people do get started is through Masters, people choose what they study, so that is interesting to have people like yourselves going into that kind of higher education, because then you have different projects coming out that would have normally been produced.


KB:      And then you have that gendered term Masters and also the racial connotations of Masters.


RA:      Can I just give one subversive thing that happened to me because this is something I’m very open about at Goldsmiths and it was welcomed. Those challenges were welcomed. In fact, I did a whole paper on Frank O’Hara and I chose Frank O’Hara because you know, everyone knows ‘Frank O’Hara’ and I’m not saying he’s not a great poet, he is a great poet, but this dissertation I wrote about Frank O’Hara was basically looking at how his poetics are different to mine, even though we both live in a city, so it’s about the poetics of the city, but it was actually my lowest-graded paper of everything I did at Goldsmiths, but in a very interesting way, a way that was helpful, because the conclusion was: ‘Raymond, Frank O’Hara is bad for you. Frank O’Hara is the equivalent of having cheese in your diet when you’re lactose-intolerant. Because the poems you’re writing, that are directly in conversation with Frank O’Hara, are your weakest poems.’


That was an actual…it was great. I was like, wow, there’s such a thing as a bad influence. Reading that is bad for me. It came from O’Hara. I still read O’Hara, there are a lot of poets I read for pleasure, but they don’t influence me. I think it’s a different thing. I enjoy them, but they don’t make me feel like writing.


KB:      Wow. Absolutely. Recently, I was on a panel discussing the UK canon, white straight men, not acknowledging the fact that when you’re talking about the UK, you have to talk about Empire, you have to talk about the writing that comes from the colonies and writing from places that weren’t UK colonies but were influenced by English and it’s this whole thing of how marginal or how influential you want to keep people who are scholar-artists, who are women of colour, LGBTQI, to not be niche in university, to really influence what is going on.


I mean, the number of women-of-colour professors in the UK is shockingly tiny and I feel like seeking out those women in my life, those people whose experiences resonate with me, has been way more difficult than I thought it would be. I think it also rests on the universities themselves to empower people in higher education who are bringing an interesting quote unquote reading list that speaks to them. In high schools also.


Not just universities, we’re talking about the whole education system and going along with earlier, Sandra, you briefly mentioned nationality and one thing I want to cover briefly is the Eric Gregory Awards for poets 30 and under, recently opened to poets of all nationalities and I know myself and a few other people were ‘Aargh!’ because we’re not British, we missed it because we’re heading into the best decade of our lives, we’re in our 30s now!


I thought that was a real landmark in terms of ‘Oh, maybe things are changing’. Too late for us. But I think what you’re saying is it’s maybe not changing quickly enough, but what do you say about developments like that, when things are being opening up to all nationalities?


SA:       It’s a bit different in Scotland. Things tend to be, even when we voted, did or didn’t vote for independence, it was based on residency as opposed to nationality, and not everything is that way. The Edward Morgan Poetry Award, is a similar one, under 30, but they say you have to be born in Scotland, and/or raised in Scotland, and/or a resident for two years or something like that. So you can just be living there and I think that makes a huge difference.


You don’t have to have been living there for a long period of time. But on the same hand, I looked at the list of people who’ve been nominated and most of them tend to be people who were born and raised in Scotland and the last two times they’ve done it, they seemed to be all white faces. So you can change the rules, but it takes a while before things start to filter through.


People have to see themselves, or not necessarily see themselves, but people have to feel represented in order to feel like they have a chance and if you don’t have black faces up there or if you don’t see that trans women of colour are getting awards or being nominated for getting awards, you’re going to be, should I submit? What’s the point because it’s going to be the same people? I think that’s something that can be improved from a lot of different levels, just trying to make people feel welcome.


RA:      That’s the thing, because even if you do get in, you then question, like wait…


SA:       Yeah, is this a diversity thing?


KB:      Yeah, am I here as diversity for hire? I don’t know about you, but I have actually been approached by an editor saying: ‘Would you like to submit? We’re trying to diversify.’ I get that quite a bit and I’m like, oh, I’m so flattered, at the same time, it’s is that the only reason why you’re approaching me, because I’m a Disabled brown woman? Or is it because of the quality? When editors approach  people, I think it’s also very important for editors and publishers to think, OK, what is the intention here? Why am I approaching this person? Have I read their work? Do I understand, do I respect and admire their work? Because the main thing is for the work to be recognised as quality, even if it doesn’t fit the award judges’ definition of quality.


I think there’s something our silent host David Turner mentioned in an earlier conversation with me – quietly and silently, godfather host David Turner – is this concept of nature writing and awards that privilege this bucolic, pastoral type of poetry and its relationship to race and class. I thought it was really fascinating. When you read award winners, do you think… There’s also the emotional labour that needs to happen, where you think, I’m going to try and burst through and I think my poetry is worth it, it comes down to self-confidence as well.


I want to speak about this concept of responsibility because as you have said, the people doing this work to increase inclusion and access, are largely from marginalised communities themselves. We would much prefer to be writing. I mean, I can only speak for myself, but we would much prefer to be writing and editing our own work and of course, editing is fantastic and representation work is important, but it always seems to fall to marginalised groups to do this and I struggle with this, because I don’t necessarily want to encourage students of mine, to be ‘OK, you also have to do the work of opening the road for other people’, I think that’s important but I also worry about the emotional labour that we’re expecting of young poets.


Why aren’t people in the mainstream doing more of this work? I guess my question is, do you see that as a burden?


SA:       It’s a huge burden. I mean, it’s not a burden because I love to do things for my communities, but it’s a huge burden. For every event I do, I end up doing the audio description, doing the sub-titles myself, doing the stuff other people should be paying for, usually they’re funded organisations, funded publishers, this kind of thing. What I find happens is when they do actually get somebody who says ‘Hey, we’ll cover the access for you’, they’re only doing it for our event, for a D/deaf, Disabled event, they don’t keep doing it for other events.


It’s just like we’ve done this thing, we’ve done our D/dead and Disabled moment, we had the BSL interpreter, we got the photo op and then they move on and never do it again. I find that really frustrating and that puts the burden back on us again, because the next time I do an event, well, I’m going to have to pay for it, I’m going to have to do it.


KB:      So much goes on behind the scenes that D/deaf Disabled people don’t even take credit for, because we have to ask, is this place accessible, is the event going to be accessible, how far do I have to walk to get there, all these things, invisible labour. I hate using the word invisible for obvious reasons, but labour that’s just not recognised. Ray, you wrote something down, I know you have something to say.


RA:      Wow. My response to that is yes, but I’m going to say how I’ve managed to strategise this for myself, so it’s useful. I have a little bit of a manifesto, which is for myself. When I go into a project, including something like the Magma project, including working with D/deaf young people, trying to get them to become published poets, I’m very clear of what it is I want to get out of those experiences. I write them down and try and just focus on that.


I think OK, you’re going to get us to do extra work, someone might see you and suddenly your wires are getting crossed and you’re overwhelmed. Okka used the word emotional labour. So much of that work is giving, giving, giving and I constantly found myself coming to the end of so many different projects, with nothing to give myself. We all know that. It’s like damn, I could have written another book, that emotional labour could have gone into my own work.


That’s a real thing. I’m at this point now, I’ve got x amount of time, I’m very clear about what it is I’m going to get out of this project, how long it’s going to last and what I’m going to do afterwards. That’s something I didn’t have in place before. I do think we can only care for others if we care for ourselves.


KB:      Self-care is so important and so difficult in these contexts. So much giving.


GT:      I think the messages about writers from marginalised groups, almost certainly it’s going to start with the people in those marginalised groups. I think what needs to be done is the non-marginalised groups actually listen to those messages and share them so it becomes more widespread. I think that’s one of the biggest things I’m grateful for, being Blind, I’m much more aware of what’s going on in other marginalised communities.


I have written poems responding to D/deaf painters and I’ve spoken to the painters about them. I noticed the other day, there was a tweet about Pride week and I forgot who posted it, but there were about four or five LGBTQI poets’ collections. I downloaded as many books as I could find and I’m going to work my way through them and I shared that.


That’s what you need to do. It’s not my community, but I want to read that kind of work and I want other people to want to read that kind of work. I am happy to spend that time doing that. If somebody wants me to write about blindness, I pretty much do it at the drop of a hat. Maybe at the moment, I’m not overloaded with those requests. Maybe it isn’t constricting my time, but I give it my priority really, because I think it’s important the world realises that we all need to be more aware of other people’s troubles.


RA:      With the Magma call-out, there was this thing that kicked off on Facebook with a bunch of American poets about the D/deaf issue call out and what this discussion on Facebook was, it was actually among a few Blind poets who said that they refuse the idea of blindness as metaphor and they were saying they felt D/deaf poets should refuse that idea of deafness as metaphor.


I understood what they were saying. I thought the policing of those ideas, of what metaphors are valid, was strange. It’s interesting you said you would write about blindness at the drop of a hat.


GT:      That’s interesting because I did actually send in about four poems for that magazine, though none of them were accepted.


KB:      This is a safe space.


GT:      That’s not the main point. My point was that I did like that the Magma theme was open to the use of deafness as metaphor, because I wrote a poem about the unwillingness to listen, which was one of the themes suggested in the Magma page and I wrote a poem touching on blindness. Blindness and deafness have quite a close relationship.


When the house is very noisy when I’m at home, I wrote a poem about being doubly blind, because I cannot listen to the screen reader when the house is noisy, so I’m doubly inflicted by blindness because I cannot hear what the screen reader is saying. I think it’s great that the Magma thing was open to all and I’m not upset to be rejected. Magma is fiercely difficult to get into. That was my fourth attempt and I was still not successful, so I’ll keep trying.


KB:      This is also a mini ‘confront your editors’ session.


SA:       I think what’s important to acknowledge too is there’s such a long history of blindness specifically being used as a metaphor.


KB:      In a negative way.


SA:       Yeah and in a positive way, but just Blind people existing in other people’s poems and books or whatever as other people’s metaphors, or an entire book by, say Jose Saramango for example. Even just the amount of submissions you get in any publication of people saying: ‘I was blinded’. It gets boring.


KB:      And ‘unheard voices’ and ‘invisible voices’, ‘the voices of the voiceless’ really get my goat. I think what’s important to recognise is that there is a multiplicity of views within the D/deaf and Disabled community. There’s a multiplicity of views within the LGBT community, among Muslims. None of these are homogenous monoliths. That’s the most important thing. I think when people say ‘the Deaf community’ or the ‘Disabled community’, these are people with widely-different views sometimes. That’s what editors need to understand.


SA:       Also, it’s like D/deaf people using being D/deaf as a metaphor is much different than a hearing person using it and in terms of blindness as well, if Giles wants to write all day long about the metaphors of blindness, that’s a very different situation to me doing it.


KB:      Because you’re sighted.


RA:      One of the things I’ve been reacting to a lot recently is how much the news reports around Donald Trump use Donald Trump as ‘D/deaf to’. An interesting use of word there.


SA:       Yeah and he’s got ‘mental-health issues’, this or that, instead of being an evil jerk.


KB:      Exactly. That goes along with the use of Disabled and D/deaf people in popular media as always being evil. It’s always the Blind person or the person who has a limp, a disfigurement in some way, their existence is usually justified as being in love with an evil person or being really accomplished in some way, so this idea of the super-crip quote unquote, who has to in some way transcend their deafness and go beyond these challenges. Sometimes I see people who really use that super-crip narrative.


GT:      That is one of the biggest grumbles within the Disabled community, when non-Disabled people write characters and they haven’t really bothered to get to know the sort of issues people are dealing with and how they would approach them. We see it in the TV series and film Daredevil, where a blind lawyer can hear a pin drop across the city of New York. We don’t want those kind of stories.


SA:       The superpowers of smell, especially, those are big. Back to publishing, these are the things that tend to get published, whereas Disabled and D/deaf writers are not published and then we’re still carrying on the stereotypes.


KB:      Or the assumption still stands we can only write about, quote unquote, differences. I personally have had ‘Ah, do you write about being disabled?’ I think: ‘I can write about unicorns, anything I want.’ Do you ask white men: ‘Do you write about being a white man?’ I want to talk about the future. How do the three of you see publishing and poetry, considering everything that we have just discussed? Are you optimistic, pessimistic, somewhere in between? Anything else you’d like to say as we wrap up?


RA:      Recently, there’s been quite a change-over of editors in quite a number of major magazines and literary genres, including the Poetry Review. Just a few weeks ago, the New Yorker’s poetry editor is now Terrence Hayes, who is an incredible poet and you can’t overlook the fact he is a black man.


So Sandra said earlier about seeing a different set of people in positions of power. We are seeing that but again, we don’t yet know if this is going to have a long-term impact or is it just the season? Is it diversity season? I don’t know. I think I’m optimistic generally because I think optimism keeps me going. Pessimism doesn’t feed me so well, although I think some pessimism is healthy.


SA:       I think all the poets being published in these various publications that have been happening, and that sort of thing, has got more and more people contributing, so that’s going to be more stuff. We need changes in how funding is happening in a lot of ways, in terms of budgets for access. There’s often, at least in Scotland, a section to fill out, ‘What are you going to do for access?’ and everyone lies and says they’re going to do all these things for access, then they get the money and spend it on something else.


There’s not a lot of people following up  to make sure that people have the access they’ve promised, but also, putting money into that and thinking about access, you mentioned somewhere at the beginning to do with touring. Disabled people and D/deaf people especially really need extra money when it comes to that. We need taxis a lot of the time. There’s learning Disabled people, autistic people who maybe don’t want to be out in public transit, not all of them, but some of them, there’s mobility issues, that sort of thing.


Sometimes, if we’re going out of town, we need to stay an extra night, because we’ll be exhausted travelling from Scotland to somewhere, performing, going back to Scotland. I’ve been asked to do like eight-hour journeys twice in one day. It’s absurd. For anyone who’s not disabled, that’s silly. So factoring in those kind of things. One of my biggest pet peeves now that people need to factor in is paying people back their money immediately.


Poets are asked to put out so much cash to travel, spend £200 on a hotel for this night, spend £150 to take this and all your taxis and we’ll pay you back in three months. For me, that often means I can’t pay my rent if someone does that and it’s really embarrassing to say that to a publisher. It should just be a given they give you the money. A lot of the time, they already have it, it’s just not already happening. I think that’s something that needs to happen. In general, I do have optimism, yes.


There’s a lot of people doing amazing stuff, but I do think more of the work has to be taken on by non-Disabled people, by hearing people and not just in this way of ‘Look at me, I’m doing diversity’, which I think is what you referred Ray.


KB:      I think a big part of that is also giving us the reins, like editorship, in terms of writing for the stage, more directors, more producers, so we can tell our own stories, rather than other people’s platforms. You know, ‘we’ll slot you in for one thing, one show’. Giles, what are your thoughts?


GT:      My general mood is optimistic. We’ve made a good start, but encouraging applications and submissions from these minority groups is only part one. On the publishers’ side, they need to reach out more to the groups and say ‘look, we’ve got these opportunities we’re looking for’. If you Google ‘contemporary Blind poet’, you don’t find any entries. So are publishers wanting Disabled people and Blind people to submit to their publication saying to the RNIB ‘Can you circulate this among your members? We are holding this publication.’


We need to spread the word. If there aren’t that many people who are Blind saying they are a poet, then they probably don’t know about these events. Education is so much a major part of knowing something is out there. The number of people who are losing their sight who don’t know about the kind of technology I use every day. It would be immensely helpful to them. It beggars belief really. It’s all about communicating this message and it involves the publishers as well as the people who are in the Disabled groups.


KB:      Thank you. I have two points to that. The first is I feel we should be paid as consultants for our work and actually, I have been a consultant in the past in terms of accessibility to varying degrees of follow-up. Obviously, this should happen more often, because of the emotional labour we spoke of. It’s for free. We advise people and tell people our point of view but we’re not paid for it.


SA:       I get four emails a week at least from somebody asking me for free advice, how to make something accessible, and detailed free advice, like ‘would you recommend somebody who can do this or that?’


KB:      You have to say ‘no’ often and tell them ‘I need to be paid for my work.’ Initially, some of my consulting stuff was ‘please give me free advice’ and I said ‘Here’s my rate’. You have to start doing that. The second thing I want to speak about is disclosure because I feel as though it’s everybody’s right to disclose or not disclose, however much detail you want about your body or what’s going on in your life or how you identify.


I want to encourage people to really be comfortable with not disclosing also. So many writers for me and I’m sure for you as well will come up and say ‘actually, I’m Disabled too, I have this problem’ and they can’t disclose because they feel it would affect their career so I feel reducing the stigma associated with disability is great. Also the right to disclose or not disclose if you want and that’s something that’s tricky.


GT:      I agree with that entirely. I am one who believes in identifying as my life’s an open book. I’m happy to talk about my blindness and anything that’s related to my health. I always say ‘I am a Blind poet, I’m not a poet who happens to be blind’. I am a Blind poet. I want people to Google Blind poets and find there are Blind poets beyond Homer and Milton. I’m proud of being blind. I like the kind of person it’s made me.


I’ve just signed up, probably a very masochistic challenge, I’m doing a poetry marathon, which is writing a poem every hour for 24 hours. It starts in about two days. I signed up for it and introduced myself in the group and one lady said ‘you’re my new inspiration, my new hero’, because she’s losing her sight, so I’ve had a good discussion with her off-group about how being Blind affects your writing. I like being able to share that kind of encouragement and saying the world isn’t closed to you if you lose your sight.


KB:      Absolutely wonderful and I hope people do use the word ‘inspirational’ for you. More, more, we have two minutes before we wrap up.


RA:      I would definitely like to co-sign what you said about advisory. I too, on a weekly basis, get emails, very long, energy and emotionally consuming, saying ‘please help us’ but no mention of my time being worth anything. I think they mean well, but I’ve recently got to the point of being ‘look, my time has to be worth something here. That’s so important because I’m going to give you advice and you’re going to go along and hopefully it will be useful, but then how…?’


It’s so challenging because going back as well, we were talking about responsibility, because if money meant nothing, if would be yeah, have all of this advice for free that’s going to make you a better and more engaged organisation, but we’ve got to pay our rent and actually, I am giving something to your branding. I am giving something that’s going to help your brand.


SA:       It’s usually someone who does have a brand. If it’s someone from the community asks, that’s an entirely situation, if they’re ‘hey, can you help me out?’ Not that I can help everyone. You give advice but when someone has money…


KB:      Absolutely. I just want to say I’ve seen a call to be an accessibility consultant, ‘but we will only work with the minimum amount of budget possible to be cost-effective’. I’ve told them, ‘that is not accessible, some people need more things, taxis and interpreters, etc’ so just evolving that point of view from being cost-effective. This needs to be factored into the budget.


SA:       Interpreters for social events, that’s something I wanted to say, because people always hire interpreters just to do the event and leave and D/deaf people who use BSL have no chance to interact and it’s such a big part of publishing, the social part of things, where you meet people and they say ‘hey, I’m doing this magazine and blah, blah, blah’. That sort of thing. Making sure there’s an extra half an hour, hour, there, so people can talk to each other.


RA:      So something I was reminded of, I was in the States, New York, Baltimore, all of these different places, including we were talking about Deaf Poets Society and I met some of the people that run that magazine out in DC. The main thing that these organisations have are patrons and philanthropists. It’s a very different set-up for the arts in the States and so much of it is philanthropy-driven in a way. Their advice to me, I guess even to us, was ‘you need to find some patrons. Rich patrons.’


KB:      Sugar daddies. This whole podcast is going to end on sugar daddies, sugar mummas, sugar gender-non-binary people. We are here. We create art. We need to pay our rents. We want to be valued as human beings in a capitalist system. Please fund us. We’re wonderful people. I would like to thank of all these people. It has been such an honour and such a blessing to be in the same room and talk to all of you.


So thank you, Giles L. Turnbull and his father John, who was here, a silent observer, he did a great job raising Giles, I just want to say, dads don’t hear that every day, come on. Sandra Alland came all the way from Scotland. Raymond Antrobus, wonderful, and David Turner, thank you so much for allowing us to hijack this podcast with some good vibes. Thank you all for listening. This has been Lunar Poetry Podcasts.





End of transcript.


Episode 103 – Rishi Dastidar

Episode 103 is an interview with Rishi Dastidar is now online. David Turner chats to Rishi about his latest collection Ticker-tape (Nine Arches Press) and the editing he does for The Rialto and poetry blog And Other Poems.

Download it for free here on Soundcloud or here on iTunes. Download a transcript of the conversation here or see below for the transcript (minus poems)…






DT:      Hello. Welcome to Lunar Poetry Podcasts. I’m David Turner. How are you lot? Can you hear that? That’s right. There’s nothing there but nature. I’ve moved to Wiltshire. Lunar Poetry Podcasts is now based in the South West of England, where it’s very quiet and there are ducklings at the end of the garden, wood pigeons and swifts, something squeaking in the tree.


Today’s episode is a bit of a break from the norm, in that the entire episode is dedicated to one guest. This is because our Arts Council funding runs out in August and after that, we’ll be returning to one episode a month and dedicating more time to individual guests. So I thought I’d get you used to the idea.


Today, I’m joined by poet and editor, Rishi Dastidar. We talk about his collection Ticker Tape, out through Nine Arches Press and the editing he’s done for the Rialto and Josephine Corcoran’s blog And Other Poems. After this episode, we’ve got two more Arts Council-funded episodes to come, after which we’ll be uploading single interviews on the first Friday of each month.


I’d love to know what you think of the series so far, so if you go over to www.lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, you can fill out a feedback form in the audience feedback section of the website. Over there, you can also download a transcript of this conversation. As always, you can subscribe to us via SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher, or wherever else you access your podcasts. You can follow us at Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook, Instagram and @Silent_Tongue on Twitter.


Do remember, independent podcasts in general, not to mention ones about bleeding poetry, have no marketing budget and rely completely on word-of-mouth recommendations. So if you like what we do, please tell folk, either through social media or in person. Arts programmers and organisations need this, what with the Government and that. Thank you. Smiley face.


Onto the conversation. I recorded this in my flat in Kennington, South London, which isn’t as quiet and idyllic as here in Wiltshire. For a start, the flat is under the Heathrow fly path and the P5 bus runs regularly outside, but Rishi admirably holds his own among the vehicles, creaking chairs and neighbours’ kids. I won’t keep you any longer. Here’s Rishi. And me for a bit. But mainly Rishi. Enjoy.






RD:      I’m Rishi Dastidar. This is a poem from Ticker Tape. It’s called;

Poem can be found here 

DT:      Thank you very much, Rishi. Thanks for joining me. ‘Him with the teeth’, I really like that one. Could we start by talking about the collection, Ticker Tape, and how it came about?


RD:      So this is developing its own creation myth and story now, as well. So I think we have to go back to the spring/summer of 2015 or so. I sent some poems to Jane Commane at Nine Arches for Under The Radar, her magazine, and she’d taken a couple of those and in her note, she said: ‘Whenever you’re ready, I’d like to offer you some mentoring for a couple of hours, where we can talk about whatever you want.’ Now me being me, I rather exaggeratedly interpreted that as ‘ah, I wonder if…’


And so, towards the back end of 2015, I pulled together about 60-odd poems, just sent them to her, and in my notes said: ‘I hope this is OK for mentoring. I think I’ve got enough here for a book, but it would be great to get your view on that.’ Didn’t hear from her for about three months or so and then spring last year, 2016, I get this note back saying: ‘The offer of mentoring is still there, but I’d really like the book as well’, which I was not expecting at all, so I was completely bowled over.


It took me all of about five minutes to say yes, basically, which in itself is a great tale. I only found out a few months ago that when Jane said: ‘Send me some poems’, she was actually expecting about 15, rather than 60, so I rather bumptiously sent four times more than I should have done. Now I don’t know whether there’s a lesson in there about best foot forward or whether I’ve a classic tale there of a bloke over-interpreting the instruction.


DT:      There’s an important discussion to be had there for people who haven’t had contact with publishers or magazines much. How much of your work do you send to someone invited or unsolicited? Only a couple of publishers are clear enough on their website about what they expect. Before we talk about that, maybe we can talk about what the timescale was. When a book comes out, it can sometimes feel like you’ve done that in a couple of months and everyone publishing seems like a genius.


RD:      And it’s not at all. Just flicking through, the earliest poem in here is from about 2011, 2012. Matchstick Empire is probably the earliest that’s in there and it wasn’t complete as a manuscript to send to Jane until These Things Boys Do, which arrived pretty much at the end of October, actually closer to December 2015. It’s four years of accumulation.


DT:      Wayne Holloway Smith said in an interview that Alarum was a collection of five to six years. It seems, four to six, perhaps seven years, is more of a realistic time line.


RD:      That sounds about right. I’d characterise it as three phases. You’ve got the phase where you’re generating and writing. There’s drafting and redrafting within that. There comes a point where that phase finishes because you’ve got a sense that OK, I’ve got enough now. I’ve got enough that coheres, is coherent, and I’m starting to get the outline of the book. Then there is this sort of middle phase, where you are putting the book into some sort of shape.


For me, that phase was relatively quick in terms of moving from These Things Boys Do being finished, to actually going: ‘OK, that was the thing I needed, what does at least the initial order of the thing look like?’ And that was a couple of months. And then the process from Jane accepting it to it coming to a finished form is another year or so. So clearly, that middle bit feels very, very fast and that sort of feels like it’s the bulk of the work for you as a writer, but actually, the longer year, once the manuscript’s been accepted, is actually its own job of work in itself, but it certainly doesn’t feel to me an onerous job of work, because I wasn’t doing it on my own, I was doing it with wise counsel and input from Jane, with a sense, a definite goal of what we were trying to achieve.


DT:      How much effort was put into trying to find a coherent theme that runs through the collection? Presumably that comes in the last year, is that right?


RD:      Potentially. I’ve been shying away from saying there is a big theme in there. I know there’s been a bit of a vogue towards it, to almost say ‘yeah, this collection is…’ I find it interesting, because you can hear almost in the way people talk about it, that’s moving the collection to something that’s almost novel-like, because suddenly you can say 60, 70-odd pieces of work cohere to this idea and that’s fine, absolutely, but lots of collections don’t do that and there’s no need that they should.


A collection can be just a collection of the best poems that poet has written at that particular moment and they do not have to be presented with any particular theme or overarching idea. What the writer’s concerns are actually then come out through that. Certainly when pulling it together, I had no grander idea than what is my best work. Now, within that, it’s clear that certain subjects, certain topics, certain ways of addressing the world keep coming back again and again and again. There’s no way that I would claim this is one big vision of a particular thing.


DT:      Viewing editing as curation?


RD:      Yes.


DT:      I suppose that’s where this danger comes from, there must be a theme in a book. Anyone who has read the collection will see themes, but they’re pretty much themes within your artistic practice, aren’t they? I suppose that’s where my question came from. Did you just allow the work to fit together because it’s all written by one person?


RD:      I went into it knowing that a large chunk of the poems are, in some loose or tight sense, quote unquote ‘romantic’, going back to that slightly older definition of not just love and lust, but awe and wonder at the world as well. I knew that was going to be a strong strand and my initial thinking was OK, there’s going to be some sense of traditional boy-girl arc in there. That’s almost inevitable and inescapable, so that’s going to be a large chunk of the work, but then, knowing there was going to be such a chunky political strand in there as well, which I definitely wanted, because I wanted that to be a marker, to say: ‘Look, this is part of what I write about and it’s not going to be a part that can be ignored.’


So I wanted that to be a statement. So immediately there, you’re balancing two things which are pretty hard to cohere. Then when you’ve got Ticker Tape itself as the title poem as well, which sits somewhere between that romanticism and that political aspect, but also is a very urban poem. So then suddenly you’ve got those three things there. I could have spent time trying to develop an overarching way of tying those much more closely together, but actually…


DT:      I suppose  the longing in all of the poems is, I was going to say unifying theme, but I don’t mean that.


RD:      Its commonalities, its resonances, its themes. What really unlocked the book during the editing process is when Jane started to break it apart and put it back together and say: ‘Its not an arc, it’s a series of loops.’


DT:      Ah, that’s a nice way of putting it.


RD:      And when she said that, that’s when it suddenly all cohered, because suddenly that gives you permission to not worry about saying ‘we’ve got to get from A to B’, it’s fine to go from A and then back to A and for these things to stand alone and then to move into another cycle. So in a certain sense, I often think of the book as being three movements. You’ve got this opening movement before Ticker Tape, which is as traditional as I get in terms of quote unquote ‘love poetry’, then you have this monolith in the middle and then you’ve got this more political stuff after that, the state of the nation stuff.


Then, almost as a coda, the sort of quiet plangency of the front comes back again. I wanted to round it off on that one. I definitely knew where I wanted to start and where I wanted to end. I’d always had Summer of Camus’ Youth as the opening and I’d always had Theseus’ Ship as the end because I definitely wanted those moments of quietude. I knew I wanted the swell of the book almost to be, from something quiet, to get as loud as it does and then dip away again. I’d ensured that I’d given myself those fixed points, so then it was a case of making sure everything else fitted in.


DT:      This idea of looping, rather than a longer arc, do you feel you’d have reached that point without Jane’s mentoring input?


RD:      The book Ticker Tape is a classic example of how editorial care, support, attention, intervention makes something 5, 10, 20 times better. Every writer needs an editor and it doesn’t matter what art you’re writing, there’s no writer that cannot be made better with some form of intervention. The trick of it, as an editor, is knowing what form of intervention that is and how to deliver it in such a way that it works and the relationship is productive and mutually beneficial.


That’s hard because every writer is different, every editor is different, so if you’re an editor with multiple poets, multiple writers, how do you develop enough flexibility to work in the way that’s maximally optimal for that particular writer? Jane might disagree, but I think I’m relatively easy to edit in the sense that because I have been an editor as well, I know what, relatively speaking, the task is. I know it’s not an attempt to change my aesthetics or try and get me to write in a different way or do any of these sorts of things which are common mistakes when people start.


I understand that what we’re attempting here is a shared project in trying to make this thing better and so, when you start on that basis of good faith, it makes the process easier. Often, people approach it as ‘this thing is done, all you need to do is proof-read it and typeset it’. That for me, it just spoils, not spoils, it’s a missed opportunity. There is always going to be someone out there who can make the thing better, so why wouldn’t you take advantage of that? I almost view it like you find a co-conspirator, someone whose interest is to make the book as good as it can be.


DT:      Are there any other examples in terms of having an editor you felt you could trust? Also, because there was first an offer of mentorship, do you think it made the editing process any different?


RD:      Perhaps. Perhaps. I imagine that if I’d gone with a different place or gone with a different house, having a colder relationship might have made that a bit trickier, so already having this pre-existing editorial relationship through Under The Radar, that sort of helps and there’s that familiarity with your work. I knew at some level it would be tricky to find a simpatico editor just because the work is, to put it politely, it’s at one degree removed from the mainstream currents of most British poetry and I was going to resist any attempts to try and pare my style down or shave the excess off to make me sound more traditional or like current voices.


That’s not what I’m here to do, that’s not what I’m here to write. So that fundamental need was going to be someone who got the idea of what I’m trying to do in terms of maximalising what’s going on in the poem. I was trying to cram too much into them, trying to fill them to bursting, even before we get onto the whole making up words and the over-italicisation and all the rest of it. So there needed to be a fundamental grasping of that, which Jane gets. Jane very much licences my exuberance and a lot of my enthusiasm.


What she’s very good at is knowing when I’m going too far and when it’s starting to move to the stage when it’s actually being tiresome and being larded on, but also knowing that for that effect to have its maximum impact, the underlying structures, the underlying shapes, need to be solidly in place. I can imagine there is a version of this book where it is tremendously tedious and wearing because it’s looser, much more in free verse, I haven’t worked as hard in terms of stanzas and line breaks and actually bringing shape to it.


I’m very, very aware that part of the reason I can get away with writing the way I do is precisely because there is some formal lyric discipline lurking in the background somewhere. Again, part of the editorial process was knowing where to accentuate that and where to put that control in.


DT:      We’re definitely going to get on to talking about editing a bit further, later on. I just can’t take my eyes off the cover. I’m painfully aware that people can’t see what we’re talking about, so please Google Ticker Tape by Rishi. We might, if possible, put an image of the cover in the episode artwork. We chatted briefly about this, at the Peckham Pelican, when you did the Nine Arches showcase through Vanguard Readings recently, about how it’s really refreshing to see a handful of publishers at least are really putting a lot of effort into book design.


I really hate it when people tut at me and say: ‘You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.’ That is bullshit. I know the visual look of the cover is important to you, it perhaps wasn’t a press decision, it was something that was going to occur anyway.


RD:      Part of that back story comes from the fact my day job is in marketing, design and branding, so I live in this world a lot. The actual impetus came from my colleague Sophie at work, who I sit next to and is the creative director at the agency. She was playing a lot of Monument Valley and at the time we were thinking about the cover, just really entranced by the visuals. She said: ‘You know, your book cover should feel something like this, be something like this.’


I literally took that as the brief to my sister, who’s an illustrator and animator, and said: ‘Do you want to have a go at bringing this to life?’ She had an early draft of the book as well. That’s what came back. I knew pretty much immediately it was right, because between Sophie and Ria, they captured the essential bit of the book. In my mind, Ticker Tape speaks to some form of a Utopia, absolutely it does, and the fact it was this multi-hued, bright, glossy, glowing thing was just absolutely right, because at some fundamental level, it really brought to life not just my voice, but also the way that I wanted the voice to be seen.


DT:      Just a very basic reaction, it’s got that sort of Sin City element, this idea that you’re just putting blocks down and building others. It’s also got a touch of the [MC] Escher’s about it, hasn’t it? It doesn’t look like you could quite walk round it.


RD:      So you’ve got that loop in a sense again, which we come back to. You’ve got that sense of techno-futurist dynamism in there, which through jargon and through subject matter, the poems get to as well. Just actually the brightness as well. I think of a lot of the book as quite joyful, much as it’s undercut by longing, there is a lot of joy in there as well, so I wanted that sense of upbeat and optimism there. That’s in part why Ticker Tape is the title poem and the central motif, because those things are intentional, aren’t they?


The sheer fun and frivolity of having a massive parade to celebrate some amazing achievement and success, but you also know there is the comedown after that, the emptiness after such a thing. There is the clean-up, there’s the stuff that’s left behind. I wanted those two things in tension there, but I wanted to flag the upbeat and the optimism as much, if not more than, the downbeat stuff because I think the downbeat is the traditional way a poet would go.


Again, this comes to thinking about difference, thinking about my position in relation to how and where everyone else is writing. It’s just instinctive. If everyone is slightly more downbeat and saying: ‘Look how grim the world is’, I want to go: ‘Well, it’s not all bad.’ Just as a point of difference.


DT:      I think it works really well, the colour and there is a sense of optimism on the front cover and the back cover. In between, you can get a little bit darker, can’t you?


RD:      Absolutely. There is, sitting on my hard drive somewhere, an earlier version of the cover where it’s a black background and the city is sitting on that darker thing. It looks super cool, but it just looks that little bit too cool and it doesn’t quite give you… You know, I am not cool, I’m not a cool poet, and there’s something lovely about the gaucheness that comes through this pop of colour here and the neon as well, that again speaks to the book and speaks to me.


DT:      I think we’ll take a second reading from the beautiful book.


RD:      As I talked about it, I don’t think I’ve read it properly before, so let me read These Things Boys Do. Let me tell you that Katherine Angel, the writer and critic, she posted a seminar on desire at Somerset House a couple of years ago and I went along to that. Katherine is such an interesting thinker and interesting writer and it was a really interesting conversation that people were having, so I was scribbling lots of notes and I knew there was a poem in there.


As it turned out, that poem had to be in the book, but it just wasn’t coming, it was taking forever to arrive. Then it finally did and I think it’s one of the longest poems to emerge from initial conception and knowing it’s there to arriving. That was 11 months or so. Let’s hope it was worth it. It’s called;

Poem can be found here 

DT:      Thank you very much. That’s enough of the book. We should talk about the editing that you do.


RD:      Yes. So the two big ones are the Rialto, where I was, along with Holly Hopkins, the second cohort on the editorial development programme, and that was a couple of years ago now, so 2015, 2014 maybe? There have been a couple of cohorts since then. That involved working with Mike Mackmin to put together one edition of the magazine and then Holly and I were let loose on another edition of the magazine, where we effectively put together a quarter of it.


The other place is And Other Poems, where I help Josephine Corcoran out with various bits and pieces. That’s a different type of editing that’s going on in part, because different medium, print versus blog, different editorial ethos and approach and what Jo is trying to do with And Other Poems as well. So they’re both good tests and stretches of editorial skill, editorial judgement as it may be.


DT:      I just wanted to say, if people don’t know And Other Poems, they should get over there http://www.andotherpoems.com


RD:      The philosophy there is very straightforward and simple. Jo publishes the best of what’s sent to her and what she likes and it doesn’t have to be new or unpublished or whatever, it’s just a chance for people to share what they feel is good, interesting, their best work or whatever. I think the way it’s become such a clearing house, and I don’t mean that negatively at all, but a really good chance for people to catch up with poems they might have missed first time around in other places, there’s a lovely sense that poets use it as ‘this is a thing I was really proud of, can we see it again in circulation?’


I came aboard last year, to help Jo when she did an open call for submissions and she had loads, so I helped her edit and select and choose bits and publish. Then this year what I’ve been doing is curating a showcase of Complete Works 3, poets as well, so I’ve asked them to select some of their favourites, then I’ve been publishing them every Friday for the last couple of weeks, so we’re just coming to the end of that in two, three weeks or so.


So clearly there are different things that happen when sifting through an open call. The Complete Works 3 stuff is not a commission per se, but that call is very much: ‘I’d like your three to five best poems, please, or the ones you think are best, or whatever you’re writing now and I will choose my favourites out of those.’ It’s a different task in the sense that you know the cohorts, the guys are working at such a high level, you don’t have to worry about will they meet sufficient quality. Whatever they send is going to be good enough to publish.


The considerations then come in around: Are these the favourite aspects of their voice? Are those particular aspects of their poetics that I like? Is it roundly representative of their poetics for an audience that might not have heard them? How do I balance the range of subjects and concerns, because I don’t want eight, nine weeks where thematically, the poems are similar? Chances are, amongst the cohort, that’s not going to be the case, but I need to at least have that at the back of my mind.


Just very straightforwardly as well, a balance of rhythm and pacing over the couple of weeks, in terms of thinking, if I ‘ve got two fairly traditional-looking poems one week, am I going to push you the next week with something that’s a big, Ashbury- like block of text? Things like that. There are those sorts of considerations as well.


DT:      How far do you plan in advance with that?


RD:      So I asked the guys in March, April, then we started publishing at the beginning of May.


DT:      In terms of the run when the poems go out, how far ahead are you looking for your schedule of publishing? Do you allow yourself any flexibility to switch things around?


RD:      A little, but generally, I’m scheduling and editing and prepping for posting about, two or three weeks in advance. So if I do suddenly have a fit of ‘I want to change things around’, I’ve got enough time to do so. But actually, the guys have been so good at responding in terms of when they got back and stuff that it’s all come together relatively straightforwardly. I did, and it shows you how far the online world is not actually that different from the offline world, I did actually for the 10-12 I’ve chosen, I did actually put them out on the floor and see how they were feeling.


DT:      The classic editorial shot of walking through the poems.


RD:      Exactly and even knowing it’s going out online, it’s not going to exist as people’s pages. I still find that’s a really good way of working through the rhythm of something, even though I know people are not going to consume it whole, people are going to consume it in weekly episodes.


DT:      What I really like about the blog format, especially And Other Poems, is the archive is there. You can access it as a block if you wish to. That’s one of the major differences in putting out publications, that people may only ever see that one magazine and it has to work coherently through that. Obviously, there will always be a call-back to the history of the publication, but they all stand alone.


RD:      Part of this betrays how I was trained. My first proper jobs were in journalism. I was a sub-editor. Most of my training was done on print, so I used to know my way round Quark Xpress with a dangerous facility, so I could lay out pages. One of the things I was taught when being trained was when you’re looking at a page spread, you’re always having to be aware that you’re trying to grab the attention of people who aren’t necessarily that interested in reading it. So what you have to do to the page to allow people ways in so they want to, so obviously headline, obviously picture captions, pull quotes, straplines, whatever it might be.


That training has never left me. Whether it’s print or online, part of what you’re thinking always has to be, I have to assume that people are not going to be interested. How do I make sure that I get at least enough, a sliver of your attention, to make sure that you stop and at least peruse this? This is why, when teaching in workshops, I bang on so much about titles and I bang on so much about first lines, especially in an online context, when you can have this disembodied poem floating about, or that’s been tweeted or Facebooked or whatever, there isn’t necessarily the context of where it comes from, you’ve chosen to engage with it so you might do it. How are you going to make sure that person stops and goes: ‘der der der der der’?


DT:      I’m definitely going to misquote this person, because I think it was Wayne Holloway-Smith quoting Luke Kennard and I’m not sure Wayne could fully remember the quote anyway, but it’s in the episode where Lizzy interviews Wayne, but Luke said something along the lines of one of the biggest problems with modern poetry in the UK at the moment is it assumes an interest upon the reader into their life or their work. It’s just that idea of how do you communicate and engage with people?


RD:      I feel a rant gathering. So it sounds paradoxical, but I do try and retain the perspective that most of the people who I am trying to reach and who might be readers are not poets. I know concretely, whatever it means data-wise, that’s not the case. We know that most poetry publications, whether online or offline in the UK, are consumed basically by fellow practitioners. My fear, my worry, is that not warps our editorial judgements, but to a degree sort of skews the way we think because it’s a different beast to serve a fellow working practitioner than it is to serve the interested general reader.


Now, there is absolutely a discussion to be had about the fact that British poetry suffers from this lack of the interested general reader who doesn’t want to be a poet, because it’s not necessarily healthy for an entire art form to only be consumed by people who are producing that art form. I love the notion and the fact, there was some American piece I read the other day, it was one of those ‘poetry doesn’t make any money, why is it still thriving?’


The argument that the poet put forward was: ‘It’s thriving because people read, people get inspired, people want to continue and participate in the conversation.’ That’s absolutely right. I’d add the rider to that, that the conversation is stronger if you have interested lay people who don’t have an axe to grind in terms of being poets themselves, coming to the art form and enjoying it and participating in that world as well. That being said, I try and retain at least that idea that amongst the potential readers out there are people who are interested in poetry, consume poetry, but don’t necessarily write it themselves.


I think that slight wrinkle gives me a slightly different perspective when it comes to some of my editorial choices. Not least one of those is being, we can call it tougher, we can call it being shameless, being more marketing-driven, but just actually banging my fist on the table a couple of times and saying: ‘Who the fuck do you think is going to read this? Who is going to read another poem called Rain?’ Christ almighty. At least trying to give people and leave people with the impression that it’s OK to sell your work through the title, through the first line, it is not a diminution or corruption of your poetics or your art to try and at least grab someone’s attention. I’m sorry if this sounds heretical.


DT:      It really rings true with the way I built the foundation for the podcast. I was safe in the knowledge a lot of the poets I knew would listen, there were the guaranteed audience, still relatively small, but I wanted other people to come and listen, friends and family who had no interest in poetry until you present something of interest and open their eyes. Not open their eyes, that’s patronising, but…


RD:      I think you have to operate on the basis that most interested readers are intelligent enough that with a degree of contextualisation, framing it correctly, they will get what you are doing. Again, that comes from my training. I trained at the Financial Times. You know that most people don’t engage with financial news unprompted. There is a work reason or whatever.


So you know you have to, without question, explain some pretty complicated stuff simply, but once you do, they will go on and chase those hares themselves, to throw in another metaphor. Again, that’s part of what underlies my thinking. You frame things properly, you set things up properly, that should be enough to bring people through. This is not saying it needs to dumb down or cheapen, it’s just saying you need to have enough ways in.


DT:      Really simple things like not assuming knowledge on the listener. Don’t assume they know what a form is, or what the context of a certain poem is like.


RD:      Another thing I was taught, someone is going to read something for the first time always and will not know what you mean. So however much you know it, you owe it to them, that potential first-time reader, to make sure you’ve done enough to let them in.


DT:      That’s the perfect place to stop. It’s a really good, strong message. A lot of programmers and organisers need to bear that in mind when they’re claiming to the Arts Council that they’re engaging new audiences. Thank you very much for joining us, Rishi. It’s been great fun chatting. We’re going to finish with a poem.


RD:      OK. I always end with this. I don’t think I’ve actually tried it inside, because when I do this on stage, I bellow it. Let’s see how it sounds when I semi-bellow it. I always introduce it by saying: ‘Everyone in the creative writing world has always used this word to describe this object and if you do one thing, never use this word to describe this object again.’ This is called;

Poem can be found here

DT:      Thank you very much. That was great. Links to where people can find you and books and stuff, I will put in the episode description, I think it’s the easiest way. But just to repeat, Rishi’s collection we’ve been hearing today, Ticker Tape, is out from Nine Arches Press, who have got some really great stuff coming out this year, not least Stairs and Whispers, which is an anthology we’ve been talking about a lot and will come up again in two episodes’ time. Thank you, Rishi,


RD:      Thank you very much.





End of transcript.