Episode 120 – Tom Sastry

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

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

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

 

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Tom Sastry – TS

 Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversation:

TS:

To read this poem download the full transcript here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TS:       Burnham-on-Sea? Or Brean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      I think we might take a second poem.

 TS:       OK. This poem is called;

To read this poem download the full transcript here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      Crumbs of pasty round their beaks.

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

To read this poem download the full transcript here

Outro:

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

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

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

End of transcript.

Episode 119 – Shagufta K. Iqbal

Ep119 Shagufta K Iqbal

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

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

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

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

 

 

Transcript:

Transcription by Christabel Smith

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Shagufta K. Iqbal – SKI 

Introduction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversation:

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

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

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

To read this poem please download the full transcript here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read this poem please download the full transcript here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read this poem please download the full transcript here.

Outro:

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

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

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

To read this poem please download the full transcript here.

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

End of transcript.

 

Ep.118: 4th BIRTHDAY SPECIAL EPISODE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

TRANSCRIPT:

Producer/Guest: David Turner – DT

Host: Abi Palmer – AP

Introduction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

To read this poem download the full transcript here.

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

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

Conversation – Part One:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP:       How do you juggle that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      It’s a performance.

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

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

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

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

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

AP:       And they’re strangers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Middle ‘introduction:

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

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

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

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

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

To read this poem download the full transcript here.

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

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

Conversation – Part Two:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP:       Ants love podcasts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      I met Lizzy at Poetry Unplugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outro:

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is;

To read this poem download the full transcript here.

 

End of transcript.

 

 

 

Publication Day!!

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

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

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

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

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

David xx

 

Episode 117: Andrew McMillan

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

 

Transcript:

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Andrew McMillan – AM

 Introduction:

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

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

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

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

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

Conversation:

AM:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM:     She’s full of wisdom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT:      It’s far more image-laden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM:     That’s interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM:     That would be great!

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

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

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

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

DT:      Oh yeah, we’re in Manchester.

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

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

Outro:

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

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

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

End of transcript.

 

BBC Radio Bristol.

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

Ep.116 – Ross Sutherland & C.I Marshall

Ross ep116

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

Episode notes:

This episode is in two parts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcript: 

Transcription by Christabel Smith

Part one:

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Ross Sutherland – RS

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversation:

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

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

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

RS:       Cheers, thanks, dude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS:       One of the navigators.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS:       My weird robot voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS:       No!

DT:      Did you used to write in Liverpool?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS:       Their stuff looks beautiful.

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

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

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

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

RS:       The Dostoyevsky Wannabe stuff is great.

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

RS:       Did you say they were based in Manchester?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS:       That was more intimate than even I expected.

Part two (1:06:54): 

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: C.I Marshall – CM

 Intro:

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

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

Conversation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CM:     That sounds good to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outro: 

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

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

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

End of transcript.

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:
www.janeyeh3.com/
twitter.com/JaneYeh3
www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?owner_id=838
tornn.me/

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:
www.roymcfarlane.com/
ninearchespress.com/publications/po…ext%20time.html

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:
snazzyrat.bandcamp.com/
www.facebook.com/snazzyrat/

Transcript:

Transcript by Christabel Smith.

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Jane Yeh – JY

Introduction:

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.

 (00:27:12)

 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.