Episode 117: Andrew McMillan

ep117 Andreww McMillan

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.

 

Episode 112 – Mary Jean Chan & Sandeep K. Parmar

 

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

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

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

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

www.poetryarchive.org/poet/sandeep-parmar

 

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

 

Transcript by Christabel Smith

 Introduction:

 

Host: David Turner – DT

 

Guest: Eshiva Love-Light – EL

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

EL:       Definitely.

 

DT:      Any early details?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Part one (00:03:38):

 

Host: David Turner – DT

 

Guest: Mary Jean Chan – MJC

 

 

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

Please see our downloadable transcript for this poem 

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

 

MJC:    Thank you for having me.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MJC:    Right.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MJC:    I love her work, by the way.

 

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

 

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

           

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MJC:    Exactly.

 

DT:      Then this feeds into…

 

MJC:    …the notion of the other.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MJC:    This is like teenage.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MJC:                Dragon Hill Spa

 Please see our downloadable transcript for this poem

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MJC: Conversation With Fantasy Mother.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 Please see our downloadable transcript for this poem. 

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

 

M JC:   Thank you so much.

 

 

 

Part two (1:02:06):

 

Host: David Turner – DT

 

Guest: Sandeep K Parmar – SKP

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Conversation:

 

 

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

 

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

 

SKP:     Eidolon.

 

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

 

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

 

We do not have permission to reproduce this poem.

 

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

 

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

 

DT:      When was this collection published?

 

SKP:     2011.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

SKP:     No.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

We do not have permission to reproduce this poem.

 

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

 

 

 

End of transcript.

 

 

 

 

 

Episode 111 – Jackie Hagan and Nuar Alsadir

safe space promo.png

Good morning everybody! How are you all? I’m very pleased to say that episode 111 has just gone online. It’s in two parts, part one is me chatting to Jackie Hagan and part two is a short chat with Nuar Alsadir recorded in front of a live audience back in February at Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham. The episode can be downloaded via SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, Acast, Overcast… and hopefully anywhere else you download your podcasts! Here’s the episode description, followed by a full transcript of the conversation:

Part one

David Turner talks to poet and playwright Jackie Hagan talk about Jackie’s new play, ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’, which she’s just started touring. The play, presented by Unlimited and Big Feast, is based on interviews with over 80 people and in it, Jackie examines the impact of benefit cuts on disabled people and others on the margins of society. Perhaps predictably, considering the theme of this work, we discuss class – a lot. More specifically, when the idea of class entered Jackie’s consciousness and the effect it had on her gall bladder and mental health.

Dates for ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’:
23 and 24 March 2018 at the Attenborough Centre in Leicester as part of De-Stress Fest
25 March 2018 the Alhambra Theatre in Morecambe
29 March 2018 at the Creation Space in Basingstoke
30 March 2018 at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield
17-21 April 2018 Camden People’s Theatre in London

Part two [00:58:33]:
David Turner is in front of a live audience at the Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham talking to Nuar Alsadir about writing for an imagined reader and treating our notebook and pen as tools of the trade.

Transcript

Intro:

 

 

DT:      Hello, welcome to episode 111 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. I’m David Turner. I hope you’re well. This episode is in two parts. Coming up at the end is a short conversation with Nuar Alsadir, recorded live at this year’s Verve poetry festival. More about that later, so stick around until the end. First up is a chat with poet and playwright Jackie Hagan. Jackie is originally from Skelmersdale, just outside Liverpool, or Skem as it’s known locally and throughout this conversation.

 

We met up in a function room in Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre to talk about Jackie’s new play, ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’, which she’s just started touring. The play, presented by Unlimited and Big Feast, is based on interviews with over 80 people and in it, Jackie examines the impact of benefit cuts on disabled people and others on the margins of society. Perhaps predictably, considering the theme of this work, we discuss class – a lot. More specifically, when the idea of class entered Jackie’s consciousness and the effect it had on her gall bladder and mental health.

 

We also get onto what it’s like to be a working-class person moving in poetry and theatre circles, though we did also attempt to imagine what it must be like when the tables are turned and middle-class people are surrounded by scallies and Herberts. Jackie and I are both bipolar, so steel yourselves for tangents aplenty. Before I forget, if you’re looking to hire a function room in Manchester for an event, the folk at the Royal Exchange Theatre are very helpful and really accommodating and rent out rooms very reasonably.

 

I wouldn’t recommend recording a podcast in the room I used though. As you’ll hear, the acoustics are very sharp, but it’s a great space for meetings and you’d fit a killer Iceland-based buffet in there. You can catch ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’ at the following venues: the 23 and 24 March 2018 at the Attenborough Centre in Leicester as part of the De-Stress Fest, 25 March 2018 the Alhambra Theatre in Morecambe, 29 March 2018 at the Creation Space in Basingstoke, 30 March 2018 at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, and 17-21 April 2018 Camden People’s Theatre in London. I’ll list all of those dates in the episode description.

 

This episode was only made possible with the aid of funding from Arts Council England, specifically their south-west regional office. If you’d like to keep up-to-date with everything that’s going on with this podcast and our fledgling A Poem A Week series, follow us at Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook and Instagram, @Silent_Tongue on Twitter or go over to lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, where you can also download a transcript of this episode.

 

I’ll have to take a run-up to this bit. Download and subscribe to everything we’ve ever done over at SoundCloud, Stitcher for Android devices and iTunes for Apple users. Oh dear, that’s boring. Please do us a favour and tell your friends, colleagues and loved ones about us. It’s the best way to help us reach new people. If you want to make us really happy, head over to iTunes and leave us a lovely review. I feel a bit dirty now so as a palate cleanser, here’s Jackie Hagan. It might just be the first time she’s been introduced in that way.

 

 

Conversation:

 

 

JH:       Hiya, I’m Jackie Hagan. Where many of you have got a tube of meat, I have got a steel pole. I’ll let you figure that out for yourself. I’m from Skem and I’m a writer, performer, playwright. This poem is called ‘I Am Not Daniel Blake’ and it’s about all the things that us council-estate people do that piss people off.

 

We do not have permission to reproduce this poem.

 

[0:07:58]

 

DT:      Thank you very much, Jackie, thank you for joining me on the podcast. I really love that line and image about Schrödinger’s scratchcard and buying yourself hope. It’s really nice. It’s quite odd to hear that poem read in this room we’re sitting in. It’s luxurious, oak-panelled.

 

JH:       The plushest room in the world.

 

DT:      I believe it’s the former executive suite of the Royal Exchange, the boardroom.

 

JH:       It’s very brown, isn’t it?

 

DT:      Very brown and trying to be imposing, but it’s not very imposing anymore.

 

JH:       It feels like a headmaster’s room in a boarding school or what it would look like on the telly.

 

DT:      We will definitely have to imagine what that looks like on the telly, the pair of us. We were chatting briefly before we started recording and you mentioned you were from Skem. You mentioned it again there. It seems like a natural place to start after that poem.

 

JH:       Totally. I love Skem. It’s an overspill town from Liverpool that was built in the 60s because there wasn’t enough social housing in Liverpool. They just kind of picked people up and plopped them there. It’s actually in Blood Brothers, that’s where they moved to in Blood Brothers and they’re made up. They’re like: ‘Oh my God, look at all this green!’

 

At first, it was one of them Utopian new towns, but the people who designed it were up in the air, they weren’t down on the ground, you know what I mean? They had the best intentions, but they fucked it up really. It just became people fighting, you know? You know what happens when people don’t have enough money and resources and are all repressed and everything, they just kick off. So it became like that.

 

I didn’t know that I was working class when I was a kid, because it just never came up in conversation. There’s no class system really in Skem. There’s just people with slightly nicer shoes. Everyone’s poor. I had slightly nicer shoes, so I thought I was fine. Alan Bennett says this so I’ve stolen it off him: Skem’s like my inheritance because, my God, a lot of what Britain is, is flavoured with Skem. You’re not going to get an actual inheritance, so you may as well get some of it, you know?

 

I’ve told you this before, but the audience don’t know this, it’s studied on the Geography GCSE syllabus now as a failed social experiment, which I think is amazing, but in the bigger picture, it’s not. My source for that was a fella in a pub so it might not be true.

 

DT:      Surely these fellas in pubs must always be believed.

 

JH:       I get most of my information from there, then most of my history comes from Blackadder.

 

DT:      So was it a shock when you discovered you were working class?

 

JH:       Yes. I went mad. I don’t mean I kicked off, I mean I went mental. I went to university and it took me two years to figure out why I wasn’t fitting in. You act differently. The whole class thing, it’s not just money, is it? There’s loads of cultural differences I hadn’t cottoned on to. You might think ‘Oh, what a stupid girl,’ but I do live slightly in a different dimension in my head. Just stuff like you meet someone, you’ve never met them before, you slag off whatever’s going on around you to bond, rather than being lovely. I hadn’t learnt that yet.

 

I mean, my dad died at the same time, so that’s not handy, is it? I burnt down a kitchen and ended up in a psychiatric ward and it just went on for ages. It went on for about a decade. But it was horrible. It’s awful finding out that other people have had loads more opportunity and stuff. They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going skiing in a minute.’ It’s like, ‘Fucking hell, I’m going to my job.’ So yeah, it was awful.

 

DT:      Having chatted briefly before, I think we’re from fairly similar backgrounds. But I was born in Westminster in London. We lived in Housing Association, but we lived behind the Houses of Parliament basically, Old Pye Street off Victoria Street. You could walk to Big Ben in two minutes, you could walk to Buckingham Palace in about 10 or 15 minutes, so growing up, you couldn’t escape the difference.

 

JH:       And it was looming over you as well.

 

DT:      I’ve got no concept of what it’s like to suddenly find out, but it seems to be just as insidious and damaging even if it’s slow-burning. I can imagine the extreme shock, or try to imagine it because I think I had a similar thing when I was first diagnosed. I knew I had mental health issues but when I was first diagnosed with being bipolar, that appeared to send me crazy, having to face up to this truth about yourself. You may have been aware of it slightly, but it hadn’t been forced upon you to accept it. Suddenly it was just dropped on you.

 

JH:       It’s like the world is suddenly a different colour, isn’t it? You’re suddenly seeing everything anew. Like at the end of a story when you find out the twist. I’ve been diagnosed with a lot of things in the mental world. You get a button now that’s settled on bipolar for the minute, but actually, I want to go off on one about that. So women and girls get diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Loads, it’s loads higher than for lads. Lads hardly ever get it. It’s a bit of an umbrella term. It seems to be that you’re put into that category when they don’t know what to do with you. You’re just being a pain in the arse.

 

One of the big traits is that you are manipulative. I think this ties in with loads of other stuff. Being manipulative, obviously doctors just say that is a bad thing, but if you’re in a world where the person, or the system, has got what you need, that doesn’t have to be food and shelter, it could be validation. There’s loads of stuff we need. Or love. So if you can’t get that, well, you’d be manipulative. It’s a smart choice, isn’t it, in terms of class stuff? You’ve got to go about things in odd ways. Your body and mind are always trying to heal themselves, but sometimes things get in the way and so whatever trauma, or your immune system is just a dickhead, like mine is, and so your mind will do something.

 

I have, as a common hallucination, I hear applause, which is really nice and really egocentric. That’s like mental health gone right. The body goes about it in funny ways. My body produces far too much collagen. You’d think that would make me have nice lips and stuff, but it’s really damaging. I just think that manipulation is an interesting thing.

 

DT:      I definitely notice the difference between women in my family that have been diagnosed with similar conditions to mine. The term manipulative was never used for me, but I saw it used for women. I think there is a definite issue with people’s motivations being questioned as to why you’re asking for help.

 

There’s a big issue, I think, with mental health services in this country with men always being able to find redemption through asking for help, in a way that isn’t available to a lot of women. The motivations behind why you might be seeking medication or therapy. Validation is seen as not being completely on the level, in some ways. You must want something else, or you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

 

JH:       It’s all so old-fashioned, isn’t it? I know society clings on to old stuff, but mental health services are way behind aren’t they, what are they playing at? I have had good psychiatrists, I just think some of them could be a bit… It’s a surprise, isn’t it, that they’re not better at people and interaction with people, seeing as they’ve chosen a job that’s to do with people and psyches. I think they should do all the psychiatrist stuff you do and at the end, if they ask horrible shit, which they always do, and you become a bit monotonous and stoic and robotic about telling them horrible answers about things that have happened in your life, but I think it would be nice if they sort of looked you in the eye at the end and said, ‘I’m really sorry that happened to you.’

 

I think that would change appointments loads. I don’t know, I guess it might be about boundaries or something. I’ve had ones that have said that. I had a really cool one who drove an orange Beetle and had long ginger hair and a pin-striped suit, so obviously I fell massively in love with him and started giving him presents, then I wasn’t allowed him anymore, which was awful.

 

DT:      Obviously, the people of Skem played a big part in the writing of that poem you just read. How much does your work feed through those people?

 

JH:       It feels weird saying ‘those people’. Yeah, totally, but I don’t want to slag off Skem and say everyone’s an ‘alcy’.

 

DT:      But I found that to be quite tender. Even though you were talking about those sides of things, it wasn’t exploitative.

 

JH:       Yeah, but some people would be like, ‘I haven’t got a big massive telly,’ and all that. You need the whole show that I do to genuinely try to change opinions. If people from Skem listened to this, they’d be like, ‘what a cow.’ I think I’m from a bit of working class that’s different. My God, the words working class and middle class cause bloody chaos, don’t they? Because obviously, there’s loads and loads of different levels. I’m just opening a bracket and not going off on one, I’ll close it.

 

My boyfriend’s from Southport and he set up the free newspaper in Skem, so it was dead handy, because he knew what Skem was, because it’s quite a weird, isolated place. It’s not just working class. Obviously, I’ve never come across as middle class somehow. Just because he knew what Skem was, that helped. I think I’m from quite a poor version, we’re not aspirational. In no way would my mum want to be middle class, that would be like the worst thing in the world for her.

 

I clung on to my working-class identity so much at university, you know with lager and lard, all that sort of stuff, that I had to have my gall bladder out. Lager, lard, Angel Delight and repressed class fury isn’t good for your guts. Now I’ve opened too many brackets here, haven’t I?

 

DT:      I think it’s completely the right thing to bring up, that in that term ‘working class’, that is not one group of people.

 

JH:       I’ve got it, it’s all right. Sorry, that was like going ‘shut up’, wasn’t it?

 

DT:      Tell me to shut up, that’s fine. Just because I own the microphone doesn’t mean I should be allowed to just carry on speaking.

 

JH:       There’s a version of working class, maybe on the level where Peter Kay was, where you don’t want to be middle class at all, you’re not aspirational, you’re just about getting by. Also, the way they put us across on Benefit Street, we’re not like that either. You do nice things. You’ve got a bloody bin with nice red fringing on it and stuff like that. Yeah, I think I’m from a version of working class that’s not often seen, so I have to put all the bad things in, because that’s what people are pissed off about. I’m not going to put the nice, red, fringed bin in, because that’s not what needs to be explained. They don’t care about that. Skem’s [INAUDIBLE] everything, the end!

 

DT:      I might put out two versions of this interview. One will be five minutes long where you just wrap everything up succinctly, then we’ll put out an extended version.

 

JH:       This is the first question, isn’t it!

 

DT:      That’s alright. You mentioned this poem is part of a larger show, so it might be a natural thing to talk about that.

 

JH:       Yeah, so the show is called ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’. I’ll come to the title later because it’s nice to talk about that, but it’s not the biggest thing in it. I did a couple of shows before that, but it took a while to build up to actually talk about this stuff. I went round and interviewed 80 people on benefits, disabled, people on the brink and just working-class people as well. And people who had interesting things to say about class, because I think being working class, then being shoved into a middle-class environment because that’s your job or whatever, is a bizarre place to be in.

 

In the arts, you have to like drag up as middle class to get through and network and things. I’m really, I’m going to say steadfast instead of stubborn, I think that’s nicer, about not doing that, but I do see how that holds you back and how people perceive you as frigging lairy and unprofessional and stuff like that, and it’s just rubbish. So this show has real voices from the interviews put in so you hear them and the spotlight’s on these voices. The stuff is brilliant, beautiful, heartbreaking and funny. Dead funny. Then I speak in between about various things.

 

At the start, I give you not a warning, but a thing I tell you, like I do know that middle-class people have problems too. I want to make people relax. Even though it is not a safe space, it’s not about going, ‘middle-class people, we hate you,’ because that’s not useful. This idea, which is constantly everywhere, that middle-class people have had everything handed to them on a plate, or there’s no problems if you’re middle class, that just totally invalidates someone’s struggle or any sort of suffering or you know, just hard graft to get where they are. It just ruins it so we can’t have a conversation about class.

 

I try to put that on another table – it’s all funny, by the way, it’s a comedy show – put that on another table so we can talk about class, but what I don’t do is talk about definitions and I’ve realised that is just as in the way, so maybe I’ll do a few poems about that in the future.

 

DT:      In what way do you mean ‘definitions’?

 

JH:       That thing I was saying about working-class and middle-class terms. They get in the way. Imagine whatever, Facebook, or you’re at a pub table on Christmas Day if you’ve got a family with lots of different types of people, and as soon as you start talking about class, everyone starts shouting at you what their class level is. We all have to set out where we are, and guilt is edging in, it just becomes a bit like when you ignore a homeless person because you haven’t got any money or energy to do it.

 

I could definitely do a comedy version of that, an outline of a middle-class person, an outline of working-class people, what we all think it is and if it’s light enough, we can get all that stuff on the table and go, ‘look we’re just people, let’s try and figure this thing out. Let’s try and figure out the attitude thing.’ When I say the attitude thing, I mean like class isn’t just about money, it’s about expectations and what you could be. Are you factory fodder or are you headed for something like this room that we’re in now?

 

And opportunities given to you and are you perceived as a human? The biggest thing, and I do address this a bit in the show, but I’d like to really unpick it more in future because I’ve realised how fucking big it is, is this idea that if working-class people just would work harder, then they could become middle class. It’s like ‘Why give them anything? They just need to work harder,’ forgetting the fact someone is working as hard as they can. Or if you feel society is looking at you as not being worth much, how can you have any self-esteem yourself, how can you fight against all of that when you’re knackered? Obviously, the problem is much more complex than ‘just work harder’. That’s just a way of not making yourself have to deal with this massive problem we’ve got in society.

 

DT:      It’s really poisonous, isn’t it, this idea that in order to be accepted, and to improve yourself, you have to redefine yourself? You can’t be accepted as being working class, you have to climb that ladder, be aspirational, seek to achieve something. It feeds into the idea, ‘don’t complain about your low-paid job, get another job,’ as if that’s an opportunity or a possibility for a lot of people.

 

JH:       As if you’ve got time to do that as well, just go to 30 interviews this week.

 

DT:      It came up on Twitter recently. Sabrina Mahfouz wrote a long Twitter post about how she’s constantly asked what it’s like being a woman of colour – I think I’m remembering this bit right – child of a migrant, working within theatre and working in the arts. No one ever asks her – and this was her reason for the post – no one ever asks her what it’s like being working class in the arts. That’s what she sees as being the real barrier. The general gist was that the class barrier she faces feeds into all of those other issues. To her, that’s where it starts.

 

JH:       Yeah, totally. I get – I’ll give away the answer to the riddle, I’ve got one leg – I’ve got one leg so I get invited to loads of diversity things. The way I said loads then. I do appreciate those things, keep booking me, but yeah, loads of talking on panels and stuff like that. I get invited on the leg ticket, so I go and I do a few gags about the leg and then I start talking seriously about class because no one’s ever, well they have now, because I haven’t shut up about class for a year and a half, and I’m not going to shut up about it. It’s like I have to say the word first because it’s an elephant in the room that no one really cares about as well.

 

It’s nice, I’ve got a really good gaydar for working-class people who’ve had to drag up as middle class to get by. I can spot you. It’s great because often we smoke. You can go out and just be working class together for a minute and it’s a delight.

 

DT:      This has come up quite a lot in conversations, mainly because I’m the one leading them and it’s just my experience…

 

JH:       Yeah, and you’re good.

 

DT:      But one thing that doesn’t get spoken about that often on the podcast, mainly because we’re talking about people’s work, but I’d like to pick your brains a bit on it. We’ve just discussed what it’s like to be working class in a very middle-class scene, especially poetry and theatre. Out of all the arts, it’s probably only then contemporary dance that could get any worse for a working-class person. How is the other side of the coin when you then come home as an artist?

 

JH:       I thought you were going to say what’s it like for middle-class people being in a room full of working-class people? Because that’s hard.

 

DT:      That’s what I’m hoping for in a future conversation because I’m very aware it can be equally as isolating and exclusionary.

 

JH:       Part of it’s not knowing the etiquette isn’t it, and people being wary of you. On the question you didn’t ask, when I went round in the interviews, my sound man is a fucking gorgeous human, dead lovely, he’s a big fella, you can’t miss him, I think he probably says he’s middle class, but in Skem, he’s really perceived as, ‘ooh, get you,’ but less camp than I just did. So in every interview I had him next to me, holding the mic, trying to disappear. He’s surprisingly good at disappearing, so yes, it was like oh fuck, this is going to be interesting.

 

I mean, people are fine. I think it’s when people are in a group situation that they have to do that bravado thing. I understand. I love bravado. I think it’s heartbreaking, but I love watching it and writing about it. But on a one-to-one… I’ve run out of steam there. So what’s it like going home? Oh my God, me going back to Skem now, so it’s been quite a while, I don’t mean… I go back to Skem all the time, I’ve been this arty-farty wanker for quite a while now, I said the word ‘integral’ in front of my extended family four years ago and that’s been my nickname ever since. So it’s a jokey, nice, constantly taking the piss.

 

I mean, also I’ve got loads of mates who are not into arty stuff, who are just normal, well to me, normal, working-class people. Very working class. I just forget and I come out with stuff, like I’ll say ‘aesthetic’ at the Labour Club or something like that, so yeah, I’ve got plenty of people around me, reminding me.

 

DT:      Do you ever catch yourself really ‘estate-ing’ it up?

 

JH:       Oh yeah, Christmas Day, my accent went all over the place, then I felt like I was being too posh. But I was doing the dinner that day, so it was already stressful, you know? I still really want to impress my mum and our Mike, my brother, it’s the performer’s personality, isn’t it? You just want to impress your family all the time, so you do it by doing gigs above pubs when they’re not even there. I dunno if it’s like I’m trying to fit in, I’m trying to remember me as Skem and I’m going ‘all right there, lad?’ I also want to impress them because I’ve done all this shit, so I’m like, ‘oh yes, the aesthetic of my new piece…’ I’m bonkers in Skem.

 

DT:      We’re now getting around to 2018’s version of what is now an annual event. This happened a year ago. I’m really happy for it to have happened to the series, but we’ve been shortlisted for a British Podcast award which is a great thing, the only independent literature podcast to be nominated in 13 categories, I was really made up about it. I’m really close to my aunt, my mum’s sister, I tell her everything. The look on her face! She knew it was really good, but she had no concept of what it was. We were talking earlier, not only is it an arts-based thing, but still in a medium that people still don’t quite understand what a podcast is. They know it’s sort of like the radio.

 

I’m hyper-aware of not questioning the reason people don’t engage with the arts, they can do what they want with their life, it’s not a failure on their part, but it’s funny that I do what I do, it sits in two areas that people don’t have any idea about. Doubly obscure. Word got around the family, because it’s on social media and stuff and family members follow the podcast stuff on Instagram and Facebook, everyone was really pleased this thing had happened, but no one understood what this good thing meant and what it was about. It was really funny. I found myself going, ‘it don’t matter, it’s just some old bollocks,’ but I don’t mean that, I only said ‘some old bollocks’ because I was down the pub.

 

JH:       Flippancy is a very working-class thing, isn’t it? You’re not allowed to care or be passionate. You can be passionate about football.

 

DT:      You’re allowed to mention a thing once, it gets the reaction it gets, then you drop it. You can’t keep bringing it up. But I found that one thing that sort of linked me, or tied me back in, even though my life was becoming more engrossed in poetry, this art form has taken me further from what I felt my roots were, but that isn’t actually what’s happening, that’s just what’s in my head. But I thought, as long as I go to the pub still on a Sunday and have a chat with the same people, it’s still alright. But I’ve stopped drinking now so I can’t go to the pub and I’ve lost that tie.

 

It’s this idea of what have I got to continue to do to still be alright in people’s eyes. I think the reason I’m thinking about it is because I’ve noticed a lot of people who clearly aren’t working class within poetry sort of dropping their H’s because the pressure’s there, because that’s where the funding is. The funding is there if you’re from a, whatever the Arts Council think is marginalised. There’s also the issue around people who are working class but don’t necessarily look or sound it, that problem they have. I’ve spoken a lot with Josephine Corcoran who runs And Other Poems, who grew up in a low-income household, a Catholic family with loads of kids, and next to nothing growing up, but if you met her, she sounds really middle class. It’s just the part of the country she grew up in, she doesn’t have a particular accent. I was really surprised when she told me about her upbringing. I’d completely pre-judged.

 

I think it’s really good to know that funding is going towards platforming whoever we consider to be marginalised, but it’s sort of forcing us to wear our identity as a badge and that’s not always that positive. Do you think this work around how we identify as working class has a finite period? Is the aim to continue to identify in this way or is the aim to reach a point where it doesn’t have to be spoken about?

 

JH:       Personally, I won’t want to make art about the same thing all the time. Something else will piss me off. Bound to, isn’t it? Do you know what, you get mascot-ised, you become like a token thing for whatever it is you’re going on about. I don’t mind doing that even though it’s shit, but I’m happy to do that if it means I get to do whatever show I want. I was the token disabled person for ages. I’m a bit sick of that. I think you just do it until you’re going to cry sick out of your eyes and hope you’ve done something good in that time, I think.

 

DT:      How do you manage other people’s expectations of your work? Do you physically withdraw for a while? Presumably you’re not creating work that’s that different, it’s still your voice, it’s just about how you emphasise particular parts of the work. Do you physically have to withdraw from performing in order to come back and redefine, in order to avoid the same bookings?

 

JH:       Do you know what, I’ve just gone with intuition. I’ve got a producer who tells me what to do. He seems to know what he’s doing. I don’t think this is a good thing. I don’t think people should aim to do this, but I just kind of ‘rrrrr’ until I burst. I’m not as clever at managing it.

 

DT:      The main reason I ask is because probably quite a few people listening will be thinking the same thing, because of the way funding works. Just because there’s a pressure on all of us I think, where do you earn your money? You very rarely earn money through book sales or ticket sales. A lot of the R&D is Arts Council-funded, a lot of the tour costs are Arts Council-funded. There are other funding bodies, but it’s mainly the Arts Council and the process of going through that application is just a series of ticking boxes. It’s not to knock, I think there’s a lot of really great work that comes out of the Arts Council, but-

 

JH:       I think you should credit funders slightly more. I don’t know how to say this without going ‘I’m awesome,’ so just be aware I’m trying not to say that, but they do also just choose good work, don’t they?

 

DT:      I think it’s more the middle layer. I think the funding bodies do a really good job of spreading money out, but then there’s the pressure on producers, I found that pressure, of then trying to direct a project to be representational rather than diverse but then hit those diversity quotas. That feeling then filters down to the participants of the project, that’s a natural thing. If I take myself out of the production role and put myself in more of a writerly or artistic role, how do I avoid the pressure of being the writer with bipolar? Because I’m so clearly defined by that and I’m happy to talk about it, you drive yourself into those boxes almost, don’t you?

 

JH:       Yeah, my mate’s show was sort of about this. Sophie Willan, she’s dead good, she’s not a poet, she’s a comedian, about the way you get branded as different things. I think I’ve been lucky in the fact that the things I’ve wanted to go on about are the things the funders want me to go on about, it’s just accidental. That doesn’t mean it’s not like sophisticated work… people just love a bit of Skem and I do as well. People love disabled people. They don’t, society hates us, but funders like us.

 

DT:      I’m really glad you brought up the false leg, because on an audio thing, I don’t know how I’d visually tick that box.

 

JH:       It’s normally got little lights on and stuff like that. It’s a new leg and it’s shit and it’s not getting decorated until it starts to behave. It’s horrible, green with a big bulbous thing on it. Yeah, I’ve got a big false leg and I don’t mind, I quite like it actually.

 

DT:      I’m going to send that two-minute clip to the Arts Council in my evaluation. See? Since we’re talking about funding, maybe we should talk about the Jerwood, is it a prize or a commission? Congratulations, by the way.

 

JH:       It’s a fellowship. Like Lord of the Rings. They give you loads of money. So to put cards on the table, they gave me 15 grand.

 

DT:      Along with Jane Commane and Raymond Antrobus?

 

JH:       Yeah and 15 grand is like, what the fuck? Someone did say to me, ‘You do know that to some people, that is not a big massive lot,’ and I was like, ‘Fuck off!’ Still, my God. For me, what that meant was, this is like that bit on The X Factor, like ‘poor me’ because I’ve got one leg because I’ve got systemic sclerosis which is an autoimmune disorder, which is life-limiting, so it’s like you die sooner, which is like ‘oooh.’ I’m not blind, I’m not going to go through all the things I haven’t got, but my eyes are shit, that’s what I’m trying to say and my hands don’t work.

 

I’ve got loads of shit wrong with me basically and chronic fatigue and that, so what the money meant was I don’t have to run around the country doing workshops and panels and all that stuff. I do love doing that stuff, but I need a rest. I need to just frigging sit down for a minute. I do a lot of stuff for free, I’ve done over 1000 workshops for free. So that meant I could have a rest, which was just amazing. Also they give you mentors, pay for mentors, so I’ve got Clare Shaw, do you know her? You should interview her, she’s dead good, from Burnley, she was the second biggest baby every born in Burnley. You should get her off that fact. She’s amazing.

 

I feel embarrassed now because she’s my mate as well. She’s mentoring me, kicking me up the arse, so I’m writing a new poetry collection, and Henry Normal because I’ve got a sitcom with him as well. It’s what, in the tube?

 

DT:      Yeah, cos it’s not in the can yet, is it? It’s in the tube before it ends up in the can.

 

JH:       It’s sort of quavering at the start of the tube. So that’s what Jerwood is. Joy Francis runs it, she’s just one of them people, you talk to her for five minutes and it changes your life. We were talking about, I feel like I’m not doing as much here, because you’re nice. You know on a radio thing, I had to do loads of gags, all whistles and bells and it was like a persona, a bravado, acting a bit stupider than I am and she saw that and she was like, ‘all that extra, you know you don’t have to do that,’ but she put nice things in, like ‘you’re a smart cookie, I know you already know this, so you don’t have to do that.’ It was like, ‘oh, I’m a smart cookie!’

 

So yes, they’re just dead good and it was so much validation for me because I thought I was crap, so it sort of added to the role. I need outside sources because I haven’t sorted myself out yet, to keep telling me I’m good.

 

DT:      I follow the Jerwood Foundation quite keenly and I know quite a few poets and writers that were up for that, that reached the shortlist.

 

JH:       I saw people coming in for the interviews and waiting and it was like, ‘ooh, what am I doing here?’

 

DT:      It’s a really big thing.

 

JH:       Some people will hate me now.

 

DT:      Maybe at the time.

 

JH:       Thanks!

 

DT:      No, but it ties into that idea that for a lot of people on the shortlist, £15,000 is a huge amount of money, but I think it’s important to talk about the fact that for a lot of people, it isn’t much money. The first lot of Arts Council funding I got was £13,000. £3000 of that went straight on equipment, so I was left with 10 grand to pay other people, some for me, but most of it was for travel. I couldn’t believe it, I’d never seen that amount of money in my bank ever, it was insane, but when you think about it, it meant I was working for about £2.20 an hour. It’s not much money for the amount of work that goes into the project.

 

It wasn’t why I wanted the funding, it wasn’t to turn it into a job, it was to make it happen and give me more time to focus on it, but one issue around the funding, it’s not the problem for the funder, it’s the idea that more needs to be done to realise how desperate a lot of people are for this money, because it’s the only thing that’s going to pay your rent, allow you to remain as a full-time artist. Sometimes the attitude of some funding bodies is we’ve done a really good thing, we’ve given £3000 to this person, pat ourselves on the back, and you think it’s still not really going to do much.

 

JH:       Artists On The Brink. That should be a podcast, shouldn’t it?

 

DT:      I think that’s pretty much what this is anyway. The main reason I was asking about mentoring is just yesterday, I had a meeting with a young producer in Bristol and I’m going to be using some of the Arts Council funding to start a mentoring scheme, to help someone else start their own podcast. I found someone that’s, similarly to me, from a low-income background. I’m suddenly thinking I now need to pretend I know what I’m talking about, or at least look like I know what I’m doing because I haven’t actually spent much time explaining to people my process around the podcast. It just sort of happens. Now that I’m in a position where I have a responsibility to sit down with someone, and…

 

JH:       There’s all the electric cable part of it to explain, and whatever that means.

 

DT:      How not to hang yourself with your own cables whilst interviewing someone is the main thing.

 

JH:       Yeah, but it’s the talking to people. You do it differently.

 

DT:      What role do you see yourself in as an artist? Do you see yourself as mentor?

 

JH:       Even just on the bus, I’m being a frigging mentor because I get asked. I’m not slagging off all these people, but I’d say I get five messages a day on Facebook asking ‘How can I get my work published? How can I be in the place you are overnight?’ I also don’t like the thing ‘overnight success’ because I have grafted my fucking arse off. It’s been 12 years. I’ve hardly said no to a gig, until I got ill. That’s the answer, often. If you love it, work your arse off. There are things you can tell people about publishers, I can do that. I think that’s got missing somewhere because people see Kate Tempest and stuff like that and say, ‘I’m as good as them, why aren’t I there?’ Or, ‘I’m better than them.’

 

It’s four types of inspiration isn’t it? It’s like watching people who are way, way better than you and becoming really despondent, watching people better than you, like the normal type and you’re like, ‘whoa, I really want to do this now,’ watch people who are shitter than you and being like, ‘oh fuck this, this whole art form is crap,’ to people who are shitter than you and going, ‘yeah, I’m going to do this!’

 

DT:      There’s this other podcast called The Comedians’ Comedian, and similarly to this, it’s just chats, quite relaxed, but there’s always a question about ‘how did you get started in stand-up?’ I would say 95% of his guests, and he’s had a lot of people on, would say, ‘I went to a stand-up night, and thought everyone was shit and I could do better than this.’ There’s a particular type of ego that leads you to want that kind of validation from the audience. That’s probably a natural segway into asking you what your relationship is with the audience and what kind of validation you look for from your work.

 

JH:       It’s changed loads. I think I’ve become a tiny bit of a grown-up around that area. To begin with, it was totally, ‘look at me, look at me, I’ve got something to say, I feel like no one else is saying this, look at me, I’ll do a little dance for you,’ which is the same as say, every time I’d get a taxi or something like that, it was just how I lived. I think it’s a bit bipolar and I think it’s a bit the youngest child, that seems to be a thing. Some people didn’t get enough attention as a kid, but with me, I got a lot of attention as a kid, I was on stage and stuff. My mum’s bipolar as well, so I had this flamboyant… I feel like the 80s were like cerise and electric blue. When I came home as a little baby in a Moses basket, because that was all the rage, they put it in the middle of the floor, they turned the telly off and they looked at me instead. That was the role.

 

So to begin with, it was all about that. I’d love it if people came up afterwards. And then it sort of changed. When I was doing the leg show, ‘Some People Have Too Many Legs’, I sort of, maybe did it too early because it was like, I was writing it when I was in hospital and didn’t know if I was going to die or not. I was clinging on to it a bit, but I think it was a good show. People were coming up afterwards and they’d tell me all about stuff. My life at that time was 100s and 100s of people telling me their story and it can kill your brain a little bit. It’s like empathy fatigue, especially when it’s a thing you’re trying to process and you’re doing on stage every night.

 

So then I started wanting to be on my own a little bit. Then with this show and then with the play, it was weird because it’s a play and you’re not in that, you’re not present, I wasn’t there half the time. Then with this show, my mind, it’s like I’ve finally thought about it in a considered way. People clap. Wonderful. People have to clap, that’s the tradition in life and people join in, so I’m kind of like, ‘OK, that’s what happens at the end.’ If they’re like ‘wooo’ then OK. But also this show, the fact that it’s not a safe space and I’ll go there. It’s not the type of show you go ‘woo hoo’ about, it’s the type of show you go ‘fucking hell’ and sort of leave and ruminate over. I hope.

 

The other reaction is people come down crying, going – sorry, I sound like I’m saying I’m amazing – but some of the reactions are like, ‘I’ve never felt myself represented on the stage before,’ except we don’t really say it that way in working-class land. It’s that sort of sentiment and that is lovely. I fucking love that. It is a little bit exhausting and makes me feel like, ‘shit, I’m in a position of responsibility, OK, let’s fucking bring it,’ but now I’m like fine.

 

I can’t see… People laugh when they’re happy and clap. There’s no noise that people make when they’re inspired. That’s a joke. I was trying to do it deadpan. I don’t mean that, I just mean it’s in their own heads. It’s more of a big-picture relationship with the audience. If people hate it as well. I just want to start a fucking discussion about class, so that was a very long answer.

 

DT:      No, it was perfect. I was just going to say to the listeners, if you want to go and make a noise for being inspired and be involved with this discussion about class, you can check out ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’. We’re not going to mention dates, because what I will have done is mention the dates that are still available in the introduction to this episode, so you should already know the dates and venues. It sounds great. People should definitely get along to see it if they can. Follow us or follow Jackie on Twitter and the other places we exit now, in the ether.

 

JH:       Are we still doing the thing?

 

DT:      Yeah, it’s fine, I’m really professional, I just slipped into it.

 

JH:       I thought you were just talking. And the sitcom.

 

DT:      And the sitcom as well. We exist online.

 

JH:       And the kids show.

 

DT:      We haven’t got round to that. People need to check you out online.

 

JH:       I still don’t know if we’re doing it.

 

DT:      Yeah, it’s still happening. Thank you, Jackie.

 

JH:       Thank you, David.

 

 

 

Part two [00:58:33]:

 

 

Host: David Turner – DT

 

Guest: Nuar Alsadir – NA

 

 

Intro:

 

 

DT:      You stuck around. Thank you. Next up is a short conversation with Nuar Alsadir. Late last year, I was completely made up to be invited to record some live interviews at the wonderful Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham. I was lucky enough to go along to their first event last year and it remains one of the best literature events I’ve ever attended.

 

The organisers, Stuart Bartholomew and Cynthia Miller, asked me to come along and host four 15-minute conversations with Sandeep K. Parmar, Roy McFarlane and winner of the Verve Poetry competition 2018, C.I. Marshall. And of course, Nuar. The loose idea for the conversations was to ask each writer about the role that live literature events play in their writing, but as you’ll hear, it quickly fell apart. But in a good way.

 

Instead of editing them together into a single episode, I’ve decided to put them out as sort of bonus tracks at the end of this and the next three episodes. It seems like the right thing to do, though I might regret it. Sometimes, you just have to make a decision and stick with it, right? Up now is me and Nuar talking about writing for an imagined reader and treating our notebook and pen as tools of the trade. Tell your friends about us.

 

 

Conversation:

 

 

Hello, everybody. Welcome to Lunar Poetry Podcasts at Verve Festival in the wonderful city of Birmingham. I’m joined for the first interview in a series of four this year by the fabulous Nuar Alsadir. Nuar is a poet, writer and psychoanalyst. Her collection ‘Fourth Person Singular’ was shortlisted for the 2017 Forward prize for Best Collection. I was going to say this interview wouldn’t be as shambolic as my reading earlier. It might be. We’ll start with a reading please, Nuar.

 

NA:      Sketch 27. A man entered the subway car at Borough Hall, was about to sit, but just as his knees began to bend, the train jerked into motion. He stood up as though regaining composure after a brief humiliation, as though it were somehow shameful to be subject to gravity’s impersonal force, caught in its grip, an object controlled by physics.

 

DT:      Thank you very much, Nuar. This is the most intimate stage I’ve ever stood on. It’s almost like being on a milk crate. I have to remember that for the majority of the audience for this, it will be in audio and descriptions of where I’m standing are of no use to anybody. The series of four talks we’re doing for this weekend, I was asked by Stuart and Cynthia to provide an idea of what we’d talk about. I suggested that, because we’re at a literary festival, we would talk about the importance of those festivals to the individual writer, so we’ll begin with that question, Nuar. I’m excited for the answer, I sort of already know… What role do these types of festivals play in your development as a writer?

 

NA:      This is my first festival so it’s to be determined.

 

DT:      When writers do this to me on the podcast, it’s my favourite thing. Just to leave me floundering. I do have to remember there are people watching me so I can’t bask in it for too long. You were saying before that you’re usually more isolated, did you use that word?

 

NA:      Reclusive.

 

DT:      How does that inform the way you write?

 

NA:      I think it informs it completely. I don’t know how to answer that question, that’s so hard. I am reclusive, so I write from the reclusive space that I occupy and the work is coming from an internal space where I’m addressing an imagined reader that understands me. What Bakhtin called the ‘super addressee’, someone whose complete understanding and goodwill is part of how I imagine them.

 

DT:      Did you at any stage of your writing development design a reader in mind to write for?

 

NA:      Yeah, I think I always have a reader in mind that I’m writing for, but it doesn’t necessarily match up with a person in the world, so when the work goes into the world, whether at a festival or in publication, it’s going to reach readers who are real people in the world and not just my imagined reader. And I go… because I can’t control who’s going to read it and how they’re going to read it, but I think when I’m writing it, I have control over my addressee, who I’m imagining as I’m writing.

 

DT:      I’m looking at this wonderful… I was going to say sea. Fishpond of faces in front of us, it’s quite an intimate room, it’s not that big – I just find it hard, how you would ever write without looking at these people, and how this is your first experience.

 

NA:      This is my first time looking at the audience, actually. I was blocking them out.

 

DT:      This actually came up in a conversation with Caroline Bird, which will become Episode 110 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. We were talking about the idea of an imagined reader that you might be writing for. How do you avoid the safety that comes with designing that reader yourself? How do you challenge yourself?

 

NA:      Why would you want to?

 

DT:      OK.

 

NA:      Why would you want to imagine an unsafe reader? What would that do to your speaking, writing self?

 

DT:      Isn’t it natural for most people to eventually move towards the safe zone?

 

NA:      I don’t know if I can speak for other people, but why would you want to do that in your writing? I’m not quite sure. To imagine judgement or criticism, I don’t know how that would be a goal, or helpful.

 

DT:      I think more that I was wondering how you maintain that reader as being… pleasing that reader, how that becomes a challenge or stays a challenge if this person’s imagined in your head. Because it would be easy to imagine them being really pleased with what you write as well.

 

NA:      I think that if you’re not worried about pleasing the reader, if you’re worried about or concerned with being understood, pleasing isn’t really part of being understood. I feel like pleasing the reader is about narcissism and wanting to be rewarded and to win, win in the eyes of others and I feel like I write out of a very different space, where I’m trying to communicate and connect. If I imagine the reader to be someone who in my mind is alive and feeling and attempting to hear me and see me and understand what I am expressing, then hopefully it’ll be universal enough that it will reach the universal part in other people who weren’t part of my imagined reader, but have some core of universality and humanity in them, which hopefully the work will reach.

 

DT:      Do you have any other writers you share your work with, obviously we’ve established that you don’t necessarily share it with live audiences, but do you have other writers you share your work with in order to maintain that sense of universality?

 

NA:      Well, this book, ‘Fourth Person Singular’, when I wrote it I actually didn’t show it to anyone until I was done and then I showed it to one friend, who’s a writer, and my editor and that was it. Then as it went through production, there was an intern at Liverpool University Press, who was a senior there, Natalie [INAUDIBLE] and she worked on it as well. That was it.

 

DT:      I’m finding it hard to completely process it, because most poets I talk to claim to be reclusive, but you’re really seeing this one through. You live the life. Would you be able to explain a little bit more about the process behind this collection? About the form that it takes, and the structure.

 

NA:      It’s largely a book in fragmented form, so there are some fragments that make up a long poem in the beginning and then there are a few lyric essays and some what I call sketches, which are actually written in a sketch book, but they’re verbal sketches as opposed to drawing sketches. Then there’s an autobiography in footnotes, which is something that had come to me in a dream. I dreamt I wrote my autobiography and the pages were blank and the text was all in footnotes.

 

It kind of took its own form, but I also was writing it in a short period of time because I’m a massive procrastinator and I was coming up against the deadline for the book, I had a little over a month and I had to write it or miss the opportunity. I kind of went into an isolated space and I didn’t do anything else while I was working on it. I think it comes out of an enclosed state of mind and time period. Sometimes I look at it now and I almost don’t remember writing it. Although I recognise it as mine, it’s sort of separate for me.

 

DT:      I find it interesting when writers talk about moving into writing in sketch books, freeing themselves from lines. Is that a conscious decision or did it reflect this idea that you’d seen what the story might be?

 

NA:      I’m actually really obsessed with drawings and notebooks. When I go to museums, I try to find the drawings of the artists I love. I feel like they’re really intimate and I love when the drawings have places where something has been erased and it’s smudgy and you can see the layers of the process. That’s what I love to look at and to contemplate. I think in some ways this book was really my attempt to make the work I would like to read and that I enjoy. Even if it’s visual art or writing.

 

DT:      Do you sketch as well?

 

NA:      No. I used to make pottery, that’s the closest I’ve come.

 

DT:      I’m a furniture maker. I carry sketch books around with me, but I hate drawing, it turns me inside out because I’m really bad at it, basically. I’m still obsessed with this idea of creating images. I think that’s what first drew me to poetry. I was determined to create images with my words. I was still trying to draw it in a way.

 

NA:      That’s really interesting. Heidegger actually has this moment where he talks about a carpenter and he says that if a carpenter wants to make something with wood, the carpenter can have an idea in their head of what they want to make and then the idea goes from their head to their hands. But once their hands touch the actual wood, the wood has its own volition, the grains go in a certain direction. It can be wet, it can be dry, so in touching the wood, an idea then has to be altered, so the idea has to go from the hands back to the head and be altered.

 

So an idea should always move in two directions, from the head to the hands, then from the world back to the head in order to be adjusted. If you’re really writing something to have it work in the world, you have to also be listening and taking in what the world is telling you.

 

DT:      That’s really fascinating. I think it sort of ties in with my obsession about the right type of paper and the right type of pen.

 

NA:      I have that same obsession.

 

DT:      What’s your pen of choice?

 

NA:      At the moment, I’m really into those Le Pen pens. They’re really thin, fine-pointed pens.

 

DT:      Why anyone would want anything other than a fine nib is beyond me. You can leave if you have anything above a fine or micro nib.

 

NA:      And they have some great blues, French blue, Peacock blue. I think they call it Peacock, I call it French in my own mind. I like that colour. That’s what I’m into now, but notebooks, I’m having a hard time with. I keep trying, I have to switch it up, I can’t keep writing into the same notebook. I feel like I go through phases, in the same way that my process, sometimes it’ll work for me to wake up at 5am every morning and write first thing. And then it’s almost like I exhaust that and it doesn’t work anymore, then I have to change it up and develop a new process.

 

I have to do the same thing with paper and pens. I’m in between notebooks. I’ve been trying a few, but I’ve realised that what has been working is no longer working and then what I thought would work really doesn’t. I think I had an idea of what I was going to write next and I felt like it should go into a certain notebook, but then it’s not right.

 

DT:      I can’t believe we have to stop now. It’s very frustrating. I could go on about pens and paper forever. I’m holding a small notebook in my hand now.

 

NA:      What do you have there? Describe it for the listeners.

 

DT:      I’m not going to because it’s horrible and I’d have to mention the brand name.

 

NA:      Moleskine.

 

DT:      As if anyone’s listening from Moleskine. We’re going to finish with a reading.

 

NA:      I’ll read another sketch. Sketch 64. Pleasure and disgust, the border of desire, of aesthetics, where beauty and the uncanny meet. Is this the brink one must always live on, bear and bare? The vulnerability necessitated in feeling alive. When I’ve bared myself, I feel a compulsion to send out a flurry of signals to adjust the reception of others, to scramble the image that may have been momentarily revealed of me.

 

DT:      Thank you very much, Nuar. Thank you, Verve. Give yourselves a round of applause.

 

 

 

End of transcript