Why do you write?
Family and friends ask me this one all the time, mostly in tones of bemused despair. I want to say because I have to!!! but, as explanations go, that seems adolescent and inadequate. It is true though, in the sense that my poetry functions as a kind of imperfect sieve for lived experience; it’s the way I process the world, figure things out, make sense of myself. I am almost ridiculously hypervigilant, and I often feel like the external world is flying full-speed at my face; writing things down helps me deal with that, there’s a sifting and a sorting involved, a making of mental breathing space. More than this, though, I’ve found that poetry is the only method I have to balance the necessity of telling certain stories with the impossibility of telling them. That’s what poetry does, I think, that’s what it’s for. And that’s why poetry, I guess, as opposed to short stories or essays or novels: poetry expresses that which ordinary language disallows or denies; it doesn’t demand resolution from you, it’s nonlinear and disruptive; I can use it to say the difficult things that don’t fit or aren’t considered acceptable elsewhere. All that plus the fact I’m not really very good at anything else.
What books do you read?
All the books! All the time! Okay, so not quite all the books, I’ll stop short of Martina Cole’s Nuns What Do Murders (I might have made that title up), but I do have pretty omnivorous tastes, and I think it’s probably essential if you’re going to do any kind of writing at all to read as widely as possible.
Where poetry is concerned I’m a lot more clued in to contemporary stuff than I used to be, which is something I owe mostly to Roddy Lumsden, and to Wednesday night classes at the Poetry School. I always compare my first time there to that bit in Frankenstein where the eponymous protagonist rocks up at the University of Ingolstadt and tries to wow his professors with his arcane reading habits. This backfires, and one spectacularly underwhelmed prof asks him has he really been wasting his time on such outdated horseshit (I’m paraphrasing) while there’s this wealth of incredible contemporary stuff out there? That was me, in essence, so I feel like I came late to the party, but I’ve been making up for lost time, and these days I’m into all sorts, my current faves being – in no particular order – Elizabeth Bletsoe, Beth Bachmann, Sean Bonney, Noelle Kocot, Chelsey Minnis, David Morley, Daniel Sulman, Bobby Parker and Amy Key.
There are some books I’m never not reading, that figure in my life more as talismans than texts. John Clare I read that way, Padraic Fiacc, James Joyce. At the moment I’m also slightly obsessed with Hannah Weiner, Bernadette Mayer and Kathy Acker. I like poetry that makes these disturbing incursions into my life, like watching a horror film and feeling a good kind of edgy freaked-outness for days after.
What inspires you?
Good question. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure my poetry is “inspired” so much as it is “provoked”. A lot of the time writing feels like stabbing back at a world that stabs at me, at all of us really. My London stuff especially, no one could describe the area I live in as “inspiring”, but it does provide fuel for the fire.
The natural world is its own kind of stimulation and enchantment; it casts a spell and it helps you breathe, that’s a different kind of inspiration, though, the impetus for the poetry is elsewhere, and I tend to view that as an extension of my general discomfort with life, the universe and everything. The short answer is “life”, I suppose, with its lowbrow sectarianism, pop-cultural quotidian, pit bulls, Millwall bricks, derivative modern toss and all.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer and when?
I don’t think there was ever an epiphany, or even a conscious decision. I didn’t sit down one day and say “I’m going to write”, I just wrote because that’s what felt natural and normal to me, so from a fairly young age when people asked me what I wanted to be I’d say poet. I didn’t really know what that word meant, and I didn’t really envision it as a profession per se, but I did know the poetry I’d read resonated with and excited me in a way that prose did not, and that it gave me a way of using the English language I felt fluent and dexterous with. I do remember the first proper attempt at a poem I ever made, though, it was about Australian desert dogs, and I was about six at the time. I also wanted to train dogs when I was six, which is how I earn my crust now. I don’t know whether that and the poetry are self-fulfilling prophesies or if I’m just peculiarly stubborn, but I’m like that: once I make my mind up about something I keep going with almost pathologically dogged determination until I get to where I want to be. People told me that poetry wasn’t a feasible thing for me to do with my life, that it wasn’t really for me, that I’d probably grow out of it… Nope.
How do you deal with rejection?
With my customary maturity and mental balance. Or not. It depends on the poem, and on the publication that’s doing the rejecting. Some rejections are harder to swallow than others, and there are times I cry and curse and kick the desk, but I don’t take it personally. It hurts, obviously, but mostly I just get on with it: I’ll look at the poems again, and if I really can’t see how I could make them better, I send them elsewhere almost immediately. More often than not, though, they come back because they weren’t done, and the disappointment of rejection is a good impetus for improvement. So in general, I hope I deal with knock backs by working harder.
I’ve only ever had one truly unkind, genuinely hurtful rejection in the entire time I’ve been writing, but that one crushed me for months. It wasn’t the rejection itself, but the snotty comments the publisher made questioning my authenticity and my class credentials. It was a deeply personal work dealing with a very real and extremely traumatic experience, so that email was painful to read. It also made me furious that in the twenty-first century a publisher would be arrogant and blinkered enough to believe there is only one proscribed way for working-class people to write and to sound, and that he would know definitively what that was. I wanted to give up at that point, but I didn’t, I used the boiling anger that experience generated to fuel my future efforts. I don’t know whether that’s healthy, but it gets shit done.
Who are some writers you admire?
Too many to name, really. But sticking to poetry, I’m currently or continuously being wowed by Daniel Sulman, Roddy Lumsden, Noelle Kocot, Medbh Mc Guckian, Sarer Scotthorne, Claudia Rankine, Eva Salzman, Michael Donaghy… And it goes on like this for quite some time.
Is writing the only artistic medium you do?
Yes and no. I love drawing, and often making sketches forms part of my writing process, but I don’t really think of that as “art”. Real art, made by real people with actual talent and skill is probably more disciplined and considered than what I do, I just grab a biro and have at.
What would be some advice you would give to your younger self?
Run! And don’t look back.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
I suppose so, but this applies mainly to working-class, and to culturally “other” poets: don’t become complicit in your own failure by not trying. There’s already a queue of people stretching half way round the block to do you down, but the only way they win is if you give up. Poetry is for you, it’s yours by necessity and right; you’re capable of it and you’re entitled to it, so keep kicking.
What is your writing process?
I don’t have a routine, as such, but I suppose there is a process: the initial cathartic, verbigerated splurge – which is usually hand-written and accompanied by drawings – is typed into stream-of-consciousnessy prose, and then edited, which is a stripping of all the excess sense-impeding stuff. For the last three years I’ve written at least a poem a day, every day, the least disastrous results of which I share on my blog. I find that putting the drafts up enables me to take a step back from the poems for a while, to have somewhere to “put” them so they have a life outside myself. This helps with the mental congestion that occurs when I’ve got too many poems rattling round my head at once.
Coffee is also important, and long, early morning walks with the dogs. I find I need that time to clear my head and make myself ready for the task of writing. I do about three hours every day, which is sometimes continuous, but more often snatched back at odd moments from the daily grind and from the mouths of mastiffs.