Can you tell us about your journey as a poet? Where did it all start for you?
It came out of the blue, and bit me on the bum nearly 7 years ago. Life hasn’t been the same since. At the age of 54 I wrote my first poem (a comedic one about Wigan pies) and performed it at a one-off event at the Museum of Wigan Life. It was a terrifying experience and I vowed never to do anything like it again. Seriously, I couldn’t ever have imagined what was to come next.
At the event, I’d met some lovely poets who told me about a regular Write Out Loud poetry open mic night at the Tudor pub in Wigan. For a few months, I lurked quietly at the back until one evening, some other “newbies” sat at my table and we made the sudden decision to perform. I read my one and only poem for a second time. It was still a terrifying experience but something had changed. I couldn’t say that I’d enjoyed it because again it had been terrifying, but I had to admit it was thrilling and I had the urge to push myself further – to see what I could achieve.
From that moment, there was no looking back. Whenever I performed, I challenged myself to conquer my nerves. I deliberately set out to scare myself a little more each time (trying to memorise my work, incorporating audience participation etc).
As my confidence grew, I started to go further afield to other poetry monthly nights across the North West. Although they were lovely and welcoming, I was surprised to find that the atmosphere at many felt flat in comparison to Wigan. Inadvertently I’d “cut my poetic teeth” at a full-on, raucous, fun filled, unruly, love it/hate it, quite unique night. The Tudor had a proper stage, lighting, a guy in a sound booth and a packed room drunkenly cheering and heckling with earthy yet clever wit. It was always unpredictable, unpretentious and welcomed the weird and wonderful. I fitted right in!
There was one aspect of those nights that turned out to be a major influence on my future creative path. Many people who had come to the pub for just for a drink got drawn in and discovered a love for poetry. Some of them even started writing and performing. I saw so many, like myself, transform and grow through the sharing their words.
Later on I found out that the Tudor was nicknamed “The Bear Pit” and I’m sure that if my first experiences there had been less anarchic and more sedate, then I would never have become a poet. The pub has sadly closed but the night continues in true WOL Wigan style, now based at the nearby Old Courts.
Nowadays I enjoy live poetry in all its various incarnations, but I avoid predictable or pretentious nights (there are a few around!). I get energized by those with energy and passion, where poets are encouraged to take risks and audiences are enthused.
Before I knew it, I was travelling all over the country headlining events, winning awards, slams, etc, and I’m still pinching myself. Family and friends are amazed at what I do. Once I’d stopped worrying about making mistakes and looking like a fool, endless possibilities opened up. For example, one highlight from last year was the Isle of Wight festival. As well as performing two sets on the Cirque De La Quirk stage with Verbal Remedies, I organised a flash mob and did pop-up creative activities with the crowds.
Truth is, the spoken word community is like an adopted family – totally wonky bonkers the lot of them, but they have embraced me and encouraged me to find my own voice and take risks. I am so happy that I’m now doing the same for hundreds of other people.
I can best summarize my poetry journey as being like Alice falling down the most surreal rabbit hole ever.
What inspires you to write and perform?
People. Life. Anything. Everything. From the tiniest thought or observation to massive things that seriously matter. I only share a small fraction of what I write because, well, I mainly write for myself.
For over 50 years I really believed that I had no creative talent whatsoever. All attempts at music, art, crafts etc ended in frustration and a sense of failure. I did appreciate and admire others’ creative talents in all its forms, but I just couldn’t imagine myself having any aptitude.
I worked as a teacher and for many years I ran a Pupil Referral Unit for excluded pupils. I brought in a range of creatives because I could see how the pupils engaged easily with the arts. I knew that when learning is fun, it can powerful – a path to empowerment and long term lasting change.
It took me a long time before I could describe myself as being a poet instead of saying that I dabbled and messed about with words. Coming late to this poetry world, it feels like now that I’ve opened the floodgates, I couldn’t stop writing and performing even if I tried.
Now I love that every day I help people discover their creative ability. Connecting with people in a meaningful way is essentially why I write and perform.
Do you have a set writing routine?
Routine? What’s routine? Seriously. Since giving up work a couple of years ago, life has been chock full of wonders, with no two days ever being remotely the same. I do “routinely” (as in every single day) enjoy the spark of spontaneity. People are always commenting on how many projects I have on the go at once but I’m loving it, so I say “Why not?”
I write whenever and wherever. Of course my muse is mischievous as I usually get my best ideas or words when I don’t have a pen or any technology to hand.
You’ve recently recorded some poems for TV adverts. How did you get involved with this? What’s it been like to see yourself on screen?
Like most creative things I have done, it came to me. Earlier this year four of my micro poems were regularly shown as ident adverts for ITV Documentaries sponsored by Nationwide Building Society. Currently two of my poems are heading their latest campaign on ITV, Sky, commercial radio etc.
The opportunity came via The Poetry Takeaway who are managing and casting for the Voices Nationwide campaign, they are representing the poets involved and are passionate that they are treated properly. The Creative Agency responsible were also fantastic – utterly professional yet grounded and fun to work with. I learned a lot. Throughout the process I had full creative freedom and they helped me raise my poetic / performance bar.
I believe strongly that poets should be treated the same as other artists, musicians etc. Unfortunately, many organisations still believe that poets should get little or no payment for their work. I’ve turned down work on the basis of ethics or personal principle and will continue to do so.
Seeing myself on TV is a bit weird but fine – though I genuinely get flummoxed when strangers stop me to talk to me because they’ve seen me on TV. I’ve still not figured out what to say.
Essentially getting poetry out to a wider audience is fantastic. I don’t mind if people don’t like my work. Nobody likes every kind of music, and poetry is the same. There’s something out there for everyone if they look. Lots of companies are using poetry to promote their products. This advertising campaign is getting real poets doing their own poetry to a wider audience. If families are sat at home discussing why they love or hate a particular poem, then that’s surely got to be a good thing? If someone sees one of mine and says “I could do better than that” – well that’s great. If they then have a go at writing … BINGO!
I love watching poetry slams. What’s it like to perform at one?
Terrifying. Exhilarating. Perplexing. Of course I understand why the issue of judging poetry divides people. If slams are viewed as serious competitions where the scores matter, I agree that they are a ridiculous concept, but that viewpoint misses, well, the point. In reality slams range from the sublime to the dire. They are a fun entertainment vehicle that provides a chance for poets to raise their bar in front of an unpredictable audience and panel of judges who’s scoring generally baffles everyone.
A badly organised slam is without doubt something to be avoided but luckily for me I’ve experienced some real corkers. Oh, and if anyone gets the chance to go to an Anti-Slam (where the worst, lowest scoring poem wins) then please do – they are simply inventive irreverent and hilarious.
There are a number of you tube clips showing you performing your work. I think ‘Mam’ is beautifully written. It’s incredibly moving and loving. Is it easy to share childhood memories like these?
Yes, I find it easy because whilst the poem calls on my own personal childhood memories, it’s also about the here and now. It’s about love. My mam is in her 90s and is an amazing inspiration for me and many others. It’s my most performed poem and I never tire of sharing it. It’s my most watched video online too and I think people connect strongly with it because it reminds them of their own much loved mams, nans, sisters, aunties, etc. Often people are moved to tears saying “I’m crying, but in a good way.”
One often cited quote seems appropriate here:
“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”
I also saw your poem (think it was called) ‘Trump, Trump, Trump’. Do you think your writing has become more political since Trump’s election? Do you think it’s important for artists to challenge what is happening in the world?
I can only speak for myself. I don’t think that poets / artists HAVE to respond to issues but in these most challenging of times it’s very heartening to see how many are. I personally have no choice. I am compelled to speak out. Whether it’s about fracking or miscarriages of justice, or whatever, I’ve now found my voice and I’m not afraid to use it.
“My words can comfort or amuse,
dig deep or brutally bruise…
I refuse to keep my words in.”
A link to my poem that contains these lines appears later in this interview. It’s my story. Take a look and you’ll hopefully understand why I’m passionate about what I do.
Oh – and there is a post-election rewrite of my Trump parody that I now regularly perform.
Can you share any details of projects you’re currently involved in?
My current post as the first ever Creative-in-Residence at Afflecks (Palace) has been my main focus for the last 20 months. Afflecks is an iconic emporium of independent sole traders. It’s been at the heart of Manchester’s culture (& counter culture) scene since 1982. I have set up a Creative Space there. It’s free to use and always open. It has transformed 100s of people’s lives, including my own. Take a look at Afflecks Creatives on Facebook to get a glimpse or better still visit – it’s a short walk away from Piccadilly Gardens.
A recent quote from a visitor: Afflecks is a place of wonder, but the Creative Space curated by Joy France is something beautifully unique. Frankly it is a bit of magic for everyone to experience. A hidden gem that 1000s of people (local and worldwide) will be recalling fondly and telling their grandkids about how special it was.
I’ve just counted up and I’m currently actively involved in well over 30 big projects. Here are a few:
I’m writing my fourth One Woman Show. It’s about my 4 month adventure trying to do 60 new things (low cost and through real people) before I turned 60. It’s actually about age, taking risks, stereotyping and attitude to life.
I’ll be expanding my own quirky take on engaging people with words creatively via a new series of ventures. Essentially I’ll be building and strengthening communities through creativity.
I hope to have a massive an exhibition about Manchester & specifically my residency at Afflecks
I have a documentary film team currently following me (eek) capturing me as a baby boomer who is living life beyond the normal.
I’m performing at festivals and taking poetry to places where it’s not normally found. I’m carrying on engaging with poetry haters.
Even though writing and performing poetry, running workshops etc will always be at the heart of what I do, nowadays I’m enjoying exploring new art forms. Mixing things up. Collaborating. Oh – and definitely carrying on stepping out of my comfort zone to scare myself a little or a lot.
Many of my plans are still hush but I promise they will be interesting. There are over 50 of them so I’m looking forward to involving many other people but again I’m likely only to share a few of them online.
What are you reading at the moment?
You won’t be surprised to hear that I always have several books on the go at once. In the Creative Space there are lots of books with advice or words of wisdom to young writers, penned by the authors and poets. I often do a “lucky dip” grab and indulge thing. Recent additions include several new collections from Flapjack Press. It’s fascinating seeing how poems I’ve only seen performed are transformed when on the page. I’ve never been interested in having my poems published as a collection. I’m still not sure but I’m reconsidering. Maybe a book of my thoughts / memories / ideas / prompts with a sprinkling of my poems might one day be “a thing.”
Would you share one of your poems with us?
This is a recently recorded version of the poem I mentioned earlier, about finding my voice.
Have you got anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning anyone by name because there are way too many to mention and I would inevitably leave out key people. I want to say a massive thank you to all who support and inspire me. I’m so lucky to be part of the Spoken Word scene at this exciting time.
Also – thanks for asking me to do this interview as it’s given me a rare chance to take a pause from my hectic schedule and reflect. I’m now even more curious and excited, wondering where this creative journey might take me next.
So finally … I had so much fun doing my “60 new things before I turn 60” challenge that I’m carrying on my adventure by doing “61 new things in the year I turn 61” – Time’s running out.
Thank you for agreeing to take part in an interview for Ink Pantry.
Hello and thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to chat with you.
Can you tell us how it all started for you? When did you become a writer?
I can’t put an exact time on when I started to write. I tried for many years to write a novel but I never produced anything I was really happy with. There were more pages in the bin than in my notebook and I struggled to put together tales that had a conclusion. I don’t think my writer’s voice was strong enough. Then about four years ago I started writing again and a story just flowed out through my pen onto paper and The Community was born. I loved the whole process and from there I was hooked. A while later I decided to publish my book as a gift to myself, as I had one of those milestone birthdays looming. From there I have never looked back, and now I find writing is one of the greatest pleasures in my life.
Without spoiling the story, how would you describe your first novel The Community?
The Community is a mystery and a love story that spans fifty years. It starts with a body being discovered in a local park, no one knows who she is or how she got there. Alexandra Price, a newbie journalist, picks up the story and is sure there is more to the story than just a woman dead in the park. She follows leads, symbols and tales from the older members of the town to uncover the story.
Meanwhile we meet Jack. He was born and raised in Charmsbury, but as a young man he had a hard time getting along with his family, and when he found the love of his life, his family refused to accept her. He was so heartbroken that he ran away from home and started a whole new life for himself with the help of his best friend Peter. He didn’t run too far and the community he founded was born. We follow his life through fifty years and bring his story up to date as he discovers he may finally be discovered.
No one could have ever guessed how life and love could become so intermingled as Alex and Jack work their way towards their destiny.
Do you plan to write any more in this series?
Yes, the second book Pictures of Deceit has already been published, and takes Alex on a trip across the globe as she tries to find answers to the disappearance of a famous art dealer.
The third book is being written now, although as yet it hasn’t given up it’s title to me, but I am hoping to have it for release in Sept/Oct 2017.
Do you have a set writing routine?
Unfortunately not. I would love to be that organised, but with a business to run, time can sometimes be short. I grab a little time here and there and always carry a notebook with me just incase I find a spare moment. Not ideal, but it seems to work.
What inspires you to write?
I write because I love to, and what drives me to write more is the reaction I get from people who contact me and tell me how much they have enjoyed my work. I write for me, but publish for them. The whole process is an inspiration, there is no part of it that seems like work. If I can offer relaxation and some escapism to my readers, then that’s all the inspiration I need to put pen to paper again.
You have also published an E-book of short stories. Do you prefer writing short stories or novels?
The easiest question so far, my preference is novels. I like to tell a story and let you get to know the characters. The depth of a novel is far more engaging to me.
As a writer, do you approach these formats differently?
Yes, very differently. A short story is something I sit down at the computer and write, no structure or intent, I just write, but there is no plan, generally they have started out as a warm up technique before I go back to the novel. I was lucky that I wrote a few that I thought worth sharing, but they are not my forte.
With a novel I write the first chapter with the same sort of approach, but once I have a starting point then I can start to structure it, and if I’m lucky I get to lock myself away for an hour or two in the evenings to just write. Another major difference is that my first draft of a novel is never put on the computer. I always hand write the first draft, it feels more personal.
What do you enjoy reading?
Mystery, suspense and a little horror. Stephen King, Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Agatha Christie are amongst my favourite authors. Before I started writing, these were my go-to authors, but since I have published my work I have discovered many really good new authors, but I still like the same genres.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently editing book three of the Alex Price series. It still doesn’t have a title yet but this story is a more personal one for Alex. It is also a much darker tale. I have enjoyed writing it every bit as much as I did the other two. I can only hope it will be as well received.
Where can we find out more about your work?
I’d love it if you’d like to stop by my website where all the information about my work is. There is also an experimental free story available there which is a collaboration with another writer, which will build chapter by chapter. Come over and take a look.
Yes, if you want to write, then write, don’t worry about any of the other stuff. It’s really not going to be as difficult as you think, but first you must learn to believe that you can do it. Forget the rules and don’t try to be perfect, let your voice shine out of your work. There’s a million reasons (excuses) for giving up, but don’t fall for any of them, there are people out there just waiting to discover you.
Gravel sprayed across the highway beneath the wheels of Maximus Crowe’s motorbike as it sped, far over the legal speed-limit down the London roads.
In Peckham, police cars surrounded a terraced house. The upstairs window was open. Police had set up a perimeter at both ends of the street to prevent any members of the press from getting in. DS Ambrose Rookwood’s calm, measured tones were projected through a megaphone to the upstairs room.
‘Julian, I want you to remain calm’ said Rookwood soothingly. ‘If you just put down the gun and come with us, we can get you help. This doesn’t have to end badly. We can make sure your wife and kids get the care they need. Look at them; you love them, don’t you? Well they love you. And we don’t point guns at our loved ones do we Julian? No. No pointing guns at loved ones. Okay Julian, we’re not going to hurt you, just listen to my voice, I need you to come outside and …’, the sound of Rookwood’s voice was drowned out by the growling engine of an approaching bike. Rolling his eyes, he lowered the megaphone and turned to see the figure of Crowe shooting down the street towards them on the back of his Ducati, his long, black Prada coat billowing behind him, Shoot to Thrill by AC/DC blaring from his I-Phone. Skidding to a halt, Crowe leaped off his bike and deactivated his I-Phone as the song drew to a close. ‘S’up?’ he asked, whipping off his shades.
It is fair to say that from these opening paragraphs I thought that this was going to be a book more suited to a male reader, as the description of Crowe seemed to be similar to the heroic characters of many a crime fighting film or novel. It would be so easy to picture George Clooney or Will Smith in that sweeping Prada coat whilst riding the motorbike and screaming to a halt at the Police perimeter. I would go even further to say that I needed to read a couple of chapters more before I was completely on board with the central character, and was even starting to identify with him.
Let’s start with the story-line. Crowe is an ex-policeman turned private investigator who is hired by the police to solve particularly grizzly series of murders of children in a village called Cantrip. These happened years ago and then stopped, and now it appears they are happening all over again. This time a child has been crucified upside down on a cross. Of course, this smacks of devil worshipping. In the guise of a journalist, he soon links up with some of the village police who seem to be very shy of speaking about the murders. Crowe meets with the residents of the village and wants to talk of the loss of their children, where he seems to be met by stony silence. That is, until he meets with the local ‘Lord of the Manor’, Baron D’Anton and his butler, Darlington, and the Baron’s daughter, Lili. The Baron has allowed gypsies to camp out on his land and it is rumoured that they may be responsible in some way for the recent deaths.
Crowe, who is full of bravado and character, often finds himself in awkward situations, but there is no doubt that he is on the side of good, and one always hopes that good will prevail. It is twisty-turny in its plot, and has you reading each page eager to get to the bottom of it all.
Tom Barter has a great gift for words, and he weaves a wonderful web of drama, mystery and intrigue in Cantrip, and he builds characters beautifully as the book progresses. This was, for me, a read which I began to warm to because of Tom’s use of prose. From there, it turned into something which was compelling and thoroughly enjoyable to read right through to the last page. I can heartily recommend it.
Hello Tom. You’ve recently released a new book entitled A Murder of Crowe: Something Wicked. Could you share some information on this novel please and where the original inspiration came from for the characters and storyline?
Good to hear from you and thank you for reading my book! I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Well it’s actually a sequel! It’s the second book in a series that I’ve started writing about the titular detective, Maximus Crowe. I knew how to finish the first book but I wasn’t sure how to get to the conclusion,, but my mind was bursting with ideas for future novels so I decided to write the sequel then go back and finish the first which will be coming your way soon! Whilst writing Something Wicked I was careful not to give away any serious spoilers for the first book which I suppose in terms of plot function will be a bit like the Star Wars prequels, minus Jar-Jar Binks of course.
Growing up, who were/are your literary heroes and biggest sources of inspiration? Also, what additional authors became endeared to you during your time at Liverpool Hope University, whilst undertaking your BA in English Literature?
As a small boy I thrived on the works of the Brothers Grimm which all children are introduced to via Disney of course. I read the original fairy tales via the Folio Society. Growing up I read Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Joan Aiken, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert Louis Stevenson and naturally Roald Dahl, without which any childhood is incomplete and needless to say the same goes for J. K. Rowling. I read Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake when I was nine and around the same time became interested in many of the books already gathering dust on the family book shelves. I read Le Morte d’Arthur and also The Woman in Black and eventually found my way to the works of Arthur Conan Doyle. I enjoyed Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles was an influence on my book, given the slight supernatural element and the fact that it takes place in the countryside, away from the city of London, which is the detective’s normal hunting ground.
At Liverpool Hope, my passion for the Brothers Grimm and Edgar Allan Poe was rekindled and I read a lot more of his work, including his ratiocinative tales. I tried to channel some of his dark humour and his talent for the macabre into Something Wicked. I also discovered Angela Carter and Truman Capote whilst at university, both of whom I became very fond.
Where is/are your usual, or favourite, writing location(s), Tom? Also, when making notes for literary projects, is your usual tool a pen/paper or a computer keyboard?
I write via the laptop in my dining room, usually accompanied by a pot of tea in the day or a bottle of wine in the evening! I have a separate folder where I write down notes or possible future scenes for whatever book I’m writing. I first started writing when I was thirteen and it’s a habit I’ve kept up since then. If I have an idea out in a café or bar or at a family member or friend’s house where I can’t access a computer, I’ll commit it to memory and hold it in the corner of my brain like a squirrel storing nuts in its cheek for the winter!
You’ve worked in various jobs where you have close contact with the general public. Has this been a rich source of creative inspiration with your writing? Are you a people watcher?
Sometimes, occasionally, but generally speaking I try not to be voyeuristic. Whenever I’m writing a scene featuring a character who will not be significant to the plot, such as a member of staff or passer-by, I try to make them memorably eccentric or at least recognisable as the kind of person whom one would encounter in day-to-day life. If it’s a bank-clerk or shopkeeper, base them either on a charming, funny or difficult and annoying person whom you’ve met in that capacity. It would be so easy to just say “a man” or “a woman” and have them say their lines as though reading off a script, but so much funnier or at least less turgid to make them a person whom you may recognise from your day-to-day life. My main characters are, of course, far too fantastical to be based on anyone I know!
Aside from writing, are you drawn towards any other forms of creativity, such as music or art? What do you do to relax you within life, to move you away from everyday stresses?
I enjoy listening to music and paintings and try to incorporate as many forms of art into my books, either as inspiration for characters or scenarios, or just for characters within the narrative to look at and relate to the plot. It adds to the scenery in one’s imagination and turns the book into a more aesthetic, and indeed, mentally cinematic experience. Nevertheless, I have no talent for painting and still less for music, though I still appreciate both art-forms. In order to relax in life, I’m drawn to the usual stuff; reading, film-watching, secretly plotting to take over the world, cooking, gardening, psychology, philosophy, long walks and getting into lengthy, passionate arguments with mirrors and inanimate objects, either at home or in public. You know, normal stuff.
Thank you for sharing your insights, Tom. To conclude, could you share some thoughts on present & future creative projects? What does 2017 and 2018 hold in store for you?
Well the prequel to Something Wicked will be headed your way very soon as indeed will the sequel. A Murder of Crowe is going to be part of a fairly lengthy series which has all been planned. And to quote Bette Davis, “Fasten your seatbelts!”
Six-foot-one, eyes brown, early forties, greying hair. No distinguishing marks; Art History and Film Studies graduate from Glasgow University; never considered that I could make a living from the kind of writing or music I make so I have mostly worked in office administration. I have three children: Amber, 17; Lily, 14; and Isaac, 10. Four cats, two dogs, one horse; lots of books and records. Moved from Scotland to Macclesfield eighteen months ago – the hometown of my partner, Jackie.
Can you share with us a couple of your poems and the inspiration behind them?
This one is about the arrival of the ADP riot tour in Macclesfield last year. It was a conceptual art installation by Jimmy Cauty that toured the UK. It was a sculpture inside a shipping container of the aftermath of a serious riot. It was an attempt to get at the feeling I got from viewing it.
The virus of the object – through the veins and arteries of the island – m23 a666 endless endless.
Arrival of chaos in reverse – its already happened – view the post action – rushes of what was.
Where were you, when were you, who were you, who you were, where you are, are you there
The mythic tour coast to coast incendiary Visigoth punk revelation – each town detonated on arrival city smoulders in fake fur and eyeliner – they can take it and use it. A hundred formations and reformations in the wake
Let Freedom ride – going to further – figure of outward never looking back, can’t look back, blinded by vision – eternally reconstructing the fractured narrative until the clock stops and then opens the steel doors to find thirty stowaways suffocated and yet one flicks an eye open at the sunlight piercing the dead interior. The authorities give him a cup of coffee and let him walk away into the streets by the harbour – to begin telling the tale.
The audience autograph the star – national debris and albions psychic leakage document of end of euro trip and winning at go and the reduction to yes no for against impossible complexities of indifference and sullen obedience – insurrection contagion captured on highway CCTV– memory and memorial of resistance germ – shaped conscience with an uranium half life – before and after simultaneous arrival/dispersal.
This one is called ‘Hook and Removal’. I think this one is trying to get a feeling of a confusing dream – not exactly a nightmare, more a sense of being stuck in an alternative reality. I like the surrealist painters very much, so this is maybe something like walking through a de Chirico landscape.
There is always an absence or maybe a blockage I can never decide
Approaching the resolution the film stops
The road suddenly ends
And there is nothing
Occasionally I feel a pull towards form behind or within the end
A subtle gravity
A revelatory attraction that I can never access
Empty stillness is what I expect but in fact it could be almost anything.
Let’s revisit the city, call it London, but it isn’t
Out in a zone devoid of history or culture
There is a river but no one talks about it.
There’s a commercial zone lock ups and railway arches
Cavernous interiors of a dubious economy
Wide streets with parked cars
People intent on getting somewhere else
There is a park with war memorials some of them still to be fought
School children in uniforms walk in twos
Back in the interior the light drips from a fissure in the ceiling
Pools of fading light ripple out and away – soundless light drips
Sudden faces lit up like carriages passing at speed at midnight
Eyes swivel in the death posture
Return to black
Even in the lightest times there can be a sense of this non entity
Weird sentinel of forbidden voyage
Unlikely final companion much delayed but elegant excuses
Offered – accepted and so begin.
What themes keep cropping up in your writing? What do you care about?
I have a box full of most of the things I have written in the last twenty years or so. I would say that themes of isolation, stillness and disintegration figure prominently. I am sometimes surprised at the violence in the images and I also have something of a preoccupation with death and altered states. I wouldn’t say I am particularly morbid or a sombre person, so I’m often surprised by what comes out. They are primarily internal imaginings and not much concerned with external descriptions. I like short sentences – space, quiet and movement. I care about the idea that language can be a means to solace and can, when employed in the correct manner, create a meditative insightful frame of mind – searching for the correct manner is an ongoing project.
As well as a writer, you’re a musician. What kind of music do you play and does it inspire your writing, or vice versa?
I like to play improvised music. For some reason, I have never been able to remember chord progressions and lyrics unless they are very simple, so it’s easier for me to play and see what happens. I particularly like playing in improvised groups. The exception to this is electronic music; software means it’s a lot easier to structure and to create and edit. In electronic music, I prefer to work alone. I have to admit that I don’t feel the music inspires the writing – perhaps I am trying to go after a certain feeling that music evokes sometimes, but not often; in that sense, perhaps music is more primary for me. One thing where there is a crossover is in terms of performance. I have been performing music fairly regularly for the last ten years or so but it’s only in the last year that I have been performing poetry on stage. I like the different expectations and anticipations of reading aloud to an audience. For the longest time my writing was only meant to be read so it’s been interesting to speak it out loud and learn more about what the poems might be about.
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
War has to stop. I genuinely believe that if war stops everything that has been diminished in life and on the planet would be allowed to flourish.
Who inspires you and why?
People who are unafraid to stand up for what they believe. Even when everyone around them is telling them it’s not working and the world seems indifferent to what they do – they carry on because they know they are right even if they can’t fully describe why. Artists that inspire me the most are John Cage, Charles Olson, Willem de Kooning , William Burroughs, Iain Sinclair, Richard Long, Lou Reed, Stanley Kubrick, Kenneth White… many others, but these ones come to mind first.
Tell us about one of the best days of your life.
Meeting Jackie in October 1996. My whole life changed forever and for the better – twenty-one years later, it’s still changing in lots of good ways.
What are you reading at the moment?
I tend to read lots of things at the same time and I don’t necessarily finish all of them. Novel-wise, I just finished Neuromancer by William Gibson, and I have just started reading Kafka’s The Trial; I’m also half way through Orwell’s 1984. I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction; mostly I try to work thorough great books from the past. In terms of poetry, I’ve been dipping into ‘Canterbury Tales’ (the un-modernised text) Blake and David Jones. I like to read philosophy and political theory too, so right now I am going through John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, Nick Lands’ Fanged Noumena and a bit of Martin Heidegger, who I’ve been trying to get to grips with since university.
What is next for you? What plans have you got?
I want to continue creating and collaborating with others. I would love to set up an electronic music festival in Macclesfield sometime this year. Mostly I want to carry on moving forward and outward into new things.
Where did it all start for you? What made you want to be a poet?
I always wrote as a child, as I think a lot of people do, and then when I was about sixteen I started reading poetry again, after moving away from it a lot during my younger teenage years; so I started to emulate what I was reading (we’re all readers before we’re writers) and it seemed to me a great way of distilling the madness and confusion of the world.
How do you balance your writing alongside your job as a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University? Do you have a writing routine?
I don’t really have a routine; on days when I’m not in my university office I still like to wake early, perhaps writing for an hour, before getting on with the rest of the day; if I have a commission or a specific piece I’m meant to be working towards, then that will often force me to sit down at my desk like a proper writer and try to conjure something up – but usually poetry comes to me very slowly and very unexpectedly – a line coming from wherever that place is that poetry comes from, and I’ll write that down and then just try to let it lead me wherever it wants to go.
Your poems are often personal and intimate. Human nature, desire and relationships are reoccurring themes. How difficult is it to put that part of you and that level of emotion down on paper?
I’m quite a shy, reserved person in many ways and so that level of intimacy is difficult; it just seemed to me that I was interested in relationships, in desire, in the body, and if I was going to write about those things then I had to fully commit and write about them entirely, there was no point doing it half-heartedly, or being embarrassed by it, the poems would only work (I told myself) if I went completely into them, if I told the whole truth (poetic truth rather than what-actually-happened truth sometimes); it can be difficult to visit parts of your life that weren’t particularly enjoyable, or which there is a certain degree of shame about, but that fear and embarrassment and emotion is important to feel – if you’re writing a poem cold then the reader will feel cold as well, there needs to be something transmitted to the reader, almost by osmosis.
Writing is never the hardest part in terms of revealing oneself; for the longest time the poems are just mine, in my notebook, and then the scary part comes afterwards.
Your poems are often lower case, with little punctuation and have fragmented stanzas. Why do you think this style and form works so well? ( I’m thinking in particular of Finally and David after Goliath. Both of which I think are beautiful. Every time I read David after Goliath I get something different from it, and I think that’s partly due to the form.)
It’s a style that developed over time, first lower case (which I began experimenting with after reading Children of Albion, a weird wonderful anthology of underground British poetry from the 1960’s) the fragments, or exploded lyric line with the breath spaces always just felt to me more natural, it seemed to me that people never spoke in correct punctuation, pausing where a comma might be etc., it’s something more led by the breath than that, something more gentle than that.
What advice would you give to new and aspiring writers?
To read, to read and to keep reading, and never lose that joy of reading; even read things you don’t enjoy, just to see why it is you don’t like it, to begin to form some kind of response to it. Remember that joy of reading, never lose that.
Do you think poetry is becoming more accessible?
I think it’s having a moment where it seems to be more popular, and I think forms are perhaps becoming more hybridised; I don’t think its necessarily a question of it becoming more accessible but rather that more people are coming to it – in troubling serious times, people always go to poetry – just as they might for a funeral.
Do you have a favourite poem or a writer whose work you keep returning to?
Always Thom Gunn, my first and always poetic love.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just come out of the other side of all my marking, so slowly getting back into the swing of reading things – I’m looking forward to starting Michael Symmons Roberts’ new collection, Mancunia that Cape are publishing this year, and the great Randall Mann, a wonderful American poet, just sent me his new collection, so I’ve been reading that as well.
Do you have a poem or any recommendations you would like to share with us?
I would recommend that everyone takes out a subscription to a poetry magazine; Poetry(Chicago) The Poetry Review, Poetry London; magazines are a great way of seeing the coal face of poetry, where the really new and fresh poetry is coming out.
I love the way that poetry can multi-task. A poem can mean different things to different readers and listeners, and it can simultaneously make you say: “Wow! I see things that way” and also “Hey! I’ve never quite seen things that way before.”
I also love the concise, pared down nature of poetry. A poem gives you something in concentrated form, and I like that you then have to do a little bit of work to flesh it out from your own heart and head.
Can you share with us a couple of your poems and the inspiration behind them?
The first one is a recent poem, inspired by nights out alone on mountain tops in remote parts of the Yukon. From time to time I love ‘overnighting’ on hills and on islands, travelling light and staying awake. You can learn a lot about both place and self:
The Mountain Top: Evening and Morning
Dry-grain rock springs the feet like cropped grass
until, with long final strides across bare boiler-plate slabs,
I am dipping my head
in the high mountain sky,
with fifty miles of elbow room
on either side to spare.
Darkness sumps horizon’s light
and invites me
to stay the night,
to drench my scalp
in small hours indigo,
for day’s blazing blue.
Only silver meteor slashes remind me that things move:
constellations, galaxies and lone stars lure my sanity
to ecstatic edge.
Hold on, for morning.
Yet something was there,
heard in slithering scree,
seen in dark shadow-bulks,
scent of pine revealing
a scent not-of-pine,
animal fear on my tongue,
a sense of tense, stealthy touch
deep within, a pulse to each nerve-end
until silent atoms of light cluster,
then thicken into myriad layers,
reclaiming distance and detail.
Azure day’s dip
was potent, heady.
was one rational gulp
The second poem relates to a more earthy and human experience in the same part of the world. It is written in the imagined voice of a woman I saw playing piano in a rough old bar in Dawson City, where a Gold Rush population of fifty thousand has shrunk to somewhere around one thousand souls:
The Westminster Bar, Dawson City: Old Joanna Hits Her Stride
I must be losing my grip,
all fingers and thumbs
from the nights of white rum.
But the ivory keys draw me in,
rounded at the edges, smoothed,
rancid butter coloured enamel
like the horse-toothed
bar-buttresses I serenade tonight.
I yellow in sallow rhythm-light
to accompany the décor.
Smoking Compulsory Here.
Thank heaven for the black notes,
I cannot tell my chromatic,
fingers from the off-whites.
Still, there is a cooling warmth
to the beached bones
of this smoothened keyboard,
salt-scoured by my earthy tunes.
Only my breasts resist
this gorse-hued coarsening,
this mellow tan leathering.
I flaunt a paleness of them tonight
and taunt the limp, curdling drinkers
with my double-barrelhoused,
clotted cream Milk Cow Blues.
What themes keep cropping up in your writing? What do you care about?
My poetry has several, often overlapping, themes: the natural world (especially the ‘wild’); love and sex; a humanist, anti-religious vein; satirical humour; music and art; story-telling.
Those are the things that matter to me.
Politics also matters to me (I am a socialist) and I love the idea of politically relevant poetry, but I feel frustrated about my inability (thus far) to write good political verse!
Can you tell us about your first novel Pick Up The Pieces?
Pick Up the Pieces is based on a seven month solo journey I made not long ago, an eventful trip around British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska. I decided to turn my experiences into a novel rather than a travelogue.
I created a fictional narrator who was able to describe my journey via her own observations, via access to my journal, and via interviews with people I met. This device allowed me to develop a plot and to have a commentator who is able to describe a bigger picture, whilst also poking fun at me and revealing her own character.
All the events are true, except for the small matter of my own death. It is a mystery story with rebirth as a theme.
The narrator is based on a character in some paintings by the artist Paula Rego. I am very excited at the moment because, following a recent BBC film about her, I managed to make contact with her and she is reading the manuscript.
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
One thing I’d change about the world?
Handling POWER is not something that we humans are good at. That applies to individual relationships within families and right through to global politics. Power abuse is the root of sexism, racism and all the other forms of oppression and division.
So I would opt for a sea-change in human awareness of how to relate to others without power abuse.
Who inspires you and why?
My son inspires me.
I was a single parent from when he was 11 months old and we are very close.
His presence in my life has changed me for the better, has taught me loads, and has given me a spinal column to my world that will always be there.
Tell us about one of the best days of your life.
So many “best days” (and nights) to choose from!
I could get lost in making this decision, so I will go with the day when my younger sister and I spent a day walking and reflecting on the death of our mum and dad (they died within a year of each other after quite troubled years). We didn’t have the happiest of childhoods, but we were able to make sense of it all in retrospect, and grow from our talking.
As children we had created a fantasy world of stories and music, mainly led by me as the older child.
On our walk she said to me: “Thank you for my childhood”. I can’t think of anything much better than that!
What are you reading at the moment?
At the moment I am reading guide books to the Hebridean Islands. I have visited a few but a recent trip to Berneray, Harris and the Uists has ignited a desire to spend more time there.
I am also re-reading my library of Alice Munro short stories.
What is next for you? What plans have you got?
Over the last year or so I have been getting into collage making. It’s something I have had on a backburner for a long time, so I have built up a good collection of images and texts and I am really enjoying a different creative enterprise.
I had an exhibition last summer and am part of a large one in Shrewsbury this month.