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Archive for the category “Poets’ Interviews”

The poets of Wychwood– Sally Jenkinson

Sally Jenkinson

As an active member of Bristol’s poetry scene Sally knows how to make her poems memorable– she performs as if infatuated with every word. Her pieces are revealing, relatable, and powerful. Sally tells us about the importance of reading out your work and eavesdropping at every opportunity.

You’ve cited eavesdropping as an inspiration, do you find you get a lot of your poems that way?

Yeah, I work in a pub so if you’re the barmaid then you’re incidental. You get to hear all kinds of conversations: people breaking up and getting together and gossiping, and you just start thinking about other people’s stories and that’s how it gets going.

So, did you always have the confidence that you’d make it as a poet?

No, and also it’s not really a concern of making it or reaching a certain end goal. It’s really nice doing things like this, getting to meet other people and talking to them about their work and stuff that they’re reading. It’s a nice thing to do– it’s not a competitive process of trying to get somewhere. It’s just a lovely way to spend your weekend.

How long does it take you to construct a piece and what are the first stages of it?

Right, so, the first stages are always like mid-conversation, or listening to somebody else’s conversation, or watching something, or having read something, or…on a train– you got talking time and you got thinking time. Making notes, scribbling it down, notes of just words that go really well together, or a nice couple of sentences, but then they can sit for ages and not be made into anything else. Then there’s the editing process of getting them formed and gathering them into a proper structure. I have to do it at home or somewhere quiet– that’s the work. You can’t just scribble stuff down and it’ll be wonderful. It might be two or three months later that I’ll be like ‘right, I have to do some work on it’ and properly sit down and make it into a real thing.

So do your pieces go through quite a few drafts?

Yeah, loads. And also saying them on stage– that’s another important thing. Sometimes you think something’s great and you’ll say it on stage and realise it’s not. It’s not so much that peoples’ reaction matters, cus you’re not writing for an audience, but just having said it out loud or said it in the context of other people listening to it, you realise it’s not communicating the thing that you wanted it to. So that’s definitely part of the process. I’ll say it on stage and realise it’s not finished. 

What’s the Bristol poetry scene like?

It’s great. There’s loads of brilliant things. I run an open-mic called Poetry Pulpit and we have two performers and some music and everything else is open-mic. We made it to encourage people to come who’ve never performed before, or if they’ve got new stuff and they’re not sure if it’s ready. It’s on a Sunday, everyone’s really hungover. I also work for a spoken word collective called Hammer And Tongue, which is national, so I run a night in Bristol, and there’s two in London, one in Oxford, one in Brighton, one in Cambridge. So when we book poets for that they get a national tour out of it. You’re more likely to get an experience out of performing in six different cities. 

Where is your open-mic in Bristol?

It’s at The Left Bank, on Cheltenham road, which is on the end of Stokes Croft. 

Any advice for poets just starting out?

Go to open-mics, just read stuff, see how you feel about it. And talk to other people as well, cus everyone is always as nervous as you. You think you’re the only one and you get talking to people and you realise they’re just as nervous and it means you can give each other a nudge, and you’ve got someone to give you a hug when you get off stage. You’ve just got to do it.

What do you think the image of poetry is for the average person today?

I think it’s either nothing, and they just don’t have an impression of it, or they have a memory of it from school. I had a great English teacher, so I remember it being an exciting thing, but I’m sure a lot of people just remember being forced to do it and not really understanding it, and that being the end of that. Sometimes you get people along to nights that I run that have never been before and they’re like ‘I thought it’d be shit.’ They haven’t been exposed to it and realised it’s not shit, but I’m sure if they were, we’d have loads more people getting involved and coming down to watch. People like films, they like stand-up comedy, and it’s just an extension of that. It’s storytelling and interesting language and entertainment. But for some reason it just goes under the radar of something you might want to be doing with your day.

Would you say your poetry had a particular aim?

Not an aim, but it’s definitely part of working stuff out for me, stuff that happens to me or stuff that happens to people that I know, stuff that’s interesting or affecting. Part of processing it and working out what it meant is writing about it and dissecting it. It’s not an aim; I just like language. I think it’s a thing to be explored in different ways by different poets. I like the breadth of different things that poets do with words that can be so…polarised from one another. I see other poets perform and I think ‘I wouldn’t have ever done that. I wouldn’t have been able to do that.’ So I think if there is an aim then I it’s to see what you can do with language.

Thanks Sally

The Poets of Wychwood– Nick Short

Nick Short

With titles like ‘A Killing Is Only as Fun as its Victim’ and ‘We Have Nothing in Common Anymore’, Nick’s poetry has a refreshing honesty and cynicism that can make you smile, laugh, get angry at stuff and plot to murder your neighbours, just because they never put their bins out on the right day. Nick talks about how he used to hate poetry, and we learn that lightening is actually sexual frustration, but only at G.C.S.E level.!

Would you say your poetry has an aim, and if so, what is it?

If my poetry had an aim I suppose you could say that it was to gain some sense of catharsis by generally shouting at everyone. 

I like that. Any advice for poets wanting to get into performance poetry?

Try as much as possible to get involved with what’s going on locally, which is what I’m trying to do at the moment. I haven’t been doing the performance side of it for too long, but from going along to open-mic nights I’ve got a lot more involved with The Cheltenham Poetry Festival, which has brought me to Wychwood, which has got me meeting people that run other events that I can go to and do more and more. 

You’re a graduate of UOG’s Creative Writing programme. How did you find your first ever poetry workshop?

I always used to hate poetry. I always hated it going through school. And having to study it at G.C.S.E it just gets drummed into you that this means this and lightening means sexual tension and all of that kind of thing. I hated the whole prescription of it all. So I spent most of my time at university rebelling against poetry, and trying to subvert it in some way, but doing it rather badly because I wasn’t very good at it. It was about a year and a half ago that I just…there was things that I started to throw down that worked as poetry. I fell into it more than anything.

So what was the turning point then? Was it a particular thing you wrote or read?

Without going ‘boohoo me’ the event that happened was that my girlfriend of six years broke up with me after going away to university, and I looked at myself and went ‘I’ve done nothing with myself. I’ve got a job and that’s about it.’ And then things started to get a bit weirder with her and I just reacted. I’m not happy with this. Here’s a poem. [Paul takes a break from his composure to land a punch in his left palm.] So, yeah, that was the turning point where I felt the need to…I suppose vocalise my rage.

Well you managed to turn a negative into quite a plus there. Is there money to be made in poetry?

I’d like to think so. Not in the selfish sense of ‘I really want to make lots of money from it,’ but considering the massive boom in stand-up comedy in the last couple of decades, then there’s surely got to be a market for poetry. There’s so many people that you go and watch that are incredibly witty and entertaining and often a lot funnier and thought provoking than a lot of stand-up comedians that you see. But at the same time the more things you go to, the more you realise it’s hard to get people to engage with poetry, and I don’t understand why, but if I had the answer I would have sorted it and we’d all be millionaires.

That would be nice. So would you say your degree set you up for a life in writing?

Funnily enough, yes. And no. Since January I’ve been working in a copy-writing job which I kind of got on the basis of my degree and my interest in writing. Before then, not at all, and I joked about it being a bit worthless, but I’m starting to see the benefit of it, so definitely YES.

So you find you’ve got enough time to be a poet and have the job?

Yes. Essentially I spend probably most of everyday doing some form of writing. I go to work. I do writing at work and I come home and do my own writing. So, it’s quite a nice life that way.

That’s not bad, yeah. So final question, are you working on anything at the moment?

Yeah, I’ve just about put together a first collection, which is not meant to be anything grand. For myself it was kind of a ‘I need to have something I can look at physically and go I’ve done it.’ I’ve been looking at self-publishing and I’m getting there. I’ve got the poems, I think. And I’m getting there. Other than that I’m just trying to get myself more involved in a lot of the performance side.

Thanks Nick, I look forward to reading your collection.

The poets of Wychwood– James Bunting

The strength of Stroud Slam champion, James Bunting, is his speech-like performances. This guy was designed for the stage– he delivers his lines with such a natural clarity and certainty that you’ll refuse to believe he wasn’t a world leader in a past life. James explains how a poetry slam works and that a poet is not just a lazy musician.

You used to be a singer, have you found the transition to poetry natural?

No, I would have thought it would have gone the other way, cus that’s how I started. But then I actually just stopped enjoying the music and I got more of a kick out of poetry, so I carried on writing, I just stopped putting music to it. So it wasn’t necessarily a natural transition. I kind of became lazier with what I was doing creatively. But I took the time I put into writing music into writing better words so it’s paid off that way. 

So, for those who don’t know, what is a poetry slam?

A poetry slam is effectively objectifying the subjective and giving a score to a piece of art. You have sixteen odd poets, they’ll have three minutes to do a poem, and then they get scored by quality of writing, standard of performance and warmth of the audience’s response. So they get a mark out of 100 for each of those three criteria, and then you get a score out of 300 that’s whittled down through the rounds until you have an overall winner.

So, you’re a Stroud Slam winner, how much work went into the performance?

Not a lot if I’m honest. It’s really tough to answer cus that was a themed slam, so the first poem had to be on the theme of Beauty And The Beast, so I wrote something for it but I hated it. Then a week before I wrote something else that I was really happy with. So I got through on it and then I could go back to doing what I wanted to do. I did a poem that I tend to rely on in slams, and then in the final I took a bit of a gamble and went unplugged, stepped away from the mic and just did it. So it wasn’t like there was no preparation, it’s more of an off-the-cuff kind of thing. There’s no point in planning out three poems when you get to a slam. You gotta take it a round at a time. Because I didn’t like that first round I didn’t prepare, and then after that it was just whatever I had in the tank. 

You’re known for your narrative pieces, how long does it take you to create a piece and what are the first stages?

Creating a piece can take anything from a couple of hours to months/years. I know that’s a really nondescript answer to give…

It’s a bit of a tricky question.

Yeah it just varies. Sometimes you’ll write something really quickly and hate it. Sometimes you’ll write something over a long period of time and hate it. And then equally I’ve got poems on my repertoire that I like and I’m pleased with, that I managed to knock out really quickly. And there are others that I’ve laboured over. So, in terms of how I start, I start with a phrase– every single one of my poems has a line in it that the poem began from, and then I built the poem around the line. Sometimes it’s the first line. Sometimes it’s the last line. Sometimes it’s a refrain. Sometimes it’s just a chance phrase in there, but I’ll come up with a nice line and then I start to write and build and that’s how it comes about.

That’s a great little exercise. Do you use any others?

I try not to force anything in any way. There’ll be long periods of time where I won’t write anything at all, and others where I’ll write a lot cus it’s coming naturally. It’s not so much I sit down and say right I’m going to write a poem. If at any moment a line comes up then I’ll just write that down. Sometimes I’ll come back to it later and sometimes in the process of doing that, other stuff will come out. So I very much trust my instincts and don’t force anything. 

Would you say your poetry has a particular aim?

Yeah, I guess. I know what it feels like to see an incredible poem and be…not necessarily moved, but to empathise, to understand, yeah, sometimes to be moved, to just solicit a response where you go away and you think ‘yeah, I like that.’ I know what it’s like to experience that, and I want to solicit the same experience from audiences. 

Thanks James.

The Poets of Wychwood– Al Hutchins

Al’s punchy street wit is a regular sound at The Cheltenham Poetry Festival. With his stand-up style and rhymes taken from everyday observations, he knows how to connect with his audience. He’ll leave you thinking ‘damn, why didn’t I think of that?’ We talk about the impact busses have had on the creative process, why you shouldn’t read too much, and look at what poetry actually is nowadays– it gets deeper as you read on.

What would you say your influences were?

Poetry or just anything?

Um, just anything.

Loads of stuff really. But with poetry I try and steer clear of actually reading a lot of poetry, as daft as that sounds. I mean, I do read poetry, but I’m not like…I genuinely think the best poetry is written by people who aren’t reading loads of poetry. I think you start off by reading poetry and absorbing all kinds of influences, and you get to a point where..[pauses, drinks cider]. I think there are two types of writers and artists; there are people that add something new; and there’s people who, basically, just draw off of what’s already happened, just recycling. And I’m only interested in the former, you know, doing stuff that’s bold and fresh, chiefly because it would bore me to do otherwise. So, influences, I get a lot from places and just little..I mean, I get a lot from busses.


Busses are my mark.

Eavesdropping you mean?

There’s an element of that. But a bus is a moving house in a way. It’s my main mode of transport so it’s something that I get to observe. And it’s where I do most of my writing, not as simple as overhearing someone and starting to write something, but when I’m writing something, I think busses are feeding into my things all the time. But in terms of poetry, I like people like John Berryman, Dylan Thomas, and a Victorian poet who’s vastly underrated, Gerard Manly Hopkins. He created a whole new form called sprung rhythm, and you read his stuff and it’s like fucking hell. You can’t believe your reading stuff from the Victorian era. It’s so modern and bold. For me it’s about the musicality of the language, the sound of the language, using language in new and exciting ways. We live in an info-heavy age, which can also be tedium heavy. 

You’re currently an outreach tutor. What would you say your average working day is?

Yeah I do outreach stuff in Cheltenham, and the West Midlands. And it depends, I work with all age ranges. What I’ve been doing just now is involving children and adults at the same time, which can be quite interesting. As we get older we tend to block ourselves in terms of our creativity, whereas with kids it just all comes out. They don’t edit in the same way. They like making really quick choices. It’s like they’re playing football– thought, action are one of the same. You gotta make a quick decision. The groups that I work with are predominately disaffected youths in supportive housings. 

Are they really keen to get involved with poetry?

Well you get groups where you can see that you’re not going to get everyone on board in an hour, but you’ve always got to roll with what you’ve got. And I generally find that if you don’t try too hard you can get them on your side. The aim is for them to come away from it having got something really positive from it. I was doing an outreach programme for this festival [Cheltenham Poetry Festival] and there was this chap who started writing this poem in the workshop. I was just chivying him along, encouraging him. I’d go away and come back and he’d have written a few more lines, and he didn’t even know he could do it. It’s great to be able to be something as simple as that person, in that time, in that place, that can help unlock something and make it happen. It makes life worth living doesn’t it? You know the Oscar Wilde ‘all art is quite useless’. It is, but it makes life worth living, cus living in a kind of utilitarian world where everything has to have a function is really fucking boring. Great art, or great football, has no point, other than it’s own beauty, you know what I mean? So it’s great if you can open the door for someone and say ‘here we are, switch the light on and help yourself.’ That’s what we’re here for.

What would you say the image of poetry is to the average Bri–

Boring, really boring. I mean I do some work in schools and if you asked all the kids ‘put your hands up if you think poetry is boring’ about 99% would. What’s good about poetry that’s heavily rhymed and accessible, and rap obviously, is that it gets kids into stuff and they don’t even know it’s poetry. I love Roots Manuva and his lyrics. He kind of reminds me of The Specials. It’s got that sort of urban, gritty, British-not taking itself too seriously. It’s like ‘Oh so you mean that’s part of’ yeah, yeah that’s all part of poetry. It’s all coming from the same place, broadly speaking, so it’s being able to achieve that shift of perception is great. But in answer to your question, yeah, people think poetry’s boring. John Cooper Clarke and people like that have worked wonders in breaking those barriers down. People think, yeah I like this, this is pretty cool. Dylan, I suppose. You need those people. As much as I love literature I don’t like the fact that it’s so often a private little enclave for the privileged few. Does that answer your question?

It does, thanks Al.

The poets of Wychwood– Jeremy Toombs

Jeremy Toombs

With a voice that would make an Asda customer announcement captivating, Jeremy Toombs can entrance you with his hypnotic beats. Saturday night in the Seaside tent saw him reading a call to collective-debt piece, which, if spread, could result in a Fight Club style crippling of credit card companies. Be aware Credit Suisse, be aware. Jeremy talks us through his Ginsberg-inspired editing process, an accidental poem that was churned out from the half light of a dream, and how to get free drinks on a Thursday night.

You can catch his open-mic nights on a Thursday in the Bristol Arts Centre’s basement.

When you start a piece designed to be accompanied by music do you start with the music or the writing?

I’ve done it both ways. Sometimes the words come first and sometimes you hear the music and you think this piece would go nice with that. You just gotta be open to whichever ways gonna work. There’s an ambivalent answer to that. 

I realise every piece is different, but how long does it take you to construct a piece and what are the first stages?

For the most part…[pauses, thinks, brings out brown leather notebook with pages so thick they look like cotton]. I can kinda show you. This is a poem and I just wrote it. There’s no editing, it’s just done when I write it. I’m into Taoism a lot. I guess I got that originally from the beats, and, Ginsberg said, ah what is it, ‘first thought best thoughts always’ and when I read that it just made sense. That’s how the Zen Poets wrote haikus– It’s how Basho wrote his haikus. There’s Japanese and Chinese schools of painting where it’s done in just a few simple strokes. You don’t actually think about it, you just do it. And that’s how I try and do my writing and if I think about something too much I’ll just quit it. If I get to the point where I’m not writing anymore I’ll just put a couple of lines through it and it’s done. I mean, maybe the idea will come out somewhere later, but as for the poems that I read out, a large percentage of them are just done as they were written.

So I’m guessing you don’t go through many drafts?

No, it’s just the page. That’s how Kerouac did most of his beats, Kerouac and Ginsberg. And those are the guys I really studied first. And you could go back to Wordsworth– they say that he would take hikes around the Lake District and would compose them in his head as he was going around.

Do you ever have to get up in the night to write something down?

Yeah, that’s happened before. And it’s usually like, ah can I remember this in the morning, is it good enough to get me out of bed. And the times you do it you’re really glad you did. I always keep a notebook and pen by the side of my bed. Actually, one night I woke up and just wrote this poem down and it’s about a dream I had, and then I went back to sleep. It’s completely different to anything I do when I’m awake. Did I write that? Where did it come from? 

That’s gotta be every poet’s dream [no joke intended]. You’ve performed quite a lot in the U.S and the U.K, do you notice any difference in the audience?

Well, I haven’t actually lived there since I left University in 2001. I went to Alaska for the summer and Korea in the fall, and for the next ten years I kept travelling and going back to Korea. That’s where I really started performing. There was an open-mic there that some poets and singers had started up. It was in a noisy bar and nobody was saying we were doing performance poetry, we were just reading our poems, but you needed to get the attention of the people at the bar. 

Do you have any advice for a poet looking to get into performance poetry?

Just keep doing it. I would tell the same thing to anybody that wants to do anything on the stage, whether it’s playing music or doing comedy, you just have to do it as much as possible. Yeah, just do it. And read lots of poetry, listen to lots of poetry.

What would you say the image of poetry is for the average person in the U.K?

I’ve lived in Bristol now for about a year and a half and most of the people I know I’ve met at open-mics. I know Bristol was the place to go to meet the people I wanted to hang out with. Pound for pound it’s gotta be one of the best places for poetry in the world. Most of my friends are performers, so poetry is very favourable in those circles. You get some older poets who write in a more traditional style, and you have younger performance poets who haven’t really studied, they’ve just seen it and they can perform from that. From all sectors of society there’re people writing poetry and are able to go out to perform it. I think it’s looked on pretty favourably.

That’s good to hear. Were you interested in poetry before you started your degree?

Yeah I’d written some stuff before that. I had a whole notebook of what I’d call song lyrics, but I wasn’t a musician so they were just words. I hadn’t really run across writing poetry yet. Although remember when I was ten or eleven the first time I heard a poem and it made an impact on me. It was Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman. My fifth grade reading teacher read that to us and I was entranced by it. When I got to university and I was at the point where I had to declare what I wanted to do, and I realised I could do Creative Writing and Literature as a degree, I just couldn’t believe it. All I have to do was to read books and write. So, I did have an interest before then but when I started studying it really took off.

Do you think the degree gave you what you needed for a career?

It depends on how you define a career. If you mean a career as to how to make a living doing it, the degree didn’t really address that at all. And I wasn’t looking for that. And still not necessarily looking to do that. I mean, it’ll be nice, but I’m not the kind of person who’s a promoter. I just want to write poems and read them whenever I get a chance. I work in schools. I’m a teaching assistant now. When I have a group of kids I’ll bring in poetry, so I just try and make it part of my life, wherever I’m at. Once I’m a teacher then maybe that develops and I’ll come across some way of just doing poetry in schools. If something like that came up I would take it, but I wouldn’t necessarily actively seek it out.

Could you tell me a little bit more about the open-mic that you run?

Yeah, it’s an open mic for anything, not just poetry. It’s un-miced and in the basement of The Arts House in Bristol, and there’s a good group of poets that come. There’s singer/songwriters, comedians. There’s been a lot of friendships that have formed there, not just for me. And there’s been some good collaborations that have come out of that as well. People that just wrote poetry have started singing, and the singers have started writing poetry. It’s been a really good place for people to come together and broaden their artistic horizons, so I’m quite proud of that. There was no plan for that to happen, it just happened. I wanted to provide a space for people to read their poems, and so I could get free drinks. It’s the only night I can afford to drink. I guess when you host a night it takes on some of your character.  

One final question. Going back to your degree, how did you find your first poetry workshop?

I really liked it. At the time the stuff I was writing..well none of that stuff gets read now. My professor was really good. She could sense what level people were at and give them the encouragement to keep going. For the first workshop I hadn’t really read much poetry, and the more we read and the more forms we studied, the better we got. For the ones that kept coming back to the workshops, you could see the improvement. The best workshop was the ones where we learned all forms. It gives you lots of tools to work with, wether you choose to use them or not, you have them at your disposal: writing in meter or ballads or sonnets. That would have started in the first workshop and continued all the way through. I’ve always been thankful to my professor, Ann Neelon. She never discouraged anybody, and she did it subtly, in just the right way.

Thanks Jeremy.

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