When did you first feel like a writer?
Oh, I still don’t know if I do. And I can’t tell whether that’s because the way this works for me is that my head never stops forming The Poem, no matter what I’m doing that isn’t the writing-down bit, or because I have difficulty thinking about identity (the big implication inside the simple question) as about stuff you do, separate from who you are. I mean, no-one is born pen-in-hand, but we do all crash in trying to translate the world in one way or another, from internal to external and vice versa and back and forth. Maybe what being a writer is, is about doing that first kind of intrinsic translating enough via written-down words to be able to get comfy with claiming the second. I know I learned really young that there was this huge magic that could be harnessed to make myself better understood in this way (I was that scary-early talker/reader and yes, writer-downerer). And I guess there was a glimmer of ‘oh’ moment that other people saw this as identity-related aged about 7, when a poem ended up in a school newsletter and the ‘so you’re going to be a writer’ questions came, but that was future tense and seemed weird, because I’d already written it. And was mentally writing more as that was said, and wasn’t aware everyone wasn’t doing that in the same way. A more interview-conventional answer might be only recently: coming to terms with that weaving of what you do, or more accurately still, what you are seen doing, into who you are. I think I’ve been poeming in one way or another forever, but only in the last few years has there been enough of my written work wandering about in the world to stamp the papers and be perceived as not-mad when I claim citizenship to say ‘Yes I’m a writer’. Because when you do say that, the follow-up question is, of course, back to what you do, ie, ‘what have you written’. Now I can answer that one by pointing at things-in-the-world, which is way easier than describing how my whole brain works.
What’s the most interesting thing that has inspired your writing and what was the result?
Every huge and tiny thing is a trove (see question #1), and inspiration tends to be a diffuse cloud of intermingling stuff for me rather than a single defined point, so this is a really hard question. I don’t know if it’s the most interesting, but I’m really fond of a poem written late last year that shocked delightful hell out of me by winning a competition with Rare Swan Press. It was a response to a gorgeous, piquant collage artwork by Sarah-Jane Crowson, called ‘Owl-light’. The subtle creak of light in that work, and the eerie, displaced stillness of things that should be moving, dropped my brain into a really unexpected place and I let the poem pretty much free-flow. The poem revealed its heart as a riff on my teenage experiences with Largactil (aka chlorpromazine), an anti-psychotic medication, and the gradual and abrupt ways treatment like that alters a creative mind that’s been diagnosed as being in an undesirable state. From the inside, this is far less clear-cut than they’d have you believe, and that poem captures some of the things I hadn’t fully been able to translate previously. If anyone would like to see it, it’s available online along with the amazing artwork: https://rareswanpress.com/2021/12/18/stories-from-the-eyes-of-an-owl-ekphrastic-competition-results/
Paint us a picture: what does your writing process look like? Do you write in coffee shops at night or only on an old type-writer?
I’m guess I count as a… chaotic, eclectic opportunist? As I’ve mentioned, the process, for me, happens well before the writing-down, it’s more or less a constant state of gathering and brewing, snatching wisps of moving-through-the-world, letting them interact and mutate. The compost grows a bunch of plants that eventually I might get to harvest at a keyboard. Phrases and concepts cohere best when I’m physically moving, so I have voice notes on my phone for when I’m out running (swimming is trickier), and also often use the notes app to catch ripe bits while warming down, in the car, wandering beaches, in cafes back in pre-covid years, wherever. For the solid writing-down part, I’m fortunate to have a standing desk, so I can hop or wiggle or dance or heron as required, and a home treadmill that has a shelf to let me slow-walk and write (advisory to anyone inspired to try this: typing and full-on running is a spectacularly bad idea).
Describe your ideal reader: who would your work speak to?
Anyone who finds it and lets it in. Anyone who approaches life with some sense of wonder intact, and makes room to let that surprise them, blindside them even, from unexpected places. Someone who can recognise language as a sort of flexible key to unlock sideways leaps away from the rational into the feeling-blur. Someone capable of holding multiple meanings at once and not always looking for a solution. Someone on various margins, looking for that nod of shared experience for something you might not even be able to name or admit and thought you were alone with. Someone a bit brave, and more than a bit open – I think of reading poetry, I mean really reading poetry, as a sort of act of trust. People who do it a lot know that it’s probably going to make them think or feel something, and that that something might not be familiar or comfortable. And people who don’t do it a lot sometimes have a bad prior relationship with enforced reading of it as a school chore or academic dread. If I’m being really brave, I’d say that I think my work is readable at a surface level, and at a very-not-surface level, that it might be able to open doors even where they’ve been shut – I pay a lot of attention to that. I think a poem ceases to belong to me the second someone else reads it, and I embrace the idea that a reader brings their whole weight of experience to have a kind of internal conversation with it as they read it. So, someone who takes up a thread of meaning and isn’t afraid to examine where the other end leads inside their own life, who still tugs on that willingly and really stares at what it pulls up.
Who’s an author you’ve changed your mind about and why?
This one’s a sad answer, but when I found out Orson Scott Card was a raging homophobe I fell completely out of love with Ender’s Game (and there had been such a teenage love affair with that series – I was a bright, damaged, incredibly alienated kid who strongly identified with his world). It hurt in ways I still don’t have words for, to know that the man who created Ender was simultaneously devoting massive time and energy to lobbying for the extermination of kids like me. I feel similarly for trans kids who grew up with Harry Potter, utterly betrayed by Rowling. There’s mourning, true grief, attached to these things. Obviously there’s a whole huge, very messy conversation about art vs artist here and all that goes with that, but personally I don’t and can’t consume or write in a moral vacuum, and if an artist is consciously and consistently using the voice they’ve gained from their work to inflict harm on others, I have intensely strong feelings about that.
If you could interview any other writer/artist, who would it be and why?
I’d never presume to be an interviewer – I don’t think I have the chops! But if this was a different world and I had a different brain (or could just have a conversation and then write it up as a poetic dialogue in conjunction with her maybe) it would probably be Janet Frame (although I suspect she wouldn’t talk to me, because she was such an intensely private person). I’ve spoken before in interviews about the effect finding her work had on me when I was struggling with heavy-duty mental illness and hospitalisation as a young teenager, and the weird parallels between our experiences. She very narrowly escaped a lobotomy, I very narrowly escaped ECT before my brain was anything like fully developed – and for both of us the escape occurred because someone saw something in our writing that they believed was special. I’d like to have a conversation with her where she could talk about her work and the way she saw the world without any of that being the focus, just something that’s understood and laid aside, because it seems whenever she got to speak that was the lens. We are so much more than the brain differences, but they become all-consuming when people probe into the writing of people who carry ‘labels’. And her poetry was little-known, half of it published only after her death. I feel so much *humming* there in the lateral leap between shapes that are her extended metaphors, her obvious love affair with language, how it can paint with inside-colours nothing else describes (everything that crops up in my own work) that I’d love to have somehow created a completely non-judgemental space talk to her about all of that. And I reckon she’d make some truly wicked puns.
What motivates you to keep writing?
I’m very grateful that I can’t seem to truly stop – even when I’m not writing work that’s likely to be traditionally published, the poems coalesce and make their way out. The gift-poems I post on social media are a function of that, they’re a constant flow even when I can’t write longer work. For many years I was on medication that seriously impaired my ability to translate the world, or that flatlined a lot of the ways it clamours at me. I suspect that something in me now is mourning that lost time, or perhaps tapping into the strata of fossils that were being laid down even when I was muted by the grey mud. And like so many of us, I do want to feel like I added a bit more to this place than I took. Maybe it sounds a bit arrogant to value-judge your work that way, that it adds. But writing is an act of creation, after all – you make something new that didn’t exist before, and if we’re lucky we get to make it in a way that extends beyond our margins now, and after we leave. And every person that reads one of your poems carries a little bit of you along with them, something that might become a touchpoint in their own existence and overlap. I didn’t make any kids, so I guess my poems are ripples spreading out from the point that I am, into time and space, like other people trust their genes to do. That’s pretty hard-wired human motivation, to be more than our one little dot.
How do you deal with writer’s block or being overwhelmed by the writing process?
Trust. The longer I do this, the more I realise that there’s no map. That every time I think the poems have deserted, they’re still quietly poking roots to suck the experiential juice out of the living-life part that I’m still doing even when I’m ‘not writing’. It feels real every time, that wasteland, but let me tell anyone that needs to hear this: it never is. Patience. Trust. As for overwhelm, that’s a constant state living in this brain where everything is too much all the time. That one is trickier, because some of it is about gathering the spoons and quieting the scatter enough to wrangle submissions etc., rather than the writing itself, and I do find that really difficult. In practical terms, for a block I move more, when the treasonous body allows (because as I mentioned that brews more poems for me), and I take thousands of photographs then sit with them as visual cues for short gift-poems even when nothing else is emerging. Ekphrastics are a sort of telephone inside me I think – a way of reminding the brain that what it’s doing is that act of translation and stepping-inside: Hello, this is sensory-synapse calling expression-synapse, will you take the call? Good, connect, write.
Where would you like to see yourself in a decade? A creative writing teacher? As a best-seller?
A not-really-secret: with my history, and treacherous brain, I can only live never assuming I’m going to be here tomorrow. To cast ten years into the future is impossible. And that would be so even if the whole world didn’t feel like it was teetering on several more universal precipices at once. Thinking about how difficult this question is for me, my mind went back to last year – to a dear friend in the literary world who was an advance reader for my debut collection. They very tenderly, most delicately expressed their concern that the book was ridiculously huge (it is). My answer was similar. I don’t know how much time I have, so everything I have to give is here, is now. And I’m by no means judging anyone who’s capable of thinking about futures or how to curate palatable bites or answers or guesses. I’m just handing you another messy life in words. I know very few of us are prophets, but I suspect some of us feel this more acutely. When you’ve experienced lost time, you value the moment far more than the plan, the act of running more than the finish lines.
What has your work taught you about yourself?
That the kid who dared to hope his way of seeing, his way of paying attention, was not an anomaly? He was right. That there was something inside him that would do more than just survive, no matter what tried to shut him down. That he would find a magical way to make the things he had to say loud enough to be heard. Even when the way he said them was different or wild or weird or too much or broken or he wrote about the things you’re not supposed to write about, in ways you’re not supposed to write about them. That despite being just a dot floating in a universe of dots, sometimes we manage to draw lines between them, and my gods is that picture ever worth it.