Broken Asides with Lesley James


When did you first feel like a writer?

I wrote my first poem aged 8 or 9. It was an earnest, free verse little number called The Wheel of Life, about feeling powerless in the face of international crises. Then it was the Biafran Famine; nothing much has changed.

I was encouraged to write by a godsend of a teacher, Betty Thomas, at secondary school. But my family background of working-class grind and generational poverty meant that my parents saw the writing as more of a freak show than anything important.

I’ve spent a huge amount of my life not showing my work to anyone. Success for my writing became associated with destructive life events; and the business of keeping a roof over my head, the demands of various illnesses and caring responsibilities took up all my time. That didn’t mean I stopped writing. I have something to scribble down every day. I can’t help it.

I started sending things out to journals in March 2021. I am 63.

I have a chapbook coming out in 2022, probably in November-December, with Infinity Books.

The editor tells me I can call myself a writer.

What’s the most interesting thing that has inspired your writing and what was the result?

Several things:

I’m working on a memoir – you’ve published a couple pf pieces of it in The Broken Spine. Another of my memoir pieces was shortlisted for LoveReading UK’s Very Short Story Award 2022 and another is in the Best of Café Lit Anthology 2022.

The war in Ukraine. I took part in NaPoWriMo in April 2022, which was ostensibly an ekphrastic challenge, organised by Paul Brookes. I wrote 30 poems, but I also chose to link each piece to a news item as well as a piece of Artwork.

This was a draining experience but I’m glad I did it this way. I’d like to see my 30 poems in print as a whole in a chapbook.

I’ve attended some great courses this year – with Anthony Anaxagorou, at the Arvon Foundation, with Mab Jones, at Cardiff University, with Joelle Taylor, with Full House Literary… all of which have yielded poems or micro fiction which I love writing.

I’m preoccupied with the danse macabre; thinking about death keeps me cheerful. Often, the simple act of buying myself a cup of coffee is a good enough trigger for thoughts and words to come out.

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 write with a fountain pen, and have several. I love the flow of ink. I love the stains it makes on my ‘writing bobble’ – that lump you get on your finger when you do a lot of handwriting. Those who don’t use a keyboard will know exactly what I mean. A good editing session however, needs all the cut- and-paste nous a keyboard and screen can offer.

Ideas can come – same for me as all of us – in the early hours, so a notebook-by-the-bed setup is vital. I know to listen to those night voices now, as they often have good rhythms and freer diction.

I often get inspired whilst digging the garden, so my computer keyboard is full of soil.

Thinking and staring into space is also writing. A story can often arrive on the page complete, as is. This is because I thought-wrote it.

Describe your ideal reader: who would your work speak to?

I’ve written for audiences as diverse as universities, children, government institutions and a Fashion Mag in my past. But my personal creative work is literary. Having said that, I don’t think my flash fiction is obscure or inaccessible to people who’d simply like to read a funky story.

Poetry should make you think. Even when writing for kids, I like to put interesting sounding/challenging words in front of them.

Readers asking questions about a poem is a great result.

Who’s an author you’ve changed your mind about and why?

I’ve changed my mind about John Steinbeck more times than I’ve changed my socks. I read the Grapes of Wrath as a teenager, and was hooked. More recently, I’ve witnessed Of Mice and Men being flogged to death on GCSE specifications, mainly because the plot and characterisation are accessible to a wide range of readers. Steinbeck’s writing has poetic resonance: rhyme, rhythm, repetition, choric patterning. Of Mice and Men traverses like an opera. I’d like to see some rehabilitation.

If you could interview any other writer/artist, who would it be and why?

This is a fraction of my list:

Kojey Radical – I like the stuff he’s putting out at the moment, lyrically and musically. And his fashion styling.

Wet Leg – who wouldn’t want to interview them?

Panic Shack – Welsh, women, punk, perfect.

Jo Bell, Ailsa Holland, Tania Hershman and Jane Commane – preferably all together in my garden. I’m a huge fan of On This Day She and they also have much grounded good sense on how to organise yourself as a poet.

Stuart Maconie – for the good company, capaciousness, politics… and in hope to hit a club which plays some Chic afterwards.

Turner – just to say thanks.

Grayson Perry- to ask more about Alan Measles as muse.

Gerard Manley Hopkins – to ask: what were you on?

Rufus Wainwright – probably to come over all fan-girl and ask him to sign something.

Lemn Sissay – writing about childhood trauma is very important.

What motivates you to keep writing?

Hearing words, and rhythms in my head that clatter around and need to be got out before they drive me nuts. I can’t not write, even if I do nothing with it. I also think I’ve some good stories to tell.

How do you deal with a)writer’s block or b)being overwhelmed by the writing process?

a) Writer’s block: I can usually write. When I write crap, I try walking away, then try switching the tense, then the form or the person or POV, or move the ending to the start. Then I edit like a fool until it’s minimalist. Perhaps I’ll like it then. If not, store it somewhere dark and rework it as something else.

b) Overwhelmed: Have a good cry, finish the poem and carry on.

When I love a piece but it’s not sitting right, other eyes are useful. One generous poet friend is a genius at seeing when I have my lines in the wrong order.  

Usually though, when things are not coming out right, there’s a reason. Either the idea’s no good, or the style is wrong. I am good at dumping stuff.

Where would you like to see yourself in a decade? A creative writing teacher? As a best-seller?

What has your work taught you about yourself?

Everything has its time. This is my time to write.

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