Tom Chivers was born in 1983. A writer, editor and promoter, he is Director of live literature organisation Penned in the Margins, Co-Director of London Word Festival and Associate Editor of international journal Tears in the Fence. In 2008 he was the first ever Poet in Residence at The Bishopsgate Institute, London. In September 2009 BBC Radio 4 broadcast his documentary about the poet Barry MacSweeney.
His first collection, How To Build A City, was published by Salt in 2009. A sequence of poems, The Terrors, has appeared as a limited edition chapbook from Nine Arches Press, described by Iain Sinclair as ‘dark London history, dredged and interrogated’.
Tom, what did you enjoy about studying Medieval English Literature at Oxford?
Grappling with medieval literature at university was an extraordinary privilege, but a slog too. I had to learn Old English (Anglo-Saxon) from scratch and even some of the Middle English dialects are pretty demanding. Beowulf, Pearl, Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman, most of Chaucer and countless other texts have really nourished my love of language, of eccentricity, humour and the exotic. My final year dissertation was entitled ‘Literary Practice in Late Medieval London’ and certainly extended the depth of my knowledge of and interest in London history. My thesis proposed that the socio-political conditions of the city at that time (1350-1500) created a peculiarly heightened sense of textual anxiety. I think we’re going through something similar now, with the internet, blogging, e-books and the rest.
Salt recently published your Crashaw Prize-winning collection, How To Build A City. How did you decide upon the title?
How To Build A City is the title of the longest piece in the book, a prose narrative I sometimes refer to as a kind of failed travelogue to the East End. Initially it appeared as an A3 poster pull-out in the underground literary magazine The Edgeless Shape – if I remember correctly, one of the editors, Caleb Klaces, came up with the title during a conversation at his kitchen table!
The volume is divided into two parts. How did you order the poems?
With difficulty. I knew I wanted the title piece in the middle, the sequence of fragments ‘Thom, C & I’ at the end, and some short poems at the beginning. The rest just fell into place during the editing process. The first part of the book focuses on the city; the second part is more of a miscellany, with poems set in Israel, Nepal and the Peak District.
Tell me about your relationship with London and, in particular, the East End?
I was born and raised in South London but have lived in the East End for the past five years. I identify with the city very strongly. I suppose it’s a kind of pride, but not a static, smug sense of belonging but a flawed, fluid impulse to describe the urban environment. Or rather, to evoke and work-out my subjective relationship with that environment. I don’t believe in a poetry that speaks truths or captures a knowable ‘reality’. I am suspicious of those who do. I admire the Futurists, the way they engaged with the speed and ruthless modernity of urbanism. I don’t care much for their decline into low-level Fascism, however.
When I first moved to the East End I felt as if I had betrayed my roots south of the river. I know that sounds pompous, but hey … It’s a very strange area. It’s a terminus zone for journeys of exile: French Huguenots, Russian Jews, Bengalis, Somalis. I live on a historic street market, reputedly where cockney rhyming slang was invented. That might sound romantic and sometimes it is, but usually it’s just very loud. I don’t get much sleep.
Which local East End haunts would you recommend to a first-time visitor?
The whole area around Spitalfields is fascinating, although I would recommend avoiding the rather mawkish Jack the Ripper tours. The tiny alleys off Middlesex Street are worth hunting down, as well as the grand Georgian houses on Fournier, Princelet and Wilkes Streets. Further south, near the Tower of London, is one of the most beautiful and undiscovered buildings in the city: Wilton’s Music Hall. So much of the East End, particularly around the Docks, was destroyed during the Blitz, so it’s a blessing this crumbling gem is still here.
Can you briefly describe your chapbook, The Terrors?
The Terrors is a sequence of ‘imagined emails’ written to inmates at London’s notorious Newgate Prison between 1700 and 1740. Still with me? Good. The poems steal from various sources including The Newgate Calendar, a popular anthology of prison tales which combines celebrity, voyeurism and moral snobbery with shameless gore. I’ve incorporated some of the tone and language of the original, as well as oblique references to modern places of terror, such as Abu Ghraib and the Big Brother house.
As director of Penned in the Margins, you promote live literature in the city. Is the spoken word scene thriving in London?
Yes, thriving and surviving! The last five or six years has seen a genuine revival in interest in spoken word, and a lot of energy has been generated by independent promoters. The extent to which that revival will extend beyond transitory media attention and occasional culture industry buy-in is yet to be decided. But I am personally excited about what is being written, read and performed. I see my role as an instigator of activity and nurturer of talent. I’m in it for the long haul.
Penned in the Margins has also published anthologies, Generation Txt and City State: The New London Poetry, as well as full collections by David Caddy, Tamsin Kendrick, Ross Sutherland, Stephanie Leal and Sarah Hesketh. Does conflict exist between your work as an editor and your own writing? How compatible are the two?
That’s a probing question indeed. Speaking frankly, there are some ways in which my work as an editor/promoter has actually stymied my own creativity. But now I’ve had my first collection published, I feel more justified in carving out time to write. In general I’m concerned with drawing a distinct line between my professional work and my writing, but that line is often blurrier than I’d like. I’m lucky enough to work with writers who inspire and influence me – Iain Sinclair, Ross Sutherland, James Wilkes, et al. Being a poet also helps me edit other people’s work as I hope to bring sensitivity and attention to language to the process.
Would you name a few of your favourite poetry collections? Why are they important to you?
The Book of Demons by Barry MacSweeney for its passion, dark comedy and jagged edge. Seamus Heaney’s North for the visceral language and for risk. The wildly musical poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins have been an inspiration (as well as Alice Oswald, whose first two books channel that music brilliantly); I connect with the humour of Ashbery and the controlled energy of the New York poets, as well as the relentless innovation of Allen Fisher, Geraldine Monk, and others. Of more recent volumes, D.S. Marriott’s Hoodoo Voodoo takes some beating for its haunting evocation of the Afro-Diaspora experience. I think Chris McCabe is mining some important veins too.
Thank you for your time, Tom.
Read more about Tom and How To Build A City here.
Follow Tom’s blog, this is yogic.
Read more from Tom at the Londonist and Gists and Piths. Tomorrow, he’ll stop by Baroque in Hackney and on Friday he’ll visit Mercy Recommends.
Pascale Petit has an interesting interview on her new blog. Romanian MA student, Oana-Teodora Ionesco, interviews the French/Welsh poet about her latest collection, The Treekeeper’s Tale (Seren, 2008).
On her blog, Pascale has also posted photographs and accounts of her trips to Venezuela’s Lost World as well as an article about translating Yang Lian’s ‘The Valley and the End: A Story’.
For fans of Frida Kahlo, Pascale’s fifth collection, What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo, is to be published in June 2010.
Read the interview by Oana-Teodora Ionescu here.
Visit Pascale’s blog and website.
The award-winning poet Carol Ann Duffy has just been named as the United Kingdom’s twentieth Poet Laureate, succeeding Andrew Motion after his ten years in the post.
Carol Ann Duffy gives her first interview as Poet Laureate.
Read more on the BBC News website and in The Guardian.
Carol Rumens’ Guardian blog post:
Carol Ann Duffy’s talent is more important than her gender.
Annie Clarkson is a poet, fiction writer and social worker who was born in Kendal in 1973, grew up in an East Lancashire mill town, and now lives in Manchester with her cat. Her first chapbook of poems, Winter Hands, was published in 2007 by Shadowtrain Books. She has short stories and prose poems published in Brace (Comma Press), Unsaid Undone (Flax Books) and in various magazines and online journals: Dreamcatcher, Pygmy Giant, Mslexia, Succour, Transmission and Tears in the Fence. She is currently working on a collection of ‘short shorts’. Annie blogs at forgetting the time.
Annie, tell me something of your family origins and what you were like as a child. will you describe growing up in an East Lancashire mill town?
My family is from North West England. I lived in Cumbria until the early 80s. It was a strange mix of experiences: beautiful mountains in the Lake District, an affluent town, spending time with mum’s hippy friends, hanging out in my grandparents’ guest house, digging vegetables in the garden, and then all the lodgers that were taken in by the family: old blokes who were alcoholics, on probation or homeless, and one young lodger who was a drug addict.
When we moved to Lancashire, it was a big change. More working class: rows of red brick terraces, cotton mills in the valley (one of them still working, the others abandoned), a CND camp of travellers on the hillside, working men’s clubs, cobbled streets. There were more social problems, and even at age eleven I noticed the vast difference in the way people lived their lives. I spent most of my time either out of the house, walking in the river, hanging around the mill yards, playgrounds, wasteland, fields on the edge of town, or in my room hiding away with books and writing stories.
Would you talk about your career as a social worker? Does your work inform your writing?
I’m drawn to certain issues in my work and in my writing: difficult relationships, dysfunction, violence, mental ill-health, loss, abuse. I never write directly about my work. My characters are imagined. Their situations are imagined. But, I’ve been exposed in my work to a lot of situations that hopefully help me to write in a more emotionally authentic way.
Have you considered creative writing tutoring and running writing workshops?
I hope to branch out into running workshops and classes later this year. I have hundreds of ideas of how to prompt and inspire good writing, for beginners and more experienced writers.
I’m working on an idea with an artist friend of mine to run a regular workshop in Manchester incorporating art and poetry, so creative-minded people can work on developing handmade books, posters, and other things that combine image and text. It’s in the early stages of development. I hope it might lead to work as a tutor or perhaps more workshops.
Will you describe your creative space?
I write anywhere. I often write in bed in one of many notebooks. I write on the settee in my pyjamas. I write at the table while I eat dinner. Sometimes I write straight onto my laptop. Other times I scrawl on a random piece of paper, an envelope, the back of a cinema ticket, a napkin.
I often write in cafes, or in a gallery, or on a bench in the park, in my car in a lay-by, or at writing workshops. Writing is a creative place where I can disappear and enter into another life or lives for a short time.
In 2007, Shadowtrain Books published Winter Hands. Tell me about the book’s themes and how you settled on the title.
Winter Hands is a short little book. It’s a glimpse; a starting point for me as a poet. The poems in the chapbook are trying to make sense of certain things: relationships, dysfunctions, breakdowns, illness, the small nuances of life that are not easy to understand. These are my first explorations into the spaces between prose and poetry, the boundaries, the grey areas.
I played with a number of titles. Winter Hands seemed the most apt to me at the time. There is something that connects in these poems between the sensuality of touch and the cruelty and barrenness of winter.
What feeling would you like readers to experience after reading your collection?
Hmm, that’s a difficult question. If a reader experiences any kind of feeling after reading these poems, then wow. It is difficult for me as a writer to imagine how a reader might respond. I hope readers might find at least one poem that they can relate to on a personal level.
To be honest, I’ve been overawed by the few comments people have made. One reviewer wrote: “Her writing makes you ache long after you have closed the book”. I had to pinch myself that someone had written that about my writing.
Would you talk about the ‘short shorts’ or micro-fiction collection on which you are working?
Ooh, yes. I’m working on a collection of short shorts (short fiction of less than 1,500 words, but mostly less than 300 words).
When I say working on a collection, I mean I’m busy writing short shorts hoping that at some point later this year they might be gathered into a collection that is loosely concerned with loneliness. It is a theme that has started emerging in my writing. Actually, perhaps it has been in my writing for a long time. It’s definitely present in Winter Hands.
My short shorts tend to be glimpses into the lives of different characters. Many of these characters could be described as lonely, or disconnected, or experiencing moments in which they are utterly alone (in an existential sense) – and I don’t mean this is a dark, painful, isolated way. I think being lonely can also be humorous or comforting for instance.
What do you enjoy and find challenging about working within different genres?
That’s an interesting question. I write short fiction (in the widely understood meaning of the term), and I write free verse that most people would agree is poetry. But mainly I inhabit the space in between these two genres by writing what has been described as prose poetry, flash fiction, micro-fiction, sudden fiction, versets, vignettes, short shorts.
I think people mistakenly use of these terms interchangeably. I see flash fiction as being quite different to prose poetry. (I use the term short shorts for both.)
I write some pieces that are condensed narrative fictions that follow (or subvert) generally accepted rules about storytelling (flash fiction, micro-fiction). I also write prose poems, which seem to confuse people even though there is a long tradition of poets writing prose poems.
There are some wonderful definitions of prose poetry, which I have started collecting on my blog. Have I answered your question? Hmm, not really. I guess my answer is that I love working between genres rather than within them.
Which writers have inspired you?
Many writers have inspired me. Ones that immediately spring to mind are: Raymond Carver, Charles Simic, Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatjie, Pascale Petit, Anne Donovan, Joyce Carol Oates, Lorrie Moore, Anais Nin, Angela Carter and Tove Jansson.
Would you name a few of your favourite books? Why are they important to you?
I have a dog-eared copy of Wuthering Heights, which is falling to pieces. I first read it as a teenager. It’s important to me because it was one of the first books I read that explores the taboos of human passion and emotion, and it is set in a very familiar landscape.
I have Pablo Neruda’s The Collected Odes. I visit these poems often as I love the sense of wonder and awe he creates around ordinary objects such as socks, a tomato, or a bicycle.
I have a copy of L’Etranger by Albert Camus with all my A-Level notes in it. It was the first book I read in French, and it captures an existential loneliness similar to that which I’m now exploring in my own writing.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading a gorgeous collection of very short fiction called East of Here, Close to Water by an Australian writer called Josephine Rowe. I mostly read short fiction. It is one of my loves.
I am very happy to be hosting Salt author, Shaindel Beers, on the first leg of her virtual book tour, “On the hood of a Cutlass Supreme”.
On Wednesday, 4 March, I’ll be chatting to Shaindel about her family origins, growing up in a farming town in rural America, writing influences and favourite books. We would love you to join us on the road for a scenic drive under the Midwestern sky.
Shaindel’s tour stops include a wonderfully eclectic range of blogs:
Julius Speaks (Brandon Wallace)
me~tronome (Larry Sawyer)
Blogalicious (Diane Lockward)
gravity and light (Chella Courington)
The Man with the Blue Guitar (Vince Gotera)
What to Wear During an Orange Alert? (Jason Behrends)
Blue Moon Northeast (Meg Harris)
The Tao, Ow and Wow of Jesus Crisis (John Burroughs)
Holy Land (Rauan Klassnik)
Zinta Aistars Prose and Poetry
Being and Writing (Kate Evans)
For tour dates, please revert to Shaindel’s Cyclone tour page here.
We look forward to seeing you on 4 March to kick off the Cutlass Supreme Queen’s road trip!
Last night, I read Philip Larkin’s interview in The Paris Review Interviews, Volume 2 (Picador, 2007). Larkin wasn’t the most amenable interviewee (he was downright cranky at times), but his answers make for interesting reading.
The interviewer, Robert Phillips, said: “Davison also sees your favourite subjects as failure and weakness”, referring to Peter Davison, an American “poet-critic”.
“I think a poet should be judged by what he does with his subjects, not by what his subjects are. Otherwise you’re getting near the totalitarian attitude of wanting poems about steel production figures rather than “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” Poetry isn’t a kind of paint spray you use to cover selected objects with. A good poem about failure is a success.”
Similarly, I’ve read reviews in which poets are berated for being “too personal”, for writing about menstruation, menopause, infertility or masturbation. These topics make some people uncomfortable, but surely nothing should be taboo. What is poetry, if not personal? Who are the final arbiters of what is and isn’t acceptable? It’s subjective, a matter of personal taste. A poem should be judged on merit, on whether it is well written, not on its subject matter. How boring it would be if all poetry toed the line. Vive la différence.
Angifi Dladla is a poet, playwright, writing teacher and coach based on the East Rand, South Africa. His poetry has been published in many anthologies and journals locally and abroad. In 2003 he was a playwright-in-residence in Geneva, where he wrote Kgodumodumo, a play about the protection of biodiversity and traditional knowledge. His poetry collection, The Girl Who Then Feared To Sleep, was published in 2001. In 1988 he founded the Community Life Network, a cultural organisation focusing on community building. In 1987 he co-founded Bachaki Theatre in Johannesburg. Their debut play Top Down – The Law of Nature, was the first in the history of South Africa to look into the belly of Bantu Education in the classroom, staff room and the headmaster’s office.
Read the full interview here.
Read more about Angifi here.
Read Angifi’s poems, “Flowers” and “Gathering Pieces”, here.
And more poems here.
In his epic poem “Omeros”, a retelling of the Odyssey in a Caribbean setting, Derek Walcott imagined that his father was named “in love or bitter benediction / … for Warwick. / The Bard’s county”. Warwick Walcott, the offspring of a white plantation-owner from Barbados, was a cultured man who painted, wrote poetry and organised theatrical evenings on the neighbouring island of St Lucia, where he had settled with his family. He died at the age of 34, when his son was just over a year old, on April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday.
Read James Campbell’s Guardian interview here.
“I’ve always associated the moment of writing with a moment of lift, of joy, of unexpected reward.” “I always believed that whatever had to be written would somehow get itself written,” says Seamus Heaney. In an intimate exchange, the Nobel laureate talks to fellow Irish poet Dennis O’Driscoll about his early writing life, the Troubles and the divide between private man and public poet.
An extract from Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll (Faber) here.
Antjie Krog was born in the Free State in 1952. She completed a BA degree at the University of the Orange Free State, a Masters degree in Afrikaans at the University of Pretoria and a Teacher’s Diploma at the University of South Africa (UNISA).
Krog’s first collection of poetry, Dogter van Jefta (1970), was followed by further collections, including two books of verse for children and the English collection Down to my last skin (2000), which won the inaugural 2000 FNB Vita Poetry Award. She became well known as one of the SABC radio journalists who reported on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in the mid-nineties. Prose publications include Country of my Skull (1998), about the TRC, and A Change of Tongue (2003).
Antjie has received a number of awards and prizes for poetry, journalism and translation. For her journalistic work she won the Pringle Award and the Foreign Correspondent Award. She has received the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award and was honoured by the Hiroshima Peace Foundation. Her works have been translated into English, Dutch, Italian, French, Spanish and Arabic.
Body Bereft (2006), Antjie Krog’s second collection of poetry in English, has been translated from the Afrikaans collection Verweerskrif; both were recently published by Umuzi, Random House’s South African imprint.
Krog is married to architect John Samuel. They have four children and live in Cape Town, where she is a Professor Extraordinary at the University of the Western Cape.
Read the interview here.
Read some of Antjie Krog’s poems on the Poetry International Web.
Read Antjie’s In Defence of Poetry (2004).
Read three poems at Jack Magazine.