Hi Ben. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your latest pamphlet For Real with smith|doorstop in 2014. Can you tell us a bit more about these poems and how you feel they are a continuation of or departure from the poems in your debut The Sparks?
Thanks – it’s a pleasure. Poets might wince when asked to talk about their poems, but I think it does us good to have to explain, and even defend, what we’re up to!
The Sparks was published when I was in my early twenties. It’s basically one step up from juvenilia, with a couple of poems that I think of as having merits beyond that. It was written between 2005 and 2008, during my years as an undergraduate, reading more poetry than my studies allowed. It’s the typical first pamphlet: I’m trying on different styles, tones of voice, subject matter, in the hope that something holds – and most importantly, holds the reader’s attention.
I was only dimly aware of it back then, but I’ve always thought of the poem as a conversation between itself and the reader. Poems have a duty to… entertain is too simple a word, it’s more complicated than that – but they have to meet a reader halfway. They have to deliver on the honest investment a reader puts into them. If someone bores you at a party (and ‘bore’ here covers irritating drunken behaviour and/or attention-seeking, as much as being plain tedious or vanilla), you make your excuses and leave, unless you’re especially polite. The same goes for poems, right?
For Real appeared six years after The Sparks. Douglas Adams said: ‘You live and learn. At any rate, you live’. When the pamphlet came out I wrote a paragraph on the thing for The North magazine, as one of the Poetry Business Competition winners. I talked mainly about the emotional terrain that fed the poems: experiences of depression, both personal and among my family and friends; falling in and out of love; material with wider resonance. To put it rather grandly, I tried to make over an approximation of those experiences into art, into something that tries to tell the truth by working truly; emotional truths, rather than the illusion of a reliable account. That’s what I aimed for anyway – whether or not it worked, the reader decides.
One thing I do think I achieved in For Real over The Sparks was a more direct speaking voice, a more pared-back and authentic use of language. Authenticity is a thorny issue in our postmodern age: you see it in the archness and irony that artists increasingly reach for. If a poem is a performance, how can it say anything with immediate emotional authenticity? It’s an act; the game’s up. But that strikes me as misleading. Everything in life is an act; we’re always performing on some level, often in ways we don’t even fully realise.
So an idealised kind of authenticity is a silly raising of the bar to impossible heights. If a poem speaks to you directly and memorably, makes you think and feel as keenly as if you were having the very best conversation with its speaker over a few pints or a cup of coffee, then to me, that’s authentic. That’s what I want from poems, and for my poems.
You’ve been open about your struggles with depression in the past and how poetry helped you through it. Indeed, some of your poems like ‘Hound‘ and ‘Days‘ deal with the subject directly. What qualities do you think poetry has that makes it a suitable combatant or suitable refuge against depression?
The first part of my debut collection Way More Than Luck, which is due from Seren Books in early 2018, is given over to poems that deal, directly and obliquely, with this very broad theme and its serious hold on our society. Depression – and mental health problems more generally – are so widespread, it’s frightening. The stigma is disappearing because people are speaking out, and we’re all waking up to the fact that stuff about our modern society is fuelling this epidemic.
You mention ‘Hound’, which featured on the mental health charity Mind’s website, with a piece about my experiences. I wanted to let others know that their struggles are ones that others have felt. It’s difficult to put your faith in anything, even genuine solidarity, when you’re cripplingly depressed, but one thing I found that helped me was reading other people’s stories.
That, and taking up long-distance running. Books and the written word have always nourished me in one way or another, but I can’t commend enough the virtue of doing something – anything – on a regular basis that gets you out and about, heart beating and body moving. It sounds obvious, but I think writers especially forget this kind of thing. We were built to wander the plains for miles on end, not to sit at a desk typing and scrolling through websites for hours at a time…
As to poetry and depression… I’m not sure poems can ever offer a refuge from the black dog. But I think depression often comes about through a narrowing of perspective – a kind of mental claustrophobia – and poems can definitely help in defending us against that awful, creeping sense of feeling totally trapped. Poems transform our way of looking at the world, and that’s what keeps the world vital, and us alive to it.
So there’s the whole increased self-awareness thing going on, too. If reading a good poem is a way of understanding yourself and the world better, then the kind of knowledge poetry offers can help stop you from falling into life’s traps. And because a good poem is memorisable, you can carry the thing around in your head like a charm or spell – a line or two to repeat under your breath when you need it most.
You’ve also composed a number of football-themed poems, some of which appeared in the Official Liverpool FC Monthly Magazine. I’m curious if you received feedback about them from LFC fans and how important do you think it is that poetry attempts to reach audiences beyond those who read the genre already?
I think it’s vital that poetry reaches audiences outside of its own little universe. There’s an argument that surfaces every once in a while that basically says: poets writing for other poets and scholars and poetry aficionados is kind of inevitable, because anything else involves dumbing down and playing to the floor, a betrayal of artistic integrity and necessary difficulty. The periodic reaction to this comes from poets who want to reconnect poetry with a wider audience: Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s ‘man speaking to men’, right through to some of our better poet-performers today.
I guess the trick is being able to balance the two: integrity/complexity and (for want of a much better word) accessibility. I’ve been to readings where the aloof poet makes seemingly no effort to connect with their audience, content to obfuscate and repeatedly elude; but I’ve also been to spoken-word nights where I’ve had to listen to another immature, self-indulgent performance ‘poem’ about a student house-share or a trip to Eastern Europe (what someone once called ‘poetry as recognition comedy’). The really difficult thing is producing something that succeeds as thought-provoking, challenging, moving art and at the same time is expressed – to paraphrase that smart cookie Einstein – as simply as possible, but not one bit simpler.
Which – ahem – brings me neatly onto the central sequence in my forthcoming collection, a series of poems about the beautiful (and not always so beautiful) game. The plan – if you ever have such a thing in poetry – was not to write about football, but more about everything surrounding football: the culture, the politics, the players and the fans, how the sport is deeply woven into our society, whether we like it or not.
So some of the poems are unlikely praise for a much-maligned game, one that has its roots in working class community spirit but was vilified in the 1980s, a time when the Tory government had its own sinister motives for smearing working class culture. The commercialised and slightly sanitised top-tier of football we have now spawned from that. But the real spirit lives on I think – among the fans especially.
As a Liverpool fan, seeing a poem that draws on my first trip to Anfield as a kid, and another that pays tribute to Kenny Dalglish’s heroic response to the Hillsborough disaster, in the official club magazine, was a weird and wonderful dream. But the response from football fans – not always fans of poetry! – has been properly heartening.
A lot of the poems are variations on the sonnet form, so for readers of Liverpool FC Monthly to tweet their approval and get in touch has been grand. One guy at a reading last year told me he had recently attended former captain Steven Gerrard’s last game, and that my poems had brought a tear to his eye. I can’t really ask for more than that.
I understand you have put together a reader’s guide to the poetry of Don Paterson more recently as well. Could you tell us a bit more about the book and what it is that draws you to his work?
On a critical and scholarly level, I suppose you could simplify my interest in Don Paterson’s work as essentially based on his cultural importance. His poetry has garnered tons of critical praise/interest and has won pretty much every major poetry prize going, but on top of that, he’s long edited a major contemporary publishing list at Picador/Pan Macmillan, as well as writing some influential ars poetica essays.
So when a deranged part of me came to the idea that I’d quite like to write a PhD thesis on contemporary poetry and poetics, and particularly on a major figure within that sphere, he seemed the obvious candidate. Whatever you make of his poetry and his poetry-related activities, you can’t really imagine the landscape of British poetry since the early 1990s without him; I’d argue his influence across the board has been more profound and pervasive than that of any other of that generation, Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy included.
I remember one critic – by no means entirely enamoured by his work – saying that where most contemporary poets are the warm-up act, Don Paterson is the main gig. Personally, I find his poems more frequently entertaining, enviable, infuriating, moving and challenging than any other contemporary poet’s. Aside an almost flawless technique – the musicality of his poems make them pretty intoxicating – if poetry is about holding apparent opposites in tension and letting the sparks fly (and I think it is), he does that exceptionally well.
The reader’s guide – which I’m hoping to finish before too long, to be published thereafter as part of The Writers and Their Work series by Northcote House in conjunction with The British Council – will be an accessible chronological trip through Paterson’s work to date, starting with his debut Nil Nil through to his latest collection 40 Sonnets, dipping into his critical writings and aphorisms along the way, contextualising the kinds of questions his work asks, about our postmodern age, culture, identity, language, poetry and art.
The plan wasn’t to rehash my thesis, but to draw selectively on all of that painstaking research to offer some close, hopefully entertaining and insightful readings of his poems, some of which are surely the major ones of our age: I’m thinking ‘An Elliptical Stylus’, ‘A Private Bottling’, ‘Two Trees’, ‘Rain’. For fans of his work, it should hopefully make for enjoyable and challenging reading; for scholars and others, it will also illustrate and argue his significance.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this year?
I returned recently from Seoul, South Korea, on the back of a British Council-led collaborative project: a ‘sonnet exchange’ as part of the global Shakespeare Lives! 2016 programme. From start to finish, the whole thing has been an absolutely unforgettable, amazing experience. I was paired with a Korean graphic illustrator, Sung Goo Won, and together we were tasked with producing a new response, textual and visual, to one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Despite being at two removes from one another, artistically and linguistically, with the help of a translator over Skype video calls we managed to produce something we’re both proud of – proof that a shared emotional response to great art can bring together a bard from four centuries back, a Yorkshire-based writer, and a Korean cartoonist. I consider that a decisive middle-finger to the culture of xenophobia and hate that is swirling in parts of our political life right now.
Sung Goo blogged about the whole thing, showcasing his amazing illustrations and our final sonnet storyboard. It was a privilege to fly out to Seoul and participate in a roundtable discussion on the collaboration, with our counterparts, a Korean poet by the name of Beo Son, and the UK graphic novelist Mark Stafford. After two 12 hour flights inside a week, a 9 hour time difference, and a last night of hitting the soju pretty hard, I think the jet-lag has just about subsided.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
The poem I’ve chosen is called ‘Nesh’. It was initially sparked off by a discussion with the poet Kayo Chingonyi. Kayo came into the University of Bolton to give some of my students a frankly brilliant workshop, and part of that involved writing a poem about a word or phrase that was particular to your cultural heritage; something that wouldn’t readily translate into mainstream culture.
I went away and thought about the word ‘nesh’, which is a dialect word from the English Midlands/North of England meaning, by my definition at least, ‘given to feeling the cold’. It’s more generally used to describe someone a bit soft or wet behind the ears, i.e. the kind of person, roundly mocked in these parts, who might consider wearing a coat in a month without an ‘r’ in it. I was a sensitive kid, it has to be said.
Not cold but given to feeling the cold,
a slip of a boy waiting
for the number 12
as a summer breeze floats in,
suddenly shivering. Or the way
my mum used to tell my brother
and me to take our coats off
even though we’d soon be out again:
“You’ll not feel the benefit!” she’d scold,
sagely, and who were we to argue?
Nesh is for those of us who sense
someone walking over our grave,
who need the perfect
imprecision of the poem, made
from language’s shoddy array,
to get us through the day.
Look at you, sat on the doorstep
having forgotten your keys again,
the slightest chill biting
at your neck. I’d give you my coat
if you weren’t fifteen years dead.