Talk to us about your latest book ‘Shades of Grey.’
Shades of Grey is a collection of writings from my early to mid-twenties ranging from diary/journal entries to dream pieces, prose-poems, fictional snapshots and a couple of essays on writing. It’s not an easy book to classify. My publisher (Sheila Wakefield, Red Squirrel Press) was asked by the ISBN Agency for category clarification and decided it was best to let them see a copy and make up their own minds – they deemed it poetry.
I wrote the first pages whilst still living at my parents’ house, before I’d had anything published. I was employed by a giftware distribution warehouse at the time – stacking shelves and handling returned goods for a criminally low hourly rate.
In Shades of Grey the banal sits side by side with the extremely visceral. I channelled a lot of my angst and bitterness into the writing. Through a series of untitled vignettes, the reader becomes privy to the inner workings of a mind in turmoil; a journey through fatigue, displacement, estrangement and self-loathing. Oh and there’s occasional glimpses of poetic enlightenment, as well. But I’ve been told it’s generally quite a heavy read.
I finished selecting pieces for the first draft in 1996 and waited another four years before re-editing it. To be honest, I was reluctant to publish it as it was so old. But I was surprised when other writers saw it as something of a new direction. It wasn’t, but most people think of me as a spoken word poet, so I’m pleased that a substantial amount of the book works in a live setting - which helps with promotion – but at the time of composition I never thought I’d be performing anything anywhere on stage.
Ironically, it was by way of performance that I secured a book deal with Red Squirrel Press. During an open mic event at the 2007 Hexham Book Festival Sheila Wakefield approached me and asked if I had a novel. I said ‘No’ and jokingly added, ‘But you can read my diary’. She asked to see the manuscript – and four years later, published it.
2 What is your earliest memory of writing?
My only recollections of poetry from childhood are a primary school lesson in which I was asked to compose a limerick - using my own name in the first line - rhyming Stephen with pen, or hen or den - and the phrase ‘drunk with fatigue’ from Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ from one afternoon in my early teens at Blackfyne Comprehensive School in Consett, County Durham.
When I started scribbling in a diary towards my twenties the term flash fiction was unheard of. I was penning vignettes that were neither poems nor stories, I didn’t know what to do with them. It wasn’t until I read Charles Bukowski’s poems about rejection slips and small press magazines that I naively began chopping my texts into lines of verse. I’d send them to Iron, The North, The Echo Room, etc – and get rejection slips with ‘not quite what we’re looking for’ scrawled on them in return. It took me a few years to develop and have any success with poetry.
3. What would you say is your greatest writing achievement to date?
Probably securing a book deal with Red Squirrel Press. They have published two of my books now and have just offered to take on another. Other stand-out moments would be having a poem published in the same issue of ‘The Wide Skirt’ as Simon Armitage when I was still working in the warehouse. I don’t think he’d have much time for my work but I do admire his poetry and he is undoubtedly up there with the best of them. I had poems in ten consecutive issues of a magazine called Psychopoetica in the nineties. Some of my biggest personal achievements are more to do with performance – due to a mental breakdown in my late twenties, my once high-functioning short term memory is now greatly diminished: it happened overnight; one day you can open a book and scan a poem in seconds, the next you wake up in hospital and can’t even retain a simple sentence without half a dozen repeated readings – so being able to deliver a fifteen-minute poetry set without the page in my hand is rated pretty high for me. But it takes a lot of effort. My girlfriend, Jenni Pascoe, can learn a two-minute poem in an afternoon; the same piece would take me a month at least. Other achievements would be to do with facilitation and promotion: running creative writing workshops in mental health settings for best part of a decade; and organising the Waddington Street Centre WADDY MEGA SLAM in September 2011 – an event featuring 30 poets from across the region. Oh, and I was pretty chuffed that me and Jenni supported Joolz Denby and New Model Army’s Justin Sullivan at a gig in Darlington recently.
4. Do you have a daily writing routine?
Yes, I do. I’ve kept a daily journal/diary for best part of twenty years. At the start of 2012 I also returned to morning pages, made famous the world over by Julia Cameron; three pages of long-hand writing on plain A4 sheets as soon as you wake up. Supposedly a means of clearing away all the dross from your head before getting down to real work, but after a few months I found that morning pages have become a net for catching dreams, lesson-plans, speeches and poems – many of this year’s NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) pieces came from them.
I also keep a work-log of gigs, workshops, activities, thoughts on writing. So that’s three opportunities a day to catch the creative part of the brain at play. But much of my journal is little more than talking to myself with a pen. I go through my journals a few weeks down the line and type up anything that surprises me. If it catches me off guard there’s a good chance it might engage someone else. I’ll let the words dictate the form and tinker with a piece for a while, then muster up the courage to try it out at an open mic night. If it gets any response, I’ll work on it further. And then, as I said earlier, there’s weeks of rehearsal and fine-tuning till I’m happy with the way the words flow out of my mouth. It’s a slow process from first spark to final draft. And as far as subject matter goes, I’d be first to admit I’m one of the most self-indulgent writers going. Occupying and consuming myself at the same time – it’s pure catharsis and documentation of my movements. I write reams of stuff but only a tiny fraction of it becomes poetry. I also post regular updates of raw entries on a blog as well.
As I’ve spent the last four or five years concentrating on live performance, I’ve not submitted poems to magazines as regularly as in my twenties and thirties. I used to be a total bibliophile – for me, a poem in print used to be the real testing ground. I’d sometimes send two or three batches a week via snail-mail. I liked seeing A5 envelopes on the doormat; it’s high time I got back to the small press magazine circuit.
5. Where is your favourite place to work?
In addition to morning pages in bed upon waking and at the drop-leaf table in the living room by the window of an evening, I will often scribble on bus journeys. I find that movement, constant change of scenery and the snippets of overheard conversation fuel the pen.
I also like participating in writing marathons. I have hosted a number of these events in various venues. A writing marathon is a very intense four-hour workshop with up to eight participants, keeping the focus on short bursts of writing followed by read-backs without commentary. People lose their inhibitions quickly and everyone gets the benefit of hearing fresh drafts from their peers whilst sinking into a writing headspace that is comfortable due to zero threat of criticism. Some startlingly emotionally-charged material is produced. I tend to come up with performance pieces more easily in these situations than anywhere else.
Some interesting results occur when you respond to the buzz of everyday activity in public too – it’s good to take notes and let the imagination respond to observations. So, lots of places really. But I love the part in the process where I’m taking a page of scrawl and discovering what shape the words when typed will make on a page, so I’m probably at my most comfortable sitting at the computer in my bedroom. I think, generally though, it pays to be flexible with regards to creative workspaces. And as far as rehearsals go, I often get strange looks on buses from passengers who catch me mumbling under my breath, trying desperately not to look at the printed page in my hand. If you can recite a poem without messing up whilst being subjected to iPod leakage, one-sided mobile phone conversations and screaming infants, you should be okay at the open mic.
6. What inspires your writing?
At the start of a new course of workshops I give participants a handout stating the benefits of keeping a journal. At the bottom of the sheet is printed WRITE FOR INSPIRATION, DON’T WAIT FOR INSPIRATION TO WRITE. Writing is a lifelong process and an act of discovery; I rarely know what I’m going to come up with until I’m in the thick of it. I had a pretty difficult upbringing so I’m often concerned with issues of family dysfunction and the affect that has on a person’s ability to adapt to adult life. Dissatisfaction, anger, fear, keeping depression at bay – all strong impulses to get the pen moving.
I am also inspired by alternative music and dark culture – gothic imagery, the macabre – although I find horror novels virtually unreadable. What really inspires me to write, and this will sound so ridiculous as to be risible, is the desire to have books with my name printed on the spine; and to have something come out of my mouth on stage other than; “I’m terrified”.
Subject matter; initially I was interested in capturing the solitary figure entering or leaving seclusion, a very ascetic kind of experience –which was my life for a long time. I’ve become a lot more sociable in the last decade – due, I suppose, to being active on the spoken word circuit. I just try to record my life as accurately and honestly as possible. And I’ve been lucky enough to reach people who enjoy seeing and reading the results.
7. E-book reader or paper book?
I can see that Kindle is good for authors who want to self-publish without the risk of producing a mountain of unsold copies, but for me it has to be the paper book. I enjoy physically making books, actually; binding them, coloured endpapers - chapbooks, monographs. Books are tactile. I admire a good edition, sometimes regardless of its contents. I used to make one-off selected handwritten journal collections or manual-typewriter-produced poetry chapbooks as gifts for friends when I had the time. Now, I have a pile of unread paperbacks from Amazon in every room of the house and never sit still long enough to even begin to enjoy them.
8. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write regularly. Every day. Find out what you want to write by writing and when you do find out, go and study others in the same genre. Devour as much as you can by authors who fire your enthusiasm. Study as much as possible, read widely. Writing is a solitary business most of the time; if you need support, join a writers group or take an evening class. Personally, I did some of my best writing by simply going it alone, keeping my head down and getting on with it. Sheer bloody mindedness. Are you really hungry, how badly do you want to succeed? Are you willing to sweat, to sacrifice, to put everything you’ve got into it? Start sending work out to magazines – don’t be put off by rejection. Learn from it. Make the work as strong as you can. Does it fit the mag house style? Try as many small-press magazines as you can; go to readings, listen to radio programmes featuring writers, watch book programmes on television. Scour the internet – there’s millions of articles, exercises, opportunities. Find a writing guide, not necessarily a ‘How To’ book, but an author whose book becomes the friend you read. Don’t be distracted by people who don’t share or support your enthusiasm, don’t engage in fruitless activities. Avoid procrastination. A writer writes. Simple as that. Do it. Keep it going. Good luck!
9. Can you name three favourite poetry collections?
I enjoy reading books that sound like the author is letting off steam and allowing you to witness it. So obviously the work of Henry Rollins, Lydia Lunch and Charles Bukowksi were initially very influential. In my mid-twenties I started reading Beckett, Kafka, Paul Auster, Mark Strand, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, The Mersey Poets, Sharon Olds, Michael Gira, Henri Michaux, Charles Simic and many more.
If I had to name just three – although not strictly poetry – I’d like to include something by Rollins; so I’ll cheat and say “The First Five” – which is a compilation of his early collections published in one volume.
“Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame” contains some of Charles Bukowski’s best work – before Black Sparrow Press started letting him get away with murder.
And at present, I’m enjoying “For Beauty Douglas – Adrian Mitchell’s Collected Poems 1953 – 79”.
But I also like “Emotional Terrorism” by Joolz Denby. “Some They Can’t Contain” by Buddy Wakefield. “The Time Office – New and Selected Poems” by Tom Kelly. “Cemetery Nights” by Stephen Dobyns. “The Sign of Saturn” by Sharon Olds. “Sagrada Familia” by Kevin Cadwallender… The list is endless!
Many thanks to Big Eyes editor Katie Metcalfe.