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Nottingham Castle

James Nash & John Siddique

21 January 07 words: James Walker
Nottingham welcomes a boxer turned poet and a philosopher of love, life and relationships.

What do you get when you cross a boxer turned poet and a philosopher of love, life and relationships? The best interactive poetry reading this side of the Trent. John and James are losing their Nottingham virginity and would like all you readers out there to witness it with a special one-off show. It’s a pretty informal set-up, a kind of Baddiel and Skinner of poetry, containing the kind of emotional and intellectual jousting which will leave you feeling battered, bruised and aching for more. 

Please introduce yourself and give us a little background to your work
James: I'm an ex-Londoner, but have been based in Leeds for so long that it hardly counts any more. I used to be a teacher in High schools, but now I'm a writer and performer and jack of all trades in the literature world, so everything I do is connected with the world of books and writing, but like all freelancers I'm at the mercy of putting food on the table and in the dog-bowl. My work ranges from poetry through journalism to short fiction. I have two poems in a new anthology coming out this year, called Branch Lines; it contains poetry from, amongst others, Seamus Heaney and UA Fanthorpe. That's quite grown up, isn't it?
John: I grew up in a house with no books, but reading helped me survive, I was what they call a troubled youth. I got switched on to poetry when I was almost thirty by the poems of EE Cummings and DH Lawrence and started writing from there. My first proper book came out in 2005, I’ve also written a book of poetry for children, contributed to Four Fathers, and have a new book, Poems from a Northern Soul out on 5 February.

Your event is called Universally Personal, what does that mean?
James: I think it means that two men reading poetry and talking about themselves and their work gives us a rare 'emotional' clout, and a universality.
John: To me it means that I use what seem to be quite personal stories to tell something that hopefully will touch my readers and audiences’ own lives. I often find that by doing this, taking on the personal voice in a poem or story, the writer can give the reader room to reflect on their own loves, live and stuff

How did you meet?
James: At a meeting of artist and writers in Huddersfield about four or five years ago. We have a lot in common but don't live in each others pockets. This keeps it fresh.
John: We’re both troubadours I suppose so I had come across James at a couple of festivals and things, but I didn’t get to know him properly until we wrote Four Fathers.

Is this tour going to be as big as the Four Fathers one?
John: It’s pretty much a one off gig for the folk of Nottingham, though if someone would like to do the admin and make it a tour I’d love that. I really like working with James, he is a great writer and we have huge fun on stage and off it. We did a show in Wigan last year together and did our best to catch each other out.

Whose idea was it to do a joint reading?
James: I think it was John's idea and it works because we are both risk-takers in our writing and performance and we engage well with people. We hit sparks of feeling and humour off each other.
John: It just arose as a very natural idea being the pair of poets in the fathers book, we are very different writers yet we fit together amazingly well, I really trust James and love his writing, so for me, I get to work with someone I’m a fan of which is brilliant. Other benefits of doing shows together is that the audience get two voices for the price of one, and we can pretty much tear the place up between us, as the pairing brings something very strong out of us both on stage, not that were not like that in our own readings, it’s just a little something else.

What makes a good poem?
James: A good poem has immediate impact. The better the poem the more lasting and complex the impact. A good poem is one you want to hear or read again.
John: A poet who doesn’t get in the way of the story, by trying to show you how good, and how clever they are, that and love, and a good dollop of humility in the face of the art and the subject of the poem.

What kind of subjects do you go for in poetry?
James: I write about anything but have always been interested in telling stories, which are often about 'identity', but not about myself as often as people think they are.
John: I write a lot about family, and people, and I guess I try to show the inside from the outside, all my poems are love poems really, even when I write about bombs and politics, its out of love and wanting to create something beautiful out of difficult things that drives me.

Who are your favourite writers and poets?
John: There’s no way you could fit the full version of this answer anywhere, right now I’m reading Galway Kinnell’s selected poems, I love his spirituality. I’m reading Lydia Davis’s short stories too, I’ve never come across this kind of detail before, my constant faves are James Joyce, Sharon Olds, DH Lawrence (his poems that is.) Raymond Carver, Hemingway, Dorothy Molloy and I read Ian Fleming’s Thunderball recently, a simple old Bond book, loved it.

James: RS Thomas, Edward Thomas, anyone with the name Thomas in fact. I like Carol Ann Duffy and Adrienne Rich too. But I'm reading poetry all the time. Anyone who attempts to deal honestly with the human condition.

We interviewed John McGregor recently, Nottingham’s finest protégé. His prose reads like poetry. That would be our personal recommendation for now.
James: He’s considerably modest too, which is remarkable given his success. I’ve met him on the festival circuits before. Lovely chap.

What do you prefer, teaching or giving readings?
John: I love both, they are totally different. Both are performances of a kind, I love readings so much, I did 82 shows last year, and I fell my most alive with an audience, I’m a poetry slut I guess. I also teach so much, but I don’t like the word teaching, what I want to do is help people find ways to touch that spark in them, and together find ways to sustain that into creation.

Any similarities between teaching and poetry readings?
John: Just that both readings and teaching can touch that place. 

James, you’re a boxer turned poet. Which opposition is hardest, the ring or the classroom?
James: I like them both. It's good to engage with an audience. Both use up loads of emotional energy. If it's a choice between performing and sparring in the boxing gym, it comes out pretty equal. Far more terrifying are Year 10s in a high school, who watch your fumbling attempts to get them to write a poem, with a 'come on and impress me' look fixed on their faces. Then they write great poems in no time, which I want to steal....

Have you read or been to Nottingham before, how did you find the place?
John: Nope, only ever driven by on the M1, so I’m about to loose my Nottingham virginity,
James: My Mum's family come from Mansfield, Woodhouse, so Nottingham was a place we visited regularly throughout my childhood. It's friendly: my granny called us all 'me duck'. 

I think our readers are going to like you. Your Gran sounds like a lovely 'gell. Tell us something which is universally personal. 
John: There are certain things which are common to us as humans, we have parents, we love and/or want love, here’s the first verse of my poems ‘Cheap Moisturiser’ from ‘The Prize’

‘I worry every time I see her it may be
the last time. My mother is 74 this year,
that age when, if she doesn’t answer
the phone, my stomach backspins.’

As you can see I’m talking about my mum, but anyone who has a parent of that age knows what it feels like when they ring them, and can’t reach them, as we get older ourselves we start taking responsibility for our parents, and there is always that terrible quiet idea that this call or this visit could be the last one. If after reading one of my books, or hearing one of my poems someone is moved to ring their mum, touch their partner’s hand, or go and have a sexy time, if I’ve been reading any of my naughtier stuff, then I couldn’t ask for more.
James: I was born. I go to the lavatory. I have fallen in love on several occasions. I'm going to die.

James and John will be performing ‘Universally Personal’ on the 24 January 2006 at Lakeside Arts Centre, University Campus. For tickets please call 0115 846 7777

Four Fathers book review (which includes both authors)

James Walker's website


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