Congratulations on your debut collection! How does it feel to have your poetry published?
No Avoiding It isn’t the first book I’ve had published, but it is my first collection of poetry. A few years ago, I published a non-fiction book on the films of Sam Peckinpah. More recently I co-edited the anthology More Raw Material: work inspired by Alan Sillitoe, to which I also contributed a couple of pieces. When I received my author’s copies of the Peckinpah book, I was simultaneously excited and nervous as hell – I’d spent 90,000 words expounding on a legendary filmmaker’s work: what if I’d got things wrong? With No Avoiding It, the feeling was cleaner, purer; the poems are entirely personal expressions. There’s nothing owed, no debt to anybody else’s artistic legacy. I would say that seeing the collection in print feels like winning the lottery, but without the financial imperative to jet off somewhere exotic.
Can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself?
Erm. I wish I could say that I’m as legendary a barfly as Dylan Thomas or Charles Bukowski, or edgy and belligerent in the style of August Kleinzahler, or all mysterious and enigmatic, but that fact is I’m pretty much a regular guy. You read a lot of writers’ biographies and they list all manner of weird or hardcore jobs – coffin-maker, bouncer, pathologist, trawlerman – but all I’ve ever done is office jobs. My granddad was a miner and my dad a truck driver. Their professions were more interesting than mine.
When did you first start writing poetry, and why?
It probably goes back to when I started reading it. My grandmother on my mum’s side, Sarah Tyldesley, loved poetry. When she became housebound, I used to cycle to Bulwell library and return, renew or borrow new books for her. We quickly went through what was then a small stock of poetry books. She preferred the romantics, Wordsworth et al, and was a bit disturbed when, not knowing one poet from another, I checked out Sylvia Plath’s Collected. She asked me to return it. I hung onto it for a week or two before I did and read it avidly. Some of it scared the hell out of me and some of it went completely over my head, but it was as if a key had been turned in my imagination. It suddenly hit me: poetry can do this. I knew then that I wanted in. It took a couple of decades and plenty of life experience before I started writing poetry that was definably in my own voice, though.
Your collection has been described as ‘a home town geography of work and class’. What is it about Nottingham that inspires you to write?
I was described in a recent review as being “born, molded and manufactured in Nottingham”. I’ve never left the city. I was born in Bulwell. I now live in Bestwood. In 45 years, I’ve moved from NG6 to NG5 – one postcode area. It’s an age-old piece of advice to aspiring writers that you should write about what you know. I’ve visited various cities in Europe, and I once drove the length of Alaska-Canada Highway, but Nottingham is in my blood. It is a geography and a state of mind that I understand more intuitively than any other place. I don’t really think I had any choice but to write about Nottingham.
The poems within your collection are strongly associated with the past. Is this a theme that you think is important to modern readers?
A lot of the poems in the first section of the book look back to the 70s, and a couple look back beyond that – ‘Sepia’ to my grandfather’s twenties, and ‘Pit Bus’ to my dad’s childhood. Without any real plan or intent, I’d suddenly found myself remembering more and more things from my childhood in the 70s and using these memories as material for poems. I was mindful not to dabble in cheap nostalgia, but I could probably point to a few poems where I find myself looking back on my childhood as a simpler time. But there’s enough socio-political context to not kid myself that things were necessarily better. Thatcherism was on the cusp of screwing up this country; casual racism was mainstream. On the other hand, though, there was a stronger sense of community; of people looking out for each other. As regards what the current generation might glean from my work, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable trying to establish an agenda. I didn’t write the poems as an instructor or a moralist, more as a witness.
The title of your collection is No Avoiding It. What do you think your readers should take from this?
The title poem is about the inevitability of Monday morning, following the kind of full throttle weekend where you’re almost morally opposed to going to bed on Sunday night because it’s an admission that all the fun you’ve had during the weekend is over, and it’s nothing but drudgery for the next five days. And to a degree, there is no avoiding it. But take every opportunity outside of your professional obligations to just be yourself; cling on to “you” time; prioritise what you want to do. In Alan Sillitoe’s novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the main character Arthur Seaton says “All I’m out for is a good time – all the rest is propaganda.” That might sound selfish, but in a world that’s swamped by infotainment and social media bombarding us with aspirational images of other people’s lifestyles, it’s important to retain self-identity.
What kind of challenges and frustrations did you feel whilst writing this collection?
Remarkably few. The poems in No Avoiding It were produced over a five-year period and it wasn’t until late on that I realized I could start ordering them into a themed collection. So even when I wasn’t producing poems on the subject of “then and now”, work and social life, I simply wrote on other subjects. I didn’t feel the need to tailor my writing or work towards a specific number of poems on one particular theme.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Write in pursuit of truth, not publication. Don’t follow trends. Hemingway had some great advice: “Write hard and clean about what scares you the most.”
What is your next project? Have you been working on anything recently?
In addition to No Avoiding It, I’ve published a pamphlet with Black Light Engine Room Press called Numbers Stations, which is a sequence of poems with a Cold War theme. I’ve produced quite a few new poems since I completed the No Avoiding It manuscript, and I’m starting to arrange and order them to see what themes and considerations emerge. I’m also working on a couple of prose pieces. Watch this space!
No Avoiding It is available to buy from shoestring-press.com and Amazon for £10.00.