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Poetry and Chat with Nottingham Trent University's Rory Waterman

20 March 17 interview: Aly Stoneman

Not only is Rory Waterman Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University, his debut poetry collection, Tonight the Summer’s Over, was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Prize in 2014. We had a chat with him about what politics and poetry mean to him…

photo: NTU

What inspired your new pamphlet, Brexit Day on the Balmoral Estate?
The answer is sort of in the title. Actually, seven of the poems in that pamphlet – which is all of them except the title poem and Reunion – had been written by last June. What unites them are questions about European identity, or about what it is to belong somewhere on this continent. It begins with a poem about an Otto Dix etching, remembering a part of what had been the Western Front, and moves through the Balkans, Italy, Spain, and up to Scotland for the title poem, which is at the end. I did in fact spend the day after the referendum in a wild corner of the Balmoral Estate, feeling a bit forlorn.

Do you find it cathartic writing poems about current political issues?
I have little time for poems that just tell me what to think about politics, even if I agree with them. A poem should challenge you to do the thinking, otherwise there's not much you can do other than say “right on” or “up yours”. I don't regard it as an alternative to venting on social media, though it can indeed be cathartic. [Ed: Or try Twitter to combine venting on social media with poetry #WriteAPoemAboutBrexit

The featured poem Reunion (below) is set in the USA before the election. Given the result, do you view the events related in the poem in a different light?
It actually brings together two events in different parts of the US, but it's pretty much exactly true apart from that. I was in America during the primaries, in the Midwest and then the East Coast. The banners were out in force and a lot of otherwise seemingly sensible people I spoke to were saying terrifying things like, “It's crooked vs crazy, and I don't know which to vote for.”

What made you start writing poetry, and why do you think poetry is important?
I first made a serious effort to write poems at primary school; my teacher thought I was good at it, and my dad is a poet. I wrote a lot when I was seventeen or eighteen, then I started again about seven years later. The first poem in my first book was written when I was 24, although I didn't write many for another four or five years. Poems don’t come along all that often – I probably write an average of fifteen pages a year. If I had all the time in the world, I’d still probably write about fifteen pages a year.

And yes, it mattered, and matters, insofar as it was and is a way to attempt saying something that I cared about, however open-ended, and hopefully affect others as a result. Another thing I love is that you can normally memorise them if you want to, and then you have the exact piece with you all the time. You can remember a song, but it isn’t the recording. If you remember a poem, you have the thing whole.

You edit New Walk magazine and co-organize Totally Wired Poetry at Wired Café….
New Walk has been going since 2010; we publish all sorts of poets who write in all sorts of styles, including very famous ones and some who have never been published before. We might be about to undergo a rather big change, too, though I can't say more about that yet – you'll have to keep an eye on our website.

Totally Wired Poetry is a free evening I run with Becky Cullen and Andrew Taylor, both friends and colleagues at NTU, and it’s in its third year. Each evening has a main reader (in the past this has included the likes of John Harvey, Maria Taylor and Cliff Yates), as well as an open mic. It's really friendly and fun, Wired is one of the best cafes on the planet, and we pack the place out every time. We love it.

What's happening and what's next?
I’ve been touting the pamphlet, of course; but my second full-length collection is coming out with Carcanet Press in September, so I've been working on the final versions of that. I also have some readings coming up at festivals and so on in the summer.


The road out of town is patchy with heat-haze
that wafts from the tarmac. Each limp little flag
drops stripes at the ground. A red barn and silo
stand guarding some corn, with a scarecrow in rags

whose head has been ripped; then a dapple of woods
and a house every while, each drive cutting down
to the road by a square of plaid green or once-green;
then houses more frequently, then the next town

where the signs saying Bernie have mostly been pulled.
Some Hillary ones have appeared in their stead.
At Union Grill, Trump v. Clinton plays out
on a muted TV, till it's cut. We break bread

and the jowly man wearing a DON'T BLAME ME! pin badge
blames England for Brexit and tells me he's ‘Scotch’
but don't speak up and spoil the fun
when you know it would anger their family: ‘Watch

your mouths, no politics!’ our hostess has yelled,
so I pour his Bass slowly to leave a small head
and we gab through a full live-long hour until home time
then I pump his hot hand, and I wish this man well.

                                                                       Summer 2016

First published in Brexit Day on the Balmoral Estate.

Brexit Day on the Balmoral Estate was published by Rack Press in 2016 and is available to buy now, £5.

Rory Waterman website

illustration: Raphael Achache

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