In my last post I had the pleasure of introducing you to one of the bright new poets-on-the-block, Edinburgh-based Claire Askew. If you've not read the first part of my interview you can see it here. In this second part I wanted to know more about what's happening with her now and the struggles she has had trying to establish herself as a poet in this 21st century we all find ourselves in. But first a word about her own sources of inspiration:
9. As a child you were brought up on a steady diet of Ogden Nash, Hillaire Belloc and Patrick Barrington (with a special place in your heart till this day for 'Jabberwocky'); in later life I see you moved through the likes of Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy and Liz Lochhead, subsequently winding up at Allen Ginsberg, notwithstanding a slight dalliance with songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Donovan and Don McLean. Do you feel that a poet needs to work through the past to get to their own present?
To an extent, yes. Some people advocate reading poetry right back through the ages until you get to the likes of Homer and Aristotle, but I take a less rigorous approach. My very first scribblings – at the age of seven or so – were inspired by the light verse my parents used to read to my sister and I as children, and when I first started to write more seriously, I was still only really aware of more contemporary poets like Carol Ann Duffy and Liz Lochhead, both of whom I’d studied in school (although I’d discovered bits of Hughes, Larkin, Tennyson and Walter de la Mare too). It wasn’t until I got to university that I started to delve into much of the earlier stuff...
Rather than advocating reading the poetry of the past, I think I’d say that young poets ought to read what inspires them, regardless of what that is. A good knowledge of what’s gone before is definitely a good thing to have, and of course, the more widely you read, the more your writing stands to benefit. But when it comes to finding yourself in your own present, the most important thing to do is write about what bothers you, what moves you and what inspires you. It’s no good trying to write like Shelley if secretly, you couldn’t care less about that kind of poetry! I think that’s particularly true for young writers who are still trying to find their feet.
10. No one would argue that things are not well in the world of poetry. You live in Edinburgh and I in Glasgow but I note the comment you made about trying to fit in there:
Poetry in Edinburgh can be incredibly oligarchic – going to a poetry reading here sometimes feels like straying into someone’s private dinner party.
I found the same thing here in the west; in fact the first poetry reading I ever attended was so off-putting that I never attended another. Will this snotty-nosed attitude be the death of poetry?
Poetry’s always been like this, I reckon. You can go as far back into the annals of history as you like – you’ll still find evidence of cliques and grudges within writing communities. Writing is solitary, but it’s also competitive – particularly these days when poets have to vie for the attention of an increasingly select readership. So I do understand where the mindset comes from, but what I don’t understand is the fact that everyone accepts this state of affairs. If anything, poetry’s underlying snobbery and nastiness has been massively facilitated by the rise of the Internet – now, poets take to their blogs and networking pages to bitch, argue and plot in full view of their victims!
Last year I was really angered by some of the blog posts that sprang up about Sinead Morrissey after she won The Poetry Society’s big annual poetry prize. Some of the stuff that was said about her (99% of it down to sour grapes – I’m sure she was not considered a pariah before her win) was very personal indeed, and it really made me think twice about whether I wanted to get any further involved in an artistic community that was capable of such malice. I have seen similar things on a more local scale – also last year, the Edinburgh poetry community was split down the middle as a result of what was, in my opinion, a severely ill-advised blog post which got rather personal about one local poet. I still see the fallout from that particular event to this day when I attend certain readings and events, and it really saddens me. The British poetry community would be a better place if we could all get over our egos and opinions and learn to help and encourage one another. It wouldn’t take much... but sadly I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.
11. Poetry of the people, by the people and for the people. Is that the answer to poetry's woes? Does there need to be a coup?
I’m a little nervous about saying this, but to an extent I think yes. I’m not sure about “of the people, by the people, for the people,” but I definitely think poetry needs shaking up in a big way if we’re ever going to see readers returning to it.
12. Tell me about One Night Stanzas. I know you're looking to spread the load a bit – how can people help?
Basically, One Night Stanzas isn’t just a personal blog where I rattle on about myself and what I’ve been doing. I want it to reflect the needs of its readers, so first and foremost, I want people to get in touch and tell me what they want to hear about. No request is too small, no query is too trivial, and there’s no such thing as a stupid question. I also want to hear what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong – what people want to see more of on the blog, what they’ve found useful. You don’t necessarily have to email me... I read every comment that lands in each comments box.
I’ve also recently begun featuring the work of poets who read the blog. So far there have been two ONS Featured Poet, who’ve had a selection of their work appear on the site and been given the chance to talk a little about their personal creative processes. One Night Stanzas is a safe, non-judgemental place to display your work, and I’m hoping that more poets, particularly youngsters, will feel they can take advantage of that as the blog becomes more established. I’m also looking for guest-bloggers to write articles on any aspect of poetry writing and publishing – age and experience are irrelevant, so get your articles over to me!
For more information on what I’m looking for, see here.
13. So what's on the horizon for Claire Askew?
Currently, I’m a bit stuck in a rut, as I’m looking for a new job – my tutoring contract is coming to an end and I’m wanting to move on. I’m after something in the arts or education, but it seems that part-time jobs of this type are hard to find. So if anyone’s looking for a talented young English Literature post grad to do non-soul-destroying work, please do get in touch!
Of course, employment issues aside, I am currently focussing on my MSc in Creative Writing, which I’m taking at the University of Edinburgh with a view to continuing to PhD level. I’m hoping that the MSc will help me to mould and polish the very rough first collection draft I’m currently cobbling together. I’m also entering my second year as Editor in Chief of Read This, and looking at ways to improve the magazine, up the print run and get it out to a wider audience. Basically, I’m always on the lookout for new projects and new things to get involved in. I’m seeing where 2009 will take me!
14. Oh, one final question. Curiosity totally got the better of me here. Your Deviant Art webpage is called 'The Obvious Child' – why so obvious?
That’s an easy one – 'The Obvious Child' is the name of a song from Paul Simon’s album The Rhythm of the Saints. Simon is one of my all-time favourite singer-songwriters and that track reminds me of my misspent youth! Although I have to say it’s rather fitting on another level – ‘obviously’ is probably the word I most overuse.
That was a very interesting interview (I knew it would be) and you can read more about Claire in the iCiNG interview, in Poet's Letter Magazine (which also has a good selection of her own poetry), on the London Poetry Festival website (did I forget to mention she was one of six poets in residence?) and in The Reading Room she explains her love of 'Jabberwocky'. Let me leave you with one of her poems, which reminds me of Blake's 'London'. Judge for yourself.
Under South Bridge
This is just one arch in an army
of many. Arthritic old lady of Edinburgh –
hunched over Cowgate, back bent
like a book-spine, like a toughened bow;
a sudden gap in the city's slack smile.
A bus swings through her like the tongue
of a bell, flinging peals of pigeons
into the cool air. A busker harvests her echo,
this bridge of sighs – slouching at the edge
of her boat-hull-black roar.
Stand in her rushing yawn yourself, or slide
between her jawbones in the tarmac's tread.
Graffiti – like a sandstone tattoo – taints
the upturned dish of dark: Fuck Westminster.
Jambos forever! SCOTIA! Poles Go Home.