Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 23 October 2008

An interview with Claire Askew (part two)

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.


Dave King said...

Another excellent interview, Jim. You really brought out the pertinent aspects of your subject. The poem I thought was astounding, some really telling similes and metaphors that drove it wonderfully.

(Incidentally, I had great difficulty getting your comments page to open - which may explain why you have had none before mine.)

Rachel Fox said...

Brave lass...speaking out against snobbery, bitching and cliques! I don't have a lot to do with anything like a poetry scene - I'm miles from the cities and if anything I'm more involved with music scenes than literary ones - but some of what I have read of online has depressed me because it's been so...predictable and disappointing. It's very easy to get into cliques - you get them everywhere (in school, at school gates, at work, at play) - but now we're grown-ups (and hopefully people with some brains and understanding) wouldn't it be nice to try and be interested in others who aren't like us for a change (instead of recreating school factions all over again). Can we only like poets who write like us, for example? That seems like madness to me. Some of the most interesting exchanges I've had online have been with poets who write about very different subject matter to me and in very different ways. Every now and again we find some common ground..and it's funny and exciting when that happens...but a lot of the time we don't. We just exchange ideas and experiences. It's a debate! (A mass debate? Oh dear...)

Overall the blogs I read most are the ones whose writers have the most open-minded attitudes (and that doesn't mean they never criticise - it means they do it respectfully, with some thought to the person at the receiving end of the criticism). Bitching is so easy - it makes us feel good to look down on others who aren't as clever, as marvellous, as inspired as ourselves...but it's very bad for the soul (whatever that is...) and it never does poetry, as a whole, any good either. Poetry has enough of a bad reputation (in some ways) as it is. The last thing we need to do is reassure people that poets really are the whingey, bitchy, small-minded, self-obsessed, poncey layabouts that they may already imagine we are. (OK...I am a bit of layabout...1 out of 6 isn't bad).

Anonymous said...

Another strong interview.

The poem was a stoater. I particularly liked:

'A bus swings through her like the tongue
of a bell, flinging peals of pigeons
into the cool air.'

Great image. Overall, this is well rendered, capture's the city well. Great atmosphere. Even the added touch of xenophobia was welcome.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Dave, and I'm sorry you have problems making a comment. I see Blogger has changed the format – it used to open in a separate window but now it's at the bottom of the page – but I've had no problems getting it. Hopefully their tweaks have now been ironed out.

As for the interview, yes, I was keen not just to make it a plug for her site, although I was equally keen to make sure her site was plugged and I've been sending e-mails all over the place trying to drum up a attention because I think One Night Stanzas is a most necessary thing and long overdue.

And, Rachel, yes, I was disappointed when I read her remark about trying to merge with the existing Edinburgh poetry scene. It's why I gave her space to talk about it. It needs to be talked about. I'm like you, I like to talk to all kinds of poets. I want to understand why they do the things they do. I know I ask why more than most people like but how else does one learn? The trouble is, a lot of people treat 'why?' as an attack and it is so not. It's like when I asked you about using capitals at the start of each line, I sincerely wanted to know your reason. And I got your answer. It doesn't persuade me to change what I do but now I know. Christ, it would be an awful world if we were all the same.

I really hope that Claire gets the right kind of audience, poets who haven't become disillusioned and cynical. There is a lot to be gained by associating with people who are open about their craft.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks, Anon, whoever you are (you sound Scottish), and it was hard to choose from the poems I had available. I really like Claire's style of poetry and I look forward to when her collection comes out so I have it all in one place.

McGuire said...

The anonymous message was from Me, McGuire, I'm hopeless, I posted without signing in.

Marion McCready said...

Hi Jim, I don't know if that comment went through so here it is again, if you got it just delete this.

Sounds like she's got a glittering career ahead of her, good luck to her!

The nature of the poetry world makes it a very cliquey business and not that I'm excusing it but I think it's fairly natural where there is such diversity of thinking, put three poets in a room and you get ten different opinions etc. I imagine it's the same in the art world.

One of the problems of the internet is that a bitch amongst friends is no longer just amongst friends, and a matter-of-factly put post on a blog may come across a whole lot harsher than intended. Unfortunately there is also a lot of unexcusable nastiness particularly aimed at new writers by self-appointed 'experts' on poetry-writing forums, which is why I'm particularly pleased that Claire has started ONS.

Jim Murdoch said...

McGuire! Should've known it was you.

And, Sorlil, only one comment came through. I really hope I'm not going to develop a problem with comments. I like my comments.

I love it! Three poets – ten opinions! Isn't that the truth? I think I'm very lucky not to have attracted any bitches yet considering some of the topics I've opened up. I hope this is because I never set out to be contentious or to present my opinion as if it's a) the only one or b) even the right one, if there exists such a thing. When I ask a question I genuinely want to see answers. Like I was just saying to Rachel, I probably ask 'why?' more than I should but I ask it less than I'd like. I always look at a poem and assume that the person who wrote it likes what they've done, that it says what they want to say or is at least their best stab at it so, if they've presented it in couplets I'm curious why. Why not a single block? And indents, what's the point? Or splitting a word over two lines – where are they coming from doing that? Why? Why? Why?

And I genuinely don't get it when poets want to keep their cards to their chests. Or go off in huffs and delete their posts. What's that all about?

Maybe all that's needed is a rallying point. Let's hope so.

Rachel Fox said...

Different opinions, Sorlil, yes but they don't necessarily have to lead to bad feeling or snootiness or a clique. Look at you and me and Sylvia Plath...we couldn't feel more differently about her and yet we treat each other and our very different opinions with something that I suppose must be respect. I don't think you're an idiot for thinking she's brilliant and you don't think I'm an idiot for not agreeing. To me it's about maturity...and people of any age can be immature!

Marion McCready said...

I know what you mean rachel, I've certainly seen a lot of snootiness around that kind of thing. I'm liking poetry now that I wouldn't have looked twice at a decade ago and you never know, we might turn you into a Plathite yet! lol

Art Durkee said...

It is indeed about maturity. I'm feeling very old in all this. Not that I'm wiser somehow, as I'm not, just that I'm seeing battles talked about that I've already fought and left, engaged with and walked away from. Part of maturity, which has nothing whatsoever to do with calendar age—Claire seems quite a bit more mature than most, and her desire to be of use to the world is a marker of wisdom—is knowing one's own patterns, strengths and weaknesses, well enough that one doesn't trip over them. A mark of my own maturity, if indeed that's what it is, is a decreased ability to care what anyone thinks of me. I'll just keep on doing what I do; they can catch up, or not.

Cliques are ultimately driven by fear: xenophobia; fear of looking stupid, which is a self-esteem issue; fear of being different oneself. It's pack behavior. It's tribal-level behavior: there is no room in any clique for an individual, someone who makes up her own mind or dares to state an opinion differing than the pack leader's. I've been kicked out of so many cliques in my life, it's hilarious; for some reason, people keep inviting me to join them, but at some point I tell a truth they don't want to hear, and they boot me out. I'd rather not deal with the drama anymore, so i've become more solitary—except of course that the internet allows me to talk to smart people, as here, with smart opinions who don't feel that attack-politics is the only option for interaction. That's why I agree with Rachel that it's about maturity.

BTW the cliquishness of the poetry world is, I believe, just a reflected microcosm of the macrocosmic stresses going on in the world at large. Yeats' "the center cannot hold" is more true than ever; the big difference is that, because of the new media, we get to hear about in more detail all the time. It's sometimes necessary to step back and ignore the bloody news, find one's own center, and realize that while the big world seems to be falling apart, in fact it's just growing pains, and the little worlds around us are doing just fine. Even the most sedate newscasters these days are fearmongering. The literary blogosphere is full of this, but again I think reflects culture in general, and is not unique. I wrote a longish post Against Argument Culture, awhile, about this. The discussion of poetry cliques made me think about that again, and consider the relevance.

Jim Murdoch said...

And yet here we are, Art, still huddling around others for warmth, comfort and reassurance - or at the very least so that we don't look so daft talking to ourselves. When we were kids we called them gangs. I was in several. No, that's not true, several formed around me. You wouldn't think of a grump like me being the focal point of anything and yet I do seem to attract 'em, the waifs, the strays, the geeks...not so many drop-dead gorgeous blondes but you can't have everything. It's natural to want to associate with like-minded people and it's not a bad thing unless people allow it to become one. We'll just have to see what riff-raff attach themselves to Claire; hopefully it'll be the good kind.

Colin Will said...

A very good pair of interviews, Jim. Thank you.

I think I read Claire's work before I heard her read, and I wanted to read more. Having now heard her read I'm even more impressed.

It saddens me, but I know what she means about literary cliques. My background was in science, not Eng Lit, so I guess I've always been an outsider, despite having strong connections to some organisations, like the Scottish Poetry Library and StAnza. However, it's given me the freedom to mix with people from all the different poetic drawing rooms, without joining in their exclusivity. I prefer people to groups of people; maybe that's the answer.

Jim Murdoch said...

I can't profess any real knowledge of the poetry world, Colin, because I've had nothing to do with it for years. When I was young and trying to make connections I assumed the resistance I felt was due to people being too wrapped up with their own lives and so I got used to going it alone until I faded away completely. It wasn't that I had lost the love of writing; I just lost any interest in trying to shove it down people's throats. If I'd been involved with people of a writerly persuasion back then I might have done what Claire did and provide the focus they needed but I knew no one. Most people I associated with didn't even read anything deeper than a glossy magazine or a comic. And, of course, there was no Internet. Being a gentleman of a certain age you will remember that world all too well. Now all the literary things take place too late or too far away and I have neither the energy nor the inclination to make the effort to muscle my way into them. Thank God for the Internet. It has meant I can participate and support and I'm happy to do both within my limitations.

j said...

Just wanted to let give you a non-poet's feedback on these interviews -- they're great. You are well-prepared and ask good leading questions; Claire is insightful, in addition to being a very fine poet.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Jennifer, that's nice of you to say that. And, yes, I did spend a good bit of time researching Claire. What I really wanted was to provide a kind of hub that would connect the best of the work I could find out there plus top that off with not just your ordinary interview questions, hence the length. I think one of the problems with online interviews and book reviews too is that people try and keep them short and, although I can understand why, as long as you don't overdo it I think the lengthier interview provides a more balanced view of the person or the book.

Ken Armstrong said...

I'm really going to have to get that Rhythm of The Saints album.

I love Paul Simon - favorite, 'Hearts and Bones' and missed that one out. *I* got the reference thought, Jim! :)

Nice photo too - it doesn't all have to be about poetry, does it? :)

Jim Murdoch said...

Actually, Ken, I think One Trick Pony, is my favourite album. I've not listened to it in years. I have a copy I taped somewhere, somewhen but the quality is probably naff. There's a film that goes with it. Not great cinema by any manner or means but it works as an extended music video.

And, yes, she is a very pretty girl. Pretty and talented. Makes you sick, don't it?

Anonymous said...

Now come on Jim, you look nice too!! :)

'One Trick Pony' is also a great album. I've never seen the movie that goes with it but I've heard it's as you've described.

If you don't know 'heart and bones' try a little sometime. Want a link to a song?

'Rene and Georgette Magritte'

You taught me how to do it after all.

Jim Murdoch said...

There's not much by Simon I've not heard, Ken, and I've owned most of it over the years with the exception of his 2006 album, Surprise. Much to my surprise we don't have a copy of Hearts and Bones – I thought Carrie had one but there you go. I tend to keep him and Leo Sayer in my head together – they both have a fondness for long lines of text.

Amelia said...

I really admire the way you squeeze people out, reminds me of Katie Couric in her early days! Keep this up Buddy!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Ameila. I'm afraid I don't know Couric. Best I can say is that judging by her photos and considering she's ages with me she's showing a lot less signs of wear and tear.

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