I wake to the wind
clawing at the gaps
between the window
and its frame. I roll over,
nuzzle into your shoulder
and try to sleep but
I can hear it whipping
the trees into a frenzy
of leaves and I’m jealous.
I want to roar.
Describe your style (this could be limited to your writing style, or style, in whatever sense of the word you’d like to conceive it in, and how that relates to you as a writer).
I don’t really like talking about my own style, but here goes!
I think my style is a bit like a small tin of maple syrup. I realise that’s an odd observation to make, but to say something like ‘my poetry is intense, yet minimal’ seems a little oxymoronic. I tend towards domestic scenes; a couple arguing, small children playing whilst a parent watches, or flatmates cooking and try to realise the normalcy of the situation, but also recognise the significance of their actions.
If people are puzzles, then my poetry is an attempt to reveal how those puzzles work. People are complex, irrational, emotional beings though, and this often permeates the poetry itself, lending it a kind of absurdist quality. I’m a big fan of coincidence, paradox and the idea that things can ‘just happen’ in the world – people can suddenly become angry or upset, irritated or happy for reasons that escape our attention. I love that. I love people.
What do you feel makes a poem ready for consumption by others?
Lots and lots and lots of re-reading! Other poets and writers suggest things like putting the poem to one side and leaving it for a few days – to cool, I guess? Then going back to it at a later date. This certainly works, but I think a lot can be done in the minutes following the poems creation, but you have to move carefully. You have to be patient and steady in these movements; keep drafts, and be prepared to fiddle with the words already written. It’s a very delicate process, and I think the hardest part is knowing when you’re done – when the poem is fit for consumption.
There are three stages; the this is the best thing I’ve ever written stage, followed by the did I really write this? stage, and then the last stage is somewhere between the two. When you reach that final stage (the hrumph, I guess it’s okay but I don’t know stage) then it’s probably ready for consumption.
There’s also the I’m sick of this stage, but that tends to occur if you’ve spent too much time fiddling and editing. Sit down, take a break, have some coffee and think about something else. Let it cool, and you’ll find your hrumph stage eventually.
A good cup of coffee has the power to seduce. What role does seduction play in your writing (i.e. – is it a theme in your work? Do you seduce yourself into the act of writing? Or does the seduction come when someone is drawn to your work – are you out to seduce poetry readers? Does seduction have some other role entirely vis-à-vis your work, or, does it have no role at all?)
I think seduction always comes up in relation to poetry, though not necessarily always as a theme. For me it’s more about the seduction of rhythms, rhymes sounds and patterns; together, these components seduce not only the reader, but also the writer.
I tend to think of poetry as translation rather than seduction, but it works well that way too; I find myself seduced by the world around me, by images of events, by actions, by sounds and tastes to the extent that I want to sit down and write about them. The act of writing is also seductive; I’m sort of coaxed into it by my imagination and a feeling that I need to write, then the words begin to form and I fall into it as if it’s instinctual – this is where the sounds and rhythms come into play.
I don’t know whether readers feel the same way I do when I’m writing, in fact I’m not sure it’s possible [insert long diatribe about Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ here) but poems are powerful things, they make people feel things they haven’t felt before, they make people think, and I like that. However, I don’t think it’s good to be thinking about that when writing as it might begin to rule the text, by all means think about sounds, rhythm etc but try I’d try to avoid thinking about the audience until a lot later.
Like a good cup of coffee, poetry has the power to seduce, but coffee is also damn tasty, its full of wonderful caffeine and its often something that’s consumed socially. Poetry, like coffee, has the potentially to be seductive and more.
At this moment in poems and writing, who’s writing the poems you like to read?
I love Jo Shapcott, I prey a little on William Letford when I can, Sam Willetts’ work is fantastic – I couldn’t stop reading Digging, in fact, it used to be stuck up on the wall at home. I like the delicate absurdity of Matthew Francis’ work, Roddy Lumsden is a big influence too. Other than that I’ve been crawling through the old stuff; Keats is always on the reading list, and I’ve been trying to get my head around Ginsberg and Cage.
Where do you do your writing? How important is ‘place’ and a sense of ‘space’ for a writer?
I write wherever I am, but I do most of my writing in my bedroom. If I could afford it I think I’d spend all my time in cafe’s and pubs though; the social energy of those places really gets me thinking, and you can learn so much from the conversations around you. The fact that other people are doing things is also helpful – in a cafe I always feel on show, so if I’m there on my own I really feel the need to do something which is brilliant. But essentially it’s more of a mental space for me than a physical one. That being said, I usually have to be alone to write. I couldn’t write with someone looking over my shoulder.
I always emphasise space over place when it comes to writing. I’ve never liked pinning things down to a concrete location, or giving vivid descriptions of a characters’ setting. I like how Raymond Carver does place – through descriptions of little objects like cups, fishing rods, vehicles and roads – rather than the more rounded, fuller prose style of contemporary authors. For me, the space between two cups on a table is more poetic than, say, suddenly locating a text in Venice or Paris. What space do the cups share? If they are close together then perhaps their physical intimacy is echoed by those sitting at that table, and what if the cups are moved away by the drinkers? Does that in turn say something about their relationship? The space between cups, the way two people greet each other in public, the haphazard clumsiness of a man in the dark – for me, it’s all about these. These together produce a greater sense of place than trying to hit place straight on, as it were.
Stevie Smith once said that “poetry never has any kindness at all”. How true do you think this is?
Ah, I really don’t know! I kind of want to say that poetry tears me apart. It’s so visceral, vivid and raw that it makes my fingers itch. Yet this unkindness is its brilliance; like walking up a mountain in a storm: it’s beautiful, so awe-inspiring yet deadly, and when you get to the top you feel amazing, like a god. This is as true for the reader as it is for the writer because for the reader, the poem (or even prose) is a journey and you’re there, you’re in it.
I think poetry can be kinder to its readers than its writers, because the reader luxuriates, enjoys and falls into the poem whereas for the writer it’s about trying to find a way of getting that sensation or image across, which can often be very difficult. It often feels like I’m in conflict with my own tongue or with language itself, because I can’t seem to find the right words or the right image.
Yet we are lifted aren’t we? Lifted by the words on the page into emotions and sensations. We think more, we prod the text, and we look to the world outside and maybe appreciate it a little bit more for its depth and complexity. I can’t agree then, though I can see what she was getting at!
When it comes to writing poems, and how events are captured on the page, do you think it is better for the poet to suffer from excruciatingly good memory, or excruciatingly bad? (i.e. what role does the truth have in writing a ‘good’ poem?)
Good question. A scary question, even. I’d go for excruciatingly bad but just carry a notebook everywhere with you; catch everything as it happens and then look back at it later. It’s not so much about the truth of events as about how you translate them; in the same way that a story doesn’t need to be true to be meaningful or exciting. I do think poetry, as a form of writing, is more entrenched in the ‘real’ than other practices but that doesn’t mean it has to be real. It could just be an imagining of the real, a kind of I wonder what would happen if situation turned into a poem.
Rendering might be a good term here, or even shading. You shade a 3D object to make it appear 3D, not to make it 3D. It has the illusion of true depth but it is not ‘true’. Also, the fact that it’s an illusion doesn’t make it any less valuable or less meaningful; that’s down to the viewer, or the audience. There are these fantastic artists out there that can do photo-realistic images in pencil or paint, and some of them create these amazing surreal images and it’s real, it’s true, but it’s also not true at all. Maybe they do these images from memory, or maybe they just make them up. I don’t know, would love to ask though!
Just a quick bit on if a poet had excruciatingly good memory – I think the problem with good memory would be that you’d want to realise the situation or object or incident as it had occurred, but this would prove impossible. We change things all the time, we all see things in different ways, and the you five minutes from now is different (even if only a little bit) from the you right now. In perceiving the world we distort it then believe those distortions to be real or ‘true’, time further distorts that which we perceive. By the time we’d got home and started writing we’d find ourselves stuck at what exactly had occurred and how to realise that in words. It comes back to translation and rendering; that’s the important bit, and no matter how hard you shade a 2D object you can’t make it 3D. You just end up tearing the page.
Describe the last time you had a really stunning cup of coffee (or tea).
There was a cafe not far from Leith offering chocolate infused tea. When I saw it I had to do a double take, I had no idea something like that existed. It was every bit as amazing as it sounds.
Black, Strong, or Sweet?
Black and sweet? Sweet Fennel is ideal, Earl Grey with lemon is fantastic, and a large cup of coffee with a chunk of lemon or lime is godly.
Hayden Westfield-Bell is a recent graduate of the UEA’s Creative Writing MA (Poetry) and an Editorial Advisor of International Authors. His poetry has been published in Emanations, Popshot, and a small number of student anthologies but he also writes short stories and longer prose and is currently working on a larger piece of genre-fiction.