1.) The bulk of your work is inspired by history. Tell us about the connections you see between poetry and historical events.
This is such a good question! I was having an awesome conversation with Juliette van der Molen about this a few months ago. We both write history poems, and we were both wondering what draws us to poetry and history so much. What does poetry bring to history that prose doesn’t?
At the WSR we stay away from the phrase ‘historical fiction’, finding that ‘response to the past’ opens out a much larger field for people to negotiate not only historical events and contexts but commentate on the event or period itself. At least 60% of our submissions are poetic; is it the poetic tradition? Does the mainstream corpus of poetry (elegies, traditional forms, epics etc.) lend itself to historical writing? Is it because it offers freedom to explore without having to tie itself to a specific period, setting or person? Do we just all collectively think it’s cool? For me, I think it’s the immediacy of the engagement. You’re trying to formulate what can be a very complex series of events and theories and disputed historiographies and saying ‘this is how this makes me feel’.
I know it’s quoted all the time, and I know it’s been done to death, but it reminds me of the line in The History Boys;
‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.’ (Alan Bennet, The History Boys, 2004)
It’s tricky with something as subjective as poetry, but I think it’s important that we lay down our own ways of thinking and our own experiences, particularly when it comes to exploring historical thought. I haven’t been able to get Gregory Woods’s interpretation of 1984 out of my head for weeks now, which goes:
‘[…] whenever I read Nineteen Eighty-Four I cannot help imagining, between its lines, the spectral presence of another novel, a gay novel called “Nineteen Forty-Eight”, in which two young Londoners called Winston and Julian fall in love with each other and struggle to sustain their relationship under the continuous threat of blackmail, exposure and arrest. […] What read as a futuristic nightmare to the heterosexual reader must have seemed to the homosexual reader somewhat paranoid and ignorant, because so close to the reality of homosexual life in England at the time – but showing no sign that Orwell was aware of this fact.’ (Gregory Woods, A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition, 1998).
The ‘hand’ which reaches out to Gregory Woods in 1984 is not one which was put there by the author. Orwell’s infamous ‘list’, a collection of 38 people he considered to be unsuitable as possible writers for the anti-communist counter-propaganda activities of the Information Research Department, a propaganda organisation of the British state, included those he thought had a ‘tendency towards homosexuality’. He’d probably be furious to know that this was a reading of his text. There’s something about the connection Woods draws to 1984 and what it expresses to him which makes it—to me, at least— such a good example of why we study literature. To bring this back to poetry, I think that poetry and we as poets—particularly in a historical context—take this basic theory and apply it to our work. Instead of 1984 it’s a period, a place, a person, an event, and instead of literary theory it’s our own experience, mapped onto and expressed in another context. One of my favourite poems of last year is L. A. L. Friedman’s Errant, a poem which negotiates the poet’s feelings about gender within the context of medieval literature. I think this way of thinking and writing about history is crucial for widening engagement with the subject.
2.) Many of your works also take inspiration from literature, including Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. What interests you about these writers? What do you hope to add to the conversation about their works?
OH! Honestly? I’m not really a Shakespeare fan. I don’t think he was a genius. I think having your work constantly analysed for over four hundred years in hundreds of languages by hundreds of thousands of academics – some of whom would qualify as geniuses – and performed millions of times in millions of contexts will do that to readings of your work. You’d be surprised how many of the lines he wrote are cut in modern adaptions because they don’t work or don’t sit well in the play. But the stranglehold Shakespeare has over literature and education means that so many people turn to Shakespeare to mediate or express their feelings. I don’t think this is because Shakespeare provides the language which best expresses it, but because it opens this expression to the widest possible audience. If you couch what you’re trying to say in terms of Shakespeare, people will know what you’re talking about. It ties it in to a frame of reference. The same is true to a lesser extent with a lot of canon writers. You could say ‘I met a man who I think is too good for me but flirts with me constantly and I don’t know if he’s doing that because he feels entitled but I like it, even if the fact he won’t let me in to aspects of his past raises multiple red flags’, but it’s more concise to say ‘this guy is a bit Mr. Rochester’. While some people use them to express their feelings in earnest, I find often they become a vehicle for expression because terms of expression are so commonly understood. I’ve found myself falling into this trap with my own writing before.
What drew me so much to Henry V and the First World War (St Crispin in the Trenches started out life as my undergraduate dissertation) is the extent to which this happened. You’re trying to express the something to people who haven’t experienced what you have, so you fall back on cliché because you know it will be understood. It’s a common linguistic currency. The First World War started in 1914 and continued until 1918. In that time, there was the fifth centenary of Agincourt (1415), the centenary of Waterloo (1815, with its own specific ties to Agincourt) and the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death (1616). This tercentenary date fell on the 25th April 1916 (St. George’s Day), and the Somme Offensive launched two months later, on July 1st. Although the Somme Offensive was ultimately successful (some of the most significant territorial gains of the War; relieving the pressure of Verdun; contributing to the end of Falkenhayn’s career on the Western Front; ultimately one of the contributing factors of the War ending when it did), it’s so inexplicably tied up with the memory of its first day. The British cultural memory of the Somme (and I think it’s telling we refer to it as ‘the Battle of the Somme’ rather than ‘the Somme Offensive’) is of the 1st July 1916. It remains the deadliest day in British military history, with 20,000 British and Commonwealth killed outright and 36,000 casualties. Agincourt—the battle featured in Henry V—is on the Somme. To dial this back in time; conscription was brought in in January 1916. Initially it only applied to single men aged 18-41, but in a matter of months it was made mandatory for married men as well, and by the end of the War the upper age limit had been increased to 56. The record number of conscriptions (135,277) was in June 1916. Henry V featured in debates about conscription as well, with Henry’s army being cited as the first conscripted army outside the bounds of fealty. So all this was going on at the same time—the tie of memory to the land, the nationalism, the conscripted army, the way the whole thing sat temporally—and out came Shakespeare. Henry V was produced 35 times between 1913-1935, more so than it has been before (and, most likely, since). I was drawn to people expressing themselves through other words, trying to find a common language and a sense of community.
What I find so interesting about so many canon texts is how they’re used in this context. I’m far more interested in the people searching for a means of expression than the writers themselves. Dostoyevsky’s Demons is a text which is very commonly read within a post-Soviet—and particularly a post-Stalinist—framework. Obviously Dostoyevsky wasn’t writing about Stalinism, but Demons is a classic text in which people couch their experiences under Stalinism or a similar pastoral power (to borrow a term). History and memory and literature and how the three intersect is such an area of interest for me and, to be honest, a lot of the time I feel like a child just splashing about in all three and not really doing a lot. This is something that I really want to work on in my writing in the coming years. I suppose what I want to add to the conversation is that classic writers aren’t sacred. They aren’t gods. They’re there for you; all of it belongs to you. So many people have found comfort and expression and community in these works, whether they actually like the thing or not.
3.) You are the Editor-in-Chief of the Wellington Street Review. What challenges have you encountered while running a literary journal?
I think the biggest—and this must be shared by editors the world over—is blind submissions. One of the things I love the most about how the WSR has developed is how many of our submissions come from people outside of the Twittersphere. I think all editors share the fear of becoming unintentionally cliquey. But so many people take ‘creative response to the past’ in so many wonderful ways. While our mission is quite narrow, people are constantly finding ways to surprise us—in every meaning of the word. But it is very obvious who has taken the time to consider their submission and who has just seen the ‘open for submissions’ sign.
One of the benefits of being online only is that we aren’t confined to page numbers – if a work comes in that we love at the eleventh hour, we don’t have to worry about trying to fit it in around an already filled number of slots. There are some works which we read, and we think ‘Yes. This is going in’. There are others which we read which don’t stand out immediately, but which we can’t stop thinking of. There are ones that grow on us. And then there are the ones that come in without having followed the submission guidelines which have nothing to do with the journal. The thing with blindly submitting is that it helps no-one. It doesn’t help us and—crucially— it doesn’t help you either. You belongs in a journal that fits it just as much as you want to fit the journal.
4.) You write both poetry and prose. What are your favorite parts of both mediums?
I like the different sorts of freedoms associated with both. The constraints of poetry can be so helpful to force you to think and to be innovative in a way that isn’t necessarily true with fiction. However, fiction allows for a freedom and diversity of themes that poetry doesn’t always.
It’s funny—I always think of myself as a prose writer rather than a poet, despite the fact I’ve had far more published poetry than I have prose. When it comes to prose, I love ambiguous storytelling. My current ongoing project is an eco-horror novel, and there are a lot of (minor) things which are left deliberately unexplained. I want the reader to have fun with it. I want the reader to come away having read a completely different book to their friend. But I’m also aware that not everyone shares this taste, and if it isn’t done right it comes across as lazy storytelling. I think there’s much more ‘fun’ to be had within the remit of prose in this way, which poetry doesn’t necessarily allow. If you sat and read a book for four hours and came out thinking ‘what the hell was that’, the endorsement is in that you’ve spent four hours reading it. If you read a poem in two minutes and think ‘what the hell’, its much easier to chalk that up to ‘the poet is a bad poet’, which isn’t necessarily the case. The difference in how you read and approach both media is different, which influences how you write it.
5.) Many of your works include translations. Tell us a little about the translation process.
The most important thing about translating is to have fun and be yourself. I studied a bit of Middle English and OE at school, but a lot of my translations in Wyf-King are based off dictionaries and what I know of German grammar. I have a few friends who have a really good knowledge of OE and I live in fear that they’re going to come over and beat me up one day. The way I work with translating is to work it what it is you want to put across. Is it literal? Is it metaphorical? Is it an emotion you’re trying to convey? What’s the best way of doing that? Is it a word? The grammar? The form? I read Demons in translation, then in another translation then the parts I knew I wanted to work on in Russian. I had three similar but different ways of looking at the same text, and from that distilled what it was that I wanted to bring out. Then I focused on which words fit within the poetic framework I was working in, etc. It’s absolutely not an exact process.
6.) You engage with a lot of academic and theoretical concepts in your writing. How do you incorporate these ideas into your work?
Theory should be easy to understand. If it’s not clear, that’s on the theorist and not you. Academic writing which takes three goes to even begin to parse is just bad writing, the same as with any other discipline. If I’m trying to get across a particular way of thinking, I ask how can I show the reader this is what I mean? How can I communicate this without telling them? How can they have as much fun reading it as I am writing?
7.) As an editor, what do you look for in a submission? How do you know if a submission will fit with your journal?
As with all journals, a cover letter is key. Show us that you’ve read our guidelines and thought about where you’re going to submit. Sometimes we get a submission and it’s like that person has read our minds. Others, we’ll get one and it isn’t clear how the piece fits until we read the cover letter. It can only be a sentence or two. It’s like sitting in a room with the author while they say, ‘Okay, here’s what I’m thinking’. As with all art, there are several different ways to take poetry, and the authors’ intent isn’t always clear on the first reading. That’s one of the reasons our wait period is six weeks—we like to give all the pieces the consideration and thought they deserve.
8.) What attracts you to Royal Rose?
I love how Royal Rose lifts up and showcases marginalized voices. The mag has gone from strength to strength, and so much of that is based on the love and care it puts in not just to each issue but the people that make it. Royal Rose and Imani take so much care over both the work and the artists they feature, and that is something which isn’t commonplace in the mag scene.
9.) You are the creative director of Royal Rose. What are your hopes for the magazine?
I hope this mag continues to develop in the way that it has; I hope it keeps featuring and reaching so many amazing people. I love the way that Royal Rose advertises its writers; I love the concept of The Castle; I love the way it engages with readers. So many little things about the mag are unique, like the fact that the issues are presented landscape instead of portrait. It’s little things like that which make Royal Rose such a brilliant place to work. I would say that I hope this is carried through 2020, but I know that it will be.
10.) What are your plans for 2020?
I’m finishing my master’s and applying for funding for my PhD at the moment (wish me luck!). My PhD thesis focuses on the reception of the First World War in 21st Century popular culture. I’m also undergoing a serious overhaul (rewrite no. 3) with an eco-horror novel set in the mid-Atlantic. I hope I’ll have a semi-workable manuscript at the end of the year! In terms of poetry, I want to work more with handwriting. I go through all of my academic work on paper before I do anything with it (which is a real pain because I don’t have a printer), and I don’t know why I don’t do the same with my poetry. I also want to eat more bread.