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John Siddique Interview 

 

John Siddique is the author of The Prize (Rialto), Poems from a Northern Soul (Crocus Books), editor of Transparency (Crocus Books) and co-author of Four Fathers (Route). His children’s book Don’t Wear it on Your Head (Peepal Tree), was short listed for the CLPE Poetry Award. His new book is Recital: An Almanac (Salt). He gives readings, mentors and teaches creative writing around the world. He has recently written a series of poems for Lancaster University looking at migration in Manchester, and he was this year’s British Council Writer in Residence at Cal State Los Angeles. His website can be found here.

 

Ami Kaye is publisher at Glass Lyre Press and editor of Pirene’s Fountain and the Aeolian Harp Series. Her poems, reviews and articles have appeared in various journals and anthologies including Naugatuck River Review, Levure Litteraire, Kentucky Review, Iodine Poetry Journal, Tiferet, Cartier Street Review, Peony Moon and Diode Poetry Journal, among others. Ami edited and published Sunrise from Blue Thunder in response to the Japan 2011 nuclear reactor disaster, and co-edited First Water: Best of Pirene’s Fountain. Her work was nominated for the James B. Baker award, and received an honourable mention in the 2013 Tiferet contest. She is the author of What Hands Can Hold, and currently working on a benefit anthology, “Collateral Damage” to raise funds for disadvantaged children. Her personal website can be found here.

 

AK: The premise and presentation of your book Recital: An Almanac is highly effective and original. The poems within are real poems about real people and circumstances. There is an immediacy and thoughtfulness about them. The most faithful way to describe them is that they are human: down to earth, simple in language but deep in thought with a spiritual quality that transcends gender and race. The cyclical patterns of nature represent life itself. There is a wonderful sense of movement within the text. How did you think of the idea to organize the poems that way, using so many varied pieces, but pulling them together as a cohesive whole?

 

JS: Recital grew over a period of three years. I’m never in a rush to publish as publishing is not the goal for me—it is just part of the process. With this book I knew that I wanted to write a poetry collection that was “a book”, in which you could read any poem individually, but also that each poem was also part of a flow, which would give you a wider experience, should you read it from the beginning to the end. Over the course of the three years my original ideas clarified and reformed and I found that as the book showed me more and more what it was about, I was able to work at a very deep level on giving it a strong structure. It is interesting that you should pick up on this, as it is something I worked very hard at, but I did everything I could so that the effect would be subtle and draw the reader through the book rather than being in their face. I didn’t want to use clever tricks to demonstrate anything about myself, I simply wanted to write a book that was immersive, that was a true act of creativity on my part and which repaid the reader for taking the time to enter into it.

 

AK: In some ways, Recital is very much a British book, yet it is also a book about humanity, which finds resonance in the hearts of all readers. By speaking of such topics as the London bombings, it is examining society closely—a representation in literature of ‘that which no one speaks of’. In the sequence ‘Inside’ you start by saying:

 

There are poems to write which I am told should

not be written, almost as if to think

about a thing condones it.

 

Obviously these poems are very sharp and hard-hitting with an emotional impact. How much freedom do we have as writers to spotlight the unspeakable and give it a voice? How much influence do we have through the written word?

 

JS: We are free to write whatever we want, but a terrible self-censorship has crept into the arts over the last decade. It has always been part of the poet’s job to challenge society, and that aspect is what has made it such a dangerous job at times. Perhaps sometimes it’s just easier to write trivially about very little, or worse be some kind of blowhard full of fixed views signifying nothing. Art is our great mirror, engagement with that as a writer or artist demands the letting go of one’s opinions and meeting things face to face and reporting back from those interactions. As for influence I often doubt there is any. Personally I just try to write books that I’d like to read but which no one else has written yet, so I think to myself, ‘oh well–I’d better do it then'. My greatest hope as a writer is to do that job well enough so that I am changed by the writing of the words, that I become more human and connected through that, and that if someone should read the work that they are encouraged and moved in their own lives.

 

AK: John, your work is beautifully crafted. In particular, I enjoy the epiphanous end lines in all your poems. Also, I notice in many of your poems some of the stanzas can form complete poems in themselves such as these lines in ‘Facing You’ from Recital:

 

We cannot tame love, or the wind, or the sea, we are not

here for long enough. There will always be these things.

Our joy comes from being the flash, the spark in the eye

of forever. Forever is grown too old to laugh and scream.

 

This kind of stanza makes for a lasting impression, leaving the reader satisfied. Does this just happen or do you design your poems that way? Please share how you think of line placement and the musicality of your words. Do you play with them as you write, or do you write first and then augment later?

 

JS: I do everything you mention above. Musicality and meaning are paramount. I often speak aloud as I write, and as I revise. It is the finding of the natural music of the piece, which gives a sense of wholeness. Very often what is published is very different from what I originally write in my notebook. The first versions often contain sketches of the music and meaning, images etc; I also have a rough basic structure. Over my career I’ve learned to wait so that I can see clearly what I’ve written. I usually don’t look at a poem for a least a month after first draft, then it will get two or three revisions before I show it to my friend Catherine Smith who edits with me. She is a terrific poet and we help each other out by co-editing. I’d never dream of workshopping a poem at a writing group, as good and supportive as these can be, there are often too many “games” at play and egos at large in artistic circles. I’m not writing to play games or please other poets, so Catherine and I have developed a way which gives us both good feedback but which is clear and transparent and is based on making the poetry do its best work rather than being about our personalities.

 

AK: Your poetry has an impressive range, in content, style and form. A poet writing structured verse forms or free verse with equal comfort speaks of an open mind and compassionate heart. Love poetry, in particular, is difficult to write with a fresh voice as a staggering amount has been published already through the centuries. Can you tell me how you avoid the clichéd and overly sentimental in your rather splendid love poetry?

 

JS: Love is always new. I think we spend too much of our time lying to ourselves as artists, we say we don’t want to be influenced or that our ideas be truly original in our genius. While we get busy with all that our lives are passing. I think the route through this stuff is to practice meeting one’s subject face to face. Stories speak to us when we take our barriers away. I often think artists who worry about this false originality simply haven’t read enough. If we love our art form we must be aware of all the corners of it as much as we can, then we’ll see how everything has been spoken of already, so that all we are left with is the stories we want to write and the work of removing the barriers in ourselves to getting to them. 

 

AK: You have certainly worked in a wide variety of settings. It is clear you are a gifted teacher who challenges and inspires his students. How does your teaching method differ from the established modes of teaching creative writing in a modern academic setting? Teachers often learn from their students. Can you share with me the most significant things you have learned from your workshops and teaching experiences? How have these interactions enriched your own poetry and life?

 

JS: Academia for all its advancements is often a ghetto, I’ve noticed very often that creative writing classes often seem to be about people who are desperate to get published, or about academics who want to be seen as special by the appropriation of other people’s work. I think there has to be another way. Again the mode I’m talking about above is power based, rather than creative. I think it is interesting to see if we can find a way to work, which engenders creativity and which is different for each person. I don’t think I have any magical secret or am better than any other tutor. I’m always encouraging people who work with me to read, to practice writing by turning up at the desk and to enjoy and love what they’re doing, to try to understand what their job is and do that. We’re not here for long, so we might as well do that thing…

 

Recently I was working in Los Angeles when I was invited to meet a group of ex gang members who were trying to make new lives for themselves. These were people who would normally kill each other—being from some of the Black and Latino gangs of the city. I seem to have this habit of ending up in places or meeting people who are “away from the mainstream”. Actually everyone is away from the mainstream we only pretend there is a normality for the sake of social function. That doesn’t mean to say everyone is a good person at heart or any of that nonsense. But the world is peopled by the people who are in it—and I want to know what the world is about, so I try to put myself aside and meet us. One thing the ex gang members were doing is that they had set up a reading group; they also did some creative writing, cooking, community relations projects. The thing is the reading group read poetry. On the day I visited we were reading nature poetry by Mary Oliver, not what one would assume they would read. But in order to grow as people they realised that looking outward, nourishing the deeper part of themselves would not happen from doing the same old, same old. They had found that reading gave them succour and at the same time new ideas for life. They weren’t busy expressing themselves and proving who they were—reading for these people was a matter of life and death, and I think it is the same for all of us. Reading is one of the great connectors to life, but here in the UK we’re becoming very anti-book, and that just leaves us without any space for that close dialogue between reader and author which fleshes us out into humanity.

 

AK: We all have periods that are highly creative and times that are sparse. What did you do during the “dry” periods?

 

JS: I’m afraid I don’t agree with the idea that there are uncreative times. There are times to write more, and there are times to live more, and both require that you be creative. In the non-writing times I think it is important to read, shop, cook, love and do the garden, make notes and fill up again. Of course you have to do all these things in the writing periods too, but time away from writing is very important. As I progress in my own practice I find that when I finish a book, I need to do other things for a while. If I tried to carry on writing, I’d just write more of the same stuff that I’d just been working on, but with diminishing returns. When a manuscript is done, it’s time for a holiday if we can, or to get out and take some classes, meet people, get together with friends and so on and spend some time emptying out so that there is room for new ideas.

 

AK: I was reading one of your weblogs from A Writer’ Life. It is a well-documented fact that many writers have used journals as inspiration and a starting point to get into the flow. In one post, you wrote, ‘I hope it turns into my first book’. How has writing a blog/journal helped you with your writing?

 

JS: I keep a notebook journal everyday, and I used to blog a lot but now I find myself not wanting to be in front of screen so much, and too much blogging uses up writing that should be going into the next book, so I pretty much use the blog for trying to encourage creativity and as a way of telling stories when I’m travelling. My real journal is my lifeline. I don’t write about my general state or whatever or use it as a diary. I spend some time each day exploring how my actions of the day can take me closer to my personal and artistic goals, what steps no matter how tiny are possible through my interactions. The journal for me is a centering device, and a way to be clear. There are few things of any importance that money can buy. My youngest sister died a few years back and I learned from her death that we can either live in fear or we can take risks and do something. For me life is relatively simple, I think it is for each of us really. I want to have loved the best I can, and been loved, and I want to know the world the best I can, and tell the stories that need telling. When we get to the end I doubt any of us would say ‘oh if only I’d had a large screen TV... or a Nintendo’. Journaling is my way of navigating a course to create a life that is acceptable to me.

 

AK: It is very natural for one artist to inspire another. Can you think of an instance when that has happened to your poetry? Have your friendships or contacts with other writers, musicians and artists directly impacted your work?

 

JS: Yes we strike sparks of each other. I doubt that I would be an artist if it weren’t for some of my meetings. There are too many to even get into, but a relevant example would be that Recital would not exist if it were not for my dear friend Xanthe Gresham who is the most amazing storyteller, she is also extraordinarily beautiful and an incredible performer who if you ever get the chance to see her work you must just take a risk and go. She is a living library of myth, stories, and her artistic integrity and work ethic puts me to shame. She was telling me one time about how the Moon has different names at each time of year, and that there were a set of myths for each of the full moons of the year. We’re always trading ideas and stories, but this information wouldn’t leave me alone. I have always been drawn by the moon. I wanted to be an astronaut but growing up in Rochdale in the North of England didn’t kind of precluded joining the astronaut’s training programme. So it was that from Xanthe’s telling me about the moon that I started binge reading and researching myths about the moon from all over the world, and it was out of the structure of the year of moons that the core idea for Recital was born. 

 

AK: Writers often cross genres in their writing. I was fascinated to learn that you have written a play for the radio. Please tell us something about your play A Painter’s Sky. 

 

JS: I was commissioned by the BBC to write a very short play. I think creating an entire world and telling a story in a very short time is a very interesting challenge, so I thought to write a piece set in a prison which is a world I know well as I spent three years as Poet in Residence in a prison a while back. I also know that people are fascinated with worlds that are closed to them so I knew that would bring interest. It can be listened to still on my website as I thought I’d share it. It is a remarkable thing when you write something and then brilliant actors speak what you think are your words—and they become the life of a character. However, I’m not really tempted at this point to write more plays, as there is so much I want to do with poetry and prose over the next few years.

 

AK: I am interested in your work with children. Can you elaborate what got you started on that track and how you developed that part of your poetry? Writers of work geared for children know it is not as easy as it seems at first glance. One might use simpler language but with respect for the natural intuition of children. How do you approach writing for children as opposed to writing for adults?

 

JS: I get invited into schools a lot and often I need examples of poems for the children to work with, but I’ve found a lot of poetry written for children to be either over silly or too full of right-on moralizing and message based. So whilst there is some fabulous poetry out there for young people I thought it would be interesting to take what I do and see if I could apply it and give children a reading experience that they would enjoy, be uplifted by and learn from, and yet get them engaged with the real world through the texts. Writing for children is no less difficult than writing for adults. I don’t think there is any secret method I have except when I write for young people I write for young people, and when I write for adults I write for adults in terms of themes concepts and realities.

 

AK: Do you think the poet as a visionary has a responsibility to re-establish certain values in the reading public and leave behind a legacy of what human beings can achieve and aspire to, or is poetry about recording what is? Do we become better people for reading it? Please share with us some of your thoughts.

 

JS: Yes—all the things you say are possible and are part of the poet’s job. I don’t have any thoughts on this question really, except that I take my job very seriously and try to go beyond my limitations to do it the best I can, and also one is so much more than just a writer, I am also a man, a son, a husband, an adult and I want to be the best I can in those roles as well. It takes all of our aspects to make a life.

 

AK: What writing projects are you working on currently? As an established poet, how do you see your poetry developing in the future, and what areas would you still like to explore?

 

JS: I’m well on with what I consider to be my next book, and I have several prose book ideas in various stages too. I don’t like to speak about what I’m presently working on, as you never know what will happen; ideas grow stronger for not being over shared. Recital was a lunar book, a meditation on nation and Britain, family and real stories acted as the conduit for those ideas. All I can say about the next book at this point is that it is solar in its thinking, and where Recital was meditative, this one is shaping up to be gritty and expansive.

 

AK: Many poets have a poem or writing piece that gives them trouble and is hard to finish, but something so close to their heart that it cannot be entirely abandoned either. Sometimes it can take months or even years to complete, and when eventually finished, it has grown with the author, all the richer for having been through various stages of development. Do you have such a piece?

 

JS: Yes but it’s not a poem—and to say it gives me trouble is wrong. It’s just not the right time to write it, and the attempts I have made with it so far have shown me that I have a lot of reading to do, to come to understand how to tell this story, and I have a lot of writing to do so that I am equipped with the skills I need to make the journey. 

 

AK: What would you tell someone just starting out on a career as a poet today? What is the best advice you could give them?

 

JS: Ah this is a terrible question because there is no such thing as a career as a poet. The word career makes it sound like you can do some things in a certain order and bang you’re a poet and someone is publishing your book yaddah yaddah. The other problem with the question is that people always think there are short cuts, as if there was somewhere to get to—this stems from some basic insecurity about love or identity I think. It certainly did for me at first. I was quite wrong-headed for a while at the beginning. 

 

I’d say if you want to write, read a lot, and enjoy it or at least enjoy the challenge of it—there will be many books you dislike, and they will teach you so much. But if you hate reading, why would you want to write a book? Many people do—they say things like I want to share my unique ideas, I don’t want to be influenced, I have to tell my mother’s story, and so on. Perhaps there is a burning story to tell, love to be revealed, unique ideas to be brought to light, but without enjoying reading and the connection with the world through language as literature how can those things ever have a decent expression.

 

AK: John, it’s been a pleasure conversing with you and learning about your unique perspectives regarding poetry, the process of writing and about being a poet in today’s world. Thank you for sharing your time and thoughts.

 

   

 

   

copyright © John Siddique & Ami Kaye