Thursday, 1 June 2017

Poet Interviews: 1 - Simon Zonenblick

Welcome to the first of my new features for the Caterpillar Poetry blog.  Forthcoming interviews already lined up include Mandy Pannett and Steve Nash, and I would like to roll out this feature with my own attempts at answering a few poetic questions - just to prove that they are fair.  I have used the same template for myself that I have used with the first interviewees of this feature.

Can you give a brief description of your "poetry background", ie how you became interested in poetry as a reader and a writer? 

I always enjoyed stringing words together in vaguely rhythmic patterns, and loved the children's poetry and songs I encountered from the earliest age.  I didn't focus on aspiring to "be a poet", until later in my teens - as with so much in life, it seemed a grand aspiration I would one day like to aim for, but without the confidence to even secretly embark on it.  In the last few years of school we were introduced to Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night's Dream, and later MacBeth), and I found myself transfixed by the power and majesty of its language.  I was completely alone in this appreciation - all of my contemporaries deplored it.  No-one could understand much of the vocabulary, but this seemed to me then and seems to me now a bizarre reason to shun it.  How many of us, when listening to a great symphony or observing a great feat of science really comprehend what is happening?  I was content to immerse myself in the Universality and beauty of the poetry and was conscious of having stumbled upon greatness.  Unfortunately, owing to the general intimidation such things inspired in most other pupils, poetry and Shakespeare were typically shoved under the carpet, in a way that would never have happened with  subjects such as Mathematics - which is of virtually no value to teenagers or anybody else, but has the advantage of being utterly dull, and as such perfectly suited to the National Curriculum. 
You might think that with such lofty examples, a young aspiring poet would pack up and go home - but if anything I am happy that my starting gun consisted of such unobtainable heights, which took the pressure off!  Fortunately, in my closing year of school, we had a rather visionary English teacher, a poet herself, who introduced to the class (by then quickly dwindling due to expulsions and the rising tide of drug casualties) to the War Poets, Hughes, Heaney, a little poetry of bygone centuries, and certain more modern poets such as Stephen Spender and even John Hegley.  The first poem I remember really having to work at in forensic detail was The Horses by Edwin Muir - I was stunned by its multifaceted complexity, its symbolism and allusions, and the unexpected emotions that the poem evoked. Perhaps the two poems which had the strongest effects on me as a teenage reader were hugely different to each other in terms of their historical context, and style: Philomel, by Richard Barnfield (1574-1620), and the 1970's poem For Heidi with Blue Hair, by Fleur Adcock. Both explore the themes of the outsider, but while the former is philosophical and beautiful, the latter spoke to me on an everyday level, in a setting that was almost familiar.  Fleur Adcock's poem features a father having to ring his daughter's school, after she is sent home from school for having dyed her hair blue ("or at least ultramarine / for the clipped sides, with a crest / of jet-black spikes on top) owing to the fact that the headmistress put it,
although dyed hair was not
specifically forbidden, yours
was, apart from anything else,
not done in the school colours
The poem targeted something of the very inflexibility of convention which I have always felt tends, rather than to foster harmony, to hold back individual and societal progress, and hits at the heart of much of what I have always found to be perhaps the worst aspect of misplaced authority: the tendency to obsess over things of no consequence, while matters of enormous importance are sidelined - in this case someone's education.

Which poets are important to you and why?

All of the aforementioned, obviously, but also a great plethora of poets far too numerous to list.   But to attempt a sort of chronology of poetry that has maybe set me on my personal course of reading and trying to write, I would say the Romantics played a big part - I came to them late, but the poetry had a similar effect to the Shakespeare described above. I have always had a great love of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and perhaps the poet whose work had the biggest single effect on me as an A-Level student (and continues to have an effect on me) was Philip Larkin.  In more recent times I have been delighted to discover the poetry of Kathleen Raine, Frances Horovitz, Ann Michaels, David Caddy, Mandy Pannett, and many more contemporary poets.  The Australian poet Ross Kightly, whose collection Out of Bounds was recently published by Calder Valley Poets (by another fine contemporary poet, Bob Horne) has widened my approach to the world, indeed the Universe, through his surrealist poetry, while one poet I think of constantly, and read almost as often, is the great French poet Charles Baudelaire.  Not only was his poetry vivid, fabulously contrary, deliciously sinful, and very entertaining, but Baudelaire's own life was also the stuff of drama, and adds a certain element of excitement to the poetry (having bounced back and forth between the different viewpoints on this, I am of the opinion now that the poet's identity and own life is almost inevitably, in the case of personal or confessional poetry, present in the poem, and I find that to to approach a poem with ultra-objectivity once facts about its author are known, is to sort of dilute some of its authenticity - to me, at least.

How important is the history, landscape and general environment of the area you live in, to the poetry you write?

I live in the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, so the environment and landscape are incredibly important: everywhere I go I am conscious that the Brontes, Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Herbert Lomas, Steve Nash, and so many others have all written such great poems inspired by and about it that I can never hope to equal them - reinforcing that lack of pressure I mentioned earlier! Many of us have learned part of our craft at the excellent Igniting the Spark writing workshops delivered in Halifax by Gaia Holmes, another hugely talented Calder Valley poet, so my time in the valley has been of direct relevance to my writing in that sense also. But I think as well, the fact water is so prevalent in the valley, and that our environment is so composed of both natural and historical sights, has had an undoubted effect on the subject matter of my poetry.  In the towns, the sense of familiar, reliable working class history, juxtaposed by those dark Satanic mills, can still be found to linger, while out into the countryside, there is an almost Pagan essence of history, and something on the margins of human history.  Something frankly quite primeval.

 How did you begin to get published as a poet, and how did your debut publication come about?

Simply through the painstaking process of finding magazines to submit to - I used to enjoy the ritual of doing this by envelope, it is less romantic now by email, but much more efficient!  I published my first collection, Little Creatures - Poems of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms, as the debut pamphlet of my small press, Caterpillar Poetry.
Have there been any landmark events or experiences in your life, or the lives of others, that have either motivated you to write, or have affected the general nature of what you have written?

I would tend to write more about my own experiences in prose, sometimes fiction, and it is often a lot of years before I have sufficiently made sense of an event, or begun to form my responses, unless the poetry is to be of the automatic writing kind which simply conveys instinctive images and reactions. I am likelier to write about big events in someone else's life - real or imagined.

 What kinds of poetry do you like - and which, if any, do you dislike?

I like almost all poetry in that I will happily grapple with the most difficult of texts, but I am not keen on poetry which tries too hard to be obviously clever, and likewise I get easily bored by "Moon and June" poetry, of the "Clinton's Cards" variety.
I know it is a cliche, but I am not terribly fond of contemporary political poetry, but not because of any thoughts I may have regarding its subjects: a good poem is a good poem, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the message it is intended to convey.  The problem for me is rather that today's political poetry is so predictable, and the point-scoring or ranting often comes at the expense of genuinely well crafted poetry - with the result that a lot of anthologies or open mic events, for instance, fail to actually stimulate or surprise, to spark new thoughts or tug at heart strings, or to challenge.  The journalist Nick Cohen has observed that, here in Britain, many of today's polemical writers regard themselves as brave crusaders for justice who "speak truth to power" because they level their criticisms at safe targets, such as elected Western governments, knowing no reprisals will result.  The same is true for much modern poetry I feel - as soon as I read that someone is regarded as a "subversive" poet who "challenges" social norms, I know I am about to re-tread the same territory I have visited innumerable times before.  I also fear that a great deal of poetry which explores social, political, ideological and ethical matters does so in ways which do not justice to the complexities of the issues, or the manifold perspectives they sometimes evoke.  One of the few exceptions to this rule is the Sheffield born poet Helen Mort, whose collection Division Street (Chatto, 2013) is a painfully realistic reflection on the legacy and scars of the 1984/5 Miners' Strike - a collection whose visceral, physical and image-riddled poems hit me as hard as the stone lobbed in '84, which hangs like a star over Orgreave - poetry which brings tears to my eyes.

Is there any over-riding "theme" or raison-d'etra behind your writing as a whole, or has it tended to go in different directions and areas of inspiration?

I have three main answers here - firstly I just want to record the fast-fading splendors of a world being rapidly destroyed by greed and destruction, but also I want to use poetry as a tool for striking back against these destructive forces.  At the same time, I like the thought of bringing some joy and humour into the world, and enjoy nothing more than penning slightly surreal, often daft poems purely for the sake of entertainment.  I feel there is a lot of darkness and anger in the world at present, and trying to lighten some of that load with a gentle joke or a silly song is surely no bad thing.  I concern myself with the little ways in which I might help to shine the odd light on otherwise unnoticed things - hence my poetry of insects.  Let's not forget I have been described as "the poet of slugs and snails."

What do you make of the small magazines and competitions, and what are your experiences of the readings circuit?

The many different venues and events for readings make for a diverse scene, though I have little experience of competitions.   For a long time I was terrified of readings, even open mics, even though I have a background of youth acting and such, but in the summer of 2014 I just seemed to leap into it - thanks to Anthony Costello's Kultura Poetry night in Todmorden and a lot of wine - and since then I have generally enjoyed readings.

Do you feel poetry (in whatever context you like - international, British, European, etc) is currently in a good or poor state?

I think there is an abundance of absolutely brilliant poetry, but much of it goes unpublished and unheard because poets by their very nature are often reticent, and because the current trends in poetry seem to be veering more in the academic direction, whereby the poetry is so often of the intellectual rather than instinctive or aesthetic kind.

 A few words on how you write, any routines, superstitions and such?

Sadly I have none, as yet. Life is too busy.  I scribble things on paper when I ought to be doing sensible things like doing the hoovering or paying bills.  And I write on trains - but then, what poet doesn't?

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