Why would you want to talk to a poet? What are you supposed to SAY?

Plenty of people do it. There are interviews all over the place. But over the years the questions have changed. I remember when the regular openers were, ‘Where do you get your inspiration?’ and ‘What started you writing poetry?’

These days the questions are many and various, and the web is a great medium for an interview. I’m not thinking of YouTube or Vimeo, here, so much as text.

The Q & A format allows for short snaps (huge swathes of text are not so great on a screen), graphics (in some cases) and that marvellous business of live links that can swoop you right out of what you’re reading into something else

It also means, of course, that you sometimes forget where you started and find yourself in another meta-country completely. But there’s something lovely about that.

The interviews I like most are the ones that delve, the ones that show the interviewer knows the work and wants to ask some of the questions I would want to ask myself. So not the pattern of Six Poets, Six Questions at, where the same standard set of questions is hurled at each poet as though they’re a single breed. 

No, I like an individualised approach and an interviewer who prepares in advance (I’m old-fashioned that way). It doesn’t have to sound like a natural conversation (though some do). But it makes you think. Gives you a bit of context for the work, which you may or may not know already. Some of the ezines do this brilliantly – the Harlequin with Don Paterson, for example, or Cadaverine a good few years ago with Richie McCaffery.

And, of course, there’s Sabotage, whose Will Barrett interview with SJ Fowler was a 2015 most popular read. And that Fowler piece demonstrates the lovely thing an interview can do – leap off the screen into immediacy: ‘My answers are approximations, and contain necessary generalisations, and they are opinions, not a call to arms. They are constantly open to revision, and are being revised. And if anyone disagrees, just come and speak to me face to face, much better.’ And a medium like Sabotage can then swing right into a big interview: something complex and searching. Major statements from the interviewee. Major intellectual challenge to the reader.

In Jacket, there’s even an interview with an interviewer of poets, Andy Fitch, who made a book of sixty such exchanges (Sixty Morning Talks) as an antidote to the literary density of doctoral study.

And blogs: some bloggers do great interviews. Isabel Rogers has one with both John Glenday and Don Paterson about the process of editing poems (Glenday’s, in this case), a rare three-way exchange on such an interesting topic!

But who reads interviews with poets? My money’s on poets. Practising poets, wouldbe poets, mightbe poets, aspiring poets, expiring poets. Perhaps a sprinkling of general readers interested in writing? No, my money’s on poets reading about other poets.

What is this thing after all – this writing of poetry? Why are we investing so much time in it? What is it supposed to be, after all, this stuff that could look like a blob on a page or a 26 ottava rima stanzas and still be called ‘poem’. There are no authorised answers. Only comments on practice from specific people. You read them and you compare yourself with them, and either feel a degree of affinity or the opposite. Both are useful. We need allies. We need influences. We need challenges.

So the newest interview outlet (or inlet) I’m following is Poetry Spotlight. Its creator lives near me geographically, though we’ve never met in person. This shouldn’t necessarily make it more interesting but somehow, for me, it does. And Poetry Spotlight has a nice formula: just a few questions (five or six). Plenty of white space. The varied questions show the interviewer knows the work. The answers are peppered with live links, so you can follow up, get lost somewhere else, and come back. And there’s a poem at the end of each interview, chosen by the poet – with a few words about that poem. 

Several of the poets spotlit by Poetry Spotlight so far have been HappenStance pamphlet poets, the most recent being Jon Stone. But there’s also Kirsten Irving, Niall Campbell, Peter Jarvis, Richie McCaffery (several years on from his Cadaverine interview) and, of course, Vishvãntarã­­.

Lots of other fascinating writers too, and the list is growing at an astonishing rate. Subcribe here:

This is an old spam thriller cover, photoshopped into a book called When Poets Turn Bad, and done by poet Eddie Gibbons. There is a handsome man leaning out from the left with a revolver ready to fire. At his feet a young woman. Round the corner the villain is approaching, gun in hand. The villain is photoshopped James Fenton, on top of the title of his book (Out of Danger). There are speech balloons: the handsome man is saying 'His kind just can't take rejection!'. The girl on the floor is saying 'I shouldn't have trashed his Paris poem!'. There is a in italicised title in the middle of the page: Back into Danger. The words 'back into' are red. Danger is bigger and bright yellow.


It was Richie McCaffery’s spoon-winning collection that started it.

In Spinning Plates there are two spoon poems, and they started me thinking about spoons and how much I’ve always liked them. Here’s the second of Richie’s pair:

At the jumble sale I found a silver spoon,
a deserter from a service, left pearl black
after years of clammy hands, feeding its mystery
with runic markings all along its tapered handle.
Home and high from silver polish fumes
I revealed under the muck a tiny gilded bowl,
a Midas trick which pleased you, but jarred me.
The thought of what truth someone was forced
to swallow, to need so fine a spoon as that.

It’s a dark poem in terms of thought, but it wasn’t the thought but the spoon itself that stayed with me, the “tiny gilded bowl” and the “runic markings . . . along its tapered handle”.

In my teens I collected spoons. Not antique or deeply interesting spoons, to tell the truth, but the sort of tea-spoons you get on holiday with a little enamel plaque stating the name of the resort. I must have gathered about thirty or forty of these souvenirs, but they disappointed. They tarnished horribly, didn’t clean up well, and were spindly things, meant for display, not use. The enamel bits came unstuck. What I wanted was a runcible spoon, those beautiful little creations designed for slices of quince (I had never seen a quince either).

Somewhere along the road I abandoned the spoon collection. However, I must have retained a feeling for spoons, albeit repressed. In my kitchen drawer I had, until recently, two plainish apostle spoons, abandoned in a cupboard by the previous owner, and a large, well-worn silver tablespoon with initials on the handle. When I set up house in straitened circumstances nearly twenty years ago, I acquired cutlery from Barnardos or Oxfam, and it included four dessert spoons and four soup spoons, heavy ones, and they are silver-marked (Walker & Hall, which is Sheffield 1901, according to the little flag picture). I bought them to use, not to ‘collect’, and used they have been, ever since. I don’t know about these things, you understand, I just like them. I like them because of the weight and the feel of their tradition of use. I even like the way they wear, with little scratches and scrapings.

Back to the spoon poems. In Acumen 74, there was another one. This time by Hilary Menos, a poet of distinction if ever there was one. And here it is:


Here I am, again, in these auction rooms
browsing the silverware section for old spoons.

Jam spoons, salt spoons, teaspoons with wrythen knops
(a mint boxed set complete with sugar nips),

a George III shell-bowled sauce ladle,
a silver christening spoon with nail-head finial,

a dozen apostle spoons, each saint with his emblem
finely wrought at the tip of a grooved stem,

even repoussé berry spoons—Victorian bling—
each one a perfect treasure. All these darlings

laid out like pale corpses on velvet or silk
or rubber-banded tightly, shank to shank,

begging me to buy them, no matter how dear,
and tuck them up at home in my cutlery drawer.

Hilary took me back to my own spoons, to look more carefully (which is one of the things art does, of course). Wrythen knops—the ornamental knob at the top of a spoon handle is a ‘knop’, and if it’s twisted, it’s a wrythen knop. Other kinds of design are finials (which is also the name of the journal of the silver spoon club of Great Britain, no less).  And repoussé? That’s when the bowl of the spoon has fruit or another design worked into it.

I always knew about apostle spoons, in the same way I knew about shepherd’s purse and coltsfoot. Somebody taught me to recognize these things before I was old enough to know I was learning. But the apostle spoons I grew up with were very ordinary: I didn’t know a true set was rare, and that it should have all thirteen of the apostles, each with a separate attribute. Every apostle carries something, often the instrument that led to his death.

And so the Master (Christ) carries a cross or orb. St Peter has a sword or key. St Andrew carries a cross. St James bears a pilgrim’s staff, St John the cup of sorrow. St Philip also has a staff, but perhaps not a pilgrim’s. St Bartholomew has a knife, St Thomas a spar. St Matthew has an axe or halbert, St James the less a fuller’s bat (the implement once used for beating and cleaning wool and, according to tradition, also for finishing off poor James). St Jude has a square (perhaps with an image of Jesus on it) and St Simon Zelotes a long saw. St Judas (poor old Judas) carries a bag of money.

On holiday in October, I found myself in a ‘vintage’ shop. Vintage is a new kind of shop, it seems to me—one up on a junk shop but three down from antiques. The shop had masses of spoons, all shapes and sizes, and beautifully cleaned up by the owner. I bought three little ones, and I bought them because of the spoon poems. I sent one of them to Hilary, the other two to other close friends, one of whom was in hospital. Hilary sent me a link to the Rachel Ross gallery, which made me look at my spoons even harder, and cherish them more.

A couple of weeks ago, my ill friend (she has advanced lung cancer) sent me a little parcel—or perhaps her daughter sent it. Inside was a silver spoon, and a note: “It’s Danish, 1930’s, we’d call it a caddy spoon, the Danes call it a compote spoon. I used it for fresh raspberries and strawberries—please treasure it.” Which I will. And I will use it.

Something has started. When I should be doing other things, I have been buying inexpensive spoons on Ebay, a new form of displacement activity. When my purchases arrive I clean them and polish them and put them carefully away, some in the cutlery drawer and some in the glass-fronted cupboard in a glass jug.

I gave away my two original apostle spoons to someone who needed luck, and I like to think they bring that. But I’ve acquired more. I don’t think they are very apostle-like. The creatures at the top of several look like death’s-heads to me and remind me of some of the Freemasonry symbols you see on gravestones. Others carry what looks to me like a book, but perhaps it’s St Jude with a square. Or perhaps it’s just a spoon maker who doesn’t know his St James the greater from St James the lesser.

In Richie McCaffery’s first spoon poem, the one I didn’t quote above, he talks about the “little lost things” that are “the detritus of distress”, a poignant reference. But such things are not always lost. Sometimes they are found. Sometimes they are right under our noses, waiting for us to pick them up to eat a boiled egg. To tilt sugar grains into tea. In such tiny and honourable activities, we are connected with the ancients.

Poetry makes spoons happen. And sometimes the reverse is also true.









The contents of the three new pamphlets are done. Now it’s the covers.

The contents of the three new pamphlets are done. Now it’s the covers.

We are currently juggling graphics. Gillian has been drawing plates spinning, rain raining, anchors, ropes, cups and a horse-shoe (I haven’t had the horseshoe yet). I bought what I think is a lovely new typeface for these covers too, and even a set of graphic symbols for Richie McCaffery, the spinning plate man. For Niall Campbell there have been ropes and horse-shoes. For Theresa Muñoz a variety of sad faces, rain, flowers, hearts. Hers may not be finalized quite yet.

You would think it would be relatively quick, and perhaps it would be, were I better at all the arts I practise. But in fact, I make graphics bigger and smaller, fatter and thinner, darker and lighter. I move letters to and fro, decrease spaces, change details, review the back copy, worry endlessly about kerning and tracking, and whether I can do what I want to do and use the right words to describe it.

By and large, I try to stay simple. If you’re not an out-and-out expert, I reckon simple is best.

I find, as I get older, there’s increasing fascination in individual words – never mind sentences. I don’t count sheep any more at night. I lie in bed and crawl inside a word. Almost any word will do. Take ‘posture’.  Crawl up the descender and round the bowl of the ‘p’ and think about plosives and perkiness and the way ‘p’ alliterates with unique satisfaction. The police. Then ‘O’, the white space in the middle like a window – you can look through it, you can pop in and out, and to me it’s a white letter. And actually so is ‘s’ which always has a sizzle to it, a secret hiss in the middle of the word, and it’s white in a different way, a more solid way, like tipp-x. ‘t’ is pale brown and you can slide down the curve of the letter and sit in the foot, lean against it and think a while.

And so on. Except there’s syllables to inhabit too, and the sound texture of the word as it goes through and the endless connotations and ramifications. Soon I’m losture in posture. And then I’m asleep.

Rain Cloud girl
Rain cloud girl


Some aspects of HappenStance are patient drudgery.

Some aspects of HappenStance are patient drudgery.

That’s the checking and checking and checking that everything has been done, and finding it hasn’t, and checking again. And getting details in the website and details on the back cover and details to Nielsen and contracts to poets and details on flyers and copyright copies to libraries. Pamphlets in packets and stamps on the envelopes. Parcels to post office. More toner for printer, more paper for printing, more poems to process, more process to pickle. Orders from website, orders through letter box. Weighing the packets, keeping accounts, doing correspondence through letter and email and writing the blog. What a slog.

But actually, it isn’t. This week I’ve been typesetting first drafts of the three new pamphlets. This is a magical process, and a joy. And when you speak to the poets themselves, live and in person, it is an overwhelming privilege and pleasure to be involved in this magical thing we make out of language, this poetry thing. Also it is fun.

Here is a foretaste, a little of each. Richie McCaffery’s pamphlet is called Spinning Plates and here is the second part of ‘Ash’:

…..There is as much ash
… a smoked tab as there is
… a cremated finger.

…..The finger in question
…..was nicotine stained
…..and prone to point and jab.

…..God had a good long drag
…..on that one, then stubbed
… out in a rented ossuary.

That one is terse indeed. In other places he is lyrical, headstrong, windswept. Richie is a great man for words: loves them, soaks them up, collects them in his head like beautiful marbles—and then—watch them roll!

Theresa Muñoz writes simply. Great white spaces open out around her words and phrases, and she crosses continents effortlessly. Born in Canada to parents who hailed from two different countries, her mental location permanently traverses other homes, other countries. Here’s a bit from ‘Glasgow, December’:

…..Something to do with the change
… season, something about the early dark
…..and watching people stroll
…..up the flood-lit walk

…..takes me to that morning
… home, warm waking
… a white-frame house
…..with creaky doors and high windows
…..far from here, far from the roar

…..of buses braking hard in turn
…..and police sirens going off helplessly
… back lanes and the hum
…..of cheery rough voices
… the crowd
…..getting louder.

And there’s Niall Campbell (pronounced like kneel, not the river Nile), who was born on the Hebridean Island of Uist. Niall’s poems are richly sensuous. In Grez, in France, it “smells impossibly of rain: and “the bowed sky is heavy / with the deep-song of that purple colour”. In ‘Thirst’, the tap water is “almost glacial, wintered, sweetened / by the clear honey of its coldness”. And human senses pick up something not quite of this earth. Here is a bit from ‘On Eriskay’ (also a Hebridean island):

…..What a way to be seen out: confused
…..among the pearlwort and the fallow.
…..Her beach songs, like the recalled taste
…..of bucket milk, inched from her tongue.
…..Dusk grew behind the house. I watched
…..her drink the moon from a moon-filled trough.

That’s what I’ve been doing this week drinking the moon from a moon-filled trough. Amazing.