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.

What is poetry FOR?

That was the question I couldn’t answer.

There are answers, of course. I waited for one of them to come to me but it didn’t. Instead, a memory arrived, an unsuitable memory.

This was at the launch of Vishvāntarā’s pamphlet Cursive, and Fiona Moore’s Night Letter at the London Buddhist Centre last weekend. Before the two poets read, there was a short discussion/ interview with all three of us. The ‘What is it FOR?’ question was put by poet and host Maitreyabandhu who had the whole session filmed. So you can see what we said, if you want to, though you can’t see what I was thinking.

Which was this. About 25 years ago, I was teaching in college and officiating in what we called a FLU (a flexible learning unit). In the FLU people could do many things with the support of a tutor (me) – from basic English to (you guessed it) creative writing. We had study packs which people opened, read, and then got on with. In between I talked to them, and they talked to each other. We went off and had long coffee breaks together. This was before SMART targets and it was very civilised.

One week a small woman with very long hair turned up. Very long, right down to her bum. She wrote poetry, she said, and could show me some of it because she took it with her wherever she went. Poetry was an unusual arrival. I was curious. So were the other students in the room.

Do you recall that sort of toilet paper called Izal? It was hard and slightly shiny. Using it as it was intended was not a pleasant experience but it was cheap, cheaper than the soft kind, and definitely better than no toilet paper.b2ap3_thumbnail_izaltoiletpaper.jpg

Well, what the poet produced what looked like a roll of Izal toilet paper. Izal was never easy to write on. From this distance in time I can’t be sure it was Izal. But what she had with her appeared to me, and to the other people in the room, to be a roll of toilet paper, each sheet of which was covered in tiny writing. She proceeded to unroll it in long loops. Her poems, her tiny poems, went for miles.

I read some of the poems before she rolled them up again. They did not appear to be great literature, at least not on the first twenty or thirty sheets, but she put them back into her bag them with pride. She was intense and serious and sweet, so no jokes were made then, or at any other time, about poems on toilet rolls and their potential uses. However, those thoughts were in my head and in the heads of all the other people in the room.

And this was the image that popped into my head when Maitreyabandhu asked ‘What is poetry for?’. It was closely followed by another memory, the recollection of a thin booklet written by the late Evangeline Paterson titled What to do with your poems? , which always struck me as an unfortunate title. Somehow the two have bonded in my head.

What is poetry for? It has numerous functions. But what’s it for?

I still don’t know ‘the’ answer.

However, I know what I use some of it for. (No, not that.)

And in particular, since I want to write a little about Night Letter and Cursive, I’m going to say what they do for me. Is that the same as what I use them for, or what you might use them for? Possibly.

Vishvāntarā (in the same filmed discussion) spoke of poetry as a kind of portal, a way between worlds like the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and she has something here, yes, because I know I use the poems of these two poets to take me out of myself. It’s one of their functions, and a vital one.

It’s like the line from Tom Duddy’s poem ‘Racing Festival’ in The Hiding Place: ‘I am elated, light-hearted, beside myself.’ Reading these poems takes me into the same mental space as writing, those rare moments in which words are magical and transformative, and existence is pregnant with meaning, and the burden of my own ‘self’ evaporates.

I can like poetry that doesn’t do this – doesn’t take me out of myself but only into itself. But the work I value most takes me out. Fiona Moore (same discussion) said something about how in reading and in writing poetry we are at our most alive. Not all poetry gives me that feeling of walking on the edge, the precise and beautiful edge between life and death where readiness is all – but this poetry does.

The two pamphlets are not ‘like’ each other. But they share this quality of purity, discipline, dedication. If I want to stop the world and be still, I can read these. I can use them ‘for’ that. They take me out of myself.

I don’t want to make poetry pamphlets sound like mystical texts. They have laughter in them too, and puzzles. You can worry away at them: what’s going on here? what does that really mean? did she really say that? But here are two poets you can respect and learn from. I have learned and been enriched, and will go back again and again. The lines, the forms, the shapes – these are hard-won, thoughtful, joyous, distilled, life-enhancing.



  1. Read submissions up to date.

2.  Respond to submissions.

3.  MyHermes to go.

4.  Legal deposits etc for ICO.

5.  Take decisions.

6.  Register new titles.

7.  Get cover designs sorted for Cursive.

8.  Go to the dentist (don’t be late).

9.  Clean teeth properly (do this before 8)

10. Try to be less subversive.

11. Filing for accounts & more.

12. Organise Michael Marks entry.

13. Sort out last month’s competition.

14. Weed garden (gently).

15. Meet Helen: Cocoa Tree REMEMBER.

16. Update events page, August, September.

17. Think about Xmas event at SPL: another decision.

18. Do A.I. for Stephen’s book.

19. Cook.

20. Continue writing new enlarged even more useful version of How Not To.

21. Visit Matt’s mum.

22. Got to get to the egg lady, got to!

23.  Write July newsletter & print flyers (a lot).

24.  Make flyers to go in with mailshot.
25.  Book train to Lumb.

26.  Order more logs.

27. [Do not buy more buttons on Ebay: you don’t NEED them.]

28.  Get birdseed for goldfinches & bullfinches & feed them.

29.  Write blog.

30.  Think about starting another list.

31.  Resist.