FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
RICHARD SCOTT: About ten years ago I was an unhappy opera singer. I loved music – indeed I still do! – but the inhuman rigours of the profession, matched with what I perceived to be a lack of possible creativity – for the performer must often follow exactly what the conductor, director, répétiteur or continuo section demands – left me hunting around for a way to be happy.
And after years of obsessing over texts, librettos and poetry that had been set to music, poetry seemed like an almost logical step! It became clear to me that when you took the music away, there was still a ‘music’ and a rhythm to the poem – and that fascinated me!
In Soho there is a sequence of fifteen poems written in response to Paul Verlaine’s poetry, ‘Verlaine In Soho’, and Verlaine was really one of my first poetic loves. He was a radical homosexual, and his poetry sits at the cross section of my musical and poetical lives as I can still vividly recall shaping my mouth to form Verlaine’s text while also using my diaphragm to support a vocal line composed by Fauré or Debussy. This is probably what first drew me into poetry, and ‘Verlaine in Soho’ pays homage to that.
FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
RS: I have been incredibly lucky as my mentor Daljit Nagra and my first reader and BFF Edward Doegar have both always treated me like a poet and that has given me a confidence to continue writing – indeed I can’t count the amount of times Daljit has said, ‘Keep on writing your willy-poems!’
But feeling like a poet internally can be a bit more of a struggle – like many creative people, I have anxieties and moments of self-doubt. However these supposedly negative things have been incredibly useful for me as a writer: if you are lucky, anxiety or worry can be repurposed, transformed into focus or obsession and this helps me to draft and edit my work. Once I have started writing a poem, I can’t get it out of my head. Simply put, I worry and obsess about it until it starts to take form and reveal itself.
A sense of failure has also been incredibly important to me. As a singer I got very used to unsuccessful auditions, but you learn very quickly that failure or rejection is not meant personally, nor is it something to be sad about, and although I eventually stopped working as a musician, this taught me a wonderful lesson for my poetry. When someone turns down your work – as has happened hundreds of times to any writer – you don’t give up, you find another way through.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
RS: To have an openly queer book, which is about gay shame, the search for homosexual ancestry and the vulnerability of queer bodies, shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize feels miraculous and wonderful. I grew up under the shadow of Section 28, which cruelly banned the discussion of gay lives and literature in schools and public libraries, so to think that Soho might be celebrated in this way indicates to me that the world spins forward. It gives me hope.
FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?
RS: Soho took ten years to write. One of the earliest poems in the book is ‘Public Toilets in Regent’s Park’ and when I read that poem today I can still hear the echoes of all the micro-decisions I have made over the years, all the painfully slow edits and drafts: the continual shifting of line breaks, stanza breaks, tenses, imagery. I think that every time you write a poem you are learning how to write, but that poem feels especially illuminating to me in that way. When the idea first came to me about men being allowed to celebrate the magic and sensuality of cottaging, I had no idea how to write a poem – it took me years to finish it.
The final poem, ‘Oh My Soho!’, came into being through discussions with my editor Matthew Hollis, who suggested that I write about my obsession with homosexual ancestry and the near-impossibility of resolving such a search. Matthew’s proactive editing gave me the confidence to sew together psychogeography, queer history and apparently personal experiences – things I would not have done without Matthew’s patience and inspiring support.
Writing ‘Oh My Soho!’ was a very different experience for me than writing the earlier poems. It was a completely exhilarating process of playing with language, syntax and rhetoric. With Matthew’s editorial support and belief, I felt, and feel, capable.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
RS: A short list would be: Mary Ruefle, Walt Whitman, Daljit Nagra, Mark Doty, Denise Riley, Emily Berry, Paul Verlaine, Edward Doegar, D. A. Powell, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rachael Allen, Cavafy, Frank O’Hara, Sophie Collins, Emily Dickinson, James Schuyler, Rebecca Perry.
It would be impossible to try and list all the virtues and magic and value contained within the writings of these poets but suffice to say that these poets give me life! Their writings continually improve me and enliven my interior. I can’t write without reading – indeed I read poetry everyday – and these poets are my touchstones, my omphalos!
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
RS: Maybe what Rilke said: ‘You should not think of wanting to do anything, you should only try to build up your own means of expression so as to say everything. You should work and have patience.’
Or what Bolaño said: ‘Writing is reading. A library is total generosity.’
Or what RuPaul said: ‘You better work!’
These three pieces of advice have been so formative for me . . .