When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
The earliest poem I remember writing (and can still quote) was a Spike Milligan-esque rhyme for a competition in primary school, around eight years old, that involved a talking fly and a dream sequence. I was lucky to travel around the world with my mum throughout my childhood and teens and most of the first ‘serious’ poems were in the journals I kept, recording or reimagining significant places and encounters: a mirror lake deep in the rainforest; a fire on an abandoned island. At some point my dad began lending me Dylan Thomas’ Miscellany series of Everyman paperbacks one by one: vivid, confusing poems and stories I would read during camping summers in the Gower, South Wales. Thomas really blasted language open for me – ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,’ ‘heron-priested shore,’ ‘night-geared man’ – and my early poems in secondary school were ecstatic, lovingly pained imitations of his high Neo-Romantic style, which was kind of a natural fit next to the Nirvana, Emo and Finnish Metal lyrics I was also ingesting in my mid-teens. I think all of these are still present or embedded in my poetry.
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.
Around the age of fifteen my best friend and I both went to the hairdresser to cut off our grunge curtains; I started wearing my dad’s old wool coat, carrying a little notebook and calling myself a poet. It was a very deliberate and anxiously sincere moment of self-fashioning! Happily from then on a series of mentors began to open up a possible path via books and, most importantly, by teaching me how to edit. One of my English teachers, the poet David Briggs, helped me whittle down a poem about a stag-tree-ghost I saw in my local wood. This took me to a Foyle Young Poets residential week at The Hurst in Shropshire with tutors Ian Macmillan and Eva Salzman, where I wrote a poem that began: ‘I come to trees for words. / Wooden words. / Lost for words, I say “trees”.’ In my first year as an undergraduate at Cambridge the generous, ludic American poet Peter Gizzi was writer-in-residence and ran weekly workshops. Peter suggested I read my poems backwards to see what else the language might want to say (as the late Bernadette Mayer would once have urged), introduced me to the work of Barry MacSweeney, Kamau Brathwaite and George Oppen and radically re-shaped how I wrote, how I edited, how I sounded lines in my head. With a few close friends – the writers Celine Lowenthal, James McKnight and Felix Bazalgette – I’d meet up to talk very fast and compare the strangest pamphlets we’d unearthed in the library, and eventually we set up our own imprint, Moot Press. Publication came gradually, first in pamphlets from small presses in the USA and UK, or in zines photocopied by friends, circulated on sticky pub tables and performed in the library basement.
What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
It is deeply exciting for my first collection to have been shortlisted, a book that was formed over many years and whose methods are speculative – bearing the mark of so many encounters, collaborations, (mis)translations, skewed paths. Working within the experimental tradition, it’s encouraging to see the lyric ambiguity and formal play I’ve learned from older writers recognised in this way. I’m glad that new audiences will continue to arrive at the book, and might turn to hear its spooked and many-headed call.
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?
Unlike some books, A Method, A Path wasn’t written in a single, deliberate period and did not begin life with the intention of becoming a collection. Instead, these poems span ten years of writing, publishing, collaborating and performing, and many have had previous lives in small-run pamphlets and magazines, or as live theatre and sound-works. There are poems in there, like the book’s title sequence, that were written for my friends at university, and return me to a time when I wandered the rivers and terrifyingly flat fenlands and (like John Clare centuries before) found my interior and exterior worlds folding inside out. About half of the book, oriented around the experimental translation of Old English and non-human language, was written more recently during practice-based PhD research at Royal Holloway University of London under the inimitable supervision of Professor Redell Olsen – poet and founder of the Poetics Research Centre, whose community of writers and researchers has continuously nourished and uplifted my work. The book’s opening sequence, ‘On Ēglond,’ is one iteration of a cross-genre project developed during this period with the performance group FEN, and would not exist without the collaboration of other brilliant artists and allies: Maisie Newman, Elinor Lower, Mimi Donaldson and Dr Francesca Brooks. The process of gathering these many leaves into a sheaf – a commonplace book of my own miscellanea – was a slow and careful one, firstly under the editorial guidance of my friend and agent Harriet Moore, and then the keen, empathic gaze of Kayo Chingonyi, my editor at Bloomsbury Poetry, who reshaped the manuscript and gave it cadence, quietly urging me which poems to bring the fore and how to let their dialogue unfold.
Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
There are many poets and writers, contemporary and ancient, whose work has stayed with me and whose imprint can be felt in A Method, A Path. A major presence during the years of writing this book was Barry MacSweeney (1948-2000), whose formally anarchic, shapeshifting verse has one wolf-ear cocked to the mythic and social histories of the British Isles, and the other to American speech-patterns and brazen forms sounding across the post-war Atlantic. Maggie O’Sullivan, who I first met at a student reading, showed me how to hover, kestrel-like, between sound-sense and the semantic, to tear apart and then re-configure language as a raw material while fully inhabiting the space of the page. Caroline Bergvall, who I’ve written a lot about in my critical research, offers us translation as a vast and open process, where to sit just outside of a language – to ‘unknow’ it , drifting into equivalences of sound – becomes a position of extreme creative potential, alert to the political turbulence of moving between tongues. Among the many American poets that inform my writing is George Oppen (1908-84), who lays out these gradually cumulative, luminous articulations of being in the world – ‘of being numerous’ – that are at once formally economical, musically precise, yet equivocal in meaning as they gesture outwards.
What is next for you as a poet?
I’m currently shaping the manuscript for my next collection. I recently returned from a writing trip to Greece, where I was working at the Harvard Centre for Hellenic Studies on translations of Ancient Greek lyrics and religious texts which will form part of the new book, as well as material written over the last couple of years. I’m looking forward to continuing to perform A Method, A Path around the UK with sound composition and music (which you can hear in the audiobook version, also published in June), and there are more collaborations with friends and familiars on the horizon too.
What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
I think finding a community of writer-friends where you feel emboldened to share new work, take risks, collaborate and ignite one another is incredibly important, even if this takes time to seek out or establish. Everything finds an origin somewhere, and it is these small first encounters – a poem in a friend’s zine, a few minutes at an open mic, a self-published pamphlet given to another poet – that can snowball over time and make us feel more confident about our position as artists in the world. I believe in learning by doing and experimenting, in not waiting for artistic permission, and in reading/looking/listening as widely as possible – poetry, fiction, visual art, music, animals, people around you – in order to expose ourselves to things we find difficult, intriguing or unexpected.