What prompted your interest in poetry?
It must have been poems I read in early school years or even nursery songs–I absolutely loved those–in three different languages. I’ve been writing poems since I was six years old. It came naturally to me as something I enjoyed doing and I was encouraged by adults who seemed to think it was a worthwhile pursuit for a child. Although they may not believe it to be the best career for an adult! I always say poetry chose me; I didn’t consciously choose to be a poet. I enjoyed reading almost every poem in the school curriculum–again in two languages–and I’m sure those poems are the embers that sparked my interest and life-long love of poetry. My first collection, Raincheck Accepted, was published in 1989 and sometimes I wonder it if was my collected juvenilia. Raincheck Renewed, published many years later in 2004, was more like a manifesto, as I’d returned to writing after a hiatus.
What are you reading?
Recently I’ve attended several poets’ gatherings and book launches, so I’m reading a clutch of new material from my fellow UK poets, to US poets, some of South Asian origin, to Hong Kong poets, to Kashmiri poets. I’m also dipping into an anthology of Ukrainian poets as I’m visiting Ukraine later this year. I’ve always had the habit of reading anything that’s available or happens to be lying on a table in front of me, without a plan or purpose. That’s how I stumble on to unfamiliar voices and new ideas. Of course, some philosophies appeal and some don’t, but I like to know what the other opinions in the world are. I really like a print newspaper and can get stuck reading every single page.
How do you find inspiration?
I am never short of a reason to write a poem. My topics are eclectic: a poem happens when I come across a subject, news-item or rediscovered memory that makes me want to respond in the form of a poem. Sometimes I come at the subject obliquely; other times I am more direct. Anger is quite often my ignition. Other than that, I have no process to stimulate inspiration. Occasionally, a poem arrives at odd times: at 2 a.m. or when I don’t have pen, paper or a phone handy. If I do have a notebook on me, I write down the few lines that have come tome, whether I’m in bed or a plane, train, boat or bus. A poem can arrive fully-formed and I like it so much that I don’t want to fiddle with it and spoil it. But this is a rare occurrence. Usually it’s only the germ of the poem that strikes me. It takes thinking and re-drafting overtime to shape it into something that I’m reasonably happy with.
Where do you write?
Anywhere, everywhere. I still prefer old-fashioned pen and paper but do also use my computer for first drafts, especially if I’m at home and there’s been a poem percolating in my mind for days and I haven’t had a quiet moment to set it down, so I head to my tiny study, shut the door and quick-tap my keyboard.
Why do you write?
The real world is completely out of my control and plenty goes on in it that I don’t agree with. Perhaps one of the reasons I write is that the narrative of a poem or story gives me some degree of influence and offers a chance to share my perspective and observational experiences. I do want to persuade and entertain with each piece, as writers are meant to do, but I also hope for that sliver of open-minded space in all my readers so that I can shift their perceptions in the subtlest of ways. A second reason was best articulated by the late, great Toni Morrison, in her oft-repeated advice: ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet then you must write it.’ A third reason is that I feel happiest when I’m writing. Perhaps I write for me. All artists know sometimes to stay true to your art you run a gamut of hurdles and resistance. And still you go on.
What is your advice for emerging poets?
Write for you, write what you like, catch your inspiration from whomever and whenever, don’t be swayed by trends that don’t feel right for you. The relationship between all forms of writing and truth is this: when the words ring with truthfulness the writing becomes strong and captivating. By truth here, I don’t mean narrative honesty or a real-life story, but candour about how things are; how the world feels to you and not necessarily anyone else. Don’t rush–ensure you’re completely happy with your poems before you submit them. Once published, they’ll be kicking around a long time in our digital universe.
What is the role of poets in shaping the future?
Alas, the word may not be mightier than the sword in the short term. However, those who wield the sword fear words. They fear writers, artists, academics, journalists. They fear historians and interpreters of texts, if the interpretations don’t concur with what’s being demanded. This is why so many people in these professions are being threatened by authoritative regimes or thin-skinned leaders across the globe. Poets can use the power of their vision and the delicacy of their words to express their views. Poems can motivate and galvanise people. One effect of globalisation and the internet has been that everyone can see that poetry is flourishing internationally. It is how truth-seekers and idealists find expression in almost every country, every culture. Although writing poetry remains a fringe activity, as opposed to pop music for example, it’s possible that being fringe helps it survive into contemporary times as something that can be ordinary, romantic, or activist. Here is the last stanza from a poem I wrote: