Monday, 7 May 2018

An interview with Peter Raynard and Richard Skinner

We were delighted to host poets Peter Raynard and Richard Skinner recently. The pair are currently touring the UK (#SmokestackRollercoasterTour) to read from their new books Precarious and The Malvern Aviator, both published by Smokestack Books. A short interview by Niall Munro with Peter and Richard appears below. They will also be reading at Northern Rising (Newcastle) on 14 May, the Poetry Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye on 2 June, at the Shindig in Leicester (date TBC), the Square Chapel, Halifax (TBC), and at the Swindon Poetry Festival (4 October).

Peter Raynard is the editor of Proletarian Poetry: poems of working class lives. His debut collection, Precarious, was published by Smokestack Books in April 2018. He has also completed a poetic coupling of The Communist Manifesto, to be published by Culture Matters at the end of May 2018. You can follow him via Twitter.

NM: Peter, as well as being testament to your own experiences, Precarious gives voice to a huge number of individuals, especially working class voices. Has poetry failed to represent these people fairly? Why?

PR: In Matthew Zapruder’s book, Why Poetry? He argues that poetry doesn’t have the constraint of having to tell a story; it can use character, plot, etc., but it can also do away with them and just paint a picture. Historically, in fiction at least (whether novel, play, or film) portrayals have tended to only show the negative aspects of working class life – as George Orwell said: 'The people who make the wheels go round have always been ignored by novelists. When they do find their way between the covers of a book, it is nearly always as objects of pity or comic relief.' Although, I do think things have improved more recently, with such novels as Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon, which although a sad tale in parts, tells of the strength and kindness of working class people.

However, free of the constraints of story telling, I feel strongly that poetry has the opportunity to do away with the need to over-dramatise working class lives. The problem is one of perception about what poetry is and which poetry is given most prominence. There are many poets who fairly and strongly represent working class people; Fran Lock, Tim Wells, Steve Ely, Kate Fox, Tony Walsh, Wayne Holloway, Martin Hayes, the Picket Line Poets, and Liz Lochhead and Simon Armitage (of course). But also poets of colour, who wouldn’t necessarily be identified as working class poets because of the way in which the media categorises people, in particular the working class (i.e. white van man and Vicky Pollard). Poets such as Malika Booker, Inua Ellams, Raymond Antrobus, Kayo Chingonyi, Anthony Anaxagourou, in writing of their heritage as well as their experience of living in Britain (as British citizens in many cases), are writing about working class lives.

I don’t think poetry has failed to represent working class people because we have been writing poetry for a long time. However, it is the gatekeepers (publishers, festival organisers, societies), who must widen their view, in order to see that working class life is not just about work, and our relations with it. As important as this is, portraying working class life in cultural terms also shows our creativity, entrepreneurship (in a non-corporate sense), and intellect, which is normally viewed and depicted through a middle class lens.

NM: One of the notable features of 'Tic tacs at the track' is the frequent quotation of betting phrases (which you don't explain), and elsewhere in the collection you often quote words and phrases spoken by the people or characters who appear in your poems. Why are such quotations so important? Does the form of poetry allow this language to be presented in a way that feels right to you?

PR: The vernacular and regional terms are what working class writers do well (although novelists such as Junot Diaz and James Kelman are masters). I admire poets such as William Letford and Mike Jenkins, when writing in ‘Scottish’ and ‘Welsh’ English; it seems most apt to poetry. You don’t need to know what the terms mean to get a sense of scene. I tried to do that with the Tic Tacs poem, for they gave names to their hand signs, and terms for the odds (Burlington Bertie is 100/30 - £30 on gets you a return of £100). Steve Ely uses a lot of old English language to better reflect working class lives of the past. Finally, there is also slang and swearing, which should be more present in poetry as they show the language being used in everyday working class lives. It shouldn’t be gratuitous but when authentic, it can be really powerful.

Richard Skinner has published three novels with Faber & Faber and three books of non-fiction. His previous books of poetry, the light user scheme and Terrace are both published by Smokestack. His work is published in eight languages. He is Director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy. You can read more about Richard’s work on his website and follow him on Twitter.

NM: Richard, your new collection, The Malvern Aviator, thrives on examples of unknowing, doubt, and strangeness. Why are these such important concerns for you to write about?

RS: I’m not sure I know the answer to that. As Flaubert said, ‘We do not choose our subjects. They choose us.’ I know that sounds like a cop-out, but I believe very strongly in that idea. Poems arrive, mostly unexpectedly, and the place they come from is unknown. ‘Black Water Side’ is a good case in point. I sat down one day and wrote that poem in one go. I read back through it and was amazed. I had no idea where it came from or what it meant. Still don’t. Those are the best kind of poems for me.

NM: In the poem 'The Malvern Aviator', wearing your father's watch allows you to feel secure, grounded. How do you explain (if you do) that connection to your father through the watch. Can poetry also serve as a way of grounding you?

RS: ‘The Malvern Aviator’ is dedicated to Richie McCaffery because it was reading his collection ‘Cairn’ that taught me that small objects of no real value can have tremendous significance—mythical status even—for someone. My father gave me his watch on the day I last saw my English grandmother alive, so there’s a connection there forever. The Surrealists placed a great deal of importance on the near-sacredness of everyday objects and the mental processes they trigger and I guess that’s what the poem is tapping into.