The first interview is with my Poetry Book Fair partner-in-crime Joey Connolly (more to follow). Thanks to Joey for being my guinea pig, and for opening up and talking to me about this stuff, particularly once we start to get onto topics like validation and prize culture.
Joey Connolly grew up in Sheffield, studied in Manchester and now lives and writes in London. He co-founded Kaffeeklatsch poetry magazine, and has been the manager of the Poetry Book Fair for several years. In 2012 he received an Eric Gregory Award, and was a Writing Fellow at the University of Manchester in 2017. His poetry featured in Carcanet’s New Poetries VI (2015).
His first collection Long Pass was published last year by Carcanet.
1) How long did it take you to put the manuscript together for Long Pass?
The poems were written over five or six years, the earliest (‘Chekhov’s Gun’) coming from around 2011 – but the majority are from the last couple of years. Years of performing, redrafting and rereading the growing body of poems I’d written gave me a sense of the fifty or so I liked best and wanted to sit together in the book. Then there was one week of very intensive work to get that flock of poems into the rough formation of a manuscript. From there I spent several months redrafting and rearranging the poems in light of the new angles they opened up in one another, and particularly in finishing ‘Average Temperature at Surface Level’, which is attached by many strings to the other poems in the book and sits in the centre like a spider tangled helplessly in its own web.
2) How much did the manuscript change after it was formally accepted by Carcanet?
There were a lot of minor changes, and relatively few poems remained unaltered between formal acceptance and publication. Mostly these were little tweaks relating to the poems as standalone things, but I also ended up changing poems in minor ways so that they faced into the manuscript a little better. Let me find an example. I added the word ‘branches’ to ‘First Letter from the Frontier’ to pick up on the branches (and what they represent) in ‘Beauties of the Northwest’, as well as ‘Final Letter from the Frontier’. And I changed two lines in ‘[untitled]’ so they used a boat as their metaphorical vessel for getting love from one person to another (instead of mathematical formulae, as before), because there are loads of boats in the book, and it meant the poem strikes up a conversation with the other instances of boaty or seafaring imagery.
3) And how do you feel about the book now, one year on?
Well, it certainly looks very different after a couple of years of new poetic context. After I’d sent it off to Carcanet, it felt like John Ashbery in 1976, and now it feels like Philip Larkin in 1974. That is, there’s been so much really exciting new stuff happening within poetry that most books written two years ago feel strikingly non-new, now. Maybe the effect’s intensified by my own familiarity with the poems in the book. To be fair, though, when I actually reread Long Pass... it still seems like good stuff, to me. I’m proud of the craft, and the thought, and their relationship. But now that I’m trying to figure out how to write in this new poetic world, I feel like I need to distance myself from that way of working, so that I don’t go on producing the exact same thing.
4) How have readers responded to the book?
‘Readers’. I’m not really capable of believing the nice things my friends have said (although actually, the vast majority of my friends/relations aren’t into poetry, so I’ve had a lot of kind people telling me they’ve read the book, and then there’ll be some pause and some more-or-less explicit, slightly-sheepish-slightly-proud variation on ‘couldn’t make head nor tail of it’), and what other reactions do you get, really? People I don’t know (poets and non-poets) have been very nice about it on social media, and occasionally people I meet at poetry things will have read it and say something nice. The reviews have been very positive, too. But poetry reviews are nearly always positive, aren’t they? And, if we discount people I know personally, we’re still talking about the reactions of maybe twenty people, so I’m not really sure if I can answer this question. I sent the book to a couple of my poetic heroes, too, but I’m not saying who they were or what they said.
5) How has the broader poetry community responded to the book (and do you track such things, or does the publisher, or how does that work for you?)?
I haven’t tracked any of this very closely, I have to say, or even asked much from Carcanet. I don’t know. I feel conflicted. I desperately want the book to mean to other people what some poetry means to me, but I don’t want to, like, connive at that. I don’t want my relationship to writing poetry to be defined by an essentially extraneous popularity contest, but I do want my poetry to be liked by everyone. So.
6) What do you think about prizes in this context?
I genuinely never thought about prizes as a possibility for my book while I was writing it, or even after it was published. In general, the books that win the prizes have a strong emotional through-line or an easily summarisable USP, and I always knew my book didn’t have those things. But, inevitably, every time a shortlist is announced and I’m not on it I’m absolutely scandalised and furious and devastated. I don’t know why. I suppose the same reason that I have these brief instants of envy for the people in high-end sports cars even though I wouldn’t trade my miserable life for theirs in a thousand years. (Does all of this sound like sour grapes? I absolutely don’t want to suggest I’m not resentful of people who win prizes and write better poems than me. Of course I am. Damn their beautiful, complex hearts.)
7) Have you been writing poems since the book came out?
I’ve hardly written a thing. This is related to my answer to (3) above. In that respect I feel like I’m absolutely back to square one, having to relearn how to write from scratch. Which involves writing a lot of bad poems, and I hate being bad at stuff, so it’s been really hard to get going again. Classic difficult-second-album syndrome, I imagine.
8) What do you think are the different pressures on you now as someone who has ‘published a first collection’? (And what does that even mean?)
Well, having a book out makes it logical for you to compare yourself to other poets with books out. Beforehand, if you write a crap, dishonest, intellectually self-serving poem, you can hide behind the idea that your work shouldn’t stand in comparison with all the stuff you’ve read in books. But when you’re writing poems specifically with the idea that they’ll end up in a book, that shield’s gone. Relatedly, writing poems for a book makes me feel like the writing is public (no matter how limited that public is in numbers), and has public responsibilities. But I’m not sure how to write poems with public responsibilities. Although I’m trying to learn. This leads back to (7) and thence to (3).
9) How much do you need the validation of your work by others?
That’s a hard question. After dismissing my first couple of responses, I think the most honest answer is: I see poetry as an activity that sits alongside and overlaps with a bunch of the stuff I do: writing reviews, teaching, talking to people about poetry, reading, all these activities. I have a huge need of validation for this whole section of myself, but not particularly for any one of them. So if no one were to ever say anything nice about the poems themselves, but I still felt like people were interested in talking to me about poetry, I’d stay happy enough. Partly I suppose that’s because I have this raft of social privilege that allows me to feel automatically entitled to this space, this role of ‘poet’, but also because – as we all know – validation and affirmation from others is very rarely proportional to the quality of the poetry. There are fantastic poets who are ignored by the poetry world, and terrible poets who are lauded to the skies. To see that and to continue to use public affirmation as a measure of the success of your own work would be idiocy. But at the same time, who doesn’t crave affirmation? The trick’s to slide that need into other areas where things make more sense.
10) You mentioned earlier your work’s distance from non-poetry readers who ‘couldn’t make head nor tail’ of your book. Do you have any desire to bridge that gap in your work?
No. I think there’s a problem where people confuse responsibilities around poetry with the responsibilities of poems. I’ll work hard to clear some of the bullshit away from the way people read or react to poetry (in teaching, talking, reviewing, etc) but I don’t think we can hope that poems themselves will change the habits and opinions of people who don’t like poetry.
We need to limit what we expect the poems to do, as opposed to the culture around poems. Most people don’t like most poetry because they don’t enjoy the feeling of not knowing what’s going on. Which is nearly always, for everyone, a stage in encountering new good poems. Why work hard for something when there are really easy ways of getting that same thing, or something that appears the same? Well, writing poems which don’t require that hard brain-work – that’s not going to persuade people there’s a value in doing the hard brain-work. What will persuade people is by showing how much it means to you by getting all teary in the pub about something Vahni Capildeo just published.
11) What poems or poets are currently inspiring you?
There's a fine line between being inspired by something and being disheartened by your own perceived inability to match the standard of the work (aka jealousy – Robert Hass's amazing poem 'Envy of Other People's Poems' is a fascinating enquiry into that). Anyway there have been loads of people heartening/disheartening me recently. In the last bit of time I’ve loved books by Tara Bergin, Kim Hyesoon, Sophie Collins, Hannah Sullivan, Fran Lock, Shivanee Ramlochan, Roddy Lumsden, Patricia Lockwood, Layli Long Soldier, Ben Lerner, Danez Smith. I’ve read poems by Amy Key and Rebecca Tamás that have blown me away. Jorie Graham, always. In terms of poetic inspiration, though – I guess I’m just hoping that it’s all knitting together somewhere below my conscious mind and at some point in the future I’ll magically pour out something incredible in response.
12) What advice would you give to someone about to publish their first collection?
I don’t think I’ve generated much advice on the subject myself. But the best piece of advice I received was from John McAuliffe, who said to me that the thing I should aim for after publishing my first book was writing a good second book. So I guess I’d extend that: I’d advise someone about to publish a first book to keep in mind that this is a waypost; it’s not an ending or a beginning, it might not even signify a very radical change in the quiet central poetic bit of yourself. It might just mean that more starting-out poets will want to talk to you in the pub, and I think you should talk to them and not try to shrug them off to hang out with the more famous poets smoking outside.
13) What is ultimately the point, for you, of writing and publishing poems?
This is a great question, and I know the cool, stylish thing to do would be to say ‘I don’t think there’s a point, it’s just something I feel compelled to do.’ But fuck that – I think writing and publishing good poems makes the world a better place. My life is miles better than it would be if I didn’t read poems – I think I’ve internalised the idea from poetry that significance can reside in smaller and less stable places than we normally recognise, so that the world seems richer. And it’s moral to want for other people what we’ve found from first-hand experience to be good, isn’t it? I guess all this could be said of any art form, but I write poems because I’ve found myself to be better at it than drawing or singing. I think if I could be a musician or a painter I might do that instead, because there might be more money and stuff, but I’m better at writing poems, so that’s what I do. When I can.
First this. Who is speaking? Careful,
it’s dark. No, no, say careful, the darkness
is brimming with something. Yes.
First this: who is speaking? Careful,
the darkness is brimming with something.
With what? The darkness is swarming
with resolution. First this: who is
speaking? Careful, the darkness is swimming
with resolution. Put your hand out.
This poem is reproduced from Long Pass by permission of Joey Connolly and Carcanet Press.
Update: the second interview is live now, with Khairani Barokka talking about her collection Rope. The third interview is with Polly Atkin talking about Basic Nest Architecture. The fourth interview is with Rishi Dastidar talking about Ticker-tape. The fifth interview is with Elizabeth-Jane Burnett talking about Swims. The sixth interview is with Emily Blewitt talking about This Is Not A Rescue.