Rishi Dastidar was educated at Mansfield College, Oxford University and the London School of Economics. His poetry has been published by the Financial Times, Tate Modern and the Southbank Centre amongst many others, and has featured in the anthologies Adventures in Form (Penned in the Margins) and Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe). A fellow of The Complete Works, the Arts Council England funded programme for BAME poets in the UK, he is a consulting editor at The Rialto magazine, a member of the Malika’s Poetry Kitchen collective, and also serves as chair of the writer development organization Spread The Word.
His first full collection Ticker-tape was published last year by Nine Arches Press.
1) How long did it take you to put the manuscript together for Ticker-tape?
As my memory tells it not too long. But in reality it was probably about a year or so. I knew I had enough poems by the beginning of 2015 – bar one poem which I knew I had to write without which the book would be incomplete. And that (‘These things boys do’) took the best part of the year to arrive. So there I was, doing the whole laying out A4 sheets on the living room floor thing, with the cats giving their editorial input, and trying to leave a space for this poem which I knew had to be in the mix but with no idea what it might look like or how long it might be.
And of course, that year couldn’t even have begun without all the prior years of writing. By my rough calculation, the oldest poem in the book was first drafted in 2011. So it took a year, and about 5 before that.
2) How much did the manuscript change after it was formally accepted by the publisher?
Again, my memory says nips and tucks rather than limbs being sacrificed, as it were. I think there were about three poems that came out as Jane Commane, my editor at Nine Arches Press, rightly identified them as the weakest in the batch; and there were numerous suggestions as to better line breaks in a number of the poems. But the main thing that really changed was the book’s order. I think we went through about 4 or 5 potential running orders for the poems, but it was only when Jane suggested that the book was a series of loops rather than following a traditional arc that it started to fall into place – it meant we were able to put together more subtle sequences for one. And even then we were still changing things on press day. But the main tent poles of the Camus poem, the Sugababes poem and ‘Ticker-tape’ itself, they stayed where they were all the way through; fixed points in all the shuffling.
3) And how do you feel about the book now, one year on?
Is it bad to say I still love it? I doubt that I could have done better at the moment in time. I think it stands up as a good reflection of who I was – who I am – as a poet, and the things that animate me, what I could achieve technically at that point. I think it does also stand up as being a wee bit different, a little aslant from lots of other poetry books that have come out over the last few years, which was always something I was aiming for. Plus I do feel it has given me a great launching pad – permission – to head off into the wild blue yonder, poetically speaking at least.
4) How have readers responded to the book?
I think in 99.9% of cases, with the most unexpected of kindnesses – well, unexpected to me, at least. I mean, I thought the book was OK – well, better than that maybe – so when someone agrees with that assessment – especially when it’s someone that you don’t know – that is rather special indeed. I remain amazed, gratified, in awe whenever a poem of mine appears on social media (which I haven’t placed there, I should add) – knowing that a poem has touched someone enough that they want to share it, and the fact that they have been touched, that is kinda wonderful. There’ve been some fab reviews too, both generous in praise and insightful about what I was trying to do with the book, but also revealing for me in giving me additional interpretations of what I might have been doing. Can I single out Christie Williamson’s review at The Poetry School? It was lovely to read.
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?)?
This answer can only really be impressionistic, as I haven’t been systematically been tracking anything – Nine Arches have been assiduous in sharing stuff as and when it pops up. But it appears that readers within the poetry community, and peers, have been kind, very kind indeed. One thing that has surprised me is that, even a year later, people are saying they’re just getting round to the book and enjoying it. Knowing that there’s been a slower reception of the book than I’d thought has been pleasing in its way. The biggest thrill was discovering, through an Instagram post, that ‘Contour’ had made it to the wall of a classroom in Baltimore. But let me cough to vanity – would I have liked more reviews? You bet.
6) What do you think about prizes in this context?
Start with the obvious – that it would have been great (and not just for my ego) if Ticker-tape had been nominated for something, not least because however much we shouldn’t be trying to compare art in a competitive context, we also know that they are an – effective – necessary evil to reach a broader audience, both within the poetry community, and to readers outside, who might only pick up the Eliot, Forward or Costa winner or nominees. Especially as review space everywhere is squeezed – prizes are probably the second most effective discovery mechanism we have now, outside of cultivating a social media audience or going viral. So much as I would love to be able to do away with them, I can’t see how you can, realistically. But I do resent slightly how we’ve ended up in this place, where great books and poets don’t reach as wide a readership as they should because of structural industry issues rather than any inherent lack of quality in the work. (Oh and I should say, it was real delight to be in The Forward Book of Poetry 2018.)
7) Have you been writing poems since the book came out?
Yes, probably averaging about one a month or so, normally coming off the back of the prompts that are to be found at Visual Verse. And little bits and pieces that I’ve been sharing on Instagram, fitfully. Nothing grand, as it were – there are a whole stack of older drafts I should probably go back and attack again. But then I am trying to get a draft of book 2, which is hopefully? ideally? going to be a longer, narrative piece...
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?)
So there’s a couple of things I’m aware of, not in a keeping me up at night, front and centre kinda way; but I’m aware that I want another shot, to get a book 2 out sooner rather than later, so hence why I’m attacking something quickly now, so I can in theory sustain a bit of the momentum that I gathered through the last year or so. I don’t want to be a one and run guy, I want to be in this for the long haul.
I think there’s definitely a sense of needing to change things up; not throw away my style per se, but I don’t want to write Ticker-tape 2, so my questions, my experiments, keep coming back to: how do I stretch myself now? How do I get better at this? How do I become more ambitious, and then what do I need to do to start achieving those ambitions? I should stress that these are all artistic goals, rather than ones of attention or sales or whatever else. It’s exciting, and scary – right now, whenever I open up the file for book 2, I definitely do feel that things are slightly beyond my grasp and my capabilities of achieving it, so finishing a first draft will be a major success. And then of course I’ll need to make it better.
Is that pressure? I guess it is. Beyond that – and this will sound horribly ambitious – I guess I have an eye on the areas I want to excavate and explore in further projects. I suppose I should at this point be concerned about taking an audience with me, but truthfully, I don’t really have any idea what they look like or what they might want. So I might as well just carry on ploughing my furrow and trusting that they’ll find the work and / or I’ll find them.
I’m not sure there’s much pressure on me beyond that – maybe if the book had achieved greater visibility I might be thinking differently. But everything’s been gravy up until now, and I can’t quite see what might change it. I mean, something might go viral and that might affect things, and the expectations I place on me and my work, but right now there’s no need to worry about that. I suppose there’s a pressure to carry on giving back to the poetry community – but that’s mostly a pleasure, and I hope I’d be doing that when I’m a poet who’s published a tenth collection.
9) How much do you need the validation of your work by others?
Candidly, this goes through phases, as there are points where I know I am writing things that are harder to like, to love, which have lots of references that need to be unpacked – if people don’t get those, enjoy those as much, well, that’s fine you know. And then there are other points where I do end up having an almost visceral feeling of, ‘come on! That’s a good poem! Pay it a bit more attention!’. I mean, I’ve always known I’m vain, but it has been surprising to me how much of that vanity is linked to knowing people are at least reading my work. Maybe this comes from the fact that, in my other job as a copywriter, people will never know that I’m the pen behind this or that campaign, so maybe I’m over-compensating here. I know it’s bad of me, but I’m too old to – or to want to – try and downplay this need for the work to be acknowledged.
10) What poems or poets are currently inspiring you?
‘How to Look at Mexican Highways’ by Mónica de la Torre basically unlocked something that has allowed book 2 to come to life, so the draft is heavily, heavily influenced by that structurally at the moment. Elsewhere: with full bias acknowledged, Jane Commane’s Assembly Lines is a glorious read; Hannah Sullivan’s ‘You, Very Young In New York’ just drives me wild with envy and delight – imagine having written that? I’d not shut up if I’d written something that brilliant – and I re-read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen a few days ago, and if anything it was an even bigger kick in the slats than first time round. Oh and of course Maggie Nelson’s Bluets – if I can write something a twentieth as good I’ll die happy; it’s the thing I still press most on people – and Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular; I love the way that ruminates, engages with the world. I think these are all clues I’m drfting into lyric essay world...
11) What advice would you give to someone about to publish their first collection?
Long answer short: relax, do it, don’t worry about it, and treat everything that comes with it as an absolute bonus. And say yes as much as you can to readings etc – you ultimately will be the best salesperson of your book, and I’ve really enjoyed going up and down the country this year – and hopefully you will too. Meeting readers, potential and actual, people who have given coin and time to read your work – I wish you that kind of success.
“THE PACIFIC OCEAN IS BECOMING CAFFEINATED”
The story goes on to allege that the sea is
the inheritor of mass-produced secrets and prancing
with the ecstatic release of doing something well.
You see ships in the harbour, made of biodegradable
dixie cups, orange peel sails and lemongrass rigging.
Saxifrage semaphore warns of understudied contaminants,
then entreats: ‘World questions King’s answers”’ If only.
The world answers a King’s questions, as it always
has done. He always wins communiqué chess;
with the softest binding, his promises wrapped in silk
evasions, billed to an invisible ink transcription service.
“Stuff the relevant guns with green tissue paper?
Oh how we tried, and look where that got us.”
You shove a reusable hemp shopping bag
over your head, go besting for your hope.
Reprinted from Ticker-tape by permission of Rishi Dastidar and Nine Arches Press.
Update: The fifth interview is also up now, with Elizabeth-Jane Burnett talking about Swims. The sixth interview is with Emily Blewitt talking about This Is Not A Rescue.