My e-Conversation with Alison Chisholm

By NNOROM AZUONYE

Nnorom Azuonye (NA): Do you recall your earliest contact with poetry? Did you have an immediate love for the art or did this love have to grow?

Alison Chisholm (AC): I can remember enjoying nursery rhymes as a very small child, and loving the completeness of a poem. When I was about five years old, my uncle gave me a copy of ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ by Robert Louis Stevenson, and this book inspired me with the magic of a poem’s ability to open up a new world for the reader in just a few words. (My uncle died in his twenties shortly after giving me the book – a very special legacy.) When I was eleven I started studying elocution, and learned to love speaking poetry as much as I loved reading it to myself.

NA: In your poem “Fait Accompli” you mention Wordsworth as one of your influences. Are there other poets that influenced and or continue to influence your poetry today?

AC: I suppose I’m influenced by everyone I read. So many poets leave me gasping with admiration. I love Keats, Browning, Frost, Shakespeare, Byron, Donne… also Sylvia Plath, Kit Wright, Carol Ann Duffy, Tony Harrison, Brian Patten, Dannie Abse, U. A. Fanthorpe … but any poet can influence me with a stunning phrase or perfect image. My response ‘I wish I’d written that’ is all too common!

NA: If you were introduced to somebody as a poet and the person asked a rather ambiguous ‘What kind of poet are you?’ what would you say?

AC: A jobbing poet – something of a hack. Yes, of course, I love to write the words that flow from my heart directly into the pen, but I’ll produce whatever people want to a deadline – poems on particular themes or for particular occasions, rhymed poems, free verse poems, poems for children, articles about poems … anything.

NA: You have been known to be a great reader/performer of your poems. How do these performances form a part of your creative process? Specifically, do you return to tweak poems after your have given public readings of them? If you do, what informs the bits of changes you make – is it the reaction of your audience, or smoothness of the lines on your tongue?

AC: Thank you for such a lovely compliment. I love reading my poems, and try to do so with vocal expression and variety, but without a melodramatic, over-the-top performance. Yes, I do make occasional ‘tweaks’ after a reading. If a line or stanza does not flow easily I may well change it, and I also respond to audience reaction.

NA: Do you have a favourite reading/performance venue? Is there something about the physical space of that venue that adds more depth and or resonance to your poems?

AC: I don’t mind where I read – size of room, size of audience, etc. The physical space is not really important to me, although a cold venue is uncomfortable and a noisy one or the presence of uncontrolled hecklers is distracting. The warmth and responsiveness of the audience are essential, and fortunately most audiences are extremely generous.

NA: What is your favourite poetry magazine? What is special about it?

AC: This is a very difficult question to answer. I subscribe to about a dozen and enjoy them all, although time does not permit me to read every issue of every magazine from cover to cover. I particularly enjoy the poems selected for ‘Envoi’ and ‘Acumen,’ so perhaps I am on the same wavelength as their editors, Roger Elkin and Patricia Oxley respectively.

NA: You have published 7 collections of poems, with an 8th collection in the works. How do you find the inspiration to continue writing?

AC: With great difficulty. I have a poor imagination, and rely a lot on exercises to stimulate the creative flow. I feel there’s no problem about using an exercise as the genesis of a poem as long as the poem finds wings and manages to fly. I suppose that observation, reading as much poetry as I can, and keeping a writer’s notebook provide me with the majority of ideas. But for every poem I submit anywhere, there are probably twenty ‘flops’ in the waste paper basket.

NA: You are involved in several poetry tutoring programmes in the United Kingdom. When did you realise that you wanted to teach poetry writing? Do you really believe that somebody can be taught to be come a poet?

AC: I have always been drawn to the vocation of teaching, wanting to share skills with enthusiastic people. I have taught elocution all my working life, and started to teach creative writing in 1983. Two years later, when my local Arts Centre mounted a series of arts-based courses and was looking around for tutors, I applied to teach poetry, and worked for them for eleven years. I am learning the craft of writing poetry by trial and error – and it’s an on-going process. My first book on this subject was published in 1992, and I wrote it to try to distil all the advice and hints I wish I’d known when I started to write. As a result of this, I was invited to write a correspondence course for poets. I firmly believe that writing poetry can be taught, as long as there is the slightest spark of ability in the student, and patience and perseverence to fan it into a flame. If I didn’t believe that, I could not do my job with integrity.

NA: In “The Craft behind The Art” (www.poetrysociety.org.uk) Vera Di Campli San Vito writes on The Craft of Writing Poetry, “Alison Chisholm says she wrote the book she wished she’d had when she was starting out. In the past, books which analysed poetry were mostly English literature text books which would show how to deconstruct a poem, rather than show how to construct one.” Tell me about this book, what are the key tips you present in it that every poet might find invaluable?

AC: The book takes its reader through the whole process of writing a poem. It starts by looking at the people who are writing and why they do it … then explains about getting ideas and developing them through the technical and artistic processes required to bring them to life in poetry. There is advice about what to do with the poems after you’ve written them, too.

NA: You have previously run a poetry course at Swanwick: The Writer’s Summer School. Is this an on-going course? What does it seek to accomplish for the poet? Is it open to all and how successful has this programme been in helping aspiring poets get closer to their dreams?

AC: A number of writers’ schools and conferences offer courses on poetry, as well as other aspects of creative writing. These give an opportunity for
studying the craft of poetry with an experienced tutor, or gaining ideas and refining your writing in workshop groups. Any networking with other poets and studying with tutors can be beneficial to the writer.

NA: You are a regular poetry competition adjudicator, and I have enjoyed some fantastic poems that have won including A.C. Clarke’s “Remaindered Poets” (Envoi 117). You have also (with Iain Pattison) written “Writing Competitions – The Way To Win.” This almost sounds as if it is not enough to write excellent poetry. Besides, there are a lot of people who hold the view that pay-to-enter competitions are in a way some kind of vanity and a way of funding the commercial press. How would you respond to these, especially to the suggestion that poets who do not crave validation of their work will never send them to one of these?

AC: The best advantage you can give yourself when entering a competition is to ensure that the work you submit is excellent, exciting and original. I do not know of any pay-to-enter competitions that yield vast profits. Given the expenses of running a competition, breaking even is the goal of most competition organisers, who are doing it to help and encourage poets rather than for commercial gain. Entering a competition will not massage a writer’s vanity – it is far more likely to give him/her an inferiority complex, as winning is extremely difficult. But there is a fascination in pitting your skills against those of your peers which many poets find irresistible. The book and the competitions themselves exist so you can give yourself the best chance to do this.

NA: Last year, you adjudicated the malapropism poetry competition in Honour of Richard Sheridan on the 250th anniversary of his birth. I read in Writing Magazine, the winning poem “Misguided Tour” by Phil Powley, and the runner up “To the Manager of Gruesome Grange Hotel” by Liz Summerson, and had amazing fun with them. What is the future of Malapropism Poetry?

AC: I’m glad you enjoyed these pieces.

To be honest, I don’t think that Malapropism poetry has ever been considered as a recognised form. Of course, many poets have included puns and misusages in their work, particularly for comic effect, and I know there is a lot of mileage in doing so. But this is just a device, rather than a set style. We thought it would be fun to play with malapropisms in the competition as a pleasant way of honouring Sheridan’s anniversary.

NA: In your estimation, who is the finest poet writing in English today? Kindly say why this writer gets the full marks from you?

AC: I couldn’t answer this – there are too many contenders, and it would be impossible to make a fair choice.

NA: Do you agree that we are now experiencing one of the most vibrant periods in the history of poetry? What would you say is the reason for the increased interest in poetry in our time and how can we make the art even more popular? Is this popularity even necessary and healthy for the art?

AC: I think we’re experiencing a wonderful period in poetry … but this probably has something to do with the fact that publishing is relatively inexpensive and easy these days, and that poetry on radio and TV makes it hugely accessible. I am in favour of anything that helps to promote poetry, and a love of reading and writing it. Encouraging children to enjoy poetry, and allowing poems to insinuate themselves into our lives via radio, newspapers etc. are likely to increase the level of public interest in the art. I believe that poetry is a way of making sense of the universe, and any increase in its popularity means that more people are drawing joy and understanding from it.

NA: Thank you, Alison for making the time to talk to me. I look forward to your new collection and more educating articles in Writing Magazine which I read regularly.

AC: Thank you for allowing me to take part in this interview. Best wishes.

My e-Conversation with Alison Chisholm by Nnorom Azuonye
was first published in Sentinel Poetry (online) in August 2003.

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