Category Archives: Interviews

My e-Conversation with Alison Chisholm


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” ( 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.

Richard Ali, The Monday Writer Interview

Richard Ali

The Beginning

I started writing in secondary school, I think junior secondary school. I remember, particularly, finding Shelley’s poem Ozymandias and an excerpt from The Lays of Ancient Rome, Macaulay. Something in the majesty of the lines got me. We were learning English Literature for the first time, you see? This switched to Literature in English in our senior years, incorporating non-English poets — Soyinka, Kwesi Brew etc. My first poems would have been by my third year of secondary school, unremarkable and there’s nothing lost in my having forgotten them. At about this time, Emeka Nwogu introduced me to a couple of listserves where mostly exiled Nigerian poets gathered. It was this happenstance that gave me an insight into how the mind of poets worked and the realization that my mind worked quite like that—somewhat quirky. I locate my first serious poems here — the poem Buddha Child is the marker because it was the first to be published, in Chuma Nwokolo’s African Writing Journal.

Writing poetry has become easier in the sense that I am more in control of my material now; the days of the formal, overweening “British” curriculum selected influence are long gone, the days of Africanist concern as well. My poems have become fingerprints. That writing poetry is easier now has seen a drought in the number of poems I write, a greater concern that each poem must count for something.

What he writes about

I am a wind chime and the nature of my poetry is to identify and interpret the winds of my times. Literary critic, Carl Trever, recently reviewed by poetry collection, The Angush and Vigilance of Things, for Praxis Magazine, and I think he got his finger to the pulse of this. Because my poetry is a personal meditation, the themes vary with the styles each poem dictates and while there was an effort at corralling the poems in that book into sections, assuming central themes, subjects and whatnot would be wrong. Poetry is a woman, and you must hold a woman’s waist lightly, for me, and follow her. My poetry is various, and I do not know what next about it.

On why he writes and how much of it is biographical

This question! There’s this film clip from the 80’s where a character throws a hammer at a large, Big Brother, screen which explodes in a million pieces. I have mulled this question for years, not just my poetry but my fiction and essays too and I have come around to a certainty that the world we live in is an absurd place yet that it is crucial that we make essentially existentially useless acts. I write because I must. I am that sort of person. So, in this sense, a burden. I see the world correctly and nothing at all can change the lockstep of illogic we’ve gotten steeped in. My point? Here’s the thing: that film clip was from an advertisement for a Mac in 1984. What is more ridiculous than that the image I choose for dissidence in from an ad, the most collaborationist thing ever? It’s fantastic, almost, to think that Apple is the seventeenth richest country in the world today. The Mac was never the hammer that destroys the absurdity of Big Brother, the Mac was Big Brother. It’s the same with poems, and writing, and art, earnest hammers we throw at a system that, at its heart, appeals to the world of human psychology—greed, acquisition, envy, perversity—and fuels it well. The hammer does not destroy Big Brother, it is swallowed by the Big Brother screen. Big Brother has made provisions for it. My work is personal and autobiographical and important, but in the larger scheme of things, the larger performative public space, insignificant and worse, incapable of significance. Those days are long gone now and its not me in the docks.

Biggest challenges he has faced as a writer

Gravity. Age and experience are the inevitable weight of the world and with these gifts you’ve not asked for and cannot refuse, it becomes harder to re-enter the unspoiled creative space where writing, if it is not commercial and factory-processed, must be done. When you’re young, and if you have the temperament for it, you are able to abstract easier, leap about the place more confidently but with time and experience comes the desire for self-realization usually in terms of a career, a responsibility to one’s family and children, even a desire that expertise gained should be shared with others—to solve problems, for a price or not. I have found that the price of all this is the loss of access. Paradox: without these weighty, unwanted gifts, were one to live the true “life of the poets” where there’s money and no responsibilities and travel is a thought away and so on, one is equally miserable. Every writer who has put a bullet in their heads, or stuck that same head in a gas oven, has come face to face with either this gravity or with misery and they have not known what to do with it, or themselves.

On best advice received

Punch the keys. Create your significances. The first is from the writer, Toni Kan, whose breadth of work, ranging from the commercial work he’s done in PR to very serious literary work like The Carnivorous City, I find impressive. He told me this at his house some years ago, while we were knocking down beers. The second, by someone I loved in what turned out to be an impossible affair, a walled English garden from which one must venture out. These are very good advice. But, have I heeded them? Not always. Besides, the thing with good advice is for it to be given away to someone else as quickly as possible.

Any advice then for other writers?

Punch the keys. The writing must be done and no one but you will do it. Waking up an hour early might work for you, or it might not. Blacking out a long weekend to work on that novel might be the thing, if that’s it, then do it. But, any which way, you must punch the keys. No one else will do it for you.

His books and which one he’d be caught reading when no one is looking.

I have meagre output—a novel, City of Memories (Parresia Books) from 2012 and a poetry collection, The Anguish and Vigilance of Things, from last year (2019). I am currently working on a second novel, roughly 40,000 words in, about halfway done. See, I need to take the good advice I’ve been given, which I have just given to other people. I need to punch the keys.
City of Memories is rooted in a different time and I like to pick it up. In reality, I tend to stumble upon my copy, and read a paragraph here or there which takes me back, inevitably, to the little room in an unpainted house at Lo-Anguwan Cele where the writing was done. The city of Jos is the ruined flower of my innocence and that’s what the book is about really, a moment in time. It’s been out of my hands for nearly a decade now but I still feel somewhat sentimental about that book.

Top 5 books read

Ah, just five? Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (and Divisadero), J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Zukiswa Wanner’s London, Cape Town, Jo’burg, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s novel Dust (and her new one, The Dragonfly Sea, which you absolutely must read). Lastly, Cyprian Ekwensi’s novella, Burning Grass, alongside his entire oeuvre. I think the reason I love these books is because they explore disappeared places in great detail (with the exception of Disgrace of course)—whether its cities and rural areas in a rapidly industrializing Nigeria in Ekwensi or Yvonne Owuor’s reckoning of Kenya and its history in Dust. Or Zukiswa’s knowing eye on today’s South Africa, how its promise came to be so publicly destroyed in what becomes, to quote Wilde, a long (and not so lovely) suicide.

Which of these books does he wish he’d written?

I do not wish I had written any of these, these are geniuses of a different bent from what I assume to be my best abilities. I am glad they wrote them.

But they influence/d his writing?

Absolutely. They are, alongside others, of course. Ondaatje, who is also a poet, is a major influence in my writing, as is the tenuousness of pioneers that I see in Ekwensi, in Jagua Nana, for example, a woman in Lagos, first generation off the farm, is thoroughly herself in a world she does not fully understand which yet she faces with bravery. I like the tenuous, very human stories that pepper the life of Almasy in The English Patient, whether he is meditating on Herodotus or telling a married lover that the one thing he hates the most is ownership. I do not think I can achieve a character like Nyipir Oganda in Dust, one who is broken in the end because the book starts with his only son being killed like a criminal on the streets of Nairobi. Because Oganda knows it’s the ghosts of Kenya, the people who he made ghosts, who have taken his son, made his boy a sacrifice to the Kenya that became because of what he and his generation did. It takes a Yvonne to do history in such broad swathes and then take a surgical scalpel to it.

Walk us through your writing habits, Richard

Nothing special. I like writing in the mornings and get my best writing done between 6 a.m. and perhaps 9 a.m. These are luxurious days though, when I do not have to go into the city for meetings or work. I have a desk, about 3 by 2 feet, on which are a printer, a calabash and two piles of various books—at the bottom right corner is my laptop. Here, I write. Most days though, I cannot write in the mornings so I make do with a weekend, or late on those nights when sleep does not come where yet the lethargy of it can be overcome. Or just procrastinate, as I’ve been doing. I just punch the keys when I can, and leave the rest to the editing process. SLQ

Mandy Pannett interviews Catherine Edmunds

Thank you for this interview, Cathy. Good to talk to you. Congratulations on the publication of your collection ‘How to Win at Kings Cross’. This was the result of an Erbacce Press competition wasn’t it, which had nearly six thousand entries? Tell us more.

I love the ‘Erbacce Prize’. It’s free to enter, you send a good sample of poems rather than fixing your hopes on just a few, it’s genuinely read blind, and the prizes are seriously good. In previous years, I’ve come close, but have just missed out on the top prizes. This year I finally made it and have been rewarded with the publication of a complete collection.

This is a full length collection – nearly one hundred pages. I’d love to know what criteria you adopted for selecting and ordering the poems. Are you following themes, settings, atmosphere? Was it difficult to choose the first and last poem?

I have written hundreds of poems since my first collection, ‘wormwood, earth and honey’(Circaidy Gregory Press, 2007), so I had plenty to choose from. Initially, I gave preference to those that had already been prize winners or published in prestigious journals, but they weren’t always my favourites, so some of these were eventually discarded. Ultimately, I went with my guts. I could see various themes emerging, but wanted to leave the precise order to my editor Alan Corkish at Erbacce Press. He has the editing and publishing experience; he knows what works, and I trust his judgment.

I’m intrigued by the title ‘How to Win at Kings Cross’. Is there a background to this? Was it a title in waiting?

The title was inspired by an internet article I came across a few years ago that demonstrated the necessity of ignoring direction signs on the Kings Cross Underground unless you are happy to walk miles out of your way. My brother used to have a flat a short distance from the station, and I always stayed with him when I was in London, so I gradually learnt the tricks of ‘how to win’. Over a period of ten years, I gorged myself on all the art the city has to offer, and this is reflected in the title poem, which I see as a declaration of my love for London, but which other people interpret very differently. That’s the great thing about poetry—the poet provides the initial impetus with the words, but it’s the reader’s interpretation that creates the poem.

You are an incredibly creative person – musician, artist, novelist, poet – there’s probably more! Are you drawn to all of these equally or, if you could only concentrate on one thing, what might it be?

Last summer, when I was being filmed as a contestant for Sky Arts ‘Portrait Artist of the Year’, presenter Frank Skinner said it was like sitting next to Leonardo, which was a wild exaggeration, obviously, but nice to hear. I have been an artist all my life, and when I’m painting, I don’t want to be doing anything else, but professionally, I’m a musician, and six months ago I joined award-nominated Irish folk/rock band, ‘Share the Darkness’. When I’m playing with them, I’m on a real high and can’t imagine anything better—but then there’s the writing. When I’m writing a novel, I fall in love with my characters with such intensity, it hurts when eventually I must send them away from me. Individual poems can have the same effect. Could I pick just one, out of writing, music and art? No. Not a chance.

Not only creative but prolific too. Do you have a routine for writing, a daily to-do list, or do you grab opportunities as they arise?

I have a daily ‘to do’ list, but I rarely adhere to it. I get up early, skim through facebook and emails to deal with anything urgent, and then dip in and out of writing/art/music all day. I stop every so often to give a scheduled violin or piano lesson. When I need a break, I indulge my ‘killer sudoku’ habit, and I’ve also recently started learning Welsh. Wales is a country I love and have visited since early childhood, hence the number of poems with Welsh settings in the collection.

And now what comes next, once you’ve sent ‘How to Win at Kings Cross’ on its journey? A long poetry sequence? Another novel? A multi-media publication? Lots of luck with it, whatever it may be.

Thank you. I have recently completed a novel and a novella which are being sent out to agents and publishers, so writing-wise I’m between major projects and am concentrating on individual poems and flashes. Wearing my artist’s hat, I’m working on a large portrait—not a commission, unusually for me, but an attempt to hone my portrait-painting skills. I have had three drawings of Christine Keeler accepted for a forthcoming nationwide tour, so I feel I’m on the cusp of doing something more prestigious with my art. Musically, my electric blue fiddle is fully booked from now till Christmas and beyond. People ask me how I manage to do so much, particularly given my major health problems—but illness is what has spurred me on. We all lose eventually, but while we’re on a winning streak, we need to make the most of it and live life to the full. And I know how to win at Kings Cross.


Copies of How to Win at Kings Cross may be purchased from the Erbacce Press website: