Category Archives: Interviews

Geoffrey Winch in conversation with Nnorom Azuonye

The Monday Writer Interview

Geoffrey Winch

The introduction of you on the Dempsey and Windle website says your poetry ‘has appeared regularly in journals and anthologies in the UK, US and online’ since 1992. When did you start writing?

I began writing at a very young age – not poetry though – writing compositions and essays at both junior and senior schools I enjoyed from the start, I even won a couple of junior prizes for compositions I wrote for competitions in the local press.

I was encouraged by my mother mainly – I was brought up in Reading, Berkshire, where our family regularly attended the local Methodist Church (Whitley Hall). My father was the church organist and my mother wrote and produced Nativity and Easter plays – that always impressed me.

After marrying Janet, who I met at the church youth club, we moved away for work, firstly to Hampshire and then Warwickshire, and we lost touch with the church for many years. I became more enamoured by the 1960s counterculture, especially the music scene. I had co-founded a rock band – The Cyclones – at our old youth club where we used to play the Shadows and Johnny and the Hurricanes numbers etc, but being a rather third-rate guitarist I had left after a couple of years (the band had more success after that!) – but the music of that era was important in my life. Often it still influences my poetry today. So, this brings me back to my development as a writer – having become disappointed with the counterculture’s decline during the seventies I wrote a novel West Abutment Mirror Images which centred on that decline. However, I failed to find a publisher for it despite rewriting it during the 1980s. Nevertheless, I still regarded it as something of an achievement – satisfying inasmuch that it taught me much about the actual discipline of sustained writing.

Do you remember the first poem you wrote and the first poem you published?

It was whilst writing the second version of my novel sometime in the 1980s that I began to dabble with the idea of free verse poetry, and used to write odd bits and pieces on scraps of paper which I would then slip into a file, never being sure as to what I could do with them. It then happened that Ian Walton with his Arrival Press/Poetry Now imprint was publishing Regional Anthologies and advertising in local presses for aspiring poets to submit work – so I sent in two of my renderings and he accepted one, titled ‘Sailing Away’, which he then published in his Central Poets Anthology in 1992 . This appeared almost at the same time as I received what I decided would be my final rejection (from Faber and Faber) for my novel. Looking back now it might have been a lightbulb moment as from that point on I just concentrated my efforts on writing poetry. I took out a subscription for Ian’s Poetry Now magazine, and this suddenly opened up the whole and, for me, previously unexplored world of small press poetry magazines and journals.

During the 1980s Janet and I had re-joined the Methodist Church in Royal Leamington Spa where we were living, and throughout the 1990s much of my poetry was written specifically for the church magazine. But I also had poems accepted by Roger Elkin for Envoi, Nick Clarke for Poetic Hours, and others appeared in Linkway, Inclement, Roundyhouse and Raw Edge etc. so I felt satisfied that I was making progress in the small press poetry world as well.

What did you do before you began writing?

After leaving school my first job was as a cartographer working for the Planning Department at Reading County Borough Council, and subsequently as a draughtsman for the Highways Department at the same Authority. This was followed by two and a half years working for Hampshire CC as draughtsman on the M3 Motorway Design, and then after we moved to Warwickshire I worked briefly for Coventry City Council, then the County and District Councils, initially as a land surveyor then as a highway technician and engineer. Prior to taking early retirement in 2001 I had been made the Principal Development Control Highway Officer at WCC. Much of my work at that stage involved writing which I really enjoyed – being required to give evidence at numerous public inquiries as an expert witness, I needed to write many proofs of evidence; and also I project-managed and edited the then definitive County Council’s Developers’ Guide to Highways and Transport.

Why do you write poetry and what kind of poet are you?

This is a difficult question to answer because I just want to say “I don’t know!” but that’s not quite right. I also feel I ought to say “Why not? – poems are there to be written, and if I didn’t write the ones I do – who else would?” So the answer is, perhaps, within those responses somewhere – maybe it is some kind of compulsion: each blank page sets a challenge for me, and I simply have to respond.

I am the kind of poet who usually makes many notes before I begin the actual writing – but then not all come to fruition, and others can sit on a back-burner for months and sometimes years. On other occasions I just sit down and begin writing – it is intriguing to see what appears. Some poems I start off knowing what I want them to be about, but then they will turn out to be about something totally different – poems often tell me what they want to say, and all they require of me is to do their writing for them.
I am principally a free verse poet, but I also write a lot of short form poetry – haiku and tanka, and more recently, cherita (a form devised by ai li around twenty-five years ago). In combination with those I also write haibun and tanka prose, and more recently responsive tanka with a like-minded friend.

Many of my poems are ekphrastic. Paintings, sculptures, music, theatre are among my many influences; if I visit a gallery I always take a note book knowing I will see at least one painting that will form the basis of a poem for me.

Did you have any formal training as a writer, or did you just get on with it?

No, I never had any formal training. In fact, I could be considered as someone who was least likely to become a poet, having failed both English Grammar and Literature at O levels. However, as I began to have more and more poems accepted for publication, it did occur to me that I ought to become involved with other poets in order to learn more of the craft from them. So, after taking early retirement from full time employment, and relocating to Felpham in West Sussex, I was really pleased that Slipstream Poets invited me to join them. Their regular workshops were very useful for me, and I learned much. Later I also joined Silk Road Writers and then Chichester Stanza group. About ten years ago I began reading regularly at the Chichester Open Mic – all very enjoyable and worthwhile. When a new group, River Poets, was formed in Arundel I became a member but, reluctantly, then had to let Silk Road go – I decided that there had to be a limit to the number of creative writing sessions one can attend each month.

Every group is different, and the dynamics are so varied. Every group for me is stimulating, and I regard these as continuous training on the job. In the past I also attended a week’s workshop on the Isle of Bute with Alan Carter who is dedicated to running Quantum Leap – one of the small magazines with a faithful following; and weekend workshops with Michael Laskey of Smiths Knoll, and Peter and Ann Sansom of The North – all excellent and worthwhile experiences.

There is something intriguing and paradoxical about the title of your first collection, The Morning Light of Dusk (2004). What was the collection about and how well-received was it?

At the time I was regularly contributing to The Poetry Church edited by John Waddington-Feather. The collection mainly consisted of my spiritually-based poems and published by John under his Feather Books imprint. Some of the poems would have been seen as unorthodox, and some were definitely influenced by Leslie Weatherhead’s The Christian Agnostic. I compiled it for two reasons – in order to make contributions to good causes which I did, and also to establish it as a record of that era of my poetry knowing that my poems had already started to encompass a much broader range of subject matter. Having devoted much energy into church activities throughout the 80s and 90s, I made the positive decision when moving to West Sussex to redirect that energy instead into writing. I am now an irregular church attender.

Turns Along the Garden Path was published by Martin Holroyd’s Poetry Monthly Press in 2007. Following Holroyd’s retirement many of the titles published by the press also retired. Is Turns Along the Garden Path still in print? If not, are you going to re-issue it at some point in the future?

Turns Along the Garden Path is no longer in print. In a way this collection became my statement of intent – it was essentially pagan in content as opposed to the more spiritual The Morning Light of Dusk: it marked the change in direction my poetry had already taken. In the late 1980s I had discovered the writings of Powys brothers (John Cowper, Llewelyn and Theodore) and had joined the Powys Society in the 1990s. All born into a Christian family (their father being a vicar), they each developed very individual standpoints regarding religion and ethics – all different, yet each in their own way convincing. I was allowing their writings to influence not only my writing but how I viewed the world.

I hadn’t thought of re-issuing Turns Along the Garden Path – but if I ever get to the point of putting together a ‘selected’ collection then there are particular poems from it that I would definitely include.

You have now published six poetry collections in 16 years. What are the challenges you have faced writing these books?

The biggest challenge for each is deciding on its timing, and deciding to commit. It can be a fairly straightforward process to select poems for a collection, but the real effort then comes in revising many of them. I never regard a poem as finished even when it is first published – always I will spot something I wished I had changed. There is much fine-retuning to undertake, and then deciding on the order to ensure a collection flows naturally.

Each of my collections has been themed – my third collection Letting the Road-Dust Settle – consisted, in part, of reflections on my professional life. So, many of the poems were about the processes of road building (for better but often for the worse), and poems about characters I had worked with involved in the process. The collection then expanded to include poems about travel – both actual and fanciful.

Much of my and my wife’s lives have been taken up with enjoying theatre and music. Alchemy of Vision which followed was a summing up of those years of enjoyment – the poems are about the visual and performing arts.

I was fortunate in having both collections accepted for publication by Indigo Dreams. The year 2017 marked the 25th anniversary of the acceptance of my first published poem and also the year I gave up on my novel West Abutment Mirror Images. Over the years I had often delved into my old manuscript to look for a phrase or scene to start a new poem. However, often what evolved had very little to do with the original plot, but became a poem in its own right. That whole collection is made up of such poems – the only exception being ‘Notes for the Future’ being central to the collection and also the pivotal scene in the original plot. This time I was pleased that Sam Smith undertook its publication under his Original Plus imprint, and grateful for the excellent editorial work he did.

What surprising things about yourself and humanity have you discovered from writing?

The most surprising thing was discovering how I needed to change my perspective on all kinds of issues as time has moved on. It is sensible to allow oneself to be educated by others, to make judgements according to what they say or do not say – accept that some people are actually better informed than one likes to think oneself is. I am more accepting of some things, others I am less accepting of. Then I surprise myself sometimes by what I actually write, how critical I can be when responding to so many of the disasters that are reported on the news, then once in while those happier events that really do happen. What a diverse race humans are: because our relationships and attitudes are influenced by so many variables, one has to learn tolerance, if nothing else.

On September 1, 2020 your new collection Velocities and Drifts of Winds was published by Dempsey and Windle. Tell us about this book, Geoffrey.

As I mentioned before, all my collections so far have been themed, and Velocities and Drifts of Winds follows in this tradition. The title really speaks for itself, the theme being ‘the winds of change’ – and this I have developed on various fronts. It consists of four sections, each opening with a tanka to set the tone, and starting with historic events. Having become aware of the journals of Anthony à Wood through the writings of Llewlyn Powys, three of the poems about historic events are centred on extracts from those journals. Others are based on paintings and music and the environment. The second section focuses on physical things or events that can influence thought or conceptions; the third is essentially about changing relationships both with persons and situations; and the final section is about how personal relationships can become altered by the influences of other parties. In doing this I take a look back at some of those people who have played significant parts in my life. The overall sentiment of the collection can possibly be summed up by ‘Clouds Gathering’ – a tanka prose poem. A mixture of free verse, tanka, haiku and cherita makes up the whole content, and several ekphrastic poems are included. Some examples of John Cowper Powys’ influences are also there – in particular a poem titled ‘Flesh’ and another ‘The City’ – an ekphrastic poem which, at the time of writing, I happened upon his concept of a city being a mother – this changed the conclusion of the poem.

What are the plans for launching Velocities and Drifts of Winds in this time of Coronavirus?

I was most appreciative of the fact that Dempsey and Windle agreed to publish this collection, and they have provided me with a high quality product. Janice Dempsey was kind enough to offer me the facility of a Zoom launch, but this I graciously declined – when I read in public I do need to feel that my audience is really with me and that I am involving them.

My previous collections have not had formal launches as such but, for my last three, Barry Smith (Director of Chichester Poetry) has made room in the Open Mic programme for me to be the featured poet in order to give my collections their first public readings. I am hoping when things return to some kind of normality that Barry will offer me the same facility once more.

Thank you, Geoffrey, for giving me your time, and I wish you every success with Velocities and Drifts of Winds.

Thank you Nnorom for inviting me to be interviewed. It has been an interesting experience.

If I may be permitted, I would just like to take this opportunity of expressing my gratitude to various people who have played important roles in developing my poetic career. Whilst there have been scores of editors who have published my work, in order to be successful it has been necessary to find those editors of journals and magazines who have consistently supported my endeavours, and in this respect I would firstly like to mention Ronnie Goodyer and Dawn Bauling at Indigo Dreams – Ronnie for the many poems of mine he has published in Reach Poetry, and Dawn who on three occasions has showcased my ekphrastic poetry in Sarasvati. Also Alan Carter at Quantum Leap – he has been a great supporter of mine over the years; then in America, M Kei has always shown his enthusiasm for my work and he has published much of my tanka production in Atlas Poetica. More recently ai li, who is sometimes in London and at other times in Singapore, has given me much support and encouragement. Another essential person to express my gratitude to is my wife, Janet. She all too often tolerates my ‘vague’ moods when I have lines or words for a poem trying to sort themselves out in my head! She has admirable understanding. SLQ

Geoffrey Winch is a retired highway engineer living in Felpham, West Sussex.  He is a member of several local poetry groups and reads regularly at the Chichester Open Mic. His poetry has been published mainly in the UK, US and online, almost one thousand poems all in all. He occasionally devises and leads poetry workshops for small groups, and has published six collections, his latest being Velocities and Drifts of Winds. In 2011 he was awarded the accolade of ‘The UK’s Best Small Press Poet’ by Purple Patch magazine.

Nnorom Azuonye is the Founder/Editor of Sentinel Literary Quarterly. He is the author of Funeral of the Minstrel (a play), We Need God in Nigeria again, The Bridge Selection: Poems for the Road, and Letter to God & Other Poems. Follow on,, Twitter, Facebook

Home | Monday Writer | Twitter | Facebook

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