Q. Where did your journey of writing poetry begin?
Very atypically, I can pinpoint an exact moment where I had a damascene conversion – where poetry very suddenly entered my life properly, for the first time. Back in about 2008 I was in the big Borders on Oxford Street in London, idly browsing – I’d just got back from a weekend away in Berlin, and was looking for a book, to ‘commemorate’ the weekend, as it were. I was in that state of drifting, not really concentrating, and I found myself in the poetry section; on display was ‘Ashes for Breakfast’ by the German poet Durs Grünbein, in a translation by Michael Hofmann. I started flicking through it… and it was like a light going on. I was transfixed – not just by the sheer sensation of, “My God, words can do this?” but the sudden sense of “Wow, this is the stuff I want to be writing. Why did no one tell me this existed before?” In my memory, I think I booked myself on an Introduction to writing poetry course at City Lit the day after. There might actually have been a few months in between, but hey!, that’s not as good a story.
Q. Do you remember the first poem you wrote? Was it any good?
Remember it? Not really… oh hang on, I do; it was titled something like ‘A scent of you’ and was very heavy and leaden – striving to be ‘poetic’, or rather what I thought of poetic at the time… Suffice to say, I do have it somewhere. I am inveterate hoarder, so everything I’ve ever written lives in some shape or form on a memory stick or under my desk at home. But no, I’m not going to go and look it up to see how bad it was.
Q.Tell us more about how you developed your creativity as a poet, and what resources were fundamental to the process?
It sounds a little trite to say it, but it really was and is as simple as reading the work of other poets. It’s only through doing that do you start to discover: what you like, what you don’t like, who you want to emulate, who you want to rip off, who drives you wild with envy, whose work you think, well I reckon I can do better than that… It’s an under-discussed process this, trying to locate yourself in relation to other writers, and trying to find the space in which your voice, your obsessions can then start to take root and make sense. It takes time, and only happens by ranging widely in what you read.
In terms of resources to help do that, I’m fortunate in that my day job means that I can afford to spend lots of weekends shopping in a bookshop of some description; and I’m also fortunate to live close by the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre in London, where I’ll have a deep dive into poetry magazines from time to time. But, and forgive me for sounding modish, I guess over the last few years, it’s through social media that I’ve discovered the poems and poets that I’ve wanted to spend more time with. Thoroughly modern, and very difficult to systemize – but it’s also heartening to know that, however little attention the rest of the world might give to it, it doesn’t take much effort on Twitter and Facebook to discover thriving communities of people talking, thinking, writing and loving poetry.
Q. Do you have a favourite collection of works, that you find yourself going back to, time and time again?
Well, definitely the aforementioned ‘Ashes for Breakfast’; that’s the thing that’s like a clean blast of water to my head; it revives me, gets me started again, particularly when writing isn’t going so well; when I have lots of starts, but the poems aren’t necessarily cohering into something – anything. What else… Frank O’Hara’s ‘Lunch Poems’ is well thumbed, as I love his approach, his attitude to life – and it fits into your pocket. And I always try to read Vikram Seth’s ‘The Golden Gate’ once a year. I love how it freewheels across the dream of California living and Silicon Valley, the way it dazzles with its virtuosity and phrase-making. And I am in love with that form – Onegin sonnets in tetrameter are something I try to write to kickstart myself out of rut.
Q. Who would you say has had the most influence on your writing life and why?
Two places / institutions in particular. I was very fortunate to study at the Faber Academy in 2010/11 under Jo Shapcott and Daljit Nagra. To call it a six-month long masterclass would be to understate how revelatory and amazing it was. It was just a wonderful period of reading loads, being introduced to new names, challenged every week to write new things, take risks and be daring with your voice, and all in the company of wonderfully talented fellow students.
The other was The Complete Works II, the Arts Council initiative designed to find and support advanced Black and Asian poets in the UK. I think being selected for that is the closest I’m ever going to get to winning a lottery ticket in my life. Almost every moment of that was a wondrous revelation, and I often had to pinch myself that I was lucky enough to be getting all these incredible experiences – mentoring from Daljit; being on a course at an Arvon Centre and tutored by Catherine Smith and Mimi Khalvati; being in the same room as Warsan Shire wrote and then read a first draft of a poem; reading at the Southbank Centre…
And it wasn’t just at the level of craft. Over the course of the programme, I started to think much about not just writing, but what it means to be a writer – maybe even an artist – and the responsibilities that come with that, especially political ones. It woke me up to the fact that, coming from the background I do, it can never just be about *writing* – there are other issues you have to be aware of, deal with, even if it doesn’t surface directly in your work.
Q. Can you tell us more about the creative process of writing a poem? What approach do you take? Is there an inspired moment?
So, let’s talk about the poem I’ve given you to go with this interview. I’ve been carrying around what has ended up the title for well over a year now – the phrase has been hanging about on a piece of paper, and then a notebook, and coming with me everywhere. And then about two Saturday’s ago, I woke up with the image that has become the last line – and I knew that the two would go together in some way. The remaining three lines? Well, they started with me playing a White Stripes song last Sunday, and let’s say I borrowed a sentiment from a lyric in it… and the rest of it rolled out from there. Since then I’ve been taking words out, putting them back in, right up until having to send it across, and I’ll probably keep playing with it for a while yet… poems oscillate: they suggest they’re ready, then you look at them six months later and it’s blindingly obvious what needs to change.
That’s a relatively typical for how a poem comes about for me. I’ve very much driven by a phrase, some construction or combination of words that is oddly appealing in some way, and then I have to wait for the bigger ideas that help to fill it out. I’m not great at picking a subject and saying, “Hey, now I’m going to write about this.” I’ve never been the sort of writer that has a big message for the world. That said, I’ve found myself writing some more obviously political poems recently – but even then, there will be some oddity of speech or phraseology that sparks it off. The trick is then finding that balance of sound and music and language and ideas and form.
Simple, when I break it down like that. ;)
Q. What would you say, is the most challenging part for you, when writing a poem?
Starting… finishing… rewriting in between… it’s all, how shall we say, not easy. I have to steel myself against a glib fluency that doesn’t mean that much. Ultimately, what I have to fight against is the sense that I’ve written something just for the sake of writing something – move away from the poem being a bit of idle practice, and think much more about: why does this poem exist? What makes it urgent? Is it just a fancy bit of language (not that there’s anything wrong with that but…) or am I actually getting at some deeper, bigger truth – does it matter? Answering that satisfactorily – or at least enough that you’re willing enough to let the thing out into the world – knowing which side of that line a piece lies, that’s hard.
Q. You’re part of the editor development programme at Rialto, can you tell us more about that and how it’s helped develop your own poetry?
Well, I should say the programme has actually finished now. Me and Holly Hopkins, the other person on the programme, we ‘graduated’ with the publication of issue 83 of The Rialto a few months ago. The programme was a fab chance to work at the elbow of Mike Mackmin, the editor of The Rialto, to see up close how a poetry magazine is put together, and to start to get to grips with the folders of poems that arrive – and then to try and exercise some judgement as to what poems we found exciting enough to want to put into the magazine. It was a rapid, in-depth education in working out how and why a poem might ‘work’, and then – almost as importantly – whether it’s right for the magazine too. I learnt a lot about the dedication that it needs and takes to put something out every couple of months – and by extension, that most of the poetry world runs on that dedication.
Has it affected my poetry? I’m not sure that it has – I think it’s reasonable to say that, in terms of style especially, I didn’t see any submissions that made me think, ‘Cor there’s someone writing a bit like me!’ I hasten to add that that fact hasn’t made me think that I should change my style… What looking at all those poems did confirm is that I have to make sure my drafts are as tight and as ‘finished’ as possible before being sent out: giving your poems the best chance of succeeding, basically.
Q. What do you look for, from an editor’s point view, in a poem? How can you tell a poem works?
I think this is the hardest thing of all to be able answer succinctly. It’s not enough to say, ‘You just can’ – but equally the poems that *do* work are so perfectly formed they give you almost no space in which to actually be able to deconstruct them to illuminate them further; the trick of perfection, I suppose. I can best summarise it by suggesting that when you read something that works, you’re struck very early on by the sense that, yes, there’s a performance here that’s starting to come together; you’re then in the position of willing the thing to succeed. I guess akin to a tightrope walker: whether you like the person or not, once they get halfway across all you want is for them not to fall off.
There are technical things you learn to start to look for: has a rhyme scheme started been followed through – and if not, is it ok that it doesn’t? Is the meter held all the way to the end? Has an idea that’s been sketched out fully realised? Are the metaphors and / or similes vivid, interesting – new? Again, it’s hard to systemize – this stuff is never done on a checklist – but by reading more, you’re able to gauge much more easily what’s good and what’s bad.
Q. What advice would you give to a poet who’s just started writing?
Read, read, read, read; oh and read. If you want to get good at the writing of poetry there is no other way than spending lots of time immersed in poems, and poetry. It’s not that you have to like everything that crosses your desk and screen – but it is so much easier to do now, especially as the internet means that single poems float freely towards you, without you having to look and search that hard. Read the old stuff certainly – but read new too. We’re lucky in that, right now, there are so many new names and talents who are emerging, producing interesting, stimulating and dynamic work. If you don’t know where to start, you can head to the Poetry Library, settle down with a few magazines (naturally I recommend The Rialto) and you’ll rapidly find stuff that will get you thinking, move you – and then go on from there. Lots of unread volumes aren’t a challenge to be tackled; they’re a pleasure waiting to happen.
Q. Do you think it’s becoming easier for Black and Asian poets to find outlets to publish their work? Is there a collection in the pipeline that we can look forward to?
Well, the second part of that is easier to answer: I’m working on *something*, and hopefully that will emerge soon; watch this space…
As to the first; I think it is, yes, but probably not as fast as it could or should. That isn’t to denigrate the efforts of many editors and publishers who I do know spend a lot of time aiming to make sure that they have a good spread, balance of BAME writers to feature. But thanks to the success of programmes like The Complete Works, we’ve now got a situation in which people are far more aware that an absence of non-white poets looks, at the very least, odd in a multicultural society. And we’re seeing much more activity around changing that situation, so that’s positive.
But don’t forget, this is a two-way process, and it relies on BAME writers to get out there, start writing, start sending, being persistent. If you’re not in the submission folders, you’ve got no chance of being seen, being published. The point is: you cannot be shy. You have to work, yes – to get good, better at your craft, continually. You need to participate, give back to the poetry world – you can’t just sit scribbling, and hope for your genius to be discovered. Go to readings, support your fellow poets, listen hard to their words, buy their books, subscribe to magazines; join your local writing group, give your feedback to their poems kindly and generously… love the world that you’re starting to enter, basically. And you’ll see that with time and persistence, a bit of luck, the doors that you’re knocking on will start to open. I mean, I didn’t think they would for me – but they’re starting to now.
And even if they didn’t, it doesn’t actually matter anyway. I’m still going to be writing those Onegin sonnets, for me, well into my dotage; this is a vocation now. So I’m going to keep writing whether the world cares for my words or not.
Rishi Dastidar’s poetry has been published by the Financial Times, Tate Modern and the Southbank Centre amongst many others, and was most recently in Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe, 2014). He was part of the 2014-15 Rialto / Poetry School editorial development programme, and also serves as a trustee of Spread The Word.