[interview with Simon Fletcher]
by Monica Manolachi
Monica Manolachi: Last autumn you were one of the four commended poets in the Michael Marks Environment Poet of the Year Prize. What does this recognition mean to you?
Simon Fletcher: It means a lot, frankly. I’ve been writing environmental poetry for years and getting a few poems accepted here and there, including in Crevice, but not found my work, or perspective, perhaps I should say, welcome in the “top” literary magazines in Britain. So, to be commended in The Michael Marks Environmental Poet of the Year Award is very encouraging. It means, on one level, that I haven’t been on the wrong track, which is pleasing. Michael Marks (part of the Marks & Spencer retail family) set up literary awards for poetry pamphlets some years ago, but this is the first time they’ve run an “environmental” award, specifically.
MM: What do the places where you can write poetry look like? What are the most unusual? What helps you focus and create poems?
SF: I don’t have a specific place where I write. I walk in the wooded hills near my home very often and that inspires poems. I carry a notebook with me most of the time and find myself moved to write any time of the day. There is something physically important about pen or pencil on paper.
Very often poems grow out of the environmental workshops I run, which always involve walks. Mostly these are in “green spaces and places”, so there’s a given sense of people in a landscape reacting to their environment. It’s a way of recording change but also how we react to change and what this does to us and how this may effect the environment. I think that’s at the heart of the current debate about environmental poetry.
People may get confused about the various labels attached to the poetry we used to call “nature poetry”. Nowadays, there is a distinction to be made, perhaps, between “environmental poetry”, which includes people in the landscape, is sometimes informed by ideologies and may have an impact in society, and “ecological poetry”, which focuses more on poetic experiment linked to the science of nature, I think. One of the poems I wrote, which particularly impressed the judges of the Michael Marks Award and they commented on, was “December Blues” that can be found on the Crevice website. I think it put its finger on what’s at the heart of the environmental and climate crisis.
In terms of the actual writing, poems can start forming over a period of weeks or months and then something triggers the writing down of a first draft. Poets are magpies and we have a tendency to bring together shiny and significant things. Very often intensive reading over a day or two sparks a poem. We benefit from spending time in Poetryland.
MM: What has poetry meant to you over the years, from the early days until the present? What concepts have guided you? Why do you write?
SF: Poetry has meant a great deal to me since I was around 13 and I read Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part one. Something about the joy and wonder of metaphoric language grabbed me and hasn’t put me down. I don’t know about concepts, but I’ve tried to explain the world to myself and others, to understand things better through poetry. In this sense, it’s a machine to think with, but a very complex and intricate machine.
Seamus Heaney’s definition of poetry seems the most adequate to me. He felt it was “something sweetening and at the same time something unexpected, something that has come through constraint into felicity”. That’s good enough for me. Why do I write? I can’t stop it and I try to create something beautiful and something telling.
It can be a marker of “loss” and I sometimes warn about what we might lose, but I prefer to celebrate the positives in life, the joys and beauties, friendship and love.
MM: I’d like to know in what context you made your debut with poetry. Did your family or friends encourage you?
SF: I think there have been several occasions we could call “debuts”, false beginnings for me, as there’s not been much continuity or clear progression in my writing. I wrote a lot when younger and had encouragement from teachers, but I didn’t find any real recognition until Ted Hughes, the then Poet Laureate and a huge figure in the poetry landscape, read my Occasions of Love (Pennine Pens, 1994). A friend had badgered me to send him a copy after I’d interviewed him for a Sunday newspaper. He said some very warm and encouraging things about my writing and I’ve tried to match up to those expectations ever since.
My family didn’t encourage me to write as they didn’t have any experience of a writer in the family. I think they found it worrying. My father was dismayed when my English teacher, Jim Charlton, suggested I should study English Literature at university. They haven’t been supportive, apart from my brother James, but I’ve had a number of friends and partners over the years who have been.
MM: Which poets of the past have had an influence on your own writing? If you could meet them today, how would you spend your time together?
SF: The list is a very long one, but I would add some of the great English poets, those mentioned above plus Wordsworth, W. H. Auden and R. S. Thomas, plus the American Mary Oliver and the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. I hope we’d have a pleasant chat somewhere walking in the woods or by water. I spent an afternoon with R. S. Thomas, in 1979 in his study, which was delightful. As a promoter of poetry I’ve spent many happy hours with poets over the years and a few that have left me cold. Not all poets, it turns out, are kind and generous.
MM: What do you think about the relationship between literary tradition and modernity? What particular lines have stayed with you over the years?
SF: I think that there’s a constant engagement between poets of today and the poets that have gone before. It’s very often the case that reading a really brilliant poem inspires people to get writing in the first place. The relationship often takes place in the form of a tribute or “writing back”. Carol Ann Duffy edited such an anthology in 2007 for Picador. I’ve written tributes to a number of poets myself including “Writing back to Mary” in my collection Close to Home (Headland, 2015). I hope I’ve expressed my warm admiration for Mary Oliver, a wonderful American “nature poet”, and her poetry there. My head is full of lines of poetry. Where to start?
MM: What poetry or prose in translation have you read and enjoyed lately?
SF: I don’t read much prose as I’m a very slow reader. I have been studying the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s work in translation recently and am falling in love with her. Part of the reason for this is that I’ve been teaching a course on Russian Poetry (from Pushkin to the 2000s), in translation, to a group of enthusiastic poetry readers in Wolverhampton. Here’s an example of her work from the 1930s, which says something about the dangers of writing poetry in Stalin’s Russia:
I’m certainly not a Sibyl;
my life is clear as a stream.
I just don’t feel like singing
to the rattle of prison keys.
(Translation by Robert Chandler in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, 2015)
MM: Do you have any favourite bookshops, libraries and other venues suitable for poetry readings?
SF: I live in the countryside so the idea of having a “favourite bookshop” is strange. There is one in the nearest town, but the owner isn’t interested in stocking my work or that of Offa’s Press poets. Make of that what you will. There are some great libraries in the region who do support poetry, despite tiny budgets and increasingly difficult work conditions. My favourite venue is the Water Rat Pub in Ironbridge, Shropshire, where I’ve been running “Country Voices” for the last few years. The atmosphere of the pub is very pleasant, perched as it is above the River Severn with lawns going down to the river bank. And, of course, the small town of Ironbridge is a world heritage site which draws a lot of people in.
MM: You used to be a teacher. What has this type of interaction taught you? What determined you to leave the regular education system and enter the specific cultural area of creative writing?
SF: I found teaching very educational, given that I worked in both private and state schools. The overwhelming impression I got was that privately-educated people have a huge advantage over their state school-educated peers like me. This is one of the main problems in Britain’s “hierarchical” society and causes a great deal of ill-will. The students I found pleasant enough in all schools, but they have very different life paths and expectations on leaving. I left full-time teaching because I was getting very busy being invited to do a lot of paid poetry readings, and other poetical activities, from about 1997 onwards. These extra demands made it impossible to do a full-time teaching job. I still do a little teaching and have some adult creative writing and reading students on a Friday, most weeks.
MM: How did you decide to establish Offa’s Press, why did you choose this name and what has your experience as an editor and publisher been like?
SF: When I worked, part-time, as the literature development officer for Wolverhampton Libraries from 2000-2013, I set up many writers’ and readers’ groups in the city. Also, importantly, a live literature event, “City Voices”, which is still going after 20 years. There were some very talented poets in the city who’d never been published, so setting up Offa’s Press was a chance to publish their work and give them a chance to gain wider fame. That was in 2010 and we’re ticking along nicely, publishing the most interesting West Midland voices we can. Some of them are gaining national recognition.
Offa was a great king of Mercia, including the area of the West Midlands, which was his power-base in the eighth century, and an interesting character. He had cordial relations with King Charlemagne in France and is the only Anglo-Saxon king to put his wife’s head on the reverse of his coinage. Cynethrith was, as it were, the power over his shoulder. He could be seen as a tutelary spirit in some sense. I also live a mile or so from Offa’s Dyke, a long and impressive earth mound he had built to protect his people from invading Welsh.
Being an editor and publisher is a mixed blessing. The work is often long and difficult, but publishing a manuscript one really believes in is exciting and has brought a lot of joy and satisfaction. There is little money in all this so it’s largely a labour of love. The Arts Council of England has given us some funding, from time to time, to be fair.
MM: In June 2020, Offa’s Press started an ecopoetry project called “In the Sticks”. Tell us more about the reasons, the workshops, the people involved, the main themes and the outcome.
SF: We didn’t think of it as an “ecopoetry” project at the beginning, but it developed in some ways in that direction. “In the Sticks” is a project that came about because we couldn’t do live workshops. We had planned a load of live activities in the West Midlands and then in March 2020 the pandemic lockdown happened. We quickly realised we’d have to re-package the whole thing online and got some support from Arts Council England for the website creation and editing and publishing.
Cherry Doyle, my colleague, did most of the work putting the website together and we took turns to write the workshops and gather poems, photos etc. It was a very productive effort and a happy chance. We don’t think that many people looked at the webpages during the preparation period, but they have done so since.
We did run a couple of workshops via Zoom, which was strange but rewarding. And the anthology is a very good one. Cherry and I are now thinking about developing a “show” based on the book with Tom Allsopp, another rural poet.
MM: In 2022 you celebrated twenty years of contributions to the literary atmosphere of the local community. What has it been like? What are City Voices, Country Voices and Virtual Voices?
SF: Much of this very enjoyable work grew out of my being the literature development officer in Wolverhampton. I had set up a “live lit” evening in a pub in Exeter when I was a post-grad, in the early 1980s, so it was fairly straightforward to put together an evening to include local writers in Wolverhampton and then Ironbridge, Shropshire. “Virtual Voices” came about because of the pandemic. It has been very rewarding being in a position to offer poets and writers the chance to read their work or perform and to watch them grow. You build a performance space and people will inhabit it.
MM: Could you give some personal examples about how poetry can make a difference in society?
SF: I can’t give you many specific examples of how poems have made a difference in British society since poetry isn’t widely read, although a lot of people admired W. H. Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues” when it appeared in the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. Perhaps it softened the attitudes of some towards homosexual couples.
Multicultural and multilingual poetry shows have started to emerge over the last 25 years as society has changed and as a conscious reaction to the racism of British society.
I’ve worked with Debjani Chatterjee, originally from India, and Basir Sultan Kazmi, originally from Pakistan, for 25 years now, quite consciously challenging dumb stereotypes and racism. Our poetry readings (based on the north Indian tradition of multilingual readings or “mushairas”) present different angles on post-Empire life and have been well-attended and applauded over the years. Have we made a big difference to society? I’m not sure but it’s been a lot of fun and taken us to some wonderful places including the Oslo Festival, Norway, in 2015.
There is always the danger that one is “preaching to the converted”, so enthusiastic audiences may not indicate a real change is happening, but we certainly hope it is.
MM: What are the most important qualities of a poetry editor? How about some of the biggest challenges?
SF: Wide-reading, tolerance, patience. Challenges include a lack of funds and time.
MM: What literary festivals have left a mark upon your career as a poet and editor?
SF: I haven’t been invited to many literary festivals, but I would mention the Oslo Festival, Norway, in 2015, where I read with my colleagues Basir Sultan Kazmi and Debjani Chatterjee and, more recently, a couple of poetry festivals in Scotland, Callander and the Wigtown Book Festival, where I’ve enjoyed reading a few poems.
Meeting new people who enjoy poetry and literature is always great, but I also think the travel involved is important. It opens oneself up to so much that is new, different and challenging. As a writer one spends so much time at home, alone, with the computer and the books. Travelling for poets is like letting a curious bird out of a cage.
MM: If things like ethnicity, origin or accent still matter nowadays, in what ways do they?
SF: In England we’ve been living under an increasingly right-wing and zenophobic government where “othering”, racism and blatant inequality aren’t challenged. So, these things matter, as does class background, but when you have a self-serving “club” in charge, it’s hard to make much progress. It has shown itself in a very poor light over the last year or so, for what it is, and the people have had enough. With any luck the current government will be thrown out in 2024.
MM: Is poetry for everybody? Why (not)?
SF: It would be nice. And, in a strange way, it is although we are quick to forget nursery rhymes, spells, and rhyming aids to learning. It lives with us and we remember it when we have emotional crises. Perhaps poetry is the underground water we all need.
MM: Is writing as a human activity going through some major changes?
SF: The jury’s still out. Will the internet and social media liberate the writer in all of us? Who knows?
MM: How has the internet helped you as a poetry editor and promoter?
SF: It has made life a lot easier and speeded things up a bit. Without email I’d get through an awful lot of envelopes and stamps. Facebook and Twitter have also impacted the poetry scene and it’s a lot easier to find out where things are happening and who’s doing what, at short notice.
Many poets now have their own websites which must help to promote the word. I write a blog now and then about my preoccupations: www.simonfletcherwriter.com
MM: What have you noticed about poets’ voice over the years?
SF: Poets are better at performing than they were 25 years ago, but perhaps that’s just my experience. What I mean by “better” is that poets now practice their work before reading and some even learn the words off by heart so it becomes more of a performance. They are presenting themselves more as professional performers like storytellers. This is a very exciting development and, in some ways, harks back to the earliest European poetry.
As a promoter, I’ve encouraged poets to work at their presentational skills as they are more likely to impress an audience if they present a polished show.
MM: What poetry projects are you working on at the moment?
SF: 1). A pamphlet collection of work based on my Michael Marks commended poetry submission (its working title is Wild Orchids) which should appear in April. 2). An anthology of poetry about birds, Away with the Birds, with Kuli Kohli, the current poet laureate of Wolverhampton. 3). A bit further down the road, three more volumes for Offa’s Press. www.offaspress.co.uk
MM: Many thanks, Simon. Good luck and lots of inspiration!