The WOL interview: John Siddique
Earlier this year John Siddique did Write out Loud the honour of appearing at our open mic night. His collection Full Blood has been at the top of the Amazon modern poetry chart. We asked him via email to be our first subject in what we hope will be a series of interviews with the kind of poets that interest us.
Your recent collection, Full Blood, was number one in the Amazon modern poetry bestseller list earlier this year. Did its success surprise you?
Thanks a lot for having me on Write Out Loud. It is so great that you do what you do. It is very lovely for my book to have had a bit more visibility in this way. Being published by an indie press means very little coverage or reviewing in the mainstream press. Poetry gets little enough and you can always name who they are going to cover, if at all. But very little reading risk is taken, so a great deal of literature loses the chance to find readers. Full Blood slipping up the Amazon chart meant it was seen a lot more in the recommended bits of the site. It continues to sell at a steady pace, I think, because readers talk to readers, and if they like a book they tend to tell others about it. I think that is what pleases me most. That and the fact that many of my readers are not poets, they are just readers.
You’ve published several poetry collections, a level of success many on Write Out Loud can only dream about. How did you get where you are now? Was it hard, or relatively easy?! Is the route through publishing lots of poems in magazines first, or making a name for yourself on the poetry reading circuit, or both?
Crikey, man, what a huge question. I think there is a huge class divide in literature, much more than a racial one. Both can be “beaten”, if you will, if you are willing to sell yourself as a stereotype. So if you’re working-class, you play it and be like Shameless or Corrie; if you’re brown, you write books with the words Muslim, or Fundamentalist in the titles, or you play up your exoticism in some other way. I’ve never been prepared to do that. As writers we need to be free to write whatever we like, not to fit into marketing boxes; let them fit around us. I think any success I have had comes from a “last man standing” approach. I really believe in literature as one of the greatest parts of human evolution. I believe this both as a reader and a writer, so I put my trust in that and walk forward by trying to write the best books I can which serve what poetry really is. More important though is to serve the reader by reflecting something of this world, our lives, and our times and questions. As to the mechanics of the poetry world, I tried the reading circuit early on, but the level of wrong-headed ego stuff out there terrified me. It is so easy to appear to be a writer, to have the Facebook page, the website blah blah, but it is much harder to be really where you are at and craft away each day by reading and writing and step by step becoming. I found too little of that in the poetry world, so while I do give readings I tend to not be involved in any scene. The magazine thing – yes, I did publish a lot before my first book, but I loved (love) poetry and literature so much that I’ve always been a big enthuser about the art form, not just my own writing, and honestly I think that is what draws things to me.
The language of your poetry in collections such as Full Blood is quite accessible. The language in a lot of other modern poetry is not. Do you think you might have converted some readers who would otherwise regard poetry as "too difficult"?
I don’t know about converted. My readers are mostly not poetry types, I know that from the letters I get. I think much poetry gets written from the point of view of “look what I can do”, but I believe the purpose of having a big brain, or all that language at your disposal is to tell stories, or paint pictures in the way which best serves the material, and delivers to the audience without them having to put up with the author jumping up and down saying ‘look at me.’ James Joyce said: ‘The writer should be transparent in the telling of a story.’
Would you say you have taken the conventional route to becoming a poet?
Is there a conventional route? I wish someone had told me, I would have taken it if it would have made life easier.
How did you start writing? What inspired you? How did you learn, develop?
I always read. The children’s library in Rochdale was my sanctuary on Saturday afternoons as a boy. In my late twenties, it was the discovery of ee cummings’ ‘somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond’ in the film Hannah and Her Sisters which turned my head to reading poetry. I was working as a gardener at this time. I was amazed that a piece of text could have such truth between its words. So I pursued that idea like a child with building blocks, putting one word against another, making a line to see what truth could be in and behind the words though image and layering and music. It’s an oldie but my development was Reading, Reading, Reading, always for the pleasure and joy of the poetry itself. Not in a capitalistic way of “how can I steal from this?”
To what extent do you think your cultural roots - Indian Muslim / Irish Catholic - have influenced your work?
The main thing is, I don’t believe in borders or nation; those are false things created to take our power away. It is fine to enjoy the landscape and people where you are but all that other stuff about who is allowed in and who is not, and owning the land is a delusion. My parent’s backgrounds and my being born and bred in England in this time have made me see the futility of such constructs. Literature is my true country. Language is often used to divide us with doublespeak and spin. But real literature serves to bring the human experience into awareness, and therefore it goes beyond all that.
What one piece of advice would you give to open-mic poets?
Go on, guess … Be open to all forms of poetry and be part of the lineage, it is amazing to have that ground under our feet … and no matter what anyone else does on a night when you are reading, be professional, don’t go over time, and own that stage space for your allotted time, it is your birthright … Oh, and read all the poetry in the world from all the continents and all of history. The good stuff will make itself clear.
Do you feel there is a difference between “page” poetry and “performance” poetry? How would you class yourself?
I am someone who writes books which mostly happen to be made of poetry. Each poem will stand on its own but if you read the books from beginning to end you’ll find there has been an underlying story. Recital is a book about the spirit of Britain, and Full Blood is a tale about beauty, sensuality and understanding the gift of our mortality. Performance has real value, but a piece for performance should be no less crafted than a good, text-based piece. For me, I use reading to open doors to people to spend time with the texts and books.
What is the best workshop or writing exercise you have done, or would offer to our readers?
I think Ted Hughes’ book Poetry in The Making is an essential book for anyone wanting to write, as is Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer.
Are you optimistic about the future of poetry?
I am more optimistic than I used to be. I think that now modernism is sneaking back in there are interesting times ahead. Also, the fact that in the Arab spring and the Occupy movements, poetry and art have been very much at the centre of expression within these is amazing. When the shit hits the fan, people turn to poetry; it is so true. I think British poetry is struggling with itself a bit at the moment; it is seen as a hobby, promoted as a middle-class thing, or an add-on to life, whereas it is actually utterly essential in all levels of society. My own reading takes me far from the British scene, I like Latin American women’s writing, and there is great stuff from the US, India and the Arab world at the moment.
Graves said: ‘There is no money in poetry, and no poetry in money’. Do you agree, on either count?
I think it is too easy to buy into a lot of the crap said about poetry, we buy into all that Byronesque brokeness or poverty mentality far too readily.
How do you make a living? Through poetry? When did you last have a “proper” job? What was it? If you weren’t writing poetry, what would you choose to be doing?
I am proud to say I haven’t had a proper job for 16 years. Somehow we make enough to live on through writing and talking to people. If I wasn’t writing I doubt I’d be alive. Writing and reading have been such guides and mentors in life and love; without them I’d have continued as the lost soul I once was and I think despair would have overtaken me. Look at the poor people who have no curiosity in their eyes. Poetry keeps us curious, reading good poetry nourishes the deepest parts of ourselves, shows us images and inspires hope by breaking the machine with beauty. Trying to write hard and clear and true makes us want to know the world and gift it with its own reflection.
And finally ... a number of poems in Full Blood are very open and honest about sex. You were also one of a number of male poets who recently revealed all, or just about all, for a charity poetry calendar. What do you think this says about you?
That I’m a sexy, intelligent, soulful, MF who loves books and people, but books a bit more than people. I think that can go on my gravestone when the time comes.
Photograph: Tim Smith 2011
Interview: Greg Freeman and Julian Jordon