Write Out Loud meets Tristram Fane Saunders

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I first met Tristram Fane Saunders at a poetry gig in Cambridge and always thought he seemed pretty cool. When he was named a winner in the 2017/18 New Poets Prize, judged by Kayo Chingonyi, it seemed like the perfect chance to catch up. As well as asking about the prize win, I wanted to find out more about the "poetry book of the month" column he writes for the Telegraph, how this informs his practice, and where he draws inspiration from.

Kayo Chingonyi celebrated your winning collection, 'Woodsong', as for its "capacity to tell a tale and to sing at the same time and in so doing give us a sense of a word's arcane resonances". Can you tell us what the collection is about?

Woodsong is about a deranged, naked birdman lost in a forest, trying to sing his way back home. It's a very loose retelling of 'Buile Suibhne' or 'The Madness of Sweeney', an old Irish myth-epic. There's an excellent translation of it by Seamus Heaney ('Sweeney Astray'), and Mad Sweeney crops up in Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds and Neil Gaiman's American Gods, too. Obviously, Woodsong can't hold a candle to any of those books, but at least it's quite short.

How does it feel to win this prize?

Awful. Now people will expect it to be good. Hopefully this interview will go some way towards deflating expectations. (I'm thrilled really, of course, and can't wait to read the other winning entries.)

What makes it such a great prize to enter?

The promise of a year's mentoring, and the chance to share a publisher with such a great line-up of writers (Simon Armitage, Hera Lindsay-Bird, Blake Morrison). And they choose brilliant judges: Kayo Chingonyi, and last year Andrew McMillan. Also, I was particularly attracted by the fact that entries are anonymous - you have to choose a pseudonym. It's great to know your work is being judged entirely on its own terms.

Does it bridge a gap in the competition market at all?

Perhaps as a stepping-stone between single-poem prizes for younger writers (eg Foyle Young Poets), and full-book competitions (eg the Eric Gregory Prize).

Where do you generally draw your inspiration from?

Sometimes from things I've read, but indirectly. If I read a word I don't know, or a name I don't recognise, in a book or newspaper, I have to look it up and find out all about the etymology / family history / etc, which can lead down unexpected alleys where the beginnings of an idea might lurk.

I also believe in tapping inspiration from the subconscious, daft as that may sound. In my personal experience writing under some kind of limit or constraint is often a good way to do it.

If I'm feeling a strong emotion at the time of writing, that sometimes becomes the inspiration for a poem's tone. The goal is then to communicate that feeling by creating a poem that will inspire a similar mood in the reader, through any tricks or subterfuge necessary. I hope that this makes most of my poems true, because (and not despite) the fact they're mostly lies.

Who are your favourite poets?

Too many to name. In terms of writers I've come across this year, I love Abigail Parry, James Brookes and Kaveh Akbar. I've recently been enjoying Charlotte Mew (long dead, but new to me) and wish I'd read her years ago.

On a personal level (in a Wendy Cope-ish "You certainly are my favourite poet / and I like your poems too" sort of way) I'll be forever grateful to Luke Wright for giving me a leg up when I had no idea what I was doing as a writer, and to Jacob Polley, Robert Crawford and Don Paterson, all excellent teachers.

Does your work as a Telegraph critic complement your practice as a poet?

I review everything from theatre to reality TV (does anyone remember Bromans?), but I also write a "poetry book of the month" column, for which I try to read every single new full-length book of poetry published in the UK in that calendar month. I don't always manage them all, and it sometimes means I don't get much sleep, but it's great fun and it forces me constantly to engage with very different kinds of poetry. Whenever I read something interesting, I try to figure out what exactly makes it work. It's a bit like studying at night-school, and I find it enormously helpful. Open-minded, enthusiastic reading is the first step towards good writing. I have a suspicion that plenty of creative writing courses could be helpfully replaced with a single three-word post-it note: "READ MORE BOOKS."

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Julian (Admin)

Sun 19th Aug 2018 10:42

A really fascinating review, Jade. You rather skilfully present us with Tristram the person (who in many ways is just like us, except...) behind the poet and reviewer. Very readable, too. Thank you.

Big Sal

Fri 17th Aug 2018 17:30

Reviewing and writing go hand-in-hand. A great poet would make for a great reviewer, but such is not always the case for a great reviewer. Roger Ebert never directed a film in his life, but people still go to read his reviews online before watching a film they yearn to see. With that being said, poetry reviewers with lots of exposure it seems are few and far between. Good on him.

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