For a very special After Nyne Spotlights…interview, we spent an hour this week with our very own columnist Dominic Stevenson to celebrate the launch of his debut poetry collection The Northern Line.
Dominic, congratulations on the launch of The Northern Line. How did launch day go?
I have to say it went rather well. I work full-time for a children’s charity, so I got to focus on that in the day time, and in the evening I had the privilege of seeing Kevin Spacey in Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic. This really did help keep my mind off frantically bugging the internet and those around me with the fact that it was my publication day. The readings around the launch will take place throughout London, and beyond, over the coming weeks and months.
If I’m honest, the morning after the day before was most exciting for me as that’s when I’d noticed that I’d climbed to the top of one of Amazon’s best seller lists for ebook downloads. I don’t own an e-reader of any sort and so I didn’t know how I’d judge success in regards to that area, but that big shiny ‘#1 best seller’ logo next to my name did it for me.
How would you summarise the book in a short paragraph?
The book is a memory box that has been filled up during my slow realisation that my experiences were worth keeping and conveying. It is a physical journey, in the sense that I wrote it almost exclusively while travelling on public transport, but it’s also my journey through my life post-education as I loved and travelled, and injustice wore away the innocence that my time in education had given me. The book has followed me for many years. I am glad to be out of its shadow and to be walking arm in arm with it now that I’ve let it go into the world.
What was the inspiration behind the collection?
The whole book is about love, completely and utterly about love. Love for people, love for the earth, love for humanity and common decency, love for the belief that everyone deserves a level of quality of life that means they’re not suffering. When you love things so much that you can’t continue to function without expressing it, then sometimes people can mistake it as anger because you burst and erupt, but that’s what loving so much can do. The only drop of genuine anger in the book is reserved for the British monarchy.
People don’t want war, but not enough people love peace to make it happen, and people don’t want poverty, but not enough love economic equality, so the status quo continues. It is the artists’ duty to be at the front line of the battle to help people on the path towards love, and that also heavily inspired me.
What drew you to your publisher, Winter Goose?
Winter Goose published the very excellent poet, Loren Kleinman, who had taken me under her wing and supported me so much in the development of this book. From reading Loren, and some of their other writers, I felt that they’d make a good home for my work, and thankfully that’s turned out to be true.
The same principle that applies to a record label applies to publishers, if they don’t publish what you do, then it’s a waste of time going to them. You can only look for a publisher if you’re widely read. Sending manuscripts to random publishers just because they publish poetry/novels/short stories rarely comes to anything. You need to know what they print, understand their patterns and trends, and then you’ll gain an awareness of whether they’d be into you and your work. If you’ve done the research then you can send your work off knowing that it will be judged fairly on its quality.
Give us an insight into your writing habits
I write on the go, getting notes and phrases down which I then use as a base for future poems, or insert them into any work I have on the go. I’m inspired by the people I sit next to on the tube, people I walk past in the street, so I carry a pen and a pad and I have my phone which has proved to be an infinitely useful device while creating this book.
I struggle with a desk so I write a draft, type it up, email it to myself to collate a manuscript and then I print it all off and edit it by hand. Editing is the most underrated art that a writer has to master. First drafts are almost universally rubbish, the edit is where it really happens. You have the raw emotion of the first draft and you match it with all your writing skill in the edit. That’s what makes a poem.
I’m in a privileged position where I write for a living, and on the side I write for a magazine, and so I don’t feel I have to put aside an hour a day to write like some.
People think that to write, and develop your skill, you need to write in the style you wish to publish in. But to me writing a press statement, or a restaurant review, gives me the opportunity to flex my fingers and get words down on paper. However you do it, writing is what matters. The more you write the more you learn.
If you don’t write for a living, then you must put aside time in your day to right. If you turn up at the same place, at the same time, every day with a pen and some paper and start writing then inspiration will find you.
Who are your own favourite writers?
George Orwell is a particular favourite of mine. As with many, the way he navigates the political consciousness of his generation is mind blowing. Benjamin Zephaniah and Simon Armitage were the first two poets I saw live, and I’ve been a big fan of both writers since.
One of the most delightful things about being part of the contemporary poetry circuit is the rise of some incredible female poets and spoken word artists. From Fran Lock to Michelle Madsen, and Megan Beech, Leanne Moden, to story teller Sarah Sheldon. These women, and so many more, have ripped open the eyelids of a society that is all too often keen to shut them out. They’ve made people listen, and they’re taking their rightful place – front and centre.
From your own experience, what is it like for a writer in today’s (political) climate?
Sadly the world is ripe for writers and artists. Where there is oppression there is an artistic response. A writer writes to force a reaction, to make people sit up and consider their own situation, and that’s as important now as it was during the 1980’s. Just because others have fought battles before, doesn’t mean we don’t have to fight now. The tyranny of the milk-snatchers and strike breakers hasn’t gone away, they’re just wearing different clothes and blaming different people.
What some of the best contemporary writers are doing, your Simon Mole’s, Dean Atta’s, Sophia Walker’s, Mab Jones’s and so on, is being in the community, in the libraries and they’re changing the lives of children, young people and their parents through words. They’re doing the gigs up and down the country, from Stockton to Scarborough, from Colchester to Caerphilly. They’re taking writing to the people and giving them the opportunity to experience words at their finest. Those artists are the ones who are inspiring the next generation, and I hope to follow in their footsteps by extending my work mentoring children in London, to working with care experienced young people in the near future.
What would be your words of advice for young writers?
Delete the word ‘aspiring’ from your twitter profile, your bio, lose it from your vocabulary. You’re either a writer or you’re not. There is, as I eventually discovered, no job description and no one ever bequeaths the title of writer onto you.
Go to gigs, read books, soak up all the experiences that writing can give you. We’re lucky to live in a time where words are so accessible and any new writer would be naive to ignore that.
And what words would you have for your younger self?
You’re not ready yet, but the experiences that you are having is building you, so don’t worry. Keep on going out, reading, dancing, drinking and having fun. Don’t eat too much sugar, keep playing sports, learn a language and an instrument.
Finally – what are you currently working on?
I’m currently editing my second book, and I’m working on a special collection of war poetry for release at some point during the four year duration of the centenary of World War One.
The second book was written in parallel with the editing process of the first, but they’re very different beasts. I have nearly got something that I think is worth submitting, so I’ll be knocking on the Winter Goose door again soon for their thoughts.
As for the war poetry, it’s a subject that has always fascinated me. I’m an ardent pacifist, but I have always been inspired by those soldiers, sailors, airmen, who were called up to fight evil and fascism. The arena of war is very different now, we have more political accountability, we have more access to information and education. Contemporary conflicts have caused the political disillusionment of many, and I’m keen to explore that too.