The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson, interviews our inaugural Poet of the Month – the shy, lionhearted, frighteningly-intelligent, Wayne Holloway-Smith.
Wayne Holloway-Smith lives in London, England. He received his PhD in English and Creative Writing from Brunel University in 2015. His poems have appeared in many fine publications, and his pocketbook, Beloved, in case you’ve been wondering, was published by Donut Press in 2011. Wayne co-edits the online journal Poems in Which and teaches at the University of Hertfordshire. His first collection, Alarum, was published by Bloodaxe in March 2017.
Natalya: I read your collection from end to beginning, rather than from beginning to end. It was hurling me downhill and I got emotional, so I read it backwards. I hope that’s not insulting.
Wayne: I’m just glad you read it.
Natalya: It’s very personal and direct in a way I’ve not seen or felt before. Your style is different. Did you write so directly and so personally because you wanted to, or did it feel like you couldn’t contain it?
Wayne: I’m less interested in irony now, and I’m more interested in vulnerability. I don’t know whether it has to be overtly autobiographical, but for me in my work it has to be vulnerable. I’m less interested in people projecting an image and more interested in people being honest in some way, even if, weirdly, that honesty comes from writing about something completely dishonest. With the poem I read for The Poetry Extension, ‘There is absolutely no way to make this real life interesting’, that people seemed to like, for example – I’ve never actually sat in a field eating red flowers, but somewhere along the line I hope I communicated vulnerability which articulated the experience of having had an eating disorder. I’ve never actually moved my head and had a crow fall out onto the floor, but I have done stuff or I have experienced mental health issues that have caused a similar amount of awkwardness as if a crow had fallen onto the floor and now was just sitting there between me and the person I was speaking to.
Natalya: I felt worried for the boy in the book in all his stages in life. He is a little boy witnessing his father’s alcoholism; witnessing his mother’s fear. He’s a teenager wasting his life, feeling he has no options, maybe not feeling anything at all. Then he’s in love, maybe losing that love, and then he’s a father and a man. It’s direct and moving. It seems simple, but that’s the part that gets me. It couldn’t have been simple or easy to write.
Wayne: You say the kind of ‘boy in the book’. I think there is more than one of those. There’s a slightly different representation of me in each of those poems. I’m probably different in every situation and I respond differently to different people in different circumstances. Also, there’s no linear narrative. Writing vulnerably, it definitely isn’t easy, but it’s a lot easier writing it down when you’re in a room on your own than it is to talk about in a room full of people. Initially you don’t, or I don’t, write a poem thinking you’re going to be reading it at a literary festival or something. I write it and then eventually I realize that it’s in a book and that, ‘Oh, shit, other people are going to read it.’ But I think the brilliant thing about poetry is it enables you to stretch the limitations of everyday communication. Kenneth Koch talks about poetry as a second language. There’s a kind of limited version of language that we use to communicate, a limited amount of signifiers that we can use. They’re always reductive. Between me and you, we’ve probably experienced a thousand different kinds of sadness, but we’ve only got one word. That becomes incredibly limiting and frustrating. With poetry, if you look at it as a language within a language, you’re able to stretch things or get behind them a little bit. I hope that some of my work does exactly what you said at the start – it makes you feel a certain way, but it doesn’t tell you to feel this way.
Natalya: I wondered if you were communicating – as I project my entire life onto your poetry – how the hell you’re supposed to make all the versions of the child in your book survive life as an adult. How do you become the adult who survives difficult childhood circumstances, doesn’t grow up to punch everybody in the face, doesn’t self-harm, and then goes on to be a good parent, whatever that means?
Wayne: I don’t think I do succeed at that at all. I have absolutely no idea how anyone would be able to hold that together. Maybe all of that stuff doesn’t happen all at the same time. Each one is semi-achievable at various times of a day. So you’ve got to be a poet or a lecturer, or something, and that happens at a certain portion of the day. Then you’ve got to pick your daughter up from school and you’ve got to be a dad for a certain portion of the day, and when that child goes to bed you’ve got to be a boyfriend for that part of the day. Maybe on some days you can achieve all of those things, but on most days you feel like you fuck all of them up. I don’t want my daughter to remember her childhood as being with the dad who fucked everything up. You know how I was saying that I’m not really bothered about irony anymore, or with being anti-sentimentality anymore? I just think that when you’ve got a kid irony goes right out the window. You can’t be standoffish with a kid. I do tell her things I never imagined I’d say out loud because I thought they were too cheesy. But I do tell her all of those things. To the point where she rolls her eyes at me, ‘Yeah, Dad, I know you’re proud of me, because you’ve told me fifteen times already today.’ But, you know, you were talking about my dad, and I don’t think he ever said that, so… I don’t know how to answer that question. How do you do it, Natalya?
Natalya: Ha! I don’t. I fuck it up royally every day. I think people who have more than one child are very brave, and are types of superheroes, because it’s terrifying and painful to love someone as much as I love my son. It’s a difficult kind of love.
Wayne: It is terrifying.
Natalya: It’s also very shocking to the mind and body because you inevitably relive your childhood as if you’re an adult being cast in the role of yourself as a five-year-old. You’re looking at your kid, and you’re wanting to do everything right and better for this child, better than what you came from. No matter what circumstances you grew up in, you want to do the better, safer, wiser thing for your kid. And then somewhere along the line you feel like you’ve developed an attitude that betrays where you came from yourself. Whether you came from shit, or you came from middle of the road, or you came from pretty decent circumstances, you develop this condescension towards yourself as a child and towards the people that raised you. And then you feel like an asshole, because even if you hated where you came from it’s still deeply connected to you. It’s very jarring. If you’ve come from a place of next to nothing, and you’re in a socioeconomic place that tells you you’re nothing and there is nothing more, then to go on and find a way out often means achieving this thing we call higher education. That comes with this additional guilt or a world of opposition, where you need it to get out of your lot in life, but then you feel this sort of sense of betraying or criticizing your upbringing. It’s so messy.
Wayne: Yeah. It’s weird. My dad was a builder and my mum worked at Tesco. And it wasn’t like they were fuck-ups or something. It was just that that was what their lot was. But the only difference between me and my mum and dad, I think, is that I met a bunch of people who told me I was brilliant and that I could do whatever the fuck I wanted. Without those people, I could have been something completely different. Like most people, my relationship with my parents, particularly with my dad, has been quite a complex one. There are several strong emotions, but I can’t really understand any of those feelings outside of the poems, really. When my dad died – you know you get the phone call and you have to go home – everything became, obviously, predominantly about my mum at that point. Then you have the funeral. So there were two weeks where I didn’t know what I thought or what I felt, or whatever. I wrote about three or four poems about him, or about that experience, quite quickly afterwards. That was the only way I really began to understand how I felt. But that changes every day. And then you’re talking about education, and that does feel weird, doesn’t it? I didn’t get any grades in school, and I did a kind of vocational qualification at college. I didn’t go to university. And then I started writing […] and a few friends said I should go to university. I did get some funding as a mature student. So I did my BA at 25, and then did the MA, and then decided to do a PhD. It wasn’t until my PhD that I started to really understand the socioeconomic a little bit and where I came from. You start to have all these thoughts about how it’s a bit fucked up how all these people seem to have these opportunities that you don’t, and you kind of blame your mum or your dad, but then you realize that actually they’re just victims of the same system. For my PhD I was reading government policy papers from when Margaret Thatcher was in power, and one of the papers was on education. It said that we need certain schools in certain areas to produce industrial workers, so we can’t afford for them to be allowed to know that they’re able to do anything else. So my friends and I, during school, we all had career advisers who sort of shunted you into these industries. They’d be telling us, ‘Oh, you’d be great working for a Honda factory making cars’, and that’s where everyone was placed for work experience.
Natalya: Where did that change? You’ve talked about your mum and some of your friends encouraging you.
Wayne: It was really only through the exposure to different people from different backgrounds that got me interested in even thinking about education. And then there’s an obvious need to prove yourself after. I still feel that way. I think that’s why I worked so hard at my PhD, because I still feel the need to validate why I’m there. I kind of apologetically tread into the room. I have to really work at this or I’ll be found out. I feel that way with the poetry as well. I don’t know how I got here. I’m sitting here eating dinner with these amazing poets at this literary festival, and I’m thinking, ‘I get why they’re all here. Why am I here?’
Natalya: It seems like that sense of not belonging comes from the bigger picture. I’m sure you must wrestle with your upbringing, but by the same token it’s not like you at the poetry festival reading the material you’ve produced through intense studies and working your ass off is the equivalent of telling your hometown to fuck off while you have tea with the queen. I wonder if that’s part of the problem – we’re taught that there’s no middle ground. We’re in this era of Brexit and Trump, where we’ve raised every kid, worldwide, to believe that they’re either going to be nothing or they’re going to be a posh asshole. So, inevitably, you feel numb and worthless or you feel like a fraud. And yet I don’t want to suggest in any way that it’s not ‘good enough’ or beneath me or anyone else to be an electrician or a plumber or any of those vocations that I could never find the skills to do to save my life.
Wayne: Well my PhD couldn’t unblock my sink the other week. I had to have a plumber out who’s highly skilled in a way that I will never be.
Natalya: Bang on the money.
Wayne: I think the point of interest here is how value is placed arbitrarily on certain practices over other ones. It’s not just about economic capital. A working-class person could win the lottery or own a business and still not be welcomed into a particular area of society because he or she eats steak well-done instead of rare. Your point about there being no middle ground, I have found through my limited experience to being exposed to a culture that is perceived as having higher value is that actually, on paper, on the surface, it does seem all like bull shit. But most of the people you meet within that culture, no matter where they’re from, they’re all human, and they’ve all got certain redeemable features. And they all kind of know that maybe the culture is kind of bull shit. But the people are trying to do their thing and get by and be human to each other. Within the poetry scene it’s the same thing. People place all of these assumptions on people based on their level of success, but actually they’re all trying to do their best and they’ve all got flaws like I have. As long as we’re honest about those flaws then what’s the problem? That’s one thing about poetry – as long as we’re not posturing and saying, ‘Oh, look how great I am with the language; look how I can control it and make it do things,’ if behind those words there’s an actual person who felt stuff, then…
Natalya: Therein lies the vulnerability over irony, and just being upfront about it.
Wayne: I’ve started to try to assume the best of people. In the same way as I look at the level of upsetness, I guess, towards my dad in the poems. He was probably just as shat upon as everyone else. He came home from work at six every night, after working on a building site. And although that’s a manly job in the conventional sense, it must have been quite emasculating to get bossed around by someone else. And maybe my job, or the fact that I’ve got a book or whatever, makes my daughter proud, or she seems to be proud, but we still live in a small-ass rented flat, whereas my mum and dad owned a house.
Natalya: Yes – what we feel we didn’t have in terms of emotional ‘evolution’ in our generation, we had in community. We had a backyard, we had neighbours, we had playing outside until the street lights came on. That’s so different now. Most people of our generation are unlikely to be assumed to own a house.
Wayne: Right. I grew up in a house, the same house, all my life. It wasn’t necessarily always a happy place, but I knew where it was. I had neighbours that I grew up with and who knew my name. Now, we have neighbours above us, below us, but my daughter has to navigate those neighbours in a way that I didn’t have to when I was young. The context is shifting. So, while I provide some things for my daughter that my parents couldn’t, there are other things that I’m not able to provide. We don’t own a house; we’re probably not going to own one.
Natalya: And you and I are probably doing exceptionally well compared to so many people who have so much less, and who don’t have those supportive mums or pals along the way to say there’s another option. And we’re here watching this giant buffoon running the free world, and those people who have so much less are feeling hopeless. It seems like there is no way out with Trump and Brexit. Do you think there is any role for art or for poetry in resistance?
Wayne: It feels like everyone knows that Trump’s completely incapable, but everyone is so committed to the pretend idea of democracy, that they have to allow him to continue to be at least seen as president. You’ve got the same thing in England – ‘Oh, it was the people’s choice, though. It’s the voice of the people.’ But imagine if the voice of the people said every Asian person should die. If the majority of the country thought that, would we still say it’s the choice of the people, or is there a time when that needs to be challenged? So, fine, people have to keep writing, speaking out at festivals, yes, but that’s a small portion. That’s only so far reaching. We have to physically say and do something. If someone’s being racist, you can’t just run away and go write a poem about it and leave it at that. You have to put your body in the way. And you have to commit to being part of something bigger. Jericho Brown said, the other day, regarding poetry and resistance, that there was a time when people used to go see Adrienne Rich read, and they didn’t just watch a reading, they went to a rally first and then a march after.
Natalya: Is this maybe where we have to build the middle ground between the misconception that you’re either an uneducated, rioting punk, or you’re an over-educated snob?
Wayne: I don’t think you have to be one or the other. One of my favourite people is Ash Sarkar. She’s highly educated but she also, on a grassroots level, is leading protests and agitating. And there are lots of people like that. They have the MA or the PhD, and they teach, and that’s one thing that they do, but they also organize and agitate and protest. So, I think there are many parts of language that people can have. You can have poetry, but you don’t have to just write a poem. And it’s about relationships as well. Get to know the people in your area. Especially in a big city. You should cross paths with people from so many demographics that you could be friends with if you wanted to. You can speak to people when you go to the shops. And if you’ve got a kid, you can speak to so many different parents from so many different experiences when you go to pick them up, or at the park. We don’t have to just sit in our socioeconomic groups and not mix with anyone else. Just before Christmas I was talking to this one kid’s dad about what we had planned for Christmas. I was going to Wales, being fully paid by a university to have time off, and he was working in a university, catering, on Christmas day. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, Wayne, what was your PhD in?’ … ‘Working class masculinity.’ So, who’s got more right to talk about working class masculinity at that point?