THE MINDS BEHIND THE MADNESS- THE HEDGEHOG POETRY PRESS- NIGEL KENT

At Home with the Hoglets

Beginning with A Restricted View from Under the Hedge to Sticklebacks and on to The Cult of the Spiny Hog, along with a classic collection of inspirational writers, Mark Davidson and his poets are turning hoglets into must-have bookshelf desirables. Over a series of interviews I will ask the same 11 questions to a group of Hedgehog poets and Mark himself, and hopefully we’ll uncover what it takes to put pen to page, poem into print and pamphlet onto that prized position on every reader’s bookshelf.

Today we have with us Pushcart Prize nominee Nigel Kent, from Worcestershire, whose latest collection is Psychopathogen; an examination of these extraordinary times through the eyes, ears, actions and answering machines of ordinary people.

Thank you so much Nigel for taking the time to join us. Let’s dive right in…

1 Why did you write this collection, what is it about and what would you like the reader to take away after they turn the last page and find that perfectly prized place for it on their bookshelf?

Psychopathogen’ was the product of a poetry conversation with a fellow Open University Poetry Society poet, Jane Avery. At the beginning of the pandemic we regularly sent each other poems exploring the impact of Lockdown on ourselves and those around us. I suppose in better times the pamphlet will show the reader the impact of this extraordinary period on ordinary lives.

2 My chillout time comes from cooking, endless hours lost in the kitchen along with a blaring radio of eclectic tunes and golden oldies, but I can only chill when the cupboards are well stocked with the basic ingredients. Firstly, what is your chillout routine, your escape from the pen and all the pondering and, secondly, what are the basic ingredients you need when it comes to settling down to write- what factors or futons make the best mix for your creations?

Since I was a child I have been an avid reader of poetry and fiction. I always have a pile of books waiting to be read. In fact I love all the arts: dance, sculpture, paintings, and music. My taste is eclectic and I hope I’m open to all forms that push the boundaries and confound expectations. Just the act of reading, listening to a piece of music or looking at a painting triggers ideas for my own work. So I’m not sure there’s a really disconnect between these activities and my writing.

When I am writing, however, I must be clear about what it is I want to say. That might change as I say it, but if I don’t have that clarity initially I can’t get started. The other thing I need is time. I’m an extremely slow writer, agonising over the choice of words, the sequence of ideas, the sounds of lines, the shape of the poem etc.

3 Sticking with the cooking analogy for a moment, do you follow a specific recipe for writing or do you throw all the ingredients into the bowl and see what happens?

As implied above, writing is a conscious process for me. It starts with an idea, a feeling or an image and is the product of constant drafting and redrafting, sometimes months after the initial burst of activity. In fact I’m not sure a poem is ever really finished!

4 In these days of social media, you’re nothing if you’re not seen and in these unsettling, uncertain days of Covid, seeing, listening and buying has moved online and readings and live launches in libraries and lounges are a rare happening or else there is a limit to the amount of people in attendance. How are you dealing with having new collections coming out right now? What is your way of being seen? How are you coping with the fact that being a writer today also requires a certain amount of spotlight, certainly more than the days of Ms. Dickinson?

Yes, the launch of ‘Psychopathogen’ was very different to that of my collection, ‘Saudade’ last year. I decided to advertise on social media free copies of the pamphlet for a month to anyone who made a donation to a foodbank. This raised over 45 donations worth in excess of £350. This had the benefits of getting the poetry out there and of giving back something to those suffering from the pandemic, the subject of those poems. Since then I have participated in a number of Zoom events. Whilst I like the fact that this is a medium through which one can reach a wider, even international, audience, it doesn’t for me have the buzz of a face-to-face encounters.

5 Speaking of being seen and getting noticed, how important are acceptances from writing journals and how do you deal with the rejection which comes, no matter how much acclaim you have received? The reality we must learn is that not everyone is going to love our work, which can be heart breaking as we’re basically offering up our poetic babies to be loved, though no one loves a baby as much as the parent. So what keeps you going? Head up and move on or hide out and wait till the hurt passes? What encouragement do you have for others starting out?

I’ve been doing this long enough to know that there are many, many fine poets out there and editors must be faced with impossible decisions when selecting poems for publication. There will always be an element of subjectivity in the selection process: editors are just like writers, they will have their preferences in terms of theme and style. I believe it’s a mistake to judge the success of your poetry solely by the number of poems you manage to have published, exciting and rewarding though that is. Ideally you need to become part of a community of writers to get honest feedback on your writing and/or perform to live audience to acquire a real feel for whether your poems are working or not. It is that wider audience reaction that really counts for me.

6 If you had to pick one piece of your own writing that most represents you what would it be and why and would you like to share it or part of it here with us?

‘You’re settling
for second-hand’, father said
between sips of scalding tea,
when I confessed
I thought that my new girl
still carried the sadness
of a failed relationship.
‘Listen, son,’ he lectured,
‘the tears and fears
which move you now,
are proof of damaged goods.
Don’t believe
that all it needs
is love and care
to make a good repair.
That’s like painting
over flakes of rust;
the past continues
to corrode beneath.
My mother listened
and said nothing,
then turned to the mirror
above the mantelpiece
to fix the lipstick smile,
slipping down her chin.

I guess ‘Lipstick smile’ is typical of my poetry and audiences seem to react well to it. I want to write narrative poetry that speaks directly and economically to the reader, making explicit the significance to be found in the ordinary and sounding out the emotional resonance that vibrates beneath the surface of unexceptional lives.

7 Writing poetry, more so than any other writing form, is often the art of peeling back, removing the unnecessary, eliminating lines to uncover the hidden truth- how bare does it get for you? How difficult is it, at times, to tell your story within the lines and framework of a poem? How comfortable is it to be naked with so few words to cover over the possible discomfort or is it just a part of the process you get used to?

You raise a couple of issues here. First I think one of the challenges of poetry is how much space does one leave in poems for the reader. I think as my writing matures I’m leaving more and more of that space. However, I’m always conscious that I don’t want to make my writing so personal or arcane that it doesn’t speak to or impact upon the reader. The second part of the question raises the issue of personal exposure. Though my poems tell stories, sometimes in the first person, I would not call them autobiographical. Whilst informed by personal experience, they are inhabited by different characters. I hope they are true to life but they are not real events.

8 When it comes to titles, our pieces as I said, are like children- each needing special consideration and attention- how do you name your poems, short stories, collections or novels- is the name a starting point, a midway consideration or a summation of the theme afterwards? Sometimes I worry when I come up with a really great title it might overpower the poem itself- is there a balance between the two?

It’s easy to underestimate the importance of the title. I have certainly changed the title of the poem and suddenly had it accepted for publication! Sometimes I spend as much time on the title as I do on the poem but always when I have finished writing.  I want titles to inform the response to the poem. It might establish some contextual information; it might enable the reader to tune in to the story of the poem; it might provide an insight into its effect or meaning. Whatever its function is I believe there must be a dynamic relationship between title and poem.

9 For myself, writing started in childhood as a purely cathartic process, even if I was too young to fully understand this, it was a way of self-analysing and coming to an understanding of the world and my place within it. How did you find your way to writing and what was it about the process that kept you hooked?

Like you I began writing in childhood, though in the case of poetry I lost confidence in my work at university when I began to study the greats. It is only comparatively recently I began again. I guess it was something I received a lot of positive feedback for from teachers, tutors, family and friends. It was a way of making sense of the world around me but it was also a way of impacting on that world.

10 For the most things that fulfil me in life, the surrounding visuals are very important, and over the past few years the relationship between the photograph I take and poem I write becomes integral to the success of both- sometimes I never know which inspired the other more. What is your favourite accompaniment while creating a piece of writing?

As I have suggested above, all of the arts have the potential to inspire me with an idea or initiate a poem. I’m currently putting together a collection of ekphrastic poetry entitled ‘Whispers in the Gallery’, exploring relationships captured in well-known paintings. Before I write I’ll spend hours studying those paintings and reflecting on what they mean to me. I’ll also research their historical context.

11 The more I write, the more it becomes my oxygen, the more my hand shapes itself to the shape of my favourite pen or now my iPhone which has replaced the laptop as the most at-hand instrument to record my thoughts, and these days I have to catch them quick or they are lost forever. As a kid I wanted to be a famous fashion designer and lived in 4 different countries working for various fashion brands, though the writing was always there. Since then, cooking and photography have come more into the forefront. What were your childhood dreams, what were the jobs that followed to fulfil them or just fill time and what, other than writing, would you consider doing in order to express yourself?

I’m retired now. When I was at school, I wanted a job that required reading and writing and the sharing of those pleasures. As a consequence I studied English Literature at university, then became a teacher of English, working in primary and secondary schools and in Higher Education. I don’t know how many children or adults I succeeded in sharing those pleasures with, but I hope some.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts, insights and mental workings with us. It’s been a pleasure to dive inside your head from the comfort of our own armchairs. Before we depart, if you were to leave us with one line, one phrase, one lyric, a one-liner or a once-in-a-life-time admission, either yours or someone else’s, what would it be?

I think I would choose something written by Stanley Kunitz, one of my poetry heroes.

It is out of the dailiness of life that one is
driven into the deepest recesses of the self.

This pretty much captures what I feel about writing poetry.

Links

Find Nigel, buy his books and read his blog here…

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