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 are joined by the New Zealand-born, Irish South African poet Brendon Booth-Jones who currently lives in Amsterdam, just to keep things less complicated. His debut collection is entitled Vertigo To Go…

Thanks for dropping down from that step-ladder Brendon, while you are here…

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?

When I first moved to Amsterdam, I briefly lived with a guy who, on the day I moved in, told me that he was writing a book. Wow, that’s so cool, I thought, a fellow writer! At that time I was working on individual poems, some of which had been published here and there, but I thought an actual book of poems was just a hazy distant dream. But after observing this so-called book-writer’s habits (Xbox games and fast food, nightclubs, party drugs and no writing whatsoever), I decided that if he could get away with telling people he was writing a book, and since I was actually writing every day, I might as well just call my jangled heap of half-finished poems a manuscript and start seeing it as a book-in-progress.

Over the coming months, as I adjusted to a new life in a new country, I naturally met a lot of new people, and when asked why I had moved to Amsterdam, I found myself saying that I was writing a book. At first, I didn’t really believe myself. But after about six months I realised that there was a real thread developing in my poems, recurring motifs and characters. And from that point on I worked towards the book’s completion on both conscious and unconscious levels. By unconscious I think I mean that I had internalised the moods, symbols and trajectories of the project, and that almost any poem I sat down to write seemed to lean (or sometimes leap) towards the narrative of Vertigo to Go. So I guess, in answer to your question, I wrote this book because I tricked myself into believing I was ready to write a book!

What it’s about is harder to pin down. I’m tempted to say it’s about itself, but when I put it like that I think I sound kind of snivellingly opaque or esoteric. I think what I’m trying to say is that Vertigo to Go is an attempt to capture a sliver of the giddy swirling entanglement of joy, pleasure, anxiety, fear, pain, terror and dis/connection of being alive in the 21st century. And yet, in trying to capture some trace element of experience, at the same time resisting the desire to reduce the language of aliveness to comfy binaries or neatly delineated platitudes. So I think what I mean when I say the book means itself is that to dissect it into a neat summary of topics is to miss the point the book is trying to make: that a poem is a space where the elements of language mesh and comingle in a way that tries (and mostly fails) to represent the webbed chaotic interconnectedness of the material world and all living beings within it. And immediately reading what I’ve just written in the above sentences, it’s clear to me that my book does not achieve that lofty goal! But the process of writing and editing the poems was thrilling and instructive and healing, and I felt compelled to do it. If the poems resonate or bring pleasure to anyone else then I have achieved way more than I ever imagined I would!

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?

Reading is my favourite pastime in the world. But it’s been hard to read this year. There is so much uncertainty and distraction being blasted into us from our phones and laptops, from the media, and the world at large. I’m really trying to spend less time on my phone and to rekindle my love of books. I saw a tweet the other day that said something like: ‘books are thinly sliced trees blackened with mysterious symbols that make you hallucinate vividly’. I think that’s a beautiful way of seeing it. And I think in this age of deep, deliberate, sinister distraction, reading books becomes both a shield of protection and an act of resistance to the insidious forces of Big Tech.

I too enjoy cooking and music. For exercise, I swim two or three times a week and walk or cycle every day.

In terms of my writing habits, I think I’m just the same as so many other artists: inspiration strikes you in a seemingly haphazard, unexpected way, and you better scribble down the fragments as they come, because they’re so transient. Then I go through certain moods where I feel like all these inchoate glimmers of song and image are just desperate to be weaved together and set free into the world. That’s when I collate them, edit them, rewrite and tweak them. I do a lot of rewriting. Though it must be said that some poems arrive in my head almost fully formed, and then it’s a case of just letting yourself be a conduit, making sure you channel the music and transcribe it as faithfully as possible.

3 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?

I think you’re totally right about the way the role or duty of a writer has been warped by technology. And of course the pandemic has hastened the transition to an almost exclusively screen-based life for our careers, art platforms and education. My agent, Sam Catsburg, had booked a truly exquisite venue for my book launch—a 17th century church in the centre of Amsterdam. Sam managed to get an outrageously good (and almost affordable deal), too. But we decided to cancel it. It just didn’t feel right to be putting my friends at risk for the sake of hearing me read a few poems. Once I had decided to call it off, I actually felt relief more than disappointment.

I have Twitter and Facebook pages that I use to promote my own work as well the work of magazines, presses and other artists in the online community. For that purpose, Twitter especially is good. But it’s also dangerously addictive and when I’m not strict with my usage I feel it’s very detrimental to my mental health. I just don’t think our brains have evolved to handle this incessant chatter, this cacophony of voices.

4 When it comes to titles, our pieces 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?

I am a serial re-namer. About 30% of the poems in Vertigo to Go were first published in journals and magazines and I think I changed all the titles of the poems, sometimes more than once. I don’t have a particular approach or philosophy when it comes to naming poems. I do know that, for me, 99% of the time the poem comes first and the title afterwards.

As a reader, I enjoy books or poems that use allusions in their titles. I love a sneaky nod to, say, Shakespeare or Sappho. I think all works of art are in some way utterances responding to the utterances that came before them, which in turn were responding to those that came before them, in a long chain, or maybe now that we live in a beautifully post-canon age, a dense web, of cultural interconnections and crossovers and arguments and celebrations and revolts and obsessions. I love picking up on the traces of influence in other people’s work, and I think titles are a good signifier of allusion.

I don’t normally think too deeply about the titles of my own individual poems (perhaps I should start doing it more), but in terms of the title of my book, I chose Vertigo to Go because vertigo is one of the central, recurring metaphors that runs through the story, and ‘to go’ also has several layers of association that are relevant to the book. It’s fun to think about the multi-layered aspects of language and I’ll leave it up to the readers to interpret the title for themselves.

5 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?

I can totally see that deep formative connection you have to poetry in your writing, Damien. The way you intertwine music, rhythm, metaphor and tonal variance into your poems seems so natural, almost innate. There is a vibrant sensuality to your work that is very accessible, yet is also beautifully idiosyncratic.

I also started writing pretty young—around eight or nine, and kept a diary until I was about fourteen. And I inhaled books. And then when I hit puberty I just stopped completely. I walked away from any desire for intellectual stimulation. I stopped reading and I was so embarrassed by my diaries that I cast them aside in a fury of self-reproach. I wanted to be accepted, to be a part of the in-crowd, to quell the loneliness. And being bookish was not the kind of trait that would keep me safe in a dominant culture that commanded boys to be (or at least appear to be) tough and confident and sporty and popular. It took me ten years to face the truth that I wasn’t tough or macho, and that I didn’t want to be.

I started reading again at 25. Voraciously. And as soon as I started reading, I started writing. I had felt a bit aimless and lost for a few years, sometimes spinning out to the edge of my orbit and feeling like I was about to spiral out of reach or hope. But once I found my way back to literature I realised I had finally (re)discovered a part of myself that I’d spent so long repressing.

6 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?

I love photography! And I love reading about photography. I recently read Geoff Dyer’s collected essays and he writes wondrously and at length about photography and photographers. Music also inspires me. And reading good books. And taking long walks in all seasons. And interacting with people.

7 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?

From the age of eight till about eighteen, I wanted to be a professional surfer more than anything in the world. I was completely obsessed with surfing and thought about it all day every day. I spent so long doing it that even though I haven’t surfed in quite a few years, I still think about it every single day. Somehow it has stayed in my blood and probably will remain there till I die.

Around eighteen I swallowed the bitter pill that I would never be good enough to make it to the elite level of competitive surfing. So instead I went to university and studied economics, which seems like a strange choice now, because I’m the furthest thing from an economist. But I don’t really see intellectual and personal development as being some linear progression from A to Z. I prefer to think of my development as a confluence of influences and experiences that are meshed together into an ever unfolding metamorphosis of becoming, emerging, flowing, dissolving, rebirthing.

After my economics degree I drifted around, spent a few years in Australia, almost got sucked into the full-blown corporate ladder-climbing world, fled that scene, worked odd jobs to pay for my travels, became a white-water rafting instructor in Malaysia, an English teacher in Vietnam, worked on a chateau in France etc. etc., and one year of drifting turned into five. Along the way I started writing and reading in earnest, and from then on I found a sense of direction that has guided my choices ever since. But I felt like to discover my desire to write at 25 was starting late, and I never dreamed I’d have my first book accepted for publication by the age of 30.

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?

Infinity overflows the thought that thinks it. Just read that a couple days ago. I think it’s from Emanuel Levinas. It makes me think of the way in which all matter, all being, all thinking, is in a constant state of flux and interconnection, overflowing and through-flowing.

Thank you so much for inviting me to have this conversation with you, Damien. Congratulations on all your recent success. I’m so excited to follow your journey as you move from strength to strength!

Brendon Booth-Jones is a New Zealand-born Irish South African poet who lives in Amsterdam. Brendon’s debut poetry collection, Vertigo to Go, was published by The Hedgehog Poetry Press in October 2020. His work has appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic, Amaryllis, As It Ought To Be, The Bosphorus Review, The Blue Nib, Fly on the Wall, Ghost City Review, The Night Heron Barks, Scarlet Leaf Review, Zigzag and elsewhere. Find him on Facebook @brendonboothjoneswriter and Twitter @BrendonBoothJo1 or via his website…


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