Colin Dardis speaks to Ross Thompson, one of Lagan Online’s 12NOW writers to watch in 2017. Ross teaches English and reads regularly at literary events across Northern Ireland. He has been published in various anthologies and was the winner of the FSNI National Poetry Competition 2013 for his poem 'Icarus', and now acts as a judge with this contest. His pamphlet, 'Slumberland', was published in 2014.
Colin Dardis: You’re a teacher by trade. How does teaching, particularly teaching English Literature, impact on you as a writer, or is it the other way round?
Ross Thompson: I would say that hopefully it makes me a better teacher. Certainly with the poetry, we try to make the pupils have an engagement with the writing that they might not have done otherwise. You can focus on the technical side of poetry, the rhythm, the metre, the cadence, all the usual candidates; but it’s more about trying to give them an appreciation of it, to teach them the reasons why writers write contextually, sociologically, historically, what was going on at that particular time that inspired this piece of writing. Or, more emotionally: what goes into the thought process in the construction of writing.
CD: When you are introducing pupils to a new piece of poetry, is there a danger of losing the sense of a poem in the mechanics, or turning people off?
RT: Definitely. If you go onto Facebook – I recommend you don’t! – you will see pages like ‘My teacher reads too much into poems’. The teacher might say this is all about the anger and frustration that exists in the writer and that the humming represents the reeling against the world, and pupils will just say ‘it’s a poem about bees’. You can pull it apart and read too much into it, damage it, or if you talk too much about the construction of the poem, you can lose its essence and emotion. And the reason you’re over-analysing it as a teacher is because you are teaching it to be marked, to hit a mark scheme against grades which doesn’t really cater for multiple interpretations or a personal response to the work.
CD: For a lot of writers, their experiments into writing often develops in parallel with their education, but for you, you were a teacher for a number of years before starting into poetry. Could you tell us about your initial explorations?
RT: I taught at university before I became a schoolteacher, as well as being a freelance journalist in another life, but I didn’t go down that dark profession. I was teaching for a few years in school when I found out that a fellow colleague of mine was leaving to go to another school, and someone in work asked me to write a poem for him, a humorous poem – that in itself sounds like an aberration. They said, you’re a teacher, you know English, clearly you must know how to write a poem. I said sure, sure, no problem, and sat down to write this poem. And for some reason I decided to write it in heroic couplets and iambic pentameter, mock Homeric form, as you do. It was four pages long and deliberately ridiculous, hyperbolic, and full of cheap, lazy gags about teaching and the education system. But I enjoyed it, and I thought, well, I do like poems, why don’t I start writing?
Coincidentally, another teacher was leaving shortly after this, and I was asked to write a another poem for her, a poem that was to be more serious, less flippant and glib. I didn’t know if I could really do that, but I gave it a crack, and I really did enjoy that. For me, it was more about the challenge, the emotion, the tension, and that’s where it realty started.
CD: With journalism, working in reviews, and with teaching, it seems you’ve almost had two perfect avenues of experience before getting into writing. Do you feel the journalistic approach has translated over into your poetry?
RT: I think it’s a very different discipline, although interestingly, I wrote a lot of video game articles and reviews – I’m a really big gamer, as is Don Paterson – which seems completely contradictory to the idea of poetics, but I always tried to write them in a way that was creative and engaging and different, and not just throwing out the same clichés about video games and people that play them. I enjoyed trying to find new, interesting ways to express what a video game is.
For me, it was more about the construction of sentences, syntax, and choosing the right words which I found really challenging and fascinating. The journalistic approach is by its nature rhapsodic, talking about how amazing and earth-shattering this particular medium is. You have to avoid the clichés of saying ‘they shred their guitars’ or ‘the best thing since…’.
CD: As a journalist, you usually have an editor to bounce off, but as a poet, you’re often out on your own in the literary wilderness. When did you first start to get recognition and validation as a poet, or was that not a concern?
RT: It’s not that I sought validation, but it is really gratifying when you receive it. I’m fascinated by the fact that poetry is this channel for communicating incredibly tense, personal emotions, ideas, experiences and thoughts. And I’m fascinated by the wall that exists between the reader and the writer, and how you move through that wall or conduit. There’s always that question of ‘does somebody really understand what you mean?’ It’s led to a couple of ‘fun’ experiences: a wrote a poem based on a Damian Jurado song called ‘Abiline’, which is about a young couple running away from their puritan parents. I wrote a poem that was meant to be sad; the whole thing about it is that they are never going to escape. The first couple of times I read it, people said, oh, that’s really lovely poem, I wish the best for this couple. And that was the complete opposite of what I intended. (laughs) So sometimes that attempt at communication really backfires.
In terms of formative experiences, firstly reading at the Purely Poetry open mic in Belfast. For reasons unknown, I just decided to go down and chance this, didn’t know anything about it or heard anything. That was a really positive experience; to not only hear so many other voices and other styles of writing, but to meet other lovely people from different cultures and backgrounds. That was the first thing that made me think I can do this if I want to.
The second major thing was entering the Funeral Services Northern Ireland National Poetry Competition in 2013. Initially, I didn’t think I was going to enter, and it was under the encouragement of another Northern Irish poet, Ray Givans, who is a gentleman, a statesman of the poetry, a really kind and generous person. He basically told me so (laughs) and he’s very wise, so I respected that. And I won that, which was real validation: someone has understood what I’ve tried to do here, and they understood why I put those words together, and the impact I was trying to have. Of course, you can never, ever control that, and the mystery of that is exciting in itself.
CD: After winning the competition, did you feel under any pressure for your next poems to be as good?
RT: To be honest, it felt slightly fraudulent. I’ve
always been uncomfortable with the idea of saying I’m a poet, or I’m a writer,
just because I faff about with poems in my front room. Does that make me Thomas
Hardy, you know? That isn’t disingenuous, that’s always the struggle, but I
think that in itself improves the work, hopefully.
CD: Is that coming from a seed of insecurity or humility?
RT: Yeah, insecurity, I would say. I was taught in school to be self-critical to be the point of being unforgiving (laughs). Maybe that’s a Northern Irish thing.
CD: You’ve acted as a judge now the FSNI Poetry Competition, and organised your own events in Bangor: How important is it to you to have that connection and interaction with the poetry community?
RT: It’s incredibly important. Initially, I wanted someone else to feel the way I felt when I received the award. The great thing about that competition is that it’s not partisan, it’s an equal paying field, anyone can enter it, and it’s free, a particular rarity in literary competitions. Whenever you talk to people initially about that competition, they say ‘What? It’s funerals? Really?’ But FSNI is genuinely enthusiastic about the work, and the quality of the judges involved – Ciaran Carson, Paul Maddern, Stephanie Conn – are second to none. There are just so many good writers out there, and it’s incredibly exciting to see people supporting poetry on a high profile level that involves business professionals and businesses, where poetry quite often would not find a door in.
CD: You also recently recorded a reading as part of a BBC Arts Show live event, to be broadcast later this year.
RT: Again, that was fascinating. Anything involving television is slightly surreal. You’re incredibly aware of the camera that’s pointing in your face, making you self-conscious. What if I trip and knock over this shelf of prized ceramics, or accidentally poke my head through one of the photo-realistic painting it’s taken someone four months to paint? (laughs) There’s also a real energy to a television recording, but there are a lot of questions that come in as well. What if the work isn’t received as well as I would like it to be? Or if I don’t perform it as well as I would like, or people just think, what on earth? But again, it’s good that poetry has a voice in Northern Ireland. Television channels have such a limited remit for what they are or are not allowed to show, so something like the Arts Show, the fact that it will have music and painting and museums and writing and all these genres, is great.
CD: You had your pamphlet ‘Slumberland’ come out in 2014, and I believe you are working on the manuscript for your full length collection. Can you tell us a bit about the process of developing that?
RT: When I initially started writing, I found myself
writing about anything that inspired me. Driving home from work I would listen
to Radio 4, and the thing about radio documentaries is that it’s just a voice.
You focus on the voice telling you these true life stories. For example, about
a guy who was losing his voice, and had a machine made that recorded his voice.
He had to go into a recording studio and say all these words, big long lists.
Then he was given a voicebox, kind of like Stephen Hawking, but it sounded
exactly like a human voice, albeit an electronicised form of it. And I thought,
but if that little voicebox became sentient, and took not only his voice but
his spirit as well.
So I wrote things like that, but gradually, I become more comfortable writing about my childhood and Bangor where I grew up. It’s really important to me to write about my hometown. More and more I began to write about myself, to get closer to myself. As I see it, my full length collection is all about memory, and the way in which memories are elusive and deceptive, but at the same time incredibly poignant, visual and visceral, and the conflict therein. A real touchstone for me is Robert Frost and his writing; Philip Larkin to a lesser extent, and Simon Armitage, that style of writer who very much writes very much about their own experiences. But Robert Frost in particular writes about very mundane things: picking apples, mending a wall, going for a walk, ploughing, whatever it happens to be. And the poem starts off that way, but as it progresses, it becomes much more psychedelic, transcendental, universal. He goes off into this other plane, and I’m really intrigued by the idea of how that process takes place.
Even the most insular, most inward-looking poems should have a universality to them, and a level of sharing that with others, so that others can respond, because they might have been through the same thing. It’s also about the uplift as well. I write a lot of sad poems, rather than dark poems. I am an optimistic person, I am a faithful person, but it is important to acknowledge there are these difficult, sad times. But there has to be an element of positivity, there has to be, otherwise it just becomes an exercise in wallowing, or self-loathing, or anger, and I don’t want to write that style of poetry.