Wayne Holloway-Smith

An interview

Greg McCartney

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Wayne Holloway-Smith was born in Wiltshire and lives in London. He received his PhD in English and Creative Writing from Brunel University in 2015. His poems have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies. His pocketbook, Beloved, in case you’ve been wondering was published by Donut Press in 2011. He co-edited the online journal Poems in Which and teaches at the University of Hertfordshire. His first book-length collection, Alarum (Bloodaxe Books, 2017) was shortlisted for the Roehampton Poetry Prize 2017. The final poem in the collection, 'Short', won the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize 2016.

Gregory McCartney: Thanks for agreeing to be in the HU!

Wayne Holloway-Smith: No problem. Nice to meet you [Side Note: Sorry to your readers if any of the following is boring or wanky, I can accidentally get real wanky].

GMCC: I really liked Alarum In ‘Some Waynes’ you marry together lots of perhaps aspects of yourself, maybe past, future, could’ve been or will be Waynes. Is it possible to find ‘a you’ – maybe ‘Wayne the poet’ that encompasses them all? Or maybe being a poet allows you a kind of therapeutic exploration of the various selves that make up a person?

[Here’s a link to the poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/90681/some-waynes]

WHS: Ha. That’s a really freaking good reading. I’m always completely shocked when anyone has taken the time to look at my stuff at all. Thanks.

OK. I’ve a friend, Jack [Side Note: a very good-looking and articulate man], who has often spoken about poets not having ultimate authority over the meaning of their poems. Meaning being made, instead, between the poem and the reader. So, in this case, what you’ve just suggested is as valid as any interpretation I can offer.

I can speak about my own intention, though, regarding ‘Some Waynes’, if you like. I’m very interested in the way higher and lower value seems to be arbitrarily attached to certain things, people groups, behaviours, names, etc. The socio-symbolic fashion [Side Note: I told you (wanky)] through which this takes place seems, inherently, to favour middle-class or bourgeois ways of being in the world – supports a type of middle-class gaze (as more intelligent people than I have called it). It’s the reason, I think, why particular jobs are seen as more important than others – a poet and academic, for example, is understood as a ‘progression’ or ‘step up’ from my family background of builders and painter-decorators. And, also the reason that, if you do manage to ‘step up’, then you move from working- to middle class – I don’t think I buy that.

The idea of ‘taste’ comes into play too. What is good taste? Craft beer instead of Fosters, flat whites instead of instant coffee, eating your steak rare instead of well done? [Side Note: I drink Fosters shandies, because I’m a lightweight; I like my coffee creamy and sweet – like a milkshake, I don’t eat meat at all]. Who decides this shit? And yet, through a complex system of signs – cultural markers, all these things contribute to certain demographics of people and the practices by which they live being understood as better or more ‘cultured’ or ‘higher’ than those of other people. In the UK, the name ‘Wayne’ seems to symbolise the ‘lower-brow’, the uncouth, the ‘of-lower-value’ or something. I once Googled, ‘Should I call my son Wayne?’ The results that question threw up were ridiculous. One person on mumsnet wrote something like, ‘No. Wayne screams council estate. It’s the type of person that steels your hubs and cheats on his wife.’ Another wrote, ‘Wayne is the type of name people who wear fake Kappa tracksuits have.’ [Side Note: The Urban Dictionary has informed me that Wayne also means Penis – as in, ‘Cor blimey, look at the size of his wayne.’]. Harry Enfield is remembered for his characters Wayne and Waynetta Slob. Geoff Hattersley has a poem about a pub brawl in which everyone fighting is called Wayne. I guess I saw the poem as an examination of the various cultural readings of the name I’ve been given, and my need to navigate them.

GMCC: Would the Wayne in ‘Beloved In Case You’ve Been Wondering’ be that much different (apart from older) from the Alarum Wayne?

WHS: I don’t know. Probably. I’m imagining not many people reading this will have read either of my books. I guess the Waynes in B.I.C.Y.B.W were often in hiding, behind things, voices, or trying to prove themselves against the criteria by which poetry is conventionally understood as being ‘good’. I’m really grateful to Donut Press, who published it. And Andy Ching, the editor, was endlessly generous with my many mistakes and self-indulgences. I learned a lot from him. The Waynes in Alarum are maybe more irreverent in their exploration of class, background, personal vulnerabilities.  

GMCC: Alarum sounds very Elizabethan. We still say it over here. We also say filum and add letters to words generally. Apparently we speak closer to Elizabethan English than people in England do. I thought Dalek was ‘Darlek’ for years! Alarum kind of undermines a little of the seriousness of ‘Alarm’. Did you deliberately take a step back from the rather ominous ‘Alarm’?

WHS: Ha. Maybe ‘Alarum’ sounds kind of run-of-the-mill to you guys, then. Commonplace even.

[Side Note: I’m actually pretty familiar with Northern Irish accents. My girlfriend is Northern Irish and loads of my mates. It’s an infinitely more attractive way of speaking than my own. I say I’m familiar with it. Sometimes, when these guys get together and chat quickly, I have literally no idea what is going on. You have words like ‘dander’, and phrases like ‘took a notion,’ and ‘wind yer neck in’, which take me ages to work out, leaving me kind of ‘scundered’ (have I said that right?). When my girlfriend hangs up after a phone conversation, she says ‘Right. That’ll do.’ And I always think I’ve offended her.]

I guess ‘Alarum’ does undermine the seriousness of ‘alarm’. I think I probably did try to take a step back – ‘Alarum’ seems more playful. It also means ‘a call to arms’, and in Elizabethan drama is used to denote a loud disturbance or conflict.  I think all of these things reflect aspects of the book’s content. Or I hope so.

GMCC: I’m always interested in the practicalities of creating a book of poems. How do you put a collection together? Do you think ‘that poem works beside that one’ and ‘that would should maybe go there’? etc. Is there a different feeling getting your second collection published than from the first?

WHS: Well, Alarum was my debut collection. Beloved was a pocketbook. In the latter, Andy Ching schooled me a bit in the way of a book’s architecture. And most of the praise it got was about that – so, it was really Andy getting bigged up, not me. Alarum, as I’ve said elsewhere, was incredibly fun – in a sort of twisting a loose tooth kind of way. I suddenly I found I’d begun writing into a set of quite explicit concerns, and this seemed energising. Neil Astley was very patient and generous with me, as I kept chopping and changing things. And his generosity allowed the space to experiment and keep experimenting. Some poems intuited the next poems. I began understanding that although I couldn’t deal with one aspect or concern in the poem that I was currently making, I could address it in the next. After reading and re-reading the whole collection, and speaking a lot to my friends and girlfriend, the order fell into place. 

GMCC: As the arts world is notoriously middle-class (and above) and maybe getting even more so these days, did it ever occur to a working class kid that he could be a poet? I still find it hard to believe that (however badly) I edit magazines even after doing it for quite a bit. I keep thinking I will be found out in the end!

WHS: I’m completely get that thing. I’m always looking around and thinking, I know why these people are here, why am I? That happens in academia and poetry, to me [Side Note: I didn’t even know poetry still existed until my early twenties. It was there, I thought, as a type of posturing, or a word apportioned to people like Morrissey or Bob Dylan to give them a sense depth or importance].

Obviously, as a ‘working-class kid’, no one tells you, Hey, you should be a poet, or, You should think about going to art school, or, Hey, you should consider writing a Doctoral thesis on representations of working class masculinity, largely through the deconstruction of a socio-symbolic value system which privileges the middle-class gaze. Lol. You learn, or I did, that you can basically be a footballer, or work in some kind of trade or a factory, which are fine things to do – they’re just not the full scope of options available to you [Side Note: I used to be very awesome at football].

To sound like a bit of a prick, by paraphrasing the French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, part of the value system I mentioned above means there are different ways of moving and being within different areas of society – rules, if you like, that mark you out as in-or-outside of those areas. Different behaviours and markers of taste – a sort of language, prominent within certain environments. I still feel outside of that language in the places in find myself frequently now, and every time I do or say something out of place or ‘wrong’ I feel found out. I don’t really know how to behave [Side Note: Even now, I think someone reading this will say, ‘That’s not correct, Bourdieu wasn’t saying that.’].

GMCC: Violence is a constant throughout the book and domestic violence features prominently. In ‘Grandfather with Flowers’ and ‘I hope this will explain everything’ a grandmother and mother are on the receiving end of a husband’s fist. It makes for uncomfortable reading, particularly as a male. Are those type of poems difficult to write?

WHS: I guess they are horrible to write. I think part of being male is having a responsibility to write about or attempt to understand yourself within the context of the maleness in which you were raised, and from which, at points, you have directly and indirectly benefited. An undulating threat of violence underscored much of my experience of growing up. Any masculine control and a sort of presumptive authority, or grappling for such a thing, was often underwritten by that threat. Part of developing an understanding or critique of this nurtures a responsibility to try not to replicate it, by making yourself more aware of the ways you’re at risk of doing so. In a sense, then, I’m sort of glad those poems are uncomfortable.

GMCC: You have a child these days. Does that inevitably change the tone of your subject matter?

WHS: I’m not sure. It changes the way that I think about myself. I sort of just want her to be proud of me. Maybe if she ever properly reads my stuff, in the future, she’ll realise something about why I’m sometimes rubbish, or that I had issues as well. I don’t know. She came to watch me read at the recent Poetry Review launch. The place was rammed, but she was 99% of the audience.

GMCC: Similarly (or not!) you’ve done a PHD on aspects of working class violence. Did that change how you portray your past in any way?

WHS: I think it can’t help but change it. Or rather, perhaps, having read loads of very interesting, clever people, you are given a wider vocabulary with which to expand your thinking about and expression of those things – background, family, ‘self’.

GMCC: You have quite a scary guitarist on the (great!) front cover of Alarum and you mention Morrissey in ‘Camden or Camberwell’, the first poem in Beloved. Are you a big music fan? Growing up in the 80s to me the poets were the pop stars, the Morrisseys, Eldritchs etc and the Abridged is very influenced by music. 

WHS: I’m glad you like the front cover. The image is from the work of Jaime Molina, and all of his art is as good as that. I’m relieved we were allowed to use it.

I am rubbish at finding new music. I mostly rely on my cooler friends to show it to me. Of course, I sometimes listen to the classics, I like the way The Smiths makes me feel a strange nostalgia for an era that I was too young to have actually experienced. Same, but different, with Joy Division, The Kinks, particular funk songs. [Side Note: I’m actually familiar with a few Northern Irish bands – Panama Kings, Sixstarhotel, Duke Special, Queer Giraffes, ones my friends were in or introduced me to [[Side-Side Note: I hope this information ingratiates me to your readership]]]. I sometimes struggle to like otherwise good songs if the lyrics are shit. So I tend to listen to things sung in different languages so I can’t understand the words, but can get caught up in the sound. Or I listen to Mat Riviere. One of those two things.

GMCC: I always ask this question and it does always sound a bit portentous and pompous. What do you see is the role of the poet and poetry nowadays?

WHS: I don’t know that there’s one role for a poet or for poetry right now. I think there are different uses and different contexts for those uses. The ones I’m paying attention to right now are US poets – Jericho Brown, Patricia Smith, Claudia Rankine, Danez Smith, too many to name – who are writing importantly, brilliantly, defiantly into and against overt and systemic racism, homophobia, transphobia in their country. And also some people writing out of a particular, other, personal pain, expressing perhaps their situation within a wider set of social contexts. Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby is incredible in this respect, Melissa Lee Houghton’s Sunshine also. Maybe one thing that these poets have in common is an ability to move beyond the limitations of the commonplace uses of language and point towards something – an experience, a feeling, an injustice – that there isn’t a specific single word for or any simple way of conveying – they sort of have the power to make you feel it instead [Side Note: I hope one day someone says my work does this too]. 

GMCC: You edited a magazine, Poems in Which. How did you find being on the other side of the bar so to speak? And do you think it added anything to your own work?

WHS: I found it very hard. I don’t have the authority to decide what is ‘good’ or ‘not good’ poetry. Only pieces of work that I enjoy. The more people I read, the more I know I don’t know. The other editors were better than me.

GMCC: And as usual, that inevitable last question – what’s next?

WHS: The usual. I’m going to eat a vegan burger, be as nice as I can to my girlfriend, try not to get beaten up by anyone, and carry on writing.

GMCC: Thanks again for being in the HU!

WHS: I liked it.

You can buy Alarum at: http://www.bloodaxebooks.com/ecs/product/alarum-1133