Colin Dardis: Congratulations on your debut collection being released, Ross. How does it feel to have your debut full-length collection come out with such a prominent publisher as Dedalus?
Ross Thompson: I am equal parts thrilled and overwhelmed to be published by Dedalus Press. Before my modest book became a reality, I only ever had one publisher in mind. The dream was always Dedalus, partly due to the calibre of their publications - both in terms of their content and their physical quality - and partly due to the fact that the ship is captained by Pat Boran, a gentleman of the highest order and a very fine poet whose work I personally admire. When I initially sent work to Dedalus, the idea of being accepted there was too exciting to seem real, and yet here we are with a volume of my poetry about which my publisher continues to be effusive. I am very grateful. Having worked closely with Pat on the meticulous editing process that shaped the book into a cohesive narrative, I can honestly say that my expectations were not only confirmed but also exceeded: as an editor, Pat is encouraging, supportive and astute in identifying exactly what to keep, what to trim and throw out altogether. I am very grateful for his guidance in arranging the contents of the book and for tolerating my overly finicky approach: the many editorial changes that I requested before we arrived at the finished product - inasmuch as a poetry book is ever finished.
CD: Last year, you challenged yourself to write a new poem every day, for the entire twelve months. How did that Herculean task help prepare towards forming the manuscript for this collection?
RT: Initially, I took on the challenge to force myself to be more prolific, to try and avoid the negative habits of self-doubt and merciless self-criticism that held me back from writing more poems. I am a terrible writer in the sense that I chase after words as Ahab hunted the white whale that chomped off his leg. If I allow myself to do so, I deliberate and fret, often needlessly, over each word and cannot proceed until I find the perfect (i.e. elusive) fit. While there is certainly a place for such exactitude, I was excited by the prospect of limiting myself to a more urgent timescale to see what work a different approach might yield. I was surprised to find that the ideas flowed freely. I thought about poetry all of the time, which must have been fun for my friends and family as I was only ever half present. Once I allowed myself to open up more readily to the possibility that ideas for poems can be found in most places, not least of which inside the folds of one’s own memory, I started noticing poems hiding everywhere: in radio documentaries, in an offhand comment from a work colleague, in a recollection of childhood that arrives in your mind unbidden… when you yield to the idea of writing every day, just as an athlete must commit to daily exercise or a pianist must practise their arpeggios, you become more attuned to rhythms and images and phrases that might otherwise pass you by. Surprisingly, I did not resent it. It wasn’t a Sisyphus and the boulder situation. Quite the contrary, in fact, as I looked forward to getting home from work so I could let out all of the static that had been crackling in my head during the day. It was, on a personal level, very rewarding: some poems took thirty minutes while others took three or four hours but a by-product of this process was that I frittered away less time on pointless activities like watching television, napping and playing videogames. Instead, I read more, listened to music and, crucially, took walks with my dog where, in the quiet and the solitude, I planned the collection, rearranging the poems into a cohesive narrative. Naturally, not all of the poems that I wrote during the year were solid gold bangers but even those that will never see the light of day - the vast majority of them, I expect - taught me something new about the medium and the craft. I would honestly recommend it to anyone.
CD: You’re a teacher by trade at Victoria College, Belfast, and last year your Year 11 class won the Seamus Heaney Award for Achievement. How does being a teacher feed into your overall ability and craft as a poet?
RT: Teaching poetry on a daily basis, particularly to teenagers whose experiences and worldview are so very different to my own, is a regular reminder of the multifaceted nature of the art form. It is always humbling to be offered an interpretation that you have not heard or thought of before, particularly one that bolts directly out of left field and illuminates the work in an entirely new way. Also, the professional necessity of understanding and being able to explain the building blocks of poetry - meter, rhyme, form and so on - in a straightforward, direct manner hopefully keeps me attuned to the ways in which good and bad poems work or do not work. I look after a little Literary Society in school, and it is always fun to meet with those students to talk about the Arts, particularly as this involves encouraging - or, in some cases, strong-arming - them into writing their own pieces. It truly is gratifying to witness a young person being inspired in this way.
CD: A lot of the poems in the collection follow traditional forms, particular sonnets. What attracts you to crafting a poem in these forms, rather than free verse?
RT: As a fairly anxious and buttoned-down person, I tend to write in a very formal, tightly structured way. My default setting, I have learnt, is to produce sonnets - in fact, every poem that I write stubbornly demands to be a sonnet. As a musician, I am attracted to form and rhythm and patterns. These elements are aesthetically pleasing: the neatness and completion of a sonnet appeals to me on an instinctive level, and if the form was good enough for Shakespeare, Browning and Donne, then it is good enough for me. I love the restriction that comes with submitting to traditional forms: when words and syllables are rationed, you appreciate their value and power, which in turn leads you to not settle for second best if a particular image or descriptor is not evocative enough. It gives the work an intensity and focus that sometimes though not always can be lost with free verse or other approaches. I also relish the way in which a poet can push against these restrictions without breaking them irreparably. For example, with a sonnet or another formal structure there is a tendency to write in closed, heroic couplets where the rhyme comes at the end of a sentence or breathing pattern. This becomes predictable, and a reader of poetry’s brain will second guess the oncoming masculine or feminine rhyme before it lands with a hollow thud. However, it is fun to play around with enjambment and caesura to defy the reader’s expectations: the rhyme can fall in the middle of a natural sentence, for instance, or the forced pause might arrive medially or initially where it has more of an impact. One of the many areas in which Heaney was gifted was the production of half-rhymes: “cache… bush”, “pass… adoze”, “leaf… photograph” etc. His creative impulse was so attuned that he found music everywhere, and in doing so the reader can hear the authorial voice chiming and booming within the work. That all said, there are also times when I enjoy letting my mind run off its chain to see where it goes. I try not to apply strictures of rhyme and stanzaic form and lose myself in the power of the language and the natural beats of the words. The likes of ‘Domino Day’ and ‘Blue Lamp Disco’ fall into that category.
CD: In one of the poem, Roman Candle, you write about an instance where you “refused to turn the other cheek”, having to basically hit a guy in self-defence. As a Christian, did you hesitate to add this in, in case people perhaps felt it went against certain teachings?
RT: Many of the poems that appeal to me strike a balance between humour and melancholy. ‘The Shout’ by Simon Armitage, for example. ‘The Lanyard’ by Billy Collins. ‘Oranges’ by Gary Soto. Even Heaney’s wonderful, deeply moving ‘A Call’ should raise a wry smile in those who recognise the failure to communicate that often exists between fathers and sons. In my mind, ‘Roman Candle’, so called not only because of the Elliott Smith album of the same name but also because the real person who inspired the poem did indeed say that he would dip me in oil and set me on fire. The memory of these cheery encounters with a fellow university student is both ludicrous and a little sad: I do wonder what happened in his life to inspire him to be quite so bilious about my faith - it was of no threat to him yet he made it his personal mission to threaten me on a regular basis. It was like being twelve or thirteen again, which only made the situation more comical, even though he was prone to making blasphemous and vindictive statements that, had I reported it, would have resulted in him being disciplined. Still, weeks of what was essentially bullying led to an embarrassing scuffle in the indie disco - it wasn’t on the same par as Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson - that resulted in him being ejected by the bouncers with whom I had struck up a friendship. To be completely honest, I didn’t hesitate at all in adding the poem as it not only documents a real incident that fits within the wider narrative of the book but also because I believe that the overall tone of the poem is regretful and perhaps even empathetic for the “gangly goon” who - no word of a lie - promised to pin me to a cross. I wanted the poem to shift slowly from a comedic caricature of a very angry young man to a rather sad conclusion that also implicates my former self as being just as fallible.
CD: Issues of faith arise elsewhere in the collection, most notably in the title poem and in ‘True Faith’, about a would-be car accident. Do you find writing as a way to give witness, or develop your own personal relationship with God at all?
RT: Thank you. I am glad that these issues come across in the poems. Faith is an important part of my life - arguably the most important - and has been such a source of guidance and comfort over the years that it was inevitable that it would feature in my writing. Many of the poems in the collection refer to God either explicitly or implicitly. ‘Skye’, for example, depicts the sense of joy and mutual respect that can be found in a community joining together in a shared faith. ‘On Castlerock Beach’, closes the collection and was inspired in part by ‘On My First Sonne’ by Ben Jonson, which itself is a profound exploration of the human condition. All of these allusions and grace notes counterbalance the sadness that runs throughout the collection. Grief and loss play major roles in the poems but it was important to me that they contained love and tenacity in spite of how heavily loss may bear down upon them. Both the opening piece and the aforementioned ‘On Castlerock Beach’ are optimistic and outward-looking, which are central tenets of faith even in the darkest of times.
CD: The second section of the collection, 'The New World', appear to all be poems about people or events outside of yourself. Do you feel there is too much of the 'I', or the first person at least, in modern poetry?
RT: Actually, I personally believe that there is not enough of the “I” in poetry - and not just in the modern kind. In my opinion, poetry is at its most direct and emotive when the author chooses to reveal a part of themselves, even if that act of sharing is painful or embarrassing. In fact, it is the pain or embarrassment that can imbue the work with a genuine energy that cannot be fabricated. The relationship between the positions of honesty and obfuscation is endlessly fascinating, and I would imagine that all poets will harbour at least a cursory awareness of how to navigate between these two poles. The poets to whose work I continually return – Frost, Rossetti, Larkin and especially Heaney - write about their own lives, loves, families etc. because these things matter. They are essential. They are authentic and therefore more likely to garner a response of recognition from the reader. Poetry by its nature is – or should be – an act of open communication between the writer and the reader, and while I do not believe that the poet should create with a specific audience in mind other than his or her own self, at some point they should consider the potential positive or negative impact of their words. The act of sharing, of turning the introspective “I” into the communal “We”, is often so emotionally charged because the work will potentially touch upon feelings of loss, anger or regret that are universal, even if they are dressed up in figurative language. Sylvia Plath, for example, whose confessional work is a touchstone for my own writing even though it might not be apparent, wrote with such precision and openness about her struggles yet the sensitive reader should find common ground with her feelings of vulnerability and worthlessness. Sometimes, however, there is a danger that the “I” can alienate the reader purely because of the repetition of that pronoun. I often use the word “You” instead, such as when I am addressing my younger self, because the reader might be tricked into thinking that I am speaking directly to them. “You” is such an intimate and powerful signifier. It would be foolish to ignore it altogether. As for the section entitled ‘The New World’, in one way it is separate from the main body as it catalogues all of my other interests - cinema, technology, history, art - but in another way all of these parallel lives contain echoes of the main narrative.
CD: The book is dedicated to your wife and daughter, and this idea of family and home and belonging, including the loss of your own mother, seems to underwrites the collection. All the poems feel like there are written by someone who, although reflecting perhaps on darker moments, is confident and assured. How much of that sense do you feel comes from the exactitude of the words and the skill in how a poem is crafted, and how much belongs to your general outlook?
RT: It’s a combination of all of those things, I think. The book has a strong female influence in that it pays tribute to three of the most important people in my life: my wife, daughter and late Mum. Originally, writing about my emotional tug-of-war between welcoming my daughter and losing my mother was an essential way of coping with the seismic shifts in my life. And yes, channelling those unruly, often traitorous emotions into words and forms was an invaluable means of ordering experiences that were by their very nature disorderly. I may not have intended to share pieces such as ‘The Daily Crossword’, which is about my mother’s enduring love of puzzles even when her mind was snatched away by disease, and ‘The Switch’, which attempts and ultimately comes no closer to navigating the great divide between life and death, but the process of writing it was imperative. However, as I wrote more poems about my parental anxiety and my deep-seated grief, the latter of which threw me into quite a tailspin that caused the deterioration of my own physical health, the more that they all began to coalesce into a longer series of poems and interstitial pieces that in time would form ‘Grief Is Great’, an extended suite of poems that acts as the heart of the collection. It is undeniably the most pained and starkly honest work that I have ever written, and it charts a journey from a place of abject despair where grief is variously represented as a minotaur, a sabretooth tiger, a second skin and a close friend, to one of resilience and gratitude. I would like to think that such feelings are universal, and hopefully some readers who have been through similar experiences will connect with the work. That said, I wanted to share my general outlook, as you say, as optimism and hopefulness. The book opens with the poem ‘There Is Always A Lighthouse’, which borrows its title from the video game Bioshock, and contains the closing line, “The dark is strong but light never weakens.” It’s a similar sentiment as expressed by the Leonard Cohen lyric, “There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” The eponymous poem encapsulates this way of thinking with the line, “But nothing is ever truly lost; it is only misplaced.” It is impossible, of course, to thread light, to hold onto something so intangible and bend it to your will. It is a delicate magic trick that suggests hope, even in the darkest of situations, for even when things are at their bleakest, there has to be hope alongside faith and love. We are all stumbling along but in spite of our failings we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and it is my hope that this book celebrates that promise.
‘Threading the Light’ is available to order from Dedalus Press, ISBN 9781910251584.