In some ways, writers of literary fiction (and non-fiction) are like poets. Our materials are shapes, images, emotions and sounds; our landscape is a reader’s mind. When we start a work, we might not know where it will take us, just that there is something it wants to be. I’m delighted to have a poet here to talk about that – Rishi Dastidar, who has written two poetry collections and edited several more. He has also edited a craft guide for poets. We talk about capturing ideas without killing them, and how a process can turn a fragment of nonsense into something original, sophisticated and surprising.
Let’s start with a quick guide to Rishi.
Over-caffeinated writer for hire, residing in south London, with a penchant for supporting less-than-successful sports teams, who when not wielding a pen for brands or art tries to keep two cats happy.
How poetry start for you?
I started writing in 2007, after a chance encounter with Ashes for Breakfast, by Durs Grünbein, translated by Michael Hofmann. I had a damascene moment if that isn’t too grand – I discovered *the* thing I wanted to write. Now, I had no idea that I could write it (I hadn’t studied literature) so I enrolled in a beginner’s course at City Lit that week, and I’ve been plugging away ever since.
You’re the editor of The Craft: A Guide to Making Poetry Happen in the 21st Century – tell me about that.
That was at the instigation of my editor at Nine Arches Press, Jane Commane. She’s been publishing a series of handbooks for poets, designed to inspire and provide support on the journey to becoming a poet – a journey without a destination if ever there was one, perhaps. We felt there was space for a book for those who had been writing for a while and wanted to go deeper into writing poetry, and to consider issues of ‘craft’.
‘Craft’ in inverted commas?
It is quite a loaded term. What is it? Who is defining it? Why is it important? Why is it important to the person defining it? The word has been used, sometimes subconsciously, sometimes not, as a form of soft gatekeeping, that hard-to-speak-of space where quality and elitism are hard to tell apart.
We wanted to explore that in the book, as well as technical aspects of different forms: how to maximise the potential of your voice; how to bring digital technology to your poems if you want; the ethics of truth-telling and using real life in your work… providing poets with insights into the ‘craft’ that go beyond thinking about pentameter, but rather the full gamut of what you have to think about to make your work the best it can possibly be. The real joy of the book was commissioning essays from so many writers I love and look up to, then getting the heck out of the way as they delivered their wisdom.
You have two collections of poetry Ticker-tape from 2017 and Saffron Jack from 2020. What unifies each collection?
It’s hard, at least initially, to discern much unity between the two. Ticker-tape is more of a debut collection with all its unevenness and flaws, to go with its brio and energy. Saffron Jack can be a read as a long poem about one man’s attempt to set up his own country as a response to feeling alienated from where he is. There’s a third in the works, which will hopefully arrive in 2023.
I suppose what brings everything together is a style, or more precisely a tone. It’s one that’s quite antic, not that many moments for pauses or calm reflections. I generally try to cram my lyrics with a lot – that slightly uncomfortable feeling of the poem teetering on the edge of falling out of coherence. Neologisms abound: I’m a magpie for picking up and throwing in phrases that look and sound like jargon, and then seeing what happens when you put them in a poetic context.
Tell me more about that.
I like taking language from economics, advertising, politics and seeing what happens when you bend them out of shape. Does it reveal there is something more substantial to them? Can you find the thought that might have animated them? What does that reveal?
I’m aware that makes me sound like I live at my desk and behind my screen. While that is mostly true, there’s generally always something that snares me when I’m out walking through London. I’m very urban in that regard. The city leaks into everything I write.
How does a poem come to you?
I generally wait and see what a phrase starts to suggest to me. I’ll capture something that snags me: a hesitant attempt at describing an image; something stolen from an article, a headline, overheard; some mucking around with different words on my desk. Then I hope that something starts to cohere and make… I was about to type ‘sense’, and that’s not quite right, as I’m not necessarily interested in a sense of logic, but rather a sense of suggestiveness.
For example, I have the phrase right now ‘cardinal reminiscence bump’ in front of me on my desk. To others, I know this will appear meaningless babble. To me, I see *something* in that formulation: perhaps the hurt that a difficult memory brings back, perhaps the primary thing that I was meant to remember today; perhaps what it feels like to meet an past lover for the first time in 11 years. The point being: something around the phrase is inviting me to explore, delve further, find out what it might be saying to me.
I get that. The tweak in the soul, a primal sense of meaning.
Of course, not every poem – especially commissions – arrives like that, but broadly speaking I have to try to hold open a space in which language can play and start to find itself. I can then just be the recorder of it, at least in the early drafts. The more it gets whipped into shape, the more it bears some imprint that is recognisably me.
You’re obviously a person who travels with a notebook (or e-notebook)… but a note can look alien later. When I work with an idea I often feel I’m catching up with something that wants me to understand it, and sometimes its moment goes cold. How do you write down ideas to preserve their energy?
I actually don’t mind the alien-ness of looking at my scribbles. Sometimes reading them is enough to take me back to the moment and the energy that was there when the phrase was captured; more often than not it’s not… and that’s okay. Hopefully the phrase will suggest *something* and I’m not so concerned what that something is – I need it to reveal itself as I work, bring it together with other scribbles, say, then see what is released in those juxtapositions and collisions. I generally trust that something new will emerge from the process, and new is good for me; I can work with that, make it better.
I’m interested in the similarities of writing literary fiction and poetry, especially the long process of refining and perfecting, which I relish. Sometimes that’s about mechanics – giving the reader necessary information such as back story or character reactions. Sometimes it’s tuning the moment in a particular way. All of it is feeling the way to guide the reader’s mind. I’ll go through a scene hundreds of times when the book is rough, and in the later stages, as I understand the book as a whole, I will probably change it many more times again. Yet I never feel that work is wasted or that I’m draining the book of life. And there comes a time when it’s all done – and I know it is. I can read the whole thing and it works as it should.
Yes, absolutely. Frustratingly, I haven’t developed very sophisticated language to describe what this stage of drafting a poem is like for me. My best stab is to say, to myself and others: trust your Spidey sense.
There is a very real risk that you can overwork a poem into inertness, and that would destroy the thing that makes my poems my poems, the innate sense of energy. Of course, I’ve had to train my Spidey sense over the years, and learn to trust to it, to know when the 17th draft is a charm, but the 18th has killed the poem.
And that makes it sound like work when of course it’s not – there is absolutely a pleasure to be had in this kind of puzzle solving.
Puzzle solving! Yes.
Cutting a word to sharpen an image, changing a line ending to release a different sound or idea.
To release a different sound or idea… yes, that’s the reward. When you’ve found the right tuning.
You will almost definitely see different things on different passes, so you should allow the time for this part of the process. Poems have to live in the dark, of the bottom of desk drawers, maturing, until they tug at you, wanting to be seen again, tweaked a bit more. But then you have to intervene and tell them they’re ready, otherwise they never will be.
When you hand a collection to an editor, how does the process work?
I’m very fortunate to have been working with Jane at Nine Arches for a while now, as she gets completely whatever I’m trying to do with my voice and within any given book project.
How does one edit poetry? What kind of notes would an editor give?
You can think of it as working on two levels.
First the higher one: what is the collection trying to do? Are the right poems there to do that? What order do they need to go in to do that? Have you left enough space for the reader to bring themselves into the worlds you are creating?
Generally you have more poems than you need or some aren’t ready, so a lot of is it leaving stuff on the cutting room floor and then re-arranging. I trust Jane implicitly, as she has an excellent ability to spot the poems I haven’t yet accepted aren’t ready, though I know deep down.
And the second level?
That’s the micro-work on the poems themselves. Are your titles right? Is your syntax secure? Are your rhymes subtle or clanging, by intention rather than by accident? Is your punctuation in the right place? How do the poems sound when you read them out and they hit the air? Are your line endings surprising?
This is your second mention of line endings. In prose, I pay a lot of attention to line endings; the thought a sentence lands on, where that takes the reader next.
If the previous process was the sledgehammer, this is the scalpel – fine-grained fine-tuning which, if you do it well enough, should be all but invisible to the reader.
Invisible to the reader – that’s it. I once heard Michael Caine talk about his work process. He was asked how he gave such relaxed performances. He said: ‘the rehearsal is the work; the performance is the relaxation’. (I wrote about it here.)
And you definitely need outside help at this point, as you will have been looking at them for so long, you won’t be able to spot the faults.
How do you improve your own craft?
Boring cliche answer, but cliches have that boring habit of bring true:
First, reading – as much as I can, of any stripe style or hue. Rare is the weekend that I am not in a bookshop at some point, and I have to-be-read bookcases rather than piles. And it’s not just poetry: I think poets can learn from the rhythms of prose.
I do the other way round. I keep poetry volumes on my desk to loosen up my thinking, stop me being too literal.
I also love immersing myself in a narrative, not least because it remains a thing of wonder to me that anyone can write 50,000 words of a story and make it coherent and make sense.
The second element is experimenting – consciously trying to change things up and get out of a rut.
I hope you’ll give examples…
Can I edit this draft harder?
Can I edit this draft weirder?
What can I change to make it feel still me but not me?
What forms haven’t I tried yet? Why? Can I run towards them?
I’m finding that I need to develop that sort of intentionality to keep things fresh and shake things up. I’m writing a lot of prose gobbets at the moment, short bursts of 100-200 words. Will all the experiments work? No, but in trying I’ll find something new.
As a change of gear, you’re also a copywriter, journalist and brand strategist. Many of us have day jobs that use our word talents – I edit on a medical magazine. It’s factual, precise and pragmatic. I find there are curious ways this refreshes my creative work – unexpected sources of inspiration from the ‘real’ world, of course, but also the practicality is a good antidote to the limitless possibilities of creativity. How do your other areas of work complement your work as a poet?
Hugely: primarily at a level of discipline. I have to finish a response to a client brief by a deadline, so I can’t hang around waiting for inspiration. So I have learned to be directed in my thinking and my messing around; leaving enough space to be broad in exploring before narrowing in on what the answer might be, and doing so rapidly.
I’ve got good at knowing how to fill gaps, and that translates into a level of confidence in knowing that I can get from A to B in a poem and make it look like I know what I’m doing, even if perhaps I don’t at anything other than a subconscious level.
Also, being in the world of brands and branding is good for seeing how cultural trends, commercial decisions and organisations collide with each other. You get to see how the modern world is shaped. More than that, you get lots of insight into humans and their motivations: what people are buying, what people are wishing for, how they’re collaborating with each other, how they’re interacting with technology, how they are working. Being able to observe – and sometimes influence – some of that has been a real privilege, and must have leached into what I write about. It’s certainly more interesting than my life as a subject matter.
What should I ask you next?
Why do I have so many baseball caps, and why can’t I have a more rock-and-roll mid-life crisis?
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.