Interview with Rishi Dastidar

“my art school crucible, my oratorical observations,
my narrowing clips, my sclerotic placing, my juggernaut pacing,
my locked-in depravity, my buzz of the moment,” (‘Ticker-tape’, p.42)

Rishi Dastidar’s poetry has been published by Financial Times, New Scientist, Tate Modern and London’s Southbank Centre amongst many others. His debut collection Ticker-tape is published in the UK by Nine Arches Press, a poem from which was included in The Forward Book of Poetry 2018. A fellow of The Complete Works, he is also a member of the Malika’s Poetry Kitchen collective and serves as chair of the London-based writer development organization Spread The Word.

ML: Congratulations on your debut collection, Ticker-tape (Nine Arches Press, 2017). What can you tell readers about the journey / process of putting your debut book together and getting it published?

RD: Thank you! I fear I might have told this tale before, so forgive me if it tends towards anecdote rather than anything useful or insightful, but: I’d had some poems accepted for Under The Radar by Jane Commane of Nine Arches Press, and she very kindly offered some mentoring too. That coincided with me feeling like I potentially had enough poems for a manuscript, so chutzpah ahoy! I sent her those poems, saying it’d be fab if we could we use the mentoring time to see which of those might be good enough to see the light at some point. So I was pretty stunned when a couple of months later Jane replied saying the offer of mentoring was still on the table… and that she’d like the book too.

And then after that, the editorial process was something I really enjoyed. It took about a year to get right; a few poems didn’t make the cut, a number needed some fine-tuning, and Jane was great throughout that. She’s so astute at the level of the line and seeing what needs to be fixed to make that work, but then she can zoom out and see the whole structure of the book, and see what the ambition is and what needs to be done to achieve that. Most of her significant interventions came in structuring and ordering the poems, and we definitely ended up somewhere richer and more interesting because of it. When you’re in the tender hands of an editor that good, you nod happily and thank your luck.

ML: What would you say were the formative influences that led you towards writing?

Top HatRD: Hmmm. Tricky to parse at this distance, but I spent a heck of a lot of time in my primary and secondary school libraries, and my local library in northwest London growing up, so I’ve always been around books, and I love being around books. More specifically I can’t remember a particular book or writer that made me think that writing was the thing for me, but I do remember a school exercise when I was what, 11, 12? where I had to write and illustrate a story, and that felt like a liberation, being in control of something like that. And since then, it’s been a case of trying on different modes, different styles of writing until finding one that fitted. Luckily I did – I mean, I didn’t discover contemporary poetry until I was about 28, so I was a late starter, definitely.

ML: A late starter? How did that happen, in the end?

RD: I’d come back from a weekend in Berlin and wanted something to commemorate the trip as it were – I don’t know why I didn’t get something while I was there. Anyway, at that time I was working just off Oxford Street, not too far from the big Borders bookshop that was there. So first Monday lunchtime after returning, I wandered in and spotted a title as I was going up the escalator – Ashes for Breakfast. Something about that grabbed me, so I grabbed it, opened the first few pages and – bang! Why hadn’t anyone told me you could do this with words? Wow! A true Damascene moment, and no I’m not overstating it. That it was by a German poet, Durs Grünbein, and there were poems about Berlin in it too meant it was fate, right? And that was it. I knew I had found the stuff I wanted to read and write. Pretty much the next day booked myself on to an introduction to poetry course at the City Lit in London.

ML: What relationship do you have to forms of writing other than poetry?

RD: So a professional / slavemaster one with copywriting, as that is my day job – no advert too little, no brochure too long; I’ve written most things for companies big and small over the years – perhaps this means I have little or no shame. I can turn my hand to reviews – not necessarily lit.crit heavy perhaps, but serviceable (and hopefully I have reasonable taste and judgement). I’m starting to dabble more with essays and lyric essays, and this feels like something where I might turn up a few riches. I love reading fiction; I just wish the stories I write could catch light – they always feel inert on the page to me. I keep telling myself I don’t have the knack. Maybe I need to stop telling myself that.

ML: Can you tell us about your teaching of creative writing – the role it plays in your life and what you have learned from it?

RD: I’ve taught from time to time at the Poetry School, and this year I’ve started teaching at the London College of Creative Media too. I often find it a useful way of clarifying my thoughts on certain issues, especially to do with craft – oh, I have to have a point of view now – which spoiler alert might not necessarily be what I believe but something maybe a wee bit more provocative to get a discussion going in class.

This year in particular it’s been gratifying to recommend certain books that I love to students, and have those titles resonate with them also – we’re only here because a certain book or poem switched something on in us, and to be able to pass that sensation on is wonderful.

But what I really like most is that sound, about five minutes into setting an exercise and all you can hear is the scrape of pen or pencil across pages in notebooks. That’s just lovely to me.

ML: What do you know now as a writer that you wish you’d known 10 years ago?

RD: That publication isn’t actually the end of anything at all – or rather, at least, in my case, the thrill of seeing my name on a book hasn’t lessened the desire to do it again, see it again. Is that vain?

Ticker-tapeOh, and more prosaically, it can be hard to juggle the ‘career’ side of things – ie how much you say yes to readings etc – with the actual writing. Both are fun in their own way, but if like me you have a big head and bigger ego its far too easy to get seduced by the former, forgetting that it’s only the latter that gives you permission to do any of that ego-primping stuff.

ML: Which writers / artists (whether predecessors or contemporaries) have been your “permission-givers” and how?

RD: Oh so many, let’s see: an edited list would most likely include the aforementioned Durs Grünbein; George Romney for showing me what capturing a soul in a portrait could actually result in; Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine for showing that doing your own thing, however radical it might appear to others, is the way to go (could say the same for Mazzy Star too); Daljit Nagra for allowing me to be exuberant in poems; Maggie Nelson for demonstrating that nothing is off limits; David Foster Wallace for saying its ok to try and capture all that is in your head and put it on the page; Eve Babitz for showing that elegance and frankness go hand in hand – maybe when I grow up I’ll be able to achieve the last two.

ML: The government is eradicating literature by burning all books. You can save one from the fire and run away to the woods to preserve it, where you will share it with fellow rebels and future generations. Which do you save and why?

RD: Practically, it’d probably be something like Hobbes’ Leviathan wouldn’t it?, because we’d need to overthrow any horrible executive that would be so minded as to burn books and then work out how to establish a state again. Or maybe Bagehot’s English Constiution would be better for that. You can tell I’m no political philosopher. If I take the premise of the question as, ‘which book is so perfect that this what we need to copy when we start writing again’, then goodness – probably Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, as that is perfect; it has the world in it – it’s probably the title I’ve given most as a gift recently. Or maybe Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, as I love it and I normally have at least three copies of it in, so saving one should be doable…

ML: What was the last book you bought (and why did you buy it)?

RD: At time of writing it was Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, precisely because I am flying off to Vienna for a few days (and plus the Man Booker International prize citation made it sound exactly like the sort translated European fiction I like). By the time this is published, I will have bought oooh about tons more books, no doubt. UPDATE: Since writing this, I’ve also bought Football in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano, and lots more poetry.

ML: What’s your guilty pleasure as a consumer of culture generally? Does this feed into your writing in any way?

RD: Well, firstly, there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, culturally speaking – if it’s pleasurable for you, then that’s it, end of, and there’s absolutely no need to feel that it is in some way inferior or lacking in status or needs justifying as to why you might enjoy it. If that makes me some sort of inverse snob, so be it – but dammit, culture is there for all of us, and should be available for all of us, and if people feel ‘this pop song, well I like it, but people will down their noses at me’, or ‘god, this aria’s amazing but if I say that then people will say that I’m stuck up’, I say to you – be proud of your choices! Embrace them! Sod whatever anyone else thinks! I mean, on your gravestone, is it going to say, “[Name] would have lived their best life but for fear of the opprobrium of others, which actually was very unlikely to arrive anyway”? I hope not. (Oh and by the way, if you are the sort of person that does judge people’s cultural choices on the basis of assigning social status and / or using it as a way of feeling better about yourself, stop it, stop it now – I’m pretty sure that what you think of as your discriminating taste is actually ill-judged snobbery.)

I should answer the rest of the question now, shouldn’t I? Long before poetry came into my life, pop music – well, guitar music on independent record labels circa 1990-2005, and rave, house, techno, ambient, and yes stuff that you’d read about in Smash Hits too – these were my pleasures of choice, and so lots and lots of that feeds into my writing; thematically, as inspiration for poems – writing from lyrics, but also writing in response to sounds and textures in tracks. And also it probably helps to explain why I’m so concerned that I can make my writing as ‘musical’ as possible. Not that I necessarily achieve it as much as I’d like to, but I hope an underlying concern for rhythm comes through, at least.

ML: What do you think of the role rhyme has, in musical terms, for contemporary poetry, and for you personally? Most (though not all) of the poems in Ticker-tape are non-rhymed. But I noted with interest that one of your photographs includes a quote from James Fenton, one of our great contemporary rhyming poets. So I was intrigued by this!

James Fenton PPTRD: Well, a) I love James Fenton, primarily for the directness and musicality of the way he addresses emotions and b) I’m not going to try and presume to speak for my peers and start throwing down notions of whether people should or should not be rhyming in their work – I’d hope that we’re well beyond that now. I start from the basis that it’s a tool that every poet should have available to use – sometimes you might want to write something that rhymes, and this should not be seen as bad or unfashionable or whatever.

Of course, the trick is to do it well. And that is of course a hard trick to pull off. I’m not very good, let me be candid about that; I still get tangled over my masculine and feminine rhymes etc, and of course your ear can betray you when making things work. But as I like using Onegin sonnets and triolets as forms to play with ideas, or dash off poems which are deliberately lighter, whimsical – so I’m going to carry on doing it.

I suspect people are a little suspicious of the inherent obvious musicality of obvious rhyme – who likes something that clangs like a bell? – but this forgets of course that subtle, less showy rhymes are available for you to use. At a more fundamental level: I found a quote from Don Paterson a while ago which said (I paraphrase, forgive me) that rhyme can lead to you seeing a logic that you might not have otherwise appreciated in the line / poem / subject – an unexpected connection brought about by the need to make something euphonious. Which for me is reason enough to at least experiment – that it’s analogous to the idea of creativity as being smashing two random ideas together to see what happens.

ML: What’s your next / latest writing project?

RD: Well, I’m going to be a little bit secret squirrel about it, but suffice to say a draft of book 2 is in the works, and is a long narrative poem-y thing, that features a king, a war zone and riffs on Kipling, empire and all that jazz. Whether it works or not, now that’s a different question. Other than that, there’s always things bubbling away; haven’t necessarily settled on the next thing to focus on yet – and truth be told, I’m never very good at knuckling down to one project – I feel like a perpetual motion machine sometimes, always scribbling for different things on the go, building and layering things, and hoping some of it coheres and becomes coherent…

ML: That’s interesting about narrative poetry. Are there any particular narrative poets or poems that you admire, or that have been an influence, or are you ‘going it alone’? And are you finding that there is any inherent tension between the demands of poetry and the demands of narrative?

RD: Going it alone is a bit strong, but the impetus for the project achieving what I hope is its final form is actually a short poem by Mexican poet by Mónica de la Torre – I’m trying to see whether what I’ve stolen form-wise can be sustained over a longer run. I suppose lurking in my head is the aforementioned Bluets, Seth’s The Golden Gate – and so Pushkin’s Onegin too [Link] – and their ambition in using poetry as a way of telling longer stories in unexpected ways. And of course, you can point to something like Max Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers doing something similar.

Going further back, who hasn’t been entranced by Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’? [Link] I have a lovely illustrated edition someone sent to an agency I was working at years ago, and it was sitting unloved on the bookshelves there; I nabbed it and devoured it.

Have I found tensions in balancing poetry and narrative? Yes, absolutely – I think I have enough going on with putting my character in peril, while maintaining a relative stillness to hopefully deliver something akin to poetic insights and moments. But, hey!, ask me again after you’ve read it…

ML: History or Philosophy?

RD: Well, I suppose I should say history as that was my first degree, but I suspect if you look at the books I’ve read over the last few years that mean more to me, there’ll be more philosophic works than histories in there. Can’t beat a bit of Seneca after all, can you?

ML: City or Country?

RD: City – I’m so urban cut me and I bleed concrete and exhaust fumes. I don’t think I even own a pair of wellies. I was born in the outer suburbs of London, and as it has turned out my adult life has mostly been a journey in, living ever closer to Zone 1. I periodically – once a year – daydream about moving to live by the sea, but then I think: I can’t swim, and it’ll be cold.

Link to Rishi’s book Ticker-tape at Nine Arches Press

Link to Rishi’s Blog

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