Tea, Toast and All Things Poetry with Niall O’Sullivan
Niall is not only a poet, but also the host of the popular Poetry Unplugged night at the Poetry Café, a poetry editor at Flipped Eye and a poetry lecturer at London Metropolitan University. He is also one of the funniest poets I have the pleasure of knowing, so it was great to be able to pick his brain and find out a bit more about his work.
Q1- You’ve had several collections published by Flipped Eye.
Why do you write poetry? and what keeps you doing it?
I hate to start things on a downer, I’m on my biggest ever break from writing poetry. I don’t think I’ve attempted to write a poem for a couple of months. Before that I’d been writing poetry non-stop for years. This is partially due to me putting the finishing touches to my New and Selected. I can’t occupy editorial and creative mindsets at the same time.
I’m fine with this. I’ve written a lot of poems and it wouldn’t make much difference if I never wrote another. That said, the urge will probably bite at some point. Then it will be back to the self-loathing, internal conflict, worldly indifference and pure, unadulterated fun that I got from it before this little break.
Q2- You run the popular open mic series Unplugged. How has your writing and the way you write been influenced by this?
I keep my own writing and Unplugged in different brain cages. Hosting Unplugged is great fun but my own creative practice tends to be very single minded and doesn’t really touch on what happens every Tuesday. My old job as a gardener for the council gave me a lot more to write about, probably because there wasn’t much involvement with poets or poetry.
I often promote Unplugged as a people-watching experience. You get to witness a group of people that you might not normally find bunched together in other walks of life, sharing little pieces of their souls. While the poems might not have a massive effect on my writing, the people themselves often leave their mark.
Q3- Since your last book you have become a father to 2, how has this changed your writing and views on poetry?
I’ve become much more of a private person since then. Therefore, I’m less prone to confession as I don’t want to shine a light on that part of my life. Because of this my work has been less lyrical, it’s more about ideas than feelings.
Q4- Should poets sell mortgages to people?
TS Eliot worked as a banker. Wallace Stevens was vice chairman of an insurance firm.
However, I’m guessing that this question is about poets appearing in adverts for building societies or anything else that seems against the ideas that the Romantics brought into poetry a couple of hundred years ago.
I can see why people might not like the idea of poets advertising mortgages but the idea that there is no moral imperative that comes with the practice of making poems.
Poets can sell mortgages if they like. Even if the results will probably be a bit shit and they might regret it once they’ve spent the money. Some of my most wretched poems have been commissions so I’m not about to judge anyone else on theirs. I believe that these can be necessary compromises if you need to subsidise your creative practice. From what I’ve been told about how much the Nationwide poets got paid, that was probably enough to subsidise a year of creative autonomy.
Q5-Would you want your kids to be poets?
My kids can be whatever they want to be but having me as a Dad will probably put them off it.
Q6-What is a poet?
A posh, floppy haired white man in a frilly shirt standing by a fireplace in a dilapidated stately home reciting an ode to a statue in closed couplets. Or so I’ve been told.
Seriously though, I can only say that a poet is a person that writes poetry. You wrote a bawdy limerick that got you sent to the deputy head’s office when you were nine? Congratulations, you’re a poet.
Q7- What are three things every poet should know how to do?
- Lower their expectations.
- Read their work aloud.
- Wash regularly.
Q8- What are the three things you wish you had known before you published your first collection?
My first response to seeing my first collection in print was the same that most people have – an intense elation that fizzled into the notion that I should have waited a bit longer. Poets are always over eager to see their debut on the shelves. As an editor I am always telling them that it’s a longer process than they want it to be but that they would thank me in the end.
At the same time, you’ll probably get that same feeling if you held out until you were in a nursing home to publish and be damned.
Other than that, I wish someone had told me, and my editor how to properly spell “Titchmarsh” The spelling we unwittingly agreed on was somewhat exotic….
Q9- 3 things every poet should avoid when writing
Don’t avoid anything when writing. Never have a “Don’t do that!” voice in your head when writing. It will kill you. Write until you’re spent or notice that you’re repeating yourself. Then you can invite the critical voice in to have at it. If you’re going to avoid anything when writing, avoid miserable workshop high priests with their lists of banned words and masonic etiquette.
Q10- What makes a competition winning poem?
Anything that leaps out from a pile of hundreds. Something with character. It probably changes from judge to judge. It really depends on the context, what the overall character of the batch is. I like the poem that sticks its neck out but has enough going on to back it up.
Q11- Tell us a bit about your what you are writing at the moment?
As I said at the beginning of the interview, I’m working on a New and Selected. Even the new poems are getting pretty old.
While I’m having a break from writing poems, I’m writing a fair bit of prose and enjoying it. I’ve been publishing some little essays on poetry and performance via my website and a few other outlets. There’s a little piece by me in the latest Poetry News. I’m also writing up a small memoir on a tour I did twelve years ago for Apples and Snakes.
The best thing about the New and Selected is that it allows me to exorcise the filler of previous collections and present something that I believe represents my best work. It also allows me to apply a curatorial eye over the cantos, fake poems and caffeine songs that I’ve dashed out online. I’ve written over a thousand poems and often ask if the world needs any more. In some ways, if I never write another poem again I’d be happy with the book as it is.