As part of our festival themed Summer School this July, poet Rishi Dastidar will be running ‘Call and Response’, a workshop based around writing poetry from music. We caught up with Rishi to find out more …
Hi Rishi! Tell us a bit more about your Summer School workshop, Call and Response – what do you have planned?
RD: It’s a very simple set up – we’ll just listen to some songs, and then hopefully write some poems that are inspired by what we hear. Basically, if you’ve been to any workshop where you read some poems and then write in response to them – well, the songs are taking the place of the poems. As we’re thinking about summer and festivals, musically I’ll try and range far and wide in the playlist I put together, with hopefully lots of genres, styles and periods represented – I’m working hard to try and suppress my bias towards skinny guys playing guitars.
I really want people to feel that what they hear evokes memories of festivals they’ve been too, and maybe some of the underlying themes that are lurking there too: joy, being part of a community, spectacle, movement…
Of course, we’ll have a look at one or two poems as well – ones which draw on a bit of pop culture – and talk about those, but in the main, I hope that people come away with a notebook full of lots of starts of new poems.
Have you got music-inspired poems of your own?
RD: Only one or two that I can point to as coming from specific songs or artists – I have something on my desk at the moment that riffs on the career of James Brown, through some of his lyrics, and the calls and shout outs he used on stage. Oh yes, I do also have a poem somewhere that links the Sugababes to Theseus’ Ship – or Trigger’s Broom, to use the modern equivalent.
Can you / do you write poems whilst listening to music, or do you need an aura of silence as you whittle down your words?
RD: It varies – as I most often find myself drafting poems in cafés, it’s almost impossible to avoid music when writing. That said, I find it relatively easy to block the music out at that stage – but I’m sure there’s some sub-conscious link between the rhythm of what’s playing, and the meter of the lines in my notebook. When it comes to tidying things up, and locking drafts down, I do need it to be quieter, so I can mumble things aloud and let the inner ear do its work.
Have you noticed a shift in the way you approach your own writing since beginning your editorial programme with The Rialto?
RD: Not so much in theme or tone or subject matter, but I’m now much more concerned that any draft I do get to a state where I think it’s ready to be sent out is as tight as possible. I’m also much more relaxed about not being prolific – what with all the reading, and then my job, and you know, life, I think I’m probably down to only getting one draft a month finished, and that’s OK.
Can you tell us about your experiences as a Complete Works 2 poet? Do you feel your poetry has changed since the mentorship?
RD: Stop me if this ends up sounding like an Oscars acceptance speech, but being part of The Complete Works II has been one of the luckiest breaks I could have ever dreamed of having. It was just so much fun, to be part of that family, and be around 9 other amazingly gifted and brilliant talents. It really made me up my game too – not just in terms of, ‘wow I now really have to try and write some better to try and match the wonderful work the guys are producing’ – but also in terms of taking myself much more seriously as poet: if people think enough of me, and what and how I write, to invest time in me, I should respond by working harder, reading more, getting more involved in the poetry world and so on. And having that space where I could start to think more rigorously about what it means to be British Asian, and what that means for my writing, was really useful too – I suspect that’s a territory I’ll start to explore properly in the next few years.
What are you working on at the minute?
RD: Helping to get the next edition of The Rialto ready in the main; once that’s done I’ll start to think properly about getting some sort of first publication knocked into shape.
How did you ‘come to’ writing poetry? Have you always written?
RD: I’ve always written – I knew from about the age of 14 that I wanted to be ‘a writer’, whatever that might be, journalism, then more recently copywriting in an ad agency – but I came to poetry late, when I was about 27. I had an epiphany; I was in a bookshop, loitering with intent to browse, and by chance I picked up Ashes for Breakfast, the selected poems of Durs Grünbein in Michael Hofmann’s translation. I started flicking through it – and it was like a light going on. My reaction was – why didn’t anyone tell me you could do this with words? It was that sense of, oh that’s the sort of thing I want to be writing. I bought the book, and I think I pretty much booked myself on to my first poetry course the day after.
If you could be reading one poetry collection and listening to one album right now, what would they be?
RD: As of time of writing these answers, I’m impatiently waiting for the new Jamie xx album, In Colour to drop, so I suspect that’ll be on constantly for the next few weeks. On the reading pile, Tom Chivers’ Dark Islands is up next.
What’s the first thing you look for when you start sifting through a big batch of submission entries for The Rialto? Any tips for submitters?
RD: I generally work through the poems in the order that they’re in when the folder arrives – I try not to look ahead, but I might have a flick through to see if there are any names that I recognise, whet the appetite… But mostly I try to keep to order, as I find that it’s in that way I’m more likely to get the happy surprise, which is ultimately what finding a good poem feels like.
RD: Two tips for when you do submit (and you must submit – we’re always hungry for new poems, new voices, new ways of seeing the world): 1) titles – don’t be shy about being radical / imaginative / different / daring with what you call your poems. There really is no rule that says you have to pick a single noun that you hope captures or represents everything your poem is trying to do – have some fun with it. 2) Related to what I said earlier, do try and make what you send as ‘tight’ as possible – are your line breaks as sharp as they could be? Is the poem in couplets because the poem demands it, or is that just how you drafted it? Have you spellchecked? Pettifogging concerns they may be, but worrying about those aspects of craft can really help lift a poem from the mundane into something special.
Finally, can you give us a playlist highlight from your workshop soundtrack?
RD: I’m still road-testing tracks, but one thing that will definitely be there is Canned Heat’s ‘Going Up The Country’. It’s the best pastoral rock out I know.