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The Poem as Party Guest: an interview with Wayne Holloway-Smith

Hi Wayne, we’re very excited you’ve joined the Poetry School team. Can you tell us more about your course, what’s it all about?

Wayne: Cheers. Yes, the course idea came to me after I attended a friend’s party and was collared by an individual who monopolised my attention for an extraordinarily long time. As the individual’s monologue continued, and outwardly I nodded politely, inwardly I began developing techniques of distraction to offset the boredom of my circumstance. Initially, I tried to remember the lyrics to my favourite childhood rap by Vanilla Ice (I made it to the second verse). Then I tried to think of an Anglo-American poet’s surname for every letter of the alphabet. Finally, I hit upon the notion of analysing all of the things about this social exchange which ran alongside the things I dislike about certain types of poems.  I identified a bunch of similarities, and have subsequently found these pretty helpful when thinking about my own work, and wondered whether it might also be helpful for others.      

You intend to “confront the social etiquette of poetry”. What do you mean by that?

Wayne: Well, I imagine we’ve all experienced, at one point or another, a situation akin to that which I described above. It seems, at least to me, that it might serve the making of poetry if we were weary of characteristics we have found unpleasant and self-indulgent in social occasions.  It’s never an entertaining or a valuable experience to have someone talk at you, to attempt to make you feel not as clever as them, to be interested in solely expressing his or her opinion, irrespective (it can sometimes feel) of whether it’s you that is present or somebody else.

Similarly, there seems to be a particular strain in poetry which reproduces quite an archaic (romantic) power dynamic in which too much importance is placed upon the poet. What I mean by this is that some poems seem to posit their speaker as somehow above or superior to the reader. They seem to say, ‘You’re very lucky. I am a poet with important things to say, and I have coded my message in the language of poetry, which, if you’re clever enough to decode CORRECTLY, will do you no end of good.’

The reader is positioned as passively as I was at the party above, and information is conveyed only on the poet’s terms. Why do poets assume the reader will be interested in an exchange like that?

What do you like in a poem? Is it the same thing you like in a person?

Wayne: I like people with interesting perspectives – of course. And people who are funny, or have something different about them. Something entertaining. If they have something in particular to say, an opinion, often they might engage my interest through humour, or some kind of enlivening or animated expression of it. But, as important, I very much appreciate a person who also appreciates me. When a conversation takes place between us, I like to feel I have an active role to play. I’m not just there as an audience member. I like to be asked, ‘What do you think?’

Meaning, I think, can only really be made in dialogue. Without a reader, a poem would be a diary entry. Without the presence of another person, the party guest above would be speaking to him/herself. In both cases, it makes sense then to give the much-needed other person a reason to take part in the exchange.

When did you first start writing poetry? What brought you to it?

Wayne: Honestly, I can’t remember a specific moment I thought, ‘I’m going to write poetry now.’ I do remember that I messed around a lot writing with my friend Laura. I attended Roddy Lumsden’s writing group for a long time – which was very helpful. And I had a kind of mentor/mentee relationship with Annie Freud which changed the way I thought about writing.  It took quite a while to find work I really liked. Ten years ago Mark Waldron, whose work I love, hadn’t published a book yet, for example; Jack Underwood, Emily Berry, Amy Key, Brenda Shaughnessey, Richard Siken were names I’d never heard. In fact, while it’s difficult to pin down a particular thing that ‘brought me’ to poetry, it’s writers like these and more besides that have excited me enough to keep me wanting to be a part of it.  

What are you working on at the moment?

Wayne: Currently, I’m finalising the manuscript for my first full collection, to be published by Bloodaxe in 2017. I’m very much looking forward to it. It’s hard work though. I want to make sure it’s something which I can look back at and be proud.

I’m also reading a huge amount. There’s a very interesting new landscape in poetry, in which new ways of writing and thinking about writing are emerging, and previous ways are being given exciting new twists. I very much intend for these things to play a big role in my Poetry School course.

Can you tell us your party trick?

Wayne: I can make myself disappear when someone begins to talk with a high-sense of self-importance.  


Write poems readers want to spend time with in Wayne’s London short course, ‘Poem as Party Guest‘. Book online or call us on 0207 582 1679.

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Image credit: Glen.H