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Tony Williams
Interview Date: Tue 1 Mar 2011

Tony Williams grew up in Matlock, Derbyshire and now live in Sheffield. He's published poems in a range of print and online journals including the TLS, Poetry London, Shearsman, Rialto, The London Magazine, nthposition and Shadow Train.

Tony works as a lecturer in Creative Writing at Northumbria University.

He was an amateur wrestler hismy youth, winning two trophies despite never winning a single competitive bout. He's married with a son, two dogs and two tanks of fish.

Visit his blog here.

And read a review of Tony's The Corrner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street in the Guardian.  

Your Questions Answered:

Before your first book, The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street, was published you featured in magazines and literary journals. How important do you think this is in an age when literature and poetry seem to be increasingly 'going digital'? Do you see the traditional path of magazine to book publication as here to stay?
Question By: Jordan Philips
I think it’s a useful stage for the writer – not an essential one by any means, but useful in terms of developing yourself as a writer, rather than seeking book publication. Writing is by nature a fairly isolated and isolating activity, and contact with other writers in the form of workshops and social networks is valuable in helping us learn and keeping us sane and happy (I don’t mean writers are prone to be insane and unhappy – everybody needs social contact). Writing can be lonely, but it’s about communities. And I see magazine publication as part of that – entering a writing community, taking part. It (however tenuously) legitimates what you’re doing, and it forces you in a quite direct way to consider how readers respond to your work – which can seem a merely theoretical question when you’re scribbling away and not seeking publication. Of course getting published never really proves anything, but it does make you feel good, and it helps you develop into someone who thinks and behaves like a practising writer. Turns you pro.

 

Whether it’s the main path to book publication any more, I don’t know – if it ever was. I was rubbish at sending work out to magazines, and then I sent out loads over about eighteen months, got some published, and later – a couple of years later, I think – Salt took on my manuscript. I don’t think publishing in magazines directly furthered that; Chris Hamilton-Emery asked for recommendations for new poets, and my friend James Sheard very kindly suggested me. (I know that looks like it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. But it goes back to the thing about communities – by being part of writing communities, taking part in workshops, talking about poetry, sharing work, you get to know other poets. You make friends with them, too. But the business about recommendations isn’t based on friendships, it’s based on writing, the activity literary friendships spring from.) But I’m sure magazine credits played an indirect role, in convincing Chris I was a viable prospect; if you’ve got a string of magazine publications, an editor says, ‘People (OK, magazine editors) like this person’s work, so other people might buy it in book form’ and ‘This person is capable of sending work out to magazines, so they might be OK at promoting their book’.

 

I submit to online magazines as often as to print magazines. It’s easier if you can just send an email, and you’ll probably reach a bigger audience too. But in terms of building a profile and a list of credits that shows a publisher you’re serious, there’s still a group of big-name magazines it’s worth getting into: the TLS, Poetry London, Shearsman, Poetry Review. Still, when it happens, and you get you complimentary copy (or even a cheque!) in the post, the world doesn’t change: the joy passes, and the activity of writing itself is still and always the only worthwhile thing.


Having just read your book, I wanted to ask about your poetry. Place and location, as well as our relation to this, seem to run through your work. Is this something you set out to explore? Did you find yourself grouping older poems together for this collection or writing specifically for the book? 
Question By: Jordan Philips
I’m not sure if I set out to write about place, but as my writing has developed it was become clear to me that place is (up till now at least) important to me. It is the lens through which I see the world. Which is to say, whatever I try to write about, I seem to end up doing it by writing about places. I feel strong attachments to the places I’ve known – my next book of poems has been written with the idea of the hill I grew up on pretty much constantly in my mind. And – something possibly strange about the way I think – when I read books I often imagine them through my memory of place. I don’t just mean that I imagine the events in novels taking place in familiar places (that too), but that, for instance, when I read or think about The Death of Socrates, a particular line of old trees in my primary school playground springs into my mind. Keats is a turning space and a salt bin next to a slope of spindly trees. And so on. I wouldn’t want to claim this is special. I think brains work in odd ways, and this seems to be mine. (Weirdly, when I write short stories, place doesn’t come into it – then it’s people, only people.)

 

The oldest poem in the book was about five years old. But the manuscript had been developing for longer – new ones being added, old ones being cut. I did try to bear in mind the shape of the whole collection as I wrote, but, as is the nature of first collections, really you’re just writing the best you can and lumping it together and hoping someone will publish it.


As a lecturer in creative writing and a published poet you are in an advantageous position to talk on the ongoing debate surrounding teaching writing. Do you think it is important for (aspiring) writers to take degrees or post-graduate courses in creative writing? Can 'writing' be taught or is it the space and time that these courses lend writers that is essential? 
Question By: Jordan Philips
I wouldn’t say it is important for writers to take formal courses – that would imply a general truth. For me it was very beneficial, but others may not need it. But I believe in it in principle, in the same way I believe teaching fine art and photography and playing the violin is worthwhile. You can’t teach someone to be Picasso, but then you can’t teach someone to be Stephen Hawking. Teaching the arts isn’t about producing genius, it’s about helping people become effective practitioners. That sounds like management-speak, I know... You can teach techniques, the craft stuff like How many lines in a sonnet? And (more importantly) What’s a volta and how is it used? But you can also teach writerly practices, like reflecting on your work, analysing writing, how to read and how much reading needs to be done. You can inculcate confidence, encourage (and sometimes cautiously discourage) ideas and projects. You can suggest that someone goes and reads Knut Hamsun, if you think they might enjoy and benefit from it. Space and time (and ‘permission’) to write are important too, as well as the sense of community – contact with other writers, and the legitimising of the student’s aspirations. Not all of my students will go on to be published writers. We wouldn’t promise that. I hope we help make it possible, though. And they will at any rate have learned something, and hopefully enjoyed themselves – which is after all, contrary to what the politicians would have us think, the true end and value of education.