We’ve made it to the tenth author interview since this feature started on the blog, and in celebration of this I’m treating you to an extra-long interview with the ever-inspiring Jim Otieno-Hall, featuring bonus questions. We first met at the Malt Cross in Nottingham, which is where we returned to do this interview. It’s the first time one of these interviews has been done IN PERSON, so expect a break from convention in favour of a more conversational feel.
My introduction will be short, because we’re in this for the long-haul. But Jim is one of those people I haven’t known very long, but who I am so thankful to have in my life. Just being around him makes me want to go and cosy up in a cafe somewhere and write. His poems get to the heart of difficult subjects, his words hold your hand before letting you go, and he’s not afraid to hit you with the hard stuff. This is Jim, and you’re about to go to a poetry party…
About the author
/ Jim Hall is a late-twenties writer, essayist and educator with a pen in one hand, yours in the other. He believes in something every day. Maybe today that thing is worth writing down. Maybe it is the strongest proof he is alive. Maybe today that thing is you. /
Where is your ideal writing atmosphere?
It often changes, I can find my ideal writing atmosphere to be on a crowded bus with my notebook and just literally the window. And that’s enough, and maybe my earphones in with something in the background. But I think it depends on what process of the writing I’m doing, so if I’m generating ideas or wanting to get some thoughts onto the page, I think being in motion really helps me. So being on a bus or even walking around and having my phone with me and putting a few notes or quotes that I hear.
But if I want to edit and really thrash out a piece and squeeze and shape it, then I crave being in a coffee place and having a 2/3 hour slot. I feel like if I have an hour, even half an hour, if I’m trying to edit I get really into the space and then I’m like ‘oh now I need to leave and go get a bus and continue my existence’. And for me when I’m writing I’m trying to push out as many of the outside distractions. I look at the page as a room I can go into and just go a bit crazy. And it can take a while to get to that point if I’ve got distractions around me or things are in my head. I’m just trying to push all that out and step into the whole experience of writing. Because I do think for me writing is an experience and I want to really enjoy that and soak in it, and feel it.
So the ideal place changes depending on where I’m at. If I’m generating, if I’m moving somewhere in some way it’s great. But if I’m trying to edit I need a long stretch of time where I’m not going to be suddenly summoned to do something, other than get the second or third coffee!
I can imagine that, because some of your poems are set on the bus – I love those ones! They’re so observant and accurate of people on transport.
One of my favourite of my own poems that I really enjoy reading aloud is from Boy which is ‘Boy Dreams Of Becoming A Violin On The Night Bus’. If you’re on a bus technically, even if you’re not a poet, there’s so much you’re gonna hear and see in that small confined space. They’re little snippets of people’s lives and so sitting on a bus sometimes is enough to trigger something in me. I’ll hear a quote, someone says something derogatory to the bus driver or someone says a gorgeous line about their friendship with someone, I just feed off that.
But I do need to try not to do too many poems about buses! Cause it’s gonna become a weird thing – Jim Bus Poet or something…that doesn’t sound good…Boet: bus poet? I don’t know!
How long have you been writing and what inspired you to start?
This is a weird one because I don’t know the exact time. I hear a lot writers that I love actually who say ‘I was writing through primary school, through secondary school, thrashing into journals but never sharing with anyone apart from my pet mouse’ but I wasn’t that kind of person. In school I was very introverted. It’s almost like I had opinions but I never believed in them enough for them to ever emerge to even a piece of paper. Some people say, ‘I have things I wanna say but I’ll put them on the paper first because it’s safer than actually talking to someone about it’ but I think for me even when I was through school I felt like I didn’t know if I had much to say and so even if I did have emotional responses to things I had no language for it. So I’d be the guy that was doing his English lessons OK, and to be completely honest, shoutout to honesty on this one, I don’t remember much about English in school in terms of even at university I did it as a degree, and I remember it but I wasn’t charged up by it.
So I’d say I first started to write post-uni. I was getting on with school work and I was writing bits but when I was early 20s I started obsessively going onto flash fiction pieces which were heavily metaphored and didn’t really say much but they sounded nice when I read them out to myself!
And then I went to the Derby City Poets group back in 2009, so I was already about 22/23 and it was a very formal group, it was the kinda group where you go in with a poem (you have to have a poem, you can’t just turn up) and then you put the poem on the table, everyone has a copy, you read it out. I remember the first time I went, there was this ominous silence where you can hear people thinking ‘right, I must give feedback, I must give feedback’, and it was a little bit intimidating. BUT the people there were kings and queens, the guy who ran it, Simon French, got me excited about writing. I’d never really read much poetry beyond the GCSE anthology stuff, you know, John Agard etc. that I just knew was fed to me.
We sat in a pub called the Dolphin in Derby and he bought a bottle of wine, and he was just so passionate about his own poetry and I was like ‘whoa, this guy really cares about this’ because it’s about him, it’s not really to impress anyone. Which contrasted a bit with the group, cause the group felt very formal and very ‘you must develop, you must develop’. So from that point I got more interested to start writing, and then of course came along the Mouthy Poets. I found a flyer for them and was like ‘I am not mouthy’ but I was at that point interested to try more things around poetry. I still hadn’t performed or shared much but I was interested. And I walked into the first session at The Playhouse and I specifically remember the welcoming feeling, regardless of them knowing how much I’d written or who I was, but I thought ‘this is nice, this is like a cup of tea but also a punch of motivation…a cup of tea and a shot of something that gives you good motivation’ so I was enjoying that. Then I kept going to every session, but in general I feel like I took it seriously and I started to unpick what I was wanting to express mid-way through Mouthy, which is to say 2014.
I honestly sometimes feel like I’ve only really truly been writing for three or four years. And people are like ‘oh, I thought you’d been writing for, like, ever’. It’s a new feeling to own it and to say I’m making time in my day to write, because I think there’s a difference between jotting things down and then willingly sacrificing a morning to, instead of walk your dog or lie in bed and think about internet-based things, to actually sit and work on something and own it.
So the last few years I’ve felt a lot more like I’ve started becoming a writer, which is a really weird phrase isn’t it?
I know what you mean, because I feel like it changes all the time. I felt differently about my writing a few months ago, and then it comes into its own in something else, and it’s always developing and always feeling different, so I understand what you’re saying there.
Yeah, and to me what you said then can apply to me poem to poem. One poem I’ll work on it for months and then I’m like ‘this is a lie, let’s get this into a space’ and other poems I work on and then I lose the excitement about it, it becomes a different feeling. So I think I’m trying to get better at confronting the difficult poems and not just going with the ones that are fun so it’s a nice balance. But you’re right, it totally changes.
Describe your writing style.
(Laughing) Oh man. Style is a weird…I sometimes challenge myself, because I’m always this poet/writer who’s…it’s been said before: ‘let the words do the talking’ so give the book over and let people decide what kind of writer you are, or don’t talk about your new novel – just write it! Which is ironic because I’m doing an interview but I think it’s important to own it.
In terms of style, I’ve been thinking a lot about this word lately because in a way style can often mean, to me when I’m trying to writing about thing I’m trying to un-style, I’m trying to do the least stylish thing possible. I’m the kind of writer who would rather write something that feels like wearing every single colour at once, than a nice smart suit that’s gonna impress everyone.
I would just say that I hope that my style is poems that sing, that aren’t afraid to get a bit messy and laugh at themselves and then in a heartbeat just get to the reality of something. I think the things that I’m writing at the moment, I’m trying to balance joy with real-talk. And have a little dance off between the two, because there are so many things that I’m hearing at the moment, particularly young people that I work with in schools say, they’re so funny, and they’re kinda truthful, and then they’re just on the edge of something very very poignant and very honest. I want my poems to hover back and forth, so when you listen or read them you’re never quite sure where you’re going but you’re gonna be charged up with something. It’s like an experience – which sounds…oh my god. (Jokingly) ‘my poems are an experience’! It’s like a theme park, come ride on the poetry of Jim.
I wouldn’t get off!
(Laughing) Get your tickets!
I’ll get there by bus.
Oh gosh, this is the beginning of the end for me now. I feel like that’s a terrible phrase but I think you know what I mean, if I read something out I really want a connection and I want that to be the priority. I’d rather someone, after a reading, come up to me and say: ‘that line reminded me of being seventeen and I haven’t felt that in a while’ than someone say: ‘whoooa you know how to do metaphors that is sick’.
Someone saying ‘that poem should be published’ is fine but someone saying ‘that poem has actually saved me’, which is extreme again, and ‘saved me’ doesn’t have to mean literally it can mean just making someone glad they came out to a busy, quite heavy social space that is a poetry night.
So, it’s a crazy question but I love it: how to pin down your style.
This one is one some people struggle with and others really like, and it’s the one with the quote: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it” by Toni Morrison. And so I ask, what kind of story that hasn’t been written yet do you want to read?
I like that question, but I think it’s hard because the story might have been written, but you haven’t read it yet, or even worse, it might have been written but it’s not been published or it’s not got out there and someone’s protecting it. So if I say anything and someone out there reading this has written that book then post it to me!
I was thinking about this in terms of it’s the voices I want to hear more of in novels or books. I’m really lately into masculine characters or voices. So I’ve got a whole plot here: a guy, or someone in a flat in student halls who is surrounded by a lot of masculinity, very macho quite outward, extroverted characters and is kind of one of them but questions so much of the behavior and doesn’t really have a way to confront it. And that story of that journey: how do you still be close to people that almost see closeness as a negative thing? That exploration of that, and then also just really honest experiences of really difficult struggles with society right now in a way that is…maybe there isn’t an end closure where everything’s great, I think novels or writing that is saying ‘things are shit, and I’m not gonna pretend they’re not, but I’m gonna find ways to find joy in there’. So, not happy endings but just talking openly and exploring between friendships or family. That acceptance that ‘I will always be struggling with something but I’m okay enough for you to not worry about me’.
Just those personal stories that play a bit with this narrative of ‘goes through hell, comes out, everything’s heavenly’. Maybe ‘goes through hell, finds a way to dance through hell’ you know? Like that kind of thing.
But I confess, Jade, which you’re not gonna like, I’m a terrible novel reader. I am shockingly bad. You need to cancel this and we need to be buying more books. Poetry, I’m all over it, but…novels, I don’t know. I keep saying ‘ugh, I’ve not got enough time’ but that’s a terrible excuse. Time is a thing you can alter.
Bonus question, what was the last novel you actually read from beginning to end?
Well, I wanted to say the new Arundhati Roy, but my wife has currently been reading it and is like ‘Oh, when I finish I’ll lend it to you’, and she’s too afraid to finish it so I’ve been waiting!
I’m halfway through Catch-22 actually, and again I’m feeling terrible because I need to keep on with it.
Yeah and that’s quite a big one as well isn’t it?
Yeah, which is not ideal for me. I’m enjoying that actually because it’s such a different style of reading. I don’t know about you, but reading a novel to reading a poetry collection, I think I access them both very differently.
I like that a novel can become a companion, it comes with you, whereas poetry can sometimes be a one-time burst and then you return to that when you want. So Catch-22 is halfway through.
This isn’t even the truth but I just wanna talk about Andreï Makine, great novelist A Life’s Music. It’s a novella, gorgeous language, very intricate, very intimate, and it’s just about the story of a pianist who returns from the war and who befriends a very well-off gentleman and his daughter who wants to learn piano. And this guy had all this power when he was in the war and in the past, but now he’s this really frail character in the household, and they look at him as like a servant almost. He’s just the piano teacher. He used to be a very famous piano player in the novel, and as soon as he starts to play he has to pretend that he’s not that good, because he wants to fit in with this humble set up.
It’s a cool character study of loneliness and voicelessness. It’s the only novel that has made me literally cry. I cry at poems all the time but weirdly novels it takes a lot more to get me. So even though it’s not a recent novella, it’s new enough to my reading to say that A Life’s Music by Andreï Makine is the last thing I properly took in.
Name any authors or books that have had an impact on your writing.
Some of those are books that people don’t always imagine, because it can be for loads of different reasons. This is tricky because I’m the kind of writer that gets inspiration from reading OK! Magazine and seeing what article shocks me awake to something. But I think in terms of main books…Ocean Vuong is an American-Vietnamese poet who has a book Night Sky With Exit Wounds and that really had an influence on me because it’s just so tender and yet it’s dealing with brutal things. It’s mostly about his experience moving from Vietnam to America but it’s also about his mother and father’s relationship to language and how they settle or didn’t settle in America and it’s so much about the refugee situation, it’s very personal.
It’s kind of like what I want my poems to be, they’re very tender and they comfort you but they are not dealing with the easy subjects. They’re not coasting through prettiness. It;s like carving out a chink of light in the very dark sky. That’s what his poems are. Most of his work influences me in that way.
And then I think lately Melissa Lozada-Oliva. I found her more on Youtube, so performance. And, contrasting to Ocean at the moment she’s making me laugh out loud and spill coffee everywhere. And yet she’s making me tear up. Her whole personality comes through, she’s got a poem called ‘Low power mode‘. Really playing around with text messaging and social media but in a fun way. She has got loads of poems about identity and Spanish heritage and America, and huge poems that make you laugh. It feels like she’s having a conversation with you. She just writes like she’s hanging out, having a milkshake. Not like ‘I am poet person, here is my poem’. So she’s had a lot of influence on me.
Okay, Morgan Parker as well. She has a book called There are More Beautiful Things than Beyonce. She’s a New York, Brooklyn poet and just full of life, energy, power and fierceness. She talks about the President, Beyonce, what it feels like to watch The Real Housewives and not want to be anything like them but at the same time acknowledge their existence. If poetry was to be cool and actually current and something that people went to clubs to dance to rather than actual going to clubs, she would be the pioneer of it. I imagine her doing a poem set at a house party, people coming in and out and suddenly listening to her, which is a hard thing to get. I’m writing a poem about it at the moment, people getting ready for a night out, and instead of getting hair straighteners and getting dressed up, instead of saying ‘oh there’s this great bar in town, you go there and it’s 2 for 1 drinks’ you’d go ‘oh there’s this great poetry night, I think we should go to this poetry night tonight and hang out there first.’
That sounds like my kinda night!
And then we’ll move onto this club, it’s still poets, but poets doing more weird things. Instead of ordering shots at the bar, you order feelings. I’m so sorry to everyone reading that, those that know me won’t be surprised at this shambolic lineage.
Describe the moment you truly felt like an author.
I loved getting the book (Boy published by Big White Shed and Anne Holloway who is behind that). I have a lovely memory of that. I came to a Mouthy session and she [Anne] slipped it me randomly and I was like ‘whoa, that’s it!’ But properly she came over and dropped off the box of them to myself and my wife who was home at the time (and our cats) and we just had some biscuits and cups of tea and I think that was obviously a moment because what I loved about that was that it wasn’t like ‘here is this book, you are now a changed man, you will now take over the city with your words’, it was just like…I felt connected to Anne and by that connected to the poems and I was sat in a room in my house which the poems are about as well and just felt like it’s an extension of being connected. I love that we can now talk about what’s on TV, we don’t have to be like ‘Right, Jim, here’s your book, let’s read it back to back.’
I think that’s what I love about Big White Shed, I think I described it recently, and Anne specifically as, there’s a push to make it as good as it can be, but there’s an urgency to get it out. So it’s not like we need to wait a year for this, if it’s ready, let’s make it as good as it can be, package it and get it out while it’s still fresh, while it’s still alive.
I think the poems in Boy, already when I read them, some of my style has shifted a bit already, like a year and half on. But that’s cool, because it came out when it needed to. And I think the book I’m working on now, again I might feel differently in a couple of years, but I think it would come out when it needs to. The moments that I feel most like an author are when the book or the thing I release or do, leads to something that connects with someone. One of the moments that sticks out is when I went to a First Story festival, who I work for, and I remember my little pamphlet that I released back in 2015 Upon Arrival, Drop Your Cool, and I’d not had anything out at that point, it was self-produced, only 10 poems. But it was nice because it was on sale, and a few students came over and just started dropping the poems, like they just opened it up and were like ‘Jim, you wrote this, here’s a poem from you’ and they read it out and that was a nice moment. The work took on life from the page and it was just a nice moment I was like ‘Guys that’s great, you read them better than I do’.
It’s very brief flashes of experiences that I feel I am this author, because I’m very open to people that I don’t earn a living off this and I don’t nine to five it, I can’t, I’ve got another job, and cats and a loving wife and friends, and I need to keep all that balanced and juggled, so it’s a thing I love and want to do more and more of everyday. So those moments come and go, there are some days where I don’t feel like I identify that strongly, because I’ve not written. But there are other days where I’m reminded that this is important and people are either waiting for you to do things (which is huge in itself) or you know what this means to you. So it’s brief little flashed rather everyday I’m like right, my author self is now in the room. It’s just little flickers of moments where I’ll be on the bus thinking ‘yes, this is a good thing to be doing, it’s worth something beyond my own brain’.
What book by another author do you wish you’d written?
That’s a complex one because in a way I could say a book and then just go ‘well that’s not nice, because they wrote it’. I get the question, because maybe it’s more about the story told that maybe relates to you and you wish you could do that. I think I’m going to be terrible and not give a specific book, more a kind of thought process about the question.
I tell this to my students a lot actually, if they read something of mine and they say ‘whoa I wish I could write like that’ and then that’s the end of the conversation, I would much rather be like ‘why do you wish you could write like that?’ and some of them say really simple things like: ‘I care about Kanye West too’. or ‘I also own cats and would like to explore that’.
So my approach is always learn from other writers of other books. Jon Sands had a great quote, it was something like…imagine a poetry night, and someone reads a poem and it destroys you, it’s incredible in your eyes. I feel like there are two responses. There’s the first which is: ‘oh my god I’m so jealous of this person, I will never be that good, but I wish I could be as good as this person.’ And it’s quite negative. Whereas the other response which is like ‘that is beautiful, I want to talk to this person, I want to appreciate them, how can I take from this and put it into my own work?’
Everyone can do it, everyone can hear a piece and think ‘oh man, I spent two years on this one book and it doesn’t even compare to this one poem!’ I try to learn and learn, so if I read a book and I wish I could have written it like that, I try to step back from the feelings of envy and wanting to steal their brain and just be like, okay this is so good why do I care so much about this? What can I take from this and bring into my own writing? Without quoting a direct line and stealing basically. Morgan Parker had that effect on me. It wasn’t what she was saying, she’s a female, black poet writing very passionately about her experiences, I’m a straight, white male in Nottingham – very different. But it was the energy and confidence and fun, that’s what I wanted to take from it. I just think, let’s use this as a mini bible and take from it, take from it, take from it. And then still try and make it have my own voice.
But I don’t think there’s a single book I wish I had written. But there are lots that I take from and try and feed into my own life.
What’s the best thing about writing/being a writer?
At this point in my life, I’m most excited about writing now. Right now. That feels great. It doesn’t mean that I think I’m writing the best stuff ever. I’m not going out to poetry nights as much, and I’m not nine to five writing but when I’m writing I’m really connecting with stuff, a lot more stuff that I’ve probably wanted to say for ages is coming out. Feeling like I’m crawling closer and closer to the stuff I’ve had in me forever, and celebrating that. So it’s not just confronting it, but celebrating it and just enjoying it. Ray Bradbury has a famous quote about ‘I never worked a day in my life, it was all fun’. I used to be like oh man, it’s not fun sometimes. Boy, when I wrote it at times it wasn’t fun, it was tough. I really went in on a lot of things, I think now I’m balancing it a bit better. I think Boy would trigger things and take me back to things. A lot of it was writing about a period of my life that I’ve witnessed or observed that I wasn’t in anymore.
What I’m writing now is very current to me, how I feel about things in the world now. And that’s really nice, I love being blessed enough to go to a coffee place for an hour and rather than just have a coffee and scroll through Twitter. To be able to feel like I’m tuning into myself a little bit, and enjoy that and be surprised by the results.
There’s a show with Jimmy Carr and Katherine Ryan: Your Face Or Mine? Don’t go there. I’ve got a lot of opinions about that show, it’s damaging, it’s not good. I’m writing a passionate piece about this show. The Jim writer of three years ago would not have had the confidence to try that, and also to make it enjoyable and not just a negative political poem. So I think I’m just enjoying my development. My development as a human is parallel to my development as a writer. I think I’m a better person now than I was a year ago. And through that, I feel I’m a better writer. Which isn’t to say it’s easy. You don’t just learn from mistakes and become a great writer. I’m feeling more confident with what I’m writing. I guess I’m feeling more together as a person.
I think if you’re going through hell or in a very difficult place, everyone’s different. But now I’m in a really strong place with my life and able to witness more difficulty than feel it. And that comes and goes. I can just enjoy writing more, there’s less pressure and weight to it.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
At the moment my advice is: find a way to enjoy your writing, even if you’re writing about trauma or very difficult issues. Find a way to still break into a bit of joy, even if it’s nothing to do with the poem.
There’s not one piece of advice that’s going to work for everyone, and most people know that. I’m not a fan of any workshop I go to where the writer’s like ‘you are a writer so you must be doing this’. I just don’t think it works like that.
Maybe for some people this is harder than others I think, because people can put a lot of weight on a poem. However good or bad people say the poem is, or you feel about the poem, does not relate to who you are as a person. If you write the best poem ever, it’s not going to mean you’re this perfect person. Whereas if you write a big poem for you and someone’s like ‘I didn’t understand it’ it’s so easy to be like ‘I’m a failure!’. But you’ve got to imagine that the poet is a separate entity. I try and look at my poems as separate things and that makes it healthy. I’m also passionate in believing that no-one can tell you what you can’t write about. Never let anyone say what you can and can’t write. Which again is a weird statement, because if you write something that’s controversial in terms of language or appropriation, obviously you need to think about that but at the beginning you should be allowed space to express what you feel. But then you need to work on what is okay to say. So never apologise for the weirdness.
And also, some quickfire stuff:
- Freewrite is great
- A first draft is great because all it needs to do is exist
- Share it where you can with people you feel safe to do so with
- Challenge yourself to give it to someone you’re not sure about because it might surprise you
- Go to the community around you and be honest if you’re struggling or new
- Meet Jade, she’s cool, she’ll help you do interviews
- Keep writing
- If you stop writing for a period of time, life happens, don’t be terrible on yourself. Just remember you have it in you, and return to it whenever you can
- And also check out Morgan Parker
Tell the story behind your latest book, why did you write it?
Boy. I think I wrote that because I felt I had to release something at some point. It didn’t sit in me as a project for a while. I wasn’t like ‘ooh let’s gather poems about masculinity or being a non-boy boy or whatever you are. I already had a couple of poems that had ‘boy’ in the title. I remember doing a very old poem which didn’t make the book, ‘Boy Checks in with His Audience’ which was looking at someone checking in with the reader. I liked how that felt, that idea of a series of un-name-able boys expressing and exploring the world. Some of the poems in the book are directly about me and my experience, some of them are not about me but they’re about things I’ve witnessed. Like ‘Boy Tries to Rap His Way into His Father’s Arms’ is based on students I’ve worked with. One of them said his dad is really into rap but doesn’t care about poetry and I imagined if they rapped exactly how they felt directly at their dad over and over again, how long would it take until the beat went quiet and the dad was like ‘oh man, you’re trying to talk to me here’. That stuff is what I write for.
It was a way for me to navigate difficult things I’d been through and witnessed. My own mistakes, my own loneliness. A lot of loneliness is in that book. Being as an Ocean have a great quote which is: ‘How can I feel so alone when surrounded by my best friends?‘ and this idea of being with people you love but still feeling a sense of loneliness. So I wanted to bring a bit of that in. because I went through that at a really weird time, like early 20s.
And of course it’s all about how a boy to man is viewed and what’s wrong with that, what’s difficult about that. I come back to the phrase I wanted to throw masculinity into a blender and then hand out glasses to people I love so they could see how I felt about it. It’s really weird when you write a book, because I have to sometimes forget about it a bit. It takes someone saying ‘oh I read your book’ or ‘oh are you going to do that poem?’. You splurge this thing, this body of something and then you move onto the next thing. And I’m so knee deep in the next thing that it’s weird to look back as to why I began the first thing. Which I don’t think is a bad thing because the book is out there, I was able to push it out, and it also exists through Big White Shed and Anne Holloway. I think without her push, it may have been ‘give it another year Anne I’m working on it’ and have almost been worse.
This is a controversial thing to say actually. Some of my favourite poems or poetry books feel like they’re not perfect. But they have so much feeling in them that that’s okay. They’ve not been squeezed dry of feeling, they’ve not had the heart of it punched out due to form. That is not an un-shoutout to form, form is great, form is important. But as long as it doesn’t overtake the story or the voice then it’s okay.
I think once I knew I was going to work with Big White Shed I was like right there’s no way out of this now, here is my house address. But also, just do it Jim.
Most inspiring quote?
I’m a quote fiend. I’m like a quote-aholic. Okay, let’s go:
Megan Falley, US poet: “Write until your hands fall off, and then speak.”
Now why I like that, is because she’s so passionate about really working on the page in the poem, making it say what you wanna say and then throwing it into the world. And that is not to say, people who write for 10 seconds and share something are any less. I’m interpreting it as if to say someone who can form something amazingly, that’s one thing. But if it’s masked by the performance, if it isn’t saying anything but it sounds good. I used to be this writer when I was starting, I remember someone giving me this feedback: you might have skill but I don’t know what you’re saying. So it’s like people clicking their fingers like whoa great metaphor about snowfall there, but actually it’s not really saying anything. It’s not getting to the truth of what you’re trying to say.
So I like that quote because it reminds me, before I drop a poem at a poetry night to think ‘okay am I happy with this? Is what I’m trying to say on the page enough?’
I also love one by Susan Sontag which is: “I’m not interested in art that I can just brush past, I want to be totally transformed by something.”
How cool is that? Bit ambition to be honest, but I’m that person. I crave moments in life where you are transformed in a way. Not in an overtly spiritual way, just like a way of thinking has shifted or you just suddenly feel whoa I am not actually a freak, someone is on the same page as me. Poetry nights can be that place. You can hear a poem and it can actually change something in you. It can shift a gear. The poems that I love most are the ones that make me be knocked out a bit or bring me back to life. I write to try and create that for others but I can feed off it as well.
I’ll do one more then I promise I’m done. We’ll do Mary Oliver: “I read the way one might swim to save his or her life. I write that way as well.”
She’s so gentle and fierce. She has so many nature-based poems that aren’t terrible. That’s a nice quote because someone who feels that every other aspect of their life they’re drowning, they can read themselves back into a place where they are okay enough to function. And I think you can write that way too, you can write to survive – not in a literal way, but to keep close a part of yourself that the world’s trying to knock out. You can write to save that without silencing yourself.
Which author (living or dead) would you like to have dinner with?
A few of the ones that I’ve mentioned are probably up there but I want to mention a writer called Hanif Abdurraqib. He writes about music, about being a black male in America right now, he writes about so many things I can relate to in a different way – musically, and the university experience. I think he’s just the kind of person that we’ll just get a coffee and talk forever about lists of top albums, how he feels about TV shows, he;s very current, he’s got a lot of knowledge about the thing people these days are interested in. I just think he’d be a very funny guy to be around.
And also Anaïs Nin. I think she’d be the kind of person you could just get straight into the real talk with. She would get into that with you. She’d also be very gentle. And she’d be like ‘okay let me just write this down in my journal’ then go off to a corner, then come back with something magnificent to describe what you were just feeling. She’s a very fierce, strong woman, so I think having her in your space would be nice.
And one more, my new discovery of 2017, Anne Sexton. She has a poem called Ambition Bird, the first line is: “So it has come to this, insomnia at 3:15am”. I listened to her read that on Youtube, her voice is chilling. And also a line “Dear God, wouldn’t it be good enough to just drink coffee?” It’s so simple but so good! I’d just sit there with her and be like ‘please read your poem out while we talk’. She’s like the new jazz music.
If you could bring any fictional character to life, who would you choose?
I’m going to go back to the Andreï Makine novel I mentioned A Lifes Music because I feel like the main character Alexeï Berg, this famous piani player who was minutes away from performing to thousands then got dragged into the war and then years later had to almost change his identity so as not to be found. I think bringing him back to life just to listen to him. The story is all about how much of yourself you can reveal depending on where you are. I would love to have him alive as a person and take him around to people and say ‘play piano for them’.
How do you beat writers block?
Can I ask you a question? Do you think writers block is a real struggle?
Some people say ‘oh I don’t get it’ or other people have stuff that they do. I’m not one or the other. I never think I’ve got writers block, I just have a ‘I’m struggling to take what I’m feeling and get it out’. It’s not necessarily a block, I’m still processing it. It’s being able to process that in the right way that I can get it down.
That’s exactly it for me. I apologise to anyone who will fight the corner for writers block. I feel like sometimes you are the writers block. In a very simple way, literally nothing is stopping someone write. A freewrite, a point of it is to literally crush that idea. The act of writing, you can find a way through. But I do think there are times where you’re more charged up with ‘this is great, this is going well’.
There are definitely days where I approach the laptop like ‘please be kind to me’ but other times I just can’t wait to do it. I’ve got an idea, I’ve got a line, I’ve got a quote and this needs to be done now. I’m very open to having days where being at the laptop editing is akin to being forced to listen to a band called Tool, and sitting in the same room and getting through it. You know there’s a reason for this, but it’s not always fun.
I really feel that the writers block thing is something that there are always ways through. The less you think of it as a block the more you’re able to accept I’m not dropping great lines today but I’m approaching the page. Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones is saying that a lot of it is because you judge it straight away. You can write something and you can judge it, and that’s the block thinking ‘this isn’t good, now what?’ Wheras if you just leave it thinking ‘I’m not in a good place today. I’ll write it, I’m not going to go back to it today, but I’ve written something’ then I feel that’s maybe a way through it as well.
Give yourself some writing advice.
Jim, block your cats from the room sometimes because you’re meant to be writing and you’re just giving them Dreamies. Also, okay here’s a big one for me, I’m going to be honest with myself genuinely, share your work more. Share your early drafts more. I’m writing like a madman at the moment, I’ve written so many things in the last 6 months, a lot of them drafts, a lot of them two lines, but it’s all building up to my next book. I’ve always felt very protective which is irrational because of the kind of person I am. I enjoy encouraging the people I’m teaching to share anything rough.
- Share more earlier
- Don’t feel bad for not going to poetry nights all the time or not going to literarture events because you need to recuperate from your day and you need to write as well
- Constantly have fun with writing, always remind yourself to enjoy it
- Don’t feel like your poems are ever actually going to change the world, but have enough faith in the work you do with them that they’ll maybe change someone in some significant way even if for one second or one night, and use that to keep going and keep returning
- Whatever happens in your life, whatever priority writing becomes, don’t remove it completely. It’s cool for it to be on the backburner because your wife is literally in hospital or you’ve not seen your mum for a few weeks and you wanna have a whole weekend watching The Boss, which is a great quiz show
- Never forget why you started doing it and why you won’t stop doing it
What are your plans for the future? What writing projects are you currently working on?
At one point I was working ridiculously on three different things but now all my energy is going into my next book which is already through Anne Holloway and some emails confirmed. Definitely gonna be released next year by Big White Shed. It’s called Before You Take Off Your Party Hat. It was originally going to be each poem was a room in a party that I either have been at or could have been at, and shifting and shaping with the interactions there, the people there, what happened there. But it’s now become a bit more open and fluid. The phrase ‘before you take off your party hat’ is not always literally about before you leave a party or before you stop going to parties, I think I want it to be more of like: before you, as a person, a convinced you need to stop some part of yourself that you enjoy being. Or before you give up on being your fullest self because things have shut you down too often or the places you go to don’t feel safe anymore.
Here are some poems that talk about how to hold onto that and how to celebrate it in a time right now in the world where I think it’s most precious to try and hold onto your views and your opinions. It’s ‘party’ as a loose word in the book. There’s poems in there that are about being in a rap battle, there are poems about me rapidly switching the channel from Your Face Or Mine? because I think humanity depends on it. There are very personal poems about my relationships with my friends. But all linked to the societal current. There’s a lot about the current music scene, TV scene, my experience of what it means to be cool, what it means to be social, what it means to be mentally okay in a very not-okay state.
It’s a big thing, I want it to be 30 poems at least. It’s just like a wildfire thing inside my chest right now, I’m writing every day on it, I’ve got way too many ideas for it. I say that in a bad way but I mean, Anne’s going to have to shake me up and say ‘Jim this is great, your ideas are great but let’s get to finishing this’. I’m really keen to have it out next year, there’s an urgency to it now that I want to have out next year. I do feel really excited about it, in a completely different way to Boy. I think Boy was already constrained by it’s title and it’s theme. It was always going to be about those kind of things. This is a bit more open. I’m able to bring in more kinds of situations.
I’m about halfway through it at the moment. What I am excited about and would love to announce now: there’s a poet who’s been working with Big White Shed called Case Bailey, I think he had a book out recently with them, and he raised a lot through crowdfunding, offering people things like a signed poem or a specific poem, and I want to raise the money purely not for my own gain but to be able to afford to produce the book, publish it, maybe do some shows with it.
So I am loving the idea of from next year, January/February, I’m going to create a crowdfunding page for this book and offer loads of interesting things to people. I’m thinking workshops at my house involving my cats, a poetry night at your flat, book a ticket and then you’ll get a free copy of the book, signed copies, a poem with a prompt you’d throw at me. Isn’t poetry all about connecting to your community? And what a way to do it, to help raise funds for your own book, but to offer something back. And to create some really cool opportunities. Like a poetry walk through Wollaton Park led by me. If you want to come, donate this money, you’ll also get a copy of the book, and we’ll do poems and trees will be listening.
My plan is: plough into this manuscript from now until January, go write what I can. Occasionally drop into poetry nights just because I miss hugs from people there. Then January/February start thinking about opening up a crowdfunding journey. Get to the goal we want. Then idealistically, summer latest next year want this guy to be out. Then after that I don’t know, I live book to book, moment to moment.
The book will be all about my life for the next 7 or 8 months, then alongside that continuing existing, working seeing good people, improving my cooking skills, just trying to connect with people and teach more and survive and rest and be healthy and just keep believing poetry is important in some way and…being Jim Otieno-Hall.
Imagine a city of muscle softening to a murmur of violin. The scrum of lad glimpsing their timid boy-selves through the strobe light of a club. A party where tenderness is the dress code. To be weak is to be welcomed. The banter asked to leave so as to make space for the truth.
Boy is a dance with the tense of language of masculinity ending in awkward hug. A journey not to forgive sensitivity but celebrate its gift. A love-note to the fourteen-year old-boy’s silence. Covering his mouth in the classroom, a passenger seat, the world.
An invitation to a place where, if nothing else, it is possible to be both boy and beautiful.
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Note: You can listen to this interview on Soundcloud here: Author Interview: In conversation with Jim Otieno-Hall