In the next of the author interview series, poet and musician Lee Prosser tells all about his writing journey, his inspirations and his the best writing advice he ever received.
Tell me a little bit about your work – when did you get started and what are you working on currently?
I started writing poetry seven years ago at 41. It began by writing a little jokey poem about Christmas shopping that I took along to an open mic event at The Pontardawe Arts Centre which was being hosted by the performance poet Clare Ferguson-Walker who I went to art college with. There I also met Cardiff based poet Mab Jones who later was kind enough to give me my first slot at a spoken word event she was hosting at Laugharne a few months later. Anyone who is starting out poetry I thoroughly recommend going along to local poetry nights that have open-mic slots. It is a great platform to test your poetry out on a live audience, rather than to your cat or dog, or muttering to yourself in an empty room. My experience has been that the people hosting these nights, fellow audience members and poets have been wonderfully supportive and encouraging, at a time when it is all quite daunting and there are lots of doubts you have about your poems. Without this support network I wouldn’t have gone on to complete my MA and then my first collection. This takes me onto the next part of the question which quite frankly is that currently I am not working on anything at the moment. My manuscript for my first collection ‘Holding Wolves by the Ears’ is doing the rounds hoping to be picked up a publisher and I think I am just recharging my batteries. Since last December I have maybe have only written a handful of poems, for me personally I’m finding our current Covid-19 situation a very challenging environment to write in, which I am making my peace with as I’m sure I’ll be back in the writing chair when the time is right.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about writing?
There are lots of gems I’ve picked up over the years, but to narrow it down I would say parking your bum down on your chair and try to ‘write without fear’ goes a long way. Knowing that it’s OK to write something that doesn’t work out and then not being hard on yourself is important. I have folders of poems that haven’t worked for me at that time, but I put them to one side, some of these I have revisited years down the line and formed them into poems I am happy with, others I have salvaged for ‘spare parts’ that have been used in other poems. There will always be mistakes to be made but it is all part of the process, when we go along to poetry readings or pick up collections to read we are seeing the end of the process, we are not being presented with all the failed poems and drafts, but these poems generally would have began with the same trial and error with correcting and editing to get the poem into it’s final form, which is no different for anyone else.
What do you find most challenging or frustrating about the writing process?
Discipline can be a challenge for me, I can easily be distracted and part of this is because there are lots of times I find writing poetry difficult. It is amazing the amount of times laundry, dusting and weeding become suddenly more appealing than trying to scratch out some poetic lines, and don’t get me started on social media as a distraction when I know I should be writing. Some of this will be down to lack of confidence in that particular moment or just that I’m not in a creative space. However, I have to be careful that these ‘excuses’ I make for myself don’t form a habit of writing avoidance as it becomes harder to break the cycle.
You mentioned that for you, continuing writing is tougher than starting as you feel you don’t fit being categorised as an ‘emerging’ writer, one which is echoed by a number of writers in this same position. What would you like to see changed in the writing community in order to better support those who have been writers for a long time but don’t fit into certain categories? Do we need separate opportunities or to eliminate this sort of language altogether?
It’s not an easy question to answer, because generally writers will fall into different categories and there is always a desire to categorise writers, however, the terms we use can be often be perceived in different ways such as ‘New’ writer, which can mean someone that has just started writing but at the same time it can apply to someone that has been writing for 20 years but is only recently being recognised. ‘Established’ may mean a poet has a debut collection published to one person or maybe four collections to someone else. ‘Emerging’ is defined as gaining prominence or becoming established but it is such a vague term, and again will be perceived differently by different people. It’s not a simple task of just eliminating the labels we attach so I’m not really sure what is the solution. I would however, like to see more opportunities such as residencies, mentoring etc for poets that have not published a debut collection but is not restricted by an age range of 18-30 years old, which is fairly common place. I don’t think we need separate opportunities, I just think some of our existing opportunities need to be more inclusive.
You’re an excellent poet who’s been widely published in journals and featured in live reading events for a while now. What is it about poetry in particular that makes you more drawn to that form? Were there any other forms of writing you were particularly interested in during your MA course?
I think if I answered this question 5 times I’d possibly give a different answer each time as there are so many aspects to poetry which I love. Specifically I am drawn to poetry as I love the terse and concise consideration given to lines, the musicality and flow of stanzas, the art of a deftly placed line break, that combined with a heart stopping concluding line will often be a sublime and wonderous experience when reading.
A module I took on my MA was Scriptwriting for Radio Drama which I absolutely loved. I had never written a script before and I really enjoyed the challenge of a writing a 45 minute play that is carried solely on the dialogue with sound affects and/or music to aid it. As a form it is quite unforgiving as you need to keep your audience constantly engaged and like poetry there is a lot of fat to trim off your lines to keep it taut and dynamic.
As a regular reader of your poetry at events, what advice do you have on delivering your poems to an audience?
Well as a poet, the best advice I have been given when reading to an audience is to slow down your delivery. I have found that reading about a third slower than you percieve the pace to be is usually a good place to start. The nervous energy you can have stood in front of an audience and coupled with speaking into a mic if you are not used to it can lead to some quick-paced delivery, which can be a detriment to your poems if the audience can’t keep up with information you are delivering when you are rushing. I remember being told ‘Lee you write some beautiful lines but you spoil it when you read it out too quickly’ which I thought was a shame for me and the audience. So now, before I start speaking into the mic I take a deep breathe and tell myself to slow down and it works out a lot better for me.
What do your best writing days look like?
In brief when I’m not faffing around and just sit down to do it. If i can get into a zone of not sabatoging myself with self-doubt, if I can block out the outside world (I find that listening to Jazz music helps me to focus better on the task of writing) and if I stop getting distracted then my writing sessions work out a lot better. I think that finding the right time of the day that suits your creative mode helps, some people like mornings or evenings etc. I find that 11am-1pm and if I’m on a roll stopping for lunch and working again 2pm-4.30pm is a good day writing. I am not an early morning person at all, so I find later in the day suits me well. One thing that I will always do before writing is to read 4-8 poems often at random to get my head into the right frame of mind before I start my journey of writing.
What do you enjoy doing when not writing?
I’ve been a musician for a lot longer than I have been a poet, I started playing bass guitar in my early 20’s, which I still play. I have moved into producing electronic music, which started when I bought a bass synthesiser a couple of years ago. I am also part of an electronic, experimental collaboration which has a part focus on live re-scoring soundtracks to cult films. A lot of the work is partly improvised during the performance which keeps us on our toes, but also means that no two sets are the same. Another joy of mine is watching foriegn language dramas, this does include a lot of Scandi-crime, but not exclusively, as I have thoroughly enjoyed the German time-travelling drama ‘Dark and also ‘Black Spot’ which is a French drama that has occult elements to it.
What’s next for you in writing? Any big projects for the future or something new you’d like to try?
As I have picked up skills with audio recording and working with visuals I am very keen to start a video poetry project. It’s not something I have done before and I’m not entirely sure how it will work out, but it is not the first time I have started out on an project with no idea quite how it will all turn out, part of it scares me and the rest excites me, and even if it doesn’t quite work out I will have learnt something along the way. It seems to be a natural progression and a way to consolidate a lot of the areas I am drawn to.
Lee Prosser was born in 1972, growing up in Swansea and currently lives in the small village of Llangyndeyrn in West Wales. A former radio operator in the Royal Navy, he has a BA in Sculpture and completed his Creative Writing MA at Swansea University in 2018. His most recent work is published in Black Bough Poetry, The Deck Hand, Poetry Bus Magazine and The Cardiff Review. He was a Forward prize nominee in 2020. Read his blog https://whatwouldtheneighboursay.wordpress.com/poetry/ to find out more.