MILES SALTER INTERVIEW
Hi Miles, how are you, and how’s 2013 treated you so far?
Good thanks, Steve… I’ve run York Literature Festival, seen Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen, and kept life and soul together. What more can you ask for?
You are poised to release your second collection of poetry entitled ‘Animals’. What’s with the title, and how long did the collection take to put together?
When my first book of poems came out in 2011, I was going to include some animal-related poems, but I deliberately kept them back as I thought it would make a great theme for the second collection. So I put them to one side. ‘The Border’ came out, and I kept writing poems with animals in, or poems about the end of the world, so it came out of that. It’s taken two years or more to assemble. I like to take a while, as a bit of reflection helps. Jamie McGarry at ‘Valley Press’ and a couple of friends would point out poems that were less successful, so those poems get dropped. You have to be pretty selective about what works and what doesn’t!
‘Confession’ and ‘Giraffe’ were already around in 2011. ‘Longhill’ is probably four years old. ‘The Queue’ was originally written as a short story about six years ago. So, some of these things have been kicking around for a while. Time allows reflection and, for me, that’s a good thing. I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to putting work into the world. I tinker with the poems a lot. It’s annoying, actually, because you end up being dissatisfied with your own writing. But, to answer the question, most of the book has been written in the last two years.
The cover design features two rodents sparring with one another. Did you consider using any other design for the cover, or was it always destined to feature a couple of boxing critters?
Yes, Jamie and I searched for a relevant picture, and we had numerous options. I wanted great wildlife shots, but they would have cost a fortune! After a long search, I found this via the National Trust image bank. The picture is from a series of panels; it’s by Edward Hart and can be seen at Castle Ward in Northern Ireland. I loved the image because it has an air of menace and comedy at the same time, which is how I like to think my poems work, too. There’s something ludicrous about those squirrels. Violence and savagery feature a lot in ‘Animals’. I’m fascinated by the way the animal kingdom is full of blood and guts. There’s no morality, only survival. The owl sticks its claws in the rabbit – end of story. But us humans are cursed by our consciousness, so we have to have a moral and social code which keeps us from behaving badly. Most of the time, anyway!
Which are your favourite poems from the collection, and why?
I like ‘The Queue’. It’s one of my ‘End of the World’ poems, and I think it works quite well. I’ve been writing in a semi-surreal vein for a few years now, and it’s a lot of fun to do that. You can turn the world on its head and look at life in another way. But that works best when the poem has one foot in the real world, which ‘The Queue’ does. It takes people from western society and places them in a dystopian situation, standing in this long queue without food or water or shelter. But, in fact, the situation is close to what’s happening in Syria at the moment, with all those refugees leaving the country.
How would you best describe the style and substance of your work to somebody who has never read any of your previously published poetry?
The three poets who I admire most are Philip Larkin, Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy. I see them as people who wrote within the urban world. I suppose I do the same thing. A lot of my poems are city-based, or at least urban-life based, and they feature addiction, debt, consumerism, technology, cars, etc. In terms of writing, I tend to like poems that have some sort of impact – that are about a character, or situation, but with strong mood or atmosphere. Some of the poems are apocalyptic. I think we’re in big trouble as a species, because of climate change, war etc, and the poems in ‘Animals’ reflect this preoccupation with the end of the world. It’s interesting to me how many films, books, and songs talk about the end of the world in contemporary culture.
Did you write poetry from a young age, or is poetry something that you’ve engaged with purely as an adult?
I had an outstanding English teacher, Chris Copeman, who taught me when I was about ten years old, for several years. He knew how to get kids to write, and I wrote various things then. I also wrote stories and other things. I have been writing, in one way or another, most of my life, but I realised about seven years ago how much work I had to do to improve. To write well is a life’s work, I think. You keep learning and improving over time. I got heavily into poetry about six years ago. I liked the fact that you could write something fairly quickly and have something to show in ten minutes.
Aside from being a renowned poet, you are also a formidable singer-songwriter. Have you written any new songs lately, or indeed performed any gigs between your fabled poetry performances?
I wish I had written new songs, but I have been writing a kid’s book for the last two years. A lot of energy has gone into that, not to mention running a festival in York. The plan is to perform songs and poems side-by-side. I’ll be doing that this autumn as I have a few gigs to promote ‘Animals’. For me, that’s the ultimate – poetry and songs together. Wow!
By your standards, where does a poem end and a lyric begin?
Good question, Steve. I’m not sure I can answer that succinctly. A lot of pop lyrics are pretty banal. In most cases, poetry sets a higher standard than rock songs. Glyn Maxwell makes this point in his recent book entitled ‘On Poetry’. He says you just can’t compare John Keats to Bob Dylan. That said, there are some brilliant lyricists out there… Justin Currie is great, as is Leonard Cohen. The latter’s song ‘The Future’ is terrific. I like Mike Scott, and Jackie Leven was great. Thom Yorke is interesting, too. Billy Bragg has written some good stuff. Poetry tends to be interested in ambiguity, and I think the better pop lyricists have this approach, too. You can’t pin the song down: it has more than one interpretation. A good example is ‘All Along The Watchtower’ by Bob Dylan. You’re not quite sure what he’s getting at, but you get the mood!
Given that ‘Animals’ is about to be unleashed, do you have any book-related events coming up on the horizon? If so, where and when?
Yes. All the dates are on my website in the ‘on tour’ section!
Looking back, which poem (in either ‘The Border’ or ‘Animals’) are you the most proud of, and why?
There’s a poem in ‘The Border’ called ‘The Man Who Lived In Shadow’. I like that poem a lot. It took a lot of editing, but I think it does its job well in just a few lines. Let’s hear it for brevity!
Finally, how can people learn more about you and your work?
They can have a look at www.miles-salter.co.uk
(Questions by Steve Rudd; Answers by Miles Salter)
This interview was conducted on 10th September, 2013.