Ian M Dudley won Best Poem in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award with his compelling work Fish and Chips. Also winner of the 2015 Oxonian Review poetry competition, the work is part of a sequence of poems called Business Class about work in a large multinational company. Dudley was a 2014 Jerwood/Arvon Foundation poetry mentee and is currently writing poems whose titles all begin with the words “A Box of.” We speak to Dudley about his winning work.
A: How does a poem begin for you? Does it start with an idea, an image, an event?
ID: It’s a bit like falling in love, or at least feeling a spark of attraction. You recognise your own susceptibilities (both good and bad), but it’s not something you can control or predict. It can be triggered by anything: an idea, image, event, anecdote… It can be as much about the poem being attracted to you, as you being attracted to the poem (“hey, this poem is really into me”).
A: The winning poem Fish and Chips is part of a sequence of works called Business Class. Can you tell us what this series is about, revealing underlying themes and the inspiration behind it?
ID: I was having a twitter conversation with a friend and he messaged me “the velociraptors have been nothing but trouble”. I knew immediately I had to use that as the title for a poem. We both work in IT so I wrote a “life in the day” poem. I gave it to him as my apology for the fact that he was thrown out of the Poetry Library on the Southbank for writing prose. Rereading the poem afterwards, I realised I had never written about work before, even though I’d spent years of my life at a desk and in meeting rooms. In the next six weeks I rattled off another 20 poems. I had a lot to get off my chest after all that time.
I’ve been lucky to travel for work, mostly in Europe and North America, and many of the poems are about planes and hotel rooms and virtual spaces – no man’s land. William Letford writes well about being a roofer, but ordinary work is not a subject a lot of poets tackle, and if they do it often feels like an exercise. Of course Homer wasn’t a doomed, beautiful, killing machine and he was able to write compellingly about Achilles: you don’t need to have direct experience, just the ability to write as if you have.
A: Are there any forms or subject matter that you haven’t yet worked with but would like to?
ID: Most modern poetry, mine included, is written in free verse, and there’s nothing wrong with that, whatever Clive James says. But I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with the way I write free verse: I feel it often lets me off the hook from working hard enough on a poem. I’m taking time out to remind myself of the multitude of poetic forms, including modern inventions like Terrance Hayes’ “A gram of &s”. I know most of what I find won’t suit me (in particular the seemingly infinite number of deadly forms invented by the French troubadours are an exquisite torture) but I’m hoping to find some comfortable second hand clothes that I can up-cycle.
I don’t forbid myself any subject matter, so I’m not chafing to try anything new. However, I try not to write about things I haven’t lived with long enough, or thought hard about. It never ends well.
A: You are currently writing poems whose titles all begin with the words “A Box of.” What have you written about so far, and how are the works connected or opposed?
ID: I had the idea to write cubist poetry where you represent the same object from a multiplicity of viewpoints so as to show it in greater context and more complete detail. The sides of the box in the “a box of“ poems are the different viewpoints. I’m fascinated by the way an object can look utterly different when rendered as an engraving, a Chinese brush painting, a relief print, an oil painting (and so on), but is always recognisably itself.
I think there’s a loose equivalence between those different pictorial techniques and the forms of poetry: the haiku, sonnet etc. I’ve written a few “boxes”, but I started writing in free verse, and I now realise that the different faces of the box need to be in different forms, so these poems are on hold while I work that out. I hope to come back to them later.
A: What are the opportunities presented by poetry? Where do you hope to take your writing next? ID: People turn to poetry at the pivotal points in their lives: christenings, weddings, funerals, break ups, presidential inaugurations… They look to poems to express their deepest thoughts and feelings. They may not read poetry as often as poets would like, but they still respect it as the most powerful, most authentic, form of human utterance. It is also one that people aspire to. I lost track of the celebrities and artists who “came out” as poets in recent years, but it included Beyoncé, Kristen Stewart, and Pamela Anderson, amongst others.
Poetry really matters to people. And yet the sales of poetry books in this country continue to fall. That’s the opportunity poets need to tackle. My hubristic ambition is to replicate Claudia Rankine’s sleight of hand with Citizen, and write something that doesn’t look like, or get pigeonholed as, poetry but which has the same effect on the reader.
You can read Ian M Dudley’s Fish and Chips in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2017. Pick up a copy: www.aestheticamagazine.com/buy/creative-writing-anthology-2017
The Aesthetica Creative Writing Award is now open for entries, accepting Short Fiction and Poetry. To submit, visit www.aestheticamagazine.com/creative-writing-award
1. Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2017 Cover image: Judith Jones, Rendezvous (2016). Courtesy of the artist.