full coverIn my seventh interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Reuben Woolley about his poetry collection skins from Hesterglock Press…

In real life, ‘skins’ (which is the title of one of the poems as well as the book) come in all shades, shapes and sizes, as do the poems in this moving and impactful collection. How did the title and book as a whole come about?

As you know, I edit the online magazine, I am not a silent poet, for work of protest about all kinds of abuse. The issue of the refugees has been and continues to be a frequent topic and I found myself more and more drawn to it myself. On looking back through my work I found quite a few which referred to the horrible conditions that these people face in their home countries and on their journeys to Europe, particularly crossing the Mediterranean. One of the aims of I am not a silent poet is to give a voice to the voiceless, to those whose stories get lost and I thought that I could bring all my poems on the subject together in order to give a more extended view. Thus the early poems concern the wars and oppression in their home countries which force them into exile. Then comes a series of poems about the crossing of the Mediterranean with thousands drowning. The final poems concern their journeys in Europe, across unwelcoming frontiers and how they are received.

I showed Antony Owen an earlier version of the collection and he suggested sending it to Paul Hawkins and Sarer Scotthorne at Hesterglock Press to see if they might be interested. I’m delighted to say they agreed quite quickly and have done a marvellous job editing and getting it ready for publication

The original working title was “refuge” but Paul suggested ‘skins’ and I instantly agreed. As you say, skins come in all shapes sizes and colours, but it is something we all have in common.

‘skins’ is being sold in aid of the charity CalAid, which works to help refugees, migrants and displaced people. Could you say how and why this charity aspect, particularly in light of the poems’ highly relevant subject matter?

Firstly, I could not conceive of making money from the plight of the refugees so I asked Paul and Sarer at Hesterglock if my royalties could go in some way to the refugees. I was astounded when they said that Hesterglock would do the same. We looked for a good organisation working with the refugees, ie. one which does not dedicate most of the money to administration and executive salaries, and found CalAid which is made up of volunteers apart from just one person who is paid a salary.

Reuben Woolley at Newcastle StanzaElements of political and humanitarian concern feature strongly in this book. How important are these to your writing, here and more generally in poetry? And what other elements (if any) come close to rivalling them in importance?

Most of my work is not exactly sociopolitical thematically but there are times when political and humanitarian concerns demand a response, and poetry is the only way I know how to respond. As poets we are stimulated by what we see, hear and feel this may be from within us or from some outside stimulus. To ignore an important part of what is going on around us would be to deny its existence. This is not to say that these issues are those of the greatest importance in poetry. Absolutely anything has an equal right to trigger a poem, even lakeside daffodils!

For me, as a reader, ‘skins’ seems to manage that tricky feat of packing a powerful punch using very concise, spare language and a lot of white space on the page. Could you say a little about how space and text work for you as a poet, and also shape on the page?

I wish I knew a good answer to this question! I suppose I’ve become more and more minimalist, using scissors or even the garden shears along with the poem. I try to cut out the unnecessary. I hear the poem in my head while I’m writing and editing and the white spaces are the silence. In music, we hear the notes because of the silence which separates them. This is the music of my poems. Even though they are very obviously page poems, they should be read aloud – in one way they are like the staves of music waiting for the musician to interpret them.

”                      in tears
we are human.it’s
the water we share”

Unfair though it is to pull out a single quotation as representative, it seems to me that the lines above do in some way encapsulate elements of the collection as a whole. How far would you go along with that, and is there anything else you’d add?

I must agree with you completely. It’s similar to Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice: “Cut me, do I not bleed” or words to that effect, I haven’t got my Shakespeare with me here so I can’t check and I have a terrible memory.

I would agree that those lines do bring together certain important elements of the collection. I think there are others as well.

Is there another short quotation from the book that you’d expand or counter my previous question with?

To go on from the previous question/answer, I think you have probably identified a key part. There is also, occasionally a certain dark optimism in ‘dark water’:

                                          i swim
cross current
                     not drowning

not always

and the human element of your quote is contrasted in the following from ‘the old crow welcomes winter’:

just asking
what it’s like to be human
           there are places
where the world seeps through
where monsters
like shells
on empty beaches

Given the Calais refugees link, it’s probably unsuprising that water flows through this collection. Is this subject matter, and also the fluidity of words and form themselves, something that generally appeals to you in poetry, and if so, why? (And, if not, why not, given it works so beautifully here?)

Water is definitely something which appears frequently in one form or another in my poems very frequently, liquids in general, I suppose. Blood is another, Air also flows and comes in my poems quite often along with things which use them – ships, birds, wings. I suppose I see a fluid world. I remember I once read – I don’t know if it is true or not – that there were no nouns in the languages of the American First Nation. Thus a rock was seen a change of form from mountain to sand. A rather liquid philosophy which I find appealing.

What question haven’t I asked about ‘skins’ that I should squeeze in now, before it’s too late?
I really can’t think of one.

full coverWhere can people buy their copy of ‘skins’?

From Hesterglock Press:

I have a few copies if anyone wants a signed copy but I have to charge £2 more to cover postage and packing so that I can send the full amount to CalAid.

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