William Sieghart: The Waterstones Interview

W: William, welcome to Waterstones first of all
WS: Thank you very much, lovely to be here. W: The Poetry Pharmacy has been a huge hit and
it’s been a bit of a surprise hit for you. Were you expecting people to take
that book to their hearts quite so much? WS: No. Everything really about The Poetry
Pharmacy has happened by mistake. Which is one of the most delightful elements
to it. Because I spent most of my life being an editor and a publisher and a
selector of poetry but I’ve never really put myself the other side of the fence
to write about it. And the whole concept of the pharmacy happened a bit by
mistake because I was asked to a literary festival many years ago and this was an
idea that my friend Jenny Dyson came up with and I thought I’d only do it for an
hour or so and it kind of took off. Then I found myself sitting next to a
literary agent at a dinner and I told her about it and she said there’s a book
in this. So it’s all sort of slightly happened by accident
and in that serendipitous way about accidents, that just makes it more and
more intriguing and delightful actually. W: The sequel, The Poetry Pharmacy
Returns, available in this lovely blue jacket, brings back obviously the same
idea and I was really interested by one of the things you were saying in it
which was that in an increasingly secular age that there is
something about people needing that comfort which they might have got from
the liturgy in the past or the sort of the ritual of going to church at the
weekend, and now that poetry maybe can fill that void in people’s lives. WS: Yes and it’s really interesting. I don’t whether you’ve noticed this at Waterstones but
but poetry sales are booming. You know they’re up 50% over the last several
years. And I think in part that’s because of this and it’s also because of social
media like Instagram. So it’s a chance for people to share with each other the
right words for how they feel, for succour, support, help, advice, whatever. And as you
rightly pointed out in previous generations people would might be doing
that on a Sunday as part of the ritual of church-going and you know reading the
liturgy together and shared prayers and so forth. Often you know of course back in
the days where people reading the Latin Mass; it’s words that they found
deeply comforting but they may not have even understood. But in some strange way that shared experience around a text was
deeply rooting and gave them a sense of the continuity of life. And of course in
our secular life we don’t have that, you know, very few people now go to church on
a Sunday or a mosque or a synagogue or whatever is their faith. And so I think
there’s no accident that people are looking for the spiritual, the
meditative, other forms of sharing, gathering and in a way separating
themselves from the drudge of the day. W: Some people I think traditionally
have been put off poetry because they feel like they don’t understand it.
You have spoken in the past about how you connected with poetry when you
were quite young at school. I actually was taught poetry really badly and so I
think for many years I found it something that I held at a distance.
Again in both books I was really interested to see where you were drawing
the poetry from. Because it’s not just from the old sources that people might
imagine, you have found poetry in all sorts of places. WS: Yes, because I think
poetry is all around us. We’re very big on poetry in our culture. Other
cultures are too but particularly our culture and of course it’s our greatest
cultural export to the world, if you think about it, our language, the language
of Shakespeare and so forth. And poets traditionally have struggled to make a
living. It’s not easy and particularly in the
modern world. And so poets end up being copy writers for advertising or jingle
writers for the radio. There’s poetry in all kinds of song lyrics. People will
tell you that Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen all these, you know,
great poet-songwriters of the sixties onwards. So yes I think poetry is
everywhere and of course classically in the first book I put in those the
lyrics of You’ll Never Walk Alone which is chanted at Anfield
and we all know that at an England rugby match you’ll hear everyone chanting
William Blake’s Jerusalem. So they may not be aware of it being poetic or it
being poetry and sometimes that’s a relief because as you said the P word
slightly puts you off because of school. And I think that that’s one of the great
tragedies for someone like me who’s trying to get poetry out there that a
lot of people have been put off because they think it’s a back of a book shop,
slim volume, dusty elite thing that’s impenetrable W: You mention there a
football terrace. Anybody who’s spent any time on a football terrace will know
that some of the cleverest, funniest, wittiest lyrics ever written come up on a football terrace. Let’s talk a little bit about National Poetry Day as
well which is something that you started. I wondered first of all what was your
motivation for creating a day like that, what were you hoping to do? WS: So I started
just before poetry day by starting a thing called the Forward Poetry Prizes. And
they came about because at the time, which was the late eighties, beginning of
the 90s, the only time poetry hit the headlines was about the bickering poets
in the Poetry Society who were about to lose their freehold
or lease or something on a beautiful building in Earls Court. And it was very
hard to find anyone celebrating poetry, caring about it or being positive about
it. And I found a copy, I was given a copy, a secondhand copy of the Guinness book
of Poetry from 1958-59. And it turned out that Brian Moyne, the poet, was a member
the Guinness family and he’d persuaded the Guinness family to sponsor a prize
called the Guinness and with it he made an anthology of the best entries. And in
it were ‘This is the night train crossing the border…’ One of the highly commended
poems was Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings. Wasn’t a winner that year. You
know there was some amazing stuff in it. And what was so interesting was there was
young Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. There was Tom Gunn. There are all these people
whose names I’d got to know later on as a schoolboy and many poems I’d had to
learn at school but they had all been published in the same year. And
I’d never sort of thought of poetry like that, I thought this is brilliant. Anyway,
cut a long story short: book comes out, everyone who comes across it says this
is great. But a number of people said ‘It’s all very well but I don’t know how to read poetry. I’m still a bit frightened of it.’ And so I came
up with the idea for poetry day because I thought that that would take away
people’s inhibitions and make people feel that they
could turn to their loved one and say Shall I compare thee, or whatever it may
be. W: Over the time that National Poetry Day has been running you must have seen
that the poetry landscape has changed dramatically and that we have a new
generation of young poets working in all sorts of mediums and presenting what
seems to me to be one of the most diverse pools of talent. That must make
you feel quite proud. WS: It’s incredibly exciting. And again, I think that’s thanks
to social media because up until then the poetry world was kind of constrained
and controlled by a small bunch of poetry editors for the main poetry
publishers. And on the whole they were white middle-aged, middle-class men. And they had a limited taste. You know, they know what they like and there may
be some variety in that but it’s still gonna inhibit. Just as in the old days
there used to be the Oxford poets and then this big moment when I was a kid
when Brown, Patten; you know all the Liverpool voices came out and suddenly there was
this whole new way. Neil Astley was the man who really changed contemporary
poetry because with Bloodaxe he added a whole new kind of voice and published
a lot more women poets than anyone had before. So he really opened the door to
this newness and published three I think massive anthologies, Staying Alive and so
on, which still to me are my faves. But Instagram’s allowed a whole new
generation of young people to circumvent these middle-aged editors and as a
result you know you suddenly have Rupi Kaur or so on, who who put herself on
Instagram and she’s now probably the most successful poet of all time. But in
the reverse: in the sense that the poetry publisher came to them afterwards and thought if you’ve got that many followers you better do a book.
So that’s what’s so exciting now. It’s now being led by the poets rather than
by the editors or the publishers and that’s healthy W: Well, they have you to
thank in some small part so thank you for National Poetry Day, thank
you for the Poetry Pharmacy and thank you for telling me a little bit more
about both. WS: My great pleasure

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