The second release in DEMAIN’s Beats! Ballads! Blank Verse! Series is Grave Goods by Cardinal Cox. The collection is published as an ebook on the 24th of April via Amazon. A couple of weeks before the ‘lock down’ the Cardinal and Dean talked about it.
DEMAIN PUBLISHING: Welcome Cardinal, for those that don’t know you – please tell us a little about yourself, do you come from a literary background?
CARDINAL COX: Not particularly, my parents had books and my mother reads a lot now she has the time. I got books passed down to me from my elder brothers. A great-uncle emigrated to South Africa in 1875 and wrote his memoirs later in life. The manuscript circulated round branches of the family and I did a show based on his very Allan Quatermain-like adventures (hunting, fighting in the Zulu wars, prospecting for gold, being taught muti by a witch-doctor, etc.) for a while.
DP: That’s amazing, I wish I’d seen that. As a child then did you have access to poetry?
CC: I remember a book called something like The Puffin book of Magical Verse which hade poems by Walter de la Mare, Charles Causley, Aleister Crowley, etc. which was a fine grounding in genre poetry. Later I would find poems by Edwin Morgan or Brian Aldiss included in SF anthologies. To me that legitimised poetry as a genre form.
DP: Without a doubt…Aleister Crowley’s work in a Puffin book – ha ha ! Excellent, I’ll have to do a search for that…how did you get started in poetry then?
CC: My mates and I had a band at school, so I wrote (terrible) songs for them. The guitarists left but the drummer got a computer that could produce music-loops. That became The Sonic Energy Authority that two or three sf authors slipped mentions of into their novels (favourite is a serial killer released from prison wearing a band t-shirt). Not everything became a song, so some poems got sent to small-press magazines.
DP: Would you say you find writing poetry easy?
CC: I find inspiration easy. Developing that idea into some finished work (though is any poem ever truly finished or is it just waiting more editing?) can take time. With inspiration, when I got the post of Poet-in-Residence with The Dracula Society they said they’d like one poem per quarterly issue of the magazine they produced, over two years. So 8 poems. I thought, from my experiences of being P-in-R for the cemetery and the church that I could probably manage 1 a month. So 24 poems. My time there coincided with things like Christopher Lee’s death and the theft of Murnau’s skull and suddenly I was swamped with inspiration. I had to get all these poems scribbled down in case the inspiration dried up. And as I wrote I realised various back-stories were emerging from the murk. There were a few ideas that came but another idea came along so quickly that it just never got used. That is where the ‘Fifty Pieces’ in Grave Goods came from.
DP: Ah, I see now, that makes sense…so, does writing poetry energise or exhaust you?
CC: I know it exhausts my audience. One gig of my ‘High Stakes’ show (also drawn from my time with The Dracula Society) a couple fell asleep in the second row. I figured it was a warm evening, they’d had a glass of wine, I could understand it. They’d bought their ticket, they weren’t snoring…
DP: Ha ha nice one! Do you do much research when writing your poems?
CC: Depends on the poem. If you need facts in it (names of blood vessels to and from the heart or dates of a battle, say) then they’d best be right unless you want to have to say “It’s set in an alternate universe…” for years to come.
DP: True…true…how do you begin a poem?
CC: It usually starts with a core idea like a misheard phrase, a reply to something or a juxtaposition. Sometimes it starts though with the words, “We have a budget and would like to commission you to write…” That can be interesting as suddenly you have to write something you otherwise wouldn’t have.
DP: Indeed! So how do your poems develop? Do you have a specific writing method and do you show them to anyone as you draft?
CC: I often start with a spidergram so I’m not putting the ideas down in a fixed order. If it’s a villanelle it’s two columns trying to write lines ending with the necessary rhymes. Then I start crafting the poem into an order. Then the lines start to be re-written to try and hang together as a whole. This is all done long hand in different coloured inks for different drafts and for editing. They tend not to be shown around in rough draft form but when put on-line or sent to an editor if someone says “Don’t you think…” or “Couldn’t you instead…” I’ll often go with this idea. Fresh pairs of eyes see errors my own are blind to.
DP: That’s brave of you – I know a lot of writers who wouldn’t dare put their work out there until they were a hundred per cent happy and even then wouldn’t be happy receiving criticism haha but horses for courses I suppose. Would you say that poetry has a purpose…
CC: If poetry has a purpose it is to be the poem that the poet wanted to write. Individual poems can have different purposes (entertain, educate, show what an awfully cleaver person the poet is, etc.) and that’s fine. There’s no right or wrong there. Different poets will have different purposes at different times.
DP: I’ll go with that…who are your favourite poets (living / dead)? Are you reading any poetry at the moment – if so what?
CC: Edwin Morgan, Benjamin Zephaniah, Attila the Stockbroker and whoever I heard give a reading last week.
DP: Again, some great names there though I will admit I haven’t heard of Attila before! Have you ever been on a poetry pilgrimage?
CC: Not really. Have I? I once had to walk the last few miles down country lanes to get to a local(ish) T S Eliot Festival at Little Gidding, I felt more like a pedlar with my pack on my back rather than a pilgrim. And when I got there the people who had driven past me in their cars said “Oh, we did wonder if you were coming here…” but none of them offered me a lift. I’ve been going to the John Clare Festival in Helpston for years, or rather, I’ve been going to the village while the festival is on but until last year (I was part of a reading) I’d been enjoying the cream teas the WI make but never went to any actual events. So that was more of a cake pilgrimage rather than a poetry pilgrimage, I suspect.
DP: Actually I could do with a ‘cake pilgrimage’ right about now – especially if cheesecakes are involved…do you read poetry regularly?
CC: Not as much as I would like, buying poetry is easier (after hearing someone present their stuff) and then I try to remember to pack the book for my daily commute by bus.
DP: And how did you first get started?
CC: I think the local newspaper ran a story about ‘Man hopes to publish poetry anthology for charity’. Before that I might have had some verse printed in a music fanzine, Falling and Laughing? (from Scotland), 1980 something or other.
DP: Do you manage to get out there and meet your readers?
CC: I don’t enjoy giving readings or doing my show as much as I know other poets do. It’s not nerves, I just get imposter syndrome and think someone will point out I have no poetry clothes on. I enjoy meeting readers but I want to find out what they are writing.
DP: That’s interesting. Last year I did a reading of one of my own stories at a spoken word /music festival which I quite enjoyed and I did say I’d be up for doing some more…but I know when I get up on the stage or in front of a load of people I start wondering why I put myself through the pain ha ha – in front of a load of strangers singing at karaoke, no worries at all – very odd…what’s the best experience you’ve had through your poetry?
CC: Years ago there was a Radio 4 programme about sf poetry. Afterwards the presenter, also a poet, wrote an article about making the show and they said that one of the ideas that had come up was to have my band playing in the planetarium. I was reading this thinking, what? What! Then more recently an anarchist mag I contribute to (The Cunningham Amendment) said that that same poet had told them how much they enjoyed my poems in it. I read that and again thought what? What! But really, every time an editor chooses a poem to use it is like, here’s someone, they don’t know me, they’re not doing this as a favour, there’s loads of other poems, somehow this poem is the one they want to use! Which instantly is cut down by why didn’t they want this other poem? Why is that one rejected? Peaks and troughs…
DP: It’s true and sometimes there’s just no rhyme or reason to it. Can poetry save the world?
CC: I think it was Auden who said no amount of poetry saved one Jew from the gas chambers. I know when I write for the anarchist magazine I’m preaching to the converted. If I do a political/issues-based poem for a publication I assume the readers probably already entertain these same thoughts. Seriously sometimes I think the best we can do is play on as the ship goes down…
DP: And would you say that the internet / social media destroying poetry or helping it thrive?
CC: It has changed it, replacing many of the small magazines and fanzines. Plus DTP and POD have made it easier to do small runs of physical books. I’m sure renaissance court poets looked at the printers that made ballad sellers peddling broadsides possible and thought their world was destroyed. Just as bards with their vast quantity of memorised verses saw literature and thought the same. We can write a haiku on twitter and potentially reach more people than lived in the world in the thirteenth century. But these changes mean we can compile a book of Viking sagas or Elizabethan madrigals and make them available. I’m in my fifties so have seen changes, and more changes will come.
DP: And with the world as it is right now who knows what those changes will be…do you have a writing / poetry group you share your work with?
CC: I’m really lucky. It’s a golden age for poetry in my city. I’ve written a column about the local literary scene (‘Pub Scrawl’ in the magazine Rhythm and Booze – available on Issuu) for ten years and can’t fit everything in. Open mic’ nights, stanza groups, spoken word performances, poetry festivals. I can’t physically get to them all but this means that you’re always hearing other poets and it spurs you on to try new things. I love workshops as I always learn something new. We have a great support network to encourage and assist if you want to develop work into larger pieces.
DP: Would you say that every poem should mean something or can they just be enjoyed for their words / language?
CC: Again this depends on what you want to write. I know a couple of Marxists who would say every poem has to hammer home a political point. I know other poets who only want to entertain. I don’t want to be limited, I want to do it all if the choice or need arises. Nothing is right, nothing is wrong.
DP: Wise words. Finally, is there any advice you can give an aspiring poet?