DEMAIN is proud to announce that on the 24th April 2020 we will be releasing the first two ebooks in our poetry series, Beats! Ballads! Blank Verse! Perhaps a slight departure for a ‘horror publisher’ but we’re nothing except eclectic here…we are also extremely proud to launch the series with Allen Ashley (President Elect of the British Fantasy Society no less) and his collection Echoes From An Expired Earth. Before the ‘lock down’ Dean and Allen sat down and talked.
DEMAIN PUBLISHING: Welcome to the family Allen! Let’s get straight down to it as we’ve got a number of questions to get through…would you say you came from a literary background?
ALLEN ASHLEY: Hi! I’d have to say no. I’m the first person in my family to go to university―actually the first to stay on into the sixth form. I think my father could have progressed further but his studies were interrupted by the War and National Service. He used to read war books and Wilbur Smith and the like. He was partway through Catch 22 when he died.
DP: That’s a co-incidence, I’ve been thinking a lot about Catch 22 recently for some reason. I haven’t seen the George Clooney tv series yet but I remember watching the film when I was a kid…I think it was on late night television – I don’t recall much except for Orson Welles being in it and then a scene where someone is rescued, they think they’re okay, then his shirt gets ripped open and all his innards fall out…must have fed my love of horror…anyway, did you read poetry as a child and if so, which poets?
AA: I remember reading a lot of fairy tales as a kid. Plus the usual children’s fare we had in the school library back then – Biggles, The Silver Sword and so forth. Then I moved onto science fiction, big-time. I would, however, have known a few classic poems – Tyger, Tyger, some Lear, some Lewis Carroll, some Milligan, etc.
DP: Some great names there – I’m a fan of William Blake for sure – I’ve never read any Spike Milligan but perhaps now is the time to start…what attracted you to poetry and how did you get started?
AA: I suspect the simple answer is: Robert Calvert. I bought Hawkwind’s hit single Silver Machine – Calvert wrote the lyrics – and on the B-side was Seven By Seven, a brooding psychedelic piece in the middle of which Calvert declaims poetry in stentorian schoolmaster mode. That was it: the template was moulded right there, I wanted to be a space poet like Bob. In later years, I got the chance to perform with the legendary band Hawkwind, including at the Robert Calvert Memorial concert at Brixton Academy in, I think, 1990. Bob left us far too early but I probably channel a bit of him into every reading or gig I do. So that was it, poetry and psychedelia / space rock were where I placed myself. I like to think I’ve broadened out a bit over the years but who knows? There’s not a day goes by when I don’t think of either my father and/or my idol Robert Calvert.
DP: WOW! That’s amazing. I had (have – he’s still alive) who was the bass-player for Hawkwind for a time – perhaps he played at that same gig…I’ll have to ask him. I’m afraid that Hawkwind was a bit before my time but I need to educate myself…it’s interesting how music / musicians can inspire you, the same happened to me with the Throwing Muses and in particular singer / songwriter, Kristin Hersh – they have definitely inspired me as a writer (and in fact one of my short screenplays – which won a writing award in Monaco a couple of years back – is named after one of their songs Bright Yellow Gun) and continue to do so (as does Paul Heaton from The Beautiful South). Would you say that you find writing poetry easy and does it energise (or exhaust you)?
AA: No writing is ever easy. Maybe once a decade or so you will write something pretty much in 10-15 unexpected minutes of total inspiration but otherwise everything is hard work – thought, transcription, rewriting, hitting the wall, putting it aside, looking again, trying to get it to all make some sort of sense. For the past several years, I have tended to prep myself with loads of thinking time then write in an intense, concentrated and focused burst. This might be, for example, an hour or two earlyish in the day. After that my brain’s mush!
DP: You and me both…recently I’ve been working on a new short play. It’s only fifteen minutes long and perhaps took a day to write, a day to tidy then a third day for final polishing. The thing is, whilst that sounds ‘quick’ I’ve actually been writing it in my head for the past 18 months or so…once I was able to put the first words down on the page it flowed easily…doesn’t happen all the time like that however…anyway, when you write, do you have to do much research?
AA: A lot of poets I know can only write from life. That’s so limiting. Much of my stuff is totally made up. Yes, sometimes I will have to research things: How dense is Saturn?, Where did Theseus dump Ariadne?, that sort of thing. Emily Dickinson said something like: “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” That’s a technique I’ve applied to my poems such as Thames Astronautics or Where Do They Go?
DP: And by reading your work I would say that it’s a technique which certainly works for you…I’m personally intrigued by poets / poetry…how do you begin writing a poem and how do they develop…do you have a particular writing method…do you ever share them with anybody while you’re drafting?
AA: I begin every piece of writing with an idea or an image or a line or a scene and then throw down as many words as I can in a short manic burst. Sometimes I will not know until later what form the work will ultimately take. I had some pressing thoughts and memories about my Dad which I was desperate to make into a poem but they refused and instead became a song called Old Bones. I don’t tend to show or share anything that I’m working on until I feel that it’s finished. I believe that I am quite a decent teacher or tutor; I know that I am a terrible student.
DP: Haha! Would you say poetry has a purpose? If so…what is it?
AA: With any writing – [you must] have something to say. This doesn’t have to be a moral like an Aesop’s fable; but make it worth your reader’s time reading or listening.
DP: Yeap, that’s true…if somebody asked me which poets inspired me, I’d say Rupert Brooke and Arthur Rimbaud…who are your influences (living and / or dead) and are you reading any poetry at the moment?
AA: I’ve already mentioned Robert Calvert. I’m also keen on many of the greats – Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Wilfrid Owen, T.S. Eliot, the Beat Poets, A.A. Milne, etc. In terms of living poets, from people whose work I have read recently or who I’ve heard read, I would recommend Sarah Doyle, Hannah Lowe, Luke Wright, Danez Smith, Rachael Allen (I basically nicked her Kingdomland idea to make my poem Here in the London Hinterland), Sarah Westcott, Roger McGough, John Cooper Clarke, Jonathan Edwards, Mandy Coe, Kathryn Simmonds, Imtiaz Dharker, Tarquin Landseer, Alison Hill, Maggie Butt. I’ve probably missed out loads of favourite poets but that list is enough to be going on with for now.
DP: That’s a great list, thank you very much. Some amazing names there to check out. Later this year I’m hoping to go to the village / town where Rimbaud was born / lived – have you ever gone on a poetry pilgrimage?
AA: I have actually. Apart from obvious stuff such as visiting Keats House and the William Morris Gallery and checking out Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, when I was at university my professor organised a trip to Little Gidding – made famous in T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets.
DP: Ah, I’ve been to Morrison’s grave too! When I went there was a metal fence all around it and a police guard – perhaps I went on a ‘special’ day or something, I didn’t hang around long enough to find out…do you read a lot of poetry…
AA: Yes I do. If I go to a reading and I like what I hear, I’ll buy the poet’s collection. I find a poetry book particularly useful for reading matter when I’m otherwise engaged on critiquing a novel. Different mindset.
DP: I’m certainly learning that the more poetry I read and select for DEMAIN. How did you first get published…
AA: Oh god, do I have to answer this one? [yes, please haha – DP] It was rather a long time ago. I submitted on spec to a magazine, had a couple of pieces accepted and published. After plenty of rejections beforehand, of course.
DP: Ah, the life of a writer (well, poet!) – it never changes does it, no matter what medium or form you’re working in. Do you enjoy promoting your poetry and meeting your readers?
AA: I love giving poetry readings. As many people will know, I am the host of the ‘Poetry Round-Robin’ at FantasyCon and have been since 2011. No stars, no egos, just everybody reads two or three poems. I am very keen on enabling opportunities.
DP: That’s really cool and that’s what we’re trying to do at DEMAIN – ‘enabling opportunities’ – perhaps that should be our new strapline…what’s the best experience you’ve had through your poetry?
AA: Probably my single best poetry experience was the link-up with Hawkwind (see earlier answer). And getting a Bruce Pennington cover for Dreaming Spheres: Poems of the Solar System (co-written with Sarah Doyle, published by PS in 2014). But with writing in general: almost all the friends that I have these days have come via the writing world.
DP: And that cover was very cool – congrats on that by the way. Would you say that poetry can change / save the world?
AA: To an extent, yes. My wife, the poet Sarah Doyle, is involved with the eco-poetry action group ‘Poets for the Planet’. What I would say is that one poem on its own isn’t going to change our whole culture but if you just reach out to one person and encourage them to rethink an assumption, feel an emotion, make a small change…the micro level will eventually accumulate to change the macro.
DP: That’s so true…I personally think that humanity needs to change (or develop) if it is to continue and it will only do that (in my opinion anyway) by taking small steps..it does require somebody to take that first step however…anyway…is the internet (and to some extent social media) destroying poetry or helping it to thrive?
AA: The internet and social media are a mixed blessing. There are some great webzines – ‘Words for the Wild’, ‘Bonnie’s Crew’, ‘Atrium’, etc. I still miss Rachel Kendall’s ‘Sein und Werden’. I guest-edited an online issue and was able to include poetry, fiction, art and video. Social media is great for keeping up to date with what’s happening – who’s publishing, who’s reading, who’s taking submissions, etc. On the other hand, Twitter, Facebook, etc seem to have encouraged some people into knee-jerk, misinformed, third hand reactions to almost everything. Every day seems to see a new pile-on from the keyboard warriors. Treat with caution.
DP: Wise words indeed…Do you have a writing / poetry group you share your work with?
AA: I used to regularly debut new poems at a local poetry night. Not so much now.
DP: Should every poem mean something or can they just be enjoyed for their words / language?
AA: I love a bit of clever wordplay. Call me old-fashioned but a poem (and a story, for that matter) should have something to say and even if it’s personal it should strive to touch on the universal also. John Lennon’s song Imagine is just him musing and tinkling on his white grand piano but it resonates for millions. Yep, aim that high, folks!
DP: Thank you Allen for your time, I know you’re busy, so it’s very much appreciated…a final question then: any advice to give an aspiring poet?
AA: Unless you are deliberately writing a pastiche or parody, avoid words like ‘thee’, ‘thou’, ‘o’er’ and so forth. Write in a modern register. And don’t strain for rhyme. It’s not the 1850s anymore.
Brilliant – a lesson for us all.
Allen’s collection (and the debut release for DEMAIN) Echoes From An Expired Earth is released as an ebook on 24th April 2020 on Amazon (paperback to come later in the year) but is currently available for presales.
If you would like to connect with Allen direct:
Website : www.allenashley.com
Any other social media links: “I’m on Facebook. Allen Ashley. Dark red T-shirt, sunglasses.”