How did poetry first appear in your life?
I was first a musician: I started violin lessons when I was four, but music lessons even earlier, and for the most part of my pre-teen years, much more interested in that. The first poems I remember writing are animal-themed rhymes in primary school that were, of course, veiled (and sometimes snarky) sketches of my classmates and their antics. From what I recall, they all had a kind of sing-song, rhythmic quality that may well have been a product of my musical education!
At the same time, my family attended a church which – unusually for a kid growing up in Singapore – used the King James Version of the Bible, which proved incredibly helpful years later when we did Shakespeare in school. But I think there was something about the measured, magisterial quality of the language that thrilled me even then: the King James was after all, translated to impress its listeners. I certainly came under its spell.
If your favourite poem were a meal, what would it be?
Probably a good hefty chunk of beef or lamb (medium-rare), accompanied by Chinese-style vegetables (no garden salad for me!), and – always – roast potatoes. The last might be a surprise but I think in any poem, as with any meal, the staple’s always the most easily overlooked (but most important) thing. Add a coffee afterwards, no sugar: something about the poem should always stay on the tongue and keep you up.
What do you think poetry’s relationship to politics should be?
Both poetry and politics are fundamentally about our common life. Conceptions of poetry that focus on ‘self-expression’ or ‘self-discovery’ don’t resonate with me, and I tend to think that a poem read or heard is infinitely more valuable than a poem written. So at heart, good poetry does what good politics does: it attends to the voices and connections that are out there (especially where these are rendered invisible in everyday life) and makes some intervention to redistribute the good, empower the vulnerable, or represent the unsaid. Both have a responsibility to others, both speak in and to the vast web of the world.
Yet there are things good poetry can do that even good politics can’t. Politics, after all, is not fundamentally about making beauty (even though the politics of kindness is often beautiful in itself). In addition to its responsibility toward others, poetry is responsible for – and is defined by – crafting language into something beautiful. And though this is worth pursuing in itself, the creation of beauty can feed back into poetry’s political role: beauty is redemptive, and helps to frame ideas that we think are true or important in a more original, resonant, and compelling way.
Describe your ideal poetry festival line-up…
I think a ‘Festival of Young Voices’ is long overdue – I’d love to see a fresh ‘30 Below 30’ programme that brings together young poets working in different styles on the page and in performance; poets who have arrived in the UK (or within its orbit) in one way or another, and who are comfortable in a wide range of global Englishes. We tend to associate young voices with spoken-word venues or online platforms: both of which are important, but neither of which has the immediate reach or intimate discussion-space that a broad-based Festival can provide. And yes, part of the focus of such a Festival would have to be breaking down the generational and geographical barriers that characterize publishing in this country more broadly: so just as important as achieving a young and dynamic line-up would be creating opportunities at the Festival for collaboration and publication.
Do you have any bad poetry habits?
You have no idea! I think the one that troubles me most at the moment is how anxious I always am to get a poem done: if I’ve sat in front of the computer for any longer than three hours my limbs start to tingle and I get too restless to continue – but I also hate the sense of leaving something unfinished so I end up rushing the poem.
How do you feel about making a living from poetry? Do you do it? Do you avoid it? Do you want to do it?
I don’t ever want to do it – mainly out of a fear that my poetry will become less interesting (to me, as well as to others) if it’s the only thing I do! I’ve also grown up interested in a pretty wide range of careers and I don’t think I could forgive myself if I didn’t give them a shot at some point.
What’s a good poem idea that you’ve had but never managed to write?
I think the best ‘poem ideas’ are those that speak most truthfully to real life: paradoxically, this makes them the hardest to write because they would be irreducible to the page. However skilful the writer, turning any subject (say, a significant person, experience, or moment) into a poem involves simplifying it in some way. Sometimes you just know when you’ve encountered something like that, that you just have to be content to have lived it – the best things in life, after all, don’t deserve to be simplified.
Sometimes the passage of time does the simplifying work for you, and you can write about something special when the ‘magic of the moment’, as it were, has become sufficiently worn away in your memory. But all this is really just a round-about way of saying: I’d like to think my best poems are those I’ve never written, and never will because they never lose their shine – or their edge.
Theophilus Kwek reads with Hive Young Writers, Lydia Allison, Warda Yassin, Phoebe Stuckes and Helen Mort at Grimm & Co, 2 Doncaster Gate, Rotherham, S65 1DJ on Monday 22 May. Click here for further details.