I talked to David Tait about his first full collection ‘Self-Portrait with The Happiness’ (Smith/Doorstop)
PART 1: THE POET
Paul: Where was home?
David: Home was a variety of places. I’m from Lancaster originally and before moving to China lived in a youth hotel in the Lake District (I was a really bad catering manager) and then Hebden Bridge for a few years. Also spent a fair few years in Leeds, which I love.
Paul: Where is home now?
David: I live in Nanjing now, in East China – I’ve been here for around 2 years. Before that, I lived in Guangzhou, which is in the South of China, a couple of hours from Hong Kong.
Paul: Are you travelling, living abroad, or in exile?
David: A mix of the three I suppose. I travel a lot here, and I live here, and though I’d never consider myself “in exile” I would rather like to stay together with my partner, and the UK’s prohibitive immigration policies make living in the UK not really possible. Luckily, Brexit is happening soon, allowing us to take back control… oh wait, that probably won’t work out very well for me and my partner either. So let’s say “exile pending” as a status for now ^^.
Paul: Did you grow up reading or writing poetry?
David: When I was growing up, Lancaster’s branch of Waterstones had a slim shelf of poetry. It had Hughes, and Heaney’s The Rattle Bag, some Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, Philip Larkin. Those books are still there.
My favourite at that time was Wendy Cope – the poems made me laugh, especially “The Orange”, “The Aerial” and “Some More Light Verse”. Then we studied the poems of Elizabeth Jennings for GCSE English, and I found I was able to “get” them and talk about them when a lot of the other students in the class found them boring. I wrote a few Wendy Cope-esque poems when I was getting started.
Paul: Who were your early poetry influences? Which remain with you today?
David: I think Philip Larkin, Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage were my biggest early influences, and I kind of see them as my gateway into poetry; poets who write in a way that was accessible, stimulating and engaging for me, and this remains so.
I always find it odd when people criticize poets who have found a popular audience. I was reading recently about a poet called Rupi Kaur who has written a series of poems that connect with a lot of people on her social media. Personally, these poems don’t work for me, but I think it’s great they work for other people, and could steer people in the direction towards other poetry. These days I love the poetry of Karen Solie and Valérie Rouzeau – I don’t think I’d have found their poetry without finding Cope and Duffy first.
Paul: How did you navigate your way in the poetry world?
David: A very good question! Okay, the first massive step for me was attending a Creative Writing module at Leeds University, run by the astonishing tutor Amanda Dalton. I wrote my first real poems then! Then, a couple of years later, I decided to join the Leeds Writers Circle – a group of writers from all backgrounds who meet up every week or two weeks to have manuscript evenings, sharing their work and give critical feedback. In this group I learned how to look at all kinds of writing, how to share criticism, and built up a number of friendships that have stayed with me over time. From that platform I met other poets, attended courses run by Ty Newydd, The Poetry School, The Poetry Business and The Arvon Foundation…
Paul: Who did you meet along the way?
David: Loads of people! Poetry is a small world, so you find yourself in a situation where you want to book a course and the tutors are Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke, or Moniza Alvi and Susan Wicks – your heroes from their books. Then you go, and it’s amazing. And then there are other young writers in the same area as you, writing poems that you just love: Kim Moore, Andrew McMillan, Helen Mort, Ian Harker, Tom Weir and Suzannah Evans all played a major part in my own writing development. Their poetry is really inspirational to me.
Paul: What role have Peter Sansom and Ann Sansom played?
David: Huge! Peter came in once to guest tutor on the Amanda Dalton led creative writing module and his passion was really infectious for everyone in the room. A few years later I started attending Poetry Business Writing Days in Sheffield (once a month, the best 25 quid you’ll spend) and always looked forward to these mornings of writing and afternoons of critical reflection.
In terms of how they’ve developed me as a writer, I’d say they’ve grounded me and made me “less poetic” – I always look for the most interesting and simplest way to say something now, the way that most closely follows vernacular speech. Peter and Ann have taught me that it’s better to talk about a kid eating a stolen apple in “six quick happy bites” than in a drawn out poetic way. I also use a lot more direct speech in my writing, which I suspect is something I’ve learned from them.
One last thing about Peter and Ann is that while they are renowned as tutors, I think their best lessons can be taught through their poetry. I’ve got Ann’s In Praise of Men and Other People here with me in Nanjing and some of those poems: “Crossing the Nile”, “A Breather” – are among the favorites of all my poems. And Peter’s poem about Ted Hughes cooking breakfast in his house – amazing!
Paul: I understand you also did an MA in Creative Writing. What did this bring you? Which poets did you discover?
David: My MA at Man Met was a wholly positive experience. Our tutors were Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Jean Sprackland and Michael Symmons Roberts and fellow students on the course included Kim Moore, Liz Venn, David Borrott, Matt Byrne, Amy McCaulley, Mike Conley, Joe Hobson and Clive McWilliam – all amazing poets with different distinctive styles. I got the feeling we all learned a lot from each other, as well as an appreciation for so many of the poets on the syllabus, and in the library.
The other great thing this course brought me was the chance to develop as a performer. While at MMU I was very lucky to be “The House Poet” for Carol Ann Duffy & Friends at The Royal Exchange for a few years. Each event we’d have 3-4 student readers, Carol Ann and a famous poet of national stature. It was an honour to meet and share the stage with poets like Don Paterson, Robert Minhinnick, Elaine Feinstein and Jackie Kay.
Paul: You have published two pamphlets. How did the first, Love’s Loose Ends, come about?
David: Ah I was just writing lots of little love poems at the time, and then I went to Barter Books in Alnwick and saw a quote by Jon Stallworthy, saying “My poems all are woven out of love’s loose ends” – hanging from the ceiling. I thought, “cool, I’m nicking that idea”, and decided to weave the poems together as a sequence. I entered the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition with it and got an unexpected phone call months later.
Paul: Your second pamphlet, Three Dragon Day has been published since your first collection. It is stunning, and creates its own world. I go back to it again and again. Was writing a series of poems around air pollution and urban expansion in China a conscious choice, something you set out to do, or did you look at your poems and realise this common theme?
David: I always try to just write what I’m thinking about at the time – but when putting a book together I start to think more critically about how a book fits together thematically. So usually a book I write will only contain about 30-40% of the poems I’ve written during this time. A number of poems I’ve published in magazines I probably won’t publish in books, for instance, because they don’t fit the overall theme.
Paul: I love the way you incorporate Chinese ideograms (kanji) into the poems. How did this come about?
David: Chinese is a visual language, and the ideograms are everywhere, so I think adding them is a way of paying homage to their influence. Also, I cannot read Chinese well, or translate satisfactorily – so sometimes the ideograph will have to do.
Paul: How did you know you were ready to publish a full collection?
David: In all cases I kind of know a book is ready when I feel like I’ve written the poem that brings it all together. In the case of Love’s Loose Ends it was the poem “In Thread’; in the case of Three Dragon Day it was the poem “History of the World in 40 Walls”; for Self Portrait with The Happiness it was ”The Stars and The Dragon”. These poems don’t end the collection, but they feel like they bring a period to a close. Okay, that’ll do – I have what I need now.
PART 2: THE BOOK
Paul: The blurb for your book Self-Portrait with The Happiness says that the poems are ‘part self-portrait, part love affair’. In what way does the book provide a true portrait of you?
David: Haha, well, I was writing these poems a little before “selfies” became a thing. I wanted each self-portrait to be a snapshot / reflection of a time I could reflect on. I think that book is a fair reflection of who I am, or was, during that time. I wrote it in 2012 – so I guess I’m quite different now – but if I read back those poems they feel authentic.
Paul: There are actually seven self-portrait poems throughout the book: ‘with Headtorch’, ‘with Corridor’, ‘with Overhead Cables’. How did you end up writing the series?
David: I wanted to experiment with lengthier poems, and I felt that writing poems like this, as a kind of staggered sequence would give me the permission to write more longwindedly / lyrically to explore bigger ideas. I think Mark Doty’s poetry was a huge influence in this regard. I fall well well short of the brilliance he achieves in his work of course, but I’m happy to have been able to experiment with this longer form.
Paul: Which is the most achieved of the poems? And which is the closest or most honest self-portrait?
David: I think Self-Portrait in Tears is the one I’m most proud of. I think “Self-Portrait with the Dead” is the closest to being honest / my voice.
Paul: You decided to give a definite article to, and to capitalise ‘The Happiness’ and ‘The Sadness’. Why so?
David: Because Peter Sansom said so. It was a suggestion I hadn’t really considered, but when he made it I was like “oh, but of course!” – The Happiness was a thing in the poem, how could it not be capitalized?
Paul: What is happiness for you? Is it attainable? Lasting or fleeting?
David: It changes doesn’t it? I think sometimes we are filled with a feeling of gratitude / sadness and we are not sure where it came from or how to express it. I think happiness and gratification are often easy to confuse, too.
Paul: Mention is also made of the poems being ‘obsessed with moments elsewhere’ and – like the work of Matthew Stewart who I interviewed previously – there is an opposition between the poems of rural England and those of foreign lands. How do you feel about this dichotomy or juxtaposition?
David: As a fellow expat once brilliantly put it to me “once you love two places, you can never be truly happy”. There should always be, I think, this reaching out to the other things / places you love.
Paul: Simon Armitage has admired your poems for their careful concision, their “small, intense dramas, full of knowing detail and telling lines. Tender but shrewd”. To what extent do you feel your poems are driven by narrative, incident, drama? Are they short stories in poem form?
David: I once put ‘“Tender but Shrewd” – Simon Armitage’ on my online dating profile for a laugh. I think the poems do make a narrative sense, certainly, and I try to make sure each poem in a pamphlet or collection chimes with another. I’m not sure if they are short stories in poem form as such, but then and again I think a lot of the new poems I’ve written for the forthcoming book could be accused of that quite legitimately. I’ve always believed that a collection should be like a mosaic, and each poem a little colourful tile that makes up part of that mosaic.
Paul: Lacklan Mackinnon said your poems were ‘utterly intimate, utterly unembarrasing’. It is true that you are quite candid about love and sex. Did this openness seem natural?
David: Yes, to me it does feel natural. If you aren’t exposing or exploring something tender I kind of wonder if you’re pushing yourself as hard as you can as a poet. But for me this comes down to a personal preference. I don’t particularly enjoy reading poetry that is overly-academic or self-knowingly clever, although I can see that others get pleasure from this… give me interesting, honest, and revealing anyday.
Paul: To what extent are you confessional? Are there moments where you ficitonalise the self?
David: I suppose I am confessional in some ways, but not in others. For instance the poem “Self Portrait in Tears” – the emotion is genuine, the content of the poem is not. (no-one died in real life, but the feeling of being a loved shame, someone who is loved but the unacceptability of homosexuality in Asian culture is all too real).
Paul: I love the tenderness, the honesty and imagery in small poems like ‘The night my grandfather died’, ‘Elsewhere’ and ‘Dust’. Would you describe your poems as ‘romantic’, ‘sexy’ or ‘sensual’?
David: Haha, I think that entirely depends on what turns you on. Personally, I’d go for “sensual” here.
Paul: Nikola Madzirov gave a lovely compliment by saying you have ‘the sense and imagination of an architect who dreams about earthquakes and talks about breeze’. Do you plan your poems? Do you have a sense of constructing an edifice?
David: Mostly no, mostly I write poems pretty much as they come out and try to avoid planning in advance. I find that way that the poems take me more by surprise and reveal some surprising truths. There are some poems though, like “Puppets” and “Sonnet in the Snow” that emerge as a more obvious kind of set-piece as the writing begins, and I think a different and more calculating writing style comes to the fore when you realize you’ve stumbled on this kind of set-piece poem.
Paul: Do you have any recurring dreams?
David: I don’t think so… I dream, but it’s always sketchy – maybe I should keep a diary.
Paul: Armitage, Mackinnon, Madzirov. Have they been influences on your work?
David: I enjoy reading an awful lot more than I enjoy writing – so yes, I’d say a lot of the people I read influence my subject matter, my ideas. I’d say my biggest influences at the moment are probably Charles Simic (always) Wislawa Szymborska and Jack Gilbert. Although I don’t write like any of these people, they guide me a lot in what matters.
Paul: Matthew Stewart wrote that you provide a “highly skilled subversion of an abstract noun: love“. Perhaps a little like Andrew McMillan, and Roddy Lumsden, you write about the fragility of men that love or are in love. Would you agree? Are there other poets you admire who write on this mix of vulnerability?
David: Absolutely. This is probably for me one of the richest areas for writing. It is often in our insecurities where the poems reside, where we ruminate more and consider more deeply. So many other poets I admire for this. As for a list of people who I think do this magnificently: Colette Bryce, Ben Ladouceur, Jameson Fitzpatrick, Carol Ann Duffy, Ocean Vuong, John McCullough, Natalie Diaz, Jessica Greenbaum, Danez Smith, Mark Doty, Kim Addonizio, Richard Scott, Frank O’Hara.
Paul: Do you consider yourself a gay poet? How do you feel about labels such as ‘gay poet’ or ‘gay poetry’. It is irrelevant, lazy, a distraction?
David: Well, I’m gay, and I write. Sometimes I feel that “a gay poet” is expected to write in a certain way – the self, bodies, love, flesh, all of that. I think if you self-declare yourself and promote yourself as a gay poet, then you can inadvertently box yourself in thematically, which would be a shame, as you probably have much more to offer as a poet, regardless of your sexuality. I write about being gay because it’s who I am, and some poems will come from that identity. The new book is much more varied, with one section (and one particularly long poem) dedicated to thinking about homophobia.
Paul: Peacocks, pelicans, dragons. Which do you most associate with?
David: Dragons, always!
Paul: You are both an urban and a rural poet, embracing city and nature. Which do you feel most comfortable writing on?
David: I feel more comfortable writing about the city, because I know the names of the stuff in it. I think one of my failings as a rural poet is not knowing what any of the bloody flowers are called.
Paul: I was a student on a Poetry School online course you ran about the city. What is it that fascinates you about urban life?
David: I’ve done a few courses for The Poetry School, like A Tale from the World City, and really enjoyed them. I like online as a medium for training, and if they ask me back, sure, I’d be very happy to do more teaching. Basically my process is to think of themes, then poems that match those themes and then to think of a variety of approaches so that students can find a way in to their own writing. I think the most fascinating aspect of urban life is the people. The city is where the stories are, I think. Also, some of the bigger issues, such as pollution, social equality and so on. The countryside is a smaller and more reflective world.
Paul: There is a poem set in the Czech Republic, Cesky Krumlov, but mainly you take your inspiration from further afield: Japan, Thailand and ‘Postbox’ is on China. Where does your interest in Asia come from?
David: Probably from when I did a gap year in Thailand, and a subsequent enjoyment of Asian culture, food etc.
Paul: So had you been living in China a while when you published the book? Does it record those first months?
No, I came to China in March 2013. The book was finished by Christmas 2012. So, all those poems I wrote were finished before China. The new book, The AQI will be all poems from since I moved here.
David: Air Quality Index.
Paul: You have an excellent specular or mirror poem called ‘On Being Trapped Inside a Puddle’. What was the inspiration behind the poem and was it tricky to write?
David: Someone just showed me the form and I decided to write one. It took a few drafts of a bad specular before I realised a poem I’d been trying to write previously might suit the form – so, hey presto!
Paul: What would you do if you found yourself trapped inside a puddle?
David: I’d probably try to make friends with the other people trapped there.
Paul: ‘Death of a Lighthouse’ is beautifully described. Was this poem written from first-hand observation?
David: Yes indeed! My good friend Deirdre McGarry used to run a “Writers House” in Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire over the summer. A number of us went to stay there and so some writing. That poem is all about the lighthouse there.
Paul: What has been the reaction to the book?
David: Quite good! It got some nice reviews in places like The TLS and was shortlisted for the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and The Polari Prize. I also got an Eric Gregory Award for it too, which was a wonderful outcome for me and my hitherto-quite-snarky-aggressive bank who wanted me to settle my overdraft debts. The big thing for me though, was to be able to look at it and go “yeah, I made that, I’ll stand by that book”. I don’t think I’ll write too many books in my lifetime, maybe just 3 or 4 – so I’m happy this one reflects who I was at that time.
PART 3: POETRY LIFE
Paul: What is it like teaching English in China?
David: It’s cool – the students are really nice and very driven. I work mostly with adult learners and design courses based around the acquisition of soft skills: public speaking, management, meeting organization, email writing and resume/interview skills, for instance. I don’t spend so much time in the classroom these days, my job is more related to materials development and training teachers.
Paul: What are the key challenges for Chinese speakers learning English?
David: There are quite a few – the grammar is very different, and Chinese is a syllable timed language, making natural pronunciation tricky. Chinese speakers also learn in very different ways, meaning that reading comprehension can often be stronger than speaking ability. I’d recommend reading Jung Chang’s (of Wild Swans) “Chinese Speakers” for a quite comprehensive intro to some of the difficulties – its not too long, 20 pages or so, and gives quite a cool insight on the gaps between the languages.
Paul: Are there any common mistakes they make? Perhaps some frustrate or amuse you?
David: There are some quite common errors, for instance not knowing the difference between adjectives and nouns (“good for your healthy”) but I don’t find these frustrating, just try to help them build their proficiency. Chinglish menus are a great source of amusement to everyone concerned. For lunch today one dish we ordered was called “lightning slices the cucumber!” for instance.
Paul: Is there a certain type of poem or poet that is easier to introduce Chinese speakers of English to? Do you look to convey the essence of the poem in English through particular features that can be more easily grasped without being a native speaker?
David: I think poems in which there is a bit of a story help. My students love “The Dogs” by Helen Mort and “The End and the Beginning” by Wislawa Szymborska for instance. “Strawberries” by Edwin Morgan is another they like.
Paul: Your Cantonese/Mandarin must be pretty good now. What has your experience of learning the language been?
David: Haha, my Chinese is still horrendous. I’m excellent in coffee shops and train stations. As for experience learning the language, trial and error, task-based can do statements. “I can order a coffee. I can direct the taxi driver”.
Paul: Have you discovered much Chinese Poetry? I know of the anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry Jade Ladder, edited by W. N. Herbert and Yang Lian. But being in China, I wondered if you had much access to poetry, or contact with Chinese poets?
David: A little bit, yes! Matthew Byrne, who studied an MA with me at MMU came over to China at the same time and promptly set up Spittoon, an arts collective that has open mic nights, a magazine and a translation section. I’ve met a few poets through this, like Chen Bo and Xiao Shui. I’m going to be teaching a Contemporary Chinese Poetry course quite soon, actually, which should be fun.
Paul: Is there a sense of nature and eco poetry being a distinct genre within Chinese poetry?
David: I’m really not well informed enough or proficient enough in Chinese to know, but my gut says “yes” because I hear of some poets described as “folk poets” – which sounds eerily similar to what we would term as eco poetry. What we must remember is that “eco poetry” is often quite political, and that is a trickier association in some parts of the world.
Paul: Have you tried translating Chinese poetry or worked with translators on your own poems?
David: I’ve dabbled unsuccessfully, but a project I am looking to work on is to create a crossover pamphlet series between UK and Chinese poets. For example, 5 poems by a British poet translated into Chinese, 5 poets by a Chinese poet translated into English, published in the same pamphlet. I need translators who don’t need to be paid much, as I’ll probably be funding this myself. So if you’re reading this and it seems like you, drop me a line.
Paul: From Facebook I get the sense that you have been travelling widely around China. Is it easy? Where are your favourite places? What has surprised you?
David: I’m lucky to travel a lot for work. My job’s a national position so I will travel to different cities – I usually wake up early and take loads of pics before I go to the office, because I love photography and seeing lots of different places. Travel in China is pretty easy. There are bullet trains everywhere and the local transport infrastructure has received heavy investment – far superior to anything in the UK. I also like travelling in my free time.
Paul: When you are not writing poetry, what are you doing?
David: Photography, playing silly card games, eating, reading books and exercising. I live a relatively simple life really.
Paul: How about food, what role does this play in your life?
David: Food plays an important role, and within each area of China different culinary traditions have prominence. So, if I’m in Szechuan its all delicious numbing-spice hot pots and fried green beans with la-jiao. I was in Beijing last week and ate my own body weight in meat pancakes and duck.
Paul: What are your poetry-go-tos? Which magazines, websites, podcasts?
So many, but here are a few:
Magazines: Ambit, Magma, The Interpreter’s House, Poetry Salzburg, The North, The Rialto, B O D Y, The Poetry Review, Oxford Poetry, PN Review, Poetry (Chicago), Stand.
Websites: The Poetry Foundation, Anthony Wilson’s Life Saving Poems, The Poetry Archive, The Poetry School.
Podcasts: Scottish Library Poetry Podcast, Lunar Poetry Podcasts, Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Lectures.
Paul: What are you currently reading and what would you recommend?
David: I’m currently reading Karen Solie – The Living Option, Robert Hass – Apple Trees at Olema, John McCullough – Spacecraft and Katia Kapovitch – Gogol in Rome. I’d recommend all of these!
Paul: Can you tell me a little about your new book? When is it due and, very broadly, what is it about?
David: Sure thing, its called The AQI and its all about contemporary life in China, with a bit of homophobia thrown in for good measure. Lots of smog, crowded streets and moments of surreal beauty! It has a few of the poems from Three Dragon Day in it too. Here’s a poem from it:
The Traditional and Virtuous Green Zone
I woke to the explosion of a forty-foot tree
being dropped from a truck to the tarmac.
Twenty more arrived, and I watched as a gang
of workmen banged away at the root soil,
men hacking and spitting with sledgehammers,
then a crane came and settled them in.
By lunch-time cicadas were belting out their songs
and seniors played chess in the shade.
By sunset a man did a roaring trade with singing birds,
and two rival groups of aunties danced to garish music.
A knock at the door announced an official with a leaflet:
You are today living in the traditional and virtuous green zone
an urban orchard with fifty years of harmonious history.
I started to laugh and turned to tell my partner
but sitting in his place, shocked to see me
was a man who looked old, like his father.
Paul: Has your style of writing changed? Do you feel you have evolved?
David: Definitely it has changed a lot. There’s a lot more dialogue now, and shorter sentences, and I think a confidence in not really worrying if the reader gets every meaning or not. I’m also very picky. If a poem isn’t working, I generally don’t bother keeping it. I’m less sentimental about poems or images that aren’t working.
Paul: How did you sequence the poems? Did other poets give feedback and advice on the manuscript?
David: Yes, generally I write the poems over time and then send the manuscript to people I trust who I know will give interesting feedback, or feedback that challenges my way of writing. I’m indebted to the people who have helped shape the manuscripts I’ve written. Those people know who they are!
Paul: Do you see yourself staying in China long-term?
David: I should imagine so! But if the UK starts allowing gay unmarried couples with not much money into the country, I’d be up for that.
Paul: Where does the poem begin?
David: Always long ago.