STEPPING OVER SEASONS:
an interview with Ashley Capes
Some writers draw you into each story or poem, and in these instances it’s cinematic, even if it’s not a particularly good film. There’s this one experience, and this is all that we’re looking at. There are directors that defy that singular experience and we watch each film in isolation but also as part of that director’s oeuvre. At the other end of the spectrum there’s the great HBO-style show, where it’s not really about individual episodes or directors, but the flow from one week to another, and further, into months and years. It’s not about scenes or plot twists anymore, but a way of looking at the world and a way of feeling it, that we want to tune into. The aesthetic becomes compelling. The moods and insights become epiphanies that we eagerly wait for. Ashley Capes is this kind of writer.
I’m not someone that believes in ‘natural’ poets. I’m too aware of how much reading goes into developing poetic awareness, and how many hours at the page go into developing a feeling for the craft, and then how many years of living with poetry go into creating a poetic weltanschauung, but despite all that, occasionally a poet will strike me as being a ‘natural’ poet. Every time I read your poetry I’m struck by the grace and ease with which you present each poem. So tell me about the work, the sweat, and reassure me that there have indeed been lost months (if not years) where it wasn’t all quite so natural.
Absolutely. Writing is supposed to be one of those careers with long apprenticeships, and certainly I’m not finished, but it’s been close to fifteen years now. Although, probably only ten of them have been ‘serious years’ where I’ve been writing, reading, editing, submitting, being rejected, being published and repeating the process over and over.
Probably the most important part of the last ten years, has been the submitting. There’s nothing like scores of rejection slips to get you thinking critically about your own work, to get you thinking how to communicate better.
The reading is a big part too. I read as much contemporary small press poetry as possible, as well as my older favourites from the world stage. And I read a lot of haiku too. Reading and writing haiku, more than any other genre, was where I really began to strive for the ‘economy of words.’
So it’s great to hear you describe my pieces as having ‘grace’ and ‘ease’ because I want them to read that way, even if writing them is a much more difficult process. I remember spending around six years on one poem, which started out as a twenty-two page kind of Beat-rant. As I worked on it, I’d cut it down, take some time away, come back, often with months or years in between. Eventually I wrangled it into something closer two pages and it had evolved into a more direct piece, though it did retain a feel for what it once was. Another piece, written for the Street/Life issue of Stylus Poetry Journal, I managed a draft in an hour or so, then spent the next few weeks before the deadline reworking the opening and the last two lines. The first two paragraphs went through around fifteen versions before I arrived at something I felt worked.
You seem to have an admirable resilience and adaptability. Some writers feel even the smallest suggestion of correction as a personal affront to their integrity as artists and to take rejection as a personal offense to their honour. That’s a bit of an exaggeration but I have in fact known a few writers that very much embody that medieval mindset. I’d also suggest that we can be surprised, even when we think we’re completely beyond it, and feel devastated at suggested corrections or a particular rejection. What are your thoughts on literary adaptability and artistic integrity? I’m also wondering how you negotiate rejection.
I learnt pretty early how much rejection is involved with writing and it seemed utterly pointless to give up just because things were tough. Actually, it’s probably because things were tough that I managed to improve.
Yes, I’ve come across that same mindset at times. It seems counter-productive. And I agree, we can be surprised, it’s one of the best things about writing. I love getting feedback that allows me to step back from a piece and see something new in it, or where something different could lie. So perhaps artistic integrity is adaptability? The ability to adapt, alter and improve your art, to change – a poet’s dedication to this ethos is perhaps the core of artistic integrity. (Just add in something along the lines of ‘never let a major corporation use your work for advertising’ too.)
I like the term ‘negotiate rejection’ as it can certainly be a negotiation with yourself or your ego. Sometimes you’re just so confident that a piece is right for a particular publication, and then bam! back it comes with a polite ‘no’, or even worse, no reply at all. And sometimes, when you’re lucky, with a useful reply as to why it was a ‘no.’
With most rejections, I think to myself ‘damn it – but no, this is a good thing too, I can look at this poem again and send it somewhere else.’ And sometimes that second look involves a further edit, and sometimes it doesn’t. But either way, the work is sent out again. I treat rejection as an opportunity. It’s probably one of the best motivators for me. I’d been submitting to GDS, for instance, for around six years I think, before I had work accepted for their latest issue. Every rejection made me think to myself, ‘one day I’ll write something good enough’ and when I finally did, it was fantastic. Glad I never quit, actually!