Conversations: Decoding the Poet: Paul Brookes

(Author interviews are important tools to understand the complex of psychological, emotional and cognitive-aesthetic factors behind the creative process. An entire spectrum of facts, moods and feelings revealed here in this Setu dialogue with the noted British poet Paul Brookes. Ed)

Sunil Sharma (SS): From a shop assistant to a poet of global repute is a long journey. A rare trajectory, in fact, where commerce, local, lingo, sales pitch all coalesce into lyrical monologues as you call that inner voice dictating the imagery to you, most likely at the end of the working day.

How does this astonishing transformation happen and keep on recurring?

Paul Brookes (PB): Thank you for the over generous phrase “worldwide repute”. I am a bloke who spends time on social media promoting writers at all stages of their development. All of us become known worldwide when we sign up to these sites.

My job as a sales assistant in a supermarket on Wombwell High Street enables me to chat with customers face to face. They call me by my first name, even when my back is turned, so they can’t see my name badge. I have no access to my phone during my shift so all my focus is on the work, the customers, and the team. I am deliberately on the lowest rung, on a contract with the least assigned hours. My workplace poetry collection “Please Take Change” (, 2019) includes pieces about my customers (no names, no pack drill), explores how the job connects me, gives me a sense of belonging to a community in which, even after twenty years I am still an “incomer” with a posh accent. This job is essential for my writing. My brain never switches off from recording mode, and the interactions between customers, between staff feeds my imagination. When I write I reinvent the worlds I live in. It is not so much a “trajectory”, as all in one.

Dialect confronted me from an early age. Moving from North Yorkshire to West Yorkshire to South Yorkshire, the intonation is constantly hardening and unfamiliar. On my late mom's side were “Macc’s" from Sunderland who referred to food as “bay-at”, in Barnsley it is called “snap”. Also, in South Yorkshire “laiking” is another word for “playing”, “spice”, a word for “sweets”. I love these words, roll them around on my tongue. They were aliens who are now part of my personal culture.

My nanna worked in Marks and Spencer’s as a shop assistant. My ancestors owned shops, mainly Linen Drapers.

My Ancestors
are shadow people who appear in wills,
advertisements and newspapers, no photos.
Take William Laurence who lived on a hill,
a Quaker incomer to Sheffield's roads.

A Linen Draper up Moorfields where thieves
stole linen from front of the shop. All I know.
Wildflowers, shadow flowers, whose names leave
my head as I see them in a meadow.

One has name but no image, one image
but no name. I wonder at delicate
shape of stems and petals. Absorb page
after page of Victorians love and hate.

I try to make some kind of rounded sense
based on a scarcity of evidence.

SS: Your resume is a dream. A Renaissance-like figure, you combine eclectic tastes and pursuits. How do genealogy, local history, photography, memoirs, reading Blake and Brecht, among others, and your own writing gel with a prosaic day- job involving facetime and hard customers?

PB: The common thread is belonging. The cliché “to find out where you’re going, find out where you’ve been, and where you are now.” “Association mania”. In my youth I found a kind of freedom in solo sailing from one end to the other of marinas. One of my ancestors was a waterman on the River Witham in the Fifteenth Century, another owned shares in a sloop that collected corn from Louth, Lincolnshire and delivered it to two places, Wisbech in Cambridgeshire and Hull, returning with coal. Another was a merchant mariner who over a period of forty years on twelve ships rose from “lime-juicer” to Captain. My late dad was a merchant mariner on his National Service, also a painter who enjoyed drawing townscapes, landscapes, especially those of mountains and sky. I am writing a book that includes his paintings and my memories of him.

As for photography, suddenly in my middle age I discovered an eye that highlights correspondences between earth and sky, sky and water, sky and manmade outside furniture like telegraph poles, a line of terraced houses, the intimate beauty of a macro lens bringing out fractals in nature. Photography reinvents a place in stills. I am endlessly fascinated by previous industrial landscapes that are relandscaped to provide leisure amenities. People always re-landscape, even in rewilding.

SS: Wombwell, South Yorkshire and twenty years of personal history intersect creatively in you. Place, stability, family and a quest for past in the present seem to collide in the psyche of the artist seeking newer territories and forms of expression; a kind of oscillation between fixities and the nebulous; a tension between stasis and desire for movement, openness, freedom. Do you agree?

PB: Nothing is ever fixed to me. Places change, people move. My old comprehensive school has been knocked down and replaced. A field at the bottom of our street is now a housing estate. The pits have been replaced by leisure amenities, like Manvers Lake. I document change. Change reinvents places and people. Recently we lost Fulton’s on Wombwell High Street, a freezer shop like the one I work in. All our clothes shops like Evans have closed. The market is only on the High Street now. Pits have also been replaced by call centres. I worked twelve years on the phones in two of those. Nothing stays the same. Folks die unexpectedly. I don’t play the lottery as life is lottery enough for me.

SS: How do you work within and outwards of a given place and redefine it. You destabilise and recreate a given landscape? Or, a poetic clairvoyance about a hint of a place in future, with its feeble promise of belongingness?

PB: How you hear stories from the folk who live there. How you see the buildings change use. Our local town hall became a pub, then a tattoo parlour. Poundstretchers was split into two shops for let. One became an optician, the other lies empty after a dentist decided not to move in. Local folktales give an extra essence to a place, as does dialect. We lost our post office, there was only a temporary one in the local library, then it moved into the old Yorkshire Bank building. Change is history in action. To record it, define it.

SS: The role of dialect and family history in your search for certainties of life or a stable sense of place and rootedness there in that locale and milieu?

PB: Pattern recognition. For example, my ancestor Charles Teft Laurence witnessed the death of a twelve-year-old boy, who was trying to retrieve salvage from Charles ship as it crashed on Pitcairn rocks, then when he moved to Australia, his own twelve-year-old son drowned in the river Charles captained boats upon.   Dialects root in old cultures. The Wombwell dialect is full of Norse.

SS: You are engaged in search for the marvellous in mundane, poetry in prose. Your insights of this search?

PB: Marvellous is always in the mundane. Whether it be marvellous dark or marvellous light. A window cleaner who speaks seven languages and helps refugees. An old miner who sings opera at the till when out shopping. Well written prose is poetry.

SS: You are keen to combine the visual with the lexical, a la Ted Hughes. What are the challenges and benefits of this hybrid genre?

PB: I am struck in wonder by Hughes collaborations with photographers in “Remains of Elmet” and “River”. I promote myself as a photographer too. I used many of my photos in my out-of-print collection “The Headpoke And Fire Wedding”, Alien Buddha Press, 2017. I hope they broaden the images and words.

I love collaborating with remarkable artists like Marcel Herms and Jane Cornwell. Their images comment on my words. They provide vitality, colour and energy.

SS: Russell Hoban and the future of language fascinate you as an artistic project. Will language become problematic in the distant future? An area of contention between differing sets of speakers in a high-tech landscape?

PB: Language has been, always will be problematic, thank God. Writers record its evolving, take part in its evolution, reimagining, reinventing, playing with words. It is exciting seeing how clarity works, how the brain makes stories out of apparent unconnected, disconnected meanings. Making the mundane different every time.

SS: What does poetry mean to you?

PB: Genius of place, dialect, language, geology, history, new ways of sensing, that are the old ways reimagined, reimagined. The way memory plays you as you remember.

SS: Your view on contemporary poetry. Is it not getting abstract, inward-looking and formalistic?

PB: Contemporary poetry is not only that printed in academic and respected journals, it is much more diverse. A diversity I find expressed in the marvellous work of Cheltenham Poetry Festival, that includes work by differently abled writers, spoken word. The poetry world is sometimes richer outside the traditional channels. It gives a broader vision.

SS: Your fav poets from the canon? Are they relevant to mass culture?

PB: Peter Reading’s avian poetry, eco poetry, dystopian vision shines through, William Blake is always relevant, Robert Louis Stevenson’s children’s poetry will always speak to the child in adults too. Brecht and Beckett, both poetic playwrights, still hit home. Dylan Thomas always singing in his chains under the sea. Under Milk Wood words emerging every day like fresh spring flowers. Also, so many neglected poets need raising up. I mourn and celebrate the poems of the late Kari Flikingr, Reuben Woolley, Dai Fry, Jamie Dedes, Harold Massingham as part of my own personal canon.

SS: Paul Brookes in third person singular, in brief, for the new-millennium reader in a hurry?

PB: Yorkshire Dialect pagan sci-fi supermarket shop assistant listener, entertainer, historical world builder, topsy-turvy lime-juicer.

SS: You call writing as a mix of landscape, history, memoir and dialect. This sense of poetry is often missing these days. Are these important ingredients for a serious poet concerned with the locales and their historical echoes in a social text? Is "situatedness" crucial to capture that fleeting moment?

PB: O, yes. Simon Armitage recognises this in his marvellous Marsden poems.

SS: How do these get synthesised in a creative work? A tough walk?

PB: Walking poetry is essential. Rhythm, pace, getting the surprises flowing poetic walk taking you into surprising, unexpected hills, climbs, descents, views never expected, never planned. Let the words guide you in creating a new map of where you are, were and will be.

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