Phen Weston is a writer based in North Devon. His beautiful book of poetry, ‘The Silent Balance’, has recently been published, with all royalties going towards a very special cause. Razz interviews him about his work process, inspirations and aspirations.
(Photo credit: twitter)
How long have you been a writer?
That is a good question. I’ve been a published and followed writer for a little over a year and a half now. I have had a blog since then and have slowly gained a number of fantastic followers from all around the world. From poetry lovers, to other writers, who have helped to further my work, inspire and teach me. There is a very large and friendly community online, and I’m very pleased to be a part of it.
From another perspective, in today’s society it is easier to say that you are something, than to actually be it. Scroobius Pip, one of my favourite poets and musicians, said ‘I see so many kids that love being writers more than they love writing’ (Scroobious Pip, 2011, ‘Let ‘em Come). And, for a long time, this was me! I was an “aspiring” writer in the logic that I had always felt that my soul has belonged to words, but something held me back from taking it more seriously than a standby declaration. Of course that something was me, but that’s a different story.
It wasn’t until I finally gained direction that I realised two truths: one – that I didn’t want to just think of being a writer any longer without actually being a writer, and two – that there is no such thing as an “aspiring” writer. You are or you are not. There is no middle ground.
At that point, I started to take it seriously, and words started to use me, and soon I was overwhelmed by a tsunami of language. Our ability to mix and merge words into new forms, with new meanings, is beautiful. So, therefore, I have always been a writer! There has never been anything else that has captured my heart, or that I have wanted to spend my life investigating and getting lost within.
This is your second published poetry collection, your previous being ‘Nothing But The Rain’. In what way does this one differ to the previous?
This was a completely different project from the start. There were three key areas that I wanted to happen with this project; the first was to bring together all the Waka (Japanese poetry) that I had been writing over the last year, in between my other work and the degree I was doing at the time, so that they had their very own home. Secondly, I saw the opportunity to work with someone that I feel is an extraordinary writer and that I had wanted to collaborate with in some way from the moment I read their poetry . And finally, at the time that I started to consider putting another book together, my little brother started putting together a support group for young LGBT people in the area where he lives, called ‘Light in the Closet’. Although this book has little to do with gender or sexuality, Waka has much to do with thought and emotion – and is this not really the truth that lies at the heart of the LGBT debate? Love is the greatest of human emotions, after all. And as I answer this, it’s interesting to see the response to yesterday’s decision by the U.S.A. to legalise gay marriage (#LoveWins)!
What inspired you to dedicate your work to this cause?
In short, he did! He is a diva and doesn’t take crap from anyone, except himself. He suffers from mental health issues and, even though sometimes they win, he fights each day with a strength that is rare and beautiful. He is my inspiration in so many ways. What he is trying to do with ‘Light in the Closet’ is wonderful. Although it’s mainly based online at present, he is looking into setting up a support group in his local area for young LGBT adults, who need support and guidance. This also extends to family and friends. He is fighting to break the taboo that still exists towards homosexuality and gender identity, even today.
That’s wonderful. And going back to the book, you have used many forms of Japanese poetry. What does it bring to your work?
I’ve always had a love for Asian culture, which allowed me to explore different aspects of each society. It can be completely different from the West, giving a refreshing change of thought and pace, which in turn gives you a better insight into humanity as a whole. Although each country has their own poetic forms and traditions, Japanese Waka holds a special place for me. At first glance, it seems so simple, but it has the ability to express so much in such a short form. In the West, we are only really familiar with a couple of these, such as the Haiku and the Tanka, but there are several others that are equally as beautiful, if not more so. The forms themselves are all very similar, yet their application manages to portray moments and emotions in ways that are unique only to them.
Does your writing style differ when you know you are writing with someone, in the case of the Katautas?
First, I think I should mention that my definition of the Katauta is more like that of the traditional Sedōka. Before it went out of fashion in the 8th century, it was customarily a poem written between lovers. A Katauta is a small three-line verse, yet this was considered incomplete, or a half-poem. To complete it, a second poet would write another Katauta as a response to the first, revealing their reaction and emotion. This would then form a Sedōka. However, since then, the Sedōka – especially when used in the West – has become more of a solitary form, where the poet writes two Katautas that represent the same theme from two different perspectives.
Since the form fell out of fashion, there has been no definitive direction for it when used, especially from a western viewpoint – so, to me, the forms seem like they should be separate entities, and that is how I wanted to keep them in my book. Of course, there are several different interpretations, including a form called a Mondo, which is based upon a Zen practice, where the same form is used as a quick response between a master and their student. But again, to me, this seems different to the traditional form used in the Man’yōshū.
Now, to answer your question: I find this form to be the most beautiful and overlooked form of all Waka. It is a simple and elegant exchange between two minds that are looking to see what the other can reveal about their reactions to words. If we take the poem:
Riverside train ride,
school girls, conductors and me,
locking eyes by accident.
Hitchcock waits for crows
to flock under noir spotlights,
are we strangers after all?
I am sure the response that was conjured in your mind when you wrote it was very different to the ‘Strangers on a Train’ idea that grasped me when I wrote the response. To a degree, it would depend on mood and thought at the time; had I not had a love for Hitchcock’s movies, it would have been completely different. For me, your words depicted an awkward black and white meeting of comical and shady figures, backlit with eyes hysterically impenetrable.
The form lends itself to the melding of thought in a way that longer collaborations cannot. Whereas longer forms may reveal the ideas and themes that both poets intend, this opens the soul to be read through each response. It is a style that has captured my heart, and I hope will make an unprecedented comeback. So you, reader! Yes, you! Send me a Katauta on twitter (@PhenWeston), and let’s see what we can disclose about the universe!
What were some of the challenges of writing these poems, and how did you overcome them?
I have to admit that, other than defining my idea of the Katauta, no challenges come to mind. When I finally decided that I wanted to pursue poetry properly, and not just say I was a writer, I set myself the challenge of writing something every day, even if it is something small when time is short. Each of these forms lend themselves to that very easily. They are quick and thought-provoking, and wonderful to write. Before I knew it, I was exploring each form in turn, and there were plenty that wanted to come together to form a collection.
I have recently set myself the challenge of turning another poem I started a while ago, which is currently unfinished at three parts, in to a long Chōka. The story itself is a love story set in feudal Japan, and would fit the form so much better than the free verse structure it currently has. I will let you know how it goes. I’ve already decided that it will take pride of place within my next Waka collection.
And lastly, what’s next for you?
So many things, SO MANY! I have another collection of my own work on the way, as well as plans for more Waka in the future. I am also planning for a collection with a fantastic poet from Texas, Christopher Rupley, who I have had the blessing to collaborate with several times in the last year, as well as form a fantastic friendship with. I am also hoping to pursue a Master’s next year. I also hope to get to work with Razz again! So keep reading my blog, and please follow me on Twitter to keep up to date. There is so much more to come, I promise that!