A fellow of The Complete Works programme, Rishi Dastidar serves as Co-Editor of And Other Poems and as chair of Spread The Word, a writer development organization. His first collection, Ticker-Tape, was published by Nine Arches Press earlier this year. We had the privilege of speaking with him about his influences and forthcoming plans.
– The Editors
Congratulations on Ticker-Tape! The collection, your first, is now 8 months off the press and out into the wide world. Has having a collection out there changed your outlook/ approach to writing new work?
Thank you! The last couple of months do feel like they’ve been a bit of a whirlwind – a good one, as it really has been delightful having the book out there and trying to get the word out about it to as many people as possible. And broadly speaking people have been very kind about the book – much, much kinder than I ever thought possible, so it’s been great.
As to what I’m thinking, feeling about writing new stuff? Truthfully, being in the process of promotion means it’s harder to get enough space and time to think about that to any huge depth. But broadly speaking – I don’t think the fact of the book has made me want to adjust my poetics hugely or suddenly decide, I really must knuckle down and write that series of elegies to trees, for example. That’s not just who I am as a writer, I doubt I’ll ever be that writer, and truthfully there are plenty of other people who could write those elegies far better than me.
That said, I know that for the next project, I am going to have to make some adjustments to what I do, and how I do it. I don’t think of this as radical change, so much as in-flight course corrections, as it were – dialling up one particular aspect of my voice for the needs of this particular train of thought.
Practically, I’ve also been trying to be reasonably disciplined and at least turn out one new draft a month. I’ve found that Visual Verse is a really great aid to that. For those of you who don’t know, every month they give their writers an image, and you have an hour to respond to it. I find that combination of restraints liberating, a good jumping off point – in an hour you can get something interesting up, but with the knowledge that there’ll be plenty to work on too once you’re done.
Did you find the compiling process difficult? Any advice you’d give to poets struggling to compile the momentous ‘debut collection’?
From this distance it doesn’t feel like putting Ticker-tape together was difficult, but no doubt there were moments when I was not so blasé about it.
In terms of the compiling of poems, I was pretty sure that at the beginning of 2015 I had enough – but I also knew that there was one poem, ‘These things boys do’, that absolutely had to arrive before the book would be complete. I’m not sure how I knew, but I was sure the book would be incomplete without it, or with another poem in its place. And it turned out that that poem took the best part of a year to come to life. So the first piece of advice is, absolutely listen to your gut – if it feels like the book is ready, it probably is. And vice versa.
In the meantime I was shuffling and re-shuffling A4 sheets on the living room floor, leaving a gap for this one poem. Of course Ticker-tape itself would form the spine around which everything else would revolve, and I already had a pretty strong idea of the poems I wanted to open and close the book – I definitely wanted a sense of quietness and quietude to start, and then knowing how noisy things would get, I wanted to come back down to a sense of calm with which to play out. So that’s the second piece of advice: if you can, have a strong idea of your first and last poems at least – it gives you a stake in the ground, fixed points around which to work.
The other piece of advice is slightly harder to achieve but – have the input of a brilliant editor. I was so lucky to be able to work with Jane Commane of Nine Arches. She is able to spot where a poem isn’t working at the level of the line – but then also able to zoom up and see what’s going on with the overall structure of the book. It was through her insights that we started to see the book as a series of loops rather than a traditional arc, and that then gave us permission to play with things quite radically, constructing sequences where we hadn’t seen them before and so on.
And so that’s another thing to note: even if you have an idea of the sequence your poems should be in, it might not be the right one. Don’t be afraid to get an outside perspective.
Ticker-Tape is described as being a take on 21st century living from “the UK to California”. How important is travel to your writing – and how important do you think it is to writers in general?
I write this to you while I am sitting in a café in Berlin, in the hotel where I am staying – it used to be a chocolate factory, no less, and I am being fuelled by far too many lattes and pieces of chocolate studded with hazelnuts.
I say all that in part because it sounds like opening of a poem, in part to brag, but also to say that actually, this type of travel doesn’t power as much of my writing as it did even five years ago. Or at least – what travel gives my writing is in part the sense of dislocation that can then fuel insights, or change perspectives on me, on whatever’s going on my head right now; and truthfully, I don’t necessarily need to move myself in space to feel dislocated.
As an example, the actual amount of time I have spent in California is minimal, a ten hour stopover at LAX at the most (which clearly means, Californian universities and institutions, that I am dying to be invited for a fellowship to spend time in your fair state!). But it is the very idea of the state – how it is inventing our future right in front of our eyes, how it has always represented the future, how the dream of better living is somehow encoded in what the state stands for – that haunts me, a form of wanderlust for the idea of the place which I don’t need to be on the ground to be able to then write about.
This is a long-winded way of saying that what is more important to your writing should be the idea of being able to get outside of yourself, so you can change your perspective – and if travelling is the way you do that then great. But equally sex, drugs, exercise can be ways to change your view. And perhaps those might be cheaper!
The collection begins with “The summers of Camus’ youth”, how do older writers influence your poems?
Well, I don’t think it’s specifically ‘older’ writers as such, but of course, any book is a reflection of who I’ve read over the years – so you won’t be surprised to hear that Frank O’Hara is in the book, Durs Grünbein is in the book, Pushkin is in the book somewhere, deeply buried…
And truthfully I haven’t actually read that much Camus – what really snagged me was the vividness of this particular recollection of his. To me it has always been heartbreakingly romantic, this memory, and I imagine that it and more like it was part of the undertow of his melancholy – he could never get back to that blue, that sun. That longing felt like an apposite motif for many of the themes in the book.
But more broadly, I do have an awareness that I’m trying to appropriate an older lyric tradition for my own ends, and seeing what happens when, simplistically speaking you try and cram too much in, neologisms, jargon and the like. For me creativity has always been at root about putting two unlikely things together to make something new.
Finally, is it too soon to ask about the next writing project? If not, we’d love a glimpse in!
It probably is, but let me tell you anyway that I have started book 2, and it is slowly emerging – suffice to say that for now at least it’s going to be a long-ish, single poem, featuring someone who decides to declare themselves a king…
I should probably also tell you that as I’ve read Bluets by Maggie Nelson a lot in the last few months, some of that will find its way in there. Plus this amazing poem by Mónica de la Torre, I’ve been leaning on that.
Right now it feels like a process of chiselling away at a lump of rock rather than something more fluid and elegant. I’m still getting used to the sensation, and also the idea that this OK and not something to worry about.
To link back to the earlier question – I guess this, of anything, is the scariest part of moving on and developing as a writer: seemingly to junk, to throw away some of the tools and the tricks you’ve used before to get you to the point where you are now, and to then cast off again onto new seas, not knowing what you’re doing and with only a vague idea of where you’re going.
But if I’ve learnt anything at all in the last year, it’s that this process of slow, almost imperceptible reinvention, is one of the keys to developing your craft, getting better generally – and ultimately that’s one of the ways of staying in this game for the long haul.