Colin Dardis is a poet, editor and arts coordinator. His work has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and the US. the x of y, his debut full-length collection, was released in May ’18 from Eyewear Publishing.
Having had a childhood speech impediment, attending speech therapy classes throughout primary school, Colin's initial interest in language and words grew out of this formative experience. His personal history of depression and mental illness is also an ongoing influence on his work. Known for his devotion to supporting and developing the Northern Irish poetry scene, he was one of Eyewear's Best New British and Irish Poets 2016, an ACES '15-16 recipient from Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and recently shortlisted in the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing 2018. Colin co-runs Poetry NI, a multimedia platform for poets in Northern Ireland. www.colindardispoet.co.uk
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was a pamphlet with a Northern Ireland publisher, Lapwing. At the time, I was in the midst of a bad depressive state, but known on the scene. The publisher asked me if I had anything that might be of interest to them; I had these series of poems, thirty or so, which was a sequence loosely inspired by Ted Hughes’s Crow poems. I sent them in, it got published with minimal fanfare from Lapwing, and I was too ill still to really make the effort to promote it myself. I didn’t even have a launch night. But nevertheless, it was good to lay down another stepping stone. I still like those poems, one day they might be expanded upon, and I think they hold up to my current outcome.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I started written silly rhymes in school to make my mates laugh. The only one I really remember was about me dying out of unrequited love, being reincarnated as an earwig, and burrowing into the brain of the girl who spurned me. Don’t ask me for any deeper analysis! But my friends liked the poems, and from it, it just naturally developed into a medium for recording my thoughts. The poems were absolutely awful, twee, inconsequential things. But somehow, poetry spoke to me and I got more and more into it. At fifteen, I was writing frequently. Crucially however, I wasn’t reading any poetry outside of school, which I should have been. But I enjoyed Blake, Yeats, RS Thomas, Wilfred Owen (note that no women poets were taught as part of our syllabus!). It just clicked with me. It allows a space in which to fill in your life, to make sense on the page when it didn’t make much sense anywhere else.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I usually have a first draft pretty quickly, ten to fifteen minutes. However, it might not develop beyond that for months, years even. Many first drafts go nowhere, but I feel it’s all an important part of the process anyway. Everything is dated and filed. I tend to write lots, and then see what it worth keeping, rather than trying to inch somewhere closer and closer, dragging it from the mud. I have hundreds of first drafts. Perhaps a tenth of those get to a second draft. With distance, which is required, you tend to look back at a poem and realise you were just talking nonsense; or you read it back and go, yeah, I’m onto something here. But you need that degree of separation from it first. The best poem you write is always your last one, until you go back and reread it.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Generally, everything is piecemeal: poems come one by one, and I’m not really thinking on a larger scale. In the x of y, there is quite a bit of intertextuality, poems that speak to other poems, or echo sentiments, or share common allusions. But this is all found and manipulated in the editing and compiling stages.
The collection ends with a long poem, The Escapist, which was originally in sixty parts, whittled down to forty-two (Douglas Adams fans will know why). That was conceived as a larger project, where I would write a poem in the same form every day for two months. And I have a chapbook of anti-Trump poems, a dozen or so, which all came together very quickly. But otherwise, a poem is an entity in itself. A book is an overwhelmingly daunting and monstrous thing to put together therefore, culling what you perceive is the best from a wild array of contenders.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Yes, absolutely, I love connecting with audiences and being in thick of the live environment. My wife and I run a monthly open mic night here in Belfast, which has been going for over six years now. We really appreciate the opportunity to hear people’s work and to discover new poets, and we’ve grateful that we can provide a platform for them. So doing that every month, you want to keep trying to bring new work in, and not bore people with the same poems again and again! And sometimes, you don’t grasp the inherent weaknesses of a poem until you’ve read it out loud to people.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I think I can only ask the questions that I am looking an answer for, but for me, the questions are the same as they must have been for generations, millennia of poets: who are we, how should we behave, where do we belong, how can be improve ourselves and the world around us? My poetry can be about everyday things like peeling a banana, or the neighbour’s cat, but I also like to shift between the minutiae and the global.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think it’s too generic to say writers should have this role or that role. Each writer must find what is important to them, and speak about it truthfully and openly. If it’s gender politics, or the environment, poverty, mental health, etc., that’s where your role lies. Or, sometimes, it’s simply enough just to entertain the reader will a compelling story or narrative. That’s all you need sometimes.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Rosanna Hildyard was the editor for the x of y, and she did a fantastic job. She challenged and supported in the right spots, and supported me everywhere else. You simply just have to have a second pair of eyes, for there are things you are just too close to that someone else will notice. I relished the task of pushing my poems to be stronger pieces of writing, and yes, it’s essential for anyone being published. I’ve read a lot of self-published collections, and you can easily tell which ones would have really benefited for the astute knife of an editor.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A Belfast poet, Brian Bailey (now sadly deceased) was fond of saying “never apologise, never explain” (the source of which is attributed to the nineteenth-century Oxford scholar Benjamin Jowett). Now, I don’t agree with that 100%, but yes, sometimes you have to go out and do your thing, whatever it is, and just let it be in the world. Let it reside there for others to discover, without footnotes or commentary. Focus on the action, rather than the reaction.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I have zero routine when it comes to writing. A typical day begins with me wishing for further sleep! Perhaps I’m not disciplined enough, but poetry happens when moments strike. Sometimes you can sit down and ask for a poem and a gem with arise. But more often than not, those “at the desk” moments don’t reward you with anything good. You don’t stand in a field and wait for a forest to grow around you, you go planting seeds first.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I never feel stalled. I believe that you have to allow yourself to write bum drafts, or go down dead ends. It’s all chaff for the fire. I know the next good poem will come eventually; I just need to remain receptive and responsive. Poetry is all about observation and consideration. As long as you continue to do these, you will be alright.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Ha, what an unexpected question! If you walk down Tates Avenue in South Belfast, where the bridge goes over the railway line, you can smell a bakery with fresh, warm bread and buns nicely wafting in the air. I live out East Belfast now, but I’m still very fond of that scent.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
My wife and I enjoy a lot of country walks and little hikes. We are blessed that there are many parks, National Trust properties, and forests nearby for us to explore. It’s amazingly relaxing, and while the poems may not directly address the scenery, I do find it rather inspiring. Little lines creep in from somewhere and strike you; or, it’s just a good place to de-clutter your mind and leave it open to poetry. I also play a bit of guitar and the drums, so I guess I’m interested in rhythm at least to some extent in writing, it tends to crossover from time to time.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The Bible is important to be me, particularly the Gospels. I tend to be more a New Testament kind of guy. And although I repeatedly fail, I do try to be a better person through the teachings of Jesus. To be capable of love and compassion no matter what you are faced with, that’s something that I admire. Perhaps as mere humans, we can’t do that, but it doesn’t hurt to try. I want to focus on my patience and my humility, and I believe the Bible can help me do that.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
That’s a tough one. I tend not to really plan, I just try to be open to whatever opportunities arise and come my way. If I can, perhaps when my career has advanced a bit more, I would like to help mentor other writers, if anyone is interested! I love seeing people be passionate about their interests, and to see them develop and grow in their capabilities. I use to do a lot of quality assurance and coaching in a previous management coach, and that was probably the best bit of it, to see someone come in through the door and watch their gain skills and improve themselves. So if there’s any way I can do that with poetry, then definitely.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Then I was in my teens, I was interested in getting into advertisement. I constantly saw inane, idiotic adverts on TV and thought I could do better. I actually applied for entry to a Marketing degree; then I was in a car crash two weeks before my exams, and didn’t get the grades I needed. I had concussion, but there was no facility for delaying me sitting the exams – it was either sit them then, or repeat the whole year. I actually sat my first exam with bits of glass still embedded in my scalp! So instead, I did an English Literature degree and entered a life of restricted income!
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It just happens; you have something you want to express, and you need to find a way to get that out of you that satisfies you. I play music as well, I occasionally sketch or doodle, I’ve also got two plays and two novellas doing nothing, gathering dust. But poetry just hits all the write notes for me. I’ve made a lot of friends through poetry, and it’s become an essential part of who I am.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I read loads, as much as the mind and the eyes can take. I try to support the poets I know and admire, and read their books. Two which I enjoyed a lot recently were Michael Farry’s The Age of Glass, and Maureen Boyle’s The Work of a Winter. Outside of poetry, I read enjoyed Alex Horne’s Wordwatching, about his attempts to create a new word and get it recognised by a reputable dictionary. His love of words and his wordplay really tickled me. I wish I had a lot more honk to buy more books, but there’s only so much time and shelf space a person has! Film-wise, I enjoyed 5 Doctors, a 2016 film by Max Azulay and Matt Porter, about a hypochondriac comedian. Plus, it has an amazing song about ribosomes in it!
19 - What are you currently working on?
Mostly, it’s all about promoting the new collection, the x of y. But right now, I’m work on a commission for some maritime poems for Titanic Belfast. I also have an idea for a sequence of poems inspired by the #MeToo movement and Harvey Weinstein, but I’m not sure if the idea is really strong enough. I will let it naturally gestate, like everything else.