Where Ideas Grow

A blog for students of creative writing at York St John University

Dr Alex Wylie

By Amy Boyle

Dr Alex Wylie is a lecturer at York St John University in the School of Humanities. Alex is an established academic and writer, with his 2018 debut poetry collection Secular Games being shortlisted for the Melita Hume Prize. As part of our Writers in Our Midst series, I conducted an email interview with Dr Alex Wylie, discussing everything from his writing influences to his current works in progress.

Can you see the difference in your writing journey over the years? How have you developed?

“I feel like only in the past few years have I been able to write in the way I had always wanted to, though I didn’t know before that time that this was what I was aiming towards. My earlier efforts at poetry often felt stunted – though I did write some (relatively) successful pieces in my 20s and early 30s, many of which are collected in Secular Games, my first collection. I have developed my writing style by leaving behind certain accepted notions of what a poem should be – notions which were strongly, if subtly, enforced at Queen’s University Belfast, where I did my PhD and taught literature. I have been writing more recently in longer forms, using stanzaic patterns, and adopting a more spontaneous approach, allowing more of ‘myself’ (whatever that is) to come through line by line. This just means that I’ve become more courageous and allowed myself to write in ways which are not mainstream at all. I think a lot of my earlier writing was hampered by a tension between what I was straining to do and what I thought I was supposed to do.”

Which work are you most fond of to date? Why?

“I should probably say that my favourite piece of my own is the last one I wrote – and in a sense it is, in that it’s the latest part of my ‘journey’. But, to be honest, probably the poem I’m most fond of to date is ‘Secular Games’, the long seven-part poem that ends the first collection. I wrote this during a sudden three-week period of unemployment while I was living in Belfast, and I just decided to write as if I had nothing to lose, and nothing to gain. The poem that came out in the end was a real breakthrough. It was driven by the experience of austerity, unemployment, exploitation, poverty, and the ubiquitous TV and online news which was becoming ever more apocalyptic, as it seemed to me. The poem that came out, embodies these experiences in ways I didn’t know were possible for me until I wrote it. The best poems I write are like that: I didn’t know I was capable of it until I finished it. But that involves risk and existential commitment, which is why I write slowly, or perhaps gradually. I wish I could write more quickly.”

From your debut poetry collection Secular Games, it is evident that you write on a variety of topics and subjects. Which genre would you say you write in and what is the main subject of interest in your writing?

“The genre I write in is poetry – which is not to denigrate the question, but rather to say that I don’t really think in those kind of strategic terms that, perhaps, writers of fiction and non-fiction do. I think of China Miéville saying he’s going to write a book in every genre. What really interests me are the strategies of form and voice, which are the heart of poetry. I tend to think that poetry seems to be understood through the lens of fiction and creative non-fiction at the moment, but poetry is something else. Also when it comes to subject-matter, I generally don’t sit down and think ‘I’m going to write a poem about money, or about my family, or about contemporary politics’ – I usually start with a phrase, or a line, or some vague sense of shape, and build from there, and what comes out tends to be whatever I’m currently grappling with – whether I knew it to be or not. However, having said all this, I do notice genres in my poetry; for instance, in a poem in the new collection, Krishna’s Anarchy, I have a poem that begins with an image of a dog doing a poo on the pavement, moves through some stanzas grappling with the ideas of embarrassment, shame and guilt, and morphs into an epithalamium, or wedding-poem, and then morphs out of that genre again into the scene of Jesus Christ being mocked by Herod and then back to the dog on the pavement. The contrast between the ‘genres’ and how it navigates between them is part of the problem that the poem exists to solve.”

Who would you say your writing was like?

“Hopefully not too much like anyone. Perhaps I’m not the person to ask, as I’m too close to the poems. I’ve done a lot of critical work on Geoffrey Hill. I’d say Hill’s work was quite a stifling influence for a while, but I think I’ve got beyond that to some kind of freedom. Modernist writing had a big effect on me that I still very much fee – as well as Irish and Northern Irish poetry a bit later. I wouldn’t say my writing is like any of these writers though, as it’s not as good!”

Three words to describe your work? What would they be? 

“Well worth it.”

What is the best thing about being a published writer? Any negatives?

“Having a book published is a huge milestone. The fact that a publisher would take a financial risk on your work is a validation and something you can point to as an objective fact. A negative then from my point of view is the potential problem of getting that book noticed! I don’t know of any reviews of my first collection, Secular Games. The hardest thing can be keeping going in the way you believe is right – not best, but right – when there are no reviews or laurels coming your way.”

Do you ever feel like your work is finished when you submit it? 

“I suppose in some metaphysical sense a work is never really finished, as such, but usually with a poem I feel there’s nothing else I can do to it to make it any better. By the time I submit a poem to an editor I will have pored over it for weeks or months. I am quite obsessive about the fine details of a poem and usually don’t want a single comma to be changed. With essays it can be a little different, and editors can have, and have had, very valuable input.”

How do you overcome imposter syndrome (if of course you have it!)?

“Unfortunately I suffer from rampant impostor syndrome. I think this might be a legacy of my upbringing – as the headline of Nathalie Olah’s recent article on this subject declares, ‘Impostor syndrome is a pseudo-medical name for a class problem’. This really hampered my writing for years, I think; when I was younger I wrote my poems as if I was building fortresses, for the reason that I was deeply anxious about ‘speaking out’ or revealing too much of myself, or writing poetry at all. I think I’ve overcome it, if I have (which I haven’t) simply by writing through it and by getting little validations and successes along the way; but also by my reading into and thinking about the problem. I have made this anxiety over speaking and being heard a theme of my poetry, I suppose, and a feature of its voices.” 

What is next for you? What are you working on at the moment?

“At the moment I am trying to write an article on taste and tastefulness in contemporary poetry, against the backdrop of a critique of neoliberal cultural-politics (this is something I have written on a couple of other times recently). My second collection of poetry, Krishna’s Anarchy, is coming out in November or December this year. Beyond that, I don’t know; I’d like to write more essays on contemporary poetry, and I’d like to start writing poems again. I had vague ideas of trying to do a translation of some kind – another thing that seems currently implausible, if not quite impossible, which is why I’d like to try.”

Read more from our Writers in Our Midst series here!

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