It's 3pm and I'm standing outside Caffe Nero, waiting to meet Mark Charlesworth, the poet. Mark is also standing outside Caffe Nero, waiting to meet me. The only problem - as we eventually realise – is I am in Lytham and he is in St Anne's.
One quick bus journey later we are ready to start the interview, no real harm done. It's an occupational hazard when there's a ubiquitous Coffee House on every high-street. We chose Nero because Mark is a vegan and here in Suburbia the major chains are the only place you can get soya milk. I say this because it seems typical of the myriad contradictory challenges of Modern Life which so fascinate Charlesworth: where we are forced into making bizarre choices between Veganism and Globalisation, or Fair Trade V Organic, Locally Available V Superfoods. Mark's poetry finds modernity confusing, worrying and often painfully self-aware.
I have armed myself with a Vegan-friendly green tea and a serious expression, but within five minutes of meeting, Mark has used the words 'warm and fuzzy' to describe one of his favourite poems, and concludes the interview with a persuasively positive slant on the recession. While grappling with dark and socially aware themes, there is ultimately an irrepressible love of beauty throughout Mark's writing which makes both reading and listening to him a pleasure.
Daisy: The Central Lancs Writing Hub (formerly Preston Writers Network) focuses on the Lancashire literary community. Do you believe specific places can shape and inspire its inhabitants in unique ways and have any places particularly inspired you?
To an extent, yes. This latest book really began to take shape after I attended a wedding in Blackpool. After a while the music began to grate a little and my friend and I decided to go for a walk. It's weird because I've always slagged off Blackpool because of its seediness, its tackiness, and the commercial aspect of it, but we took a walk through all that, quite a way out onto the beach, and then we turned back to Blackpool... All the illuminations were sparkling, like Christmas lights, and it looked almost picturesque. We were seeing Blackpool from this whole new perspective. It started to rain then and the lights through the rain looked... fuzzy. [Laughs] - You don't get words like that in the book, 'warm and fuzzy', honest. 'Carnation' was the poem that eventually emerged from the contrast between the tackiness of the golden mile and the original seafront which attracted the Victorian tourists in the first place. It wasn't the first poem I wrote for the book, but it was the one which gave it structure.
I've also always enjoyed going to Leeds on the train, through the hills and the bleak industrial towns. Despite all the crumbling buildings, there's a beauty about them, set into the jagged hills, which Southerners might not get. The poem turns round the clichés and throws them back at the detractors. The picture on the cover of the book is of Fairhaven Lake, another inspiring spot.
Daisy: Could you tell us a little about your background?
I'm twenty-three, and a Northerner born and bred; I went to college at Cardinal Newman in Preston, before studying English at UCLAN. The course there had some optional creative writing modules, and while at college my English teacher always encouraged us to submit writing to him. I self-published my first book, Sunrise and Shorelines in 2008 and am launching my second book of poetry, In Memory of Real Trees, at The New Continental on the 28th of November. I feel the first book gave me the confidence to start down the road of self-publishing, and with the second I've introduced more of a theme and concept to the work.
Daisy: In terms of poets, who would you cite as influences?
That's hard, I suppose I haven't followed poetry in a linear fashion; Simon Armitage certainly, and Ted Hughes. I'm a big admirer of Baudelaire, especially his poem 'A Carcass' which is about this disgusting cadaver but somehow Baudelaire manages to make it almost beautiful... I think the first book displayed these influences more prominently, it was straight up Nu-Gothic – one reviewer called it that and spelt it that awful 'N-U' way! (Ed. Whoops so did I). Who else? I admire Roger McGough's stark, concise stanzas which somehow manage to contain so much emotion. Then there's our new poet laureate, Carol Anne Duffy.
[The interview here deteriorates into a discussion on the merits of Duffy who still brings back bitter memories of school and forced readings of 'Valentine' for me. Mark suggests I should revisit her as he didn't appreciate her work until he was older, and thinks teaching her in school is a mistake.]
Daisy: I'm interested in the distinction between music and poetry, are there any musicians who have inspired your poetry and to what extent do you think the two forms are interrelated?
I think certainly the line between poetry and music is blurred at best. I'm a big fan of The Smiths. I remember someone read some of the lyrics out in a presentation while I was at University and it was strange how un-lyrical they sounded read aloud. The magic takes place in the way he sings them, and so I suppose there is a distinction there. I also love Nick Cave - the way he constructs lyrics is so totally idiosyncratic, they almost shouldn't work but they do. I also like The Waterboys, especially their song 'Bring 'Em All In', which is extremely poetic.
In first book two of the poems are actually adapted from song lyrics we'd written, and in the new one the poem 'Bitterest Sin' also. It works both ways too, a friend recently read 'Second Hand Model' from the latest book and called me to say he thought it would work really well as a song. So that's a case of poetry inspiring music.
To diverge from the question slightly, I went to an exhibition earlier this year at the Tate Modern which looked at the connection between poetry and painting: Poetry is a snapshot of the world much like a painting is; it takes one concise idea and inspires a train of thought and emotion, and I thought that was a nice idea. In the book the poem '11 Self Portraits' was inspired by this.
Daisy: Are you PC literate? What forms of so-called 'social networking' do you favour and what have you found most effective in creating publicity and maintaining interest?
Yes I'm certainly part of the PC literate generation. But you have to pick and choose, because there are so many different ways to communicate out there that you can spread yourselves too thinly. I looked into various different options to publicise my first book and at the time the buzz about Twitter was just getting started. But Twitter really didn't appeal to me; I don't like the way it reduces everyone to soundbites, whereas with blogging you can actually construct varying arguments, and people can state their case and back it with evidence. I think this reduction of everything to mere soundbites is dangerous to society actually. To elaborate is in a writer's nature. So yes, I avoid Twitter but I do have a blog (http://markcharlesworth.blogspot.com/) and I try to promote it on forums, link to MySpace, Facebook etc. I've found though that sometimes the old-fashioned ways work best. Last year while I was publishing the first book I asked anyone interested in hearing more to scribble their email addresses down – I ended up with a mailing list of over a hundred people. So I use that to update people and I've had a surprising level of responses – sometimes I think there's so much out there that things can sink and get buried. Communicating with people directly can be more successful. Obviously this wouldn't be possible for bigger writers, but I feel privileged to be able to respond to people individually.
Daisy: You've self-published your first two books, why did you make the decision to go down this road to publication?
Originally it was partly because it's much harder to pitch poetry to mainstream publishers. There's a lot of cliché surrounding poetry; people see it as dark and arty and they don't want to go near it. I think there's less of a commercial aspect. At the same time I think there's becoming more of a market for it. I also wanted to some extent to create and control my own reputation by self publishing poetry as a way to progress towards publishing a novel. One step at a time, you know, but I am trying to increase exposure and I have quite a fixed plan. The next book is going to be a concept book dealing with issues very close to my heart and so naturally I would like a wider audience for it. That will be my last book of poems. I don't want to be in danger of repeating myself...
Daisy: That's a very intriguing idea; the attempt to avoid repetition as a writer. Many of our best writers seem to return time and again to the same preoccupations. Some writers (and readers) embrace that and some try consciously to avoid it – do you think it's even possible to do so?
To go back to the previous question, Nine Inch Nails are a big influence, and I read an interview with them recently after their final tour –which was amazing- and they said they had bowed out because they wanted to end it while they were at the peak of their game. I'm hoping I have the willpower after this next book to say that's it for poetry and I'm moving onto prose. I'm not saying I won't return to it at some point in the future but I would want to put a lid on it for the time being. But I'm getting ahead of myself! I would like to get an agent at that stage anyway. I would want to ease up a bit if I were publishing a novel as I'm a bit of a control freak when self-publishing.
Daisy: You talked about the fact that poetry isn't very commercial – and I think the same thing is true of short stories, novellas – do you think the 'credit-crunch' has affected the publishing prospects for writers of these genres and would you advise writers who aren't currently getting offers from mainstream publishers to self-publish or wait it out until the economy has improved?
The society we live in now can be a bleak place sometimes, but there are hopeful things which come out of there: Although yes, this recession can mean mainstream publishers are clinging to their cash cows, it's possible to see it as a good thing because it leads people to take things into their own hands - not just in publishing, but big business and retail as well.
In recent times we've seen a very corporate world in which people have had to ally themselves with a brand, or publisher, and ultimately they compromise their integrity to an extent, just to get their work out there. Now I think people are starting to realise they have to take personal responsibility for themselves and their lives. In a way I think we are witnessing the rebirth of the Age of Independence – not just in terms of writing but in the way people approach their lives; like renewable power, growing their own vegetables, self-sufficiency in lifestyles and business occupations. I think that's a very positive thing.
Perhaps I'm being too optimistic, but it seems to me we're actually making poetry more commercially viable for the future. I'm certainly seeing more grassroots arts events out there recently [like our own Word Soup!] and then there's the web of course – there's a whole network of tools and resources out there for writers. I think in a way the recession or 'credit-crunch' has led to a widespread feeling of empowerment, and it's this sense of being empowered which will carry us into the next era.
In Memory of Real Trees can be purchased through Mark's blog and at the book launch this evening (Saturday the 28th) at The New Continental here in Preston.