Reuben Woolley was an acclaimed poet, editor, and activist. His books included the king is dead (Oneiros Books, 2014), dying notes (Erbacce, 2015), skins (Hesterglock Press, 2016), broken stories (20/20 Vision Publishing, 2017), sometime we are heroes (Corrupt Press, 2018), This Hall of Several Tortures (Knives, Forks & Spoons Press, 2019).
He was runner-up in the Overton Poetry Pamphlet competition, 2015 and also runner-up for the Erbacce Prize, 2015. His poems were published in Tears in the Fence, Domestic Cherry , The Lighthouse Journal, The Interpreter's House, Ink Sweat and Tears, The Stare's Nest, Amaryllis, The Poetry Shed, The Goose, And Other Poems, Proletarian Poetry, International Times, Stride, Nutshells and Nuggets, Yellow Chair Review, Clear Poetry, Bone Orchard Poetry and the Screech Owl, among others.
Below, you can read an interview with Reuben, conducted by Lucia Daramus, shortly before his death in 2019. The interview is published here in memory of Reuben.
Dialogue from 2019 with Lucia Daramus
LD: Sometimes, when I write poems or stories I used to assume all of my characters' identities. Your poetry is so descriptive. When you write a poem are you a male or a female in your mind?
RW: ‘I’ is an important character, especially in my earlier poetry, but there is absolutely no reason to identify that ‘I’ with me. Would a novelist writing in the first person be considered to be writing biography? My ‘I’ is whoever it needs to be in the poem and could certainly be a woman. In my collection some time we are heroes, there are two central characters, a man and a woman, and either or neither may be speaking at any one time. In another collection, the story or stories are told through the eyes of a woman who lives on a parallel world in this multiverse. She talks of herself as ‘I’ and my references to her are in the third person. Person is just one more element for us to play with as poets. Who is ‘I’ for you?
LD: For me 'I ' is everything. When I write a novel, for example, my latest novel – The Cortege of The Lambs – I identified with all of my characters in my book. It is a novel about Holocaust in Romania. The action takes place in Romania and in Auschwitz. The novel begins with a fairy tale. It is the brutal reality transformed into a dream story by Hannya , a little Jewish girl. She is only nine years old. She is brutally taken out of her house by the Nazis. She is a strong and fragile little girl, but she has a gift: to create in her mind a perfect dream world in which she will live. The reality is much, much stronger. Hannya will be in the Nazi experimental camp where Mengele is a God. But Hannya fights with her imagination, with her sensibility. The novel is structured on two planes: one of the brutal reality, and one of the imaginary world, Hannya's world. It is about the betrayal of the adults, about life and death, forgiveness and hatred, about the fragile line of the life. For this book I took the girl's identity, to understand every tragic situation of the moments in Auschwitz. Therefore, all my characters in my books are me, myself. 'I' represents all my characters and these represent myself in thousands of imaginary situations.
broken stories, your pamphlet, is so exotic, mysterious and contains real grandeur. For example:
Place of residence
we’re falling into mud flats
crank open the shutters a little light on old routines
the view from empty bridges
the grey dust & spiders
Tell me about the colours of Spain, about the smell of it. These lines represent Spain?
RW: I see Spain in browns and yellows. The big cities smell much the same as big cities anywhere and the villages used to smell of fresh bread and whatever the local speciality might be. There is also the scent of rosemary and thyme on mountainsides. I think globalisation, modernisation and gentrification have taken those typical smells away to a great extent. Do you find a similar development in Romania and what smells did you first notice when you went to England? I always associate Britain with factory smells and the smell of the sea and heather on northern hill and mountainsides. I would be interested to know if you as Romanian, notice(d) anything special.
These lines don’t represent Spain in particular. The mud flats came from England, the shutters are perhaps from a Spanish village and spiders can hide anywhere. I seem to construct my geography much like my history, like a patchwork quilt.
LD: Oh, I remember a very specific smell, Romanian smell, of dust, in summer time, when it is raining. In Romania it is very hot in the summer. And sometimes it is raining, a very warm rain. And everything in nature is alive. And because of the heat in the atmosphere and because of the rain, and the dust on the ground there is a specific smell of summer. With smell of raw grass, raw leaves, and cow dung on the hill, and dust, summer dust. I really like this kind of smell. Romanian smell. And because of the heat you can see the heat waves vibrating.
RW: Yes, I think that striking smell of rain on dust and dry grass must be common to most hot European countries. I think I would add the smell which may be more of a premonition of coming rain or a possible storm.
LD: When I came to England I discovered a peasant smell in countryside and an industrial smell in the cities. But I believe that every country has its specific smell. I really like in England the smell, a very old smell, of ruins. I am crazy about ruins, about history, about archaeological sites. And in England there is a smell, a kind of smell, of them. And I like it. Do you know Spanish culture? Did anyone in particular introduce you to Spanish poets?
RW: I read some of Lorca’s poetry before I ever thought of coming to Spain and was particularly affected by the Spanish Poet in New York and the essay on Duende. I read him as part of the Penguin Modern European series. I’ve read a lot more Lorca since then and consider him to be the greatest Spanish poet of all time. Through Lorca I read some Rafael Alberti and Miguel Hernández. I had also read some South American literature before coming, especially José Luis Borges and Neruda and have read more since I arrived here. Which Romanian writers have stayed with you? Did you know of much English literature before moving to the country?
LD: Yes, I have Romanian writers with me. I keep near my soul Eugène Ionesco, who was a Romanian writer, emigrated to France, one of the foremost figures of the French Avant-garde theatre. I keep near my heart Paul Celan. He was a very important poet, born in a Jewish Romanian family. He experienced the Holocaust and he said: Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, 'enriched' by it all. Celan is perhaps best known for his poem 'Death Fugue.'
Another writer I keep in my heart with me in England is Mihail Sebastian. He was a Romanian Jewish playwright, essayist, novelist. For Two Thousand Years is his best book. It is the remarkable story of a Jew student in 1920s Europe. Now this book was translated in English.
And yes, I knew a lot about English literature, because I studied Universal Literature in my university time. My degree is in Classics, but some courses in Romanian universities are common courses for everybody in the Faculty of Letters. We study languages, linguistics, history and culture of our chosen branch, but also universal literature and comparative literature. Yes, I knew a lot about Virginia Woolf, about Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, John Milton, Charlotte Brontë , George Orwell, William Wordsworth, Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Doris Lessing, Sylvia Plath, etc. Who has most influenced your work?
RW: It’s not just poets who have influenced me but let me try to make a list starting with poets: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Eliot, Lorca, Dylan Thomas, Celan, Vasko Popa, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes of the Crow period, Adrian Henri, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Jerome Rothenberg, Fran Lock.
Novelists: Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, China de Miéville, Tolkien, James Joyce, Mervyn Peak. Ursula K. Le Guin, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut.
Dramatists: Socrates, Beckett, Ionescu.
Musicians: Bob Dylan (of the Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde period), Captain Beefheart, Roy Harper, Grateful Dead, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Archie Shepp, Terry Riley.
Of course, I must turn this question round, expecting a very different answer but open to surprise. Who have your main influences been? Do your Romanian influences still affect you when you are writing in English?
LD: I learnt a lot, a lot from many authors. I prefer Homer and Greek Tragedies (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides) because all of these writers treat great subjects and because they are among the first in terms of literature.
But I learnt a lot from modern writers too. I am reminded here of Virginia Woolf who treats a contemporary subject. And I talk about her book – Orlando. The topic is the gender identity issue, the problem of transgender. And I remember Sappho, a great ancient writer. And Margaret Atwood talks to me via all of her books. I liked Gertrude Stein's memoirs about the Parisian avant-garde. I cannot forget Maya Angelou who is an extremely strong voice in poetry, a great voice of African American literature.
But sometimes I identify with Virginia Woolf as a personality, and open mind in particular because, like me, she had many voices, she was a psychotic writer. Is there a person in literature whom you identify with?
RW: There are people in literature I like very much, most of whom I have listed above in those who have influenced me, but I don’t think I have ever ‘identified’ with anyone.
LD: What do you understand by 'The Art of Poetry?'
RW: The very hard work of making heart and head work together and producing something which hits you in the guts. I’d be interested in your definition of this. For me, a poem is a screen shot of a process. It is a compromise between the poet and the process.
LD: Oh ... 'The Art of Poetry' ... it is so hard to define poetry. I'm addicted to poetry. For me the art of poetry is everything to move my heart, something which sensitises my view, something which talks to my mind. The Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first thinker who wrote about poetry in The Poetics. He defines poetry as an art that imitates: 'imitation ... is one instinct of our nature' and 'the objects of imitation are men in action.' Who are the best authors in your opinion?
RW: I would refer once again to the list of poets, novelists and dramatists I gave above as those who have most influenced me. I like writers who play with language and also dystopian fantasy writers. It’s what I try to do with my poetry: dystopian poetry / poetry about dystopian worlds.
LD: Yes, dystopian worlds like in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale about a totalitarian state resembling a theonomy. Or dystopian worlds like in Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, which poses the problem of clones - if a clone has soul or not. And the author creates a world of clones who had fall in love, and suffer, and they are able to feel. When I write I have a continuous curiosity for experience, for imagination, for thinking, for subjects, for everything. What do you think is the most important aspect for a poet: the form, the thinking, or the message?
RW: I can’t see a separation between the three in the best poetry. Where one stands out from the others, there is imbalance; it is not good poetry. When form stands out, you get verse and worse; when thinking stands out, you get philosophy and probably shoddy philosophy; when the message stands out, you get ranting and demagoguery.
LD: The oldest surviving poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, was written as a very beautiful story about friendship and the secret of eternal life. What is eternal life in your imagination?
RW: I have my imagination. No more, no less. Life lasts till it ends.
LD: Let's talk about power of poetry in the world. I wrote a poem against Trump. You can read my poem on I am not a silent poet here. My question is: do you believe in the power of writing? What about your online magazine I am not a silent poet? Is it a modality of the revolt against this world?
RW: I am not a silent poet is an online magazine for poetry and artwork of protest about abuse in all shapes and forms. I started it at the end of November 2014. I had been seeing such increasing evidence of abuse that I felt it was time to do something. I am not a silent poet looks for poems about abuse in any of its forms, colour, gender, disability, the dismantlement of the care services, the privatisation of the NHS, rape culture, Trump, and, of course, war and its victims are just the examples that come to mind at the moment.
Since then it has published 3,267 poems by well-known, less well-known and almost unknown poets. It has received 170,467 hits, which is not bad for a poetry magazine. Whether or not it achieves anything, I don’t know, but it does provide space for different voices, and tries to speak for those who have no voice. I have been called an activist poet, which I think is a misnomer. Yes, I do write some poems of protest but most of my work is non-political, as far as one can be non-political in this society, in this world. The poem you quoted from earlier, 'Place of residence,' for example, is not political at all, at least in the modern sense of ‘political.’ If we go back to the Greek ‘polis’, however, practically everything we do is political. Most of my protest poems are very slanted and the ‘politicalness’ of them may not be immediately seen, Take 'all fall down,' for instance, first published in Proletarian Poetry here:
all fall down
children sang in cinders
we saw them
clothed in tired skin
there’ll be no
a ring of posies
& blackened flesh
we’ll have their eyes
to show a rusty path. i’ll grind
an arrow head
One thing I am particularly curious about: as a Romanian immigrant in England, how have you been affected by Brexit and has it had any influence on your work?
LD: Yep ... I am in the same position with you. You are an immigrant in Spain, English citizen in Spain. And I am a Romanian citizen in England. I had a hard exam, English language test, and I passed the exam. And I had a hard exam about British literature, history, culture, science, music, sport, philosophy ... everything about the UK, and I passed. Now I applied for British citizenship and I'm waiting ...
About the interviewer
Lucia Daramus is a British-Jewish-Gypsy-Romanian writer who is living in Stroud, and an artist. She has Asperger's Syndrome. Her work has been published in various magazines in Romania, France, Germany, England, Canada, USA, etc. Recently she completed her course in Creative Writing at Oxford University. Her MA is in Linguistics, and BA in Ancient Greek and Latin. She has published poetry, essay, short story, play, novels. Her recent novel is The Cortege of The Lambs, a book about Holocaust.
She won prizes for poetry, including Romanian prizes and international prizes like the Canadian Prize for Poetry (Gasparik). She has also won an International Prize for Poetry, 2018, at The International Book Festival Dublin. She has published ten books in the Romanian language and three books of poetry in the English language.