Ash Raymond James On The Five Things You Need To Write Powerful And Evocative Poetry
An Interview With Heidi Sander
Be yourself. I feel I have repeated this a lot but there is no stressing it enough. Develop a style and fall in love with it. Write funny poems that make you laugh out loud. Write sad poems that make you cry. Brand every syllable with your signature and be unapologetic for existing the way you want to exist.
Poetry is growing in popularity and millions of people spanning the globe have a renewed passion for embracing the creativity, beauty, and art of poetry. Poetry has the power to heal and we make sense of the world through the human expression of writing and reading. Are you wondering: What does it take to become a successful poet? What is the best medium and venue to release your poetry? What are some techniques to improve or sharpen your skills? In this interview series about how to write powerful and evocative poetry, we are interviewing people who have a love for poetry and want to share their insights, and we will speak with emerging poets who want to learn more about poetry either to improve their own skills or learn how to read and interpret better. Here, we will also meet rising and successful poets who want to share their work or broaden their audience, as well as poetry and literature instructors.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ash Raymond James.
Ash Raymond James is a writer from South Wales, UK. He also runs a graphic design and photography company called ‘Mind Noise’ with his partner. He has released two books, ‘Mind Noise’ and ‘ Mind Noise 2’ and numerous zines and is preparing to release his newest collection ‘We Are All Dead’.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share a story about what first drew you to poetry?
When I was nine years old I won a story contest in school and I discovered some extreme joy in writing. I dabbled a lot with storytelling and back then it was ‘dragons with wobbly teeth’ and ‘action heroes with jetpacks’ but I knew the spark was there. I read my first poetry book in a library when I was nine and started writing about flowers, I still have these poems and they’re strangely good. Especially considering this isn’t the moment that made poetry the central element of my life. It didn’t pull me in or remotely interest me honestly.
As a child, every Christmas, we had family friends who would buy me books either too old for me or completely left field and disinteresting. I was either twelve or thirteen when they bought me this poetry collection. ‘Faber and Faber poetry essentials’ featuring some well-known, top-quality poets such as Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heany but back then I was barely a teenager and had no idea who these people were so I threw it aside and barely paid it more than a few seconds of attention. I don’t remember why I randomly started reading these books following this but I did and I think I read ‘Aeriel’ in two nights or something stupid and I understood a good ten percent of it at the time but I was in love. I remember the name of this collection because almost twenty years on I still have it. I still draw from it. Only recently did I write a poem using the structure of Simon Armitage’s poem titled ‘poem’. I keep everything and I could probably give you a stack of books that lead to who I am and that were responsible for my style. But find a copy of Phillip Larkins ‘High Window’ and read the title poem and ‘This Be The Verse’ and you’ll get a true understanding of how inappropriate this was for my age. There are ten books in that collection and each one played a part in me discovering poetry and figuring out what I liked and didn’t.
Can you tell us a bit about the interesting or exciting projects you are working on or wish to create? What are your goals for these projects?
I feel I have too many projects in the pipeline. Right now I am putting the majority of my focus on ‘We Are All Dead’. It is finished but it needs polishing. I have spoken about this a lot recently but I have gone off the idea of self-publishing books. I need a break from it. I am leaning a lot more towards zines. Projects with a more outrageous personality. ‘We Are All Dead’ is an A4 zine, I don’t know if that sizing is used globally but it is a standard piece of paper size. It is massive. It is a sad project but I think it ends hopeful. I don’t want to give too much away but it has become my favourite project. I have been chipping away at it for the last couple of years and it is ready to be out there now. I think my goal is the same for every project, make it special. I make special editions of all my books and put them inside VHS cases with stickers and art and badges and a bunch of other things. I love special editions and merchandise. I have ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ special edition which is just Batmans mask on a stand, I have a replica of the wristwear from ‘Fallout 4’ and endless limited vinyl’s and music merchandise. I just find that stuff so special and different. Why can’t we do that with books? Especially in this day and age where everything is a few clicks away. I didn’t even offer my last book as a digital because I wanted it to be experienced physically. As a graphic designer also, I put a lot into my books and they just aren’t the same on a kindle or a phone screen. I have a lot of these little projects that are different and have a feel to them different from anything you’ve ever seen. I am working on ‘Mind Noise 3’ slowly but that probably won’t find its way out till 2023, maybe even 2024. I have lots of projects ready, it is just figuring out how to deliver them in the best way. I want people to be mind blown before they even read the poetry. I am going for the double shot of awe, always.
Wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. What is your definition of poetry? Can you please share with us what poetry means to you?
In its shortest form, it is turning aches into anthems. I think as poets, the one thing we have going for us is that our pain makes for a great poem. But it isn’t limited to the hurting. Poetry is a way to express. It’s therapy. I have my own little type of poetry that I have dubbed ‘punch a hole in the wall poetry’. I find myself angry a lot and I find it better to channel it through my art and let loose on a page. To me, poetry is the reason I am as controlled as I am. I write everything I feel out onto the page. Keeping things in has huge consequences. Compressing those negative emotions isn’t going to end pretty. I have said it in a poem and I will say it again, I am convinced this is what causes spontaneous combustion. Poetry is the thing stopping me from exploding I guess. It is also incredibly fun. I write a bunch of silly, funny poems because we all need to laugh sometimes. Poetry is too often called out for being a serious thing but that is only one side of the coin. It shouldn’t always be serious. Whether you are writing, reading, watching or performing poetry, it should be a great time.
I also don’t think poetry starts or ends in written form. I can’t dance but I love to dance. I throw myself around like a cannonball and I find a poetic nature in dancing. I find it in art. I find it in all things. Poetry and love share the quality of being endlessly defined differently. Let us lean on the old cliche as this is the case. We can’t really define poetry but trust me, you’ll know it when you feel it.
What can writing poetry teach us about ourselves?
Answering this question with a question, what can’t it? If you fully open up, let all of what you feel come rushing out, there is an opening of eyes that comes with it. I have felt many things and not known why but I start writing and suddenly it makes sense. We as humans are bottomless pits and there is always more to learn about ourselves. Poetry is the key and everybody should be writing poetry.
Who are your favourite poets? Is it their style, the content or something else that resonates with you?
Trying to keep this answer short is where the true difficulty comes in. Neil Hilborn was the poet who got me into performance and opened my eyes to what we can do with mental health in terms of art. He also writes some of the dumbest poems ever which is a compliment, believe it or not. Sabrina Benaim is a name that always pops up, as is Rudy Fransisco and Guante. Hanif Abdurraqib introduced me to essays and different styles of poetry. They all capture some casual nature within their work and that resonates with me. I listen to ‘A Fortune To Your Disaster’ daily. I am a huge audiobooks fan. There are a few classic poets I read frequently but most of my interests are in the modern-day. I like poets that push the boundaries. Guante has a book titled ‘Not a lot of reasons to sing but enough’ coming out this year that seems to do just that and I am beyond excited for it.
If you could ask your favourite poet a question, what would it be?
In the last year, what have you learnt as a writer? I feel we are ever-evolving as writers and I would just be curious to see what their most recent evolution was. I think that conversation would spiral out of control quickly though, in the weirdest and most wonderful of ways.
Poetry can be transformational. Is there a particular poem that spoke to you and changed your life or altered a perspective you held in some way? Can you share the story?
OCD by Neil Hilborn. If you don’t know of it, get on YouTube right now and check it out. Honestly, new tab, YouTube then come back, I will wait for you, I promise. Seeing this poem made me want to get on a stage and perform poems so I did. Now I pride myself a performance poet and am obsessed with performance poets. The way you can tell a story, the way you can embed your struggles, your mental health, your pain, and give so much of yourself under three minutes is phenomenal. I remember that first time scooping my jaw off the floor and scraping the cuss words and exclamation marks off the walls. I remember losing my god damn mind and writing around ten poems and recording myself reading them. They were absolutely terrible not so much because of the content but they weren’t saying anything. I was just discovering how to be loud. This poem changed my life for the better and continues to be a benchmark in terms of performance.
Today’s world needs so much healing. Can you help articulate how poetry can help us heal?
Realising your pain is the first step of healing. Poetry can bring the ugly to the forefront in beautiful ways. When used correctly it can save lives. There are huge poems handling world issues that speak to the masses and can change the world. One way I have noticed major success and healing in poetry is with mental health. Depression makes you feel so alone. Makes you feel like you’re the only one in the world who is feeling what you’re feeling and poetry has reached out and proved that wrong countless times. The world isn’t in its best shape right now but to heal the world, you need to heal the humans within it. Mental health has seen a scary increase and poetry communicates this very well. Not only reading it or hearing it but writing it too. Everybody can write poetry and they should. We have to remember change starts with us, right here in our hands.
We’d like to learn more about your poetry and writing. How would you describe yourself as a poet? Can you please share a specific passage that you think exemplifies your style or main message?
I am a poetry nerd through and through. I think my poetry is raw expression and it’s brave. It is what it wants to be. I write a lot on mental health and there is lots of serious poetry in my collection but I am just me. I have this silly side to me where silly poems stem from. I call them dumb poems but I don’t mean that negatively. A lot of my work is stream of consciousness. I don’t enjoy editing too much. I think the poetry comes out a certain way for a reason. I fluctuate from poetry such as:
Our love is the answer
to the ever-burning question
of what would happen
if Jack the ripper took up gardening.
to the more serious side:
There are days I forget
to set my expectations
I still fail to meet them.
I like to think of myself as a well-balanced poet. With performance and books, they’re puzzles you have to put together in a particular, delicate way. You need light-hearted poems as much as you need deep, thought-provoking ones. I feel I gravitate less towards poetry that feels less human. That is so wrapped up in being poetic and trying so hard to say something, it ends up not saying much at all. I want to be an everyday poet, easy to understand and easy to relate to. If I am lucky along the way, maybe I will inspire some people too.
What do you hope to achieve with your poetry?
Of course, I would love to see my books in bookstores and have a show tour around some dope places but it will always come back to the same reason I began sharing. If one person out there reads my words and it saves their day or even bigger, saves their life, that is more than I can ever ask for. If I make somebody feel less alone, give anybody belonging, that is a gold medal and an afterparty bundled together. To think there are people whose hearts are hurting who find my poetry and find some relief is the most fulfilling feeling of all. There is so much pain in the world and if what I write manages to at least lessen that by the teeniest tiniest amount, what more can I ask for?
In your opinion and from your experience, what are 3 things everyone can learn from poetry?
Poetry can teach you a lot about yourself. It can teach you how to handle situations and generally give a bigger understanding. With how vast poetry has become and how immense the writing pool is, if you looked hard enough, I don’t think there is anything poetry can’t teach you.
Based on your own experience and success, what are the “five things a poet needs to know to create beautiful and evocative poetry?” If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- You need a little bit of an ego. I know that is an odd place to begin but you have to believe you are capable of anything you are doing to make it the best it can be. I am not saying build yourself up to think of yourself as the best thing since dinosaurs but in that moment of writing, tell yourself you’re able, you are great and what you write will be wonderful. Self-belief carries us a long way.
- The right reasons also help. I find the best poetry comes from honest places. From experience of the writer. Even fantasy has trails of truth if you dare follow the breadcrumbs. When I first wrote performance poetry, what I was writing was an imitation of somebody else and you could sense there was a lack of feeling, emotion and genuine experience. The old saying ‘write what you know’ still holds true.
- Overthinking and over-editing kill poems. Yellow tape and chalk. If you have been sitting down trying desperately to write a poem for a long time, likely, what comes out isn’t going to be your greatest work. Take a walk, read and step away from the writing for a while. When the right poem does find you, also remember to not over-edit it. When I was sixteen I remember using a thesaurus and replacing all the basic words with complex ones and although it was interesting, it was also terrible. Although this is an extreme example, editing can be guilty of murder. The best poetry speaks to everybody in a language we all understand.
- You should read as much poetry as you can. We all have favourite poets and styles of poetry we gravitate towards but expanding our poetry range can help our writing tremendously. If slam style poetry isn’t your cup of tea for example, then that’s okay but I do feel there are lots you can learn from reading it. Even more, if you watch or listen to it. It also doesn’t even end at poetry. Reading any genre helps us become better writers. Take in the world.
- Be yourself. I feel I have repeated this a lot but there is no stressing it enough. Develop a style and fall in love with it. Write funny poems that make you laugh out loud. Write sad poems that make you cry. Brand every syllable with your signature and be unapologetic for existing the way you want to exist.
If you were to encourage others to write poetry, what would you tell them?
The most important thing I can say is, don’t worry about what other people are doing. Don’t worry about trends or social media numbers, poetry is about feeling and expressing. I wrote a line recently stating ‘comparison is just another form of suicide but instead of stealing a pulse, it steals your pride’ and it has become a mantra in my life. When you write spill your truth. Let everything you write be one hundred percent, you. Don’t worry so much about the quality and as difficult as it is, don’t judge your work. Follow what you are passionate about.
Of course, writing comes more naturally to some people but it doesn’t mean you are any worse off. As long as it’s honest, as long as it’s raw, I don’t think you can do much wrong.
How would you finish these three sentences:
Poetry heals by…
To be a poet, you need to…
Poetry teaches everything. I know that is an abrupt and blunt answer but I truly believe this. There is poetry for every occasion, emotion and moment.
Poetry heals by connecting and being honest. Human emotion is relatable. Connection is medicine. There are eight billion people in this world, it isn’t plausible that you are alone in what you are feeling. Neil Hilborn talks about this in his poem ‘This is not the end of the world’ and how there is a mathematical certainty that two people are feeling the exact same way. That sort of honesty reaches out to me and pulls me off many ledges.
To be a poet you need to harness your passion like a superpower and hold nothing back. Write and don’t stop writing. Put ‘you’ into everything you do and don’t hold back.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Entertainment, Business, VC funding, and Sports read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 😊
I am a huge music fan. Get me in the room with David Le’aupepe from Gang Of Youths or Alex Moore from the Lathums. Sam Fender or Dallas Green. How they make art amazes me every day. I have no idea what I would say and it would likely be very awkward but it would also be the best time of my life. Or any poet that reads this, get in touch and let’s talk about poems and have a great time.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I am still trying to build myself some digital sort of bat signal but so far I have not been successful. For now, you can find me on Instagram @ashraymondjames or go to my website www.ashraymondjames.com and subscribe to my newsletter. There is a free tier with plenty of stuff to read. I hope to see you there, don’t be shy, say hello, I would love to connect.
Thank you for these excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent. We wish you continued success.