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29. Featuring: Jo Langton

For technical reasons we cannot display Jo's poetry; instead we feature an interview with the poet:

Andrew Taylor interviews Jo Langton
Burtonwood Services, M62, 18th June 2012.

Andrew: Can you tell me when you started writing poetry?

Jo: Probably aged about 14 or 15 I’d say and then I probably took a hiatus around 17 or 18 and then came back to it. But I’ve always written. I did creative writing exercises at school but not necessarily poetry. We never really wrote our own poetry at school but I got into it through reading it, mainly Shakespeare, Blake and the War Poets. I’ve lost most of what I wrote so now I can romanticise about it, but it was probably teen angst stuff.

Andrew: So from a young age you’ve always been interested in writing?

Jo: Definitely. I kept a lot of diaries and have still got them.

Andrew: Well that’s always a good way to start your writing practice.

Jo: Yeah, I thought I wanted to be a journalist and started a journalism course. But it just didn’t settle right with me.

Andrew: So you went to university and studied creative writing?

Jo: Yes, after changing from journalism I chose to study English literature and creative writing. From day one studying creative writing I couldn’t be happier! It was the creativity of the course and meeting tutors such as Scott Thurston. The freedom is off the scale in comparison to my journalism experience!

Andrew: So after choosing creative writing as a way forward, why did you choose to specialise in poetry?

Jo: I’d always written poetry and I’d always written autobiography so I started with both and I found that autobiography had a natural end to it. As a genre I found it limiting. There is only so much as a 20 year old that you can write about yourself, you only have a limited set of experiences. You question whether the writing is any good because I have some good memories or do I need to develop my skills as a writer and not rely on my past experiences. So then I guess I branched into experimental poetry as I had less things to say!

Andrew: Often to step outside of writing from life experience is tough, especially with younger writers.

Jo: That’s when it starts to get interesting for me though, because that’s when you start to understand syntax and that language is something that you can play with and you get down to the nitty gritty of what poetry actually really is, or what it can be or what you can make of it.

Andrew: The types of poets that erbacce favours, like yourself, have usually gone through that journey. What do you think that studying writing has brought to you as a poet?

Jo: Perseverance really and having deadlines, having to do the work. That’s a double sided coin really: most writers wouldn’t want that forced creativity, but then there’s the professional aspect where you have to produce at a constant rate at a good enough level. I’ve been so busy this year I don’t know whether I would have written anything outside the fact that I’m studying [Jo is studying for an MA in Creative Writing: Innovation and Experiment at the University of Salford]. It’s also the quality and the mark schemes. As writers, we are always in competition with ourselves to better our writing by just one extra mark. As a starting point, that tends to drive you.

Andrew: There is a sense of maturity to your writing for one so young. What do you put that down to?

Jo: I’ve always been told that I’m older than my years in terms of my general maturity so I think that accounts for a lot of it. I think that intense period of studying at university counts for a lot too. You have to push yourself. And if you’re having a day where you aren’t pushing yourself somebody else will be. You have to have that. I don’t think I’d be half the writer I am today if I hadn’t been through university. And it’s the reading! It’s the epic reading list they give you. I think I’ve now shown to myself that I’m quite a motivated person. I remember Scott Thurston mentioning Phil Davenport, erbacce etc and seeing that as some kind of pedestal and now I’ve kind of reached that pedestal!

Andrew: Well you certainly have with your successes to-date. Again can we touch on the role of education?

Jo: Education is education. People in this country need to realise that there is the bigger picture of going out there, getting published, going out there and getting work experience. You need to take other opportunities to get job experience. So, whether that’s publishing your poetry or doing internships I don’t think that education is the be all and the end all, in terms of a career at least.

Andrew: I think it’s about educating yourself and pushing yourself outside of the education system. You entered the erbacce-press prize for poetry in 2011 and won a runner’s up prize.

Jo: That’s had such a massive domino effect.

Andrew: I think that’s down to a work ethic. You’ll be amazed at how many poets expect to be recognised and published without putting the work in. Can we talk a bit about influence? Aside from the tuition side of things, who or what are your main influences?

Jo: I don’t think you can be without influence. I can give you names of people I love but I can’t tell you what has and hasn’t influenced me. Everything has to some extent. I think you can only pinpoint influence in hindsight. You can try and write with certain motivations in mind but what you write will always surprise you.

Andrew: It’s like with writing exercises if you get one line then it’s been worth it.

Jo: For me that translates beyond line length in poetry. If you go to an art gallery and there’s only one tiny piece that interests you, it’s something. If you go to a poetry event and you make one contact, that’s worth it.

Andrew: Can you tell me something about your actual writing process?

Jo: I used to keep a writing diary pretty regularly and use it for collage. My process is pretty straight forward: I do tend to go straight to screen and I prefer that. I find it easier. I always start working on the surface that the work is going to end up on. So if I want it to be A5 I will start on A5, if I want it to be in a tea bag I’m making the tea bag first! I find it so much easier to work that way. You know your boundaries, you know your parameters and you know exactly what you are going to do. So for the most part the form comes before the content, but there are no hard and fast rules, obviously. I’ve realised recently that I’ve been aware, in my head, that ‘there’s a line’ or ‘there’s an idea’ and I’ll ignore it because I’m busy. I need to jump on that compulsion because it’ll only take me five seconds to write it down. I have people saying to me ‘experimental writing is easy, you just randomly place words on the page’. But I can justify every decision. It may not make any sense to anyone else but it has to feel right to me. I can make some kind of justification for everything I do.

Andrew: Not that you have to!

Jo: Yes, not that I have to!

Andrew: It’s more to yourself.

Jo: Yes, otherwise it becomes arbitrary.

Andrew: How much importance do you place on the role of reading, as a writer?

Jo: As a writer I know it’s pretty important, as a student I probably don’t do as much as I should! But yes, everything comes from reading I think. I don’t think you can write in isolation and I don’t think you’ll get anywhere unless you know what everyone around you is doing. I think that’s important, that relationship. I also think it’s important to somehow keep them separate. If I read something really phenomenal I’ll be in my reading zone and I’ll be appreciating it for its merit, but I’m not in my writing zone because I’d get cramped by somebody else’s style or I’d feel that I’m just not that good. So I need to put my reading hat on so that I’m appreciating that and its settling rather than reading something from a writer’s point of view. I think there’s a difference. It’s nice to come across work and follow it up. You can’t enjoy, say the work of Andrew Taylor and not follow it up or you’ve wasted your enjoyment of that work. Back to influence though and that has to be my Mum! She’s a really hard worker!

Andrew: So what of the future?

Jo: I really want a job! I want a job working in poetry in the hope that in five years time it hasn’t stopped me writing. At the moment I’m just going to finish my dissertation and keep the ball rolling.

Andrew: Recently, I was thinking about the role of the poet in society and the way that artists and poets are expected to do stuff for nothing.

Jo: A year ago I was prepared to give my labour away for free but I began to question how long it would be before I got paid for things. I’ve gotten over that now; it’s just not about money. Yeah, as poets we don’t get enough recognition from society but I don’t give a toss about society. I care about my society. Alec (Newman, publisher of Knives, Forks and Spoons Press) said ‘If you’ve got erbacce, me, Zimzalla and The Other Room (reading series in Manchester) looking out for you and your work, then who else do you need to please?’ I don’t need to please anybody else. The people I want to please are being pleased by what I want to do and sod the rest of society.

Andrew: Finally Jo, as tradition dictates you have the choice of the colour of the erbacce flower.

Jo: Can Alan send me it and I’ll do something with it?

Andrew: Sure. Thanks for your time Jo.