What do you look for in a coffee?
Those who know my Twitter name, @thetearooms, will not be surprised to hear that I have little to do with coffee. I even considered a career in tea at one point. (Thinking back, that was surely a sign that something was not right in my life.)
I tend to like Assams crammed with the heavy flavour and mouthfeel of the alluvial Brahmaputra and, alternatively, almost minty high-altitude Ceylons. That’s what I say, anyway, when I want to sound like a twonk. In practice, I find that any decent quality single-origin black tea that is brewed properly and served in a cup and saucer will get the job done. The ‘job’ of tea is to promote a general daytime well-being and to allow the drinker to be stylish. It’s not so different from a nice vase of nasturtiums or a crisp shirt. This is a noble mission, surely, but it’s quite a bit short of some sort of all-embracing philosophy or ‘Way of Tea.’ I know many people who maintain that there is a spiritual dimension to the leaf; I’m not even sure that there is a spiritual dimension to the spirit. When I consider people who think there is philosophy to be found in tea, I wonder if they’ve heard of art yet.
All that being said . . . New Zealand’s flat whites are, as I understand it, the envy of the coffee-drinking world. I probably have about one a month. What I look for in that one coffee is this: I like it in a fun, ridged takeaway cup.
What do you look for in your own writing?
I made a conscious decision a couple of years ago that I would try to only write poems that are actually enjoyable to read. I prioritise this over having a ‘message’ or trying to prove my cleverness, which is a constant temptation. On balance, I would argue that it is better to write a poem that, for example, tells the story of a panda that lost big on the Chinese stock market than to gift the world another poem about how sincerely you feel about something.
I am aware that this appears to be an arch conservative position. (Consider Horace: ‘Poets wish either to instruct or to delight, to deliver at once both the pleasures and the necessaries of life.’ Or consider Jack Underwood’s ‘supermarket test.’) But is it really? I like to think that having respect for the reader’s time is an eternally radical gesture in a time when much poetry is a monologue delivered by the poet to the reader rather than one half of a dialogue between writer and audience.
Almost invariably, the lines that I think are my best are also the ones that I think are the most amusing. I don’t know if this attitude is getting me as far as some other attitudes might get me, but at least it’s a position I can justify to myself.
What do you look for in a submission to QMT?
Like obscenity, I know it when I see it.
You know all those things, those tricky little filigrees and grace notes, that you try to cram into your own work? And you know how it’s impossible for you, the poet, to tell if they’re working? ‘Is this working?’ you ask. ‘Who the fuck knows,’ you reply to yourself (worryingly).
Knowing whether things work or not is one of the great pleasures of reading other poets’ work. In someone else’s writing, those hard-sought-for effects either emerge like a breaching submarine or they remain wallowing beneath the surface, waterlogged.
This is a way of saying that when I encounter a poem that I really like, I usually know straight away that I like it, often only a few lines in. Now the effect that triggers this reflex reaction is not predictable. In other words, lots of different kinds of poems will attract me with their poem-pheromones, and the only thing they have in common is immediacy.
Anyway, that’s one possible answer, and the only one I have time and space to give during this coffee break. Which, I’d like to say, I have enjoyed immensely.