Rishi Dastidar – Ticker-tape [Interview]

Disclosure: Have chatted with Rishi a bunch on Twitter, once in person, and is a supporter of my Patreon. This interview came about from a conversation Rishi and I had when the book was still being written (I think), and facilitated by Julia Forster from Nine Arches Press – they only asked for a wee note at the very end about where to buy the book, which I would have done anyway. For the purposes of the interview Rishi provided me with a proof of Ticker-tape.

Interview:

DC: Ticker-tape is your first full collection, congratulations! Could you tell us a bit about how the book came together? Did you have an idea about what you wanted from the finished article?

RD: Thank you!

The back story is that, towards the end of 2015 the brilliant Jane Commane of Nine Arches Press offered me some mentoring, which coincided with a sense that I had that I thought that I had enough depth and range in my poems that they could start to cohere into something bigger. I cobbled 60-something poems together pretty fast, and sent them to her, with no expectation at all. So I was absolutely gobsmacked when she said she wanted to take them on.

I didn’t have a grand, coherent vision for the book, apart from the sense that a) it had to be a proper calling card and b) ambitious in its own terms. I say that as someone coming to poetry late, and publishing a first book relatively late by current industry standards; so the paranoid bit of me worries that I might only get one shot at this – so to use baseball parlance, I am swinging for the fences here. Hence why the title poem, for example, is as long as it is – why wait to show off when you might not get another chance to?

One thing I should add is that I absolutely knew I had to wait for one final poem to arrive for the book to be finished, ‘These things boys do’. I cannot tell you why, nor how I knew, but I did know that the book would not be complete until there was a working draft of that ready to go, and that poem took the best part of a year to emerge.

What did make things easier is that I absolutely knew what my first poem and last poem would be, and that ‘Ticker-tape’ itself would be the spine of the book. Everything else has had to work within that architecture. And Jane has been brilliant in finding sequences, coincidences and patterns within the poems that I didn’t know were there. I had assumed early on that it might have a relatively traditional romantic arc to it, but she saw that actually that the book is a series of loops, and realising that both unlocked an interesting way of thinking about it, but also gave us permission to be bold when putting it together.

DC: You’ve piqued my curiosity about ‘These things boys do’! What was it that took so long to articulate?

You’ll forgive me if this is an inarticulate response to a question about articulacy, but I suspect it was a couple of things; 1) knowing that it would be one of the keystone poems in the book, one that would be an intersection of the overt and submerged themes of the book and so the idea ‘I must take the time to get this right’; 2) trying to be deft about navigating through topics which it could be very easy to be showy / clod-hoppy and hence tend towards offensiveness; 3) wrestling with a sense that its more personal to me than I might be letting on and indeed telling myself, and that leading to perhaps a state of paralysis / abeyance. There is also 4) I might have just been overthinking it all.

Looking at it again, it strikes me that maybe somewhere in my subconscious I was also aware of: 5) that it would be a poem that’s almost perfectly emblematic of my poetics, and what that is trying to do: shoving too much modernity into older lyric forms that can barely bear what they’re being asked to; letting gods and / or mythic beings rattle on and have their say; geographic yearning; riffs on capitalism, identity and technology; a keening sense of romance; oh and a post punk lyric steal.

DC: The opening poem, “The summers of Camus’ youth”, seems to suggest there’s something rotten under the surface of normative masculinity, the poem’s scene of casual, idyllic harassment concluded by the lines ‘These are healthy pleasures. / They certainly seem ideal to the young men.’ Do you have a sense of what contemporary masculinity is and how it impacts your poems?

RD: I don’t think I am grand enough to claim, or plugged into the relevant political debates, to suggest I have a strong sense of what contemporary masculinity might be right now… I can work outwards from me I suppose; I latched very early on to the idea of alpha vs beta males (viz my Twitter etc being ‘BetaRish’), and I don’t think its a coincidence that I, with little aforethought, have positioned myself towards the latter end of that spectrum. Even before I started writing it was clear to me that the alpha male was a tribe that I could not comfortably inhabit, and any way, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to – if to write is to observe is to be detached, how can you sit within a nexus of power, and not have your judgment corrupted? Better to be on the outside of all these things, as it were.

I didn’t set out to write about this explicitly, but what has become apparent is that I am interested in the codes through which younger men appear to be talking to each other, which is I guess at heart what ‘We Are Premier League’ and ‘Bantz’ revolve around. With the latter – that came from a Ladbible / Unilad piece which crossed my desk and I was just struck by the… ease with which all of what was said – however hateful, hurtful, disrespectful it was – could be washed away by the notion that it ‘wasn’t serious’ or meant seriously. Well, sorry, but get out of jail free cards don’t work like that. Words matter – betray them, and they’ll end up betraying you.

That sounds tremendously po-faced, and no doubt I have laughed along and with tremendously ill-judged, near the knuckle stuff too in my time, but I hope I have enough decency to know I should feel bad about it – and then do so.

One thing that is clear to me is that the level of education that you need to be a (straight) man and not – inadvertently or otherwise – cause offence has drastically increased since I was younger. That’s not a bad thing at all, but I would counsel a wee bit of patience as younger men become woke, as well as feeling bold enough to call themselves feminists. Of course that doesn’t mean one can’t demand higher standards of behaviour immediately.

Can I add one other thing here? A note in defence of Camus, seeing as it’s his words (which I assume are more than 50 years old now) I’m using to convey the idea that there is always ambiguity that surrounds any form of pleasure or hedonism. I hadn’t realised until reading Sarah Bakewell’s ‘At The Existentialist Café’ (which is tremendous and you all should read), how poverty-stricken his upbringing in Algeria had been and the sense that, in Bakewell’s words, he was “lost without the brilliant-white Mediterranean sun that had been the one compensation in his early life.”

DC: You’ve mentioned to me before how you’re cautious about being a man writing hetero love poems, how misogyny tends to be the default. How did you approach your love poems with those concerns in mind? I think poems like “Licking stamps” and “What night is” handle things rather well, for example, in very different ways.

RD: Well, that’s kind of you to say, and I hope that readers do see that the intention behind the majority of my love poems is to celebrate one of the characters, and more often than not cast any male ‘I’ in less flattering terms. And when I say ‘celebrate’, hopefully not just in a ‘they’re beautiful / good-looking / the ‘I’ only wants to sleep with them’ sense.

Was there conscious strategy at play? Perhaps not – but I found that the more that I could give voice, agency to female characters, the more it felt that the poems moved away from any traditional love poem setting or direction, as it were. Plus, candidly, I struggle(d) to see how much newness or innovation I could bring if things just stayed as ‘strong male ‘I’ figure lusting after AN Other’. Let’s say a desire to do things differently helped to lead to a stance where I could feel that the male ‘I’ starts to become a tad more recessive.

There is also hopefully a note of joy in most of the love poems – I mean, I hope that’s where the impulse for most of them started. I know the book has come out as having a sad undertow to it, but in most cases of individual poems there was an upbeat optimistic sense that started the drive to create.

DC: Right, there’s a lot of the book where joy doesn’t seem a possibility, I’d love to pick your brain about that! Before we get there, though, could you tell us a bit about your experiences with The Complete Works? Ten: The New Wave is still one of my favourite books, full stop.

It’s not a bad little book that one, is it? 😉 I vividly remember sitting down to read the proofs when they arrived, finishing them and then just having to stay still for a moment, thinking how lucky I was to be in such a mighty thing, in amongst such mighty, mighty company.

I keep telling people that being selected for The Complete Works is the closest I’m ever going to get to a winning lottery ticket, and I really don’t think that’s an exaggeration. So many things about it just make it special. One is obviously the talent you’re around – and then from that comes the knowledge, the expectation, “well lad, you’d better raise your game here”. I didn’t realise it going in, but the unspoken demand for excellence was a really great thing – it made me focus.

Being part of the programme – becoming part of the family – didn’t just help me develop my poetic craft. It made me think harder and much more deeply about being a writer, being an artist and the responsibilities that come with that, especially the political ones. It woke me up to the fact that, coming from the British Asian (for the sake of clarity, here I am very deliberately using the term that I tick most often on the monitoring forms) background I do, my work as a poet can never just be about ‘writing’. And I love the fact that collectively we’ve had such an impact that it would be embarrassing for British poetry now to regress – we’ve comprehensively, concretely proved that the poetry of these isles can or ever should be of one colour ever again.

The memories: one – Bernadine Evaristo at my interview pretty much telling me that, no, I need to be thinking about books 3, 4 and 5 now – that’s the ambition we have to have. And two – I will go to my grave treasuring the moment I was in a room when Warsan Shire read a draft of a poem. You know how people reckon magic doesn’t exist? So so wrong. Oh, and 300 people at Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre for a reading – that were alright. [see video above! – DC]

DC: I sincerely hope you’re right about the permanent change in British poetry. Now and then I have this notion that if we can change things in this small corner of the culture it could be a model for change elsewhere. I’m a natural optimist though. But maybe I’d be right in saying your poems are too? ‘What’s the matter with…’ certainly has a strong faith in human decency, and ‘A man is on the TV, telling me about’ made me want to stand up and punch the air!

RD: Well, I agree with you on that – in whatever way we can, we should be an exemplar when it comes to these things; with my Spread The Word hat on, it is satisfying be able to point publishing people at the progress within the poetry world, and then saying, “Well, if it can be done here, why not in your corner of the literature world?” This of course said with the usual rider that more needs to be done…

And – yes! I think I’m an optimist – not necessarily natural but I tend to a more upbeat, rosier view of things generally, and I think this is – maybe? – one of the things that sets me at a bit of an angle from the wider poetry world, in the UK at least. I’m interested in the extent to which poems can be vehicles towards the sunlit uplands, convey joy as much as they do the blacker, deeper moments. If we say that we’re looking for transcendence in poems – and why not, sometimes at least? – then I think that means joy, happiness has to be part of the mix. And not just a quiet moment, but a noisy exuberance too. It seems odd to me not to have this emotion reflected in some poems. Of course, what makes me happy and giddy might not make a reader so, hence apologies in advance if no joy is procured from the book; no money back, your statutory rights are not affected etc etc.

It’s interesting you pick up on those two poems in particular, as they both definitely started as things which were not upbeat, from incidences and events which were boluses of irritation. That I have disguised the spasms that led to writing was unintentional, but perhaps useful – certainly in ‘What’s the matter…’ I didn’t want the voice to hector from a gloomy place; as it does hector it might as well be from a place that fundamentally assumes that things can be made better. But it does require some good faith – and I do worry that is getting harder to assume and procure, at least in some recesses of the isles.

As for ‘A man is on TV…’ – I read that a lot more pessimistically than you. It arrived after watching a talking head on Newsnight who, you could tell, really thought he was saying something sophisticated, when it really didn’t amount to much more than “I am intensely relaxed about brown people being tortured”. And the smirk that went with it – ugh. It will be intensely joyous for me when asinine voices like that, who hide behind euphemisms, get watered down in our media culture. Can it happen? I think so – I retain a fundamental belief in the decency of most people, and what they want to hear. It might be thwarted by structural economic issues in the media industry that mean opinions tend towards polarity for commercial reasons, but hey! that wormy can is a wee bit too big to dive into now.

DC: For sure, in poetry too white men with basic opinions get promoted/given benefits of doubts in ways poets of colour, particularly women, never are. The joy/exuberance and NOISE is so heartening to read, feels like there’s a real statement to be made aesthetically (in a world with too many Zach Snyders) and politically, in a world that seems designed to keep vulnerable people in a state of permanent anxiety. Is there a political aspect to the joy in your work? Maybe thinking in those terms takes the joy out of it!

RD: Lots of nodding here at the first part of that… And at the second too; having finished the above-mentioned Bakewell book on the French existentialists, one of the things I was underlining many times in it is the connection between freedom, the potential to live the best life you can and the anxiety that the choices that doing this induces. I think, to some extent, that having collectively valorised ‘freedom’ (or having it valorised for us?) to the heights that we have, we are also now collectively beginning to realise that this good – and it is a good thing – is not without costs, especially if you do not have the *wonkish policy word* capacities to use it to the fullness that you might. And that one of these costs, as you say, is for some people permanent anxiety.

In that context, can joy be political? I think so. It really is interesting, how… radical it appears, just putting those two words together like that, ‘joy’ and ‘politics’. Like we’ve been trained to view it as unlikely or oxymoronic, that the arena for the peaceful discussion and disputation of how power in a society is to be used and dispersed could ever be joyful.

So here then is a thing that I think poetry could do (and hopefully mine is starting to do, at least): not just lament, but actually suggest the new imaginative possibilities, from which we start to reclaim a, let’s say inclusive civic culture, one that looks at least neutrally upon things, doesn’t reach for the negative as a default. There has to be a middle way between being a cheerleader or a Cassandra…

A poem is never going to become a policy, sure; I don’t want poets to be unacknowledged legislators, but rather, let’s say, practical utopians. Light casters, attention grabbers… Someone has to start building the new shining city on the hill. If it won’t be our politicians or our novelists, it might as well be us.

Look at me, the old romantic. My hard-headed political friends will guffaw at this.

DC: I’m with you. For all WM’s talk of restrictions on their expression (restricted by who? under what authority?) the boundaries that expression conforms to is remarkable. We are not an imaginative people, maybe because we’ve already achieved supremacy. LEADING QUESTION HERE but are you concerned about how Ticker-tape will be received?

RD: Obviously I should say “no”, but I am a writer – hence vain, vulnerable, full of ego and doubt – so the answer is “yes”, to the extent that my vanity will struggle with the book being ignored completely. Though of course, knowing how we are drowning in stuff that is clamouring for attention, the book barely causing a ripple is a perfectly plausible possibility.

Beyond that, I have a latent fear that, if noticed, people won’t know what to do with it, as it doesn’t necessarily cleave to the, shall we say, ‘received’ notions of what a book of poetry by a writer of colour might or should be… I am aware that I don’t have many (if any?) poems that overtly speak to my identity as a British Asian. But I can point you to where my background and some of the experiences I have had are in the poems, just maybe not as obviously as an audience might be used to or expect.

So welcome then an attempt at nuance and doing things differently, and you’ll peel me off the road when I get run over by the discourse that demands I make things more obvious, right? 😉

DC: Every time! I reckon you’ve earned a joyful question to finish on. What’s with all the musical references?

RD: Two things in particular: 1) my starting point is that poetry is sung speech… or a song that one happens to speak, rather than sing. That being the case, it seems to make sense to me to bring obvious musical references in; 2) the fact that, for most of my teens, music – and specifically British independent guitar and house / ambient music between 1991-2000 – was my portal to wider culture and politics.

Basically I came to poetry and literature very late (my degrees were in history, and media regulation), so for me, when going back to the stuff that you need to mine to dredge up the poems, it’s perhaps not surprising in retrospect that I went to the stuff that is my truer emotional hinterland, rather than faking an involvement with a poetic canon that I don’t necessarily feel.

All of which leads to 3) the sense of, well, why ever not? If we’re all comfortable with the idea that poets can write, for example, in response to visual art, draw critical and theoretical frameworks from modern conceptual art, surely we can do so from pop music as well? I do a workshop where I blast songs at participants as their prompts to write… knowing that the emotional associations that people have with music are so strong, why not try to access those feelings through poetry too?

You’ll note that I’m not going anywhere near the hip-hop / rap / spoken word / lyrics stuff, by the way. It’s for me, more elemental than that. If I can transmute into a poem the way a rave song made me feel, for example, so that someone else feels that too, then job done.

DC: Thanks so much for your time Rishi, and good luck with Ticker-tape!

Ticker-tape is available from 24 March from Nine Arches Press.