Poet Interview #64: Neil Slevin

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? At what age did you start writing? Who/what first inspired you to begin? Who are some your favorite writers and artists (past and/or contemporary)?

My name is Neil Slevin. I’m a writer from Co. Leitrim, Ireland whose poetry has been published or is forthcoming via various Irish journals, including The Galway Review, A New Ulster, Skylight 47, Boyne Berries, and Into The Void, and numerous international publications, such as Scarlet Leaf Review and Artificium: The Journal. Meanwhile, my flash fiction has appeared in The Incubator and I am a founder and editor of Dodging The Rain.

I suppose that answer depends on what you define as ‘writing’, but if I avoid being too philosophical about it, I’ve been writing on and off since I was a teenager. I loved words and English and was quite creative as far back as primary (elementary) school.

The level of challenge and encouragement I received from my second-level (high school) English teacher meant I began to take the subject and writing itself more seriously and I became known for prose that was highly descriptive – flowery, if I’m less kind.

I was never a big fan of writing dialogue or focusing on everyday details so those factors complemented the urge I had to begin writing poetry when I emigrated in 2011. I found I could express some things best, sometimes only as poetry, and those early scribblings became what I know now as The Letters I Never Sent, my first official batch of poems, which I wrote to people, places, experiences and more to set the record straight for myself.

I am a big admirer of Donal Ryan, arguably Ireland’s #1 novelist right now, whose unique brand of sparky, poetic prose is one I’d love to emulate. I’m willing to read almost any type of poetry, providing it’s not too explicitly traditional, so rather than name-checking I’ll just say that I’m enjoying reading Rattle’s daily poems because almost every one I read is different to anything I’ve read previously and feeds the experimental nature of the poems I’m working on.

How do you first start writing a poem? Does it come to you out of the blue, or do you have a set time where you meet with your muse each day and let the words just … flow?

The inspiration for a poem typically comes to me as a thought or image, sometimes from something I say or overhear during a conversation, I thought I have and don’t share, or something I wish I could say but can’t. Now that I have written 100+ poems, I do actively look for ideas. Sometimes I find them when I read others’ work, when I attend poetry readings, or even generate them in response to prompts I find online.

I wouldn’t describe them collectively as coming ‘out of the blue’ but they do tend to be instinctive. I prefer to write when I feel I have something approaching poetic to say rather than searching around and about me for it; so no, we don’t have a set meeting time each day. However, I am more disciplined and structured when it comes to prose and find it easier to adhere to a routine when writing it. But I feel my prose remains some way off the level of my better poetry, and that’s probably why I find it easier to write.

What does poetry mean to you, and has your idea of what it represents changed over the course of time? Where do you see it going in the future?

I can’t really convey what poetry means to me just yet. Perhaps I haven’t lived or written enough. But I know it’s my go-to medium of expression and feel it suits my personality and way of being best. I like to be direct and concise in what I say and do so I enjoy saying what I have and/or need to in a reasonably quick burst, then leaving it alone for a while before returning to edit and overthink until it’s as ‘done’ as it can be.

Again, I can’t say my idea of poetry and what it represents has changed because it was never particularly fixed but I know my approach evolves with every poem I read and write. I’ve become a lot less concerned with it being lyrical, how it looks on the page, and whether it rhymes than I am ensuring it says something meaningful, is written in a voice that is my own, and that it will add something new to the billions of poems it joins under that beautiful umbrella term we use for writing that forsakes the prosaic; poetry.

Right now, the poetry I experience regularly is either Irish or American. The Irish poetry I experience most often focuses on imagism and reading and sounding beautifully, sometimes at the expense of saying less than it should. The American poetry I read is less concerned with what could be deemed as superficial beauty, more with conveying a message, memory or experience. I don’t think I can say with confidence where I see poetry going, but I hope it will favour the latter.

You recently launched the new venue Dodging The Rain. How has that experience been so far? What type of work are you generally looking for from those who might be interested in submitting their words?

Dodging The Rain continues to be a rewarding experience. We’re four issues in and already receiving so much quality work that we have to reject some of it or at least be creative in finding ways to include it. Last year I edited a culture column and an entertainment section for a student newspaper, so for me DTR is very much a process of building on that experience, and I get to do it alongside three friends and former MA classmates.

As per our Submissions page, we’re open to all forms of creativity, both written and visual. We receive an abundance of poetry (my co-editors blame my influence!), all of which I enjoy reading, but we are hoping to receive more prose going forward.

I am a huge fan of flash fiction, mostly for its brevity and punch, while my co-editors tend to write fiction ranging from flashes and short stories to novels and plays; so we should receive more prose than we do. Perhaps us poets are an exhibitionist lot, or just find it easier to submit our work.

Words aside, we would love to receive more visual art, to publish standalone posts of paintings and photography or, even better, illustrated poetry or prose. Also, we are interested in pairing visual art with poetry and prose because we like to illustrate each post regardless of genre.

Are you on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media? Does that fit into your writing life, and if so, how?

Yep, I’m on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn; the lot, pretty much. I’d say social media fits around rather than into my writing life. I like using it to share my work and ensure that people who might be interested have the opportunity to access and read it. To me, a writer’s work is little more than sentiment without someone to read and extract from it.

However, sometimes I’m guilty of spending more time on social media posting about my work or looking for places to submit it to than writing. I try to tell myself that the promotion side of things is important…

I’m yet to set up my own writer’s blog or Facebook page but I’m sure I will eventually. I sense my friends and acquaintances are tiring of my self-promotion as my posts seem to get a lot less impressions now than when I was starting out. But I hope they’ll still buy my books if and when they appear!

On the plus side, I also do a lot of writing via SMITH Magazine, which is a social media writing community all its own. The basic outline is, each member has an account from which they can post six-word stories with the option of including backstories that expand on their six-worders; they can also favourite or comment on others’ sixes and participate in competitions. I’ve been on the site since 2013 and tend to post something on it most days.

My sixes often lead to longer pieces and vice versa while SM was my first experience of being part of a larger writing community, one that prepared me for my MA in Writing experience and for the career path I’m now wandering down. I also like the immediacy of being online and having the opportunity to get feedback on something I’ve written almost instantly.

Do you have a writing group or community of writers you share your work with? Who are they? What are you reading right now?

As above, SM was my first real experience, albeit an interactive one, of being part of a writing community. From teaching and my MA year, I continue to have a couple of like-minded writing friends with whom I exchange work and feedback quite regularly, while I remain close with a few my old classmates both inside and outside of DTR.

Right now, I’m enjoying the independence of writing alone but I would like to participate in more writing classes, groups and workshops in the future as I find being in that space and atmosphere conducive to forming new ideas.

Rattle aside, I’m almost out of new books to read, but today I received the wonderful gift of Johnny Cash: Forever Words; The Unknown Poems so I look forward to starting that. I’d like to find another fiction or non-fiction book to read also; reading too much poetry can be like eating too much dark chocolate or reading too many classics one after the other. Little and often is best.

As 2017 continues rolling steadily along, what are your expectations for the year ahead? Do you have any new books/projects in the works that you’re particularly excited about?

Expectations can be a dangerous thing for a writer, but it’s important to have them. Primarily, I need to keep writing and submitting my work for publication. I’m still in a place where I’m trying to have as many of my polished poems published as possible before I put them together as a part of my first collection. I have finished a draft of a chapbook, tentatively titled Inhaling Silence, and I continue to write poems for what will be my first full-length collection.

Currently I’m working on a new batch of poems entitled ‘Nostalgia’. I’ve started to write poetry as part of themed collections; most these poems play with the idea that nostalgia is not necessarily a positive thing, nor indulging in it a positive practice – i.e. the past and all things in it are the past for good reason. They are more experimental than a lot of the poems I’ve written thus far.

I also dabble in fiction and non-fiction now and again. Flash non-fiction is probably the closest description of what I write, as these pieces tend to be inspired by memory. They tend to be quite imagistic in nature, a la my first fiction credit ‘My Ball’.

What words of encouragement can you offer other poets who are trying to get their work noticed?

The main thing is the obvious write and write often, then edit lots and get feedback when you need it, especially if you’re still learning to write. My MA experience helped me a lot in that respect but I’m still living and learning from one poem to the next.

If you’re not writing for whatever reason, don’t beat yourself up but look to keep jotting down your ideas and keep your eyes open for inspiration. Read widely, watch and listen; your next piece may find you.

Sending your work out is important. You should look to get feedback and advice at least informally from someone who knows how writing works before you start submitting as the early rejections can be tough to take. However, the sooner you start submitting your work and being rejected the quicker you’ll become immune to the experience, and begin having your work read more widely when you get that first acceptance.

Experiment. Try new styles and voices and run with new ideas and ways of working. I love when a book, story or poem I’ve read returns to me in some way when I’m writing something new in the form of a new idea or style. Don’t force your work into being something new and edgy just for the sake of it, but run with new when it makes its way onto your page.

Live a life worth writing.


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Scott Thomas Outlar hosts the site 17Numa.wordpress.com where links to his published poetry, fiction, essays, interviews, reviews, and books can be found. He is a Best of the Net and three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Scott's poetry books include: Songs of a Dissident (Transcendent Zero Press, 2015), Chaos Songs (Weasel Press, 2016), Happy Hour Hallelujah (CTU Publishing, 2016), and Poison in Paradise (Alien Buddha Press, 2017). Scott serves as an editor for The Peregrine Muse, Happy Hour Hallelujah, and Novelmasters.

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