Jack Warren talks to Simon Alderwick about manual labour, illicit reading, and 'Rude Mechanical'

The poem 'Prospero Returns to the Island', by Jack Warren.
'Prospero Returns to the Island', from Jack Warren's new pamphlet, 'Rude Mechanical'

Simon: Tell us about your journey into poetry.

Jack: I started reading poetry when I was about fourteen or fifteen but I didn't start writing it until I was much older. I really disliked the work I was taught at school and when I left I had very definite opinions on what poetry should and shouldn't do. I don't know if it's because I'd fallen in love with the Romantics and the Beats but I felt like poetry was an outsider thing – maybe because it was difficult! It definitely couldn't be cosy or ‘indoorsy’, it had to feel vital.

S: How did you go from hating poetry to becoming so passionate about it?

J: I highly recommend hating poetry – it's a really important first step! Being a discriminating reader and knowing why something doesn't work for you can be really valuable.

I was lucky because I got to grow up just before the internet started to become really extractive. There was so much work online. You could read pages and pages of people you would never expect to find – certainly not in a bookshop in the middle of the West Country! I remember reading people like Octavio Paz, or Yusef Komunyakaa even some of the Russians like Mayakovsky and Gumilyov just because it was freely available.

The other important thing for me was that I used to read outside quite a lot too. I'd hike out to the Mendips with four or five library books and read those instead of going to school, which sounds like some Tom Sawyer shit, but it’s the truth. I think the combination of reading widely and it being an independent, kind of illicit act, in the open air was really foundational.

S: How did you go from reader to poet?

J: It was when I got to go to university, and I realised nobody there was embarrassed about liking poetry. Nobody kept it a secret! There was a very clear moment when I kind of gave myself permission to. I've written ever since, sometimes with huge gaps between poems – my longest gap between writing poems was 14 months – but sometimes I'll do two or three in a day.

The important thing for me is to keep reading and keep thinking about the world with imaginative or poetic potential. Without it I can't find equilibrium in my life.

S: Who do you write for? Who do you imagine your audience to be?

J: I write a lot of poems for my wife, a lot for friends. The first response I’m looking for is that they enjoy it. I don’t send a lot of work out to magazines. There was a period where I was really keen on being a ‘professional’ poet – winning prizes, being published in big magazines, being interviewed, judging and being on panels – but actually I don’t think that would make me any happier. It certainly wouldn’t improve the quality of the work.

What’s important to me is the ability of the work to speak to the people I’m aiming it at.

It’s really cool that I can write a love poem to my wife and maybe she’ll giggle. I have this image that it would be nice if when I’m dead my grandkids would say “my grandad wrote poetry. We’ve got a couple of them lying around,” but that’s all I’m aiming for in terms of a poetic ‘career’. I think that’s the way it should be.

S: Does it take you a long time for you to be happy with a poem?

J: Yeah, I'm not very prolific. It took me five years to write Rude Mechanical. Working full-time, especially physical labour, you don’t have a lot of energy to sit there and be creative, to daydream or be intellectually curious.

I think the poems reflect that: there are fleeting moments here and there, the narrators are often fighting for a chance to find fulfilment or spiritual ambition when they're dog tired. If you've been working fifty or sixty hour weeks, you come home and all you want to do is wash your clothes and sit in front of the telly. There’s not a lot of time or chance to be creative. Rude Mechanical is me trying to find the time and space, mentally and physically, to write the poems, and also to have the poems act as testament that it is possible.

My process starts off with me free-writing in pen, and if there’s an obvious music (like a consonance or an alliterative pattern) I’ll continue with that until a narrative or a collage effect starts to take shape.

Over the course of two or three weeks that will be added to, cut and changed, until eventually I type it up. It then stays in an open document on my computer for anything up to three or four months.

After that I start doing a first edit – mess around with the line breaks, stress test all the words to see if they're working hard enough, see if I can make certain lines a little more energetic or more nuanced, make sure the tone is kind – then I save it and try not to look at it for a good couple of months. If I come back to it later with fresh eyes and it's still not where I want it to be, I cannibalise it for parts and bin it.

S: Are you hard on yourself as a writer?

J: Um... yeah, I think so. I'm quite fearful of publishing something shit, so I make sure I edit everything to within an inch of its life before it goes out! I'm a hard editor but a very giddy, playful writer. Writing is a fun thing to do. It helps me clarify things in my mind. It helps me stay present. It’s very much a selfish impulse but I'm certain it makes me a kinder and more humane person.

S: I feel a strong sense of musicality in your work. How do you create this?

J: Musicality is really important to me. I go to poems for the quality of the imagery and the strength of the voice, but the music is what makes me return to them and keep them as favourites. I use a lot of rhymes and half rhymes. I like messing with the length of the line too and seeing how far you can convince a reader to throw the breath. I also really like little contrasts and tonal shifts. Playing with white space is really fun too, I sometimes use it to notate silence, which hopefully adds to the experience of reading it aloud.

S: There are several sonnets in the pamphlet; what advice would you give people who struggle with writing in form?

J: I’m a big fan of sonnets. They're the only form that I write towards deliberately because they're so damn rewarding. Form is an odd word though. I think people find it scary because they associate it with prosody and counting syllables, but form is just consideration and deliberate construction, at least to my mind.

Of course, you need an awareness of sonnets and metrical patterns so you know how to construct certain effects, but I think you're just going to give yourself a headache if you try and stretch that lovely couplet you've thought of into a villanelle.

The important thing to remember is there's no “Form Club” you gain access to if your poem fits certain specifications. The main thing is do you like it, and do the people you share it with gain something from it? I can’t imagine showing a sonnet to someone and them saying, “it’s really good mate, but that volta comes in a little too early.”

S: Who are you reading right now?

J: I read way more than I write. I probably read at least two new collections a week. I just reread William Letford. He’s a Scottish poet I can't get enough of with two collections out: Bevel and Dirt.

I found myself going back to Ester Morgan and Kathleen Jamie a lot over lockdown. They're both very important to me. Karen McCarthy Woolf is fucking stupendous – her collections are so sophisticated and I think she's a generational talent. Rachel Allen’s collection Kingdomland is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.

Oh! I tell you whose work I found really moving lately was Day Mattar – their pamphlet Singing from the Pews came out the same weekend as Rude Mechanical and the poems in there are miraculous, they're like a call and response of inquiry, trauma and reassurance. It's a really nuanced work, a beautiful work.

S: What’s next now that Rude Mechanical has come out into the world?

J: Good question man! The next collection, if there is a next collection, will probably be a lot less focused on physical work because my circumstances are slowly changing. I'm recently married, I work less with my hands now and I'm a little older too. There's a fair amount of love poems in Rude Mechanical and that's a direction I'd like to head more towards.

Landscape and ecology is always going to be important to me as well and I've been channeling that into a selection of poems about WH Davies – the tramp poet who died in 1940. I find him fascinating. He was born in a pub, left school at 15, became a hobo riding boxcars in the States for most of his life until a train severed his leg. After that he returned to England and decided to try and live by writing poems.


Jack Warren is a gardener & environmentalist from Somerset. He holds masters degrees in both Poetics and Applied Ecology. Rude Mechanical is his first pamphlet with Broken Sleep.

Simon Alderwick is originally from Surrey but currently lives in Wales. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Magma, Ink Sweat & Tears, Dust, Feral, Broken Spine, Re-Side and Anthropocene, among others.