To celebrate the release of his most recent book The Book of Barbarous Tales, I’ve got an excellent interview with C.S. Hughes. In addition to his writing career, C.S. is also the co-founder of my favorite geek website, Nerdalicious. I’m really excited to have him stop by my blog today!
C.S., congratulations on the recent release of The Book of Barbarous Tales! Before I start asking questions, I just want to say that I love the Titus Andronicus quote that opens your book. That’s actually my favourite Shakespearean play. It’s highly underrated!
So bloodthirsty! And of his plays set in classical times, the only one not based in history! I’m surprised.
Well, my drama teacher called it “his first and his worst,” which instantly set it up for me. I love anything that everyone else hates. That’s why I never liked Harry Potter until I was an adult, and I had to basically be force into watching it. It was too popular!
Ok, launching right in – the themes of your poems run the gamut from politics and current events, to history and personal experiences – are there any topics that inspire you more than others? Any topics that are off-limits?
I don’t think any topic can be off-limits in poetry. To me, in my approach, it isn’t a form that searches for a topic, an idea, an image, a moment that seeks a form. It’s when these two things coalesce, when a rhythm words finds an idea, that’s when a poem is born. As to inspiration – I’m with Edgar Allen Poe in believing the highest pursuit in poetry is beauty, and that most often we find what is most moving, what is most beautiful, in sadness, in melancholy. Poems are like small escapes, bright hallucinations, moments of pellucid daydream, that we roughly mangle into patterns of words, in a kind of shorthand. Though in a kind of feedback loop, or perhaps a kind of semi-conscious self-hypnosis, the reverie can invoke the words as easily as the words can invoke the reverie. As I’ve said before – a poem dreams. What is off-limits for me is poems that are merely didactic, prosaic or representational.
Billy Ruffian makes numerous appearances in your poems…is he based on someone you know in real-life or purely a resident of the fictional realm?
Billy is me, or an alternative version of me, when I was kind of lost and homeless for a couple of years in the early 90s. (Though he also makes appearances in some earlier and later moments in an odd “timey-wimey” kind of way (to borrow an expression from Doctor Who) – it’s like, even though he was invented, imagined now, from my experiences then, he fits in perfectly at various other points in my timeline.) He’s my life, but reimagined, exaggerated, with the colour turned up to full. I wouldn’t say he’s fictional. A lot of those moments were very real when they happened. A lot of that concrete was very hard and very cold. But that was a long time ago and in another country , as someone once said. Though of course a humid Sydney night alive with rumbling thunder and low flying storm clouds painted Armageddon red by the lights of the city and the roar of the traffic is always hallucinatory. I wouldn’t be surprised if it still is. That’s where Billy lived – under the hallucinatory thunder.
I think as writers, we often find that there are passages in our work that we are particularly proud of or have special meaning to us. Is there a poem in this collection that you are especially fond of or has a special meaning to you? (My favourite in your book is “Little Martha”.)
I love “Little Martha” too. I love those ones that don’t make any demands other than being sweet little forays into naïve imagination. Writers of literature, of prose tell you to kill your darlings – to edit out those special or striking phrases, but of course poetry, to me is a celebration of those words, of those moments, so I cherish all my darlings. Part of the process is seeking after that deep imaginative connection where the poem flows from the universe through the pen, with interference from the author at a bare minimum. How can one judge one moment connected to the universal more worthy than another? Impossible! Though “Below The Moon” – because it’s a kind of homage to Poe, and full of such ravenesque morsels and amusements, will always be one I treasure.
What are you working on now?
Now I’m working on a poetry magazine, called somnia.blue featuring some of the diverse and talented poets I’ve found on social media. It’s really an extraordinary and terrible time for poetry. It’s so easy to get exposure, to get readers on Facebook, Instagram and other websites, but it’s also incredibly transient. A poem that connects in an amazing way can flash by in seconds, swamped by much that calls itself poetry, but is little more than glib, trite and artless slogans, the kind you might hear from a self-help guru. So I wanted to capture some of those extraordinary poets on paper, where their work may one day get the attention it deserves. (Readers can read more about the magazine, or submit, at http://somnia.blue though the magazine itself will only have a paper version due out in December.) Also thinking about a novel, next, but that, as they say, is another story.
What does your writing process look like? Do you plot out what you want to write or do you compose on the fly?
My writing process is mostly horizontal. (Or semi-horizontal) lying on the couch or bed with iPad in hand. I hardly ever plot. With poems it’s nearly always flying along desperately holding on to the tail of the kite while the storm carries it away. I don’t write the poem – the poem writes me. Sometimes I have an idea where I’m going, but I let the flow take me there. The actual process involves noting any interesting ideas, phrases or lines that occur to me through the day – usually on phone or iPad, and then at some point I sit down for an hour or three (or five minutes) and complete something. Using ideas culled from the waiting state, to enter the deeper poetic state. Of course sometimes I just jumble a bunch of funny rhymes together. One can’t be a genius all the time, sometimes one must settle for being merely amusing. I’m sure Oscar Wilde said that. Writing prose or stories is usually a bit different, I generally have some overarching ideas to follow, but I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and wrote out a map or plan.
Who are your favourite poets?
I love a Shakespearean turn of phrase, the grandiloquence of the Biblical, the imaginative intensity of E A Poe, the surrealness of nursery rhymes, the ridiculous moralizing of fables, the deviancy of fairy tales, the imagery of T S Eliot, the gentle phrasing of Robert Frost, the ecstasy of words of S T Coleridge, the striking and imaginative expressions of James Walton. Though I am probably equally influenced by rock music like Pink Floyd, and genre writers like Philip K Dick and J G Ballard. Some of my absolute favourites are those semi-anonymous poets putting their stuff out every few days on Instagram and other social media, sharing glimpses of their lives and imaginations, with little recognition or reward.
You’ve also written a book of short stories – do you find there are inherent challenges to writing in either form? Do you prefer one over the other?
There are certainly some challenges. It can be quite difficult to maintain what one might call the beauty of language when you are trying to work in some necessary story moment or plot event in prose. I guess this is why they tell you to stick to plain, simple language. Flying in a semi-ecstatic dream is more rewarding than carefully constructing something out of blocks. At least, in the moment of creation anyway. I don’t get to soar as often when I write prose. Though a few times I’ve written stories in something approaching that state of poetic reverie, and the result is incredibly rewarding. I guess if I want to write a novel, I may have to sit down and do some planning. As I’ve said before, a poem is a crippled hand in a silken glove, proffering a flower or a threat, while prose is an agreeable handshake between author and reader, after reaching a consensus on the state of the world.
It seems like the bane of every writers existence…writer’s block. Is that something you’ve dealt with? How did you banish it?
Can’t say it’s something I’ve ever had to deal with. The thing about poems is they’re usually done before your neuroses have time to go to work on them. Though I’ve nearly always written to my own deadlines, not to anyone else’s.
Self-publishing has really grown over the last few years and I know you have lots of experience with it. What are some of the benefits and challenges you’ve experienced with the process? Any advice for an author interested in getting their work out there?
It is quite incredible what you can do now. If you have a manuscript you can literally have a book on the shelves in a matter of weeks. The challenge is of course, with the ease of production you get a marketplace overflowing with work that people should have left unpublished, as perhaps, milestone in their progress. It can be really hard to stand out from the crowd. An appealing, striking, professional looking cover is essential. Also if you are seeking fame and fortune, or even mild popularity within your chosen genre, do not go into poetry! Write a novel instead. Or a series of genre novels. Chick-lit, urban fantasy, military techno-thrillers. With zombies. Do not go into poetry! Now you have that novel finished, and it’s good (because your mom said so) find where devotees of your genre hang out and engage with them in a genuine manner. Unless you have tens of thousands of dollars to spend in marketing, or incredible luck, it is a long slow process of developing readers.
Have to ask a nerd question: If you had the keys to the TARDIS, where/when would you go?
I would land the TARDIS in Captain Jean Luc Picard’s Ready Room on the Enterprise! Outnerded! Or on The Orville. I love that show. If it was seriously possible, I would be interfering in historical/political events in the 1940s and 1960s, changing the timeline completely. And partying a lot. We’d now be living in domes in a kind of utopian electronic socialist democracy. Star Trek – The Next Generation meets Logan’s Run.
And finally, the question I ask everyone…If you could invite 5 people, living or dead, to a dinner party…who would you invite?
Only five? I’ve found dead people make terrible dinner guest, they have no manners, are finicky eaters (seem to always ask for brains, when brains aren’t on the menu), and only bring cheap cask wine. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd – always been a big fan of his work, both the music and his political anti-war, anti-fascist work. Elon Musk, because I like the idea of a futurist who actually has the wealth to change things in a positive way. Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, head of psychedelic research at Imperial College, London, who is doing interesting research in the use of psilocybin to treat depression. Sarah Polley, Canadian actor and director, who has recently adapted the mini series of Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace. And my partner, Olga – a talented writer and historical researcher – otherwise I’d get tongue-tied with all these incredibly famous, talented and dynamic people. She could also tell me to behave if I drink too much and start waffling on endlessly about myself and poetry. Seems like quite a possibility!
C S Hughes grew up in red dust and spinifex. He was educated in charcoal and glass. Later he jumped freight trains and hitchhiked from desert to sea and back again. He has lived in parks and bedsits, and endless legoland suburbs. He has been a spice seller, a bookseller, a hobo and a watchmaker. He has previously published The Art Of Knitting Needle Ikebana, Broke Down House and The Book Of Whimsies, had short stories and poetry published in Takahe, Pakeha, Sagacity, Newtown News, Uneven Floor, The Blue Pepper, Weird Tales, A Guide To Sydney Rivers and Five 2 One Magazine, amongst others. You can also find him and his work at facebook.com/cshoose.
You can find The Book of Barbarous Tales here