INTERVIEW WITH COLIN BANCROFT BY CONNOR HARRISON

Colin Bancroft: CB

Connor Harrison: CH

Colin Bancroft currently lives in the North Pennines where he is finishing a PhD on the Ecopoetics of Robert Frost. His pamphlet Impermanence was released with Maytree Press in October 2020, and his next work Kayfabe will be released with Broken Sleep in 2021. He runs the poets' information website Poets' Directory and is editor of Nine Pens Poetry Press.

Connor Harrison: How is your PhD going so far? Could you give a kind of outline of the thesis?

 

Colin Bancroft: In terms of my PhD, I have been reading the poetry of Robert Frost through the lens of ecocriticism. Rather than using the generic descriptors of 'nature poet' it is looking at how Frost engages with the environment by analysing his poetry in terms of areas such as space and place, the anti-pastoral and wilderness. It looks to create a bridge between modern environmental thinking and traditional ideas about what 'nature poetry' is. 

 

CH: What was your relationship with Frost before beginning your PhD? Do you think that the traditions of nature poetry, those of Frost and earlier poets like Wordsworth, Shelley etc., have been altered by a modern awareness of climate change? 

 

CB: So like most people probably do, I knew of Robert Frost because of his more famous poems like "Stopping by Woods" and "The Road not Taken," but I hadn’t really gone into any detailed study or appreciation of his work. I then began teaching his poetry as part of the old A-Level English Literature specification and gradually read more of his work from there. After that I was hooked. He is a strange poet, at once very simple and complex, and I think it was this duality which made me gain an admiration for his work. 

 

Many critics argue that Nature poetry is in fact dead and that the traditional nature poem that extols the virtues of landscape and animal hold no value in the modern world. This is probably true, but at the same time there is so much that we can learn from the poets of the past about their connections with the environment, and by association our own position in terms of engagement with the natural world. Nature poetry is too broad a word to categorise our relationship with the nonhuman world, which is why ecopoetics is much better suited to discuss our engagement with issues such as place and space, ecofeminism and the like. 

 

CH: Do you see ecopoetry as an agent of change, in any sense? How do you feel about that famous Auden line, "for poetry makes nothing happen"?

 

CB: On its own poetry won’t change much, but it can raise awareness of issues that affect the planet. Culturally we are predisposed to storytelling – whether that is in the traditional oral forms of Homer or the ballads of the middle ages right through to Netflix and Instagram stories of the present day; we all look for ways of understanding the world around us, and in that way poetry has a small but fundamental part to play.

 

CH: How did Impermanence come together? Did you write any of these poems towards a theme, or was it coincidence? 

 

CB: I started writing poetry whilst in school, and over the years I amassed hundreds of poems that were just sitting in a file on my computer. I’d had around eighty published in various magazines and websites, but I had never put anything together as a collected gathering. One night I was sat in my study and I decided to print out all the poems I thought were pretty decent and I put it together from there. The theme kind of came together of its own accord as different poems riffed off each other until the final form took place. I have always had a big dose of imposter syndrome with my writing and have never felt it is actually any good – something that still plagues me now – but I was also at a point where I was thinking, ‘Why do I actually write?’ I know I would still write if no one read my work, as it is a compulsion, but it is nice to see that people have found some kind of resonance with my writing. 

 

CH: Do you see Impermanence as fitting into the project of ecopoetry? Poems like "Atmosphere" and "Roadkill" seem to have this root in nature poetry, but there's an overwhelming sense of loss. 

 

CB: I grew up on council estates in Manchester and have been very much an urban person for most of my life. It is only in the past seven years that I have lived out in the countryside up in Northumberland. This change of place really affected my poetry in the sense that I was exposed to a completely different world, and I began to see for the first time how powerful the processes of nature are. When you live in the city, natural experiences are often sanitised by the conditions in which you live. For example, "Atmosphere" combines my experiences of waking up to a snowfall in both a rural and urban setting. Unless it is a really heavy snowfall, snow in the city doesn’t last long, and its purity is quickly degraded by traffic, people, etc. In the countryside, however, the effects of winter weather last for months at a time and give you a whole different understanding of the natural world. "Roadkill" is another example. I have hit countless animals driving rural roads, and it is something that is really awful when it happens, but at the same time it is something you can do little about as a driver except to try and avoid impact where possible. If we understand ecopoetry as being work which looks at the relationship between the human and non-human worlds, then "Roadkill" would definitely fit into that bracket. My next pamphlet that I am putting together is much more eco-aware, probably because of the impacts of my PhD and living in the countryside. 

 

CH: I wondered if you could talk about your influences, beyond Frost? Has poetry always been your primary interest in regard to writing? 

 

CB: I think my principal influences have been Hardy, Larkin, Hughes, Frost and Heaney, and I have recently been reading Plath much more closely. Shakespeare has always been a big influence on my work. Much of my wider reading over the past few years has been around ecopoetics and ecocriticism because of my studies and this has really opened up a lot of avenues of exploration around areas such as philosophy and history. For example, I have read a lot around the ideas of Kant and Sartre in terms of their views on existentialism and the sublime, which have probably seeped into my own poetry somewhere along the line!

 

CH: Could you talk a little about your use of lyric poetry? What about a poem like "Lull," for example? How did you approach writing that?

 

CB: I consider myself a lyric poet because the majority of my work accesses some form of personal experience. The ‘I’ isn’t always me, but there is some kernel of my truth within every poem I have written. If I had to describe my style, it would be a poetics that tries to capture the complex in the simple, much like Frost. As I said, my first great poetic influence was Thomas Hardy, who wrote the finest lyric poetry ever, probably. And then there’s Hughes, Larkin, and Heaney, so I guess I have aligned myself with a certain kind of ‘voice’ as I really abhor difficulty in poetry, as much of it is used as a device that says of the poet ‘look how clever I am.’ Abstractness for the sake of it is a big no for me. I have to have a way in. "Lull" was originally a longer poem entitled "Lulworth Cove" and was written about a day trip that I took over ten years ago. It was rambling and had little focus until I pared it right down to hopefully capture some kind of universal message. For me, the image or experience comes first, then maybe a line or a rhyme and then finally the form. I can never sit down and think ‘I’ll write a sonnet today’ because it would be completely artificial in its construction and I would get very bored of it very quickly.

 

CH: I wondered if you could talk about the poem "After Frankenstein"? You draw in horror, and a little comedy, and there’s a song-like quality to the verse.

 

CB: "After Frankenstein" is one of my favourite poems because it allowed me to step outside my own sphere of experience and inhabit someone else’s world. The poem has a companion piece called "The Ballad of Percy Bysshe Shelley," which looks at Shelley’s life and his meeting with his doppelgänger. It isn’t a very successful poem to be honest, but "After Frankenstein" was born from that exercise. I am very aware that my poems are ‘me’-centric in that they revolve around my own experiences and ideas, and "After Frankenstein" was a poem where I was able to utilise the experiences of another person to create something. This is an area of my writing that I know I need to develop going forward because that will open up a lot of exciting opportunities for my poetry. I have only read Frankenstein, which of course is a classic, but I do really enjoy Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry for its radicalness and its surprising ecocritical viewpoints. 

 

CH: Has the shift in pace, from Manchester to the North Pennines, changed how you write in any way? Do you feel there's more time for it in an environment like that?

 

CB: The shift of pace has been very extreme. Moving from the hustle and bustle of a major city to the tranquility and isolation of the countryside took a lot of getting used to. But I know now that I could never go back permanently. When I do visit Manchester, as all my family and friends are still there, I really feel a sense of discord with the urban environment. People seem to be so disconnected with the world around them and are so stressed that they seem to notice little of what is going on around them. In the North Pennines it is the opposite – everything is open and fresh and you get a real sense of being a part of the wider world. It has definitely changed my writing in that sense as I feel as though, as clichéd as it might sound, that I am connected to nature.

 

CH: Manchester has its fair share of literary history; did that have any part in your own route to writing? Or did you arrive from a different place entirely? 

 

CB: My route into writing began at school and college, where I would write really emo/pop-punk style poems about the unrequited love that I had. It was a way of documenting my feelings I guess. I still have all the poems and they are really cringeworthy, but they are also a great document of my changing voice and experience. My first proper foray into literature began when I bought a second-hand copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets from Hyde market and read it on the bus to and from college over the course of a week. I had no clue what he was on about in most of the poems, but the musicality and the word play really got me thinking about my own writing and helped me develop a lot. I then went to Manchester Metropolitan University, where I was under the tutelage of some great poets and writers and that really helped my writing. For my BA dissertation I wrote a collection of poems with guidance from the fantastic Jean Sprackland, who really helped me focus on the minutiae of my work. 

 

CH: Given the landscape of the Pennines, do you spend a lot of time walking? 

 

CB: I spend a lot of time walking! I try and get in at least twenty-five miles a week of fell-walking, and the great thing about living where I do is that there is always somewhere new to explore. I have a fascination with waterfalls, and I often head out over the moors to find them on my Ordnance Survey map. It gives me a great space to think and work on my poetry in my head, as well as providing a lot of material which seeps into my work.

 

CH: Do you read much nature writing outside of poetry?

 

CB: I do read a lot of nature writing. At the moment I am reading a history of the American Wilderness, Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Frazier Nash, which is an enthralling look at the changing nature of the New World.

 

CH: You've recently created the Poets' Directory, which I think is a really significant project for UK poetry. Could you talk a little about where, and when, that started as an idea? And what about Nine Pens Press? What will the first run of pamphlets look like?

 

CB: Poets' Directory started out of frustration really. I had a spreadsheet on the go that listed, in rudimentary fashion, the contact details and submission windows of some of the better-known journals and magazines. One fateful night the sheet got corrupted and I lost all of this info. I thought that there must be a better way of keeping track of such information and from this the Poets' Directory was born. To be honest, the reception has been fantastic, and I have had a lot of engagement with poets and publishers over the past year who have got something from the site. There is a lot of info out on the web, but the nature of the poetry world, with its ever-changing landscape of opportunity and submission calls, means that it becomes very out-of-date, very quickly. The idea for the site was simple – just to offer an ‘of the moment’ site that poets can utilise to find places to enhance their work. It isn’t perfect, but it will keep growing because I am never going back to a spreadsheet! Nine Pens Press formed organically from the Directory really. I saw it as the next step in helping poets to get their work out into the world. The first run of pamphlets for 2021 is fantastic. There is such an eclectic mix of themes and topics that it offers something for everyone. I am hoping to double the output next year and really put the press centre-stage in the poetry landscape in the years to come. 

 

CH: In relation to the Poets' Directory: what do you think about the British poetry magazine scene at the moment? It seems that, over the course of the pandemic at least, that a lot of new litmags have appeared. 

 

CB: The poetry magazine scene at the moment is fantastic. There is such a wide range of different avenues for poets to explore that there has probably never been a better time to be a poet really. There are some excellent and innovative magazines and websites out there, ones that are changing the game and are offering platforms for poets to get noticed. Take a magazine like Poetry Birmingham, for example, which has quickly established itself as one of the premier magazines on the UK scene because of the excellent eye of its editors and its dedication to the cause. It’s brilliant that new magazines and platforms are being formed because it is opening up opportunities for everyone, which can only be a good thing.

 

CH: Do you think much about labels, as a writer? You’re now running the directory, publishing with Nine Pens Press, editing for 192 Magazine, and writing your own work – do you feel these to be competing areas of work, or do they all fall under the same umbrella?

 

CB: I think they all fall under my love of poetry really. I don’t think of myself as anything more than a poet who happens to have the opportunity to do these other things. I’m certainly not under any illusions about my importance in the landscape!

 

CH: With Impermanence published, are you currently working on a full collection? 

 

CB: Not at the moment. I have a pamphlet out on submission called Knife Edge, which deals with an incident where I was stabbed in a random attack a few years ago, so hopefully that will be picked up soon. I also have a small collection of wrestling-themed poems coming out under the Legitimate Snack imprint of Broken Sleep Books. That was really fun to write!

 

CH: And how has the last year treated you? You’ve been incredibly busy – has it helped to distract from any feeling of isolation? Have your habits, reading, writing or otherwise, changed?

 

CB: The past year, dare I say it, has been great. I have been working full-time at home in my day job so that has taken a bit of getting used to. The isolation hasn’t bothered me one iota as we are isolated anyway where we live so nothing at all has changed in that respect. The worst thing has been not being able to visit family as much as we would have liked to do. My writing and reading habits are pretty good. It is all about routine and developing time for yourself to get into the groove. I am very lucky in that sense as I have very few distractions at home to pull me away from what I am doing. Plus the fact is, I love my hobby, so that it really isn’t a chore at all.

 

 

 

Colin Bancroft currently lives in the North Pennines where he is finishing a PhD on the Ecopoetics of Robert Frost. His pamphlet Impermanence was released with Maytree Press in October 2020, and his next work Kayfabe will be released with Broken Sleep in 2021. He runs the poets' information website Poets' Directory and is editor of Nine Pens Poetry Press.

 

Connor Harrison is a writer based in the West Midlands, UK. His work has appeared at Lit Hub, Longleaf Review, New Critique, Anthropocene Poetry, and The Critical Flame, among others. He is an Editor at Tiny Molecules.

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