An Interview with Rishi Dastidar


At the helm of the Spread the Word-ship is Rishi Dastidar, Chair, copywriter, brand strategist, published poet and avid social networker. Earlier this year his debut collection Ticker-tape was published by Nine Arches Press. Read on to find out more…

Which poets have been most influential on your own development as a poet?

We all stand on the shoulders – the writing desks? – of those who have written before us, and I am no exception. I would not be doing this at all if I hadn’t stumbled across Ashes for Breakfast by Durs Grünbein (in Michael Hofmann’s translation, who’s also a poet I love). It was through Grünbein that I discovered that something called ‘poetry’ could be this radically different way of engaging with the world – made out of words but doing something so utterly transformative with them, by-passing rationality, winning arguments through feeling, illuminating sensations I never knew I might even have had.

Second is Daljit Nagra – I’ve been fortunate enough to be both taught by him and mentored by him, and I don’t think I can actually begin to fully articulate the debt I owe to him. I’ve learned from him how much craft matters, that it’s the difference between a poem succeeding or not; continually attacking drafts with a restless enthusiasm; and that you should read with an energy and joy, and leave yourself open to be transported by words, simple words. Plus, I’ve looked up to him as a pathfinder and guide – that sense of ‘if he can do it, I can do it too’. He was the one to first break down a lot of the doors that many of us can now walk through.

Other names? I’ll claim there’s some Keats and Robert Herrick in what I write, though I suspect others will struggle to see it; I long to record life the way Frank O’Hara did; I wish I might have the moral purpose of James Fenton; I aim and miss to have the deftness, wit and touch of Wendy Cope; I still dream of trying to master rhythm and rhyme like Vikram Seth; and if I can ever get close to anything as good as Maggie Nelson’s Bluets I’ll die happy.

Can you share the process of one of your poems from idea to publication?

I find my process very difficult to describe, as it can seem to me at least that it varies from piece to piece, commission to commission. But broadly speaking, it’s rare that I start with an ‘idea’ for a poem per se – or if I do, those take a heck of a lot longer to write. That’s mainly because, I recognise now, that I’m very much driven by language first. What tends to happen is that I’ll come up with, get snagged and caught by a phrase, maybe when walking around, scribbling something at work, even the shower. I’ll store that away, and then at some point come back to it, and start exploring, pushing – what works with it, what else should follow, what does it suggest? And it’s through that that exploration that the idea of the poem starts to reveal itself to me. Sometimes this can take ages; other times it needs a further stimulus – an photograph, something someone says that I overhear, or in a message to me – that triggers the movement towards the first draft. The best moments are of course when this process of playing with language happens at what feels like warp speed, and half an hour later you have something that looks like a viable first draft.

And then the real work begins: re-drafting four five six seven times (I am a handwriter), gradually whittling the poem away, putting it into a shape, seeing how and where the lines need to balance – and saying it out loud too (a poem needs to work in the air as much as it does on the page; reading things out is still the best way of checking how and where your lines need to breathe, as you need to breathe). Most often I’ll then put this away, for (depending on whether it’s a commission or not) a day, a week, six months. And then when I look at it again, hopefully what jumps out at me is what needs to change – more likely what needs to be taken out: a verb, a stanza, whatever. What I’m really trying to keep an eye on is – does the poem still have a lot of energy within it? I worry that too much drafting can kill a thing stone dead, and my voice needs a lot of energy to achieve its effects.

And if it’s not a commission, it’s only at that point that I start thinking about sending the poem out. There’s a bit of plotting involved, about where it might fit well, are there magazines I’m enjoying reading right now that I think might be a good home for it… but that is all so much in the lap of the gods that I don’t worry about it too much. I wish I was more systematic about sending, but ultimately I write so much for myself that I don’t get too crushed by rejections any more.

You’re published by the prolific and excellent Nine Arches Press. How did this come about?

A couple of years ago, I sent a few poems in to Under The Radar, the excellent magazine that Nine Arches also puts out. Jane Commane, the driving force behind both that and the press, took a couple and in her lovely note back to me said, “When you’re ready, I’d love to offer you some mentoring on some poems.” This arrived at roughly the same time as I felt that I had enough poems for a collection; so I pulled a rough first manuscript together, and sent them to Jane, saying it’d be great to get her view on these. I didn’t hear anything for about 3, 4 months, and then I got a message back – “The offer of mentoring is still there, but can I have the book too?” It took me all of about 30 seconds to reply in the affirmative. Of course there’s a little coda to the tale, in that Jane told me recently that she had been expecting only about 15 poems rather than 60…! Now, I’m not saying be bumptious and over-interpret a brief but… *exaggerated wink*.

How does social media help and hinder your poetic voice?

Well, regular readers will know that I am, how shall we say, annoyingly prolific over on the twitter dot com and Facebook too… I don’t actually think of the time spent on either site as places where there’s been any help or hindrance to my poetic voice per se. What both places have been good for is a) ‘meeting’ other poets (Facebook in particular can feel like the poetic bush telegraph, as people share news, what they’re writing, beefs they might have – I love the sense of community overall) and b) trying things out which might not actually be things when I start them but ultimately end up being so. Two cases in point: 1) a few years ago, me and graphic designer friend of mine took nearly all of my Facebook updates until then, turned them into postcards and put them on as an exhibition 2) I’ve been testing out on Twitter some aphorisms, loosely inspired by Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. That really isn’t something I’d have even thought about trying to do if it wasn’t for both the constraint and the throwawayness feel of Twitter – it encourages risk-taking, in me at least.

Oh, and using things like #hashtags in poems also – I think that’s useful, if for no other reason than to drawn attention to the way we’re all using language right now. And if compression, and threading and captioning and whatever else is what we’re up to, I’d like some of that to leak into my lyric style.

Your collection features a great many influences, from many popular culture references to cities. What are the three biggest influences in Ticker-tape, that without, your collection simply wouldn’t exist as it is?

Apart from the poets named above? Briefly: 1) various strands and types of popular music from between 1991-2008 – there’s a lot of writing about, and writing through pop music, and not just lyrically, but attempts to try and capture sonic effects in text too (the book has its own playlist on Spotify, by the way); 2) an idea of and about California, a place I’ve only been to once, and even then that was only a layover at LAX airport – there’s something about how it embodies a myth of how the future will be – a place where everyone’s future is made – that underpins a lot of the poems; and 3) my undergraduate degree in history, but replayed sideways, slant – it almost feels like I’m trying to point people’s attention to different ways of looking at and reading certain events, to look at some of the stories beneath the stories, as it were.

How does your work in copy writing and advertising feed into your poetry?

I did a talk about this recently, at the excellent Copy Cabana conference. Long story short, there’s lots of different ways that one bleeds into the other. I’ve found advertising, marketing and design, and their roles in service of a particular style of capitalism, interesting topics to explore poetically, so in Ticker-tape are poems inspired by particular advertising campaigns and figures from this world, such as David Ogilvy, founder of the famous ad agency. In the other direction, poetry has helped me become bolder in some of my work for clients – particularly around verb choices: it’s amazing how using an unexpected verb in a sales or marketing context suddenly makes things a bit more noticeable; useful when you consider the amount of stuff out there that you’re fighting to be heard against.

Tell us a little about your role as Chair of Spread the Word

Well, I first fell into the embrace of Spread the Word thanks to The Complete Works 2, but only got a small sense of what we as an organisation do during that. It was after that programme was done, in 2015, that someone suggested that I might be a useful person to join the board of trustees, to represent the artist’s voice in discussions. And it was really lovely through that to discover the passion that everyone has, in the team and on the board, for what we do – and frankly the ridiculously disproportionate impact that we as an organisation make on the careers of writers in London.

I stepped up to become chair of the board in December 2016, and my main role now is basically to keep an eye on things – help Ruth, the director, implement her vision and strategy for reaching more people to persuade them that writing is a potential career for them; finding the talented writers we know are out there and getting them the help they need to develop their careers; campaigning to bring more diverse voices into the writing industry, at all levels, in every part of it; and making sure that we have the money to do it. (Shameless appeal – if you’re a rich donor or company who wants to help talented voices reach the audiences they should, hit me up.)

I’m very conscious of the fact that we’ve been trusted with this precious organisation that has been around for 21 years, and I hope that while I’m around we continue to survive and indeed thrive, and bring more writers the readership they deserve.

And lastly, Rishi – what’s next for your poetry?

I don’t have a burning desire to throw away my style, but I find myself more and more wanting to throw more prose fragments into what I do – I find more and more it’s the way I both best experience the world, and can then articulate that experience. There are lots of ideas for what be a putative book 2 bubbling away: I need to knuckle down and commit to one, and get the first draft done. Because once that’s there, then you have something to work with. So if you see me on social media, remind me to get on with it!

You can buy Rishi’s debut collection of poetry ‘Ticker-tape‘ at all good bookstores near you! 


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