Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed poet Alex Vellis about his life, what inspires him to write, and his latest poetry book, I Saw A Bird Once.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
My name is Alex Vellis, I am a British-Greek poet and producer from Canterbury, Kent. Before I started taking poetry seriously, I was a semi-professional skateboarder and worked dozens of dead end jobs; working in a giant freezer, picking apples, telesales, you name it.
During my late twenties, I decided I would go to uni and enrolled at UKC to do an MA in creative writing. I was inspired to do that as I had been giving a lecture in Paris and everyone there was either a doctor, studying a PhD, or an MA, and I had a BTEC in media and felt out of place, apparently I held my own, and was told I should probably give an MA a go, and now I get to put a couple of letters after name and owe someone ten grand. Still, pretty fancy though.
When did you first WANT to write poetry?
For the longest time I didn’t realise I was writing poetry. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just writing my thoughts down. When I eventually figured it all out (thanks to a whole slew of people pointing me in the right direction), I didn’t think I could make it a living, so, I decided to go into sales.
It wasn’t till I was twenty-six, working jobs I hated and in a failing relationship that I thought, why not give it a go, you know? If I try and fail, at least I tried. So, yeah, some time around my mid to late twenties.
When did you take a step to start writing poetry?
When I was twenty-six, I attended a workshop with Joelle Taylor and Emrys Plant, and from then, I couldn’t get enough of it, I was at every available workshop, slam, showcase, whatever, I wanted it all. I am pretty lucky that I hyper-focus on things, so, it was like I was learning poetry via osmosis. Standing in the presence of greatness, some of it rubs off on you.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
My very first book that you can’t (thankfully) get anymore is called ‘Journal Entries’, it was a mix of handwritten poetry, drawings, and thoughts that I had that I painstakingly drawn/written out, glued in, or stitched together. From inception to creation, took about two months. I had already had the poems and pieces ready to go, I just had no idea how to collate them all untilsomeone siad to me that I should just do it myself.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
My latest book took four and a half years to write, collate, and think about the design of the book. I had the idea in the summer of 2017 when i spoke to a man about poetry, he shared with me some of his, and I shared some of mine. And we spoke about the future, what we wanted to do and who we were. He suggested I write a ‘day in the life’ story of poem, and from there, the idea grew.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write I Saw A Bird Once?
I knew there was another book in me, and I knew it would be different from my previous work, I just wasn’t sure how. As it turns out, I needed to do that MA, I needed to challenge myself, I needed to get more life experience, and be out of my comfort zone, needed to read more books, meet more people, see more things. ‘I saw a bird once’ had been inside me for my entire life, I just needed to wait till I was ready to write it.
What were your biggest challenges with writing I Saw A Bird Once?
The biggest challenges were not over-writing it and keeping the non-narrative narrative structure. As it turns out, it’s pretty hard to write a book that doesn’t particularly have any direction or conclusions,well, not any on purpose. I feel people can draw their own endings for the characters, one in particular is obvious. It would have been so easy for me to go into extreme detail over every facet of ‘Sorrel’s Hollow’ and its inhabitants, particularly as, when developing the space, I wrote an entire history for the city, but I didn’t want to explain to the reader anything too far beyond the character, as that wasn’t the focus, and I felt would draw too much away from who the characters were.
Do you keep to a theme with your poems, or just go where the mood strikes?
In general, I like to go where the mood takes me, unless I am writing for a reason other than that ‘I want to’. I am a firm believer in the poet as the conduit, that poetry exists everywhere, and we channel it from the aether. I feel that it’s only when we start editing the work, whether that be reading back the line or actually having an editing session that we start applying aspects of ourselves into the art.
What is your favourite poem in I Saw A Bird Once about and what inspired it?
I actually really like the last poem of the binman’s section. I like the presence of the characters, the camaraderie, and the collapse of thought as everything changes. In general, I like the poems about the dancer the best, I feel they have the mostgoing on in them, and generally, in such few words.
Does music help you write or is it a distraction?
Provided the music has no words and, ideally, I don’t know the song, then yes, music sets the mood, the tempo, and the direction of the work.
I think it is important to have playlists in which the songs take you to wildly different places playing, that way, I am never stuck in the linear nature of an album, instead, I am drawn across a multitude of different environments, spaces, and thoughts, that lends my work a sense of journey.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did I Saw A Bird Once need?
Luckily, I am already a poetry editor, unluckily, editing your own work is a bit difficult, a ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ scenario. I was very fortunate to have Dr. John McCullough as my poetry editor. His guidance really helped me shape the book into something that was more… book shaped.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write poetry?
Read. Read other people’s poetry. I cannot tell you the amount of times in which I have sat at a screen with nothing coming out only to read someone’s work and suddenly felt deeply inspired. And, if you’re not much of a reader, try talking to people. Bring a notepad, and just have a chat, and whenever you think of something that would be good, write it down, don’t think ‘I am sure I will remember this’ because, I can guarantee you that 90% of the time, you won’t!
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I am actually floating around the idea of writing about what it’s like to be a bisexual man in straight spaces, how we have to mask that growing up, and how, frequently, we aren’t accepted in any spaces.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Without a shadow of a doubtr. It is the best collection of poetry I could have written. It’s tested me, it’s pushed me, it’smade me grow, and it’s made me develop. I could not be prouder of what I have achieved.
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