Poetry

In Conversation with Canterbury poet Alex Vellis

Walking through the city with Alex, about three different people say hello to him along the way, and he smiles and says ‘hey man’, to each and every one. Meeting him, you wouldn’t at first assume that the title of his book would be Everything is Terrible, but I caught up with him to learn a little bit more about his writing, what it’s like being a spoken word artist in Canterbury, and what his old MySpace username was.  Listen to the full interview on Soundcloud here.

[Warning: interview contains explicit language].

Take me through the journey of writing Everything Is Terrible — when you knew that you could write it, the process of writing it.

It was going to start off in three parts: everything is proper shit, then it works out, then ‘Oh, everything is actually alright.’ But I had a shit breakup. Me and my girlfriend broke up, so that was shit. Then I developed really bad insomnia and slept for 20 minutes a day maybe. Some days I wouldn’t sleep at all. I think the longest I stayed awake was 3 and a half days, and I slept for 20 minutes before that. I was working at UKC library at the time; after a while I quit my job. Realised that I was poor. Then my parents nearly got divorced and I had a bit of a nervous breakdown. Then I almost lost my position at the Wise Words festival because I didn’t tell anyone I was having a breakdown and just stopped showing up to stuff. And generally was a bit of a dick hole.

So everything was genuinely terrible, and my mental health isn’t top notch generally anyway. I’ve got Borderline Personality Disorder with emotional intensity disorder.

That was at the time when you started writing, or a time when you were very creatively engaged?

I was trying to get stuff out because it was a really helpful way of getting shit out, because I was finding that I was writing stuff like ‘Oooohh GOD I’m really unhappy. I’m DESPERATELY miserable’. Apparently since I was 19 I’ve been suffering from dysphoria, but I always forget about that — it doesn’t sound like as much of a big deal. You know like with depression you might not get out of bed for days or you’ll forgo washing or everything tastes grey. Dysphoria is more about constantly not being happy. I think that it might actually be the artist’s curse. When you do something awesome you ride a high of ‘This is AMAAZING’, but then you have an equally low-low as the high. You’re always chasing that next thing. What do I do now? What’s the point?

I guess that;’s the fundamental meaninglessness of everything, right? I mean say you build a doughnut shop, and all your life goes into building a doughnut shop. There’s still that lingering feeling of ‘what next?’, no matter who you are.

I see an awful lot of people as being content with mediocrity. Having a  9-5 or working in a pub or stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s and then 15 years later working your way up to be a regional manager. They’ve worked very hard and there’s nothing wrong with that, but at no point in your life did you ever dream of doing this as a job. So essentially your dreams have died as you’ve got older or you’ve become complacent, and I can’t live like that. Not that it’s a bad thing, but it’s not a thing for me. If you want to do that I’ve got no dramas, but I couldn’t do it. I’m already pretty sad…

How do your poems usually start?

If I have something that doesn’t interest me as much, like a commission, it’s forced creatively as I have to write it to a deadline as opposed to the freedom that I have when I’m just writing. I physically have to force it when I’m in the confines of a structure like that. Open a vein and just wait until the words come out.

When I am writing creatively I get images in my head — so they’re not anything right, just blocks of colour and the more that I write, the more they take shape into things. I don’t really know what I’m writing. It’s like a form of synesthesia. Sometimes they don’t form actual pictures, but the way that they fit together, that’s what everyone’s trying to describe. I don’t describe the colour as such, but more what the colour represents. So sometimes when the colour is really yellow, it’s actually really angry. So there’s one that I wrote called ‘The Staircase at the Bottom of the World’ – that whole image, it’s black down the left hand side, then across the top it’s blue, then the blue fades into orange and it’s black at the bottom.

When I see things like that, it depends what it’s painted onto. That one is on grainy paper. Then sometimes it’ll be on a computer screen or a wall or something, and I’m not sure what relevance that holds. Sometimes it could be on water, for example. Sometimes the colours move, but they don’t go anywhere

I once wrote a valentine’s day poem that was written in Hex codes. Roses are 0001FF, Violets FF0001, some other crap. I can’t really remember.

It’s a MySpace kid’s wet dream. What prompted you did you begin writing?

I’ve been writing since I was 12 –  that’s like, 16 years. I’m old… I’ve been writing poetry longer than some people have been alive. I’ve been writing good poetry… recently. But you know, I read the first thing I wrote when I was 12 and it wasn’t that bad. I was really pleased with it; I remember reading it when I was 18 and it wasn’t actually that bad. My teenage poetry? The worst thing I’ve seen in my adult life. So emo, so many clichés, so ‘life is hard’.

What was your MySpace name? Mine was AlexMisantrophic. Scene.

Nice. In your first poem, Antigen, you’re addressing the disadvantaged and the lost. Do you hope to inspire or give confidence to young people?

It’s not specifically about disenfranchised youth, but about people who have given up on their dreams; for people who have had a hard life, or they’ve got to a point where they think I can either try to make it or I carry on as normal. I just want to say it’s okay – go for it, you know?

It’s partially based on my life as a young child. And the people that I knew growing up.

So the line ‘When you bury more than your father’s hands in your body’ – lines like that are quite graphic when you think about them, quite intense. But they’re saying essentially, you didn’t do anything to deserve this. Keep going, still try, still carry on. I wrote it with Joelle Taylor in mind because she’s a great inspiration to me. It’s written in a style that I wouldn’t traditionally write in — it’s not an ode to her, but it will always be dedicated to her and I wrote it in her style, but with my words.

Bizarrely, it’s probably the only non miserable poem in there  because it’s supposed to inspire rather than remind you that everything is terrible.

So you’re a big fan of Joelle Taylor, who else has inspired you?

I don’t really read very much poetry but I listen to it all the time. I’m much more of a fan of spoken word than page poetry. Of more recent time, Shane Koyczan – fucking amazing, really really fucks me up every time I listen to him. In a good mood you can be like ‘this is good writing’. In a bad mood, you can be like ‘oh, somebody understands!’. Quite like Brand New actually [laughs].

Dizraeli. I saw him for the first time 9 years ago.

Polar Bear Poet. He is the person who got me into spoken word in the first place.

Lucas Howard.

Dan Simpson. I remember him seeing test out pieces and now he’s been the Canterbury laureate and has done a billion things.

What are your future plans?

I want to carry on doing my projects here until I’m at a position where I can hand them over to the young people. If I had someone at there age who was all about getting them to a position where I can work using art, I would have tried so much harder. They can run the events that I run, or start doing the workshops themselves. That’s what I want to leave as a legacy behind.

I want these kids to know that you can do good things. I really want to work with a group and then have them go and set up groups themselves. I teach a workshop, then two kids go out and they teach a workshop, and so on. It would be open to 16-21 year olds because then they can go out and set up their own events and learn how to speak to different people. It’s not rocket surgery [grins]. It’s not brain science.

What’s been the biggest learning for you?

ADMIN. It’s buttloads of admin. Everything is self promotion. The actual core writing part is almost non existent. You would have to be fucking amazing if you were just a spoken word artist. You have to be a practitioner. You’ve got to have many avenues that you can go down; teach workshops, applying for funding.

If you’re a good writer, you’re not an arrogant prick, and you market yourself correctly, you can do it. If you’re dedicated and that’s your passion, you can do it.

Who published your book?

My friend Connor set up Whiskey and Beards and published the book. I was interested in possibly publishing with other companies, but my big thing is working within my community. Helen Seymour edited it and Connor published it. Connor published my ebook too.

When you address poetry to your exes, do you ever worry that they’re going to read it, or that you’ll feel over exposed?

Well, maybe they shouldn’t have been such a **** [laughs].

At the end of the day, I won’t use specific names, and the poem will reference one specific thing but the whole poem will likely be an amalgamation of a number of different experiences I’ve experienced and been witness to, and not necessarily all of my own. I feel vulnerable from it all the time. But if you write something and it’s not honest and it’s not authentic, why the fuck are you bothering? In some respects writing is like love, right? Because love is giving someone the ability to cut you in two and having the faith that they won’t. Love is taking a leap into outstretched hands and knowing that they want to hold you as much as you want to be held (just something I wrote recently…even if it is a bit cliché but fuck it). And that’s how writing is! You put yourself in a position where you let people into your figurative soul and you let people see what it is that fucks you up. Whatever has made you into the person that you are — writer, the store clerk, the artist, the poet – whatever it is that you do, it gives you that vulnerability to say ‘this is simply what I am’. And you have to trust that the people who are going to read it aren’t going to pull you apart for it. And if they do, that’s on them and not you.

‘The boy who wouldn’t answer the echo’ is about how my father tried to murder me when I was younger, and left, and then replaced me. He was generally not a very nice man. I could have written that and not been as factual about it, but I would have done myself an injustice and I would have been doing people who have been in a similar situation an injustice by not speaking about it in an honest fashion. You’ve been given a gift as a creative person – we’re obligated to express ourselves how other people cannot. If I write something and I’m lying about it, people aren’t going to be able to make a connection to it, and then I’m not making a connection to my audience, I’m lying to myself and I’m lying to them. People then can’t feel ‘that’s how I felt — that’s exactly how it is!’. [Honesty] gives them that feeling that other people have felt this thing, and that it’s ok to have feelings — it’s okay to not be okay — and that’s important.

Do you think it’s harder to write those poems because there’s such a magnitude of feeling there, or easier to write because it comes out so easily?

Easier to write, harder to edit.

Even when I do write happy stuff, it’s always got sad stuff in it. If you wanted to always create stuff that’s happy that’s wonderful, and that needs to be championed just as much. But even when I do write happy stuff, it’s always sad in some way.

I’m writing one at the moment. I’m struggling with the title — I haven’t decided on it yet — you can’t change the title halfway through. It’s set out like an application form for my next great love affair and I’ve really enjoyed writing it and as I was reading it I thought ‘this is wonderful’, but then I realised that everything was really sad and I thought ‘Oh it’s happened AGAIN!’

I think I might call my next book ‘Hungover and Sad’, but I think that may be a little too literal. Also, as ridiculous as this is, I’m also going to attempt to write stuff that isn’t just awful, that isn’t just sad stuff. It’s difficult, because when you’re looking back on memories you remember the good times, right? But when you’re having a conversation with someone and they say ‘here, tell me something about you’ and you say ‘my favourite colour is yellow’, they want you to tell something that’s really about you. If you say ‘Oh, my dad tried to kill me’, then suddenly there’s honesty.

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