Home Arts & Lit Interviews Interview with 2014 Exeter Poetry Slam winner: James Turner

Interview with 2014 Exeter Poetry Slam winner: James Turner


The third sold-out Exeter Poetry Slam was held at the Bike Shed Theatre. James Turner beat off the tough competition with the excellent delivery of his beautifully written laugh-out-loud poetry. Christy Ku, Online Books, caught up with him afterwards


photo credit: tumblr

How did you feel about taking part in and winning the 2014 Exeter Poetry Slam? 

This is the third slam I have taken part in. I used to think slams were not for me, and not really what poetry is about. Recently I have changed my mind on this. There’s no reason why a good poem can’t be read out to an audience at a slam. The audience are there listening, just like any other poetry reading. It’s a chance for me to share my stuff. So when I heard about this slam I entered for it, and adapted a recent rather long poem so it would be the right length and in three parts, one part for each round of the competition. I gave it everything I’ve got, practised it and so on. I don’t have a very good memory so I didn’t learn it by heart. At some slams you have to deliver your poem without the words in front of you, but this slam allowed you to have the text. Anyway I won it, and I was happy, I’m now the official Exeter Slam Champion for the year 2014/15 – but also very surprised. I thought I might get through the first round, but I really didn’t expect to win. I still can’t quite believe it happened.



Tell us about the poems you performed?

The poems I performed were a sequence of three poems called ‘The Sporanox Three’ (you can read the first one here. They were about my experience of taking a medicine for a fungal infection in my thumbnails. Most of it is based on notes I made about three years ago while I was actually taking the medicine. This medicine had a side effect not listed in the leaflet that came with it – it made me feel strange, as if I’d been mentally and emotionally fenced in. In other words, it was psychoactive, but mind-contracting rather than mind-expanding. I wouldn’t recommend it. There were lots of other side effects listed, including heart failure – so it was a worrying experience altogether. But I survived, and it got rid of the fungus, so it had a happy ending. The poem touches on other subjects too, serious ones. There are also one or two little jokes. When you hear laughter you know you are getting through to people. I like to combine humour and deep seriousness, or emotional darkness, or facing unpleasant facts etc., in my poems.


photo credit: The Bikeshed TheatrE

You read your final poem from The Broadsheet – are there any other places we can read your work?

I have had poems published in various poetry magazines, some of them now defunct like Psychopoetica and Otter (Devon poetry), some still going strong like The Journal and The Frogmore Papers. I have had a collection of poems published by Original Plus called Forgeries, which is still available from the publisher here. There are a few poems on my blog, and there’s a copy in the University Library (Research Commons, Old Library) at 828.9/TUR-4.  There’s a longish poem called ‘The Knotweed Factor’ readable free online in a thing called klchr, issue 1. There is more, and I hope there will soon be more still – that’s the plan anyway.


You mentioned that you worked at the uni? What was your role and how did you find it?

I worked as a library assistant at Exeter University Library from January 1972 to December 2009, with a couple of gaps of about 18 months – so that’s a bit over 35 years. It was a humble role, stamping out books, charging fines, looking for missing books, shelving and filing, that sort of thing. But I enjoyed it at times. I made some good friends and met some interesting people among my colleagues and across the counter with staff and students. I enjoyed working with new and old books on a great range of subjects. It didn’t take too much out of me and left me with a bit of energy left to pursue my interests, reading, walking, and, from about 1992 onwards, writing poetry, trying to get it published, and reading it in public.


What are the greatest influences on your writing?

This is a difficult one. I know what poets I like to read, but whether they have influenced me much I don’t know. Here’s a list anyway; Philip Larkin, William Shakespeare (the sonnets), Ogden Nash, John Betjeman, Tony Harrison, Elma Mitchell,  Stevie Smith, John Keats, S.T.Coleridge, William Wordsworth, William Blake, Matt Harvey, Charles Bukowski – and more. Generally, I have been influenced a little by some of the performance poets I have been listening to recently. The subject matter of my poems has been more influenced by writers of prose, like J.Krishnamurti, Alice Miller, John Cowper Powys, and my reading in history, philosophy and psychology generally.


Do you approach writing poetry differently if you’re going to perform it?

Not really. I’ve always wanted my poetry to sound right when read aloud. I’ve always tried reading a new poem aloud, and if it didn’t work, I’ve edited it and tinkered with it until it did.


Do you have any advice for our young poets, especially when it comes to performing/reading it aloud?

My advice to young poets (or old poets who are just starting to write) is; write freely, and read other poets freely. Find the poets you like, old or new, and learn from them. Don’t write in an old-fashioned way, write almost as you would speak. Read what you have written and cut out superfluous stuff. Ask: Does this say what I meant to say? Will someone reading this get my meaning? Write on any subject that is important to you. Don’t worry about whether it is good at first. In fact never worry about whether it is good. Just check it is what you meant, and that it says it clearly. The rest will come with experience.

When it comes to reading it aloud and performing, make sure you have read it aloud many times so you don’t trip over the words. Read it naturally, as if you were telling someone something you wanted them to understand. So many poets don’t do this. Don’t adopt a special poetry voice, unless that is really your voice and the only way you can do it. Make sure you read loud enough so that people can hear. Enunciate your words clearly, as if there was a lot of background noise to fight against. That is a bit unnatural, I admit, but although it might feel unnatural to you at first, you will soon get used to it, and you will find that the audience is able to follow your poem better. Strangely, unless of course you overdo it, the audience won’t think it’s unnatural if you enunciate your words clearly, moving your mouth and lips a bit more than normal to get the sound of each word, vowel and consonant. I learned this from the poet Matt Harvey.

Final advice, don’t expect to make money through poetry. There isn’t any. Unless you want to teach it. Or unless you get famous (which I’m not, and don’t want to be, it’s too much like hard work!). Write and perform for the love of it. If there’s no love or fun in it, do something else.


Christy Ku, Online Books Editor

To read one of Turner’s poems from the Poetry Slam, click here. Comment below, or write to us on our Facebook and Twitter pages!  

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