‘Don’t Be Afraid of Writing the Thing’ | Interview with Jen Hughes

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Scottish poet Jen Hughes. Hughes lives in Glasgow where she is a writer and co-host of open mic night ‘Words and Music’ with Gayle Smith. She is also a regular contributor to Outlet Publishing’s Diary of Young Writer blog and in 2020 she released her debut chapbook Keep on Spinning with Dreich Press.

Jen Hughes, like her poetry, is a breath of fresh air. The depth, wit and honesty of her writing is true to life and in the interview below we talk inspiration, process and getting published.

Can you tell us a little about your early experiences of writing?

I have been writing stories since I was seven years old. In Primary 4, we were given spelling homework and as part of that, we had to write 3 sentences incorporating the week’s words. I wrote whole stories using the words. I had a serial going called “The Werewolf School”, where a class full of wolf children who sneaked out of their boarding school to go on adventures. My teacher was probably confused by these stories, as she kept telling me to stick to three sentences. I couldn’t concentrate in class because the stories and characters in my brain took up so much of my attention. My Primary 5 teacher, Mrs Melville understood me a lot better, as the class was given ‘doodle books’. I was the only one who really used the doodle books, but they really, really helped as I could get my idea on paper and then get on with my day. 

However, I didn’t start writing poetry in earnest until I was fourteen. I had dabbled in it a few times since starting secondary school, but I moved from writing more song lyrics to writing more poetry around then. It was a natural transition, though I can’t remember what really attracted to writing poetry in the first place. It just happens to me. As with most writers, there are very few of my early poems I still stand by, but they’re a reminder of how far I’ve come and the headspace I was in at the time.

Can you tell us about your writing process?

As I’ve said poetry just happens to me. A poem comes out onto the page whenever inspiration strikes. It’s usually a way for me to process certain strong emotions or make sense of some event. I draft it out on my notebook, which I take wherever I go, and then leave it for a while. There’s the odd instance where I’m so proud of it I have to type it up right away, but most often for my work I need to let it sit for a while so I can edit it with fresh eyes. Some poems are just right for me on the first draft, but others need editing. Sometimes I only figure out it needs editing after I perform it, and I don’t get quite the reaction I hope for. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your current studies? How do you balance writing and studying? Does your study influence your work?

I’m in the final year of my English Literature and Film & TV Studies degree, and it has been hugely influential on my work. For example, Keep On Spinning was fuelled by the elective subject in beginners astronomy that I took in second year. Some of my short stories are inspired by the texts I read or the films I watched over my studies. I have read and watched things I wouldn’t have before, and the holistic experience of my time spent at university has broadened my horizons. 

As for balancing my degree with my writing, I’m still working on that. I have an impulse to write that eats into my study time, and essay deadlines that can leave me too exhausted to write. Because I overwork myself, I tend to get burned out. Thankfully, my dissertation is a creative writing one, which means that my writing time now counts as doing assignments. That’s made a huge difference for me, as I’ve found that writing essays is not one of my strengths.

What writers do you most admire, and why?

There are quite a few, it’s difficult to choose! As a kid I used to read a lot of Roald Dahl. I found the worlds and characters he created fascinating, and I was really inspired by them. One of my main bragging points is that we share the same birthday. On my eighth or ninth birthday, I won a quiz on one of the first Roald Dahl Day events, and the two prizes I got I still have. Those are a book full of Roald Dahl facts called the Dahlmanac, and a red Roald Dahl Day tee which I still have, which I wore as pyjamas for years.

I love Russell T Davies, too. He was the show-runner of my favourite era of Doctor Who (2005-2010) and wrote Years and Years (2019). Doctor Who has always been incredibly influential to my writing, ever since I was a child. In fact, one of the poems in Keep On Spinning is inspired by my love of Doctor Who. Years and Years is an incredible TV drama set in the near future, and it is not only scarily accurate but incredibly human. It’s something I keep in mind while writing my prose, especially on the short story collection I am working on.

How did you get involved with Words and Music? 

In 2016, my co-host, Gayle Smith, approached me during the interval of an open mic we were performing at the Blue Chair Café on High Street (now closed down), and invited me to perform at her show. It was one of my first times performing in Glasgow, so I went with my mum. Gayle later told me that she decided to go at the last minute after her plans in Edinburgh fell through, so I guess you could call it fate. 

I didn’t manage to get along until January 2017. This was back when we were at the Pollok Ex-Servicemen’s Club. After meeting everyone and hearing them perform, I knew that this was the place for me. It was after my first performance, Gayle told me that she wanted me to be her co-host. From when she first saw me perform, she knew that I would be a good fit for Words and Music but she wanted to see how I would like the event first. Safe to say, I’ve stayed there since. 

What role do you think live performance plays in poetry?

For me personally, it’s been a big deal. My time writing poetry has been an integral part of my identity as a writer, and Glasgow’s poetry scene has been very supportive. I would have been a different person without it. If it wasn’t for Gayle’s faith in me, I would have given up on poetry completely in 2018 and I wouldn’t have written my chapbook. 

In general, I feel that live performances of poetry give people more access to poetry. It doesn’t have to be just another thing to read in the English class you hate, you can go to a show or open mic night at a pub or café with your friends, too. I know a lot of people who find literature and poetry inaccessible because they studied boring or lofty texts in school, or associate it with bad memories there, so discovering that poetry can be a fun part of a night out or an afternoon coffee can bring people in who may not normally consider it. 

You always seem so confident when reading – what advice would you give to writers who feel nervous about reading?

You don’t need to rush into reading straight away. Read your work to yourself to get an idea for how it flows and how you like to perform it. Start with a smaller audience. If you don’t feel like reading to friends, family or teachers, you could attend a writer’s group. In my early days of performing, I went to a group called Wummin’s Words. We met every week to share poems we liked and I tended to read out my own. It was mostly middle-aged or elderly women who attended, so it felt like being part of a coven of supportive mad aunts! 

See what’s out there. What writer’s groups or open mics that attract you and get in touch with those who run and/or host them and let them know your situation. Most of these people will be accommodating and let you go at your own pace. Give yourself permission to watch other performers, either at open mics or writers groups, until you feel comfortable going up. I wrote a blog post for Outlet Publishing’s Diary of a Young Writer giving new advice for new spoken word performers, which may also point you in the right direction.

You recently published your first Chapbook – Keep on Spinning. What advice would you give to poets who are trying to get published, or working towards a first chapbook/collection?

For Keep On Spinning, I followed my muse. The first few poems came easily- one about Mercury, one about Pluto- and then I had the idea for a concept chapbook where each planet in the solar system had a poem. For me, poetry just happens. The poems of mine I like the least are when I force myself to write them. However, where I struggle to write to a strict task, other poets thrive on the challenge. Lean into what you’re strongest at, or challenge yourself to tackle your weaknesses, your process is unique to you so follow your instincts while drafting. 

Don’t be afraid of writing the thing. It sounds obvious, but so many people are afraid that their first drafts will be rubbish. If you’re expecting a new poem to come out perfectly, then you’re going to set yourself up for disappointment.

(Hughes wrote an excellent article on the ‘100 Rejections Challenge’ that is well worth reading.)

I had my chapbook published after it won 3rd place in Dreich’s 2020 Chapbook Competition. There are lots of these competitions out there. I got lucky when I did well in my first one, so don’t be too disheartened if you don’t win. You’ll be rejected a lot as a writer, but that’s sadly the way of it. You’ve just got to keep putting yourself out there.

Read about Keep on Spinning in the HeadStuff Review.

You can read The Rover by Jen Hughes here.

Cover photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

Keep on Spinning is currently available from Dreich Chapbooks.