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Wayne Holloway-Smith

Wayne Holloway-Smith

Wayne Holloway-Smith

(United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 0)
Wayne Holloway-Smith’s poetry is curious in both senses. It is eccentric and intriguing but it is also, like a good conversationalist, interested and engaged. At once sincere and off-beat, he possesses what Mark Waldron has called “a peculiar openness […] a certain unguarded gentleness”. Holloway-Smith deals in distinctive ways with difficult issues, including gender, class and mental health, incorporating pop culture and archaisms while opting for vulnerability over irony.

The poet is a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Hertfordshire, served as a co-editor of the online journal Poems in Which and has run innovative live poetry events. Holloway-Smith won the 2016 Geoffrey Dearmer Prize and the 2018 National Poetry Competition. Donut Press published a chapbook Beloved… in case you’ve been wondering in 2011. Alarum (Bloodaxe, 2017) was picked by Andrew McMillan as the Poetry Book Society Wild Card choice and was shortlisted for the Roehampton Poetry Prize and the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize for First Full Collection. His latest publication is an innovative chapbook in a box, I Can’t Wait for the Wending (Prototype/ Test Centre, 2018).

Born in Swindon, Holloway-Smith comes from a working class family. He explains that reading and writing poetry was something he came to later in life, as he pursued reading and writing in his twenties while living London. Working class masculinity, and the issues surrounding it, was the subject of his doctorate. Holloway-Smith’s own background and relationship with class and gender informs much of his work. Alarum, his debut full-length collection, opens with ‘The air itself’, a poem about a Punch and Judy show, but quivering with the undercurrents of violence and abuse which are present in the colourful seaside entertainment:

inside the tiny, inside the candy-coloured theatre,
open to the beachfront, sweet to the retina

It is an appropriate start to a collection that is full of complicated, ambiguous emotion (grief for a bad father and the anxious joy of parenthood) and which explores the “hegemonic conceptions of masculinity”. Here there are poems about many forms of violence, from domestic abuse to self-destructive behaviours. The central sequence ‘Some Violence’ explores ideas of physical and psychological violence in boys:

his right knee to the front of my thigh
was a person I loved entering the room
and then leaving again without saying Hi

The violence is internalised and reproduced. In one of the poems starting “This is me” the persona recalls kicking a pigeon to pieces: “meanwhile bits of me are producing and reproducing bits in me that will one day produce bits of my thesis”. Then there is the systemic oppression of the working class:

This is the lesson of the English teacher: a series of right knees in the thigh of the student. A bourgeois essay about his body being read back to him.

The fact of having gone on to do a PhD complicates the sense of identity bringing “a shameful sort of understanding”. The shame seems to come from both a discomfort with the violence inherent in the dominant forms of working class masculinity and from the sense of having removed yourself from this arena through academia. Pursuing education becomes a perverse form of self-erasure:

you have by writing
of socio-symbolic violence within dominant discursive values
employed the socio-symbolic violence within dominant discursive values
to effectively murder your own working-class self.

Holloway-Smith often uses the forms and tropes of popular culture. It is part of the self-awareness of his poems that they not only adopt but deconstruct the narrative forms of popular culture, from doo-wop in an elegy to soap-opera theme tunes:

by that music […] Those warning notes always pursue and snatch
the addict almost overcoming his vice.

(‘The Warning Notes’)

But a more personal symbolism is also developed in this collection. Crows come to stand for mental illness:

One thing I’ve learned is       if you are asking
    whether you might have the crows again       then you’ve already got them

(‘The Language’)

‘There is absolutely no way to make this real life interesting’ describes bulimia: “my illness is all right // two fingers up / the throat of itself”. Here the imagery may be ‘unreal’ but speaks frankly and vividly:

my illness is taking all of the red flowers
inside itself so the field is just filled with my illness
my illness taking all of this imagery
into itself until it is outgrowing
the place where it hides

This is a very personal poem and Holloway-Smith has spoken of not believing in authorial distance and the political importance of admitting one’s own position and complicity. In ‘Some Waynes’ we are given a pantheon of Waynes: “Bald Wayne, head like a rocking chair; Amy Waynehouse; Wayne the ironic”. The poem plays with past and present personas or possibilities, as well as the received ideas of a name: “Track-suited Wayne – your hubcaps, his pockets”. He has written of this approach:

“I don’t see myself as a single fixed identity. The poems are ways of understanding how I experience the world. In that sense they are connected. But I experience it outside of a single individual narrative – I am not the protagonist of my own life, it’s taken a long time to know that. There’s no linearity to what I write, I hope.”
(The Poetry Society)

I Can’t Wait for the Wending might be seen as an expression of this non-linear philosophy as well as a continued exploration of the issues in Alarum. It is a deconstructed, or perhaps more accurately un-constructed, chapbook where the poems are presented on loose cards in a box with the contents presented in a continuous tangled line. Some pieces are landscape, some portrait; some are prose while others have line breaks or concrete forms; there is a set of different coloured typefaces; there seems to be a kinship between some of the titles. We might play endlessly at trying to instate some order based on one of these criteria or on the recurrent images and ideas. Much of the imagery is connected to meat and dairy – the poems are thick with cows and slick with mayonnaise – a typically perverse vegan impulse. Desire, dadhood and anxiety are also present.

“I’m less interested in irony now, and I’m more interested in vulnerability. I don’t know whether it has to be overtly autobiographical, but for me in my work it has to be vulnerable” (Poetry Extension interview with Natalya Anderson). Holloway-Smith’s radical vulnerability is again at work in ‘The posh mums are boxing in the square’, which won The Poetry Society's National Poetry Competition 2018:

I’m sinking deep into the past and dressing my own mum
in their blue spandexes
svelte black stripes from hip to hem
and husbands with better dispositions toward kindness
or at least I’m giving her new lungs

Here absurdity again allows us access to the personal, to deliver sentiment without sentimentality. In these oblique ways, Holloway-Smith continues to grapple with difficult subjects in poems that are still playful and tender, to give us what Emily Berry has described as a “glorious, melancholy verdict on living”.


National Poetry Competition Winning Poem
On the Faber Poetry Podcast
Listen: on the Echo Chamber
Video: from Alarum
The Geoffrey Dearmer Prize
Poems in The Scores
Five Minutes at the Kendal Poetry Festival
Watch: I Can’t Wait for the Wending
© Emily Hasler
Beloved… in case you’ve been wondering (Donut Press, 2011)
Alarum (Bloodaxe, 2017)
I Can’t Wait for the Wending (Prototype/Test Centre, 2018)
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Prins Bernhard cultuurfonds
Lira fonds
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère