Wild Women Press have produced The Naked Muse, a calendar for 2012. Fourteen male poets have been photographed in their bare finery by thirteen female photographers to raise funds for the JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the world's leading funder of type 1 diabetes research). Catherine McNamara interviews participating poet John Siddique.
Did you ever think you would be a Calendar Guy?
It is not something I had ever considered at all, and on reflection perhaps I never assumed would be a possibility as the society I grew up in and to some extent still live in has very different aesthetic values from what I present through my body. I’m not tall, I appear to be South Asian if someone goes by skin only, I have body hair and I’m not young or skinny… and growing up nothing was ever reflected back at me that gave me a sense of belonging in that way. Books were the only country where I felt welcome and so books are my home.
The photographs in the Wild Women Calendar are taken by female photographers. Do you think that has made a difference – in approach and outcome?
Actually I don’t think the results would have been very different if the photographers were male. Really it is down to how much of an artist the person is, and the real artist will find beauty, meaning, and story where ever they look, be they male or female. I don’t think there is a particular male or female view of things, beauty simply exists if the person looking will allow themselves to see it.
Describe the atmosphere in photographer Leonie Hampton’s studio. Were you at ease?
I was quite nervous at first, besides Leonie and myself being there, my wife had come along as she was very excited by the project, and Leonie’s assistant Claire was there. Leonie’s husband was about as well. It was a bit like diving in for a swim, life affords us opportunities to make things of it; this was one of those things. Either you live or don’t live, it is a choice in each moment. I found it a very rich and nourishing experience as Leonie is a real artist. Her work is not about her ego but about seeing the soul of her subject and finding a way to explore a relationship with that through the medium of her art. For me to be looked at this way gave me so much back, lots of feelings built up though years of facing both ‘in your face’ and very subtle racism and class distinction, melted down. To be seen, to be acknowledged is a basic human need.
In your essay ‘On Being Seen – Beautiful Dialogue’ you mention Germaine Greer’s photographic book ‘The Boy’, which Greer claims was a celebration of the beauty of boys across the ages. Where do you think Greer’s intentions differ from this project?
This project isn’t about boys, it is to put it in Victoria Bennett’s words on the subject ‘about poetry, beautiful men, and raising money against type 1 diabetes.’ Greer’s book I think stems out of a deluded set of intentions. I don’t think she is some kind of kiddy-fiddler because she wants to enjoy the beauty of young males, yet had Greer had been a man making a book called ‘Girl,’ imagine the noise that would have gone with it. She was let off by saying ‘we must appreciate boys more,’ a man wouldn’t have been let off for saying that; he’d have been crucified. We are sensual beings at all ages of life. We live through the five senses so there can be no denial of that, to do so in a way that is appreciative and beautiful makes life a whole lot brighter, we have all sorts of societal boundaries often for good reason, and often for crazy reasons so that the powers that be can dominate the people. One way to really screw people up is to make them fear their own bodies, to make us feel like monsters because of the most human basic parts of ourselves. I actually do a lot of work in prisons, and sometimes in the area of ‘special prisoners,’ both men and women, and there are a lot less of them than the media would have us believe.
You mention that we ‘live in a world of sexual imagery’ which is devoid of true sensuality and sexuality. What is your idea of male beauty?
It is true, we think we are living in sexier times because everything on tv is dressed in such sexy ways and every magazine is telling us of all the lust that is out there. Getting porn on the net is as easy as turning on the kitchen tap for water. Yet all it seems to be doing is burning unreal images into our heads which we bring to the people in our lives, so that we are not even with them when we are with them. I have met people who have been married for 30 years, sure they have sex, but they have rarely if ever have made love. They are not with each other, they are with images of people who are not them, who are dressed or undressed a certain way, who are photoshopped, edited and lit with an orange glow. We have a terrible urge towards self destruction. Perhaps people are becoming more disconnected, so that sex is now what you have with a screen, and we think we don’t need to be with another human. I wouldn’t want to tell anyone what to do in the bedroom. It seems though many people are missing out on the satisfaction and truth of good sexuality, where they give all that they can of themselves to another, or receive all of someone else. I haven’t really answered your question I realise. What is my idea of male beauty, it is the same as my idea of female beauty; someone happy in their own skin, and with a curiosity and spark still in the eyes.
You say that you believe ‘the body and soul are part of each other, not separate..’ You also wrote that ‘no one .. really knows what they look like’. What was your first reaction to Leonie’s photographs? Do you think the photograph chosen for the calendar conveys your essence as a poet?
I loved the photo for the calendar; it was like looking at a painting in a great museum. As to if it captures the poet, I think the answer is no, I think it goes beyond that; it shows a larger me. The poet is only part of who I am - a very big part, but there is much more to each of us than the bit the outer world sees. I am actually an intensely private person, I’ll talk about almost anything in public, and I can stand on a stage, or talk to people on the radio, put big secrets in books, but there is a lot which is held back just for my wife and myself, and we each keep some space just for our individual selves too. Leonie’s photo actually shows you that, everything and yet not everything.
Your poetry is often very visual, with strong images of landscape. Have you ever worked with image?
I use landscape as a way of conveying direct image, part of what I am trying to do is to touch what is real rather than allude to it. I walk a great deal in the landscape around where we live. It is a very beautiful part of the world, though often we take night walks to see things in a different way and feel that subtler energy, which I think soaks into my writing.
I take a lot of photographs myself, I am actually a decent portrait photographer; it keeps my eye working in a way that is close to writing but also lets me rest from words. A couple of friends are trying to convince me to show some photographic work at the moment, I’m resisting but letting myself be pulled forward bit by bit too.
What has been your most satisfying moment as a poet?
An impossible question as they keep on coming. Full Blood finally arriving in the world after 15 years work was quite something, it was being written in the background of all my other writings as a secret project. Now it feels like I’m just at the beginning. Every week brings some reward, a letter or email from a reader saying how much a certain poem or story means to them. A piece I wrote for Granta gets a great deal of mail, it gets the mail, not me; which I find very interesting as people want to share their stories. To be a striker of sparks or to reflect something of great meaning or simplicity for a reader, that gives me satisfaction. As I type this today a verse of mine is being used in a blessing ceremony of the child of some friends who had struggled for many years to conceive, and now he exists, to be part of that – what can I say.
Whose poetry or writing has influenced you the most? Which writers do you feel closest to?
Books have always been my friends, I am their offspring really, so it is very hard to answer this both the 1976 Abba annual and Pablo Neruda’s 20 Love Poems and a song of despair have had huge effects on my life, and I wouldn’t put one over the other. Neruda is highly important to me, as is Lawrence’s Poetry. Then Jackie Kay, Cummings, Galway Kinnell, Ceslaw Milsoz, Ryokan, Sharon Olds, Coral Bracho, Whitman, Yeats, Blake. So many.
What are you reading at the moment?
Hardcore Zen – a Buddhist book, I’ve been a mediator since I was 14, but always need reminders. Poetry wise I’m on a Neruda (as ever) and Mary Oliver spree.
Your latest book ‘Full Blood’ (Salt Publishing 2011) has become a bestseller by word of mouth. Your poems speak of sensuality, identity, nature and injustice. What triggers you to write a poem?
Word of mouth for a writer is the best thing in the world. No marketing department can replicate a curious reader who wants to share their finds and treasure with those around them. I am very lucky to have such readers getting behind my work and especially Full Blood.
With writing I often feel a kind of music inside myself in response to the world, it is like a pressure in my being; my job as a writer is to not get in its way. I work hard to let myself find the words to go with that music. I write most days, and I think the wonderful duty of turning up at one’s desk year after year, and keeping on being a reader and lover of poetry somehow keeps that music turned up. All I have to do is have ink in my pen, and give the whole thing enough time and bravery to actually put it down in words which will not obscure it.
The Naked Muse is available from Wild Women Press
Photo credit : Tim Smith