Arun Jeetoo's prose poem 'Birdman' won the judges hearts in The University of Roehampton's recent Creative Writing competition. Now Haley Jenkins interviews this brilliant new writer on 'Birdman', what writing means to him and how he uses it to influence others. Jeetoo's work has been published in 'The Unseen' anthology by the University's Fincham Press, a press known for producing work of outstanding quality.
HJ: So we have been talking for a little while about good storytelling in horror games and films, do you write horror stories yourself?
AJ: I started off writing lots of horror when I was in secondary school, so that would be about eleven to fifteen. I was really influenced by the film Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell.
HJ: I have heard of that, it is a story about a woman who angers a senior lady, but the senior lady turns out to have powers and curses her?
AJ: Yes, the old woman curses her. So I was really influenced by that story in Year 9. For one of our creative tasks for English, I had made up this whole concept about a game and if you lost the game, you would be transported to hell.
HJ: As you do!
AJ: As you do! I don’t know what my teachers were thinking, like “Why is this child writing this horror story?” but I really liked the psychological aspects of the killer and tended to focus on that in the different early stages of my writing, as well as employ all these horror tropes like the old haunted house or possession. I really loved doing all that but as I got older and practiced my writing more I moved away from horror and went into humour. I know they are exact opposites!
HJ: Well I don’t know you see. You have two major impulses when you are surprised, you scream or you laugh, and I think that these emotions are more linked that we initially suppose. Traditionally they are opposite ends of the spectrum, then in the middle you have dark humour.
AJ: Coming on to that, there is lots of dark humour in my writing. In one of my portfolios, I had the music sheet for happy birthday, but I changed the words underneath to ‘you are not made from love’. So you can imagine how terrible that would sound!
HJ: It is quite intriguing though, because that line would be levelled at the parents as well and the relationship that created a child.
AJ: I like my writing to have some sort of impact on people, especially this intuitive feeling they get from their gut and makes them churn.
HJ: A subtle terror or ‘queasiness’, something they can’t necessarily put a name to?
AJ: Yes exactly!
HJ: There is that horror trope now these days of having rhyme in horror movies, such as Nightmare on Elm Street and the latest Woman in Black, so there is that trend of having the creepy child singing a song.
AJ: Definitely! When I was writing it, it kind of reminding me of Henry James’ Turn of the Shrew and envisioned the children singing it. It is possibly one of my favourite books. I think The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole is my favourite. I loved that era and the Victorians, I liked the gothic and ghost-stories. There was something very special about storytelling in that period, so I try to encompass what was important back then into my work. Apart from the dark humour, though there is some dark humour in Victorian literature, but you have to really dig into it and find it. I am also very interested in the séances and the oracle view of spirituality.
HJ: Have you been to one?
AJ: No but I did go to the one in the London Dungeons.
HJ: See I found the London Dungeons funny, not scary. I think there is that link again between horror and humour, whether we laugh or scream.
AJ: I’ve always had this sense of laughter with horror, it has followed me around.
HJ: So of course The Unseen has only recently come out, I believe its launch day is taking place in the next few months. Could you tell our readers what you are in it for?
AJ: I wrote ‘Birdman’, which is a prose poem, and it is mainly about this mentally ill, homeless man who has lost any sense of identity and the protagonist comes up to him and tries to get to know him from the inside, rather than judge him for what he looks like. So we have this interesting character dynamic of this Birdman, who believes he is a bird, hangs around pigeons and has a pet turkey called Estabon. Basically he is a lost individual in a society where everyone just judges each other. Sometimes you need to use your judgement to sense things, to avoid things, but other times people avoid it just for the sake of it. I believe that creates divides between people. I know for myself when I come across people shouting or who look unhinged or who are mumbling to themselves, they just generally just want to speak to someone. Even though my family tells me “don’t talk to them, don’t talk to them” they tend to come and talk to me. When I was sitting in the bus, there was this one guy who was talking really loudly about cars and then he turned to me and asked me what my favourite car was. Now most people would walk away, but I stayed and talked with him about cars. At the end he told me I had made his day.
So I think the main character for ‘Birdman’ is just trying to see Birdman as an individual, rather than see him as what he is. When the protagonist looks after Birdman, he finds a picture of when he was younger, he was short and skinny with a completely different life. But I didn’t want to explain how Birdman got to being Birdman, because I think that would have taken away some authenticity.
HJ: The origin story would kill the mystery and the ambiguity of the character.
AJ: Yes so I tried to present the character as he is, but look at his personality and get it to embody all the good qualities people think you should have. For example, in one scene, where Birdman talks to the protagonist and tells him “In a broken shard of glass, always be yourself, your true self, don’t hide away from who you are” and I guess the whole gist of it is to show that if you respect someone, you will get something back.
HJ: So prose poems are quite a radical form, it is the breaking of rules of both prose and poetry, it is a form that shouldn’t exist but does and often quite beautifully so. So how did you go from horror stories to a prose poem that sounds really deep and beautiful, how did you make that transition to poetry?
AJ: I think after writing all these horror stories, I found Robert Browning to be my main influence. Looking at his work and how he embodies this dark imagery, almost a bleakness, similar to Charles Dickens. I found it really interesting to see how Browning uses these long elegant poems and try to do that, but in shorter forms. So I began writing lots of dark poems about suicide, about pain and then one day I realized that in order to where I wanted, I needed to put humour in them. I remember my first poem I ever did was called ‘Impassable’, which was about these two characters on a stage who were committing murder, but because it was on stage it was all theatrical, it was all bawdy, and I found that really interesting. I wanted to see whether I could do more of this and try adding humour to dark imagery or horror and use dark humour. All these stories were fantasy or speculative fiction. I approached it to one publisher with ‘Impassable’ and they found it really interesting, so they published it. I was so happy, I was only eighteen at the time. But then when I started University, I found there was a calling to radical forms like prose poems or free verse, because I used to write in couplets or quatrains or villanelle. I never thought rhyme was important.
HJ: So what kind of poets do you like other than Browning, any modern poets?
AJ: Yes there is Warshan Shar, she is a really good poet and she has been so successful, Beyonce quoted her in her album ‘Lemonade’. She is one of my influences as well because she talks about identity and being in Britain as a Samali woman. I think it is really important to look at that experience of being alienated in a place and trying to tell people what it is like being ‘othered’. There is another poet called Danez Smith, he writes about his experience of being a gay man and I thought that again was really interesting, as with both poets they have been really alienated in their lives because of who they are and what they represent. So what I have tried to do with that is, because they are all quite serious in their poetry, is embody that experience but then subvert it with humour; in order to be like “I’m an Asian man, I’ve experienced these things” but also put humour on it. Because its not always great to have bleak, serious stuff, though I do write seriously on many things. I wrote one poem called ‘Statistics’ which is about mental health and how this government fails young people with mental health. I think it is always good to have a balance between seriousness and comedy. Another poet I’m really interested in is Jenny Holzer. I love the idea of how she puts poetry up on projectors and buildings.
I will mention ‘Noses’. Essentially, the poem is about those who wish to have a different nose. It sounds ridiculous and perhaps my being shameful of my heritage, but this is possibly the only poem that stems from my personal experience. I have written inside the image of the nose: ‘I wish I had a different nose’ overlapping with the text almost making it unreadable to most (to those that like their noses) – but to the few who don’t, I’m sure they’ll find the words as easily as I do. I don’t hate my nose – it’s just a dislike: we all have something we want to change in ourselves and mine is just to make it longer. Perhaps then a nice nose ring would sit comfortably on my right nostril.
HJ: Going back a little now, but have you read any surrealist horror?
AJ: I’m sure I have but I can’t remember.
HJ: A recommendation I would have is Bonespin Slipspace by Leo X. Robertson, it is the most brilliant trippy horror work I have ever read and he has just released a new Kindle edition, as well as paperback. He does a lot with Unnerving Magazine and they are a horror focused press. Leo is absolutely lovely and a complete sweetheart, an awesome writer.
AJ: Just recently I had to a presentation for my Literature & Addiction module, and I used this book called John Dies at The End and I really recommend it. I haven’t seen the film, but I don’t know whether it did it justice.
HJ: So when did you realized Creative Writing was a subject you wanted to pursue to degree level?
AJ: I think by the time I was sixteen or seventeen, there was no one in school who said you could study Creative Writing as a subject, I had to do it on my own initiative. One exam-board for English were doing a creative writing competition where you could win resources for your library. No teacher told me this, I was just looking up mark schemes and came across it on their website. I didn’t think I had anything worthy or good, so I decided to take a leap of faith and submit what I wanted. I came second, which was quite an achievement for me, and basically my story was about these two childhood friends who lose connection with each other when they grow up. They then rekindle their friendship when they are older but this time it is kind of distorted. They think that they know each other as they have been friends for a really long time, but they realize they gave both changed and they are no longer who they were. And one of them is a serial killer, as you do! I had to bring in the horror. It was really interesting to explore how the characters react to each other, especially men and how it shows sometimes men just talk about simple things. They don’t really converse and share feelings, which doesn’t always happen.
Anyway, the exam-board thought it was great and the second prize was £500 worth of resources, which I thought wasn’t bad and I really helped my library, so I was very proud of that. But moving on from that to A-Level, because during that secondary school time I was focused on having fun with my friends and writing stories, I then made the biggest mistake ever. I wrote this story about an angel who comes back to earth to rescue this woman as a guardian angel from the devil. I thought it was so great I submitted it to the Costa Short Story Award!
HJ: Well you have ambition!
AJ: A lot of people have been telling me that, but I don’t think its ambition, I think it’s just ‘fling it somewhere and hope for the best’! Anyway I got rejected, maybe because I didn’t proof read it properly! So I think the biggest thing for me was during A-Levels, where we had to do a performative piece for Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, because we did World War One Literature. So everyone did little scenes about normal things or the shocking terrifying scenes of men being in the trenches, while I decided to focus on when the main character Isabelle is having her baby and talked about giving birth. My teacher was like shocked and asked where I got the idea from. The book ends with Isabelle saying her waters have broken and then it ends, we never find out what happens. I knew it was a book about war but I felt she was an important character and that leaving her there didn’t really bring justice to her. So I decided to talk about that bit, and my teacher loved it and thought it was great writing. So I thought ‘Okay, how can I do this again? How do I get that feeling of someone being really appreciative of my work?’
It was from that I then applied for Creative Writing. I also knew I wanted to do English, so I decided to do a joint honours. I still threw myself in the deep end as I had never studied Creative Writing since GCSE English Language, where we had to write a fictional letter to a pen-pal and mine was a drug-dealer! But it was definitely from A-Level where I decided I liked English, but I wanted to see where Creative Writing would go. I don’t want to be a writer full-time, I think education has always interested me and that is where I would like to base my writing. So mainly along the lines of teaching.
H: To finish, does writing energize or exhaust you?
AJ: Ooo that is a good question! Most times the writing part is full of energy and passion, it’s the editing I find exhausting. I don’t really see myself as an editor, even though I know as a writer you have to also be an editor and it is definitely difficult editing my own work. So I have an panel of people who read my work. I don’t send it to people who are on my course or study English or Creative Writing, but rather a ‘general reading’ panel, the actual audience, rather than someone who knows we are talking about metaphors that day. Sometimes that process takes me away from writing, but if it a piece I know is really good and it is something where I’m trying to get people to think differently about things, then that pushes me on to try and write more. So I think it is a balance, but at the end of it I’m still happy.
HJ: Is there anything you have to have while writing, to help that process along? Coffee, vodka?
AH: Haha, well I have to have the moon out. I write at night, I love writing at night, I think there is something so special about it being quiet and calm. I think that helps me concentrate, but also looking outside at nature in the dark is really interesting and it helps me focus on visual details. As I also tend to write about dark things, it is nice to see how the night subverts things and makes them in to things that are different from the way people represent them. So it is mainly at night, I have to have every screen off save for my computer or sometimes just a notebook, and I just begin by writing whatever is in my head.