The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
1. What inspired you to write poetry?
I think I was more motivated than inspired. I started when I was at school – I got good marks for essays and poems, which I enjoyed, so it made me write more. I didn’t really write poems after I left school, apart from the odd outpouring of angst – which was just for my own benefit, there was nothing crafted about it. It was much later that I went back to writing poetry and finally took it seriously. When I was young I ardently listened to song lyrics and wrote them down – Al Stewart, Paul Simon, Steely Dan – much of which certainly influenced me and in my mind would pass for poetry even now.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
My English teacher at school, Dr Upadhayay. She got us reading Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn, Stevie Smith, Brian Patten, mid 20th-century poets mostly. We weren’t very responsive in class I’m sad to say, I think she probably had a miserable time teaching us. Especially as we were more interested in learning the lyrics to the latest song by the Osmonds or whatever.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
Not at all, do older poets dominate? When I was a teenager I assumed all poets were dead, including (to my shame) Ted Hughes, whose work I loved and who I discovered years later had been touring and talking to school groups at around the time that I was discovering him. If I’d known that I would have asked Dr Upadhayay to invite him to our school. These days it’s younger poets that dominate, it seems to me! People in my age group and demographic just aren’t seen as sexy or relevant. Of course there are a few exceptions. I hope that doesn’t sound like a moan – it’s just the way it is! I’ve been a professional marketer for 30 years so I know how things work.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
Oh dear, I can’t say I have one. If I have a project on the go, especially a commission or client work (I’m a commercial writer as well as a poet) then I might be at my computer all day and into the evening. Or when there are deadlines approaching. Other times I may take whole days off. I’m very fortunate in that I can organise my time flexibly. Having worked for myself for nearly twenty years I’m fairly good at understanding what a project is going to entail, prioritising my time, juggling various things and getting on with the work. I don’t tend to write freehand, I much prefer writing on a keyboard.
5. What motivates you to write?
Poetry? Anything that strikes me as interesting could be the starting point for a poem. Sometimes there’s an outside motivator – a competition, a magazine’s theme. I often feel like writing after I’ve been reading poetry, which is one reason I don’t understand people who write poetry but don’t read poetry. I also get ideas while at readings. I’m a bit bad like that – my mind will drift off on an idea for a poem instead of listening to the poet who’s reading. Very rude.
6. What is your work ethic?
I think I covered this in Q4. When I have a job on, I deliver. I don’t miss deadlines. Poetry doesn’t feel like work, because I don’t do it for money, or at least when I do get paid it’s not enough to feel like work. But I do work at it, because the point of it (for me) is to get better at it (see answer to Q9).
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I still go back to Hughes, Larkin, Auden and the like but to be honest I didn’t read widely when I was young. I came to the canon very late and I feel I’m still playing permanent and hopeless catchup. I once sent a manuscript to a poet/editor for critiquing and he told me any mentoring he could offer me would be a very steep learning curve because I have ‘no literary education’. Poetry workshops and courses have opened me up to poets I otherwise wouldn’t know – Cavafy, Tranströmer, Akhmatova for example. And I love the New Yorker poetry podcast where I’ve encountered many US poets.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
(Presume you mean poets?) This is hard – plenty of names come to mind but not sure I can say why, beyond the fact that I’ve been absorbed, surprised and/or moved by their poems. It’s often individual poems or collections I’ve enjoyed and I couldn’t say there’s anyone whose entire oevre I’m familiar with. And all poets write bad poems occasionally! If I read a poem and think I WISH I’D WRITTEN THAT! then that’s a pretty good marker. Of the big guns Don Paterson, Carol Ann Duffy, Sharon Olds, Alice Oswald come to mind right away, Carol Ann particularly not just for her writing but for all she does for poetry. I’m fascinated by the work of Mary Ruefle. Recently I’ve been enjoying work by Zaffar Kunial, Kei Miller, Lorraine Mariner… beyond that I wouldn’t want to single people out as there are huge tranches of poets writing fine poetry many of whom I admire in various ways.
9. Why do you write?
Poetry? For my own enjoyment, a love of language and the endless quest to help people see and feel things in ways they haven’t before, to bring joy or wonder or anger or some sort of emotion to the reader. It’s also about practising until you get better – the best you can be. For me, I have to think I can get better. When I reach the point where I think I can’t get any better at it, I will stop writing.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I think it starts with a love of reading. You could still write, without reading anything, but it’s by reading you become a more fluent writer – you learn what it takes to communicate ideas, to develop styles, to use the whole armoury of language, irony, humour, nuance and magic at your disposal.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
A few months ago I wrote ‘A Guide to Getting Published in UK Poetry Magazines’ and it’s now sold out – crazy! I’ve also just updated my quarterly list of poetry magazines submissions windows, which has become quite a big job. A poet friend tells me I do these kinds of things as displacement activities, and I think he has a point. In January I gave myself ‘permission’ to focus on writing poetry, and so far so good. I’ve got new a pamphlet that I’m hoping will find a publisher. Not sure yet about a full collection, we’ll see.