I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
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.
a lecturer, poet and writing tutor. He works in teacher and medical education at the University of Exeter. His anthology Lifesaving Poems, based on the blog of the same name, is available from Bloodaxe Books. Love for Now, his memoir of cancer, is published by Impress Books. Deck Shoes, a book of prose memoir and criticism, and The Afterlife, his fifth book of poems, are available now from Impress Books and Worple Press.
1. What were the circumstances under which you began to write poetry
I began writing poems because I was asked to at school. I was thirteen or so. I suppose this happens to a lot of people, but with me, I just carried on. It was homework, over the weekend, on the not very original topic of ‘Black’. My teacher Mr Borton liked what I wrote but scribbled at the bottom of it that I had spoiled quite an original poem with a rather clunky and obvious ending. Part of me thinks I am still trying to impress him. Part of me still thinks that I carried on writing poems to prove to him that future poems would be an improvement. From then on, all the poetry I wrote in my teens and as a young adult was in secret. It took me a very long time to show it to anyone, by which time I was in the final stages of an undergraduate degree at university.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
My teachers. The aforementioned Mr Borton, Mrs Hooper and Mr Vickery. I owe them everything. We looked at John Logan’s The Picnic, McGough’s 40 Love, Dulce et Decorum Est, Ted Hughes’s animal poems, Pike and so on. The first Hughes poem I remember seeing was The Retired Colonel. Where I grew up, Northwood, on the very edge of Greater London, seemed full of them. I had even been taught by a few. That poem really knocked me over. I guess what they were doing was presenting to us language that was alive and somehow contemporary. As Seamus Heaney says in one of his essays, this literary but also very natural language began at this point to merge with the more informal poetic speech of my early childhood: hymns and Bible readings in church, my father’s Sunday lunchtime stories about Jennifer and Peter, his father’s terrible jokes at Sunday teatime, the football results on Saturday evenings, pop music and so on. I do think you need both kinds of language to get you going. Heaney, again, his idea of a ‘linguistic hardcore’ on which you build as you start to read and stretch your wings. As you get older, of course, you realise the reading part will never be complete. But the bedrock of your experience, that never vanishes. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had those experiences in my early life, and to have met that amazing set of teachers when I did.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
From the moment I encountered Hughes, McGough, and Dylan Thomas (it was a very male curriculum, I am afraid to say) and the others, all the way up to A level, where I met Sylvia Plath and Hopkins, the presence of older poets has always been a mesmerising factor in what I might call my development. First as a kind of set of rules by which you play, obsessively copying, imitating and following, then as a set of elderly relations you know you have to see each Christmas but about whom you suddenly feel embarrassed. Because by then you have encountered other poets, other voices, other models, and the same cycle of imitation, obsession and rejection begins all over again. I feel as though I have now got to the stage in my life where I am holding a kind of permanent open house to whoever wants to come in. Sometimes I see Ted in the hallway, or cooking a fry up, as Peter Sansom would have it. We nod at each other. Sometimes I find Marie Howe unpacking her suitcases all over the place. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we don’t. You never know who is going to turn up. Jaan Kaplinski was round the other day. We sat under the apple tree, then it started raining.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
My writing routine isn’t really one. I do morning pages, a la Julia Cameron, first thing in the morning while the bath runs, a couple of pages of nonsense, then on with the day. I carry a small notebook around with me, into which go lists, prompts, ideas, quotes and yet more lists. I seem to be in quite a list phase at the moment. I write poems and essays and blogs and other bits and pieces -I don’t really know what to call them- at the end of the day, when the emails and the other necessary business of teaching, meeting, visiting students and feeding back to them has been done. This will be in the second golden hour of the day, late afternoon, just before cooking needs to happen and my family come home from their days. I think of it as writing in the cracks, between other things. Ann Sansom once told me that tiredness is a great state to be writing in, as it cuts through your rational, editorial defences. You tend to go for the jugular more.
5. What motivates you to write?
Being a human being.
6. What is your work ethic?
I am really prolific and scandalously lazy at the same time. I sometimes go months without writing a word. Then splurge endlessly for several weeks.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
As I say above, I like to think of myself being on nodding terms with them. Having said that, it has been a long time since Sylvia came round for a cup of tea, not to mention Eliot. I’ve been thinking of having another go at The Four Quartets again recently, perhaps I should? The problem of getting older and losing your first love of poetry, is that you can see the strategies that people use a little more clearly, and that can get repetitive, which can lead to cynicism. When you are young and have not encountered Theodore Roethke before you are just running round the house going Wow, look at this, isn’t that incredible, how did he do that? I liken it to being in a band (which I was, for several years, with my brother). You practise and practise and practise and gig and gig and gig and everything is all about gobbling up every experience that comes your way. Now I am in my dotage, I find I can generate just as much electricity on much less material. A line of Tranströmer here, a phrase of Janet Fisher there.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
The thing is, some of these very early influences, some of whom are dead, feel very alive and ‘today’ to me more than writers who are actually with us. For personal reasons I have come off social media this year. The advantage of this is that I now have much larger headspace than I did previously, and this is good for reading and writing. The disadvantage is that I miss just about everything. I couldn’t tell you who has been shortlisted for this or that prize for the last five years. I am just not interested. I find it inimical to getting any proper work done. I make up for this by paying attention to my team. I think everyone has a team (they might not admit it, but they do), and for me these are people I know personally or have worked with and who still inform my practice. People like Christopher Southgate, what an amazing poet he is. And a great human being, so generous and kind. I am on first name terms with all of them. People I see once a century, like Jean Sprackland or Cliff Yates. They teach me so much. Peter Sansom. I last saw him five years ago, and am still meditating on what he told me each day over breakfast.
9. Why do you write?
I think I have to, really. I don’t think it is a choice. (Except, of course, it is.) I don’t go along with the idea of having something to say. I write to find out what I want to say. For me it is about discovery. Things occur to me which I want to say which I would not have said had I not started writing. William Stafford said that, and he was right.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Read. Everything. And forget about having a ‘career’. ‘You make the thing because you love the thing/ and you love the thing because someone else loved it/ enough to make you love it.’ Thomas Lux.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
My big project at the moment is silence. Staying away from the news (you know what and you know who) enough to collect my thoughts together to be present enough to recognise and become aware of the promptings that might come my way. It is getting increasingly difficult to do this (see what I say above, about social media). Having just published two books I am determined not to spend the next three years moping and worrying about not having a project to work on. To counteract this, I have started several. Not all of them will come through. But that is not the point. The point is to keep going. That is how I judge success.