1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
Coming from a working-class background – as is often the case – my first introduction to the ballad form came through the bands I used to listen to and writing my own lyrics. I wanted to be in a band as a teenager and writing lyrics was part my first foray into songwriting. This included imagining how songs would be sequenced and what the album cover would look like – which are of course considerations that are similar in making a poetry collection. When I was 14, I didn’t have much access to poetry, but I do have distinct memories of my mum reciting ‘Night Mail’ by Auden and Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ around the house, and I must have developed an ear for rhyme and rhythm from a young age. She’d also play classical music on the piano, which as a child gave me an appreciation of high culture while feeling excluded from it. It wasn’t until I was about 17, when I began studying Sylvia Plath at college, that my lyrics started to be understood as poems.
2. How did your study of Sylvia Plath give an understanding of your songs as poems?
Through studying Plath, and other poets, I began to see how words could be presented on the page. Like many other poets, such as Simon Armitage, my interest developed from a visual appreciation of poems as peculiar blocks of text, taking different forms. With songs, I was limited to a ballad, then I became more aware of ‘free’ verse and the possibilities of ‘playing tennis without a net’ (to paraphrase Robert Frost), as well as how sound worked. I remember early experiences of hearing Plath read her poems and I was mesmerised by the cadences and rhythms. The same occurred when listening to Dylan Thomas’s poems and Under Milk Wood.
2.1. How did you decide on the order of the poems in “Full Sight Of Her”?
Since the poems document the life I had with my partner, I decided to arrange them into a narrative covering the period 2013-2017 in roughly a chronological order. I was also inspired by the three-act dramatic structure – the story is rather tragic – so thought my 60 poems could be neatly divided into three sets of 20. There’s a photograph made by Kim which I used as a means of punctuating these acts. This is both a homage to her work as an artist and serves as a meditative moment or intermission before moving onto the next part of the story. I also wanted a final poem to work as a coda that would reference many of the preceding themes and images. It also felt it was apt for this final poem to be a more expansive prose poem and valediction
3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
The initial phrase of the writing process occurred while I was studying for my MA in Creative Writing. So, I was exposed to a variety of writers on the course; though I tend to read widely and absorb influences by osmosis rather than have particular influences. I was drawn, though, to the work of Sharon Olds for a while and how she’s able to write about personal content in a way that’s also oblique or disguised. I don’t think anyone looking at my poems would see obvious parallels with her or other writers: I’d like to think I’ve arrived at my own voice, for better or worse. I have borrowed ideas or techniques, as all writers do, though these were mashed together in complex ways. I never felt I suffered the anxiety of influence; though if there’s any commonality among that poets I like, they tend to write about intensely emotional subjects, have a great deal of honesty and integrity, and have the power to move the reader.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
These days I’m rather busy, as I teach almost full-time Creative Writing and English Literature. So, finding time for writing is sporadic between October and May. Though I do keep my own personal tradition of writing 2-3 ‘winter poems’ each year. I find I need a lot of spaciousness to write in and the chance to experience reverie. That’s where most poems emerge from. They’re never forced. I need to make myself receptive to ideas coming out of the ether – like the principle of the Aeolian harp (a musical instrument that gets played by the wind). When ideas come to me, I have the discipline of writing them down in several notebooks. So, most of the time I’m just collecting things. When I can actually sit down – and often now it’s weekends – I’ll usually work back into one of many poems in progress. Especially after a phase of abandonment, I often find that within the first few seconds I’ll know how it needs to be revised or I visualise a new arrangement. Other times, I’ll draft a complete poem in one sitting, no matter how messy. It’s sometimes great to have a sketch of the whole thing. Then I’m usually happy to leave it for weeks or months. It’s part of an ongoing process of abandonment (as I think Paul Valery observed), revision, or recycling.
5. What subjects other than documenting a life motivate you to write?
I’ve always gone for the big, universal subjects – love, death, transience, faith, and so on. I see it as part of my responsibility as a writer and human being to take on these subjects – even though of course they’ve been written about for centuries. They’re never been written about from the present though or from my unique perspective – which is why I think it’s important to keep engaging with them. If we’re true to the minutiae of our own lives, they’ll always be enough originality in poems. Other than these grand and sometimes metaphysical themes, I’m interested in writing about what’s difficult or almost impossible to convey in everyday language. So, I’m interesting in exploring borderline experiences, such as trauma, depression, grief, madness, and the taboo or clandestine; things that people don’t or can’t say to each other. Another recurrent theme is the uncanny. This is apparent in my collection, where I explore liminal states and nocturnal language – thoughts between sleep and waking, for instance – or the shadowy spaces of the home.
6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?
If there’s a continuing influence then it’s subtle. I think there’s a trace of Plath at times, though only in terms of tone or threat. I still like poetry that’s rather edgy or suggests an element of danger. As I’ve said, I’m interested in things that have been hidden or kept secret, then brought to light. I’m less interested in so-called ‘confessional poetry’ now, though what I share is a fearlessness in writing about the darker realms of experience. My first introduction to the study of poetry was Norman Nicholson. Ever since that moment I’ve written the occasional poem on landscape or ecology – something I want to do more of in the future. I also loved Ted Hughes’s poems as a teenager – his collection ‘Crow’ is still a favourite – and I’ve written about nature and in the pastoral mode, though when I do, it’s usually subverted in various ways.
7. How Important is form in your poetry?
Form wasn’t too much of a consideration with my first collection. I was working with ‘free verse’, albeit with some rules. There’s also a few twisted or near sonnets, one poem that began life as a sestina, and some poems are in couplets. Fixed forms don’t interest me too much, and I dislike rhyme schemes. If I use them, they’re more as a starting point or vehicle for pushing me in directions I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Sometimes, it’s enough to impose a constraint beforehand, so I’m writing in a more procedural sense. My second collection is far more formally-considered, and I’m currently writing rather a lot of prose poems and poems that make full use of the page.
7.1. What prompted you to go in a different direction with form in the one you are currently writing?
It began with the idea of writing an ekphrastic collection. My first degree was in Art History and I’ve always been interested in modern art. I was intrigued with the idea of how I might write poems in response to abstract paintings, and how the form of these images might determine the form of my poems. Big colour field canvases seemed to suggest poems that stretch from one margin to the other, or be presented as a full-page spread. In addition, I wanted my second collection to look distinctively different from first one. I have a restless need to innovate, and I don’t like the idea of having a static or established voice. I can easily frustrate myself with writing the same kind of poem. The best moments I find are when I’ve written a poem that doesn’t look like I’ve written it – it looks foreign – and having formal rules is an excellent tool to break my own habits and produce something unexpected.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Keeping in mind your question about form, I admire the work of Anne Carson. I’ve been reading some of her prose poems and experiments with hybrid forms. I also like how she manages to blend poetry with critical essays. She, like other poets I enjoy reading, challenge notions of what a poem is or how relates to other genres. I also like Michael Symmons Roberts’s recent collections, such as Drysalter or Mancunia, especially how he’s often looking to find traces of the transcendent in the everyday, or he’ll explore profound metaphysical questions within the tight space of a sonnet.
9. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
It’s a cliche, though I helps to start with reading other writers – and find someone who can spark your imagination, who you can be obsessed with, and who says something about your life. It’s a good idea, then, to try to figure out how they manage to write in the way they do. There’s nothing wrong with naively looking to imitate what they do for a while, for your own purposes, as a lot can be figured out that way. Fear and inhibition can be the enemy early on, so it’s important to find ways of having fun with words, being playful with language, giving yourself permission to make mistakes. Notebooks are great for that, as they can be just for you; a private space where fantasies and uncensored thoughts can find expression. No-one ever has to see what you write there, which is part of the beauty of it. Later, you might settle on a genre that suits you and keep up a regular practice. I found an MA in Creative Writing useful, as a means of developing my craft; though courses aren’t for everyone. Most importantly, though, I’d say that becoming a writer is a bit like having aspirations for becoming an actor – if anything can dissuade you from doing it, then it’s probably not for you. It can be a hobby, I know, for some; though the life of a writer – I find at least – is intensely solitary, full of rejection, non-remunerative, and emotionally precarious. There has to be, I think, a sense of calling or compulsive need to write, and the commitment to ring-fence at least a part of your life for what must be an ongoing discipline.
10. Please expand on the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I’m about two-thirds way into my second collection. This has the working title of Cold Dark Matter and forms part of my PhD in Creative Writing – supervised by Siobhan Campbell and Jane Yeh at the Open University. Whereas my first collection was more scrapbook-style and had a more conventional approach to the lyric – documenting the life I shared with my partner – the second collection is more focused on my personal experience of grief and the metaphysical questions it gives rise to. Since the content is often too difficult to face directly, I use various modes of ekphrasis – writing about grief or loss while also referencing an artwork. The poems might, more accurately, be understood as lyric poems, though they’re mediated through the lens of modern art. As I’ve suggested, this has meant the poems are formally diverse, and many are prose poems – where I’ve experimented with non-linear loops or circular motions (looking to represent trauma or intrusive thoughts, for example).
11. Once they have finished reading “Full Sight Of Her” what do you hope the reader will leave with?
Poetry and other works of art – for me at least – are about intense emotional experience. They’re about being taken to places that are uncomfortable or encourage us to connect in deeper ways. So, fundamentally, I’d like the reader to be moved – and be left more empathetic to how far love can go and what it means to suffer loss. I’ve always believed in the ability of artistic work to alchemise the worst of what life throws at us – even the most catastrophic of events. I wanted to write a book that could say ‘these two people went on a journey, they lived, they loved, they bore witness, and they stayed with each other as long as they could – almost into death. They went to the limit.’ I’d like the reader to be left with the beauty of this and an intimation of the transcendent. There’s also the hope that the reader will be left with an appreciation of Kim – in the book she’s immortalised – and that includes how she managed to be creative despite her visual impairment, and how she was successful in having a relationship of deep love, against all odds.