David Morley’s latest book FURY was a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection. David trained as an ecologist in the Lake District and won the Ted Hughes Award for The Invisible Gift: Selected Poems. His other books from Carcanet Press include The Magic of What’s There, The Gypsy and the Poet, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, Enchantment and The Invisible Kings, also a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and TLS Book of the Year. David pioneered podcasting in creative writing through his Slow Poetry and Writing Challenges spoken word projects. He is a professor at Warwick and Monash universities and a Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature.
When and why did you start writing poetry?
One of the spurs behind my becoming a writer is my stammer. My teenage mind developed into a thesaurus: synonyms cut the path of least resistance through sentences. My vocabulary grew and my spoken voice grew rhythmical. Rhythm helped me find a voice, literally.
Who introduced you to poetry?
Poetry became important to me when my English teacher Mrs. Jowett read aloud Ted Hughes’s poem ‘Wind’ to class. Hearing it, rather than reading it, was electric. It was the spoken sound that drew me into poetry, with sound carrying meaning.
What subjects motivate you to write?
Not so much subject as experiences. I travelled a lot on my own as a child and covered great distances up and down the country, camping out. Because of my stammer, I listened a lot more than I spoke (I think my writing takes the place of my speech). I went to America for a long time alone when I was ten. I spent a great deal of time listening to people I met and whose help I needed. I like people and strangers: I feel I become them. I always looked to people’s stories for life: what they choose to say, what they chose to keep shtum. Speech is an art but so is listening. I love dialect and languages, including Romany. I trained as a natural scientist at university and during postgraduate study. The natural world has always been an experience I draw on: nature has her own imagination. I was always attentive to the languages of birds. I love words, whatever form they take, including a Lyrebird’s.
Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
I do not oppose anything else.
Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
All poets are one poet. I learn from every poet I have read and heard, in performance and on the page, in English and translation. I also learn a lot from filmmakers, digital artists, painters, novelists, scientists, and dramatists. I regard them as poets. I also admire many fellow poets for the way they teach our subject, especially those I have worked alongside on Arvon Foundation and Ty Newydd courses. Teaching is the most important job in the world.
How do you decide the order of poems?
I have always regarded a book as a form of poetry. My poems are characters, with their own lives, voices, and back-stories. I listen to them until they overcome the stammer of their first drafts. They usually know best.
You often speak of your poems as voices. How do you listen to these voices?
For me, poems are auditory hallucinations. At first you hear the shape of a poem’s music, without words. Nadezhda Mandelstam, in Hope Against Hope, described it best: ‘I imagine that for a poet, auditory hallucinations are something in the nature of an occupational disease…a poem begins with a musical phrase ringing insistently in the ears; at first inchoate, it later takes on a precise form, though still without words. I sometimes saw Mandelstam trying to get rid of this kind of “hum”, to brush it off and escape from it. He would toss his head as though it could be shaken out like a drop of water that gets into your ear while bathing. But it was always louder than any noise, radio or conversation in the same room.”
What is your work ethic?
Not ethical but practical. I work hard. As Sinead Morrissey has said, ‘It’s out of labour that the easy things come and when they do, they’re a gift. But you have to earn them with labour first.’ When I am writing a book, I write rapidly in the morning, then take a long walk while speaking this work aloud. I revise that work after everybody in the house has gone to bed. I leave some matters untied so I can pick them up first thing. and let dreams do some work as I sleep. I work continually at everything I do to surprise, hopefully, the gifts into being. Writing is a hard joy.
Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I have a lot on, but it won’t write itself if I talk it away or overthink it: ‘This is why I value that little phrase ‘I don’t know’. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings.’ – Wisława Szymborska. That said, I am today writing a commission about rivers! It requires fieldwork and being outdoors, which I love.
How important is the depiction of the natural world in your poetry?
For me, the poet Les Murray is a talismanic figure, and his Translations from the Natural World is my Wonderbook. Les Murray ingeniously imitates and translates the perceptions and voices of molluscs, sunflowers, spermaceti, cuttlefish, cell DNA, elephants, cats, cows on a killing day, ravens, echidnas, lyrebirds and – most memorably – a poem written in the syntax of bat’s ultrasound using ancient Welsh metre. The rich, inventive language of this slim volume still knocks me out. The voicing is precise, instinctive, and never anthropocentric: it is a total inhabiting of creaturely worlds. For my part, given by background in zoology and poetry, negative capability melds with its apparent opposite, precision. My depictions of the natural world try to balance immediacy and precision. When I was (literally) immersed in the natural world as a freshwater scientist in The Lake District, my research focused on a family of lake midges. With a species, you describe and classify it according to its likeness to something already witnessed: you use simile to compare it, and you use metaphor to name it. The Latin names of insects are a spectrum of metaphoric and descriptive acuity. They are little, related images which represent an entire life form – a species (a miracle!) – however temporary its moment of evolved presence. The creature’s unseen worlds are metaphorized into recognition; its invisibility released by simile. That is what I am vying for in ‘depictions of the natural world’, using every sense I can wrest and turn into language. But I prefer to use Les Murray’s phrase: translations from the natural world.
What would you say to someone who asked you, “How do you become a writer?”
Follow Les Murray’s advice and be interested in everything. Love everything, like John Clare. Embrace Negative Capability and become what you observe and the people you meet. Listen, like Elizabeth Bishop, to sound and meaning in the current of language: ‘It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free…/ forever, flowing and drawn, and since / our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.’