Why do you write?
I discovered from writing poetry in my fifties a need to play with language, to find ways of conveying emotional truth or capture that butterfly in sunlight moment. Because only as I do, can I come alive to what the world offers.
What books do you read?
That’s a tricky one. My book for the train is different to the one for home or the one at bedtime. This is what I’m reading or have read over December.
‘A Crow Doesn’t Need a Shadow’ by Lorraine Ferra – a set of approaches to writing nature poetry and an anthology of poetry by children who have used them. The poems are brilliant
‘The Practise of Poetry’ by Robin Behin and Chase Twichell – series of workshop exercises that are good for stimulating a daily poem
I’m currently reading ‘next word, better word – the craft of writing poetry’ by Stephen Dobyns; a collection of critical essays from a poet on many of the key aspects of the craft of poetry,-
Black Country by Liz Berry – I saw her interviewed and reading her poetry at Wenlock. Loved hearing a west midlands accent being taken seriously
Reach Poetry 205 – one of the magazines that I subscribe to that keeps poetry alive and vital
I’m currently reading ‘The collected poems 1956-1998 Zbigniew Herbert’ and
‘If Ever You Go – A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song’ (Ed) Pat Boran and Gerard Smyth
I’m reading Zbigniew Herbert as I’m drawn to poets and writers who write under the constraints of regimes such as communism as it produces work that has to fool the powerful and support the innocent so subtext and tone becomes crucial with myth and imagery often important. The Dublin poetry was from a weekend in Dublin where the city library (not the Government) puts on an annual literary event. Last year it was poetry and they put together an anthology of excellent poetry on Dublin’s streets and districts as subject. Think your capital city could do the same?
I’m currently reading
‘The island of second sight’ by Albert Vigoleis Thelen – one very strange and surreal picaresque novel set in 1930s Mallorca based on the actual experiences of the German author
‘Murder at the Star – Who Killed Thomas Thomas’ by Steve Adams- An evocation of 1920’s pit village life and the solving of an unsolved murder
I’m currently reading ‘The man who made things out of trees’ by Robert Penn – The author finds and chops down an Ash tree and then interviews the men and women around the world who turn the wood into objects from arrows to desks or spoons to wheel sections.
What inspires you?
I know lists are lazy but so much easier to read. Going by my poetry as a whole it appears to be the following subject matter:
• Working class life in the 50s and 60s
• Fear of intimacy
• Myths and folklore but not nature related
• Absent father
• Dying and funerals
• Maybes and could have beens
• Failing relationships
• Life on trains
• Dysfunctional families
• Class relationships
• Social and personal rituals
How did you know you wanted to be a writer and when?
I didn’t once, I just read. I was interested in anything that showed how strange even the ordinary was. Stories were the brothers and sisters I wanted – someone who’d talk about stars and why mice didn’t sing – rather than the football lumps and the giggle-daisies I was landed with.
The change started when I took up improvised story telling in 2000 and learned how to perform stories for audiences. This lead me to adapt traditional stories, Celtic myths, for example, retold as 1930s Chicago gang wars. Each adaptation made me more aware of the craft of writing. However, not to be a writer but to be a more competent reader.
As I learned more about plot, character, story etc, the puzzle-solving element of writing drew me to micro-fiction, short stories of less than 100 words and often 50 or shorter. Each word has to work within a tight form to deliver impact that lead me nicely to Japanese poetry – Tanka, Haiku, and Gogyohka etc.
Yet little of my reading had been poetry. So I had no ‘intuition’ as to quality as I do for fiction. My only memory of poetry was a collection of poems for GCSE English Literature that I took in 1978 when I was 24. I wish I could say they stayed with me – they didn’t.
So then, I completed an Open University Diploma in Literature and Creative writing in 2010 that pushed me to read and write poetry more than fiction. I joined online poetry networks and wrote mostly rubbish but learning a bit more each time. My main aim though was still to be a better reader, not a writer.
The big shift in my thinking took part through participation in Jo Bell’s 52 programme –
a yearlong poetry project in 2014, involving weekly poetry prompts for over 500 people on a closed Facebook group for anyone who wanted to share their work and have it critiqued, without making it invalid for publication. I wrote so many poems – nearly 500 – and received such useful peer feedback that I eventually had poems that editors, bloggers, and other poets thought were worth publishing. I now have over 70 published poems.
I’m now registered on the 2016 Open University MA in creative writing where if accepted I hope to build upon my current body of work as the basis for a collection. Because at last my goal now is clear: to become a better writer…and a better reader,
How do you deal with rejection?
Thank the nice editors who take the time to explain…and mean it.
Thank the others who didn’t…but don’t mean it. Then cry or curse depending on my mood.
But I usually try to resend the poem out – with or without revisions – at least 3-4 separate times. Unless it’s a 3rd or 4th rejection, in which case it goes to the ‘give it time to mulch’ or the ‘what was I thinking’ pile. Then cry and curse…
Who are some writers you admire?
Just with poetry in mind, I admired these poets this year. Next year it might be different again as I discover poets new to me like Brain Jones whose ‘Stripping Walls’ written in 1966 made me laugh and despair at the same time. These following poets’ best reflect the tensions in the poetry I try to write.
I like Dannie Abse, Elaine Feinstein and Fleur Adcock for their interest in the everyday, told in plain practical language. They appeal to my interests in narrative and storytelling. In contrast, I’m also drawn to myth and so to poets like Michael Symmonds Roberts, Alice Oswald, and David Harsent, here concept takes over from tone and narrative to make highly original poetry. With even more of break with poetry of the world as it is, I also like the surreal poetry of Selimia Hill and Pascale Petit.
Is writing the only artistic medium you do?
Yes apart from occasional brushes with story telling
What would be some advice you would give to your younger self?
I have done several life writing pieces in which the educated, middle class, 60 year old me argues with the school failure, working-class, young me about what key events of the 60’s and 70’s mean or meant. I’m reluctant to tell him, it will be all right because who of us ‘failed’ and who ‘succeeded?’ He fought tooth and nail to get ’them with silver spoons in gobs well sorted so folks around here matter. I got the chances because of his hard work but the silver spooned were never sorted they just took over the Labour Party I joined. So my only advice is ‘let’s keep talking.’
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Yes! Just write a poem a day – get up at dawn if necessary, scribble under the bedclothes by phone-light, pretend to be taking minutes at work, but just write – then throw your work into a dark place and leave.
When a year and a day has passed or the time that enables you to read with cold eyes that can decide if worth saving or burning
What is your writing process?
Whatever triggers my imagination to write. And that will differ from poem to poem. Above all, I rarely write about what I know, but use this as a prompt or scaffold that I take out of the eventual poem. For example, I have listed a random set of words based on feelings and sensory sensations from a walk and a place and used these as end words to develop a poem on emotional abuse. Or I have drawn on the anger about my Grandmother to develop a poem about walking in the Black Mountains on cold and rainy day. In short, I find the constraints of form and workshop prompts liberating both because they provide distance from prose and spur the need for a response other than the initial ones.