I was pleased when my friend Kim Moore asked me to take part in this tour of blogs which involves answering the four questions you see below. The tour also involves asking three other poets to take part, and I’ve placed links to these at the bottom of this piece. My three poet friends will be posting their pieces over the next few weeks, so do drop in on them, particularly if you are not familiar with their fine and varied work.
What am I working on?
This past week I’ve been working on a short story. I work at my paid job four days a week and go to university in Sheffield where I’m studying for an MA on the other weekday, so I disappear to my little office and write whenever I can. This short story is only the second I’ve written since I was at school. The other I wrote as part of my application for the award which is paying my uni. fees. I’ve just remembered that I found story writing was the only thing I got good marks at in school.
I started a module in short story last week, and we were asked to produce the beginning of a story in time for the next session. The story I’ve been working on is about a fair that was held on the frozen river Thames. I’d read about these frost fairs and had an idea that the subject might make for an interesting poem. I sometimes read or hear something that might make a good subject to write about. When this happens I do a bit of research and make some notes. Occasionally this information will turn into a poem; an example would be ‘Records on the bones’ which is a poem about bootleg jazz records being made from x-ray sheets in soviet Russia. The idea for this came from a radio documentary.
So I looked up the frost fair information and started writing about an elephant crossing the frozen river during the last big freeze in 1814. I was presently surprised that the story came quite easily and was very enjoyable to write. I’m sure this won’t always be the case! I felt compelled to finish it, and realised I probably had when I going through and reinserting commas I’d taken out previously.
I suppose I’m always working on poetry. By this I mean I engage with some aspect related to poetry every day, whether this is writing something new or working on older drafts, reading other people’s work in books, magazines or on-line, listening to recordings or radio programs like the recent series on radio 3, writing reviews, researching or preparing for readings, corresponding or going to watch people read. Even writing this is piece is related to poetry since it makes me think about my relationship to writing. If I’m not doing any of these things I might do a bit of administration, working out which poems to submit where, giving feedback to friends, thinking about applying for a commission or seeing if there are any competitions I fancy entering.
I suppose once you produce a poetry book you are inevitably working on your next one. My first full collection came out three months ago and I had a few poems left over from that. I had a very productive period recently, and I have about twenty poems I think are up to scratch, plus a few that might or might not make it. They’re in a file I was calling ‘second book’, but I have a provisional title now- ‘Amaranthine.’ It means everlasting or eternal. A lot of the poems are concerned with death and impermanence, although hopefully not in a morbid or depressing way.
How does my work differ from others in the genre?
I’m not the best person to answer this question, but I suppose every writer writes their own version of the world according to past and present life experience. l am attracted to and interested in writing poems that can connect with a ‘non-poetry’ audience as well as being crafted and well made enough that peers would recognise the amount of work, and hopefully, skill in them. By this I mean you could pass them around and an ‘ordinary’ or non-specialist audience would understand and hopefully appreciate them. The terms I’m using are problematic, I know, but in short I don’t want to write poems that only other poets would ever get to hear or appreciate. I don’t like work that makes me feel thick or confused, and there’s a bit of that about. I’d like to think my poems use very specific language to capture experiences and emotions that will resonate with most readers.
Why do I write what I write?
I write poetry because I can’t help it. It’s not always an easy relationship, but something of a cross between an addiction and a love affair. There are great highs that come when you are writing easily and well, but also disappointments and frustrations. The content of my writing is informed by my upbringing and by my political, social and personal concerns. This sounds very earnest, but I think this must be true of all writers to some extent. When I look at themes in the last book I realise there are quite a few poems about war. I suppose this is a reflection of the fact that my grandparents experienced the first war, and my parents and other family members lived through the Second World War. Their stories filtered through to and informed me. I sometimes wonder if the fact I lived in California at the age of two to three might have had also had impact. I have a bit of an obsession with that era- civil rights, wars, (again,) the music, fashion, art and architecture, the political and cultural changes.
I didn’t study history in any formal way, but am deeply interested in personal histories and the effects of world events upon the lives of individuals. I am also interested in describing the natural world and in trying to invoke my experience of it. So what I write reflects my concerns, influences, enthusiasms and interests. And in terms of style, I suppose this has unconsciously developed from reading other writers.
How does your writing process work?
In physical terms, I sit down at my desk or on a train or under a tree and I write with a pen or pencil. The poem starts to be ‘real’ for me as soon as I start to type it up. I love seeing how the line breaks and stanzas might work, although the ‘finished’ poem will rarely have the same form as the first drafts.
In terms of organisation, I keep everything I think is finished or nearly finished in a document which I open up and scroll through and occasionally pick out something to re-work. Individual poems at earlier stages are in individual documents, and will only make it into the communal folder when they are ‘getting there.’ Sometimes I’ll change my mind and take poems I previously thought were ready to be ‘communal’ out and put them on their own again. I suppose the communal folder is a working draft of a book.
In terms of where poems come from, they either arrive or they don’t. I have stopped doing exercises or using prompts as I don’t find this works for me at the moment, although I am aware these methods for starting to generate new work can prove very useful and I might return to them.
I have enjoyed attending workshops in the past, not least for the social aspect and to hear other people’s work, but I don’t often get the opportunity and at the moment I am quite happy working on my own. I’ll occasionally share a poem with someone whose own work I like and whose judgement I trust. I’m fortunate to have a few of these poetry friends, so when I feel like sharing something I’ll contact one or the other and am always pleased to receive their feedback.
Rachel, my wife, read the short story I’ve just written and I’m pleased to say she liked it. She’s really good at telling me, subtly, if something isn’t very good! I try to show people more polished work these days, whereas in the past I was in much more of a hurry. At least that’s where I am tonight. Things might be different in the morning.
The blogging tour continues.
For answers to these questions by three more poets see