I was recently interviewed by Paul Brookes who is conducting a series of interviews on his blog.
I enjoyed answering Paul’s questions and thought I’d share the interview here.
What were the circumstances under which you began to write poetry?
I wrote for fun as a young child. I had a couple of notebooks and I filled them with poems, stories and drawings. I wrote a poem about dogs when I was about six years old to persuade my parents to buy me a dog. It worked. Later, as a teenager, I bought a copy of ‘The Mersey Sound’, the McGough, Henri and Patten anthology, and wrote similar style pieces to try and impress my girlfriend. That worked too. I went to further education college and mooched about in black clothes. Then I got a guitar and switched from writing poems to songs. In my mid to late thirties I discovered contemporary poetry and began writing again. I was a nurse then and looked after my young son on my days off. We’d go to the now defunct bookshop, Borders, and he would look at picture books while I got stuck into the poetry. It was a new world to me. I saw what was going on, what was possible, and wanted to try it myself. I’d write in the evenings and late into the night.
Who introduced you to poetry?
I don’t remember being introduced to poetry. I guess I discovered it myself. We hardly read any at school and I can’t remember anything really affecting me poetry wise. My dad really liked ‘Under Milk Wood’ so that’s the nearest we had to poetry in the house. I did read some John Donne for A level English. I love Donne. I heard a lot of great music when I was young and I think lyrics to jazz songs and standards helped give me a love of words and an understanding of how they might be used.
How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
My sister studied English literature and brought home books from college, so I saw her copies of Auden and Elliot and Yeats. I dipped into those in my late teens. The Liverpool poets were the only living poets I knew of for a while. And I knew Ted Hughes from his poem ‘Pike’, but beyond these I didn’t really know any older poets or ‘greats’ until I got really into poetry in my thirties. Then I caught up by reading everything I could get my hands on. I went to see Heaney and Armitage and Duffy and all those people, the established UK and Ireland poets of the late twentieth and early twenty first century. I think they’ve done a good job. I’m glad things are opening now in terms of diversity. There are so many good young women poets now.
What is your daily writing routine?
I don’t have a routine as such. Over the past six years I’ve had a pamphlet and two books published.
This is due to going through a very prolific period. I’ve slowed right down now. I’ve always written when I can. When I was writing everyday I’d open a word file full of poems and work on a new draft. If I didn’t have anything new I’d work on re-drafting other poems in the folder. I still do this but not every day, or night.
What motivates you to write?
It is difficult to say where my motivation to write comes from. In general terms I feel something like a pressure to express an idea, to get down a phrase, to revisit a memory, to explore or record something I’ve heard or see. Next thing I know I’m scrawling on a piece of paper or tapping away at the keyboard. The writing of a poem is an incentive in itself- like a puzzle that needs solving. I’ve never been motivated by the prospect of publication or fame or fortune or any kind of recognition. That is all secondary. Mostly enjoyable and affirming, but secondary to the writing itself.
What is your work ethic?
I am very dedicated to my writing and really apply myself in a way I didn’t when I was young. I’ve spent many thousands of hours on it since I came back to poetry, or it came to me, in my late thirties. I’ve worked tremendously hard since then.
How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I think everything we read and hear influences us, from nursey rhymes and hymns to pop songs and novels. In terms of poetry, it is difficult for me to identify influences. Everything accrues and is absorbed and re-visited in some way. I’ve just been back to have a look at some reviews of my books. One compared poems in my first book to Thomas Hardy and the imagist poet T.E Hulme (who I’ve never read.) Someone else said a poem was ‘Heaneyesque’ which is a good thing to be called I think. Another reviewer said I have a lyricism of my own, which is good to hear. I think we beg, borrow, steal from everywhere and make something new of our influences. Perhaps the ideal would be to incorporate new influences to keep our art moving on and developing. There is a theory expounded by the Italian poet Montale that all poets are ‘translating’ other poets. We are all writing versions of poems that exist in some form already.
Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
If I see a poem I like I will follow up and find out more and buy the book or pamphlet. I loved ‘Osteology’ by Lizzi Hawkins. It came out as a Smiths/doorstop pamphlet last year and it’s well crafted, unpretentious and interesting. There’s a sincerity to the work and a sense of the person behind it. I bought Moniza Alvi’s ‘Blackbird, Bye Bye’ (Bloodaxe) a couple of weeks ago and it’s a beautiful book. Such an elegant and bold writer, so accomplished. When I started reading contemporary poetry I discovered Robin Robertson and Paul Farley first. These two blew me away. With Robinson it was the economy and balance in his poems, the ‘rightness’ of his word choices. If you’d like an example you might read ‘Primavera’ in his collection ‘Swithering’. With Farley it was his themes (we are around the same age and I recognise much of his cultural ‘landscape’) and his skill with rhythm and internal rhyme and his understated humour that attracted me. I love the precision of Kathleen Jamie’s first books. I admire Sinead Morrisey. She combines fire and passion with great control. I was very impressed with Sarah Howe’s debut, ‘Loop of Jade’. She incorporated her learning and cultural interest in China brilliantly into a book about identity and personal history. I like the way Rory Waterman’s latest, ‘Sarajevo Roses’ looks outward as well as inward. He’s still quite a young poet and yet he has a sense of history that comes through his work to remind the reader of how conflict and injustice are ever present. His best poems are memorable for their evocation of place and atmosphere. I think Zaffar Kunilal is a superb poet. I’ve followed his work since I met him in a que to see Seamus Heaney and he told me he wrote poems but hadn’t had any published yet. His book ‘Us’ is probably the best debut book of poems I’ve ever read. His lyricism and handling of his subject matter are so well judged. The way he chooses his words and explores their echoes and resonances is brilliant. He really is so careful and attentive with his choices; a real heir to Heaney, someone in that tradition. This book should really win all the big prizes, for what they are worth, because he is a poet who deserves to be recognised for his diligence and hard work as well as his talent.
Why do you write?
It is still a genuine mystery to me. I suppose it is for the joy or challenge of making something that addresses a question, whether that be personal or political or both. Or maybe to find out what I think. Also, I love language and the possibilities of it, the exactness, the music and malleability of it. It is absorbing in a way that nothing else I’ve found is. You can leave yourself and find yourself in a poem, sometimes simultaneously. It is miraculous.
What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Read everything you can. In the age we are living in, it is important to try and concentrate on reading and writing without distraction. If I log on to social media I am amazed at how many poets are on there. When do they have time to think, read and write? A lot of what you read on there is self- promotion and it isn’t going to make you feel good about your own work. I’ve found it’s ok to drop in for a bit, but personally I find hanging around too long in cyberspace is bad for writing. The ‘business’ surrounding poetry or any other form of writing isn’t the same as the writing itself. For that you need solitude and dedication to your art; both reading and writing it. You need to give yourself permission to write, and that includes not always writing well. Sometimes the good work comes after a day of getting no-where. I don’t think it is a good idea to write for publication – you won’t be writing from yourself, you’ll be trying to fit a style or mould. You need to find your own mould- the one that is uniquely ‘you shaped’. This will take time. The more you write the more you will learn. At some point you will need to find mentors or teachers or peers to help you see your own work better. These should be chosen with caution. Writing groups and workshops can be useful but beware of the pitfalls. Too many voices, too many opinions can be confusing. To find someone who is a good, positive reader of your work is a real bonus. Don’t give up. The process of learning is lifelong.
Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I had a book out last year, so I’ve been traveling around a bit giving readings from that. I’m lucky enough to have been invited to read in various places and now I’ve been doing it a while, I really enjoying reading. The flow of new poems has slowed a little, but I’m still doing what I’ve always done; working on drafts, sending them out to magazines and letting them accumulate until one day I hope I’ll have another book’s worth.
I have been commissioned by my publisher, John Lucas to produce a pamphlet of translations or versions of poems by Italian poet Eugenio Montale. That is scheduled for publication next year. It is hard work and very absorbing, but an exciting challenge. The idea is to do justice to the feel or essence of a selection of the original work while having a little leeway to be creative, to open the window and let a little fresh air in. Some of the translations I’ve read are technically great but lack, in my opinion, the dynamic movement of the originals. That’ll keep me busy. I’m also hoping to deliver some more workshops and continue with my mentoring, writing related things that help me develop and learn while sharing what I feel I have learned so far.