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A conversation with Michael Brown, poet.

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Michael is one of those poets who seems to think nothing of traveling the length of England, whether it be to watch his beloved Wimbledon football team or to read his work, and the last time I saw him we were both in Newcastle to read at the poetry festival there.

I first met Michael Brown in 2014, at the prize giving for the Ver poetry competition in St. Albans where we had the pleasure of reading poems selected by judge Clare Pollard. I next met Michael in London at the Free Verse book-fair, where I was reading a poem at the launch of the Happenstance anthology devoted to chocolate, ‘Blame Montezuma!’ and Michael was launching his Eyewear pamphlet, ‘Undersong.’

Michael’s poems have been widely published in magazines such as The North, The Rialto, New Walk and The Butcher’s Dog. His work has also been shortlisted and awarded prizes in numerous competitions. His pamphlet Undersong (2014) is available from Eyewear publishing. Michael lives in Middlesbrough and works as a teacher of English.

Hello Michael, thanks for being my guest. I wonder if you could tell us about when your interest in writing began?

Although I have written from teenage years and won Poetry competitions when 16-17, I didn’t really have focus or a critical peer group which was the thing I wanted. I felt that I was writing what I thought was poetry in a vacuum for a long time and it was not until I did the MA in Newcastle where I came across poets like Sean O Brien and Colette Bryce that I began to be more structured.

Really, it was the beautiful shock that other people actually cared about this stuff.  A kind of validation.  After the MA I started to write more and took two residential courses including one with Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy.  More than anything it was discovering a peer group actually existed that valued writing. Until I had experienced that for myself I was just dabbling and writing without a place to validate my poetry.

That’s great phrase- ‘a beautiful shock’ . I seem to remember you have a connection with London – that you grew up in the south. Do you feel like a ‘Northern poet’ after living and working in Middlesbrough? Also, I wonder if  you think geographical location has a strong identifiable influence on writing style and content?

Yes, I grew up in south London, SW19 , hence the football team!.  Quite a lot of my work is explicitly geographically located so I do think locating one’s writing can confer some authenticity or root the work:  It happened because it was there.

I don’t really identify with labels- Northern Poet etc-  although perhaps there is a London-centric perception that anything worth happening in poetry usually happens somewhere a lot less parochial than Middlesbrough.
This is borne out by such events as the TS Eliot Awards being scheduled on a Sunday when it is invariably difficult for many north of the capital to attend. Colette Bryce talked to me recently about these so called “hard luck towns” and perhaps this is a perception that some like to wear on their sleeve almost as a badge of honour. There’s a restlessness in my poetry – picking up a place and moving on elsewhere: I don’t want to be limited by my geographical location in terms of how or what I write. There is also a lot going on in Newcastle and Middlesbrough in terms of poetry.

You can see location reflected so much in a poet I admire, John Glenday, that it almost becomes inseperable from the words.  I suppose that I have evolved in a kind of rootless way.  I can see all the faults of the north-east but I don’t like southerners who operate with lazy stereotypes adopting a condescending attitude to poetry publishers such as Smokestack who are based here and continue to champion some wonderful writing – Leagunspell by Bob Beagrie, for example. I don’t feel a sense of allegiance or belonging.

When we were in Newcastle I was certainly struck by the fact that one or two of London based poets referred to locations in their neighborhoods and to other London based poets as if the audience were intimate with them.
It was almost as if they were unaware that casual reference to place names and the names of those in their poetry circle were not necessarily universally known and appreciated in the North East- which I thought was odd and perhaps showed a lack of appreciation of the world outside a certain tight-knit scene – although I’m a mid-lander these days, and I’m speaking for myself of course!

Would you be able to say something about your writing process? Also, have you attended many courses and/or workshops? Do you find them useful for generating new work?

I write with pen and paper and my experience is sometimes you have to force it. To make it happen even if you get two sustainable lines. What else are you going to do ?  I write and rewrite the whole thing out again and again until it’s got something I’m happier with and eventually I type it and play with lineation. Sometimes I stare at the blank page and try to feel what is happening in me.  I can stare without starting for many minutes or longer. Sometimes I read poetry to think about ideas. Or walk by the river. Staring at the sky or the river and seeing what comes up is a lot like staring at an empty page I think. Something will happen. Colette B stated her “survival rate” for drafted poems- I forget, but she said it was something like one in nine.

I don’t think I do the staring at the page thing. Maybe I should. I’ll stare at a river all day though! I think it’s great and helpful when really good poets like Collette Bryce share details about their practice.

Workshops I have benefited from, but I prefer the intensity that comes with one to one talking about poems. Sometimes if a workshop is large people feel obliged to comment and take the ‘victim’ down a path that is not right for them or their poem.

You have to be strong and believe in your own work.  When they are mauling it with words, you need to separate the helpful, astute comment from the comments that are just so much air. The toughest thing is when an eminent published poet makes a criticism of your poem. What you have to remember is that they have not lived with it or felt it inside them. It’s come to them for the first time just now when you read it. They can be wrong, those guys.

For me, it’s about finding empathy with people you really trust and then weighing it all up judiciously.

I have done residential writing courses too but once again it’s important to remember that a couple of extrovert people can hijack a workshop through sheer force of personality. Sometimes the problem is that people feel a need to say something. Anything.

What you say about workshops and the potential to lead a poem down a particular path is really interesting. I think that’s why running really good workshops takes a combination of real skill with both poetry and people.   The facilitator, or whoever is running the thing, needs to subtly- or, if required, firmly-  steer things back towards constructive and respectful feedback. Constructive feedback and how to deliver it is something I’m really interested in.  I think the essence of workshop feedback is about offering things to think about and consider rather than dictating what ‘should’ be changed.  
  And your comment on the views of an ’eminent published poet’ rings true for me too. I might have stopped writing entirely after some feedback from one eminent poet in particular! Thankfully, I carried on regardless and several magazine editors and competition judges helped restore my faith by publishing the poems, many of them unchanged.

As someone who works in education and specifically in teaching English, I wondered if you are able to bring any of your ‘poet’ self to the classroom, i.e can you utilize your own experience as a creative writer to give your students insights? Does the existing curriculum allow any scope for creative writing?

I have done, Roy. Kids are very interested in the fact that I write. I actually think there is- sadly- not enough creativity in the curriculum, well, certainly not when you get to GCSE. You spend a lot of your time doing the exact opposite actually. Teaching them to perform prescriptive “skills” so the examiner can tick them off is mostly what I have to do. There is some scope for creative writing but within very narrow bounds. For example, the new GCSE involves the study of a fair number of “prescribed” poets but there is still a need to get children to see poems as more than obstacles to a qualification or a meaning. Many English teachers lack confidence in creative writing because they are scared of nurturing it. There is a desire for speed speed speed in the curriculum and I don’t think anywhere near enough time is given over to creative writing, and especially to writing poetry. I have taken kids to Poetry Live events which has enabled them to meet poets they study and this can be very engaging. I told Gillian Clarke about the hassle I had from my managers about doing this as it was considered to be detrimental to their learning if they missed normal school lessons and eventually I wasn’t allowed to take Year 11 for a full day out of school. This is what I am up against!  Gillian was rightly furious when she heard this.

I’m glad to hear you are able to bring your skills to bare but sorry to learn of the difficulties you’ve encountered.
I really hope things change in this important area of education. It’s really tragic the way things have gone in the UK of late. I speak as the parent of a child who has recently endured the tedium of SATS testing, something none of the teachers I spoke to seemed to be able to find any value in.    

 You’ve recently collaborated with poet Maria Isakova Bennet on gallery inspired poetry at the Walker and Lady Lever Galleries. I wonder if you’d like to say a little about how this came about and something about the process of working together and how it might differ from working on your own?

Yes, we have done some poetry readings at the Walker Gallery as part of Liverpool’s Light Night and also at the Lady Lever Gallery on the Wirral.  We also collaborated for Tate Liverpool’s recent project, The Imagined Museum and wrote/performed a longer joint  performance piece based on the conceptual artist Roman Opalka.

It came about through what I was saying earlier about establishing a peer group that you trust in order to move work forward. The fact that you like and respect each other’s work helps.  In collaboration you can critically appraise each other’s work and styles bounce off each other so sometimes a work can be become more than the sum of its parts. It was good in the respect that Maria’s writing had a different tone to my parts and they complemented each other well. We were also, as far as I know, the only collaborative work shortlisted by Cinnamon early this year so it’s an interesting area.

Congratulations. It sounds like a really positive move and has got me thinking that I’d like to do something similar one day.

Michael, are you working on a full collection? How’s it going? 

Yes and no !  I was shortlisted for the Bare Fiction full Collection Award last year by Andrew Mcmillan  so it’s true that I have what amounts to a first collection. But I don’t want to get obsessed with that idea. I like the smaller feel of a pamphlet actually so I might place some of the best poems in that form in the future.  Everyone’s always working towards a collection or something, aren’t they ?   It can distract sometimes.  In retrospect, I am quite ok with not being published by BF as I think the work is stronger now.  I want to write better and better and I don’t want to publish for the sake of publishing. I am going to sit on the poems for now and let them be.

Sounds like a good plan. Thanks for your time Michael.
And thanks for supplying these two previously unpublished poems.

 

Penny Farthing

In the unreconstructed bar there are fathers,
mothballed men in work, out of it.
In the unreconstructed bar we peer in
to the fug of time where ghosts sit
slumped with half-drunk pints. Go to them.
Though no-one knows their names but yet
roughly England, late-afternoon, 1968.
Nothing’s changed. Everything did.
The karaoke, just shy of lip sync, once again,
waits for us to criss-cross the sticky floor,
a crackhead off-loads phones somewhere outside.
One knock-off coin might still start a frame, a fight.
For half an hour the past might be this close by —
to find in a glass, a mirror or the stare of a man
with hostile eyes who wants our lives.

 

 

Austerity

The people here are rattled and ill.
Take in how our pale skins are no laughing matter.
Neither are we especially well-dressed.

See how we bow our heads to free minutes and texts
and hardly catch your eye. Still it’s true,
these people, who rarely laugh,

sometimes do. You only have to look
right past Greggs, for example, to this small dog
of indeterminate breed, tied up

by its leash of rope to a metal chair.
Stirred by the sudden clock of livid sun,
pell-mell it runs half-freed, and for all its worth,

that anchored weight a brief jangle
in the people’s lives.
These actions cannot be undone.

 

 

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Feedback. Some Thoughts.

 

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Jimi – Master of feedback.

My first experience of receiving feedback on a poem was in a workshop. The facilitator, a very fine poet and teacher, suggested that the word ‘thrum,’ which appeared in my poem, was ‘dodgy’. There was some sniggering in the group. Someone disagreed “Nothing wrong with ‘thrum’” they suggested. I was a little hurt. My confidence was shaken. After all, it had taken guts to share my work.  But several years later I found the poem in question. It was not the word ‘thrum’ that struck me but the overall tone or feel of the poem. It did not ring ‘true.’

Of course the events in a poem don’t actually have to have been experienced for a poem to work. But there has to be some ‘truth’ to the poem, some integrity that makes the poem believable on some level. My poem had been overdramatic and self important and the word ‘thrum’ seemed to me at this later date to epitomise the problem with the piece. In singling out this word the facilitator had been trying to tell me that the overall effect was disingenuous.  I should mention that the facilitator did like the last line of the poem, which was about a dorm full of sleeping soldiers, one of whom gave ‘a long low laugh/ that could only arise from love.’

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I remember these comments, positive and negative, so vividly, because I was a vulnerable soul holding up my fragile early work for examination. It was excruciating. In those days I was desperate to impress and easily upset or knocked off course. I was equally sensitive to praise and became smug and self-satisfied if positive comments were passed. I’m glad to say I am much more robust when it comes to feedback these days. And, through experience, I am better able to judge my work and better able to recognise valuable feedback when it is given and to ignore unqualified comment, by which I mean un-grounded, poorly explained feedback.

Mentor

I am interested in understanding how feedback works and what criteria make it work efficiently. I had invaluable experience of working with a mentor on my first pamphlet.  His most valuable contribution was in weeding out poems that weren’t up to scratch. At the time I was not very good at judging my own work and tended to think that just because a poem had been taken by a magazine it must be ‘good’. My mentor helped me realise this was not necessarily the case.  As we worked, (somewhat erratically and un-systematically as poets often will,) I was able to reject many of his comments and suggestions and to take others on board.

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When it came to getting the manuscript for my next book together I was fortunate in having a couple of well respected poet friends to look it over. Each provided suggestions, as well as criticisms and praise. Some of the criticisms initially annoyed me. I got over it; they were, after all, only opinions and were offered in the spirit of friendship and support.  The net effect of their help was a boost to my confidence.  This was because comments and suggestions were explained. I could clearly see the points being made and make up my mind as a result. And luckily for me, praise was part of the overall package.

I’ve sketched out a few ideas below related to this topic. Many may seem obvious,
particularly to trained educationalists and mentors, but my experiences of receiving feedback so far (in higher education, as well as less formally) have led me to believe that much of this is far from common practice.

1. Meeting to discuss work is often fruitful, but written feedback should also be given to allow time to consider and understand the feedback after the meeting.

2. Written feedback should be sufficiently detailed, stating what the reader considers to be working and why, and conversely what doesn’t and why not. There is little or no value in non-specific or vague feedback.

3.  Feedback should be clear and meaningful. Ambiguous or obscure comments are of no value and may even be frustrating or detrimental. Saying ‘I don’t like this’ is not the same as saying why. I appreciate it is not always easy to state exactly why something isn’t working but you should make every effort to do so. If, for example you say, ‘I don’t like this- it’s too heavy’- try to articulate what you mean by ‘too heavy’ and relate it to the content, structure, or whatever it is that specifically causes this response.

4. Clarity helps overcome resistance to criticism. If I don’t understand what you are saying my response is likely to be negative, confused and unproductive.

5. Feedback should be timely It goes without saying that no-one likes to wait too long for a response. If I can’t get back to someone quickly I will give them some idea of when I will and stick to it.

6. Feedback should be constructive no matter how good/ bad / indifferent the work. The idea is to maximise potential by identifying strengths and weaknesses. Highlighting areas for improvement and development need not be done in a negative or destructive way. Measured, thoughtful suggestions for alternative approaches take time and effort but will provide valuable in the long run.

7. Feedback should be honest- if not it will be worthless. Tricky, but see above. There is no point in avoiding pointing out what doesn’t work for you. Again, skill is required in communicating this type of feedback. It is always useful to point out that yours is only one opinion. Simply say why you like something and simply say why you do not.

8. Provide opportunities for the learner to respond and show they have understood or not understood the feedback. Identify helpful examples or sources related to the work. i.e, has someone else written in a similar style or on a similar subject.  Would looking at a piece of work help to inform the writer or to perhaps see something in a different light and enable a different approach?

8. Feed- forward Identify possible things to work on next. Again, try to make specific suggestions. Ask the mentee if they are interested in setting a couple of targets, either to do with reading or writing new work within a timeframe. Include a challenge .This relates to the above and has the effect of keeping the relationship going during a period when the parties are not in communication.

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