I was asked four questions and here are my answers:
1. WHAT AM I WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
I’m researching the Sculpture Trail on Birminghan University campus. I’ll be doing a workshop about it in June http://barber.org.uk and I’ve become interested in writing about it myself so I’m looking at archive material in the university’s Collections department. My idea is to write a double sequence, one of poems about the specific sculptures and the other about me walking around the campus. The poems about the works will be more formal, probably with each having a specific constraint, because the works are constructed, while the personal ones will be less structured. I’ve just reviewed TalkingVrouzby the French poet Valerie Rouzeau and I’m quite taken by what she does with sonnets, which is pushing me in the direction of writing it, loosely, in sonnets. I like writing sequences, partly because publishing pamphlets makes me regard them as a significant and rewarding form for poets to engage with, partly because a lot of my poems are short, and they benefit from the cumulative effect of a sequence, and partly because I like the opportunity to write about a topic from many angles.
2 HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS OF ITS GENRE?
I can’t say that my work does differ except in the sense that everyone’s is unique. What characterises my poetry is that I like to write in response to stimuli that are external to myself and over time, taking advantage of opportunities that have arisen, that has led me to specialise in writing about art and heritage; I think the term ‘documentary lyricism’, which I’ve seen applied to some other poets’ work, describes quite well what I do. I’m keen on putting poetry into public art and on display through poetry trails and the like because I want it to reach a wider audience than regular poetry readers – one of my proudest moments was when Laura Yates, then Co-ordinator of Northfield Arts Forum, got poems from a trail I’d curated on display in Argos. Being Writer in Residence at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts has been brilliant for me in that it has offered so much to write about. Because so much of the poetry I write is ekphrastic, I’m interested in the challenge of writing about art. Ekphrastic poems shouldn’t just describe the artworks because it’s easy enough nowadays to find out what just about any piece looks like from the internet; they should aim to offer another dimension to the artworks and make a connection with even readers who haven’t seen them. For me, the highest ideal of ekphrasis is to make poems that stand as works of art in themselves, which is what I’m always striving for.
Though I hope all my poetry is authentic to me, I don’t think it has a distinctive voice, because I’m open to writing in whatever style or form suits the subject from traditional fixed forms to modernist and experimental.
3. WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?
I’m on the run from the ‘I’. When I have difficulty writing poetry it’s often because I’m reluctant to use the first person singular, except in a character voice, and ultimately find it hard to believe that anything I write about myself is likely to be interesting to readers, though this is odd because I don’t find good, personal poetry by other poets uninteresting to me as a reader. As I write this, I’m beginning to think that maybe my sequence about walking on the campus should address my relationship with ‘I’. That’s why I like to write in response to things external to me, though of course there’s always an element of the personal in any poetry, even if it’s not overt, based on the choices you make.
When I first wanted to write, which is as long ago as I can remember, I didn’t see myself necessarily focusing on poetry, but it has come to be at the heart of what I do. I like the linguistic challenge of writing poetry as well as the emotional distillation. Poetry is my work; I consider teaching, mentoring, publishing,putting on events and helping people with dementia to have a voice all to be part of my artistic practice and I don’t feel I would be able to do them successfully if I weren’t in practice as a poet myself. I have written other things though – for example I’ve had short fiction published and written an unproduced screenplay – and I am currently quite keen to work in other genres, in particular radio drama, creative non-fiction and writing about writing poetry, so I’m pleased to have a place on this year’s Room 204 writer development programme with Writing West Midlands http://www.writingwestmidlands.org
4. HOW DOES YOUR WRITING PROCESS WORK?
The best writing for me is required writing, as commissions or part of a project or something I’ve set myself to do, because it’s usually clear to me what I have to do and when I have to do it by, without too much dithering about what I’m going to write about. I have techniques for getting myself started which arise out of my conviction that constraint stimulates creativity, so I’ll often start by writing my notes in a short syllabic form (I also think that if you’re writing poetry you should start by writing poetry; beginning in prose adds a layer of work). Or I’ll use a process from Oulipo, such as a lipogram. I love Oulipo, but more for generating text that I can develop than as an end in itself, though some of my finished poems have hidden constraints. I never depend on inspiration just coming, though it’s wonderful when that happens, and I don’t spend too much time thinking before I write. In all genres, I find that ideas come in the writing; I’m a kinaesthetic thinker and learner so the physical act of writing is important to me. I mostly write either on my iPad or my phone now. I have problems with writing by hand because my handwriting is awful, though not wilfully so. All my life, at school and at work, people have criticised my handwriting as if it was a choice and I could write well if I wanted to when they have no idea the anguish it causes me. It’s often even physically uncomfortable to write by hand but still I sometimes prefer to do it that way. Like most writers I know, I love stationery and I want to write with lovely new pens in beautiful notebooks, even if it’s a struggle to read it afterwards (though that can lead to happy accidents when misreading leads to a better word). I prefer to write poetry in short bursts than long stretches, which is good because though I do a lot of writing, the creative part still doesn’t get as much time as I’d like.
I’m now passing the baton on to Julie Maclean, and Heide Goody and Iain Grant. Julie is a poet who was shortlisted for the Crashaw Prize. Her debut collection When I Saw Jimi was published in 2013 and an e-chapbook You Love to Leave in 2014. She blogs on http://www.juliemacleanwriter.com. Heide and Iain write humorous novels together. They are currently writing novels three and four in a comedy fantasy series. They are both members of Birmingham Writers Group and they are both married but not to each other. Their blog is http://mrclovenhoof.blogspot.co.uk/