Writing Process Blog Tour

The very fine poet, and person, Julia Bird, tagged me as part of this writing process blog tour: four questions, to which I’ve responded as honestly as I know how. You can read Julia’s own responses here: and Hanna Silva’s (also tagged by Julia) here: mine follow below:

1. What am I working on?

My second collection, Rain Rider, was published by Salt in November 2013; it slipped through a paper-thin chink in their submissions window, before said window closed for good. So, I’ve mostly been reading from and trying to promote this new book. I figure I can take about eight to nine months to blether on about a collection before I drive everyone to distraction and need to stop. I enjoy reading the work to an audience because of the immediacy of the response, the palpable reaction. Most of the time you don’t get that. The poems go out into the world and you don’t really hear back from them very often.

I started writing new material immediately after my first book was accepted for publication, much of that work being a development of themes in the earlier poems. But I’ve taken a bit longer to get back on the horse following the final edit of Rain Rider, only beginning to compose new pieces that I’ve submitted to magazines in the last month or so.

I’ve had a couple of interesting commissions in recent months: a poem about Angola for a radio show called The News Agents, on Resonance FM, and a poem about climate change for the Bristol Festival of Nature. I think there are plenty of banana skins to watch out for when writing political poetry, but I’ve quite enjoyed the challenge of examining a given idea while trying to keep all the things I value in poetry – sound, nuance and subtlety, inventive form and structure. I’ve also been asked to write five short essays on various aspects of contemporary British poetry for a putative academic book, something intended for first-year undergraduates. That’s been fun too. I’ve also got a novel to the point of completion, so I may think about sending that out this summer.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

That’s really for the reader to determine, I guess. I’ve been an English teacher for twenty years, so it’s inevitable that literary references and allusions find their way into my idiolect, even when I consciously try to avoid them. The density of literary allusions in my work is probably somewhat infra dig in the present climate. But it is as it is.

I’m also drawn to religious and philosophical ideas, neo-Platonism and British history. I’m essentially a secular person – although I’ve probably got more in common with a non-realist Christian like Don Cupitt than I have with the rabid atheism of someone like Richard Dawkins – but I’m fascinated by the religious imagination, and the extent to which it lingers on in our culture and our consciousness, like the interminable half-life of some long ago discarded uranium. The new book has poems that owe a debt to, or feature cameo appearances by, Rabelais, Boethius, Foucault, John Donne, Mullah Nasreddin, Erasmus and characters from Shakespeare, the Bible and the Marquis de Sade. There is some autobiographical stuff, a wide variety of forms, and much that sits in a contemporary setting too – but it is a bit of an echo chamber. With jokes. And I work hard on the sequencing of a collection, so that something from one poem ripples into, or creates an echo in, a subsequent poem. We wrote “literary, ludic and lyrical” on the dust-jacket of my first collection. I still think that sums it up best.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I couldn’t write anything else. I’m a particular poem-making creature, with certain influences, foraging in a very specific climate, consuming an idiosyncratic diet; so, what comes out in my pelletty nest could not be other than what it is. I feel proud and privileged to have had opportunities to publish and to promote some of this work, and I’ll always be drawn to the buzz of seeing my writing in print.

But if the question is why do I write at all, I guess I’d say that the act of making things, of making work – whether you’re an artist in a studio, a musician on the road, a writer at a desk, etc. etc. – it’s more important, more meaningful, to be a maker than a consumer. We’re the meaning-making species. We’re all a bit of both, of course, but you know what I mean.

On another tack, for me, reading and writing’s more a way of finding out what I think than expressing a pre-formulated thought. And being part of a community of readers and writers is also an excellent way of finding out the extent to which what’s happening in my mind is anything like what’s happening in your mind. Only connect! Set against the backdrop of our existential isolation and the madness of space, that seems to me to be a pretty valuable way of spending my time.

4. How does my writing process work?

Walking. Reading. Longhand on foolscap paper. Notebooks, notebooks, notebooks. Lying on the sofa listening to records. Poetry readings. A deckchair in the sun on my balcony. Reading. Walking. Free writing, a bucket dropped into my subconscious. More reading. Long periods during which nothing but mental composting. Sudden frenzy of ink and foolscap paper. Walking. More reading. Eventually, the Word machine to edit and whittle into shape.

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