Tell us all about your writing background…
My writing background is primarily one of not writing. In childhood, I never thought of myself as a potential author. My parents had no books in the house, other than a Gideon Bible closed in a drawer. The first book I owned was Middleton’s Gardening Guide. In a way, those are still my formative texts.
When I did start writing (see below) I joined an excellent and supportive group in Putney (run by Carol Fisher) and, later, the Blue Nose Poets in North London (Martyn Crucefix, Sue Hubbard, Denis Timm). Till then, I’d been working and writing in relative isolation, without the usual English degree and lacking any contact with university literature or creative writing MAs. It was only in sharing ideas and words with other enthusiasts, in a grass-roots community of writers, that I first came to glimpse how vast the ocean of Humanities actually is.
My debut collection of poems, Shrapnel and Sheets, appeared in 1996 via Gladys Mary Coles at Headland. The PBS Recommendation it received was an immense encouragement to me. I’ve several other collections, including: Bosco, a book-length sequence on deforestation; Lepidoptera, an experimental ‘anthology’ combining prose and scientific poetry; and The Stamina of Sheep (based on a Year of the Artist project for Thames, Havering and Essex) which must be the only book of poems ever to have won a ‘Best Fiction’ prize!
I recently completed Heavy Water (Enitharmon) and Half Life (Heaventree), sibling collections both launched on 26 April 2004 to mark the 18th anniversary of the Chernobyl explosion. These publications form a diptych, two facets of a single extended piece, and are derived from eyewitness accounts of the disaster collected by journalist Svetlana Alexievich in her book Voices from Chernobyl. The repercussions of that fatal morning, the reverberations of those stories, are far from played out. I’m still absorbing, myself, the personal impact of researching and writing that work.
What other work do you, besides ‘conventional’ writing?
As an ecologist and lapsed physicist, I’m forever exploring the interface between poetry and ecology/ science/ war through a variety of forms: with ‘open-door’ articles, as well as within the stanzas of poems. It’s those interfaces which hold the key – or at least the imprint of the key – to grappling with the tragedies and opportunities of this fast, interwoven world.
Day to day, I engage with an eclectic mix of freelance writing, workshopping, competition judging, researching and essay-writing. I’m a writing tutor in schools, and a literacy and museums consultant; I teach for Arvon and Poetryclass; I moonlight as a voice-and-performance trainer, using a pick-n-mix approach of my own design; I co-founded, and run, both ShadoWork (experimental collaborative performance) and writers inc. (a London-based writing organisation). For 10 years I nursed my magazine, The Bound Spiral. It died anyway, but had, I hope, a noble illness. I’ve written songs for an R&B artist, though the bottom’s since fallen out the UK music business. I also play a little guitar (and I don’t mean a small one…).
A few years back, I began actively placing poems in public places. Communal sites are set to become important ‘books’ of the future. Put in a good spot, a poem might get thousands of readers each day – though, of course, the reception of poetry isn’t just about numbers. My first big project of this kind was at the Imperial War Museum, under the Poetry Places scheme, where I devised Search and Create, the museum’s only poetry residency to date. Walk around the atrium there, and you’ll see shrapnel-scraps of text imbedded in niches and behind artefacts. My mice, I call them, tripping up their elephantine, exhibitional counterparts. I still find it uncanny, seeing my poems on display like that. No matter how idiosyncratic the work is – however much of you is written all over it – it always feels as if it must have come from someone else. I’m not sure I ever want to ‘get over’ that feeling: for all the inferiority it implies, it’s quite a generative mode. During my time at the museum, I also got my first commission for libretto. I was asked to contribute a short piece to the BBC’s “Classic Challenge” programme featuring Stephen Warbeck (of Shakespeare in Love fame). A rush job, they said. I had half an hour to write it.
Currently, I’m implementing site-specific work for institutions as varied as Southwell Workhouse and Imperial War Museum North, where my lines can be found busily fusing with wall and exhibit. The Workhouse is a superb location for creativity. Its bald demeanour (walls, ceilings, stairwells, floors) make it profoundly receptive to silence. The echoey structure of the house serves, paradoxically, to amplify silence. In a peculiar way, I feel poems do that too – amplify silence through sound. I’ve just finished a lovely project at BBC Radio 3, its first poetry residency, engaging orchestras and their endangered instruments as part of the Listen Up! festival. Silence – the potentials of silence, even within activity and sound – became a theme in that work, too.
Doing this kind of work isn’t the same as gaining a conventional book-based reputation; but it can influence the ‘unconverted’ public in powerful ways. It also shows that poetry can be alive in a variety of contexts. In this respect, I seem to have become something of a ‘frontier’ man of poetry residencies! That’s not to say I’m against paper. Apart from feeling sorry for trees, how could I be? I try to maintain a strong public presence through such outlets as The Spectator, The Independent and Resurgence, as well as via other media (BBC World Service, etc). I’ve just completed stints as the Poetry Book Society’s inaugural pamphlet selector and as Chair of the Advisory Fellows of the Royal Literary Fund. I lecture at Oxford Brookes University, offering students thought-provoking 2D/ 3D visualizations for essay structure. What’s left of me is given over to writing poetry – usually for an audience of one (or, if you’re a believer, One).
So, all in all, in spite of being self-fuelled and working mostly from home, my writing time and brain-space have become extremely precious. Freelancing can absorb all your freedom, but it does propel you into a new relationship with yourself. I’ve become more focused and productive, more adventurous. But it’s also precarious. You’re rarely more than a few months away from nil income. Without the grants, the odd boost of a big prize, it would all fall through for me financially. I had more time on my hands, I think, when I held regular jobs; but I also had less purpose, had the sharp edges knocked off me, became more regular myself.
How, when and why did you first start writing?
As I said earlier, I came to writing alarmingly late. Having graduated in physics at Cambridge, I later taught science in a secondary school. I went on to do a PhD in opto-electronics at University College London and (after a break) completed further studies at Middlesex University on the environment and (informally) literature. I’ve also been an organic farm-hand in Ireland and a one-man band on the Paris Metro. In other words, for the first chunk of my adult life, most of my ‘writing’ was done with chalk on blackboard, or with an ion beam on a lithium niobate crystal, or a plectrum across strings, or with goat’s milk against the wrong side (the out-side) of a milk-pail. Reading the biographies of successful writers, you do get the distinct impression they all wrote poetry in the womb, gained PhDs at Oxford with such titles as Glittering Gimlets and The Ancient Mariner, and could boast a heady body of work by the time they were 30. All I had at 30 was a body. Having said that, I do feel there are some (though not that many) advantages in coming to literature with a combination of proto-maturity and tabula rasa. I’m also lucky in being a fast learner and (generally) a quick drafter. You’ll probably hate me for this but I seem to manage, most years, between 60 and 120 poems a year; so maybe I have a heady body after all.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
I don’t have favourites, as a rule. Even when I do, they shift and change. I do refer to great writers, of course; but I prefer to focus on strong pieces of work, rather than on who wrote them. I don’t believe in the death of the author (even if we’re heading that way, it’s prematurely announced); it’s just that the moment we list/ classify/ fossilise ‘the best’ we’ve begun to exclude the worthwhile, the very good.
How did you get your first publication….?
By sealing an envelope and licking a stamp, just like everyone else. I think it was with ‘First Time’ magazine, edited by Josephine Austin. I got a proper pound note for it (I held it up to the light). Bless that woman. Although I wasn’t quite stupid enough to frame it, I was unfortunately sufficiently sentimental to archive it.
What’s the worst thing about writing….?
The various ways in which the writing scene can fail to be a meritocracy. It’s not a total failure, by any means; and, in any case, the notion of ‘quality’ will always be subjective, socially constructed, depending on networks, trends, movements, Zeitgeist. But I do remember being told (either by Carol Fisher or Howard Sergeant) that if you got some comp prizes and mags under your belt, someone would eventually notice you and want your book. I was led to believe it wasn’t good practice – or etiquette – to be too pushy or self-absorbed. None of that seems to apply much anymore, if it ever did. Reputations can still be built quietly, perhaps; but apparently the rocket fuel is to market vigorously, establish your own phalanx of influence, and have some well-placed ambassadors/ agents constantly pushing your work. One aspect of this I certainly don’t like (and this probably says more about me than anything else) is that game of being forever on ‘literary guard’: incessantly sounding and looking the part, always coming across as someone of learning, one who constantly refers to life through the filters of literature. There’s much more to work, to life, than that; but I sometimes sense you’re dismissed or looked down upon if you show yourself as merely impassioned or as having ordinary concerns. Poetry now is sometimes a little too engrossed with itself, with linguistic intelligence. I’d defend that attribute to the death; but not at the expense of emotional intelligence. On top of all this (see what a can of worms you’ve opened) our culture, beyond a small enclave of reader-poets, isn’t actually listening much to its poets at the moment. Given that poetry can absorb anything you throw at it, demanding the best of you – indeed, everything you have to give it – you might reasonably expect, in return, to make a measurable impact somewhere. Ultimately, even when the evidence seems to the contrary, you just have to trust that you do. You certainly have a central part to play in the effects of the creative process on you. These effects do ripple out; and those ripples can’t be quelled – not altogether. If I’m wrong about that, the only responses available to most of us are endless striving, despair or Zen acceptance. For myself, I keep on believing that great poetry, like all great literature, can take the pulse of a civilisation. Wherever, however, such poetry occurs – it matters.
And the best? What was your breakthrough moment?
Breakthrough? I’m flattered that you think I’ve had one! In poetry, the rostrum of fame is decidedly small – only a very few have ‘broken through’ in the way you’re implying. I know it’s canny to always come across as though you’re one of those writers (it certainly pays to play the ‘self-fulfilling-prophecy’ card); but with print runs of under 1000 (not bad, actually, for poetry) I certainly don’t feel the subject of a breakthrough; and, even if I were, I’d have to ask “into what”? Or “what is it, exactly, that was broken”? Does ‘breaking through’ mean your phone keeps ringing? Or that you get the peachy commissions (millennium, royal wedding, etc); that you can make a living from your art; that you’re culturally ‘safe’ for mass distribution; that you’re celebrity-consistent?
Letting the freelancer’s PR instinct kick in for a moment, I suppose I ought to be saying my breakthroughs were winning the Bridport Prize, or the third time I landed the London Writers Competition, or winning the Arvon Prize in 2002, or securing consecutive fellowships with the Royal Literary Fund (= blissful security and time to write), or my residency at the war museum where (for the first time) my phone did actually start to ring, or the day Poetry London placed Heavy Water among the top five collections of the year, thus giving those testimonies a small, but real, chance of being more widely read. But I’m trying to get away from that career-/achievement-based conception of turning points. That day I picked up a pencil and made something entirely my own – now that was a breakthrough. Or the morning I stood bolt upright in the physics lab, struck by the sensation that the experiments of literature had become far more interesting to me than those of physics, far closer to my marrow. Or all the times I’ve sensed language as a constant falling-short – but miraculously so. Or, yesterday, when I became enraged by a freak typo that had crept (in spite of all reasonable efforts) into a piece I’d just published and, tracking down the correct phrase through Google, teeth gritted, found myself unexpectedly face to face with a beautiful contemplation on the genuine nature of human success.
So, I try to keep open to the fact that it isn’t only great poems that make us want to change and be changed. We can discover that transformative energy everywhere, and in just about every one, if we trust the cosmos. It is in our selves. I am a person, first and foremost. The growth modes of the person: those are the real breakthroughs, the best moments.
What kind of response do you get from audiences? Does it influence your writing?
I’m told I read quite well. I do put a lot of work into it. I simply can’t understand readers who seem unconcerned about their audibility or delivery. Equally, I’m deeply turned off when performances become gimmicky or slick. I don’t have a great voice; but, when I’m reading, I invoke the poem as an independent being possessed of its own existence, its own purposes. My ego has to get out of the way. It’s the poem, not the author, that speaks.
Moreover, I always write or edit with a sense of audience, the idea that to properly exist the text will have to be heard or seen. At the very least, it must be formed in that small cavern of the mouth: must be cast off on air, launched into the swells of sound. After all, a poem both shapes – and is shaped by – breath. It is somatic as well as intellectual. If inspiration is the breath in, the poem is the breath out.
The very best readings, though, are pheromonal – when the room fills with the sweet subliminal scent of aroused communication. When that happens, audiences help to make the poem. Their response becomes a hologram within you, storing in your bones (and in your ear) the shape and smack of human interaction.
What inspires you?
Phew. Where do I start? I do everything humanly possible to entice poetry’s bolt to strike. I keep journals, notebooks, albums. I file away aphorisms and quotes according to author, date and subject. I compile personal mini-dictionaries of unusual words, slang and (an Italian equivalent to) ‘bearlachas’. I practise telling lies. I raid memory – that larder of the brain. I read Dante on the Underground and Rilke in the bath. I’m a Benjamin Franklin forever launching my kite into the cloudless blue.
But, more often than not, the process of poetry seems inexorably meteorological – a kind of spontaneous condensation in the dark spaces outside consciousness, a thick vapour that creeps under the door of your brightly-lit life and demands that you investigate. The rest is trying to get the blasted door to open. Unless the poem comes fully formed, it’s work. Heavy, delicate work. That immense heave and heft of tackling sound, using little more than the thin guy-lines of language. Often, those black little marks can seem as elusive and refractory as live ants on a blank sheet of paper. Actually, I sometimes think a large part of the reason I’m a poet is my innate inability to say quite what I mean. A lot of the time, I don’t know if what is happening is actual inspiration or just an intense feeling. Not until after it’s happened. In that sense, poetry is the fifth element: the element of surprise. For the writer, as well as for the reader/listener. Writing is a bit like learning to gaze in a pool – to catch yourself unawares.
Inspiration, though, can be over-rated. Writing isn’t always as romantic or intense as I’ve just described. Much of it is pretty down to earth. Actually, anything (not just our emotional highs and lows) can inspire: a shard of overheard conversation, a scrap of an idea, a faint or redolent memory. Other people’s poems, too, of course – those that strike you as a lucid confirmation of something you already knew, but had somehow never got round to thinking. Whenever that happens I want to join in the conversation the poem started, by adding my own thruppence of words. Language inspires language. I love the way, for instance, how in poetry “that rope of copper” can, by some linguistic miracle, become heavier than “a copper rope”.
I do keep an eye on science. Science inspires me because I’ve experienced it at the coal face; but also because poetry and science are kin. They both ask deeper questions of what is superficially observed and, by the same token, both adopt a hypothetical and provisional stance towards what they try to understand. They each demand that we pay full attention. What’s more, the rigour and the precision of the scientist isn’t foreign to the poet, just as the faith-leaps of poetry are far from excluded from the drawing-boards of science. Poetry and science are not tribal arch-rivals, but kissing cousins.
Certain poems/ poets will, I expect, inspire us more often than others (for me, Emily Dickinson is one). They’re a little like those people who make toast at 7am, who induce us to stir in our beds, perhaps at first begrudgingly; but soon we’re all dashing down the stairs to queue at the toaster. And I’m not talking just about master chefs here: anyone – or any thing – can deliver that next wake-up aroma. During one of my classroom visits, for example, after asking a class to invent a futuristic voice, a bejewelled student raised a heavily-ringed hand and (with a face brimming with good old Anglo-Saxon feeling) ‘encouraged me’ to do my own exercise. I did; and the resulting poem, Gene, went on to win 3rd prize in this year’s National. Angels often come disguised as devils.
Do you have a writing routine? A place that’s special?
First: my desk, often straight from bed or mid-afternoon. Second: the universe, anytime.
Do you address particular themes or issues in your writing? Where do you get your ideas from?
Family. Loss. Love. War. The illusions and confirmations of sense and experience. The pressure generated by insight and its simultaneous insistence on taxidermy and flight. The potentials of silence, of absence, even when the thing is present. Ecology. Technology. History (we seem so focused on topicality and the present, I’m concerned for the past’s future…) Most of all: awareness, paying attention – which, in the end, is what all art is really about. Literature (the real stuff) is one of the chief ways a culture stays awake. Naturally, as a poet, I’m also fascinated by metaphor, the way everything becomes everything else. That’s the engine-room of my writing, one of its major subjects. Metaphor is never far from reality; or rather, should I say, isn’t reality always on the verge of metaphor? I’m much engaged, too, with style and form. For a while now, I’ve been obsessed with unrhymed couplets, tercets and quatrains: those wonderful spear-, signpost- and coffin-shaped boxes. To balance that, it seems, I’ve become increasingly involved with the fluid use of voice in modern poetry and the characteristic eclecticism one finds in contemporary writing (for more, Google ‘Poeclectics’). Some of these concerns, especially those involving narrative, will be more obviously present in my poems than others; but they are all spurs that my flanks recognise.
One last issue. Most writers know it’s usually best to avoid signalling, or spelling out, meaning. What is less obvious is that this is much more than a simplistic adherence to ‘show don’t tell’. Indeed, the sentiments and significances of a situation (real, imagined or abstract) are already there, in the relationships (the ‘angles’) between people, things and words… who did/ said what, when, how and to whom. Those relationships – related by the author through perception and/or imagination – constitute a kind of geometry. I call it “the geometry of experience”, and it’s one of the key forces, or instincts, behind composition. This geometry draws a vessel in the mind, in the heart. That’s all the writer need do. The reader fills it for herself.
Any tips for new writers…?
Yes! A thirteen-point plan:
1. When sending your work to a magazine editor, never enclose an A9 SAE for 18 pp of foolscap verse typed out in 6-point Braggadocio. Anyone doing that (or anything like it) should be made to fold an entire telephone directory, page by page, in a dimly lit cellar, into perfect 1cm squares.
2. Never dismiss anyone as ‘rubbish’. Never see another writer as just an adversary.
3. Remember: compared to the TV producer or celebrity, the poet has no power whatsoever – and all the power in the world.
4. Be wary of any writing or performance that’s just a cavalry charge of the ego.
5. Don’t believe it when people say poetry is kaput. For an art-form that’s meant to be in its last throes, there’s an awful lot of it around. But we DO need more readers …
6. Read everything.
7. Keep a journal. I forget most things: my journal doesn’t.
8. Take your time. Don’t rush publication. The good poet is slowly discovered; the bad poet is slowly found out.
9. Be yourself, not what ‘the scene’ would have you be. If you fish for fame, expect to catch old boots.
10. Make your art your hobby, not your profession; then make your hobby your life. (But put your person first.)
11. Make rooms for silence.
12. Mistrust failure as much as success. Beckett: “Fail again, fail better”.
13. Always mistrust a writer who says clever things about writers.
What would be your dream writing job?
Anything that felt like opening a family restaurant in a fast-food mall. Something in which I could simply (and invisibly) provide the facilitating inch from which all concerned could take their own particular creative mile.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just been approached by a film company, wanting to make a poem-based film about Chernobyl using Heavy Water. In spite of the company’s excellent reputation, no one so far seems to want to finance the film; perhaps because the idea’s much too far from ‘art as entertainment’? And this at a time when the government (along with James Lovelock) want more nuclear power stations along our coasts, black as flies around a rind, and the world generally remains as much in thrall to oil as the Neanderthals were to the first cudgel or camp-fire. Few civilisations can have had more covert dark to process than ours; and yet, we seem more concerned with turning up the lights than we are with enlightenment. I hope I’m proved wrong, but in the end perhaps the only global ‘organisation’ willing and able to pay full attention to the environment, to take decisive action about it, will be the planet herself. Gaia is set to become our greatest revolutionary. I’m really examining, as person[writer] as well as writer[person], where I stand in all this.
Meanwhile, I’m mugging up for an Arts Council England project ‘Science in Poetry’. For some time, I’ve been addressing the arts-science duality in my work. I’m keen to write poems that move the listener, yet address the technological problems and opportunities of our age; I’m hoping for poems that encapsulate individual corpuscles of scientific perception whilst sending ‘waves’ through an audience with their performance and resonance. I believe science and poetry can successfully co-exist in this way, but not through the ‘injection’ of science into poems in an arbitrary manner, or as a kind of technological name-dropping. The science has to be fully absorbed into the creative writing process, so that they attain a negotiated co-habitation, an organic balance. These poems will form the spine of my next book with Enitharmon, Flowers of Sulphur. I’m also trying to get round to completing a book-length sequence on Monte Cassino and the Second World War, relegated to a back-burner for well over a decade now. For most other things, I’m trying not to look more than a few hours ahead. I just try to live well and snatch a few hours’ shut-eye.