1. How and when did you get started as a writer?
I started writing stories in Primary School, stuff about soldiers being knocked over ‘like skittles’ I seem to remember. I was going to be a prose writer and then I read Wilfred Owen when I was fourteen. Change of plan. My first poem was about a tank lurching across the Somme. I won the Cadbury’s National Children’s poetry award when I was eighteen which encouraged me to continue writing and think that somehow someday I might get a book out. I went on a walkabout in my twenties – drifting through various styles and thematic territories – and only really found a mature voice in my thirties. I tell my students I would have worked things out a lot quicker if I had took a Degree with a creative writing component embedded in it. But it did make me think long and hard about how poems work, which I’ve tried to get across in my teaching.
2. Where do your ideas tend to come from?
Usually if an idea stays with me for two or three years I get round to writing it down. I spent a fair degree of my twenties writing about ‘difficult’ men, which culminated in me (quite by accident) taking a writer-in-residence job at a prison in the late 90s. Since 2004 I’ve thought more in terms of sequences rather than individual poems. I wanted to write about the landscape of Sheffield so I pieced together a series of poems about the River Don. I wrote a sequence of poems about becoming a father for the first time. Last year I was drawn to the world of Pre-Reformation wall art in English churches and found a way of dramatizing the battle over religious beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. I also produce commissioned pieces, or work on collaborative projects with other artists so I sometimes write to a brief as well.
3. Are there particular ideas or themes that interest you or that keep resurfacing in your work?
I tend to write about conflict in relationships between men. I also compose all kinds of love poems and celebratory works. I’m also drawn to landscapes – particularly the urban fringe where countryside and city roads/settlements rub up against each other – there’s a lot of that in Sheffield.
4. Do you plan your writing?
Yes, increasingly so: particularly if I’m writing a sequence of poems. I have in mind what is going to happen from poem to poem. I usually know – before I sit down to create an individual work – how it will start and how it will end. The most difficult poems are the ones where I don’t know how they are going to conclude.
5. Do you have a writing routine or any ‘rituals’ that you follow?
I’ve become less precious about writing routines over time, particularly as I have three children under the age of 6 to enjoy the company of. I’m usually at my most productive between the hours of 8 p.m. and midnight. I’m tired and my mind begins to slip: I start making creative mistakes. I play with language more productively in the evening. I also see the process in terms of absorbing experiences throughout the day and then the stuff starts leaking out at night – like a soaked sponge being squeezed. Basically I write now when I can get the time.
6. Who are your favourite writers?
I wrote my PhD on Thom Gunn. I still enjoy dipping into his work. There’s a triumvirate of Irish writers (and contemporaries) – Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon – that I always take pleasure in reading. I also greatly admire Ken Smith’s urban demotic. Elizabeth Bishop always entrances me with her technical gifts and clarity of tone.
7. Do you have an ideal reader?
The Safe House was reviewed by Rosie Bailey in Envoi magazine. She was very attentive to the poems. It’s the finest review I’ve so far received and probably the most complimentary I will ever garner. She ‘got’ what I was trying to do straight away. So if there were a thousand or so Rosie Bailey’s out there I would be very happy.
8. What are you working on now?
I like the way musicians, particularly folk musicians, put two or three songs together to create a running ‘set’ of tunes. I wanted to find an equivalent in poetry so I’ve started writing pieces that couple poems together. I’m trying to write in a strictly metrical fashion with rhyme/half-rhyme underpinning the works. I’m about a third of the way through creating this sequence.
9. What are you reading at the moment?
In no particular order: Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life in Poetry, Jim Perrin’s The Climbing Essays, Matthew Francis’s Mandeville, Katharine Towers’ The Floating Man, Sinead Morrissey’s Through the Square Window, Mark Goodwin’s Back of a Vast.
10. What piece of advice would you give to new writers?
John Gallas (a fine, inventive poet) once wrote to me: ‘Keep bloody writing.’ That’s a pretty pithy appraisal of part of the process. Also read widely. Always give yourself time to reflect on your work, whether that means turning a phrase over in your head or spending an hour or two re-drafting work on the page. If someone says you are rubbish go on to prove him or her wrong.