1. How and when did you get started as a writer?
I read ‘Little Women’ when I was about ten and fell in love with Jo March – the one who goes up into her garret to ‘scribble.’ That planted the idea that I wanted to be a novelist. It wasn’t long before I’d filled my red Silvine notebook with a 26-page Victorian melodrama about a highwayman. It ended tragically – death, smoke, ashes.
I’ve always read poetry but didn’t start writing it until I’d spent my thirties labouring through two (dreadful) novels. It took me several years to realise that spending an hour on a sentence probably mitigates against writing fiction successfully. I also noticed eventually that I’m not really bothered about stories. When my daughters were very young, a poem suddenly seemed like something that I could realistically aim for. I was under the illusion that it might be possible to write one fairly quickly.
2. Where do your ideas tend to come from?
People often say ‘you should write a poem about that’ and it’s invariably something that I’d never be remotely drawn to, like finding a crooked sixpence. Things that happen don’t strike me as particularly interesting. It’s much more likely to be an idea, e.g. the composer Saint-Saëns calculating individual weights for each of the notes in the musical scale. Or it can be a phrase – a string of words with a particular sound or pattern that sets up a little tingle in my head.
3. Are there particular ideas or themes that interest you or keep surfacing in your work?
At the moment it’s trees and bodies – either separately or in combination. I always seem to have a tree poem that I’m wanting to write. I finish one and there’s a brief sense of relief before the next starts niggling. If not trees, then orchards!
Music is something that never stops intriguing me. I’d never listen to a piece of music and want to write about it. (Who said ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture?’) I’m more interested in the patterns and forms of music – the way these can reflect our experiences or conversations or dilemmas. The feeling you get when you enter a piece of music is something that the very best poems can occasionally get close to. That sense of stepping into a space where there’s order and meaning.
4. Do you plan your writing?
I don’t plan in the sense of having a prescribed work schedule. I have a notebook/scrapbook where I jot things down and keep snippets from newspapers or magazines. And I try to keep the ‘poetry space’ in my head available by reading and writing as much as I can. Sometimes I’ll spend days and days toiling away at a poem that doesn’t feel like it can ever go anywhere. But I don’t let myself give up because it’s often after a sustained period of misery and failure that a real poem comes along. It’s as if the wrong poem has been keeping its foot in the door to let the right one slip in unnoticed.
5. Do you have a writing routine or any rituals that you follow?
I belong to two poetry workshops and I don’t allow myself to go along if I haven’t got a new poem. So I have to write at least one poem a month. I have a particular chair that I sit in while I’m in the early stages of drafting and I use a fountain pen that I bought with part of the advance for ‘The Floating Man’. There comes a point when the page isn’t helping any more, so then I stand up and move over to my desk. I sit on my dad’s old dining chair and put the bones of the poem onto the computer. Seeing the words on the square screen with lots of space around is always a good moment. Something clarifies.
6. Who are your favourite writers?
Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, Michael Donaghy, Seamus Heaney. In prose Henry James, Evelyn Waugh, EM Forster, Penelope Fitzgerald (because she has written one of the most miraculous of modern novels ‘The Blue Flower.’)
7. Do you have an ideal reader?
I don’t think it’s helpful for a poem to be angled in a particular direction. When you’re starting out it’s difficult not to have in mind the imagined responses of particular people you want to impress, but that’s just an interference. I suppose my ideal would be someone who wouldn’t read a poem through once and say ‘what was that all about?’
8. What are you working on now?
I had an idea for a sequence of spring poems, odd little lyrics about things such as curlews sounding like new-born babies. I was pleased because it seemed like a project with a bit of longevity. With poetry you’re always sitting down to start something new, which can be difficult. Then again, novelists might say we’re lucky to have that chance of a fresh start. So far, there aren’t many poems in the sequence, but when I’m feeling bereft of new ideas I mention it to myself and it cheers me up a little.
9. What are you reading at the moment?
David Harsent’s latest collection ‘Night’ which contains a spectacular long poem. It’s the sort of poem I could never envisage myself writing in a million years. I’m also reading Richard Holmes’s heart-stopping biography of Coleridge. It’s as addictive as opium and a salutary read for anyone who thinks that being a writer these days is hard.
10. What piece of advice would you give to new writers?
Read, read, read … Don’t wait to feel ‘inspired’ – you’ll never write anything … If you’re writing a poem, read what you’ve written out loud when you think it’s finished. You’ll probably find that it isn’t.