To fulminate against the hands of fate To vent our anger on beloved friends Will not repair our ills and our mistakes But may bring friendships to a bitter end. For who are we to know what is the best? Who are we to choose when loved ones die? And do not think this is a needed test. As if on us God wastes his time to spy. Once we were a joining of two cells The lively sperm, a salmon riding high. The egg awaiting patiently its call Is fertilised and grows that which shall die. Astonishing that we should live at all. Unsurprising, that a loved one falls.
“You mentioned before about rejection, and how people don’t like being rejected. Do you think that it’s easier to deal with as you progress in your poetry – getting rejected more and more? Or do you think people still find it difficult?
No, I don’t think it does get easier, and I don’t think it happens that much. Once you get to a certain stage – in my experience and my friends’ experiences – the same magazines will take our work and ask us for work. It’s very rare, actually, for me to send work to somewhere that I don’t know.
Do you think that they see your name and don’t read it, almost, because they know the quality of your work?
I think there are certainly some magazines where they see my name and reject it straight away! I think with young people getting published, they always say to read the magazines. But my best advice is this: People will say, sometimes, that they won’t send it to big magazines because they think they’ve got to work their way up to them. But I feel that you send to little magazines, small circulation magazines, cheaply produced, perhaps, online magazines that don’t have much audience, if you like the stuff in them, if you’re excited by what they publish, then you must send them there. Otherwise, you must send to the top ones that are going to lift your profile, for 2 reasons: one is if you send to a middling magazine that’s only got a small circulation, and people won’t be reading it because they don’t trust it, then you’ve wasted your work; and the second thing is, often editors don’t know what they’re doing, and they’ll reject you.
Anne Sansom sent some poems to a magazine who rejected her. The guy is a really nice chap, but he felt he had to write a reply to everybody that entered. It was too much for him, so he sometimes said things he didn’t mean. And he seemed to be saying to Anne, “I don’t like these poems, because you don’t seem to be a very nice person.” I’m sure it’s not what he meant, but it’s how he came across. She was so annoyed. She sent them to The Time literary supplement, and they accepted them all, and the TLS was at that time, and still is, very well thought of, and they paid a lot of money. So what she could have done is thought, “they’re no good, these poems.” But instead she thought, “I don’t think that editor’s read them properly, so in the spirit of annoyance, I’ll send them to the TLS.”
So it is worth sending out to the right places and – if you’re not sure – why not go for the best known? And the ones that are going to reply quite quickly. One of the good things about poetry is that there’s a lot of good feeling – people read magazines wanting to be enthused by a new writer, and if you are good, if you’ve got something about you, I think other people will see it. You’ll be noticed in magazines and people will talk about you. It’s very grassroots, poetry. Though, after a point, it does become a bit of a Hollywood thing – there’s only room for a certain number of stars. And once you’ve got that status, you don’t have to do anything else.
What would you say is the best piece of poetry advice that you’ve ever heard that’s stayed with you?
I always quote Hunter Davis, the great biographer of The Beatles, Alfred Wainwright, and Wayne Rooney. And he said, “don’t get it right, get it written.” There’s some sense in that, though you can also get it right.
The other thing is, don’t waste your time. I wasted a lot of time writing quite poor things, not knowing what I was doing. The equivalent, really, to sitting in front of a piano and not having lessons, and not listening to other music. Philip Larkin said you don’t study poems, you read them, and you think, “what has it done? Can I do it?”
Who would you say are your favourite poets and what are your favourite poems?
Stanley Cook. I like Stanley Cook’s poems very much, because they’re about Doncaster and South Yorkshire and Sheffield, and they’re about real things. But they’re also numinous, they have this kind of visionary element to them. He’s quite a big-minded man, I think, but he works from the local. There’s a lot of interesting imagery, and he’s quite witty. He says things like, “and he was a little man you could have kept in a cupboard.”
I like John Keats. If you get past the language of the time – which is old fashioned – you can see that the poems are still alive.
When I’m writing, I go back to certain poets. Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Cook, Simon Armitage, and some early Carol Anne Duffy poems. When I started, Carol Anne had just published, and we had known each other a long time. I’ve known Simon Armitage a long time, and I often think I wish I’d worked slightly differently. One thing I think they did was to work out what poems did and what they needed to do in relation to it, and I didn’t do that. I was more interested in other things. But you can only do that to a certain extent – you can only do what you are. That’s the great thing about poems, isn’t it? Everybody is so different!
There’s John Hegley, who did a book called Glad to Wear Glasses – he’s a stand-up comic of a poet, really. And you’ve got Ian MacMillan who is unclassifiable – who is he?! He’s a kind of modernist, funny man. And then you’ve got what has become the mainstream, with Armitage and Duffy and so on, and then you’ve got these really weird guys, and the thing is, they’re just themselves. Even when they’re quite inaccessible poems, there’s something about them that makes people want to read them. That’s what you want, isn’t it? You don’t think, “How do I write a hit single?” You just write something, and when they hear it on the radio they think, “God, I want to get that!”
And finally, what advice would you give to young aspiring poets?
I think the most important thing is being open to experience. There’s an Armitage poem I usually use: It Ain’t What You Do, It’s What It Does to You. Just experience things, and then try and get the means, the wherewithal, to put that into language.
I wasted a lot of time reading poets who I never really got the hang of. I read the wrong poets, I think. Poets that weren’t helping me, and I think it’s much easier now to find poets that are available, and that give you the tools to say what you want to say. The trouble is, you can’t say it for other people.
Read widely, but read what you enjoy. Learn bits of poems by heart. When you read widely, you kind of skim poems. You don’t get changed by them. You are changed as a person by imbibing – making poems a part of yourself. By learning not the whole thing, but little bits.
Elizabeth Bishop said that she often feels distressed after spending months on a poem, and in the end she had to abandon it because it just wouldn’t work, whatever she did with it. But what she realised is doing the work on that poem meant that she got a free gift with a different poem just to write quite easily.”
- Read lots of poetry. In fact, read a lot of anything if you want to produce better writing.
- Write poetry as often as you can.
- Designate a special notebook (or space in your notebook) for poetry writing.
- Try writing in form (sonnets, haiku, etc.).
- Use imagery.
- Embrace metaphors but stay away from clichés.
Watching televisions is not hard
They can’t walk.
Talk ok and take your views
Of the News.
Flat ones can’t have a plant on top
alongside the wooden birds
As I say,I keep my eye on it.
Watch it secretly when no-one is here
I’m waiting for it to speak its real words.
Or to ask me a question.
Who are you?
Why do you watch me?
Have you no shame?
If a television could speak
We wouldn’t be able to understand what’s sad about it.