The superskilled Amy Key asked invited me to take part in ‘the writing process blog tour’ – a relay race conversation connecting writers’ thoughts and ideas about how and what they write, answering the same four questions every time. Here are Amy’s answers, and here are mine …
What am I working on?
This is what I feel about my second book. Twenty-four Seven Blossom was published by Salt seconds before its poetry list closed for good. So, with hardly any poems because I’ve just finished a book, and with no publisher should I write any more poems, I’m both up in the air and all at sea.
That’s no bad position to be in. I never wanted to be a poet who brought out a book regularly every five years – that makes it far too easy to guesstimate how many launch parties there are left till you snuff it. Not knowing where the next ISBN is coming from might be a creative liberation, who knows?
Of the 10,000s of poems I’ve read, I have a close relationship with maybe a hundred of them. That induces vertigo sometimes. The odds on a single poem being one of anybody’s hundred are low – why do we spend days and years writing poems which are likely to occupy only three seconds of a reader’s life? I can only come to terms with the panic-maths if I look on poetry as a collective rather than an individual activity. If I imagine every poet – beginner or pro, mainstreamer or typographer – as part of the same bottomless, timeless project, I can find the motivation to continue contributing.
So as the importance of individuation recedes for me, I need to find a new way to write. I’ve got two books full of poems that have come directly from my own ideas and experience, and think I need to live another decade or so before my perspective freshens enough to repeat that approach fruitfully. Meanwhile, I’m looking elsewhere for new poems’ flashpoints. Both of the projects I’m working on at the moment have come out of conversations with the friend who is my best first reader. It doesn’t matter at the moment where the initial idea comes from – someone else’s suggestion is as interesting a constraint as a sestina’s rhyme scheme. The first project is a collaborative sequence of poems inspired by Keats, and the second is a series of poems structured like a biopic of a 1930s visual artist and told in images. I haven’t decided if it’s important to tell people who the artist is yet. If no-one wants to publish ‘em, I might go DIY.
Meanwhile, to pay the bills, I’m finishing off the Poetry School’s Summer School programme, and producing a one-man touring show with Daljit Nagra, adapting his version of The Ramayana for the live literature stage.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I’m a bee in the hive, remember? Not an outlier. A lot of what I do, other people do: I do what a lot of other people do too. The materials I do it best with are long clacking strings of short Anglo Saxon words, and a nice set of architectural plans – either ones from the book (I like a sonnet, I’m keen on a pantoum) or ones I’ve drawn up myself. In the first book, there was a poem which used the structure of building a fire to advance its argument; in the second, there was a series of poems written to be read on one breath. I don’t write explicitly about the things that might make me gnaw my lip at 3am, although they’re in there if you look hard enough – it’s just that I like to put a good three counties’ distance between my tenor and my vehicle.
Why do I write what I do?
I once watched someone play Candy Crush Saga all the way from Clapham Junction to Hampstead Heath and could have dashed her phone to the floor for her. The minutes were screaming as she killed time. You have to find something to do with your life that is the opposite of sorting pretend electric sweets into piles to make other people rich, don’t you? That’s why I write what I do.
(That’s two time ‘n’ death answers in a row, sorry about that: I’m just at that age where all the lovely dads are beginning to die off, and have got the shivers a bit.)
How does my writing process work?
There’s no wafting around waiting for the Muse to come down in the lift. I work a lot and like to say yes to evenings out, so need discipline to block out writing space. I can only get anything done if I know I’ve got a run at it till bed time, with no conversation, tv or music to distract me as I head towards nightfall. A couple of days in a row is good, but after three I start to feel peculiar. I only write at home, and only in bed – I can’t do the coffee shop thing because other people’s conversations are too interesting, and I like to experiment out loud with vowel sounds and go a bit sleepy-trancey which doesn’t go down well in Starbucks. The little clock in the corner of the laptop screen saying it’s been fourteen minutes since you last typed a letter is too much of a nag, so I write by hand.
I’ve always been a bit perturbed by the cr wr saw that a poem doesn’t know what it wants to be until it’s finished. I don’t give mine such powers of self-determination – there’s always a lot of preparatory thinking before I get the pens out, and I have a good idea where I want them to go when I start to write. For the 1930s artist project, I might go one step further and storyboard the whole sequence before I get properly stuck in. I already have a moodboard for it. There will be no accidental aberrations from my proposed colour palette, I can tell you.
I’ve tagged David Briggs and Hannah Silva to write next, so keep an eye out for them.