Mark Goodwin. The Intricacies of Independent Creativity.
I began my blog, because I wanted to explore how writers honed their craft. It was one of the best decisions I have made in a long time, because of the huge variety of people I have met with a unified passion for narrative, no matter what its form. This has never been more evident than with Mark Goodwin, whose ability to play with word sound and imagery is startling. It’s the type of poetry you have to read with your mind relaxed (in the same way you would do one of those strange computer generated 3D pictures), and let the words do their work. It’s about experiencing poetry, not just reading it. Mark, ever one to constantly experiment, has taken this one step further by adding sound to recordings of his poetry as well as improvising in some interesting locations. The results can be heard on SoundCloud. Listening to it only reinforced the sense of imagery I had experienced with his written work. But it is work that does not conform to many people’s idea of poetry, so I had the feeling the interview was going to be very interesting indeed. I was not wrong.
(Note for readers: Mark wanted to keep the transcription as close to original conversation as possible, which might produce a slightly unusual sentence structure. I thought it was important to keep in as much of the conversation as possible, because I like to convey the personality of the writer and sometimes asides provide some unique insights that might otherwise have been lost.)
Just before the interview, you mentioned the problems you’ve had getting published and talked about one of the publishers who has produced some of your books of poetry.
One of my publishers is Shearsman, a publisher that many writers have never heard of, I guess because it publishes poetry outside the mainstream. Having said that, Shearsman publishers 50 to 60 books a year, 40 of which are poetry. My poetry is what Tony Frazer, the editor, would tend to describe as ‘modernist’, but Tony’s taste is quite wide ranging. Some of my poems in Else, for example, do sit comfortably in the mainstream, but there are others that don’t. Tony felt that Else could be a crossover book, and he had high hopes for it, for it to perhaps bridge the gap and perhaps get noticed for doing so. But it just sank out of sight. In fact it may have been the crossover factor that made it difficult to pigeonhole, and so it didn’t get read.
It’s really great that you have a publishing company that is prepared to take that risk.
That’s the great thing about Shearsman, and it is also comforting that despite being no longer funded by the Arts Council Shearsman is as strong as ever.
Tony is a prolific reader, but not a poet, which I think helps him to be more open to poetries rather than one school of poetry. I think he is an astounding reader, if you look at his poetry list of recommended reading you will see that it is huge and ranges across the world. And if you think that he turns out nearly 40 poets a year … well, perhaps I should read 40 poets a year, but I’m afraid I don’t, not anymore anyway. But then I spend a lot of time writing and he doesn’t – perhaps another very good reason to have a publisher who is a ‘reader’ rather than a ‘writer’.
The reason Tony can afford to take on this many poets in a year is largely due to print on demand technology. Because of print on demand, he doesn’t have to store stock, so he can carry obscure poets like me who just don’t sell, as well as poets that do sell. It’s actually a wonderful time in poetry publishing in many ways, because of the technology that’s available.
Having said this though, I do regret that the poetry scene in England at the moment is so fraught with divisions, and has been for some time.
In what way?
Right at the end of the last century, Rupert Loydell’s Stride Publications, which like Shearsman, was an otherstream (rather than mainstream) publisher, published a book called Binary Myths 1 & 2, by Andy Brown. This is about the split between the mainstream and what I call the ‘otherstream’. And Andy Brown’s argument was that maybe such a division is a false myth and that the split isn’t there. But I, and many others, think this split has shown over time. We’ve experienced it, personally. Yes, I’m afraid there is a real split, and in the end both sides are probably equally to blame. There has been and still is a great deal of prejudice, projected from both sides. There has been much invalidating – some poets and readers have decided that there’s one kind of poetry and that anything outside that one template is not poetry.
For example, regarding the mainstream, the fact that few mainstream poetry readers have even heard of such a high quality and prolific publisher like Shearsman says it all. And how many English schools find out who their local poets are and get them to come in and read their work? How many English universities do that? There are just a handful.
The vast, rich diversity of poetries that exist and are going on at the moment across the world, and in your backyard, are kept secret.
How do you think that ‘secret’ is kept?
Complicated, and really beyond my understanding. But I do think it has a lot do with the way our education system is set-up, especially in our schools, but even in many of our universities. They often simply don’t look at alternative styles of poetry. There’s often an attitude that pupils or students can’t cope with otherstream poetries. So, rather than going to the students, showing them something they’ve never seen or heard before, and asking, ‘What do you make of this?’, and then really trying to empower them to decide for themselves, what they get ‘exposed’ to is decided for them. The ‘otherstream’ is simply avoided. But then empowering people to think for themselves in general is avoided.
I think it’s important to know about this division. But there is resistance to addressing this problem, and you have to remember both sides are guilty. For example, Prynne (J.H. Prynne), perhaps has himself, but certainly views about him have contributed to the split. His Cambridge set was seen as, and projected as, very isolated and elitist. But then again, we do need our elites and we need to let them get on with it. Really, we should be able to grow up and make room for all sorts of different poetries. But it seems as if there’s only one kind of poetry that’s projected to most readers – poetry that fits some template labelled ‘traditional’ or ‘conservative’.
I like traditional form, and I particularly like it when poets start playing with traditional form. But if poetry is kept or ‘curated’ using just a few templates that most people are ‘comfortable’ with, and then everything outside of that is invalidated, then there’s a problem. Poetry shouldn’t be kept, it should grow.
What is ‘mainstream’ and what you describe as ‘otherstream’, what forms do they take?
That is a very difficult question to answer fully, and has been argued about a lot. However, I do feel there is actually a kind of mainstream style that is generally projected, and some of which is excellent, directly accessible, not obscure or ‘difficult’ in any way, all good traits, not that the opposites are bad traits, but unfortunately a lot of what the mainstream produces is flattened through being copied, is merely simulacra of simulacra of simulacra. This can also be true on the so-called ‘experimental’ side, but is more evident in the mainstream, but then obviously there just is more mainstream, and more people to copy the copies. There is a lot of excellent traditional form poetry, and it really is superbly done by many mainstream poets. They know the form is a trellis, not a cage – they grow something unique across and through the traditional framework. That is what tradition is for, true tradition is soil, not museum display case.
There is a term: ‘linguistically innovative’. That’s how I’m usually labelled. I’ve used that term myself, but I’ve begun to back away from it because it implies the divisions I’ve been talking about, and because I know poets who work traditional forms and who are superbly ‘linguistically innovative’. That’s what being a poet, of any kind, is about, being innovative, linguistically. ‘D’oh!’, to quote that massively mainstream poet Homer! That’s a joke I read somewhere, recently I think. Anyways[sic], so, these poets use traditional forms, and it looks at first as if what they’ve written is simply a traditional poem. But look at it closely and listen carefully and you will experience something inevitably innovative. For example, there is a poet called Chris Jones, good friend of mine, who used to be the Literature Development Officer for Leicestershire County Council. Chris often writes sonnets, his sonnets are technically sonnets in the classical sense, even though occasionally they break the rules. But then of course Shakespeare often broke the rules of meter, because you need your imperfections and differences to make a poem exciting, otherwise it becomes totally, predictably metrical and unpalatable. Chris writes traditional sonnets with a contemporary vocabulary, and the turns of phrase he uses have a certain way of compressing the language, compressing everyday speech into a way that is highly poetic and yet at the same time isn’t. It’s a traditional form and yet absolutely of the moment. That is innovative, and is very much part of what poetry is about. That is linguistically innovative in the extreme. It is actually just as extreme as my linguistic innovation of ‘gappy poetry’, splitting words on syllables, or even within syllables, as I do in my book Back of A Vast.
Chris and I read together, and we are published by the same publisher Longbarrow Press. Longbarrow actively seeks to put otherstream and mainstream alongside each other, or rather not even bothers to think about those labels and instead just publishes poetry that the editor, Brian Lewis, likes, that meets his aesthetics and themes. In fact Chris and I and another Longbarrow poet, Matt Clegg are going to read together at the Nottingham Festival of Words, and the reading itself, a kind of fugue, to quote Matt Clegg, a conversation of poems, is actually going to be put together by Brian Lewis, devised into a single performance. I like to read alongside Chris and Matt because our poems, although hugely distinct, complement each other, and our poems have good conversations. However, I feel that generally, if you were to take a poem from Back of A Vast, and put it alongside one of Chris’s sonnets from The Safe House, for example, those two poems would talk. But unfortunately we live in a poetry environment where too often readers would feel that these distinct poetries are incompatible, and they would miss the conversation. But poetry is about bringing together opposites, about yoking disperates [sic]. And isn’t that what metaphors do? And isn’t that much of what poetry is about?
It’s not the same outside England: If you go to Australia, America or even Wales, and particularly across the seas, you can go to a single poetry reading and you can have various kinds of poets reading and performing and find listeners there happy to enjoy the contrasting forms and styles. There is some of that over here, but not nearly enough.
I kind of feel that the Americans saved poetry from the Victorians. If you think about Walt Whitman, who was very innovative, and how his and others’ more ‘free’ and exploratory styles of poetry came back to inform British poetry. But I’m afraid many Americans are now rather snobbish about English poetry. Some of them are extremely dismissive of it, considering it a backwater and something that’s never moved forward and, I suppose in some way that’s understandable because of what the mainstream tends to project. But it’s unfair, in that it is not really true about a great deal of English mainstream poetry.
I’ve recently witnessed this negative attitude in an American magazine, in the opening to a very positive review of The Ground Aslant, an anthology published by Shearsman, and edited by poet Harriet Tarlo . It came out a couple of years ago, and I’m very pleased to be included in it. The poetry in Ground Aslant is considered to be extremely ‘radical’ regarding landscape. Here in the UK the likes of Ian McMillan really championed it, but I don’t think it got a great deal of attention from anyone else in the mainstream, other than Robert Macfarlane, who reviewed it well in The Guardian. Anyway, the review in the American magazine, The Kenyon Review, It was an extremely positive one, but it started with a declaration effectively along the lines of: ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this quality of poetry is coming out of England’.
You do seem to have acquired quite a few bursaries. So someone out there must think you’re doing something right. Start at the beginning and talk me through your development as a poet.
There was a point where I consciously became a poet and realised that poetry had got me, because I do think that’s what happened. It’s the love of word that gets you. As I look back further into my childhood and I look at my son who just yammers and yammers and constantly talks and plays with language, I can see where it came from. I can remember yammering on like my son does now. My mother told me I just wouldn’t shut up on long car journeys, from around the age of two. So I know that the sensation of my lips, tongue and teeth and throat working air, as well as the music of speech and the images it makes, captured my imagination from a very early age.
And, I’ve also always had trouble accepting what I’ve been told as true. I’ve always had a philosophical mind that questions. Same as my son, now. And I can remember years ago when I was working on my dad’s farm, wildoating with my friends … ‘wildoating’, that’s perhaps not what you think it is … we used to go into the corn fields to get rid of the wildoats, pulling them out by the roots, putting them in old fertiliser bags, and then stacking the bags at the edge of the field. Really boring work, so I used to try to run competitions, in what I called ‘speaking bullshit’, just speaking absolute nonsense non-stop, and seeing who could go for the longest. My friends weren’t so keen to play and I now think they probably thought I was a bit odd for doing this. But I really used to enjoy it, really enjoy pushing out words. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no vision of being a poet. It was just fun. But now I look back, I see that that kind of playing with words is where it began.
Poetry really started seriously for me when I was 16. That’s also around when I got into mountaineering and climbing. They’re very inspiring activities and so I started writing about them. Suddenly I became aware that I was writing poetry and showed it to people. I showed it to a sixth-form friend called George Poles, who now writes for BBC Radio and television, programmes like ‘Loose Ends’ and ‘Smack the Pony’. He was very encouraging. So I kept writing. Then I fell in love with a girl and wrote more poetry. Then she finished with me, so of course there was masses more poetry.
I failed my biology, chemistry, and English A-levels completely and knowingly. At that point I felt as if I was being sold into a system I didn’t want to be a part of. But my sixth-form English teacher, a guy called John Mitchell, was astounded by my early attempts at poetry. After I left school, he wrote a letter to me – he told me I was a talented young poet, but I was like an untrained racehorse and needed to read, read, read and also to check out the Arvon Foundation and perhaps go on some courses. He also mentioned a poet called Peter Redgrove. How I wish I had sought this guy out at the time, because it wasn’t until years later, towards the end of his life, that I met him. Peter has massively informed my work. But I did read as much as I could get hold of, and did do something about the Arvon Foundation . And my dad was tremendously helpful, even though his son wanted to be a poet and not a farmer. He did help me to go on a few courses. I fell in love with poetry. I suppose infatuation to begin with, or lust for language, but it’s become love. At one stage I was just pouring out poetry. I can still write huge amounts, to the point where I have to stop myself because it’s just not appropriate or exhausting. For example, I have been known to be in a pub with my partner and my brother, two of the very most important people in my life, and I have sat and written for an hour or more surrounded by pub noise, until finally they have had to physically nudge me to remind me I’ve actually gone out for an evening with them. I’m not quite so bad as that these days. But it does literally still take hold of me. Yes, I got got by poetry!
How did you get your bursaries? And how did you develop your work to the stage where people were prepared to fund you?
The first bursary that really made a difference was an East Midlands Arts Writer’s Bursary. East Midlands Arts was based in Loughborough at that time. I didn’t get the bursary the first time round, but the next year I did (1996). That made a huge difference to my confidence. I’ve always had this very strange confidence about my work but a concern about the world’s lack of confidence in my work. This is why having other people validate you is so helpful, is in fact absolutely vital, because when you feel most of the world doesn’t care you do need little islands of encouragement. And it’s a great shame that the Arts Council have stopped funding those bursaries, because for me it was absolutely instrumental in my suddenly being able to say to myself, ‘Those people over there are saying, yes you are a poet, carry on’.
Then I went on a couple of Adult Education writing courses and met the Leicester writer Barbara Jacobs, she was great. She said to me, ‘You must apply for an Eric Gregory award from the Society of Authors. There’s no argument, you’re doing it’. She took me in hand saying, ‘Send me some poems and then we’ll go through ‘em and then send ‘em to The Society of Authors’. I did as I was told but I didn’t get the award. So, she told me to try again the next year. I was in my late twenties by this stage, so I had a few years to go, as the award’s open to poets up until they are 30. So I put another one in the next year, and in 1998 I got it. That was an extraordinary feeling, because it’s a major literary award. And also, the person who was heading the panel was Penelope Shuttle, Peter Redgrove’s widow. I met her again years later and I’m still in communication with her. I love the back and forth connections that I’ve collected.
After that there have been various awards and commissions, but the latest thing has been the East Midlands Book Award in 2011. Again very important to be validated, but also strange in that I feel that if I had been a novelist or biographer perhaps someone would have wanted to interview me. It completely surprised everyone, including me, because it was poetry and what’s more poetry published by, at the time, a relatively unknown small press, Nine Arches Press, from Rugby. Although, when I knew that poet Ian McMillan was going to be the lead judge, I hoped there was a possibility I, or at least the other poet to be shortlisted, Rosie Garner, might win. So it was an extraordinary surprising experience for that to happen and very positive in many ways, positive for poetry in the East Midlands. Although, as I said, I’ve been kind of surprised and yet not surprised at the lack of interest in Shod. But this is what happens with poetry, and particularly with odd poetry that doesn’t fit the mould. Shod (the award-winning book of poetry) is not really a book that sits comfortably in the mainstream, and is rather challenging – which is brilliant, to think that the judges went with it. And they really did like it, in fact that’s what really counts for me, having the generous and widely-read likes of Ian McMillan say they feel my work is worthwhile, even though at large it is not valued.
How did you hone your skills to become a poet?
Since the age of 15 I’ve concentrated on being a poet. I’m a talented rock-climber and mountaineer, and regret in some ways not fulfilling most of that talent, but poetry got me, and that’s what I’ve worked at most. I did go to agricultural college, but I didn’t in the end go into farming. So I’ve done a lot of farm work and a lot of tractor driving and a lot of manual labour, which I’ve enjoyed. But I’m not a businessman, which you need to be to farm these days. So my income is extraordinarily low and always has been. I’ve been an outdoor pursuits and climbing instructor and I’m now a freelance community poet. I’ve worked in schools, and worked with artists and other writers. Worked with people who use mental health services. I’ve worked with Leicestershire’s Open Museum, before the cuts swept it all away. Now my partner, who used to work for the Open Museum … well, we are both starting a social enterprise called ‘expresseum poetics’, pretty much trying to carry on the kind of community work we used to do using museum objects and poetry and art and landscape.
Anyway, when I was starting out I did three Arvon courses, and two Taliesin Trust courses, which were vital to my training and forming as a poet. I’ve done masses of reading and I used to subscribe to ‘Writer’s News’ for a while, when I was a very syoung poet. But I also subscribed to lots of poetry journals, including mainstream mags like The Rialto through to more eclectic otherstream mags like Tears in the Fence, and Fire. Meeting other poets has been most helpful. At one stage I became a part of a group of poets, that at one time was known as Inky Fish, including the likes of Rob Hamberger, Katie Daniels , Pam Thomson, Michael Tolkien , and Catherine Byron Alan E. Baker. It was a group that worked using the Hobsbaum technique, which is a method for critiquing.
Philip Hobsbaum started what was called The Group, with the likes of Peter Redgrove and Ted Hughes and Peter Porter at Cambridge, back in the 50s. The idea is that you bring copies of your poem and when it’s your turn you give everybody a copy and then read it out loud. Then you shut up and remain absolutely silent. This is what was also practised when I did my MA at Nottingham Trent University, led by the splendid Catherine Byron and Mahendra Solanki. It’s brilliant because you can’t say anything, and what you then get is a critique of your poem from outside yourself. You’re forced to only listen and so you get to view your own work as fly on the wall, as audience. You’re psychologically placed in a position where it’s pointless trying to see it from your point of view in that moment. You are obviously arguing in your head, as well as listening to what they’re saying, but it’s best to learn to concentrate on what ‘they’ are saying. At the end you get a chance to reply. I learned so much from working this way, about poetry but also about critiquing poetry.
It was through the Hobsbaum technique that I came up with my very simple three primary points of value and response regarding certain moments when we take criticism. It’s about really examining your own responses, emotionally as well as intellectually, really honestly working out what you feel about the criticism in a given moment, and it takes practice to get to a point where you can listen to those ‘feelings’. Point number one: You’ll hear someone say something about your poem and you will absolutely know that they are wrong, you just somehow know they’re not getting it. This is either because of not reading closely enough due to some sort of prejudice or just because they don’t get it. But you know you’re right. The other’s conflicting point of view actually confirms you know what you are doing. This feeling happens, but not often. Point number two: You’ll hear someone say something about your poem and you’ll know they’re absolutely right. You’ve completely got to get rid of that bit and rework the poem. This happens most often. Point number three, which is the most valuable point: You can’t make up your mind and don’t know what to do at that moment, about what they’ve just said. They could be right, they could be wrong. And this is so valuable because you have to then wrestle with the poem and even leave it so that only weeks or even years later you can say they were wrong, or perhaps right, which more often turns out to be the case! You learn so much from this ‘wrestling’ process, this ‘struggle’.
In the end the poem has to become only all that it can be through your writing it, where ‘writing’ is ‘wrestling’. Of course, one cannot ‘wrestle’ a poem, you can’t even ‘negotiate’ with a poem, but you can wrestle or negotiate with yourself so as to get the pure poem only you could’ve written, rather than some imitation you might feel you should write, or that you want to write, or feel that others want you to write.
The reason it (the Hobsbaum technique) worked so well was because the people doing the critiquing had no holds barred, yet they were trustworthy. Their only concern was to get to what that poem was trying to be. There was no pointless politeness, but nor was there rudeness or any form of absurd aggression. They were always completely on my side and I trusted them implicitly, particularly the group including Rob Hamberger and Michael Tolkien. Trust is the absolute vital ingredient. In the end they would say, ‘It’s your poem Mark, it’s not for us to say what you should do with it’. This sort of atmosphere is absolutely essential to a writer, because unfortunately far too often, and this happens in universities a lot, the environment becomes a competitive arena. It’s egos versus egos. It’s very difficult to get past that. And art doesn’t come out of a battle between people, it comes out of involvement, and out of trust.
A really good writing tutor or mentor is someone who doesn’t seem to be doing a great deal, someone making their kudos invisible, rather like an extremely good climbing instructor who again doesn’t seem to be doing much, at the back, but their eyes are everywhere, checking on everything making sure the students think about the situation they are in, making sure they pay attention, but not giving them the answers, informing them, yes, but allowing them the pleasure of solving the climb or the short story themselves. My M.A. fiction tutor, Graham Joyce, was particularly good at this approach. Of course the best way is to let people work things out themselves, and above all help them to want to do that.
You say that you are a page poet. What is this?
To be more accurate, I would describe myself as a page-to-air-poet. Unfortunately the word ‘performance’ has been hijacked, not that I’m making a complaint about that hijacking, every now and again certain words just get hijacked, and often need to be, the word ‘gay’ is a good and valid example of this. But, this leaves people like me, who are actually poetry performers, with a quandary. Because if I say I’m a performance poet, you immediately get a message about what I’m not: I’m not a performer who makes big physical gestures and recites by memory, and holds the audience with their charisma. I try to hold an audience just with the words, although of course, on a smaller, more subtle scale, I do use the gestures and manoeuvres of a physically and vocally expressive performer to enhance the delivery of those words. So I am a performance poet, or is that a poet-performer? All poets are performers. Poetry just on the page is a form of performance. For me, with the word ‘performance’ the focus is on the syllable ‘form’.
I do sometimes like to improvise in the moment. And I’ve done the type of performance where I just speak without the page. But, I don’t really have an interest in learning my own work and reciting it. It’s a fabulous thing to do and I’ve experienced and enjoyed hugely people like Jackie Kay and Leicester poet Lydia Towsey delivering their poetry, by heart to air, as it were. But I prefer to have the page in front of me and lift the written words, lift the words off the page into the air. And this is what I do in various ways. I sometimes read the same poem more than once, but in different ways.
And, over the last couple of years I’ve started to produce what I call ‘digitally produced audio poems’ or ‘sound-enhanced’ poems, where I use software to place my voice in a soundscape, or perhaps alongside musical elements. What I’ve discovered with using this medium is that it makes all kinds of poetry accessible. All sorts of people who previously would have found it impossible to listen to the poetry are suddenly willing, or even compelled to do so.
This is because it brings poetry down to what it truly is: the sensation of sound. You can’t stop listening to it. In the same way if you’re walking through the woods and all of a sudden you stop and carefully listen, let the sound be your dominant sense for a moment – you start to hear the birdsong, the leaf-rustle, then a twig snaps perhaps, and that makes you think of a badger or something else, perhaps something fantastical, and all of a sudden a kind of … a sort network of possible-but-never-ended-narratives emerges through the sounds.
Soon you become hypnotised by this, by these sounds and the interactions of sounds, and the images they make you imagine, and the ‘sound-space’ you get carried through. I think it is easiest to hypnotise through the sense of hearing rather than through any other sense, except perhaps for touch, but then sound is a kind of ‘touch’, it is air-molecules felt through tiny bones in our heads. So if you make a soundscape, with music in it that has a certain rhythm and then you put a voice over it, or better a voice blended into it, people do tend to listen to that voice, to get pulled in by the mesh of the sounds, which includes the inextricable sound of the poet’s voice.
And then rather than worrying about the absurd question, ‘What does the poet mean?’ I think listeners tend to forget that rather pointless question, and instead just experience, and become involved with making the poetry themselves through listening to it. It’s then the poet’s intentions go out the window – it’s when one syllable, that happens to fall at exactly the same time as another particular sound, entrances listeners, and stimulates each of them to imagine in different ways.
For someone as obsessed with poetry as I am you only have to put two letters on a page and I experience the sensation of those letters written as visual textures and sound textures at the same time. Unfortunately our pressurised education system and our constant bombardment with information, doesn’t allow people space to do that sort of thing, or realise that they can. So accessing the written page of poetry is now impossible for some people. It’s been denied them. Also poetry is essentially a spoken form, so there is a kind of natural place it should be, which is spoken. I’ve discovered with digitally produced audio poetry or sound-enhanced poetry that you can access that ‘natural spoken place’ very quickly and conveniently. This is why it’s something I’m vey keen to develop at the moment, and I want to encourage others too to become what I call sound-artist-poets.
How do you manage to put the poem and the sound together? For example, I was thinking of ‘In Slate’s Hands’, because the noise of working on the slate seems to be very well timed with the words. How would you do this editing?
This is a very interesting question, because of the synchronicity that, so spookily, happens between sounds and words. It often gets the hairs going up on the back of my neck. So much of it seems like chance. I do make decisions where I knowingly, consciously actually move sounds into position to match with words or phrases. But, so often so much just seems to fit together … by chance, one might say, but then I don’t really believe in chance, I tend to go with the physicists and chaos theory. I think perhaps what is going on is high-speed subconscious choices. Often these decisions happen as quickly as the instinctive choices my body makes when, say, I begin to slip on ice – at that moment I don’t think about how to save myself, but my body does everything, so many countless actions, just right, and I re-gain my balance. Humans practice walking a lot, they get so very very good at it. Humans can also practice creativity a lot and so in similar ways, as being highly efficient bipeds, I think humans can also become highly efficient creators.
In a piece called ‘God’s Cottage’, my partner and I did an improvisation in the moment on location. We were actually in the ruined chapel the poem is about, down in Cornwall. And I’m pleased I only made one mistake, and it’s the first time I’ve done an improvisation that cleanly, where I’ve only had to edit out one tiny syllabic mistake. My partner was doing the singing. Straight after the poetry and singing improvisation, we did a separate improvisation together, where I sang, I’m not a good singer, and it surprised me that I sounded much better than I am, on the final piece. I slowly chanted the word ‘graaanite’ and she sang along. I was also tapping around with sticks and stuff. Then there was another track recorded an hour or so later, where I recorded Zennor’s church bells, at a different location, this is explained on the description of the piece, on SoundCloud. Back home in Leicestershire I mixed all these elements together and altered the volume levels, so that certain things would stand out.
One of the most startling of wonderful ‘chance’ moments was when I recorded the bells of Zennor – Jackdaws were coming into roost, which was beautiful, and in the final piece, with all the elements mixed in, in the poem, just as I say the word ‘chapel’, a jackdaw’s ‘jack’ call falls exactly on the ‘a’ in ‘chapel’. I didn’t consciously manipulate that. But, things like that happen so often that I’m really starting to believe that there are choices I’m making that I’m not aware of. I know such choices happen with slipping on ice, mountaineering, or just driving a car – it’s simply not possible to consciously think your way out of an accident about to happen on the road, it has to be flash instincts working with wired skills. So, why not the same for much of creativity? Why can’t poetry be defined more as an ‘activity’ rather than, incorrectly, something that is mostly ‘intellectual’?
I’ve learnt a great deal by trial and error in the last two years, particularly when playing with audio and audio software, and consciously working as a sound artist with a Digital Audio Workstation, that’s a kind of sound-studio software which is immensely powerful. Audacity, which is free to download, is a basic example. I use Logic Express 9 for Mac. I only got this piece of kit because I wanted to do more audio recording and editing of my poetry, but It had all this musical stuff that went with it and I thought I’d made a mistake by spending money on something I wasn’t going to use. But this software is what pushed me into doing what I’m doing now. I use a great deal of those musical and filtering elements, but not all of them because it’s a massive programme. At the moment I’m putting in a bid to the Arts Council to be mentored by a guy called Steve Gibbs (of Metro-Boulot-Dodo) who’s a Leicester musician and sound engineer, and also to upgrade my equipment, so I can really go to town on it.
So what sort of recording equipment are you using at the moment?
At the moment I use a rather splendid little field-recorder made by Edirol. It’s entry-level professional quality. It was Brian Lewis of Longbarrow Press that introduced me to this piece of kit. That’s what I was using in ‘God’s Cottage’, but often I’ll just speak directly into the microphone built into my laptop, if I’m at home on the boat. Outdoors I just use the built-in mics in my field-recorder, and I have another plug-in mic for that as well, which gives a different kind of quality. Back in doors, the software does the rest regarding production and manipulation, and cleaning, and making things clearer. But I’m looking to get some much more BBC-standard kind of studio microphone equipment, as well as outdoors stuff – one of those kind of fluffy dead badger things on a pole, so as to be able to go out and record on windy days in awkward places.
I used audio recording outdoors during my Leicestershire Landscapes residency, funded by Writing East Midlands, and learned a huge amount about the possibilities for outdoor group poetry improvisation, and how quickly a group of creative minds can speak an interpretation of a landscape whilst in that landscape. Also with my community work I’ve used the audio recorder to record poets reading in the moment, and I want to do much more of that kind of thing and develop it, on my own and with other people.
So as far as your poetry is concerned, are you now at your comfort level or are you just going to try and push yourself as far as you can go?
It’s not something I do consciously, pushing myself, I have done with climbing, doing pull-ups and finger exercises and stuff, so I can hold on to the rock, but with poetry, I just can’t help playing, I just do it.
But I also can’t help doing what I call ‘refusing the delusions’. I’ve learned that the world is a series of illusions, but that those illusions are always valid, so long as we know them to be illusions, and think about how useful or not useful certain illusions are at certain times. Illusion is only invalid once we are not aware of it, aware of it being illusion – we are then at the mercy of ‘delusion’. The poem is an illusion, and if we know that then the truth of the illusion can become apparent. It’s only when you stop knowing that what you’ve just made is an illusion that it becomes fake. So I’m always working against the delusions, because I’m always wanting to engage more and more and be more aware, and I want other people to engage too, to play and know that everything is in play, in flux and up for being validated in the moment by an interpretation, by an expression. I suppose that’s the focus of my community work.
I’m afraid, and I don’t use the word lightly, I’m afraid of delusion and dishonesty. I find dishonesty frighteningly confusing. I know that I’m deluded, and can’t see all the illusions, but I try very hard to see as much illusion about myself and the world as I can. What scares me most is how human civilization is largely a factory of delusion, and especially, it seems, right now.
Why do you think you have this viewpoint?
Because I’m a rock-climber. Rock-climbing is, not always, but often about putting yourself very simply and starkly into a life-and-death situation. When you’re in a situation like that everything does become absolutely simple and clear, stripped right down, and all you can do is your best to manage the risk to stay alive, there is no room for delusions, no desire for them. Simple. So, actually, what seems like an uncomfortable place, for someone like me, who despises delusion, this is a place to find comfort, because in that moment you are engaging fully, mind, body and instincts just staying alive, and afterwards, that is extremely empowering. It refreshes me, and it has taught me much about danger, what is really dangerous and what is not, and helps me deal with the far more treacherous world of human society and its mess of constructs and confusing contradictions. The same happens with poetry. It’s about precision and intense attention, like prayer. And it’s about simplicity, about being in a place where you have control over your expression and emotion. Poems are very simple, which is not the same as ‘easy’. They are patterns, and patterns are simplification, but not necessarily easy to make. Rock-climbs are patterns. Stop writing poetry, you stop living on the edge. That’s where I’m at. Comfort only comes through being on the edge for me. And ‘edge’ is the sharp part of any pattern. And ‘on edge’ it’s hard to keep your balance. But, it is such a pleasure to get one’s self warm and fed on a cold mountain, there is no other comfort like that, finding comfort in difficult places. Domestic comfort, although not to be shunned by any means, I need it, and gods I do like a good sofa, which we don’t have on the boat I live on, but too much too easy domestic comfort does tend to make me feel stifled and zombiefied. So I’m never really ‘comfortable’, and that’s what I’m ‘comfortable’ with.
And I’ve come to the point also where I’ve realised I’d rather be living on the edge, on the periphery, and not properly accepted regards my creative work. It’s immensely rewarding to get to the top of a difficult rock-climb, but you are on your own when you do this. It’s a moment of immense peace, because everything becomes so clear and you are utterly relaxed, having dealt with such an extreme physical and emotional challenge. It’s the same with poetry for me, that’s the main reason I do it. It’s one of the few ways I get my moments of peace. Having said that, climbing can be relaxing in the moment, not necessarily difficult or dangerous, and so can making poems.
This connection between climbing and poetry, that’s how I now see where my practice is changing. I now see no distinction between my practice as a poet and my being a climber, a walker, or a balancer on a slack-line, which I’ve recently started doing. Yes, over the last two years I’ve started slack-lining.
Slack-lining is a very mentally and physically demanding activity, and yet immensely relaxing. And for me, as a poet, it’s very much about intensely being, through my body and mind, in a particular place, a particular physical location as well as a mental state. Simply, a slack line is like a tight-rope, but instead of using a rope or steel cable, it’s a length of flat webbing, the same kind that climbers use for slings, or lorry drivers use to strap down their loads. This webbing line is stretched very tight between two trees, not up high, just a couple of feet off the ground, using a ratchet or some fancy rope-work. But because it’s made of nylon webbing, it stretches a lot, and when you step on it’s actually very ‘slack’ in comparison to a tight-rope, and it sways considerably. You get on it and simply balance across it, or stand on one leg and do yoga moves and postures. I’m middle-aged so that’s as much as I dare do, can’t heal quickly again like I used to, but the youths of today actually back-flip and do other astounding tricks. But it doesn’t have to be extreme like that – I really enjoy the slow precise yoga side of slack-lining, it’s slow and intense like rock-climbing, and poem-making. What’s amazing is lots of people can do this, it is something the human body was made to do. But you really have to practice enough, and then your body just learns what to do.
Before I did slack-lining I used to balance a lot on solid objects like fence rails, still do, very much, and I can now balance on a narrow and rounded steel rail. For a real challenge those thin white rails on canal lock-gates are very exciting. But, what’s really interesting, if you get me on a nice wide beech branch and stick me in the air, up at around only thirty feet, I find it really difficult to walk out across the branch, even though I have the skills to balance in The Tree yoga position, one-legged on my toes on a 9 inch square post-top, and even though at a certain grade I can rock-climb comfortably without a rope 200 feet up, but because I’m not used to the beech branch, I just can’t do it, I’m too frightened, my body stops me, seems to stop the muscles working. Although I’m working on it, and with degrees of success. When you try something risky for the first time part of your mind is going to say, ‘I don’t trust you. Is this right?’ And even though I obviously have so many transferable skills and much experience regarding climbing and risk, my body, or the creature I am ‘aint just going to trust the person, who I think I am. And I find the argument you have to have with your animal instincts and with your reasoning, the argument about survival, not only very informative but also hugely rewarding. I’ve learned so much from this.
But it doesn’t have to be extreme or risky. You can quickly get to the level of meditation by simply balancing on one leg, on solid ground even. We Westerners find it very difficult to meditate properly, to empty our clogged minds, but there’s no way you can fail to empty your head if you begin balancing on a slack-line. You can only concentrate on staying on!
I’ve actually got so good at it now that I can look in all sorts of directions, at first though, even glimpsing a flock of geese flying by me would make me fall off. But what’s really interesting is when I started out, and was getting better and better, actually managing to walk the line – I can remember a few times thinking, ‘God I’m really doing well’, and at the same time imagining others looking at me and being impressed … instantly fell off, hah! And nearly hurt myself once as well. Pride-before-a-fall-syndrome, condensed onto a line of nylon. Simple as. So doing balancing, which is hugely important to me now, is actually changing my perception and having a very positive effect on my being a poet.
Poetry, Landscape and Radicals Saturday 9th February, 5.00 pm – 7.00 pm, Newstead Abbey http://nottwords.org.uk/events/newstead/poetrylandscape/
East Midlands Book Aware Panel Sunday 17th February, 2.45pm – 4.00pm Nottingham Trent University, Newton Arkwright Building http://nottwords.org.uk/events/embaauthors/index.html