Hi Alan. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your latest pamphlet The Long Haul with HappenStance. Can you give us a bit of background on the collection and how you feel it compares to your debut Shiver?
In the years after Shiver came out I lost my way rather – I got overly focused on trying to get a first collection published, and my poetry suffered as a consequence. By the time I got my love for the act of writing back that first pamphlet felt a long way away; also, I was starting to sense that my first collection, when it did get published, would be centred around a completely fresh set of poems in a slightly different style.
A second pamphlet seemed a useful way of both bridging the gap between Shiver and first collection, and clearing some psychological space for those new poems to come in. I had a number of poems I liked and was proud of that needed to be properly out in the world, not loitering around in my flat.
I’d only met Helena once, several years ago, but I was very impressed by the pamphlets I saw coming out from HappenStance. I knew she had a (wholly justified) reputation for being a first-rate editor and a committed supporter of her poets, and could see she was someone with strong production values.
We exchanged emails, and I sent her a draft manuscript, which she returned with extensive comments, along with a note saying that if I didn’t feel put out by what she’d written we could probably work together. I didn’t, and we could! She was honest and straightforward about which poems did and didn’t work for her, and her line by line editing was immensely thorough – working with her was a real pleasure.
As to how The Long Haul compares to Shiver, I can’t really say, other than that perhaps the poems in it are denser, more charged – I think I’ve learnt over the years how to get more depth, more resonance into my poems without them losing that sense of clear invitation to the reader. I always like to meet the reader half-way, which seems to me like a basic courtesy.
You wrote an interesting article a couple of years ago describing the drafting process behind your ekphrastic poem ‘Illumination’ for Tom De Freston’s The Charnel House. I was curious whether the ekphrastic poem ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’ in your new pamphlet went through a similar process of multiple drafts and was it a sonnet from the beginning?
I remember Jean Sprackland once saying (in respect of her poem ‘The Birkdale Nightingale’) that the danger of doing lots of research was that you ended up wanting to show it all off, which is fatal for the poem. The first draft of ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’ was about thirty lines long and it was really dreadful. Everything I’d read up about the painting was shoe-horned in. I also made reference to Google, which of course you’re not allowed to do if you’re a poet over the age of 25.
The poem went through around twenty drafts, initially getting shorter each time. About halfway through the process I was down to eighteen lines, and I think the temptation to end-rhyme ‘milieu’ with ‘Celia’ became too much to resist. Committing to a sonnet form at that point helped me to get really clear on what was important and what wasn’t, and of course the need to find rhymes started to take the poem helpfully away from me.
Although it wasn’t intended, I like that the poem, with its mashed-up rhyme scheme, properly echoes the painting, in that both play around with or subvert established forms. In truth, when I’m writing I’d be lost without some kind of form, even if it’s only a rough number of beats per line and regular stanzas. I’m usually pretty good at allowing the form to emerge – I never (for example) set out to write a sonnet. But without some structure, however vague, to shape things at a reasonably early stage I just end up writing rubbish.
Another poem – ‘Found’ – is based on a member of the public’s account of finding the body of a murder victim. It was interesting to compare the original article on the Guardian website with your finished poem to see how the source text has been absorbed and re-arranged. What was it you saw in the article that made you feel a found poem resided there and how much revision was involved in transforming it from prose into poetry?
I’m always drawn to a poetic line that’s fairly obviously rhythmic and singing, but I’m an admirer of poets like Hugo Williams who can write absolutely on that edge between prose and poetry, where language is just shifting into a more heightened state. Although the story itself really grabbed me – I find it both disturbing and moving – it’s the use of language, the way it works on that edge of the poetic, that made me want to fashion a poem from it.
In particular, it was the sentence ‘[I] remember thinking how pleasant it was to hear the birds singing after days of rain’ – the quiet pulse of it, the way it captures a moment of respite before a life is suddenly and unexpectedly flooded in a very different way, and changed forever. It’s just breath-taking.
Because I wanted that to be the last line, it then seemed obvious to break the story up and re-order it, so it’s told kind of back to front. The disruption that process created then reflected something of the traumatic nature of the whole story. Apart from that, I tried as far as possible to avoid altering Trevor Saunders’ original words, which I felt had such a stark, unflinching quality to them.
Some of your love poems (‘His Failure’, ‘The Unchosen’, ‘Voicemail’) and poems about your late father (‘Little Machine’, ‘Handshake‘) seem to explore what ifs and missed opportunities. I’m curious if you view poetry as a vehicle for making sense of and peace with past regrets even when they don’t offer a resolution?
I think ‘His Failure’ is a useful piece to look at more closely in response to your question because of its referencing of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, which has long been one of my favourite works of literature.
At the start of the second section we’re told that Gawain’s shield is inscribed with a profoundly magical symbol, a gold pentangle. It’s called ‘an endless knot’ in the poem, and is described as being ‘appropriate to this knight and to his unblemished arms; because he was always trustworthy in five respects and fivefold in each, Gawain was known to be a good knight, and like refined gold free from every imperfection.’
For Gawain to identify himself with this symbol of eternity and perfection is of course a massive act of hubris, as the poem goes on (with a great deal of both wit and compassion) to demonstrate.
Our lives are always imperfect, and never fully resolved. That’s the human condition. ‘What can be made of the unfinished / lives are all unfinished’ as my friend George Roberts once wrote. But a good poem is like a pentangle, an endless knot, a magical construct – you’re drawn to keep re-reading it, and not only do the best poems bear multiple readings, they actually seem to gain in power the more you read them.
So we’re capable of creating these wonderful little artworks that have the potential to reach beyond our finite, embodied existence, though of course what we’re placing in the middle of the pentangle – the overt subject matter of the poem – is the mess and muddle of our lives. And through that process I think we can find some degree of acceptance, maybe even peace, and can give our daily struggles some small amount of dignity.
Of course, although writing poems demands a huge degree of serious effort, there is something absurd about it too, which is why poets need to be able to (warmly) laugh at themselves on a regular basis. Gawain’s big failure is not surrendering to temptation but taking himself way too seriously, and I guess I love ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ so much because I can see myself in Gawain much more than I’d like to admit.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have enjoyed this year or are looking forward to?
I hadn’t been able to get to StAnza since 2013 so was really pleased to be able to get up there this year. As well as the incredible range of events on offer it’s always a great opportunity to catch up with old friends, and make some new ones.
I very much enjoyed performing ‘The Body Beautiful’ with Helen Mort to a lovely audience up at the Parsonage in Haworth in July. It is a live literature show we’ve been working on for a while that explores gender and the body.
I’m also excited by the shortlists for this year’s Forward Prizes. I think the ceremony is going to be an excellent evening of poetry.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I’ve spent a lot of the last eight months working on a sequence called ‘June 3rd, 1955’, which traces the impact of both world wars on my grandparents, parents and myself. The date refers to my parents’ wedding, and that event, along with one of the photographs from the wedding album, are the centre around which everything else revolves.
Half the poems in the sequence are quite narrative-heavy, but they’re interspersed with shorter lyrics like this one. Some poems, at least in part, date back to 2003, when I’d just started to write again after a break of many years; there are certain memories and family stories that I’ve kept going back to, trying (but failing) to make successful poems from them.
But this poem is new, fresh out of the box. And it was written remarkably quickly, by my standards.
The plastic covers, the card facing
each photograph: completely white.
Only the opening page has text –
bride and groom, church, date,
bridesmaid, best man. Everything
else is space, in which to write
new chapters, a different life.
Wait. The old stories are blurred
figures, lost in the snow. They gather,
clamour at our lit windows, palms
outstretched, beg to be fed with words.
They will go back, they promise us,
to wherever they came from.
But first they need to be heard.