Anthony Wilson is a poet, academic and writing tutor. His most recent poetry collection is Riddance (Worple Press, 2012) which chronicles a period in his life when he was diagnosed with and treated successfully for cancer.
Anthony researches in the field of creative writing in schools and has written about this subject extensively, most recently in Making Poetry Matter (Bloomsbury, 2013) and Making Poetry Happen (Bloomsbury, 2015).
He also edited the anthology Lifesaving Poems (Bloodaxe, 2015) which arose out of his popular blog series of the same name.
Hi Anthony. I hope you’re well. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Firstly, congratulations on the publication of Livesaving Poems last year which arose out of a project you began some years ago on your blog. For those who may not know the story behind it, can you tell us a bit more and did you expect it to make as big an impact as it has?
Before it became a blog, let alone an anthology published by Bloodaxe, Lifesaving Poems started out as a notebook. It was an entirely informal project that I began a couple of years after recovering from cancer, the goal of which was to try and recall, then copy out in longhand, poems which meant something to me.
I found myself recalling a remark made by Seamus Heaney some years previously, around the time he published The Schoolbag, when he wondered out loud how many poems could really matter to an individual across a lifetime. Was it ten, twenty, a hundred, or just a mere handful?
My criterion for inclusion was so basic as to appear artless: was the poem one I could remember encountering? I was not, and never have been, fussed about including a list of the great and the good. That was never the point. The point was to recall that experience, to know that I knew where I had been when I met the poem for the first time.
That act of recall was important to me because when I was being treated for cancer in 2006 I found that poetry, for the first time in my life, escaped me. Chemotherapy will do that to you. Chemobrain, they call it. Spending time deliberately bringing to mind the poems that had sustained me up to that point in my life seemed an important way of celebrating being alive again.
The notebook took a couple of years to fill. After a few false starts in the world of blogging I hit upon the idea of writing these memories and stories down, in the form of blog posts. I began before I could persuade myself not to, with Alasdair Paterson’s marvellous poem ‘Fishermen’. I can still remember the feeling of elation at having hit on an idea that meant something to me; but I was not prepared for the response both the blog and subsequently the book have engendered.
At the university where I work we spend a lot of time talking about ‘impact’, building it in to our bid proposals and trying to measure the reach and success of our research in terms of it. When I look at the impact of Lifesaving Poems, however, it is nearly always in the form of stories and experiences of readers. They share with me the most personal details of their lives: how the book has helped them recover from alcoholism; how it is helping them to die well by providing a series of readings to be remembered by.
The other day a man I do not know well came up to me at a party and said: ‘Until I read your blog I had no idea what poetry was, but I did know that it wasn’t for me. You have changed both those things.’ If that is not impact I don’t know what is. I have to pinch myself to actively receive it. To answer your question, I didn’t expect it to make such an impression, no.
Some of your academic research explores the role of poetry and poetry writing in education. From the extensive work you’ve done in this field are you optimistic about the future role it has to play? What changes or improvements would you like to see implemented to help encourage pupils to engage with poetry more?
I am always optimistic about the role of poetry in education, and of its potential impact in individuals’ lives. To borrow from Seamus Heaney again, its power to change world events is nil: ‘no lyric ever stopped a tank.’ But in another sense its power is limitless. Lifesaving Poems has certainly tapped into that, I think, the idea that a very ordinary schoolboy could one day have their world transformed by reading John Logan’s ‘The Picnic’. It’s revolutionary.
What I am not optimistic about is the broader, policy making context of education in the current context. For several years now, long before the 2010 General Election, we have seen two very powerful movements running concurrently in education policy. One is a deregulatory laissez faire belief that the market will solve everything, resulting in a decrease in local decision making, and ultimately democracy, all in the name of ‘freedom’ for schools and teachers. At the same time we have one of the most centralised education systems in the world, with ever-increasing high-stakes accountability, managed by Ofsted.
If I could change one thing overnight it would be to move away from this bifurcated discourse of control masquerading as freedom; and for politicians of all parties to refrain from what has been called ‘the discourse of derision’, castigating teachers and schools for not being good enough.
Your own poetry collection Riddance and journal Love for Now document a period in your life when you were diagnosed and treated for cancer. I find it fascinating that you used two different genres to explore the same subject. Now that you are able to look back on them from a distance, do you feel you were able to express things in the poems that you weren’t able to express in the prose or vice versa?
It’s important to know that I wrote Love for Now before I wrote Riddance, though Riddance came out first. As I say above, one of the most difficult aspects of my treatment for cancer was that poetry abandoned me. It was almost a physical thing, like watching a toy boat gradually disappear on the tide.
Once it was clear to me which way my story was going, I decided very early on to keep a journal record of what was happening, not as a way of replacing the poetry (I always hoped, if I survived, that it would come back), but as a way of not saying nothing. It became a small act of resistance if you will.
As time went on it became more of a debt of honour, and gratitude, to the doctors who treated me, to my family and friends for their love and support. The original journal is much longer than the published book. I just kept going, never quite sure if I had got to the end of what I wanted to say.
As my treatment began to draw to a close, and I was able to read again, I felt poetry returning to me. Julia Darling’s amazing books Sudden Collapses in Public Places and Apology for Absence were critical to me at this time, showing a vocabulary of and approach towards cancer that I found wholly user-friendly and inspirational.
I wrote about twenty three poems (what would later become the first section of Riddance) very rapidly during those months, a beautiful autumn as I recall, almost before I realised what I was doing. At that point, of course, I thought I was done, that I had said it all. But I kept writing, and, critically, reading.
I was having some pretty intensive post-trauma therapy at the time, and while I don’t recall anything from those sessions ending up in any of the poems, that process of talking about my experience, of telling my story (including my backstory) inevitably helped shape the attitude and concerns of the poems which followed.
Peter Carpenter at Worple was amazing to me during the whole process of putting it together. Each time I went to him with a new version of my manuscript he would just look at me and say: ‘I think there’s more.’ And more is what the book most certainly is. It’s a more-is-more book. How could it be anything else?
I’m curious to know where you think your own poetry writing is headed next? Have you noticed any specific themes or subjects which are appearing in any new material you are writing?
The short answer is I never know where I am going next with my writing. And I’m pretty much the last person to recognise themes, or repeated images, motifs etc. Peter is great at helping me with that. What I will say is that there is new material, which I do think is the basis of a new book.
If I do notice anything it is that I seem not to have departed massively from the topics I started with: childhood, family, language and memory. The speakers and settings I have deployed all seem to converge on the repeated idea that time is running out and there isn’t a moment to be wasted.
Looking back at Riddance it’s obvious to me that’s what’s going on. But it was there, too, in Full Stretch, and in my first two books. ‘My children are children now: I should enjoy it,’ kind of thing. But I didn’t know this at the time. I pursued the poems, not the programme. If you start out with a programme or an idea, I think Michael Longley says, you end up ‘versifying opinion’. The trick seems to be to let it be what it will be and not worry about it. Much easier said than done, of course.
What does the rest of the year hold for you in the world of poetry? Are there any dates in the diary you are especially looking forward to or goals you have set yourself?
I honestly have no idea. As I say above, I am not very good at following the programme. Also, I am the world’s least well informed person. I could not tell you who is shortlisted for what. There are some very famous books of poems from the last few years which remain resolutely unknown to me, not because I have no time for them, but because other things seem to flourish in their place. The road less travelled, if you will allow me.
I think back to my ‘poetry highlights’ of the last three years or so, and they were all deeply private, intimate experiences: finding a John Ashbery poem I’d not seen before, in a bookshop; discovering the work of Ilhan Berk; reading the books of friends and marvelling at their prowess and their growth. Things worth blogging about, for sure, but not the sort of thing that fits in with the notion of a ‘diary of events’. Like all poets, I remain on the lookout for the next poem, knowing with absolute certainty that it is only around the next corner!
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
Early on, when I began blogging, I was amazed to discover the world of spam. But I loved the zany energy of its language, too, which, it occurred to me, was like a cut-up poem. ‘Hey, great blog post!’ is a found poem, made entirely from comments unearthed from my spam filter. All I have changed is the syntax.
Hey, great blog post!
I am so thrilled I found you by mistake
while browsing for something else.
No longer are backlinks pinging your feed.
I notice you are bold in your optimization,
or italics. This means the new Google Panda
hits the nail on your head, defining the whole thing out.
Even if your mother never showed up
for your graduation under the summer sun
in jacket and large capacity e-mail attacks
you can still have your cake and kill it,
obtaining these handy methods
sourced from silver investment opportunities,
including a dumbbell around each fretting hand,
a person’s fists now parallel to your floors,
bit by bit establishing unique posture with a tennis ball,
exhausted by brain-dead folks.