I talked to Matt Howard about his first collection ‘Gall’ (The Rialto 2018)
You were born in Norfolk. Could you tell me a little about the places of your childhood?
Until I was 8 years old, we lived in a village called Hethersett, which is about 5 or so miles west of Norwich. We then moved to Wymondham, a large town which is just a couple of miles further west – so suburban / rural fringe. The first real ‘place’ of my childhood was the small wood close to where we lived. As my brother Mark is 3 years older than I am, that was where we would go unsupervised with our group of friends to run wild making dens, fires – all of us allowed to play with knives!
It always strikes me as a deeply sad, potentially catastrophic social change that kids just don’t have that opportunity to explore as freely now. Writing this in early September makes me think of what we called ‘hay-baling’ where we would re-arrange bales, tipping them over to jump between them, cutting the twine on some to take the hay for dens or simply making a stack for jumping about. Not ideal from the farmer’s perspective…. In fact, I remember one time the farmer came tearing towards us across the field in his tractor while we were having this fun, him gesturing madly, then chasing after us on foot with his snarly dog as we scattered through a hedgerow into the next field over – my knife came off my belt, it was a poor replica of something a young Sioux might carry and being 7 or 8 years old it was one of my most treasured things. Anyway, my brother ran back towards the farmer and dog to get it just in time. Big brother as hero!
After we moved to Wymondham we started to fish a lot, ranging out further on bike rides. Our main place being Wade’s Pit but also a particular spot in a little village called Carlton Forehoe, just over the bridge there. My brother led all that. For me it was still about mischief with friends of course, but also being outdoors and quiet, fishing your own swim. A constant through growing up in Wymondham was ‘The Field’ as we all called it, which was a basic playing field on the housing estate where we lived. As well as somewhere to just hang around together, we played endless hours of anything with a ball there, though mostly baseball and football.
[Common Reed Strumpshaw Fen]
You live in Norwich, which appears to have a very healthy poetry scene. What goes on? How are you involved?
It does indeed and also a great literary scene in general. There’s the UEA and also The National Centre for Writing, also a great independent bookshop, The Book Hive with an events programme. Café Writers, run by volunteers who are all poets, has great readers every month as well as open mic. There’s also Lighthouse Journal run by Gatehouse Press and of course The Rialto.
So many great poets live in or around Norwich. Just off the top of my head, so this won’t be a complete list, but poets here include: George Szirtes, Moniza Alvi, Michael Mackmin, Heidi Williamson, Esther Morgan, Richard Lambert, Laura Scott, Ramona Herdman, Jo Guthrie, Martin Figura, Helen Ivory, Tom Warner, Andy McDonnell, Jos Smith, Andrea Holland, Tiffany Atkinson, Julia Webb…. it’s energising and daunting at the same time!
I joined the Café Writers committee in 2007 but I haven’t really been involved on that for at least the last 3 years. And despite the great choice of events around the city I don’t get to much now as I’ve been so busy outside of the day-job the last few years with arts / conservation stuff (RSPB / Rialto Competition, Norfolk Festival of Nature and New Networks for Nature).
What drew you to poetry? Was it something you were always interested in?
The earliest interest I remember is loving Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes when I was 6 or 7. I also remember learning about the Romans at school around that time and we all had to make our own Bulla (an amulet); finding that again when moving out years ago, the wish I’d put inside it said ‘I hope my handwriting gets neater’ and on a separate scrap of paper, I guess my first effort at a poem: ‘the sun shines / the sun shines through / through the window / on to you’. That’s ridiculously sentimental, but I was moved to find it there in that maybe it attests to an early impulse I had towards poetry. (I can say for certain however that my handwriting is still atrocious).
My head wasn’t turned to poetry until we read the First War poets, I think I was 14. Then later, during A Levels I became hooked. I had two great teachers, Mrs Flowerday and Mrs Palmer, who led us through the Romantics, the First War poets again and then Larkin and others, also some Carol Ann Duffy. In particular, I remember struggling with writing about Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ and Mrs Flowerday sitting with me reading it aloud and it moving her to tears. Suddenly all of the effects of the writing just clicked.
I didn’t go to university, so after A Levels all my reading was self-directed but I kept poetry at the heart of that. I always knew I wanted to try to write though just didn’t dare and didn’t know where to start. I was 28 before I did. I enrolled on an OU course, then after that an evening class at UEA which connected me to other poets in Norwich (Helen Ivory was one of the tutors) and when I finished that course I got a place on MMU’s distance learning MA.
You are closely involved with The Rialto. How has the magazine influenced your own approach to poetry?
The Rialto has been massively influential for me. I would buy odd copies before I was trying to write and loved the quality of the work it publishes, its variety, its design and that pretty much it is just poems. In that way it connected me to a much wider view of poetry, leading me to follow up on names of poets I liked in the magazine to buy their pamphlets or collections. Since starting out on trying to write I have subscribed. Once I’d had a few poems published elsewhere, I sent a batch off and was delighted to get a poem accepted. (Lots of poems from subsequent batches over the years have been ‘returned’ however…).
My involvement with the ‘business’ of The Rialto evolved from working with the editor, Michael Mackmin, on the RSPB /The Rialto Nature and Place competition. That led to my being asked to join the Advisory Board, which is a non-editorial, voluntary role.
[Edward Thomas Memorial on Shoulder of Mutton]
Which poets do you particularly admire and why? Which have influenced your writing?
Far too many to list. Ted Hughes’ work has always been vital. Even though I return to it less nowadays, that is the foundation stone, both in terms of trying to write and to my working in nature conservation. Edward Thomas is also a big presence for me, then all the expected names I guess: Heaney, Larkin, MacNeice etc. Essential contemporaries are Kathleen Jamie, some of Alice Oswald and Michael Longley. Their continued engagement with nature and place as well as their mastery of form, particularly lyric form astonishes me. (I’ve always thought Kathleen Jamie’s poem ‘The Dipper’ to be perfect). I’m looking forward to Isabel Galleymore’s first collection next year. I think Anna Selby and Joanna Guthrie are also up to interesting things too in kindred territory so hope to see collections from them soon.
It’s important for me to cast the net wide, for pleasure and interest as much as for the selfish impulse of thinking about how to develop my own writing. In that regard some poets have been more important at different times. For example, when I was first starting, I found reading Charles Simic would always get me writing, but I haven’t read him in ages. More and more I’ve been looking to poets in translation or US poets – Miguel Hernandez, Adelia Prado, also Jack Gilbert and Galway Kinnell, there is an emotional directness and openness about them. I’m much more interested in poetry or any art for that matter where it is primarily a mediation of the heart/gut/loins and then the head, rather than the other way around. Anything too in the clever-clever register is much less appealing to me.
You published a first pamphlet The Organ Box. How did that come about?
I entered Eyewear’s Melita Hume Prize with a full collection manuscript. I didn’t win but it led to Todd Swift inviting me to submit a pamphlet length manuscript for consideration. Todd and Les Robinson (who edited their 20/20 Pamphlet series) then accepted that. The pamphlet came out in December 2014.
What advice would you give to poets putting together their first pamphlet?
Read as wide a variety of pamphlets as you possibly can, this will help you get an understanding as to where your writing might fit with a pamphlet publisher. Be patient and wait until you feel you have more than enough good poems. Take the time needed to think about how to best order them. Share the draft manuscript with people whose critical opinion you trust.
Your first collection ‘Gall’ was published this year by The Rialto. Can you tell me about the process of putting the book together?
Like most first collections, I guess it represents the best of my writing since I started, albeit honed and focused so that it presents the strongest pieces and key themes and concerns for me. We had the printed copies of it at the start of March this year but the process of getting to that point probably started 2 years before with my shuffling and re-shuffling a possible manuscript, though continuing to write and publish new poems through that time as well, a couple of which went in.
About eighteen months ago I started to share the draft manuscript with friends for comment and their insights were invaluable (thanks again to Ed Doegar, Colin Hughes, Jos Smith and Michael Mackmin!) – all agreed that the manuscript was too big and perhaps had too many places and voices. Then in autumn last year, being Poet in Residence at the Cambridge Conservation Initiative gave me the time and space to settle on what became the final contents and ordering of the book. I laid out all the poems on the floor and for a week left them like that so I could perch in a corner of the room or walk around them , looking for better ways of presenting it, better connections etc. That was October last year; Michael accepted the manuscript at the end of November.
[Manuscript laid out at CCI]
What about the title? What do you consider the meanings and possible ambiguities of the word?
I love the title and can say that because it wasn’t my idea! All my previous attempts were terrible, overwrought nonsense. It was Michael’s suggestion, made to me as I now recall, long before he accepted the manuscript. He just came out with it whilst we were birdwatching at Cley Marshes on the North Norfolk coast. As soon as he said it I knew it was fixed for me.
As for the meanings and ambiguities – there’s one meaning that refers to having a lot of nerve or audacity, then there’s being on the other end of that, where something galls you and of course the naturalist’s meaning where a gall is an abnormal growth, a physiological response of flora to some form of external irritant (such as an insect – think oak apples). For me, all of that somehow chimes with the need to write poems. It also references two poems in the collection, ‘Gall Ink’ and ‘Galling’.
What role did Michael Mackmin play in helping shape the book? What is his approach to editing?
Michael was central to it. Whilst I imagine he might be embarrassed by my saying it, but he’s effectively been my mentor for the past 6 or more years. He had published a couple of my poems before I started to work for the RSPB and had written back with encouraging comments in general. We became friends through working on the RSPB / Rialto competition, which I first suggested to him in 2011 – that was how we then came to meet in person. He was instantly enthusiastic about the competition and has been amazingly generous with his time and energy since, making it a real success.
I guess around 2012, as well as meeting to cover Rialto and competition things, we started to occasionally meet for a coffee so he could look at poems. Michael’s insights with new drafts absolutely kicked my writing on. He tells me straight when something just doesn’t work and always has interesting and generative thoughts for how to develop something or salvage a part of something. He will edit line by line and always works in the poem’s best interests. When we came to work on the final manuscript of Gall we worked quite quickly, helped of course by the fact that Michael had seen a lot of the poems at an early stage anyway. As mentioned before, he accepted this final manuscript at the end of November last year – we then had a couple of editorial meetings in January and February and email flurries in a burst of energy to get it finalised before the Nature and Place Competition deadline which always brings a huge amount of work . We’ve always worked very well and easily together, so whilst there were inevitably a couple of places where one of us had to convince the other, it was a real pleasure. Michael really is very dear to me and I am so grateful for his friendship. He is of course a wonderful poet too and I thoroughly recommend his collection And.
What are, in your eyes, the key themes of the book? Were you conscious of them as you were writing the poems, or was it only as you assembled them that you saw the linkages?
The main engagement through the book is our relationship with the more-than-human world. But there are also poems about love, particularly when it isn’t straightforward; also history, wildness, conflict, wonder, belief, control, dissent, masculinity….dunno….I must confess to feeling slightly awkward having to speak for it in this way! I was definitely conscious of linkages, more so as I sensed I was getting ready for a full collection. Towards the end of that I knew I wanted a couple of shorter, more direct lyrical pieces to go towards the end of the book, and I knew that I wanted them to be more concerned with wonder and in a celebratory tone. There are also two sequences in the book, ‘The House of Owls’ and ‘Blackwater Carr’. They didn’t start as sequences but as soon as I began to feel potential in the first poems that really helped me test out further links and ideas.
To what extent is the book autobiographical?
Some parts are, though to varying degrees. The Blackwater Carr sequence comes directly from doing physical habitat work there and ‘White-clawed Crayfish’ revisits the memory it describes. Other than that, there are lots of narratives and thrown voices that helped me get towards what I was after at different times. And there are others that are more inevitable, things that I had to work out, though the impulse for the poem may have ended up layered in the images and narrative that the writing out began to suggest. I’ve always thought Hughes had it right when he said ‘Every work of art stems from a wound in the soul of the artist.’
Can you tell me about the arresting cover image? It appears to be some kind of growth or head containing a series of tiny skulls.
I am delighted with the cover, it really is far better than anything I ever imagined for it. It’s Nick Stone‘s work, derived from one of Mark Cocker’s photographs. Nick is The Rialto’s excellent designer. It’s from a photo of a gall on an oak tree, but not a fresh gall, one that’s wizened and split, so the wasp has long since emerged and gone. Nick worked the image to make it look like there are those tiny skulls crowded in the gall. I love too that the image comes from those friendships.
Kathleen Jamie said of your poetry that it is ‘intense and shapely, but capable of daring imagination. She said it ‘combines the intimate, careful voice of the naturalist with a lush and unusual diction’ and called the book a ‘wunderkammer’. What do you think about such an endorsement?
I’m completely thrilled with it. I love Kathleen’s writing, her poems and essays are just fantastic. Only a few poets ever seem to endure from any period; I’m sure her work will be among them.
The book opens with the surreal and intriguing poem ‘A Jar of Moles’. Can you tell me a little about the inspiration for the poem?
It came from seeing a specimen jar full of moles which is on display at the Grant Museum of Zoology in London. You can see it as soon as you walk through the door. It must captivate a lot of visitors as the museum now sells postcards of the image and even cuddly moles! I think the jar has its own twitter account too. Weird. I instantly found it utterly compelling and still do – 6 years after first drafting the poem I still visit the museum just to look at it. I’d like to write more in that mode, though it seems hard to break back in to.
A Jar of Moles
I have trawled the whole city for your gift,
trusted the knowledge of black cabs to bring you this –
it is quite full, so be careful of its weight.
The man couldn’t say how many it contains,
simply that it’s full because it has to be,
just as a true heart only ever brims with love.
Each side is crammed with quiet wild faces,
pink snouts clear from their maze of dark chambers;
see, this one here still bares its teeth.
The labouring velvet behind blown glass through decades
and where one man made that emptiness
another has worked hard to fill it.
So take these moles darling, with my love,
hold them safe, and away from the sun,
cherish each heavy earth-swimming hand.
[Jar of Moles, Grant Museum]
‘The House of Owls’ is a sequence of five poems that appeared in your earlier pamphlet. Where did the concept of a house of owls come from? What is it about this particular bird that intrigues you?
The sequence started out as one poem, ‘The Fall of The House of Owls, 1914’. I wrote that after reading about a derelict chimney stack emptied of its decades’ worth of owl pellets that when dissected, yielded all the detail of the diversity in owl diet back then. That of course speaks for the former abundance of species and subsequent catastrophic losses. I can’t remember exactly where, but I think it was published in a scientific journal, but I read about it in Richard Mabey’s excellent Nature Cure where he relays the story. When I showed Michael the poem in draft he instantly said ‘I want to know more about the mother character’, so that set me off thinking more and more about her and then the sequence came together really quite quickly.
I just find owls astonishing and beautiful. Every time I see one is special and a real encounter. There is of course so much myth and folklore surrounding them. Most of all I love their intensity and utter self-possession, how they look back at you. 3 years ago I tagged along on a birdwatching trip to Serbia with John Fanshawe, Mark Cocker and Tim Dee. One of the main reasons for going was to visit Kikinda which is a town with the most astonishing long eared owl roost, there are hundreds of birds in the trees in the town centre with as many as twenty to thirty together in a single tree. I’ve yet to find a way to get that experience into a poem…..
[Long eared owl in Kikinda by Mark Cocker]
What are ‘clouties’?
A cloutie well is an ancient place of pilgrimage, a well or spring with a tree or trees growing beside them. The tradition is for people to leave offerings or ‘clouties’ with their prayers or wishes tied to the trees. My poem ‘Clouties at Madron’ references that well in Cornwall which also has a small ruin of a chapel right by it. It was quite an experience stopping there a few years ago, I knew instantly I would write about it.
Mark Cocker talks of your ‘alternative world of other species – solitary wasps, snakes, shrews, oaks, apes, owls, flies, flowers and birds’. Where does this incredible interest in nature come from?
I think I just always had a latent interest. Growing up where I did and having the opportunity to play so freely in the those key imaginative ‘places’ of my childhood will have also played a huge part in that of course. But it’s really important for me to state that I wasn’t in any way literate as a naturalist then, it was simply about being out and in it all. What is common among proper naturalists is that they often had someone who introduced them to some aspect at a young age, say an uncle or a grandparent that maybe took them out birding. I didn’t have that in my family. The crucial thing that brought me back to and then deeper into that and ultimately to my working in conservation, was reading Ted Hughes, which started seriously for me around 1999, when I was 21. Hughes’ work really is essential for me in so many ways.
What do you think about the labels ‘nature poetry’ and ‘eco poetry’? Are you happy to be labelled as such?
I guess we all use labels for easy shorthand, though they can be helpful and unhelpful of course. It seems to me that ‘nature poetry’ is often used to be dismissive, suggesting work that just presents pretty pastoral images, whilst ‘eco-poetry’ hints more towards poems that are at least engaged in some sort of activist mode, where the poem is seeking to do some sort of ecological ‘work’. To expect a poem to do anything other than exist as a poem is bloody grand ambition(!) and I think Keats’ notion about being wary of poems with ‘palpable designs’ is right – I suppose it could end up lapsing into a prescribed protest, a sort of poetry by numbers. Most of all, the poems I value as a reader and ones that I most want to write are those that strike me as inevitable poems; that is to say poems that have compelled themselves to be written. Following from that, if the person writing the poem is engaged in some way with places and all the species within them, then in that ecological sense I think there is instead a poetry ‘of’ and ‘for’ numbers. The commitment will always be to language, to form and craft, to the poem itself, but in such poems that commitment can be on equal footing with the ‘eco’.
It has never felt that much of a stretch for me to see the potential for poetry and all of the arts to contribute to ecological work. The multitudinous ways we consume and live our lives, putting more and more pressure on the systems of life on the planet points to the fact that collectively, we have imagined ourselves as somehow outside of nature. That the arts represent the very best of how we can feel and think points to how essential they are for working the habitats of hearts and minds; given where we are right now, our own hearts and minds could be seen to be the most crucial habitats of all.
To get back to your question, I’m happy just to be part of the conversation of those trying to write poems in that mode. I feel it is an imaginative obligation to keep trying with my own writing as well as to work within the conservation community to make space for the arts and these debates.
[View from top of the Shoulder of Mutton hill in Steep]
Do you have a favourite poem in the collection?
Not one favourite above all others, though there are a those that get more towards what I think I’m after. Though what I’m after only really becomes clearer through the drafting. There are some that I feel differently about as time goes on. As I mentioned before, I’d love to write more in the direction of ‘A Jar of Moles’, so that is a favourite. The energy that came with writing the two sequences in the book was wonderful, plus in the case of the Blackwater Carr sequence there are the memories of working with my friend Mark Cocker down at Blackwater (which is the few acres he has along the Yare, not far out of Norwich). Out of those poems, I’m most fond of ‘Crome’ and I always include that one at readings. The last poem in the book, ‘Elder’, is in the inevitable category I referred to. I think the first and last poems in any collection should be ones that are particularly important to you.
How has the book been received? Have you done many readings?
In truth it is still early days in terms of reviews, so I’m bracing myself for unfavourable responses, or worse, no response at all. An early and really positive review was by Tim Dee on Caught by the River.
As it has been such a year of ‘life’ as well as work, we haven’t even had the launch reading yet! At the time of writing, that’s coming up in a few weeks. As well as Gall, Esther Morgan will be launching The Wound Register and Michael is launching And. It will be great fun reading together; The National Centre for Writing is very generously hosting us at Dragon Hall in Norwich on Thursday 11th October.
I did read at FenSpeak in Ely in July, which was great. I’ve a couple of others lined up in the early part of next year but before that I’m hoping to do something at CCI in Cambridge and I’m very much looking forward to reading at Poetry in Aldeburgh on the Saturday where I’ll be reading from the collection. And on the Sunday, there’ll be readings from the issue of Magma on climate change that I have just finished co-editing with Fiona Moore and Eileen Pun. Aldeburgh is always such a highlight of the year and the programme you’ve worked to put together looks great, Paul!
POETRY AND WORK
You work in nature conservation. What does the job entail?
I work for the RSPB as a Regional Fundraising Officer. The office is in Norwich but the region extends beyond East Anglia to include Lincs, Beds and Herts. The job is to work with RSPB colleagues and partners to fundraise for conservation projects which could encompass anything within the charity’s mission, for example this could include things like visitor infrastructure on reserves, education or public engagement work and of course habitat work.
What are the particular nature conservation challenges in Norfolk?
Norfolk is very rural and has lots of agriculture. In addition to that, it has a wonderful range of habitats – coastline, the Broads and the Brecks. The usual challenges present themselves that add to the pressure on habitats and their constituent species: balancing development and food production in sustainable ways and all the many and varied ways that climate change will continue to have impact. All the while there is the need to help educate and to promote and improve access to nature for all.
For me it stems back to what I said earlier – the way we consume and live our lives is placing unsustainable strain on all the life systems of the planet. In so many ways we seem to have imagined ourselves outside of nature. That is the biggest challenge as I see it and it falls far beyond Norfolk. I always feel that if only we could develop more of a capacity to think further than our own short lifetimes there would be real change.
[Matt, John Fanshawe, Tim Dee and Mark Cocker in Serbia]
Can you tell me about the New Networks for Nature Steering Group you are involved in?
New Networks for Nature describes itself as a broad alliance of creators that includes poets, authors, scientists, film makers, visual artists, environmentalists, musicians and composers whose work draws strongly on the natural environment. As well as making productive links for people and organisations with similar purposes, it seeks to challenge the low priority placed nationally and politically on nature as a source of culture.
New Networks holds an annual two and a half day symposium where we aim to present the full range of people working in these different disciplines to a public audience. It is wonderfully interdisciplinary with each individual’s practice on an equal footing whether they are performing, presenting or part of a debate or panel discussion. And our speakers / performers could be preeminent in their field or just emerging. To give an example, in 2016 Gillian Beer chaired a conversation exploring the idea of legacy and of dealing with timescales beyond our own lives. Kathleen Jamie, novelist and author Rebecca Stott, leading environmentalist Tony Juniper and the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees were the panel onstage, though a key part of New Networks is to broaden the debate with questions from the floor as well. In the closing session of that 2016 event, emerging poet and singer / songwriter Jade Cuttle performed before David Attenborough spoke to close the event.
New Networks was founded by Tim Birkhead, Jeremy Mynott, Mark Cocker and John Fanshawe ten years ago. The steering group has grown and changed over that time. I joined in 2012 to take on the role of treasurer, which I retain, though since we became a small charity a couple of years ago I’ve become a Trustee. The steering group really is a vibrant group and everyone mucks in with all manner of the jobs needed to put on the annual event. It adds up to a lot of work and we all do it as volunteers, which is essential to the spirit of New Networks. This year’s tenth anniversary event will again be in Stamford in Lincolnshire, which has been our main home, though in 2019 we will be in York with 2020 likely to be a partnership event at UEA. The challenge always is to broaden the audience for these issues.
From its founding, poetry really has been at its heart (Ruth Padel is also a Trustee and Katrina Porteous is an Ambassador); in many ways it gives me a place where I make most sense as a conservationist. Over the years we have had excellent poets performing and contributing – just off the top of my head Alison Brackenbury, Jo Shapcott, Pascale Petit and this year there’s a session on poetry and activism featuring Jos Smith, Luke Thompson, Ben Smith and Isabel Galleymore who I think are all very interesting poets.
You are also involved with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative based at the David Attenborough Building in Cambridge. How does CCI work and what are its links with poetry and literature?
Explaining how CCI works is best done by grabbing this from their website: ‘CCI’s vision is to secure a sustainable future for biodiversity and society through an effective partnership of leaders in research, education, policy and practice. The Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) is a unique collaboration between the University of Cambridge and leading internationally-focused biodiversity conservation organisations clustered in and around Cambridge, UK. It represents a critical mass of expertise — on a scale unparalleled anywhere in the world — at the interface of research and education, policy and action….’
Within the David Attenborough Building (which is also home to the newly refurbished Zoology Museum) several NGOs have office space, including the RSPB. CCI is the hub of a coalition that reaches more than 180 countries worldwide. Over 650 people work there and, uniquely, come from both university and NGO backgrounds.
CCI also has an arts, science and conservation programme, which is led by my good friend and colleague, John Fanshawe. There is an Artist in Residence studio space in the building as well as spaces for hanging and displaying work. The links to poetry and literature are still developing. I was their first poet in residence, an opportunity I was able to take up for my RSPB sabbatical project. The focus of my time was to begin to articulate the place of poetry within conservation practice and to engage poets and public audiences with the CCI community through poetry. In this way it was less about generating my own writing and more about building links between conservation science and practice and the poetry community as well as of course holding public events. (Nevertheless, the sabbatical time was absolutely invaluable as it afforded me time to settle on the final manuscript Gall).
Working with John we have hosted the RSPB / Rialto Nature and Place Competition prize-winners and judge’s reading at CCI; last year Kathleen Jamie read whilst this year we hosted Michael Longley. Ruth Padel has also read and came in to lead a workshop; we also hosted The Poetry Translation Centre for a reading from Bejan Matur and Jen Hadfield. I also convened a cohort of poets at first / second collection stage which included time in the field with conservationists, all to generate ideas and new writing. The residency led to my co-editing the forthcoming Climate Change issue of Magma and central to that has been paired conversations with poets and CCI-based scientists leading to new poems……so on reflection, a lot has happened / is happening!….though John and I are keen to do much more.
Whilst there is an RSPB office in the building, I don’t have a desk there. Whenever I’m at CCI it’s more often in my own time and I’m there as someone who is trying to foster links between the arts and conservation which is what I feel to be vital work in helping to show what nature means to people. And I’m also there in the guise of someone who tries to write poems. I find it a wonderfully inspiring and vibrant place.
[John Fanshawe, Michael Longley, Michael Mackmin Matt H at CCI]
Which are the most useful resources for stimulating your own poetry reading and writing? Do you have favourite magazines and journals?
I try to read the contemporary poetry scene as broadly as possible, though I tend towards lyric more than experimental. I’m very conscious there are huge gaps in my reading though and I intend to read backwards further. In terms of reading to stimulate writing, I just follow my nose and interests as I would do if I weren’t trying to write. That often includes history, biography, literary criticism, nature writing, natural history, science, history of science, anything…..though not usually much fiction. I did however recently read A.L. Kennedy’s ‘Day’ and was utterly astonished by it. I’m currently about 100 pages in to Richard Holmes’ ‘The Age of Wonder’ which I’m enjoying and has seen me scribbling notes as I go which I’m hoping is a sign that poems will follow. I’m wary of ‘researching’ for poems too much though.
In terms of journals and magazines, I subscribe to a few and have subscribed to various ones off and on and will buy single issues too. That list includes The Rialto, The Fenland Reed, The Poetry Review, PN Review, Poetry London, Stand, Magma, Poetry Wales, The Dark Horse, MPT, The North and Agenda. Of course there’s great stuff online too – The Compass , Prac Crit and The Clearing are good examples. With my Rialto Advisory Board hat on, I’m always surprised that the volume of submissions vs sales and subscriptions are at such a great disparity. This is the experience of all journals and presses. I guess that’s an old whinge, but no less true.
When and where do you write?
Not very often at all over this last year, which is in some part due to post-collection-lull but also as there’s been a lot of work and life happening. If I am writing, new work is typically started over a weekend, usually in a café, or sometimes the main Library at The Forum in Norwich. I don’t work Fridays so weekends can (or used to) afford a stretch of time. I like a little bit of noise, but not all the distractions at home like T.V, radio, internet etc. Going out to do it is part of the process to keep me disciplined. Train journeys can be good too. I always start on plain A4 paper and I use pencil. I’m most happy when I can sit long enough to get what feels like a first draft down. Then I’ll type it up later at home, which often sees lots of further tinkering before printing that off. I can get into re-working and editing during the working week ok, but only very rarely will something fresh get started.
Where does the poem begin?
Always with some sort of encounter, and that could be with anything – people, animals, art or artefacts, a place, maybe something half-seen or half overheard, sometimes just a cadence or the suggested cadence of something. But I think it is always something less known than felt, so less in the head and more in the heart / gut / loins. For me, ultimately I think it has to begin with openness, a sort of readiness.
[Razor Shells Titchwell Beach]