My friend, former colleague and novelist (The Edge of Things, Slow Furies, The Boy and the Mountain) Alan Robertshaw asked me to participate in a ‘Blog Tour’. The idea is that writers answer four questions about themselves on their blogs and then nominate another writer to do the same thing a week later. You can find Alan’s contribution at http://www.alanrobertshaw.com/blog.php Given that the exercise provides an opportunity to talk about myself, I was only too pleased to agree.
What am I working on?
I’m currently working on a range of projects. Right now I’m putting together a book with violence and irrationality as its major themes. The extravagant working title – Bloody, proud and murderous men, adulterers and enemies of God is how the sixth century historian Gildas described the English in On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain. Not Angels, but Angles. Bloody, proud … begins with an unlikely true crime sonnet sequence and is followed by my ‘Corpus Christi pageant’ The Coronation of the Virgin. The Coronation … started off as an attempt to fill a gap in the York ‘mystery play’ cycle, but grew and transformed itself in to something else. Another poem sequence exploring the human potential for the most horrific extremes of violence follows, and the piece as a whole ends with several poems that explore further the themes raised earlier in the book. I’m also making the first tentative steps to beginning what may turn into three books of poetry. Incendium Amoris takes as its starting point the life, writing and landscapes of the fourteenth century hermit Richard Rolle. We are Travellers is about football. All Legal Quarry picks possibly pointless fights in a range of proverbial empty rooms. My novels-in-progress, Charlie and Thief remain frustratingly on the back-burner. The truth is, I’ve lost interest in them – for now.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I’m a poet. I write other things – plays, novels, my biographical work about Ted Hughes – but poetry is my calling. I suppose the thematic obsessions of my poetry – violence, religion, transgression, identity, class, ‘politics’, landscape and nature, England and the English – make for a quite distinctive, heady and inflammatory mix. The first person lyric is not prominent in my oeuvre, so I suppose that sets me apart from the mainstream to some extent. I rarely write what I call ‘occasional verse’ – stand-alone poems about given subjects provoked by experience or ‘inspiration’ – I tend to explore themes at length in planned and structured books and sequences. I’ve written six books of poetry. All of them were planned as books – they’re not ‘collections’, in the traditional sense. There’s an implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) confrontational nature to some of my poetry. This is partly temperamental, but its origins lie in the fact that I write in an engaged way and am often concerned to challenge, criticise and condemn. Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets. Stylistically, it may be that my technique of incorporating Middle and Old English language and early modern spelling, grammar and cadences into my work is distinctive. I use alliteration to rip my rhythms and I generally aspire to a vivid, visual and virile ethos. My poems swear a lot. Who knows?
Why do I write what I do?
I used to write because I wanted to be a writer. That was an entry to a sterile world of contemptible provincial ambition and well-deserved writers’ block. Now I write because I’ve got something to say and for the sheer exhilaration of saying it. I feel – and feel is a key word, standing for that that combination of reason, intuition, imagination, emotion, sentiment, empathy, fear, superstition and sensuality that combine to create meaning and purpose – myself connected to and representing a vital, living tradition of transcendent, parochial Englishness, drawing on history, culture, language, literature, people, landscape, nature and land. I’m of that, for that – and against the Kittim, the removers of boundary stones and the seekers after smooth things.
How does my writing process work?
When I get an idea for a book, or sequence of poems, I open a notebook, jot down ideas and make plans. When I’m ready – usually with a very detailed plan, including poem titles, form, content, relationship to other poems in the book, etc – I begin writing. When I’m in the groove I can write very quickly. I wrote, edited and polished the forty five poems of Oswald’s Book of Hours in not much more than three months. I wrote a twenty seven poem pamphlet in November last year. The Coronation of the Virgin, a one act verse-play in six scenes, I wrote in a week, more or less. I write with dictionary, thesaurus and Google to hand, in the spare bedroom, which I’ve taken over as my study: desk, bookshelves, basket for dogs, walls plastered with the pictures, photographs, bric-a-brac and momentos of my personal obsessions. When I’m not working ‘other jobs’ to pay the bills, I get up at six and write until eleven or twelve – three sessions with short breaks between. After the third session I’m usually burnt-out for the day, although sometimes I find a resurgence of spirit in the evening and write for another couple of hours. I edit and polish in short bursts – as short as ten minutes – at any time, with typescripts lying about all over the house. I don’t usually share work-in-progress, especially for ‘feedback’ – that can muddy the waters and even cripple the vision. However, when I’ve finished something and am reasonably happy with it, I often test the work on trusted friends – to gauge reaction or to test hypotheses. Their reactions may or may not inform the process of revision. I never work on more than one project at a time, although I often have three or four other projects ready to go as soon as I’ve wrapped up the current one.
I’m passing the baton of the ‘Blog Tour’ to Becki Cherriman. I was a member of the Yorkshire Arts Circus’s Writer Development Programme with Becki and had the privilege of witnessing what I believe was her very first poetry reading, a poem about the takeover of a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, by Chechen separatists. Becki is a published writer, creative writing facilitator and performer based in Leeds. She has won several prizes for her poetry including first prize for The Speakeasy Open Competition second prize in the Ilkley Literature Open Mic and runner up in the Yorkshire Open Poetry Competition. Her work has also been shortlisted in several international competitions including The Fish Short Story Prize. Last year she was the commissioned poet for Morley Literature Festival and Grassington Visual Arts Festival. With the help of Cinnamon Press, Becky is currently putting together her first poetry collection and waiting to hear from agents with regards to her second, magical realist, novel Skybound. Her ‘Blog Tour’ entry will be up at http://beckycherriman.wordpress.com/ on 24th February.