A Lough Poet

Oh so happy and squiggly, I’ve lost all sense of how to write properly and with dignity.

Unfortunate considering the proper(followed by the radically improper) use of language is my central focus for the next twelve months – thanks to Kerry Featherstone, I am Loughborough University’s Poet-in-Residence.

I met Kerry back in 2011 when ‘Sudden rainfall’ was coming into fruition. We chatted about working together then, went our separates ways, and with babies, Bodily Writing, and ‘Siren’, somewhere in the mist of time the idea got lost. But wonderfully, beautifully, out of the blue the call of duty arrived, and without hesitation I accepted.

Loughborough (or Lough) is known for its advances in engineering and technology. I’m  thrilled to be a part of a movement that brings a focus back to the developments and usage of a tool that, now more than ever, is needed. Not to take away from the wonders of technology or engineering but, words in a peculiar order that grow and sound like music, really are wonderful too.

Why? Because there’s truth in it. The political (and physical) landscape of Europe, and social attitudes are in general and at large, shifting. We are living through a humanitarian crisis – responding with urgent compassion is the most important thing at this time. But so is communication. Creativity allows us to refine, relieve, and filter our thoughts – and to my mind poetry can be one of the most powerful ways to get a message across.

Second to music, poetry is the highest art form, because it purifies. I often have a great deal of trouble getting my words out, especially if I’m feeling passionate. Poetry allows you to mailshot a thought or idea that, though not necessarily new, is delivered to the world in a way that no-one has ever quite experienced. Like your shadow, your poetry  is unique to you – though it’s far easier to cast a shadow than a poem. Learning how to hammer this oblique, often confusing strain of thinking and speaking takes time, patience – qualities we only really start to appreciate with maturity. Writing isn’t just a matter of putting your thoughts down on paper – you have to allow for things to be revealed. This encourages the practice of open mindedness (also important) and  one of  my strongest principles as a writer, being open to what the writing itself can bring.

What will I bring to the residency?

I’m not a political poet, my subject is myself. But we are all affected by the world around us and we should allow it to penetrate the work. Getting what you feel out there, in a creative sense, and in a proper way, is the thing all writers dare to master. Maintaining that sense of ‘self in the work – maintaining voice, not making concessions, and still somehow being able to sing into the world’s ear, no matter the theme, is something we might think to only dream of. But can readily achieve. Poetry is powerful, but only if it is poetry. A lot of young writers have flare, but poor understanding of how to channel the energy. I want to writers at Lough to discover what it really is to write a poem – to kindle the compassionate, creative flame – but control it – draw out that crucial thing a great number of modern poets seem to have forgotten about – subject.

Real poetry is powerful – it communicates, bends the bars in our brains. We need to start reading outside of vocation, or for pleasure. We  should read to make ourselves better writers. And we should sweat when we do so: Vasko Popa, Janos Pilinszky, Tomas Transtromer, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce will be among the poets I’ll be pushing during my time at Lough. I also want writers to aspire to be as good. Because at the moment, ‘excellence’ particularly in literature, is pretty substandard. What concerns me too, is that many Post Grads have no idea how to make money out of what they’re doing. So many friends have graduated with the sun on their backs and then turned to me and wet themselves. It’s important to have financial support as a writer – or the continued growth of our ideas and proposals cannot be given the platforms they deserve. I’m not into this ‘creativity for free’ or ‘alternative funding’ bollocks. Like engineering, like science, the arts need a lot more financial energy. Because whether we like it or not, at the moment at least, we live in a world where inflation/debt/austerity/prosperity all dance around the same shiny totem. As a writer you are your own historian – your own myth maker. You are the world’s historians to a point, and you need backing by the big guns.

Overton Poetry Award

There’s some fantastic writing going on out there, and for too long it’s been allowed to blossom and die fast in the darkness. The Overton Poetry Prize is a relatively new poetry award, established in the honour of Bill Overton, one of Loughborough’s leading lecturers. I’ve always been dubious of poetry competitions, they’re usually run by friends of friends who like each other and share trousers with little bits of paper in them all with the same name written on the front (or on rolled up pieces of money). But the very  act of filing your poems together for the first time is a huge step in any poet’s career, not least because you learn how difficult a task it can be – setting the scene, introducing the conflict, the resolve, and that final breath at the end. A book of poetry isn’t just a jumble of ideas – it is a play. And a lot of young writers are blind to this, primarily because they aren’t given the opportunity to discover it until they’re in their mid forties. Competitions like this, relatively widespread and housed in Universities, give young writers the opportunity to get in there early. To learn the tricks of the trade before setting off into the unforgiving literary wilderness.

It’s so important to keep giving lesser known poets – Under grads and Post grads included – the chance to lift out and expand their work. There’s a change, politically, culturally – people are pissed off with the general order of things. Larger world issues aside, I’m particularly concerned with the amount of so-so writing getting published and passed off as first rate,  swallowing every creative penny, and suppressing the emergence of any other aspiring and/or long-standing craftsman, who are writing sublime stuff. It’s hugely imbalanced – and I know I’m not the only one who thinks this. I have been lucky – I’ve made good connections and worked hard. I’m no Philip Pullman (currently Writer-in-Residence at Oxford Brookes) but that’s a good thing. To paraphrase a colleague, do we really need another distant matriarch spinning gold we can’t touch? I’m approachable, and I know my stuff. Guys, this is not a ‘Golden Age’ for poetry, it’s brass at best. The sooner we understand this, and accept it, the sooner we can start making a change.

So here’s to the beginning of new discoveries. I’m excited and optimistic. Within the next few weeks I’ll hopefully be launching a blog/journal, mainly with snapshots and bite-size updates documenting my time at the University, introducing the people I meet, and the writing we create on the way. You’re all invited to discover with me. Comments, thoughts, and general discussion always welcome.