As to ‘why poetry’, I can think of three possible reasons. My mother read me poetry as a child – Walter de la Mare, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas – and made reel-to-reel tapes for me to listen to as I fell asleep. My father spent hours every night drafting and redrafting technical documents, publicity material, minutes of meetings – I almost never saw him without an A4 pad and a stubby pencil, and he would worry for hours over the meaning, and placement, of one word. And when I left my junior school at eleven, Mr Sutcliffe told me never to stop writing poetry. We all have a Mr Sutcliffe. I have a photo of Mr Sutcliffe probably taken in 1975, now looking absurdly old-fashioned, and somewhere I still have my Bushmead Junior School poetry writing book, a thin exercise book which was, I now realise, the same shade of orange as I picked out for the cover of my first pamphlet Extra Maths.
What sort of a poet are you? What inspires you to write?
I hope my poetry is firmly rooted in the real. For a number of years, up until 2011, I ran a 100 acre mixed organic farm in Devon with my husband and four sons, and often write about nature and traditional rural life, but not, I hope, in a prissy or romanticised way – no herons, no buttercups, no fluffy lambs, I’m more of a slaughterhouse and slurry pit poet. Another inspiration for me to write is global environmental damage, but I’d hate to be thought of as a tub-thumper. I like my poems to be oblique, though not obscure, and not political except in the broader sense. Beyond this I write about all sorts of stuff. My three most recent poems are about the lunar landings ‘hoax’, famous hanged men, and the story of the blue rose. Although they are really about obsession, animal rights and man’s attitude to nature. And, of course, whatever you as a reader bring.
Describe your creative process.
OK. Take my poem Bob’s Dogs. It is my homage to Welsh poet and clergyman R.S.Thomas, and is inspired by his poem On The Farm. “There was Dai Puw. He was no good.” Thomas’s poem challenges the cosy (English) view of the traditional pastoral poem with a stern but compassionate look at farm life in rural Wales.
My poem is rooted in fact. In 1994 I bought Bob’s house – a dilapidated Domesday Manor – to renovate. Bob moved into the bungalow up the road. One of his dogs bit one of my builders, and then the postman. When the boy on the YTS scheme got bitten, the dog was shot. I wanted to write about this, about how it felt to be an outsider moving in to a close-knit community, and about farming. It is a harsh life (though not as grim in Devon as in Thomas’s bleak Welsh hills). I wanted to show something of what it means to live on the land; the dirt, the various bonds between men and animals, and the occasional flashes of beauty. And I wanted to finish with something of the redemptive quality of Thomas’s poem, though without recourse to religious belief. Thomas, understandably, disliked the intrusion of the English into Wales; Bob could have also resented the drift of Londoners down to the South West looking for a bit of rural idyll. But instead he welcomed ‘blow-ins’ and reckoned we’d all get on with a bit of give and take. In my poem, ‘Bob’ has come to represent the best of the old Devon farmers – resourceful, pragmatic, guarded but always ready to help, and wise enough to sit back and watch how things pan out, generally with a twinkle in their eye. Thomas goes out in a blaze of spirituality in his uncompromising poem. I find a rough and ready human wisdom at the end of mine.
Bob’s Dogs is a sonnet. Do you always write in traditional forms?
No, though I do write a lot of sonnets. I rarely write in what you might call blank verse. I’m with WH Auden when he says a poem must be a “well-made verbal object that does honour to the language in which it is written”. To me, that requires attention to form and meter. Good poetry is language that has been ‘tempered’; it has density and tensile strength. Meter provides a pattern or framework that allows for variations, for deviation and return. Without meter, verse risks becoming forgettable, lightweight, ephemeral and self-indulgent. As poets we need to ask why a particular poem takes a particular form. Some rules are trivial conventions and can be cast aside. Others are there for a reason and we abandon them at our peril. We do need forms that reflect our new understanding of language, new thinking about the world and our place in it. But certain poetic genres and forms have been around for centuries, and there are reasons why they have survived.
And do you always write about farming?
No, not at all. My book cover blurb of my first collection, Berg, read, “icebergs floating down the Thames jostle with transvestites in Singapore, aliens wading the Hudson River and the lively crew from the local slaughterhouse. We go shopping with Ingomar the barbarian and watch Bernard Manning gigging at Totnes Civic Hall. Other poems are populated with characters from fiction; we step off the cartoon cliff with the Road Runner, join Iggle Piggle in a subverted Night Garden, and hitch a lift with the micro-crew on their Fantastic Voyage.” Plenty there besides farming.
So how did you come to write Shambles?
Shambles the poem came out of a workshop with Michael Symmons Roberts on the MA in Creative Writing at MMU. We had been encouraged to write with a longer line. Shambles the collection grew out of a conversation with Helena Nelson, who was clear that the poems in Berg that dealt with farming were the stronger ones. I decided to write a set of twenty or so poems specifically around farming. I sent these off to the Templar Pamphlet and Collection Competition in May 2010 under the title Wheelbarrow Farm and was one of the four winners, so I reckoned the idea was worth pursuing. Grant Garvey, my main fictional character in Wheelbarrow Farm, is based loosely on a number of people I have come into contact with in the farming community here in South Devon, as are the other characters – the knackerman John Teague, and the farmer Colin. Wheelbarrow Farm is (with a few changes) the opening section of the collection Shambles. I decided to write another set of poems around these characters, continuing their stories, and to include some love interest, so the character of Jo Tucker was born and this group of poems end the book under the section heading The Ballad of Grunt Garvey and Jo Tucker. It’s a romance, and a tragedy. It’s also pretty funny in parts.
Another major part of the collection consists of poems inspired by my personal experience of setting up, running and then winding up and leaving our farm. I have provisionally called this section Death of a Farmer in a reference to Seamus Heaney’s second collection Death of a Naturalist as it seemed to me that I was, like Heaney, exploring the relationship between man and nature, and also that I was examining my decision to give up farming and concentrate on writing in much the same way that Heaney – in the poem Digging, for example (“Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.”) is examining his decision to be a writer rather than work on the land. I wrote one poem with this very much in mind, describing the act of watching another farmer give aid to a cow and noting the parallels and differences between injecting a cow with live-giving Calciject and my writing that poem to “drip-feed a sort of life back into the old girl / down a two ml line, one word at a time.” Interwoven with these two narratives are poems with a more global perspective which comment – fairly obliquely – about impact of modern commercial agriculture on traditional farming communities around the world. Crop spraying, for example, and GM foods. I also have a section – called The Great Hog Oiler Round Up – devoted to fourteen line poems about pigs. This is a bugbear of mine, frequently explored on the MMU MA – when is a sonnet not a sonnet. I’m still trying to work it out.
And what next?
After the difficult second collection … the high concept third album? No idea, it’s too soon to tell.