2016/2017 Readings

LBF 1

With Sunshine coming out in September I’ll be reading at a number of events, with more tbc. Here is a quick listing for anyone who would like to come along to these, to support, buy a book, or hear me read my new work:

Saturday 17th September 2016Poetry Book Fair, London 8.30pm

Tuesday 20th September 2016Forward Prize Event, London:

Forward Prize Book Tickets For Event

Wednesday 28th September 2016Anthony Burgess Centre, Manchester, 7pm, Penned in the Margins Launch with Luke Kennard:

Anthony Burgess Launch Book Tickets

Saturday 8th October 2016Bad Language/Manchester Literature Festival @Anthony Burgess Centre, Manchester, 7.30pm (with Henry Normal, Mark Pajak and Genevieve Walsh):

Bad Language/Manc Lit Fest Tickets

Sunday 9th October 2016Cheltenham Festival with Luke Kennard 8.30-9.45pm Little Big-Top:

Cheltenham Festival Tickets

Saturday 15th OctoberDurham Book Festival (panel discussion on mental health with poetry readings) 2-3pm Empty Shop HQ

Bobby Parker & Melissa Lee-Houghton Festival Tickets

Sunday 19th February 2017Birmingham Waterstones Spoken Word Festival ‘Verve: A Birmingham Festival of Poetry and Spoken Word’ 7-9pm Reading with Luke Kennard (plus, daytime workshop, more info soon)

Thursday 23rd February 2017Pighog, Brighton (erotic poetry)

I will add further details as they arrive. If anyone would like to book me for a reading please contact me at melissaleehoughton@hotmail.co.uk to discuss.

northern_writers__awards_winners_2016_2

Northern Writers’ Awards Winners 2016

we’re all gonna die/ in memoriam of Phil, Stephen, Jim

unalaska

My facebook timeline keeps reminding me of events last summer. The above pic is my husband, Steven’s band, Unalaska playing the Roadhouse, Manchester. The band members were his brother, Peter Houghton on guitar and vocals and Phil Riley on bass. Phil died in July last year from cancer and this time last year we attended his funeral. I didn’t know Phil well but had met him and spoken to him at gigs; all his friends spoke so highly of him, his authenticity, his sense of humour, his caring nature and his musical talent. I know he is deeply missed.

At around this time my Grandad Jim also passed away, and my friend Stephen Pickles who taught me how to paint and was very much a paternal figure in my life until recent years when we drifted, as people often do in life, also died. I found out he passed away because I’d been emailing him, and he never replied to any of my emails, then his wife wrote to me to thank me for them, that he’d appreciated them, and that he had, sadly, died from an enduring illness. To say I was shocked and heartbroken doesn’t really cut it. I attended both funerals around August last year.

This is me and my mum at my Grandad Jim’s funeral, celebrating the man we dearly loved:

me and mum grandad's funeral

Stephen was an incredibly gifted artist and some of his work can be seen here: Stephen Pickles Saatchi

I’ve written a number of poems towards my next collection in memory of Stephen. We had such a lot in common and I will always remember times we shared, and conversations we had, and the music he loved, the art and literature, the way he made me laugh, and comforted me. The way he wasn’t afraid of sadness, bleakness or pain, and how I trusted his insights and felt such an affinity with his outlook on life and love.

My grandad Jim suffered from Alzheimer’s and died with his wife by his side. He was a real character, and told awful jokes that were so bad they were good. He was dearly loved and is missed.

grandad me and beckie

This is me, my grandad Jim and my (upside-down) sister. Grandad Jim always wore short shorts, liked to have his shirt open or off and was our hero.


I’ve been gearing up for a summer event I’m going to and may not put a blog up next week with so much going on. The last three days I have written two short stories and a monologue. I don’t really know what drives me to write fiction but sometimes these things seem to write themselves, and I can have a stretch of fiction-writing buzz that lasts a while then fizzles out. I love to write poetry best of all but I find I can explore things through fiction: identity, human psychology, gender, sexuality, all kinds of concerns I have in my poetry but in fiction I can take things further in many ways, and in many more directions, because I can just make it all up, and there’s great freedom in that. I write what most people would describe as ‘confessional’ poetry but I think of it simply as having an authenticity to my own experience. I don’t write ‘fictional’ poems and nothing is posed; I have written maybe half a dozen poems in another voice in the past few years. I find that this can be problematic, not for me but in the way other people struggle to separate my real life from my poetry, (it both is and is not) and the way I feel people misinterpret me: I am writing about my own experience because I feel it has value as an artistic pursuit because it is real to an extent and yet it is art and not reportage or autobiography. We all have our own mythology, too, which may exist in our own heads, or in our personal writings, letters, journals, conversations; we have an image of ourselves which we are happy to perpetuate – I try hard to be as true to myself as I can be in my work; the good and the bad. But sometimes people who don’t know me act as though they do from reading my work, which is just bogus, and yet, saying this, my sense of identity gets all tangled up and I sometimes can’t even separate myself. 

So writing stories has helped me remove myself from my work. I have a nagging feeling each day I’ve not pushed myself enough, that I’ve not got to the bottom of what it is that’s eating me up, that I’ve not produced enough work, that time is of the essence and is running away. 

I’ve always had a terrible fear of panic, of flight, of being caught. I used to hate The Gingerbread Man when I was little because I’d get a pain in my chest almost from panic. I would have a recurring dream most of my life about being chased. Writing is what happens when my thoughts catch up with me and is flight and is an adrenaline rush. Often there is also a terrible comedown from that, when I haven’t managed to get it all out and the tumbling, churning, spiraling sensation of creating ideas begins again. Sometimes, too, there are the highs of getting it right on the money, of absolutely elucidating the terrific buzz in my head.


Before I go, a big thank you for all those who have left kind comments on my blog. I don’t check in regularly here, only to write when I have something to write about, but I appreciate the comments and the time people take to read my silly thoughts. I have so many books to write and only hope and pray I live long enough to write them all. This place is helping me keep track of the days, and the ebb and flow of my mood and the things I must try to remember. We are, absolutely hurtling toward death. We are. The time becomes precisely irrelevant when I am writing. All the rest of the time it speeds ahead, or it slows to an agonising speed, but in writing I exist. I exist as I feel I was always born to. We all have something which makes us feel this way. It’s about harnessing it. I only ever wish I had more time and space to write, something which I may never have and I count my blessings when I do have time as it is priceless to me.


Reading for Poets and Players

Here’s a video of my recent reading at John Rylands Library, Manchester for Poets and Players where I read alongside Maria Isakova Bennett and John McAuliffe with music from The Jones quartet of Chetham’s School of Music.

We should all express our feelings publicly more often!

I was on the gloriously gale-force-winds Black Rock Sands beach in Morfa Bychan, North Wales when I took the call on my mobile. We were virtually the only people on a stretch of beach miles long, attempting to have a summer holiday whether there was a summer or not; me, my husband, his parents Betty & Neil and the kids. We’d hammered in the windbreaks which almost flew off. My husband lay on the sand in his coat and a blanket, it was absolutely hilarious. Neil was telling us a story about how his mum thought he was from the chemist’s, big and loud, VERY loud in fact, and Tom phoned and said ‘I have some very good news for you!’

It was very hard to hear what he was saying, but when it all made sense all I could say was ‘Wow! YOU’RE KIDDING.’ I didn’t have any idea that the NextGen list was coming out if I’m honest. Neither did I have any idea I’d been entered for it, so as you can imagine, the surprise was huge and I really had no idea even what it meant, could mean, should mean, and I got on with our holiday, though I knew it was the most important news of my life.

The build up to the photo/videoshoot for the PBS and Guardian was hard for me, I won’t lie. I haven’t had a single week of stability in the last two years, certainly not without diazepam, and a list of other medications, and placing huge limitations on my life, my social life, even making phone-calls and using social media. I’d been really high, the pressure building, with the fear of what would happen when I got there or if I’d know or recognise anyone, or if I could hold it together.

I live a very isolated life and don’t really spend much time with other poets or even anyone at all, socially. In the end my husband decided to travel with me because my thoughts were constantly racing, I was finding it very hard to concentrate or remember things, and we were concerned I’d become very overstimulated in London, and me, manic, with people I don’t know and a debit card, is not a recipe for a safe, enjoyable and fruitful excursion.

As it happened I recognised a few people, who were all fantastically funny, lovely, animated, compassionate and friendly and I enjoyed what little time I spent in their company; others weren’t as welcoming, but I figured they were just nervous too. The filming was fine, the poems, however, made me shake. That’s what they do, they always make me shake. These poems are all autobiographical, all for real. All for YOU.

I took the tube to the Natural History Museum, and met my husband. I queued for ten minutes all the while going out of my mind, shaking, eyes darting around, finding nothing to hold onto, my thoughts churning and churning. It was too hot, I was sweating and I felt like I might scream. I didn’t enjoy the dinosaurs.

I sank. I tried to gain some kind of composure again after a long train home which stopped in the cold and dark for nearly an hour because someone on the train took ill. I told myself I could sit back and enjoy it now, I’d done the hard work, I’d written the book for Christ’s sake. I didn’t tell anyone and I imagined my friends all enjoying the excitement with me and being happy for me. I imagined the poetry community being supportive. That brought joy to my heart. Too often all I ever have to report is that I’m ill, or I can’t cope.

On the morning of the 11th I got at text from Tom at 1am, to say it had all been announced and I should enjoy all that comes next. I fell back asleep like it was Christmas. At 4am, Steven woke me to tell me he was too excited to sleep and started checking social media; we drank tea and ate biscuits in bed and come morning there were some lovely comments which warmed my heart. Later in the morning, I posted my ‘announcement’ on Facebook.

When I got the news I felt my life had changed. I had no strange or stupid ideas about becoming part of the ‘Establishment’ or achieving ‘fame’ or rubbing shoulders with influential people or any fucking bullshit like that. I honestly felt as though, if I didn’t survive the oncoming depression I would have achieved something beyond anything I dreamt possible.

You have to understand, I have never had hopes or dreams of any award or accolade. Never. I never felt I was ‘valid’ enough to be taken that seriously. I never had the privilege of a university education and I guess I wrongly thought these honours were reserved for the more successful academics. I feel, even in this post, that I have to justify myself. Writing through the endless, endless pain of manic depression, writing not for money or recognition. Writing with no-one but my poor husband to read my poems and help edit them, for a decade.

So then it kicks off. My mood drops because I’m tired for having little sleep. I know it’s been coming for weeks. When people started to get angry I sent this text to a friend:

 ‘I feel incredibly lucky and grateful for this accolade, but I also know it’s only a moment and will pass as moments do, and it is only really the writing that matters. The idiots can fuck off. My friends’ support is worth more to me than any accolade and will outlast any moment of recognition.’

Some of the vitriol was so absurd I was quite frankly stunned. Some of it was so funny I laughed out loud. I felt as though I would have to step in and defend myself. I was warned that there would be many angry, jealous people. It was as though I’d done something seriously awful. It needs to be said that people I didn’t know contacted me with words of support which were profoundly felt. But it’s fair to say Facebook knocked me down a peg or two.

Steven was working last night and I sat in bed and wrote a suicide note. I couldn’t do anything because of the kids but I was very tormented. It wasn’t the day I had expected. Friends had failed to even say ‘well done’ as though they couldn’t bring themselves to do it. I felt stupid for even thinking it would all be fun and celebration. I felt like people were slamming this thing that I’d held on so tightly for weeks with such a happy heart. I WISHED no-one knew, that I could walk around at night with my dog and a lighter heart. I soon realised it mattered to me more as a personal achievement than something to tell the masses about.

I have since tried to avoid Facebook but today noticed a winding-down thread, the general gist of which was:

NextGen is bollocks anyway so we don’t need to worry about it. No-one will ever be interested in the NextGen books. Other writers with no accolades are all better and none of them will be remembered in ten years’ time. Plus: It’s all about the art! (Who knew?) It’s all about the FUCKING ART. And how could anyone on the NextGen list know that???

 I feel like I’ve been punished for something nice that’s happened to me without my control that has brought much joy to my desolate world. That it has been torn apart and belittled by (some) writers I thought well of.

I don’t want any sympathetic comments AT ALL but I would like to say that people posting things online slamming those who have done nothing to deserve it, is not without consequence in the hearts and minds of those you are berating. Just because you can’t see them, they are real, they are there and they have feelings.

After all is said and done, I’m just as sensitive, average and fallible as everyone else. Thank Christ.

Limited Edition Valentine’s Gift

I’ve recently collaborated with artist Alexandra Gallagher to produce Limited Edition signed prints of an original poem which are now available on Folksy. They are available both framed and unframed and would make an excellent gift for Valentine’s day!

 

 

 

 

The Next Big Thing

I’ve been asked to give this interview for an expanding blog project called The Next Big Thing, by the poet Sophie Mayer. You can read her brilliant interview here.

The idea is I post mine and tag other writers to do the same on the 26th December.

…..

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The poems accumulated over a three year period of intense writing, yet intense in a very different way to writing my first collection. I wrote with more constraint, more routine. I wrote nearly every day, about whatever struck me in the moment, and I think it simply got to a point where it felt coherent and I said to myself, I might have a collection here. Once I had my title it was a case of carefully piecing it together, which has taken the best part of a year.

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Vicky McClure might play the part of the object of some of the love poems. I don’t know who would play the part of my husband, frankly, no-one’s up to scratch. I think the people I write about are so unusual and interesting in their own way that actors could never do them justice. A movie rendition of a poetry collection is certainly a very interesting concept.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

When I was a little girl I read a book, a very unusual and rare illustrated book in which the a creature with a big heart dies at the end and goes to heaven and because I could never shake this beautiful story and because I once worked in an abattoir and once wanted to die I wrote this book in fits of semi-eloquent heartache from a room in a house in a town where all the skeletons come out to greet me and I bow to them and everything else I can make out in the dark, waiting for me with open arms.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Three years. I had one year where I wrote very little, or very little of what I wrote was any good, and I felt as though I’d never write again, but this coincided with beginning treatment for what I regard as an illness, whether forward-thinkers like it to be called ‘illness’ or not. The past year has been especially fruitful and I’ve managed to knock a manuscript into shape, with plenty of work to choose from. This was an experience I’d describe as beyond satisfying.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired by the place where I live now, which is the place I grew up, where I unleashed all kinds of Hell a decade and a half ago. I was inspired by the memory of someone I loved (love) who passed away. I think she deserves someone to write sad poems about her to the end of their days. Part of the book is devoted to my estranged father, his death and my unearthing of the past as a way of moving forward. Or you could muse that it is about lives almost lived, and the discovery that at every turn someone who you loved and who loved you in their way, who was absent for one reason or another, were themselves living a life clouded by absence. It is also about whether these kinds of thoughts are mere romanticism and a desperate search for resolution where there’s no closure.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

This book is not for the faint-hearted. You need to be ready for sex and death, suicide, mental illness…but in there is big, big love, in swathes.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It is my hope that this book is published by an agency. I have sent it out to a publisher and am waiting to hear news.

My poets to tag are:

Leo Cookman

Jeremy Gluck

Kirsten Irving

Michael Egan

Make sure you check them out on the 26th!

Interview with Sheila Hamilton

The following is an interview with the poet Sheila Hamilton whose first collection, Corridors of Babel came to my attention a few months ago. The collection has a brilliant introduction by the poet and editor David Caddy, who celebrates the thoughtful and erudite poems written by this extraordinary ‘anthropological’ poet. Mythology, fairytale and surrealism are invigorated with a purposeful questioning of the world, both real and metaphysical, re-inventing its parameters. Seeking truths in the everyday and domestic as well as in often fragile familial relationships we are also asked to consider animals, dolls, puppets, unicorns and galloping horses alongside these turbulent pre-occupations.

Sheila has also written two pamphlet collections, one by Flarestack entitled The Monster in The Rose Garden and one by Original Plus entitled One Match, a sequence of poems after Jan Palach, a Czech student of history who committed suicide by self-immolation as a political protest in Wenceslas Square, 1969.

Why is poetry important to you?

I have always loved the rhythms of speech, and am drawn to music without having ever been a natural on any instrument. That’s one reason. And poetry has given me so much. When I was a teenager I found it very liberating to read the poems of Wilfred Owen, Sylvia Plath and also various Eastern European poets in translation, Polish poets, Czech poets, Hungarian poets. .. it was liberating to see people tackling big subjects: death, war, madness, totalitarianism. Poetry can be praise or lament, it can break your heart or make you laugh aloud. Because it is also about sound and cadence, it is closer to the heart than prose. (Though I do like prose.)

What was the first poem you wrote?

I can’t remember exactly but it was probably a haiku. We learnt to write simple haiku at primary school: meditations on the natural world, with some emotion of our own in the mix. It’s not a bad place to start though I realize now that haiku are actually very complicated! The first poems that I remember writing out of a creative need, let’s say, were written when I was 16 and in a psychiatric hospital. I don’t have them now, and I can’t remember their titles, but they were an attempt to process difficult material.

People tell me that I tackle big subjects in many of my poems. It’s true, but I would also say it is pretty much lethal to a poem’s success for the poet to sit down and say “Today I am going to tackle a big subject.” For me, a poem starts with a powerful visual image, or an intriguing phrase I’ve overheard somewhere. Many poems are born out of a sense of being bothered (and not in a Catherine Tate kind of way!).

What is the most difficult subject you’ve ever tackled in a poem?

Writing about Jan Palach’s self-immolation in Czechoslovakia was never going to be one poem. It appeared in the pamphlet One Match as 20 poems, though with a bit of re-arranging it could be considered one big uber-poem, I suppose. Writing about Jan Palach came out of going to Prague a few times and standing at the place in Wenceslas Square where he actually set himself on fire. (This place has been marked since 2000 by a bronze cross.) But once I began writing, this poem (these poems) began to address all sorts of things: the nature of political protest, how people behave in a totalitarian society, the tricky issue of martyrdom, how the living remember the dead.

I see most of my work as being a body of work, and running through that body is a preoccupation with trauma. Trauma can happen on Wenceslas Square, it can happen in the trenches of the Western Front, and it can also happen in your house.

In One Match you delve into someone else’s psychology, and not just Jan Palach’s but his mother’s and girlfriend’s. How did you go about achieving this?

. . .I have always been fascinated by how people tick, largely because no-one conforms to a template; even the most self-aware person can surprise themselves. When someone does something as extreme as immolating in a public place, it is only natural that others will try to find clues in the personality and circumstances of that person. Yes, Jan Palach’s protest was political in nature, there’s no doubt about that, but not everybody deeply disillusioned and angered by political conditions would do what he did.

So writing and researching about JP inevitably entailed finding out various things about people he knew. And this led in turn to a certain level of emotional identification with those people. This was not always a comfortable experience!

JP appears to have been emotionally involved with two young women. As far as I can infer (and this is an inference), he was close to Young Woman A but only viewed her platonically and he was romantically/sexually involved with Young Woman B. Young Woman B’s name was Eva, and there is an Eva in my poem “Jan Palach: Boyfriend” but the Eva in my poem is really a composite of both these women. In the poem, I imagine what she might have done if he had confided in her about his plan. I needed to explore that idea before I came to understand that, probably, he did not confide his plans at all, not to anybody. Doing so would have put the listener in an impossible position.

During his 3 days in the intensive care unit, Jan Palach was visited once by his mother (accompanied by his older brother) and once (separately) by Eva. His mother leant over him and said, “Janicku (note: a term of endearment), what have you done? What have you done?” Eva paced up and down talking nineteen-to-the-dozen before breaking down in tears and crying, “Please tell me that what you have done was a mistake.” Those are both cries from the heart in what is a visceral human drama. Running through my mind as I explored all this was the unanswerable question, “What would I myself have done if this had been me?”
One Match
And I’ll mention Jung, if I may. In the Jungian world of archetypes, Jan Palach is a Divine Child. A Divine Child is basically a young person who comes over as wise beyond their years and who stands out for the intensity of their ideals. (Jesus is the prime example within Western culture.) Such a person exists in difficult conditions and is, in a sense, made by them. A Divine Child has a huge impact on others, not because s/he is attempting consciously to “make friends and influence people” but because s/he has a lot of integrity.

Why did JP’s story compel me so much? Over the years, I have written quite a few poems inspired by folk and fairy tales and JP’s story contains several archetypal aspects (see above.) I have also over the years been able to exercise my democratic right to protest; what it would be like to live in a context where there is no such right, where attempts to march, lobby, distribute leaflets, etc. result in the person being carted off to prison or being put in a mental hospital? . .But these are what Palach as a philosophy student would no doubt describe as post-hoc rationalizations. When I was actually writing, I just knew I had to write. Some things just hit you in the face. ..

There is a line in your poem ‘ There is an asteroid named after Jan Palach’ which reads ‘Better, surely to be un-burnt, un-famous.’ But you don’t believe this. Often  I see in your work a celebration of what it is to be human and to suffer. Do you think, this not shrinking from the truth sets you apart as a writer and can you think of any particular influences or like-minds?

The whole sequence of poems on Jan Palach was born out of an ambivalence: did he do the right thing? On one level, the individual human level, it would certainly have been better if he had scrapped the whole idea. But we do not exist purely as individuals; we are a part of society. He felt compelled to make a powerful stand against repression and he knew quite well that setting himself alight in the main throroughfare could not be ignored or hushed up.

The human fascinates me, we are such a complex species! People can be courageous, creative, generous beyond all call of duty. .. and people can also be despicable. I think in my poems I try to honour the human. But I wouldn’t say that I celebrate suffering, no. Suffering is horrible. Getting badly burnt is horrible. Feeling that that is the only way you can be heard is hideous, it should never come to that. I feel suffering needs to be acknowledged as part of the human experience but I do get angry with people who make out that suffering per se is a form of nobility.

I feel poetry, and other art forms too, must concern themselves with honesty. Otherwise, why bother?

Particular influences? I think of Shostakovitch the Russian composer who attempted in his music to honour the experience and sufferings of his fellow-Russians, people living under Stalin during the purges, people in Leningrad during the siege. I wouldn’t presume to put myself in the same category as him because he lived in circumstances I can scarcely imagine.

In a slightly different vein, I love the stories collected by the brothers Grimm, stories which definitely don’t turn away from difficulty. They have hunger in them, and abandonment, jealousy, infanticide, incest. The German versions written down (and sometimes altered) by the Grimms themselves are more visceral than the English versions, which the Victorians sanitized. In the German versions, the stepmother in “Snow White” is set upon at Snow White’s wedding and forced to dance herself to death in red-hot metal slippers. And Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t just stomp off into the wood “never to be seen again” but actually splits in two. And it is clear in the German version of “Rapunzel” that Rapunzel is having a sexual relationship with the young man who climbs up her long hair into the tower. These are vivid stories that don’t sugar-coat the messiness of the human experience.

What are the main themes in your collection Corridors of Babel, and how long did it take you to write it?

Corridors of Babel grew, like many first collections, over a long period of time. The earliest poems in it date from the mid-Nineties; the most recent was written very early in 2007, the year in which the book appeared. (That 2007 poem is “The Children Who Transformed Themselves” and came out of a wonderful one-day workshop tutored by Pascale Petit. I love the way Pascale works with myth to explore difficult experience.) In the earlier stages, I had little concept of putting together a book; I was simply working on poems and getting acceptances in magazines. So there’s less cohesion in it than there is in my later work.

Having said that, some themes do emerge. There is a preoccupation with people who are on the edges, the margins. Linked up to this, and I see this more clearly now with the benefit of distance, is a preoccupation with violence. There is the violence found in the Grimm tales, and in the Greek myth of the Minotaur, but also the violence within history: the execution of a Scottish Covenanter in the seventeenth century, the disappearance of Genette Tate, torture in Chile during the Pinochet regime. In the Remedios Varo poems towards the end of the collection, I explore various sorts of quest: physical, artistic, spiritual. And there’s quite a lot of dream running through the book.

Corridors of Babel
 Which poems in Corridors of Babel are you most proud of?

That’s a difficult question. I think I am attached to all of them for some reason or another. . The Genette Tate poem, “Disappeared”, I am proud of because I had been trying to write of this for a long, long time. .. this is what finally emerged after lots of false starts. When Genette went missing in Devon in 1978, I was only a little bit younger than her and lived only a few miles away. The fact that she disappeared was disturbing enough; the fact that her body was never found, even more so. . .And a poem in some ways connected to this, “Freyja”, I am especially pleased with because it came to be a love poem. I’ve definitely decided not to sit down and try consciously to write love-poems; they happen by serendipity!

“Gretel” I vividly remember writing at a large table in the Arvon Centre at Lumb Bank in West Yorkshire in the middle of the night. The course was focussing on childhood and dream and though I wrote other things there, this was the poem where both those things came together and collided with those already-existing preoccupations with violence and with people who are marginalized. John Burnside was the guest poet (the tutors were the excellent Moniza Alvi and Susan Wicks) and he had suggested to the group the night before that we might want to go off and each get stuck in to our favourite fairy tale or myth. Well, I could think of several but I settled on “Hansel and Gretel” and the voice of Gretel presented itself. It was one of those special occasions when a poem appears to write itself.

If someone were to write a poem about you…

Ah, this would depend so much on who was writing the poem! My younger son is autistic with severe learning disability: what kind of poem would he write? Perhaps it would be about me teaching him how to make a cup of tea. Someone else might focus on my wanderlust. Or on how a confused child of Catholic convert parents has been, in turn, a free-ranging protestant (small “p”), an apprentice Buddhist and, latterly, an agnostic with a deep distrust of most organized religion. I think I’ll just say: I hope that I never inspire a revenge poem. All else, gratefully acknowledged!

What are you currently working on?

I very much hope that my second full collection will see the light of day in 2013. At present, I am deep into working on my third collection. At the heart of it is the whole business of transience: travel, migration (both animal and human), how fruit ripens, how it rots, how the living relate to the dead. There is a fair bit of archaeology in it. Inside me is an archaeologist trying to get out. . .Or an archivist. I love the work of archaeologists and archivists. . .it is so important, they really are unsung heroes.

My preoccupation with trauma continues. I think I’ll soon be writing more about shell shock/war neurosis/combat stress. Who was it who said, “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers”? . . And I have recently been writing a longish poem about Liverpool, focussing on how Victorian Liverpool nudges the Liverpool of today and finds echoes there. Also two longish poems about specific places in Prague. I’m very interested in cities as palimpsests, places of layers and of incongruity, the magnificent alongside the horrific, elegance in close proximity to squalor. (Note to self: read “Cities” by Elaine Feinstein.) I have really enjoyed writing these longer poems. . .and intend to write more.

What advice would you give to an aspiring poet?

Everyone says this but I’ll echo it: read a lot. Read all sorts of poetry, especially lots of contemporary stuff. (Keats, Shelley, etc. are wonderful but you can’t learn from them how 21-st century people write, any more than you can learn from them how to talk.  When Keats and Shelley were writing, they were modern.) Also read lots of things that are not poetry.

Go to workshops if you can but don’t presume that workshops can teach you everything.

Be prepared to write a lot of rubbish. If you tell yourself that each poem you write has to be great, you are setting yourself up for failure. . .and paralysis. All the most well-known poets past and present have written rubbish. . .over time, you tend to get a feeling for when something is good and when it is not, and when something can be reasonably improved.

Don’t write about something/anything that only vaguely interests you. Why would a reader want to read about something that even the poet can’t get enthusiastic about? Rather: what do you find yourself thinking about a lot? dreaming about? What keeps you awake at night? What do you find yourself discussing in great detail with friends? A lot of bad poems are vague because the poets are not sufficiently engaged with the subject-matter.

Draft. Re-draft. Re-draft again. If you find other poets who are 1) friendly and also 2) capable of offering constructive criticism, share your work with them. And pay theirs the same compliment.

Encourage other people who are writing; encouragement is not on ration. The suffering artist (or is that artiste?) languishing in his/her garret is a myth.