Recently my conceptual copywriter alter ego has been roughly shaken awake and made to get on with some work for a change. After a year of freelancer’s famine, I have been scrambling to manage a weird glut of work over the last couple of months.
Not having to commute allows me the odd stolen hour to tinker with my own writing, and I notice that something has changed.
For the last year I have had what I think of as my ‘pandemic anxieties’ going off like a smoke alarm in another room while I wrote. It made concentrating very hard.
I now realise there were two alarms. The other one was ‘money anxieties’. To a certain extent, now that a few doubloons have disturbed my dusty coffers and most of my loved ones (in the UK at least) have been jabbed, the alarms are more muffled, and my ability to concentrate has noticeably improved.
I am even working on my own poems again. Doing the Planet Poetry podcast with Robin has required me to hear amazing work from poets, some of whom were new to me. It has done me the world of good to be in ‘fan’ mode, and just listen and read. The result is that some of my ossified attitudes have received a much needed rattling. I have steadily collected ah-ha! moments as Robin and I have chatted with Pascale Petit, Clare Shaw, Tess Jolly, Charlotte Gann, Jack Underwood, Mario Petrucci, Katrina Porteous, Sarah Salway, Mary Jean Chan, Rhona McAdam, Inua Ellams and Kathryn Maris in our first eleven episodes.
Although a firm believer in a poem being able to stand on its own feet (ah-hem) I am also a reader who loves to understand the context the work sprang from. Who better to learn this from than the work’s originator? One thing that has emerged from this is how hearing the tone in which a writer talks about their work reveals flashes of deep emotion, sincerity and thought. If the conversation were transcribed, much of this colour and insight would be lost.
For me the boon of encountering such accomplished writers has highlighted two all-too-familiar questions. What makes a collection? And how interesting is the story you can tell about your collection?
I don’t know if you are like me, but one of the most tiresome things in life is having to relearn the same lessons time and again. Over ten years ago, I launched A Guernsey Double with my pal Richard Fleming. We had a story to tell: the book was about the island of Guernsey seen from two perspectives. The book was, therefore, in two halves, my half was called The Boy Who Fell Upwards and was a collection of poems about a childhood and exile. While Richard’s side, The Man Who Landed, was about coming to the island to settle and shelter, having experienced The Troubles in Northern Ireland. We had a coherent story, so when we were chatting on local radio and reading at the launch, we knew what we were about. Having a two person collection was also a novelty. So lesson learned, right? Of course not. D’oh!
So relearning all this means I have cast an icy eye on the manuscript I was working on. Now I have a completely new title and focus. Also I need to get a blinking move on because, as we have all been forcibly reminded lately, life can be short. The MS needs some more poems to fill in the gaps but I feel that I have clarified my own poetic mission and that is, in itself, a big win after a year of near stasis.
Finally, as a devotee of the US comedy Frasier, I was delighted to hear it is returning. I have been a fan since it was first broadcast in the 90s, I have always harboured a secret desire to be a radio host. While our wee podcast is not quite the same thing, it certainly feels like I am living the dream sometimes and I couldn’t have done that without Robin Houghton. So here’s to your mates, and learning stuff from other people. Cheers!