Having completed a Q&A with Wrecking Ball Press about my poetry collection Drawing on Previous Learning with them, it doesn’t seem it will be used (which is fine), so having completed, here it is:
How would you describe this collection?
Like an autobiography: 30 years of teaching English and 35 of examining GCSE English Literature are a significant part of an adult life. The poems aren’t presented chronologically so you can’t determine mood changes across time!
The collection comprises a lifetime’s writing about being an English teacher in all its personal reflections – how does it feel to finally get these pieces published?
I regard it as a privilege, as the job of teaching largely was. To be able to share the reality of my experiences as well as honest thoughts and feelings are an inherent part of the writing process. In so many ways, writing is cathartic, or a crystallising of ideas and emotions at any one time, but the urge to share this with others is also a compulsive element. I’d like to think what I have written can resound with fellow professionals as well as anyone who attended school or simply cares about education – so a broad audience.
When did you start writing these poems in the collection and when was the final piece written?
I will have started writing poems specifically about my teaching experiences in 1980, but the hard focus and work of those first years means much creative energy went into resources about reading and writing poetry, as well as other work. The selection of ‘pastiche’ poems from my annual Christmas ‘Stocking Fillers’ covers the years 1991-2009. The most recent poem will be ‘Dynamic Learning’, written in the summer of 2019, the year before Covid caused the halt in national examinations and when I decided to stop marking completely. The sequence of poems about subject specialists, as well as others that refer generically to students, are always genuine reflections of colleagues and pupils who filled the full 30 years of my teaching. The book’s final poem ‘Students’ is filled with familiar faces.
A number of poems air your political and critical views on education – tell us more about this?
What follows is a third attempt to respond to this question, the first and second having become essays! For anyone interested, a detailed overview can be found in the educational writing on my blog https://gravyfromthegazebo.blog/ As a taste of my holding politicians to task, in my teaching lifetime, I wrote to at least 11 Secretaries of State for Education, initially when campaigning to preserve 100% coursework assessment in English – this including a face-to-face visit to a then Minister of State (Department for Education and Science) in London. Most subsequently has been concerns and anger regarding testing regimes, target setting and teacher/school measurements based on this. The Conservatives initiated such, and Labour continued with it when coming to power in 1997. The testing soon shaped how teachers increasingly felt compelled to teach for students to ‘pass’ exams and schools to meet targets, and in English, this dramatically narrowed the curriculum, though Michael Gove slaughtered in in 2015. I could write so much more, but…
Drawing On Previous Learning will clearly resonate with those that work in education – but who would you like the audience for your poetry to be?
Obviously teachers, and certainly English teachers but not exclusively. Anyone who has been a student should be able to recognise and relate to the explorations, but current ones may well have other interests and preoccupations. I’d hope the range of poetic styles will be of interest to fellow writers.
Can you tell us something about your journey into creative writing?
I was inspired to start writing poetry when a charismatic English supply teacher took over 4th/5th year lessons at my secondary modern school in Ipswich around 1968. He played The Fugs singing a version of William Blake’s ‘Ah Sunflower Weary of Time’ and introduced Ginsberg and similar from that band’s influences as well as their lyrics. So, in ‘68/69 in our new large house on Elsmere Road, I wrote my tonnage of teenage poems in my new late-night big bedroom that aped the Black Mountain poets. I still have all of these. They will never be shared.
Was there a significant person in your life that encouraged you to write poetry?
That wonderful supply teacher but also another English teacher at my school who asked to see me specially to explain why my entry for the school’s poetry competition had been unsuccessful for gaining a prize, and probably publishing in a collection (it was one of those Ginsberg-esque attempts) but expressing his encouraging fascination for my unexpected style models and interest in them. These got me started.
What is the importance of place to you as a poet?
Not so much in these poems that are all prompted by ideas and attitudes. As an American permanently resident in the UK since 1976, my Nebraskan origins, and the West Coast where most of my American family now live, and Devon where I reside feature regularly and importantly in what I write, especially in their cultural influences on who I am as much as the geography of place – though the seaside has been prevalent ever since moving to Devon to teach.
Could you tell us something about your creative process? Are you disciplined when you sit down and start writing? Do you set a word count, work at a particular time of day, etc?
I am of late a habitual writer: I had a period of three years where I wrote exclusively sonnets, and the discipline of those fourteen lines (and the sonnet form was usually as loose as this) was a control I enjoyed in expressing within these confines – often in a narrative voice. A selection of these was published in 2015, and some appear in this book. I then had another intense period of writing found prose poetry, these published in two separate collections in 2019 and 2020 – again, three in this book. My most recent focused writing is experimental, and I have a full collection of varied poems (erasure, concrete, appropriations, visual) that are all found in philosophical texts.
Why these poems, now?
Pragmatically, because Wrecking Ball Press was willing to take them. They’ve existed as a collection for a while, added to over time, and there has been interest previously, but nothing more than this. All poetry publication is a commitment to the work above any other considerations, unless the writer is popular and well known, so I am genuinely thankful to WBP for taking on this singular subject matter – though I obviously hope my voice and the writing itself brings it to the reader with that resonance already mentioned.
What experience do you want readers of your collection to have?
Always enjoyment, but also engagement. A recognition of the meaningfulness, especially where it taps into the readers’ experiences, but also the importance and ability of poetry to capture the observations made.
Who are the poets that you admire, and why?
As an active member of the Coleridge Memorial Trust, obviously Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the other Romantics. My ‘pastiche’ poems reflect a broad interest, but some often served a purpose. Three particular poets of the more recent past I have always read and admired are Ted Hughes, Raymond Carver and Peter Reading: TH for ‘Crow’ in particular; RC for the potent simplicity of voice, and PR for his innovation and acerbic wit. Currently, my blog is again a good source of answers for this as I regularly review contemporary poets. Named writers would be Rupert Loydell, Ian Seed, the late Matthew Sweeney, Martin Stannard, Maria Stadnicka – and also a vibrant online poetry community, both for reading a massive and global range of individuals’ work but also for online publication/sharing opportunities.
What else are you working on and what does the future hold for you as a poet?
I’ve already mentioned my experimental work. At 67, I am a relative latecomer to the publication side of things – this steadier only since 2015, not that publishing is everything, but it can be such an affirmative prompt for continuing – but I am a compulsive writer, excited by the innovative side of working at it, and animated by the things that aggravate – and there is much to write about here!
What would you say to someone who was keen to express themselves through poetry?
The obvious initial advice: read poetry as widely as you can, exploit the online opportunities for that reading but also to try and get work out there (remembering that refusals are an absolute major part of the process!). I tend to be quite an isolate when it comes to writing, but there are many writers’ groups around which may provide support and encouragement, and the Zoom boom more recently has facilitated many readings to be able to attend from anywhere, as well as courses to join. And never use the word ‘shards’.
Do you have any plans to read/perform the works from this collection in public?
Post-lockdown cautiousness prevailing, I would like to at some stage to read locally with a friend and teaching colleague from our recent work.
Do you have any thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
A lifeblood for the majority of writers, surely. All my poetry publications have been with independent publishers, and I would say the majority of poetry books that I buy are from the same. My work with Dave at Wrecking Ball Press has been a most positive, reassuring pleasure.