Q&A with the Wrecking Ball

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.

 

‘Eat Here, Get Gas & Worms’ by Steve Spence – The Red Ceilings Press

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I have been looking forward to a collection of these poems from Steve Spence, having followed and enjoyed them online (both in their appearances and within each narrative) in International Times, Stride Magazine and other. I don’t mean I have been looking for, expecting or wanting ‘answers’ – their collages of surprise are wonderfully paradoxical in evasion and anchoring. The ‘he said/she said’ is the one recurring hook in the constantly evolving dialogue, and I think we take this as any and all speakers in a world of disrupted communication.

There are so many ‘themes’: free-market economy, invention of lithography, colouring books, King Kong, bird songs, graphology, log cabins, salmon, self-censorship, surveillance, and bright orange fiddler crabs – to scratch the surface of the poetic preoccupations. In the explorations, nothing is resolved and everything is considered as we move quickly from one captured thought to another.

I take great comfort in the uniformity of each poem’s structure: five stanzas, the first four of four lines each and the fifth with two lines. Perhaps this is as much certainty over which we have control, and this much is therefore familiar and finite. Each poem is

‘…the same storm even if
we’re in different boats’

(An Open Window)

though this could as easily and obviously be ‘different storm in the same boats’.

I think every disruption within any one poem is symptomatic of how reality is impacted and fluid by the nature of things, by the way we experience it, by the way we interpret it, by the way we forget about it (often immediately), and by the way this one and only poem I will quote in full is an example of the whole,

‘One way or another we are
all under surveillance all of
the time. “My concern is that
this is about territory,” he said.

You can always use the studio
as a musical instrument but here
we have a mirrorball and it’s not
for sale*. “Everything in our path

has been obliterated,” she said.
Yet all areas of recording are
happening simultaneously and
we are looking at an increase in

volcanic activity. What about the
headless body? “This is how it
should feel all of the time,” he
said. When magma rises through

the crust it puts pressure
on the surrounding rocks.

(Fixing the Results)

The whole point of reading these poems is to enjoy and maybe to exemplify the human condition – our need to understand, to shape to expectation, to shape to desire, to find humour (there is plenty of this in these), to replicate the confusion, to see poetry as

‘…the beginning of a
full-scale invasion’

(Pub on the Hoe)

To move from the idea of visiting a lake to a consideration of burglars to concern about a dripping tap encapsulates the deception of dancing within seemingly disparate and ordinary fixations, but at every turn, this is living a daily life of experience and anticipation, as well as what is thrown at us, randomly. Like dreaming, but everyday-real.

*And the glitter and shifting refractions in this delightful collection are very much acquirable here.

The Platitude of Apple Trees

It would
be stating the obvious to reveal how
apple trees

sprout more often
in a search engine than
clichés,

but at their
core, dark seeds are reminders of
the obvious.

If what
is round will come around again,
there it is

again. The
rot occurs because of how we
leave things,

inevitable,
and the half-eaten worm is not
biblical, but

visual, that
one concrete surprise outside yet in
the platitudes.

Generous Observations

cover

Blurb Bounty

I was honoured to have two thoughtful and generous blurbs provided for my recent publication Drawing on Previous Learning. Both Martin Phillips and Peter Thomas are friends as well as teaching/education/writing colleagues. I have always had the utmost respect for their contributions to English teaching across a wide range of national and influential professional responsibilities, and both have – as a partnership and in their individual ways – contributed greatly to the thinking about, training, resourcing, and examining in the subject of English. Naturally, their views matter much to me, and I will be forever grateful for them.

For the book’s blurb, Peter’s fuller response to my text was edited by the publisher, essentially as a back cover has limited space! His trenchant political statements deserve, I think, an airing (my agreeing with them completely) and I am also delighted to have had his further insights into individual poems.

If this sounds like a further big sell, it is. But my appreciation for their support is genuinely larger than this. Here are Peter’s comments:

I have known Mike Ferguson as a friend and colleague for years, and have admired the clarity and integrity of his thinking about education in general and English education in particular. His occasional blog rants and regular Xmas Stocking Filler pamphlets have been a welcome blast against fatuous and bigoted Tory views of education, small bright beacons in an increasingly bleak landscape of politicised interference in the potential magic of English in the classroom. Those beacons draw their energy from a lifetime’s immersion in the craft of English teaching, and in experience as an examiner in various versions of GCSE over the years.

Now Mike has put together a collection that celebrates and scathes, with honours and horrors put on the page in poems, prose poems and monologues. Many of these skewer the way in which the cultural capitalist model of curriculum and assessment has increasingly rewarded the labelling of devices as a substitute for real engagement with thought and feeling in literature. He voices many examiners’ frustration with foreshadowing, caesura, enjambement and the fronted adverbial offered as the assessment tokens of learning in the reduced repertoire of reading for the test.

In A Bold, Cold Autumn, Mike writes:

English enjambement/rules the forward thrust of negativity, and seasonal/expectation is painted with the red grimace of falling/leaves, even when that metaphor has been sucked dry/by a taught language so keen to explain away surprise..

In National Curriculum at Sea Life, he observes the way his daughter’s encounter with a SATs reading test yields surprise and delights in her comments that ‘the o flying away from didn’t is an apostrophe”, and her misreading of “the astonishing angels” from which objects at Sea Life can be seen. Mike’s wryly forlorn comment on such assessable incorrectness is memorable:

Most noticeable angles are actually hard/As she’ll learn and tell/herself when discovering what might have been.

Throughout this volume, there is a call for the humane and creative tradition in English teaching to oppose the reductive barbarism of the Govian inheritance, vociferously promoted by the favoured orthodoxies of Direct Instruction and so-called “knowledge-rich” Tory favourites who adopt the Hirschian model of culture as a means to social mobility to justify a model of education that values what you know over why it’s worth knowing, receiving wisdom over questioning it and, consequently, privileging compliance over agency. As Mike says in Crushed Stetson:

In a room where someone is preaching/better lessons are taught and learnt when chanced upon.

Oddly enough, or perhaps not, it’s in his piece on Art Teachers that Mike articulates those energies that should fuel good English teaching, because they:

Abhor black and white in education/use a palette for being mixed-up/know Dali should design the curriculum/brushstroke their lives.

As may be expected from a writer immersed in poetry, there is wit and warmth in his homage to Coleridge in Aeolian Harping On, to Jonson in On My First Job and in his self-study based on Larkin’s Mr Bleaney. My favourite of these is his reflection on Hughes and creativity in Who Killed the Thought-Fox, in which he considers the “freedom to roam…curtailed by trips and traps set by new hunters who know no better”. He ends:

The murderers can come/running with their measuring tapes/sizing up this final kill.

 Peter Thomas ~ former Chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English