How did you start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry as a child, but not because anybody encouraged me to at school or anything like that. It was just fed, really, by the poems I'd stumbled across in books, and also by my Methodist family upbringing, there was a lot of church-going and a lot of hymn-singing and I think the hymns of Charles Wesley were one of my earliest influences. Also the sermons that were given by the local preachers who came and preached hellfire to us on a Sunday morning. So all that sort of fed my interest in language and the music of language, and I wrote as a child and then a little bit of embarrassing teenage poems, and then forgot all about it for about fifteen years and rediscovered it in my early thirties when I really began to write seriously.
How does a poem start for you?
A poem usually begins with the very smallest thing, certainly nothing as definite or tangible as an idea. It will often be something I've overheard or something I've seen, usually just quite a small fragment, and that fragment will seem to be connected in some way with something I've already got stored away in my mind from an earlier occasion. So, I think I have this kind of storeroom in my head where I keep all sorts of apparently random bits and pieces just in the expectation that they're going to be useful sometime, they all feel like things which are significant in some way but I haven't yet worked out how. It's not until I find this new piece that the two will slot together and make some kind of sense, and a poem will begin.
Are places important in your poetry?
I think places are incredibly important in my writing and wherever I am at the time or whatever place is important to me at the time affects the poems that I'm writing. This is sometimes about writing directly about particular places, so in my poem Hard Water, for instance, I write very directly about the town where I was born and brought up, and that is the subject matter of that poem, the experience of living there. But at other times it's more subtle than that, it's as if the landscape of the place where I am at the time becomes my interior landscape as well, and it becomes the psychological place in which the poems I'm writing locate themselves. So for instance, I've written poems which have been much more urban in texture when I've been living in cities, and then more recently I spent twenty years living on the northwest coast of England, just north of Liverpool, and the character of this particular stretch of coast very much got into the poems I was writing at the time, whatever they were about. The sound of the wind and these big skies that you get there, and the sound of the gulls and so on became part of the texture of those poems.
How autobiographical are your poems?
There's a strange and complicated relationship in my poems between autobiography and fiction. Sometimes the two get so confused, so fused, that I can't even quite remember where one ends and the other begins. One of the things that I do quite often in a poem is to take a real experience but give it a twist, so that it no longer quite happens in this world that we really occupy, but in a world rather like this but slightly different. So the edges, the boundaries between what is true and what is invented are not always absolutely clear cut. I think when I am drawing on real life experience I'm very aware that I've got to alchemise it in some way, transform it, so that it's going to become universal, or something that can be understood and that means something to other people who might read the poems. Otherwise, if you don't do that, then the stuff of the poem remains essentially private and inaccessible to other people.
Do you find it helpful to read your poems aloud when writing?
I always read my poems aloud during the process of writing them; it's a very important part of the process for me. I think poetry is half music, and so as I'm making the poem I need to be able to hear the phrasing and the pace and the cadences of the poem, and the way that the sound of one word can sort of nudge another word into the light or into the shade. I need to be aware of all those things during the process of making the poem. And this is why I'm always horrified if I hear of people having music on in the background when they're writing, I have to have silence in order to write a poem.
What is the relationship between your writing voice and your speaking voice?
I don't always use my own voice in a poem; I often like to experiment, if you like, with other people's voices, and imagine myself into other people's bodies and lives. I've written poems from many different points of view, real life people, but also people who I've just invented, people who I've conjured up, and even in the imagined voices of inanimate objects like parking meters and statues. So this is one of the things that I think poetry allows you to do, to be able to speak in your own voice when you want to but also to be able to borrow the voices of other people, and even of things that don't seem to have a voice in real life.
Would you read one of your poems?
This is a poem which began as I waited in the queue at my local fish and chip shop, and I think waiting in a queue in a fish and chip shop is one of those moments when you have nothing to do, nothing you have to do, nothing you can do, you're sort of suspended with only things to watch and people to listen to and eavesdrop on. And you enter into your own private world of thinking and dreaming, which is what I did here. I love to watch the way the fish and chips are prepared, the way the women behind the counter are so fast and so skilful at doing this. So I was watching, and the poem began to rise to the surface. It's a poem that begins in that setting of the chip shop, and then moves somewhere entirely different, and back again.
She peels cod fillets off the slab,
dips them in batter, drops them
one by one into the storm of hot fat.
I watch her scrubbed hands,
elegant at the work
and think of the hands of the midwife
stroking wet hair from my face as I sobbed and cursed,
calling me Sweetheart and wheeling in more gas,
hauling out at last my slippery fish of a son.
He was all silence and milky blue.
She took him away
and brought him back breathing,
wrapped in a white sheet. By then
I loved her like my own mother.
I stand here speechless in the steam and banter,
as she makes hospital corners of my hot paper parcel.