Lifesaving Poems: the book


Photograph © Bloodaxe Books Ltd


I am delighted to announce that my Lifesaving Poems series of blog posts is going to become a book. Bloodaxe Books will be publishing the anthology in June 2015.

Readers of this blog will know how the project started and therefore what this means to me. Originally, the idea of Lifesaving Poems stemmed from a remark I once saw of Seamus Heaney, along the lines of an out-loud query about how many poems could affect a person over a lifetime. Was it ten, he said, twenty, fifty, a hundred, or more?

To put this notion to the test I began copying out poems, in inky longhand, into a plain Moleskine notebook given to me for Christmas. My criteria for inclusion were as basic as possible. In the style of Heaney and Hughes’s The Schoolbag I allowed myself only one poem per poet. And I had to be able to remember the experience of first encountering it.

I didn’t write in the notebook every day. Sometimes weeks would go by without an entry, only to spur myself into action with several poems in one sitting of a rainy weekend, say. According to the inscription on the front page I began in July 2009 and finally filled the notebook in May 2011, shortly after which I wrote my first Lifesaving Poems post, on Alasdair Paterson’s ‘Fishermen’.

Readers of this blog, and of my memoir Love for Nowwill also know that, quite apart from the physical effort of copying the poems, the notebook and subsequent blog mean much more to me. This is because, during my treatment for cancer in 2006 I felt for the first time in my life that poetry was leaving me. By that I mean not just the desire (or ability, or concentration) to write poems, but the notion of reading and spending time with poems at all.

Lifesaving Poems  is therefore an attempt to say thank you, ultimately to poetry for not deserting me but also to the poets who wrote the poems, and the people -teachers, friends, colleagues, poets, anthologists- who have influenced my reading, and therefore my life, so richly.

I should say straight away that not every poem from the blog is included in the book. Partly this is for reasons of size, and partly I am hoping there will be a sequel! To find out who I have included you will have to do what I am always encouraging my readers to do: buy the book. It feels both odd and wonderful to write that sentence in support of something I have put together.

If the process of turning a notebook into a blog into a book has taught me anything it is that poems are needed by people. Which is to say not just that we reach for poetry in times of distress, joy and grief; but that a poem, lying dormant, only comes fully alive when this or that person comes along and reads it. That is what I have tried (and continue) to do with Lifesaving Poems: to stay true to the energy of first encounters, remembering as accurately as possible my debt to the friend or anthologist who put me in the poem’s way.

I am indebted to Neil Astley for suggesting and supporting the anthology from the start; and to Anna Clarke for her help with the manuscript.

The new poem


The poem and I are best friends. For ever.

We hold hands in public and spend every spare minute with each other. We are in love. We have already set the date and are planning a large family.

A week, maybe two, later we are no longer speaking. Something I said, something the poem said (I can’t remember). It is over, finished.

The poem goes into the drawer, with all the other failures, where no one will ever read it.

Months later (let’s say it’s spring) the poem makes an appearance. It was not invited, but here it is, out of the drawer, flapping around in daylight gasping for breath on the deck of my desk.

We are past the point of niceties, so we skip the introductions. This is life and death.

Something about line 3 is catching my eye, the possibility that this is where the poem in fact begins its true impetus into the thing that it wants to say, if it might be permitted. If I may be so kind.

So we spend time together, the poem and I, bringing that reality into being. It is not cosy, like before. It feels dogged, like walking up a hill with no summit.

It goes back into the drawer, of course. Another failure, still failing, like all the other failures, published and not. There will not be much hope for it.

Months later (another season), the poem is to be found attached to the back of another poem, My New Favourite, somewhere on the corner of my desk. It has no right to be here. It is gatecrashing the party and it knows it. I notice its body language, humble, slightly hunched, the way it averts my eyes while knowing it has my full attention.

I begin chopping at the poem. Big slices, whole stanzas, favourite passages. The odd thing is the poem seems to be enjoying it! The more I slash at it, the more the poem looks like it wanted to all along.

I can’t say I am impressed. I am not even sure it is a poem. I am not even sure I like it.

Months later (between seasons) I put the poem into an envelope. The Best New Poetry have sent some poems back so I am sending them out again the same morning to Super New Poetry Near You. The batch contains Definitely The Best Poem I Have Written, two poems I hate, this new one, and something that took five minutes.

I hear nothing for months. But you know what’s coming. They take the five minute poem, and one of the ones I hate. They say they really like the new poem but it is not for them. (I wonder what is ‘for’ ‘them’.)

Off the new poem goes again, with one quick word change, to Really Great Poetry. I don’t even think about it. Three weeks later they say they will take it, just like that, no questions asked. ‘It jumped out at us,’ they say. ‘Please keep sending.’