My Hero: Michael Laskey

Michael_laskey

Photo: Derek Adams

Some writers influence you through the pull of their imagination on your work, opening up new worlds as you read them. As I wrote recently, Ted Hughes is an example of this for me. Other writers come in and out of your life through friendship and collaboration. Michael Laskey is my hero because on top of these influences he also rescued me.

Towards the end of 1998 Michael rang me to invite me to consider coming to Suffolk to work as the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Spring Poet in Residence. He described a two-week programme of visiting schools, colleges and community groups where I would encourage children, teachers and writers with their poetry writing. It was a fantastic opportunity. Like an idiot, I turned him down. I explained that the PhD I had embarked on was very time-consuming. For good measure I also threw in an excuse concerning my worries about childcare.

Michael listened to me patiently, and finally put the phone down accepting what I had told him.

I think the real reason I said no to Michael was my complete lack of confidence at the time. My first book, published in 1996, had done very well for a first volume of poems, selling out its print run within a year. My publisher, however, was reluctant to commit to another print run, and interest in the book stalled.

The gap between acceptance and publication of the manuscript for the book had been three years. In the intervening period I had begun writing new poems, but was not sure if they amounted to enough material for a new book let alone whether they were any good.

When it became clear, early in 1998, that no new print run would be forthcoming, I began to wonder if these new poems might ever see the light of day in book form.

I had met Michael once before, at a reading for Smiths Knoll at the Troubadour Coffee House. I liked him immediately, quickly learning to relish both his enthusiasm, and his disdain for what he called ‘showy’ behaviour. I knew I was letting him down by saying no to his kind offer, which I had not asked for, but genuinely felt I had no option to say anything else.

My wife came home later that evening and confirmed that I was indeed an idiot for turning him down. I rang him back and was relieved to find he had not offered the residency to anyone else. I would be delighted to come toSuffolk, I told him. By now thanking him profusely, he stopped me, saying, ‘Of course with your book now out of print, we’ll have to put some new poems out. Do you have any new work I could see?’

I asked him what he meant. ‘Well, you know, a pamphlet or something. We can’t have our poet in residence giving readings with no book to sell.’ Excited and still not catching up with him I asked him what he meant again. Ever gracious, he explained in words a child would understand. ‘What you need to do, Anthony, is send me some new work, your best stuff mind you, and then we’ll print a pamphlet for you with some of your older work that’s now out of print so that people can see a range of what you’ve been up to. How does that sound?’

I told him this sounded brilliant, and began thanking him profusely all over again, at which point he told me to shut up and stop being so silly, it was his pleasure and they were really looking forward to working with me.

And that is what happened. I went to Suffolk, working in schools and with writers groups, and I gave readings from my brand new pamphlet which we decided to call The Difference.

I can still see Michael now, pounding the steering wheel with pleasure on the way to some tiny village school in the middle of nowhere, then attacking it when some opera came on. Once, in a traffic jam somewhere outside Sudbury, he saw two children, a girl and her younger sister, shouting at each other. ‘Look at that, Anthony, that’s ‘Kin’ by CK Williams, do you know it?’ I told him I did not. ‘Oh, Anthony, you must, what do mean you don’t, you should, you know, God, really? It’s the one that goes ‘Next the wretched history of the world.”

Even now he is probably turning to a newly-arrived poet in his car, handing them a book of poems and saying ‘You really should read this, you know, it’s bloody brilliant, what on earth were England thinking of in the rugby?’

The Difference

for Jim

 

The lives we’re living,

what difference do they make?

 

We wake up,

throw our children in the air

and catch them laughing

into our arms.

 

Friends come and go, seasons pass,

the leaves collect silently

in the garden.

 

Which reminds me,

there’s pruning to be done

and bonfires to build.

 

What is it that we’re doing

in this world to make it better,

a place more easy to wake in

for our children?

 

In the middle of all this

I am amazed

the sun still finds time

to rise beautifully over these roofs

and never asks anything in return.


4 comments

  1. Josephine Corcoran

    I love this post, Anthony. In some ways, Michael Laskey rescued me, too, because he chose my poem ‘Honeymoon’ as a runner-up at Bridport when he judged the competition in 2010. That was the first poem I’d ever submitted a poem anywhere since my patchy writing career had stalled big time for ten years while I was juggling with family life and earning money. It wasn’t just his choosing my poem that gave me hope that I might be able to start writing again, it was also his wonderful workshop at Bridport when he introduced me to a whole range of poets I’d never heard of before and whose work I started reading. I also find Michael’s poems inspiring and have used them in many writing workshops. Thanks for an uplifting post!

    Like

    • Anthony Wilson

      Hi Josephine
      I’m so pleased you saw this post.
      I’m not surprised to learn I am not alone in being rescued by Michael. Everything you describe about his generous spirit rings completely true. He should be given a medal.
      He is rare in that he shines the light away from himself and towards others. A rescuer indeed.
      As ever with best wishes
      Anthony

      Like

  2. Meg Cox

    I don’t understand why I haven’t had this – is there another blog which I’m not being notified of?
    Thank you Josephine because I would have hated not to have seen this – about my favourite poet. It was because by chance I saw that he was tutoring at Lumb Bank soon after I had started to write poetry that I joined Arvon. It may have been because of his poetry that I started to write. It was certainly because of that week at Lumb Bank that I continued. Mind you, he never took any of my submissions to Smiths Knoll, but that probably made me try harder.

    Like

    • Anthony Wilson

      Hello Meg
      I’m so pleased you saw this post. It has been on my blog since November 2011, so is perhaps buried in the archive. Not everyone goes there, and fair enough.
      Michael is my all time hero because he rescued me. And I know I am not alone. As ever with best wishes
      and thanks
      Anthony

      Like

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