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 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.