A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.
Towards the end of December 1998 I had a phone call from Michael Laskey. He wondered if I might like to think about coming to Aldeburgh to be their Spring Poet in Residence. There would be a mixture of workshops and readings in a variety of settings and it would be great fun. ‘We would pay you, of course,’ he said.
At that precise moment I was having one of my not-feeling-especially-like-a-poet-or-person-come-to-that-of-any-great-worth sort of mornings, taken up as it was with the beautiful and mundane tasks of childcare and thinking about maybe getting round to doing some writing later, after the park perhaps, when CBeebies was on. Like a fool, and without knowing what I was doing, I was attempting to balance all of this with a recently-embarked-on PhD study of teaching poetry writing to primary-age children.
I looked down at what I laughingly called my diary and noticed swathes of blank pages with ‘PhD’ dotted around them.
‘It looks like I’m a bit busy,’ I lied. ‘My PhD and things. I’m not sure I can take the time off.’
There was a silence.
Michael said: ‘That’s such a disappointment. We were really hoping you could come. There’s no way we can persuade you, I suppose?’
Later that evening my wife confirmed that I was indeed a fool for refusing Michael’s kind offer. I rang him back the next day in something of a sweat, and was delighted to hear he had offered the residency to no one else. Arrangements were made, and we were on.
For two weeks Michael and Naomi Jaffa drove me around Suffolk (all that sky!) quizzing me about my teaching and my family, my tastes in poetry, and generally holding forth about their own. It remains the best education in poetry I have had.
The way Michael would look at me sideways during a workshop. Or, afterwards, in the safety of the car, say: ‘That dream-poem about the tree: you really didn’t like it…?’ Or, simply: ‘Next time, would it not be better to start with…?’ Not to mention the reading lists. I owe my love of poets I love most of all to these two: C.K. Williams, Sharon Olds, Tony Hoagland, Mark Halliday, Marie Howe. Not just titles of books, but intimate appreciations of lines, down to precise syllables, of their life-enhancing and essential poetry. I’ve used this quote of Raymond Carver’s a thousand times, but it really is worth saying again: I’m talking about influence here.
It’s not something you can analyse. You just know. It’s an instinctive thing. As when you meet someone who has a fondness for David Gower or Hatful of Hollow. Or someone who writes, as Naomi has in her Introduction to the Aldeburgh Festival Programme: ‘The bottom line seems to be that there are two types of poet – those who want to be poets with a capital ‘P’, and those who have something they have to say and can’t find any other way to say it. The latter are the keepers. Because the whole point, surely, is to make discoveries – about ourselves and about the world; sudden new insights or things we didn’t know we knew, because we’d never come across them properly articulated before.’
I have been back to Aldeburgh since. To read (I fluffed my opening poem) and to work with teachers (the best). And now I am amazed to find I am going back again, as the 2014 Festival Blogger.
The ‘keepers’ I am looking forward to listening to, meeting and writing about in November include: Beverly Rycroft and her extraordinary book missing, about her experience of cancer; Dan O’Brien, winner of the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize for War Reporter; Jonathan Edwards, author of My Family and Other Superheroes; Jen Hadfield, whose amazing Byssus has just come out; Adélia Prado, Brazil’s pre-eminent poet; Ellen Doré Watson; Finuala Dowling; and the inimitable Thomas Lux and Selima Hill, whose new book The Sparkling Jewel of Naturism seems to contain one short poem about everything under the sun.
I am looking forward to it more than I can say. There will be friends, old and new, and laughter, much of it. And that terrible-collective silence we experience at the heart of great poems read aloud. Most of all I am looking forward to standing on that famous shingle beach and staring out to see without a care in the world to see what it might say to me, the feeling of coming home.