In preparation for this year’s Aldeburgh Poetry Festival I was asked some questions about my blogging by Festival programmer Dean Parkin. This interview first appeared in the Festival newspaper, The Poetry Paper.
Why did you start blogging?
I started blogging very reluctantly. As I came back into circulation after serious illness in 2006 I became aware that poets were contributing to blogs and discussion groups. I was even invited to participate in one. ‘But what on earth would I say?’ I told them. Some years later a friend who has nothing to do with planet poetry, asked me directly how on earth I could expect people to find me if I didn’t have an online presence. Not long after that I attended a seminar at work about publishing and communicating our research findings. We were asked which of us blogged about what we got up to. Not a single hand went up. The guest speaker said: ‘So here I am, among some great thinkers, and not one of you wants to share what you do with the world?’ I took it as a call to arms, and have been blogging ever since.
How much of a commitment is it – how long do you spend on your blog? Does it get in the way of other writing?
I try to see blogging as writing, rather than ‘blogging’. One reason I do it is that I am naturally heroically lazy. Having a blog, with actual followers, means I am now obliged to write. It’s become a public way of enforcing a private habit. I’m dogged about it. I don’t wait for great ideas or inspiration. I make myself do it. I’m starting to see the benefits of that creeping very slowly into other writing I do, in terms of poetry and for research. It just becomes a thing. As Dorothy Parker is supposed to have said: ‘I don’t much like writing, but I love having written.’
What are the rewards?
First and foremost, the reward, as in writing poems, has to be in and of itself. That is an absolute given. If I can’t generate an intrinsic reward in the work under my hands, then I am doing it for the wrong reasons. One of the things I’d say I was looking for is to be surprised. To describe a thought or experience which I did not know (or had forgotten about) until I wrote it. There is nothing better. As time has gone on, however, there are external rewards to the process, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t. When someone leaves a comment to say how my reading of a poem has changed what they thought about it; or when WordPress have posted my work on their Freshly Pressed pages. The other day a woman told me she began reading my blog on a friend’s recommendation as she came back from serious illness. She told me it had opened a door into a world she knew nothing about. That sense of being woven into people’s personal stories and histories. That’s a privilege and a responsibility I would never have dared dream of. I’m humbled by it.
What influence does it have on your own work – does it help you write poems or generate ideas?
I’m genuinely not sure what to say about this. Writing poems is both mundane and mysterious. And blogging shares a lot of this also. Just as I don’t ever really ‘plan’ my poems (how could you?) I don’t really plan my blog posts. I begin scratching to see what hurts, usually, or inspires, or both, and push towards that. If I end up somewhere I did not expect to, then I am happy. I do think in this sense that writing poems is a superb training ground. It teaches you to get out of the way of your material. The other thing they share is, hopefully, an attitude of openness. The practice I have always subscribed to, carrying around a notebook, snooping on conversations on the bus, it is all material. The way a writer holds herself at a reading is just as fascinating to me as the poems she reads. The incidental. The stuff in the gap. As Raymond Carver advised about short stories: write about what everyone knows, but which no one is talking about. That’s what I’ve always found fascinating, and I don’t see that stopping.
What’s the future – how do you see your blog developing?
As I say, I don’t plan. One day not long ago I found myself beginning a post with ‘I am at a thing…’ I didn’t know there would be others that used the same opening, that it might even become a ‘series’. But that’s what it now is. I think (I think) there is still more to say there. But it arrived unconsciously. An idea I found myself being much more conscious about is that of ‘influences’. I don’t just mean ‘poets I have read and liked’ I mean a much broader thing about being creative, being alive in the world, having a fully individuated life as Heaney would say. The way my brother made his sandwiches as a child. My art school friends always having pencil and paper to hand. Michael Laskey pounding the steering wheel. It’s taken a while to get going, but now I’ve started I need to keep pushing at it. It needs doing. Other than that I have no plans at all. I once heard Stephen Knight say ‘If I am reading well, then I am writing well.’ As long as I can find poems that have knocked my socks off to talk about I am confident I will be OK.
What advice would you give to someone starting a blog?
I think the main thing is to make yourself do it. Do not worry about traffic and stats and becoming famous. Just do it. The single best advice I was given is to write often and passionately. If people see you care about stuff they will follow you and engage with you. Develop a likeable tone of voice -nothing is more important for a blog.
In terms of ‘technique’ I’d advise writing short posts, with short paragraphs, making sure you include lots of links to things you see and like. In that way you create a vision of your own aesthetic. Share stuff. Give things away. Be generous about what you love. Be generous with yourself! Someone once said about fiction writing that nothing much needs to happen, but if people believe in your tone of voice they will follow and return to you and share what you say.