This is the opening question and answer to an interview with Paul Clyne of Poetry Spotlight, published today.
To read the rest of the interview, in which I discuss reading, writing, blogging and having no idea what I am doing, please visit the Poetry Spotlight page here.
With thanks to Paul Clyne for his kind invitation to participate.
For those who may not know the story behind Lifesaving Poems, can you tell us a bit more and did you expect it to make as big an impact as it has?
Before it became a blog, let alone an anthology published by Bloodaxe, Lifesaving Poems started out as a notebook. It was an entirely informal project that I began a couple of years after recovering from cancer, the goal of which was to try and recall, then copy out in longhand, poems which meant something to me. I found myself recalling a remark made by Seamus Heaney some years previously, around the time he published The Schoolbag, when he wondered out loud how many poems could really matter to an individual across a lifetime. Was it ten, twenty, a hundred, or just a mere handful? My criterion for inclusion was so basic as to appear artless: was the poem one I could remember encountering? I was not, and never have been, fussed about including a list of the great and the good. That was never the point. The point was to recall that experience, to know that I knew where I had been when I met the poem for the first time.
That act of recall was important to me because when I was being treated for cancer in 2006 I found that poetry, for the first time in my life, escaped me. Chemotherapy will do that you. Chemobrain, they call it. Spending time deliberately bringing to mind the poems that had sustained me up to that point in my life seemed an important way of celebrating being alive again.
The notebook took a couple of years to fill. After a few false starts in the world of blogging I hit upon the idea of writing these memories and stories down, in the form of blog posts. I began before I could persuade myself not to, with Alasdair Paterson’s marvellous poem ‘Fishermen’. I can still remember the feeling of elation at having hit on idea that meant something to me; but I was not prepared for the response both the blog and subsequently the book have engendered.
At the university where I work we spend a lot of time talking about ‘impact’, building it in to our bid proposals and trying to measure the reach and success of our research in terms of it. When I look at the impact of Lifesaving Poems, however, it is nearly always in the form of stories and experiences of readers. They share with me the most personal details of their lives: how the book has helped them recover from alcoholism; how it is helping them to die well by providing a series of readings to be remembered by. The other day a man I do not know well came up to me at a party and said: ‘Until I read your blog I had no idea what poetry was, but I did know that it wasn’t for me. You have changed both those things.’ If that is not impact I don’t know what is. I have to pinch myself to actively receive it. To answer your question, I didn’t expect it to make such an impression, no.