Some writers influence you through the pull of their imagination on your work, opening up new worlds as you read them. Aged thirteen, discovering Ted Hughes was like 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 in London. 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 to Suffolk, 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, 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?’
As is the way with poets, I see him about once a century. The last time was at Snape Maltings, at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, which he founded in 1988. He was reading from his new book of poems, Weighing the Present, to a packed and expectant room of friends, family and well-wishers, including a good many of the poets from that year’s festival programme. Never have I seen at any reading such waves of what can only be called love passing back and forth between audience and reader. There I heard again what Naomi Jaffa has called the best reader of their own work by any living poet.
Half way through I came to and realised I was standing next to his editor, the picture of contented pride and suddenly moved as I was to hear his voice wobbling in poems about the dead not coming back though he seems to see them regularly. Next morning at breakfast that editor told me Laskey had kept delaying the manuscript because it wasn’t right. Or maybe he told me that in the queue for Ellen Doré Watson. Or maybe I just made it up. In any case, the wait was worth it, because it is perfect. He also told me Laskey abjured his encouragement to send his poems to a bigger press. ‘Why would I want to be on Desert Island Discs?’ he told him. I know I would tune in, for one.
Taking the book home I had wolfed the book down, as I do, in a sitting. Something I now realised but had not spotted at the time is how short the poems are. Not out-of-breath short. Just short. Time-running-out short. Look-at-that-it’s-amazing! short. This-may-never-come-again short. It is as though his strengths are getting stronger, more concentrated and moving, all of life and love on every page lovingly -and transparently- recorded for us and all time, the living and the dead cheek by jowl, all as it were equal and alive in the same room conversing with each other. A Scots Pine. A bayonet. A chopping board. That bike. Amazing. Simply amazing. Thank you.
Remembering this I remember too spending long moments just looking at him listening to poets in his beret, head cocked to one side, one hand cupping his elbow, fingers and thumb of his free hand scrunched round his chin. How still he was. And how present, as if aware only of the reader and her poem. And I thought: how many times has he done this, yet still he comes back for more, though he must have seen it all? He should have a medal. Preferably from the Queen, if he would accept it. Later that day I spied him sharing sandwiches with his family away from the crowd, still in his beret, the look of sheer joy on his face as he discovered what was inside the Tupperware box.
And even now my life is becoming a Michael Laskey poem. A disused bungalow is being demolished behind the house, revealing views of the Cathedral I’ve not seen before. Also a child’s long-forgotten tree house at the back of the now-enormous plot. Our French-Canadian lodger learning to come in and say lovely weather when it’s not.
A year later I’ve finally got round to reading his inscription in my book. My friend. That’s it. I whisper back across the miles my hero, my mentor. O Captain! My Captain! Already I can hear him from three hundred miles away spluttering with considerable Anglo-Saxon relish to please shut up, Anthony! Which I will but not before
If I didn’t say it before, Michael, thank you.