Listening to the wonderful array of speakers at the Foyle Young Poets symposium on Monday, I tried to think back to the time when I began writing poems seriously, somewhere in the 1980’s. Mostly I marvelled that conditions for young writers are so much better now than they were then. Everything, and everyone, is so much better connected. To find out what to do with your poems you had to go and buy a book, Peter Finch’s How to Publish Your Poetry, which your bookshop (remember those?) did not have and had not heard of and would order for you, as a favour. It all took such a long time. Plus (no internet, see?), you couldn’t google the latest readings, or books by favourite poets, because there was no google. There was Time Out, but your newsagent didn’t stock it so you had to go into London to get one. There was a poetry library you had heard of, on the top floor of a building in Piccadilly, but it wasn’t always open so you had to ring to check they were before you caught the tube into town so you could borrow some Theodore Roethke and Wallace Stevens because you had read them in The Rattlebag. It all took so long. Below is a letter I wrote to my younger self on January 1, 2014. I think most of the advice I concocted still holds true. I’d like to add one thing I heard Rebecca Goss say a year or so ago: read everything and stay off social media.
I’d love to know what advice you would give to your younger writing selves.
Dear Anthony (I will never get used to calling you Tony)
Here are some words of advice from your nearing-fifty-year-old self, written from the future. You can of course ignore them, but please know they are written and sent with much love.
Your career in poetry (I note with interest you already distrust that phrase as much as I do) is still fledgling. You are scribbling away, in the dark, spending what meagre resources you have on books. I notice you are very precise in the way you construct birthday lists, giving precise instructions to your non-poetry family about the look, colour, shape and feel of the books you ask for.
It is hard to believe, but one day a machine will do all this for you.
You feel very alone. Get used to this. There will be periods when this will ease for a while. Mostly, however, you are going to do the bulk of what you later come to call satisfying work on your own, completely unconvinced that anyone cares or is interested. If I were you I would spend less energy worrying about this and much more on getting the poems right in themselves.
Your mother is going to find a stash of your poems in your bedside table. This is going to upset you for a while. But don’t worry, it is not fatal. Nor is it her fault. The fact that someone else in the world now knows that you have this passion in your life is no bad thing. Unlikely as it seems, her discovery is the first time you begin to take your writing, and your commitment to it, seriously.
The same is true for the rather uncomfortable Christmas afternoon you are going to experience when a notebook of your poems is passed round the family for inspection. Your grandmother is going to announce that it is ‘hardly Wordsworth, darling.’ This will upset you for a while also. Don’t let it. (She is going to say exactly the same about the books you will one day publish.)
But do you see what is happening? All the time you are writing more, reading more, and taking what you do more seriously. That others do not get it or find the results appealing is neither here nor there. You should learn to see these moments as baby steps towards seriousness, not vicious attacks on your soul.
Do not use up energy bearing grudges. This is one of the most fundamental rules I will pass on. It wastes time for one thing, and kills what energy you have for good writing for another. This includes your English teachers, university lecturers and others you look to for early advice. That they did not tell you your poems were going to change the world is both kind and true. Choose to see that they have done you a favour. They all have one thing in common: they all encouraged you to keep writing (and reading) as much as possible. You could do worse and remember this on a card above your desk.
You are going to meet and hear from some people who do not have your best interests at heart, as well as those who are extraordinarily generous and kind. Remember that numbers of the latter will far outweigh the former. Learn to give thanks for this. Ideally every day.
It will help you to learn the rules of how to behave in poetry, things like sending your poems to magazines, where to sit at readings, how to enter competitions, how to give a reading. Remember that these things are important (you do need to include a stamped addressed envelope; don’t ramble on), but remember also they are not the main thing. The main thing is reading, lots of it, and writing, ditto, then acting on what advice you are given.
Find it in your heart to forgive The Wasteland. (Somebody had to do it.)
Quite soon you are going to discover Seamus Heaney. Take what he said to heart: ‘The fact of the matter is that the most unexpected and miraculous thing in my life was the arrival in it of poetry itself.’
As another poet said: it is good to remember that you love this thing because someone else loved it enough to make you love it. Whatever you do, whoever you are working with, whether it is reading to dying people or a hall of three hundred, give yourself to it completely. That is, don’t hold back, put your best stuff out there, and don’t leave anything out (while appearing to leave nearly all of it).
Above all, read everything, be kind, and don’t worry. Some bad things are going to happen to you and to those you love. But through it all you will have poetry.
Never forget that, whatever anyone else says, I will always be on your side.
As always with love, Anthony