How did poetry first appear in your life?
My family were Irish and they taught poetry by making schoolkids learn it off by heart, so my mother knew loads and recited it constantly, the soundtrack of my childhood.
Someone says ‘you should write a poem about that’. What do you do / say?
Why don’t you?
What do you think poetry’s relationship to politics should be?
I can only speak for myself, of course, and it is a controversial subject, but I see them as intimately connected. I remember Michael Longley’s poem ‘Ceasefire’ being on the lips of everybody during the Peace Process; I think that should happen more often, until it becomes natural. My critics say that’s because most poets are lefties and you want to sway the debate, but I’d answer, er …
Has a poem ever changed your life?
Well, that would be stronging it a bit.
Tell us something about your writing process / the process of writing a particular one of your poems.
First: I get lucky, e.g. finding out the road from where I live into town was made by a blind man. Nowadays, I tend to think about ideas and begin to work them up on bus journeys – Nick Laird in a poem describes poetry as the big window at the front of the bus and I think that’s dead on. After that, I let it take as long as it needs, although my own writing habits are very regular.
Describe your ideal poetry festival line-up.
I wouldn’t want to do that because of all the people I’d have to leave out.
Do you have any bad poetry habits?
A lot, but I try to iron them out. Feedback from people you trust is important here. It can take a long time for it to dawn on me that something is in very poor taste, and sometimes it never does.
What is your favoured form of writing avoidance?
If you could bring a dead poet back to life and ask them one question, who would it be and what would you ask them?
Browning, and “So you really think ‘twat’ means the wimple of a nun do you?”
If your favourite poem were a meal, what would it be?
The Emperor of Ice Cream.
How do you feel about making a living from poetry? Do you do it? Do you avoid it? Do you want to do it?
I make about minimum wage and live on it like a lot of other people have to, but I’ve kept my outgoings very low and that’s my big tip to new poets: get used to being poor. But I do think it’s worth it for the freedom and the time to read, which obviously poets need to do a lot of as well.
What’s a good poem idea that you’ve had in the past but never managed to get off the ground?
Well, I’m having more trouble with my long bus-journey poem than I feel I should …
You write a poem that you’re really pleased with but it will offend someone you know: what do you do?
I’m never really that pleased with anything I write, but I do avoid causing offence unnecessarily. My wife is from Middlesbrough and I had to promise never to write a poem called ‘I Married A Smog Monster’.
Have you ever learned a poem by heart, and which one was it? Can you still remember it?
See my first answer and I think it’s a good idea for myself. I’ve learned dozens if not hundreds of poems and songs off by heart, sometimes putting poems to music in my head as well which lots of poets do ― and yes I know almost everything Emily Dickinson wrote can be sung to the tune of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’: that’s not what I have in mind.