Born and educated in England. After high school two years in the Royal Air Force and then university at Cambridge, then University of Iowa (USA) on a writing fellowship for three years. Then Glasgow, Scotland, where I was one of two founders of the English Dept. at the University of Strathclyde. After 7 years there, I came with family to Canada and have lived in Calgary ever since, teaching Creative Writing at the U. of C. for 28 years. Now retired and writing. Published 10 books of poetry and one study of a poet, and in many journals & anthologies and radio/TV programs. Won prizes for my work, including an Alberta Achievement Award for service to the literary arts. Have given nearly 200 readings from Victoria to St. John’s & in the US and UK. Last book (2008) 36 Cornelian Avenue, published by Vehicule Press. In John Updike’s Room: New and Selected Poems in 2006 from The Porcupine’s Quill.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
Actually there was one moment when I was in English class in High School and the teacher, a man we all respected and liked hugely as he’d been a WW2 hero, told us we should start LISTENING to poetry more and he went on to read us several pieces of poetry, from the past 100 years. I was really taken with the fact that they all sounded so different, and they “spoke” to me, in my adolescence, especially some lines from Wordsworth’s Prelude. That this tough man was clearly moved, as we all were in that class, was my first real “moment” when I knew that poetry was special and I was going to try to write some. Later I discovered that the teacher was himself a poet and had a book published which I bought and learned almost by heart.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
I’m suspicious of the word “inspiration” as it means something breathed into you from outside, and I don’t think much poetry is “given” to us that way. I get subjects for my poems today by finding that my mind keeps dwelling on some person, place and/or time or happening and somehow I realize that it’s something I might want to know more about and explore in a poem. Or a bit in a newspaper, or a word or two on the radio, or an overheard conversation (or part of one) might intrigue me enough to see if I can make sense and shape for it. But memory is very much the most common source of poems—of people but also of what has happened to me, whether it’s love, grief, joy, sadness, anger, regret, humour, whatever.
What is your writing process?
My writing process has become a bit more haphazard. I usually spend a few weeks at the Banff Centre for the Arts writing each year, and getting first drafts done from jotted notes or ideas in my head. Then I’ll spend ages after coming back from there to revise and revise and try to get the drafts in as close to the shape I want as is possible, with the right “tune” and the right feel. Or I might just start writing notes for a possible poem and find it turns into a complete first draft. No rules and I don’t try to write every day for a certain time, unless I’m writing prose, where I can do that. Poetry has to be more spontaneous to me and can’t be forced. When I’m forcing a poem, it’s never any good. I think certain things need to be written at certain times and I seem to know when it’s time for a particular poem which has been aging in my mind before I put pencil (I can’t write on to computer until the 3rd draft or so as I need to touch the words and make quick notes and arrows when I’m doing a first draft.)
What is your revision/editing process?
Revision/editing partly answered above. I can only work on one poem at a time, and just keep at it. The hard part, for me, is the first draft, the filling of a blank page. After that I can leave it and come back to it, as long as there aren’t many/any distractions, and tinker with words and lines, take out over-long or repetitious stuff, shift things around until it gets as close to what I’m trying to get as possible. No poem is ever finished, people say, but I think most poets know when they have done all they can with a poem. Dylan Thomas had 200 drafts of his great poem “Fern Hill,” and yet it reads as if he’d just spilled the rich words straight on to the paper. Revision can loosen a poem up as well as tighten it.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
Already answered in the first. I started in High School and got my first publications in university, but it takes a long time to become a good poet and the high school poems wre very small steps which are necessary, even if they embarrass you later in life!
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
I have only used one reference book—no, two. One is The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, which has everything anyone could ever want to know about poetry. And The Book of Forms by Lewis Turco. But I rarely use these books except to check on my correctness if I happen to be using a form rather than free-verse. Better, by far, I’d say, is to get into a poetry writing group and talk about poetry and learn from others.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
I didn’t hear a single poet in high school. It wasn’t fashionable then to bring them in to read and talk. I would have loved to have heard about the difficulties and discouragements of writing, as well as the joys and self-fulfillments.