Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Sparks on Arthur's Day

I’m very pleased to welcome Ben Wilkinson to my humble blog today, on what turns out to be Arthur’s Day. We’ve just missed the 17:59 time slot, but still, raise yourself a nice, slowly-poured creamy-headed pint of porter with me, pull up a stool and we’ll get down to some poetry appreciation.

Ben Wilkinson was born in Stafford in 1985 and studied English and Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. He is currently completing an MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University.

His poems have appeared in a wide variety of publications including Poetry Review, Poetry London, Magma, and the TLS. He has also reviewed poetry for Poetry Review, Stand and the TLS, and writes critical perspectives of contemporary poets for the British Council’s Contemporary Writers website.

His first pamphlet of poems, The Sparks, was published in 2008 as part of Tall-Lighthouse’s Pilot scheme, showcasing the best British poets under 30.

Wilkinson: to an outlier, it’s a name that whispers steel and Sheffield, and makes you think of a certain set of double crossed swords. But, before you wince, Ben Wilkinson crosses pens, not swords (perhaps there’s a new coat of arms) and makes Sparks with his pen. Hmm, does that remind you of anyone else in the poetry world? Digging..?

I really liked a great deal about The Sparks when it arrived in the post, so much so that I felt a little discontented that there wasn’t more to read, to contextualise the poems as part of a larger body of work. That is sometimes the shortfall of the pamphlet; a delicious taste that leaves you wanting (a little like fine-dining).

Still, there’s more than enough to show Wilkinson’s dexterity with words. My favourite is ‘Byroads’, a poem I can actually see in my head. I see it as a filmic slow-run film, intriguing in the way that Derry based artist Willie Doherty's work is. Doherty's art explores the complexities of living in a divided society, and I think this poem gets under that skin in a similar way.

In ‘Byroads', there are moments capturing a state of mind, or just a state. Or is it? I see the colours, borders and 'unapproved roads' (yeah, yer man is definitely to the forefront of my mind now) in the poem, and my mind fills in the rest: the north of Ireland and that not-so-simple-situation once you’ve looked.

Hanging baskets frosted white
in the orange blur of a maple wood dusk,
ice stalactite rigid towards the pavements.

The firing of some gun from the wood's
clearing. A bus rumbles on, coughing,
and a local makes his turn at the pub's carpark.

Living goes on despite the divides, but surface stillness betrays its depths. Like Doherty, there is a juxtaposition of image and language, through which a careful reader can extract a deeper meaning. This is but one example of Ben’s restraint, all the more remarkable given that sometimes our younger selves can tend towards a brashness that some might construe as vivid talent, and others showiness.

Anyway, intrigued by Ben’s pamphlet, I sent him some questions by email, to give us all a wee insight into what makes him tick poetry-wise.

When did you realise that poetry was going to be such a major part of your life? Was it in school or university?

Hi Barbara – thanks for featuring The Sparks on your blog. I suppose I first ‘found’ poetry in school, around my late teens. Something clicked while reading the stuff I was studying back then (Larkin, Hughes, Duffy, Armitage – the usual poetry taught in English comprehensives). And I guess at first, that ‘something’ was nothing more than a feeling that “this is doing things which, in my experience, prose isn’t capable of”. But over time, my interest in poetry grew into a sort of secret obsession, and I started privately reading as much poetry as I could, particularly twentieth century and contemporary stuff. I was also tentatively writing stuff at the same time – mainly while I was studying for my A-levels.

Things changed when I went to university. I joined the poetry society there and found likeminded people to share my interests with. A bunch of us would meet once a week for a couple of hours – sharing work by poets we’d recently discovered, playing writing games, reading our poems to each other and occasionally swapping drafts. I carried on attending these meetings until the end of my time at uni. How useful the group was to my actual writing, I don’t know, but it was good fun and I met some interesting people, and it introduced me to some great poetry. By my second year, I was pretty much convinced that poetry wasn’t going to leave me alone, even if I wanted it to.

What’s the best buzz you ever got from a poem - one you’ve written and one you’ve read.

Though I compulsively edit poems and am rarely satisfied with them (beyond the initial, distorted euphoria experienced after naively thinking I’ve just finished one), I have written a few things which buck this trend. ‘Filter’, a poem in The Sparks and my first to appear in Poetry Review (so something of a confidence-boosting milestone), was written in the summer after my second year at university. It emerged over the course of about an hour, almost fully formed – so much so that, unlike most other poems in the pamphlet, it is still pretty much identical to when I first saved it onto the computer, aside a few alterations. That was a really satisfying poem to write – the lines almost just seemed to appear, as if I’d been subconsciously preparing to write the thing for ages. If you’ve ever written a poem in that way – and I reckon most poets have at some time – you’ll know what I mean. For me at least, it doesn’t happen very often.

The best buzz I ever got from a poem… that’s a difficult one. I enjoy many poems for the unique experience they offer, so it’s hard to narrow it down beyond a handful. But I have to pick Philip Larkin’s ‘Here’, simply because when I first read his collection The Whitsun Weddings, and particularly that poem, it made me realise that in the right hands, poetry could encompass, reconcile, and attempt to make sense out of anything and everything. It could switch seemingly effortlessly between the totally insignificant and trivial and the utterly profound and existential (and often pull apart the false boundaries between these). Of course, I now realise the limits to Larkin’s style, but as a young lad I found poems such as ‘Here’ made me see poetry in a completely new way, and helped to validate my own first attempts at writing.

But I might also be tempted to choose Mick Imlah’s ‘Tusking’, simply because, despite having had little influence on my own work that I’m aware of, it is such a haunting and beautiful and absorbing poem it refuses to leave me alone. Memorability is an important factor. I want the initial buzz of the first reading, but I also want that feeling to carry on and make me return to the poem later; for it to persist and stick in my thoughts, even if it’s just a stanza or a few lines. What I reckon all great poems have in common is that persuasive musicality and distinctiveness, but also an intoxicating emotional and intellectual potency. They also have a (perhaps deceptive) sense of necessity and purpose – as if they almost willed themselves to be written.

Do you play word games, like Scrabble, and if so, what's the highest score you've ever had with one word (can you remember it)?

I used to play Scrabble quite a lot – with my grandparents as a young kid, and occasionally with friends when I was in my teens – but I don’t so much anymore. I guess I like to think I was – and still am – pretty good at it, so I suppose my highest score for one word was halfway decent. I don’t remember it though. Besides, the thing with Scrabble, as I’m sure you know, is that an impressively complex or obscure word doesn’t always equal an impressive score. My highest score probably involved placing something really boring, but creating new words from existing words in the process, while landing on a triple word square or whatever. It wasn’t “quixotry” though, I’m afraid.

Who have been the most important poets you have come across?

It depends what we mean by ‘important’. If we’re talking about which poets I think have had the most noticeable influence and effect on my work, I’d say Eliot, Auden, Larkin and Gunn have all been very important. More contemporary poets would include Simon Armitage, Don Paterson, Michael Hofmann, Glyn Maxwell, Roddy Lumsden, Carol Ann Duffy and Paul Farley – essentially, those poets which I feel are most interestingly engaged with the British lyric tradition. In my own work, I’ve always been interested in attempting to combine a colloquial, everyday register with an inventive use of poetic diction, syntax, rhythm and form – particularly segueing from one to the other (and sometimes back again) in a single poem.

But I read much more widely than that list perhaps suggests, and poets whose work currently interests me include Christopher Middleton, James Lasdun, Frederick Seidel and Todd Boss. I’m not one for factions or ideas about ‘where poetry is headed’. Michael Donaghy – who is so eminently quotable that anyone even remotely interested in poetry should read his recently published collected prose – once pointed out that “art has no direction”. That makes sense to me. All poets are plodding along together, trying to write the best poetry they can, with only instinct to guide them. I think Donaghy also rightly said that you can always tell bad poetry because it’s always bad in the same ways, whereas a good poem surprises and delights in unexpected, inventive and often artful ways. For that reason, I’m always interested to read widely, and uncover new and different approaches to writing.


Rachel Fox said...

Interesting to choose 'Here' of all Larkin's poems. It's not one I've ever paid a huge amount of attention to and I am a fairly big fan (to the point of voting for him in that BBC survey thing even though I know the whole idea is nonsense etc. - just couldn't resist...crazy fandom alert). Anyway, I went and read it again. Tis good. Tis good. He was just so BRILLIANT.


BarbaraS said...

Shamefully, me neither, but I'm looking forward to getting a chance to read it. I should read Larkin: he worked in Queen's library for a while, in Belfast, so he has that wee connection with us too.