Creativity in Lockdown: In Conversation with Michael Bartholomew-Biggs

How did you manage your creativity in 2020 and the beginning of this year?

My only act of “creativity management” in response to Covid restrictions. was a self-imposed commitment to enter about ten poetry contests between spring and autumn 2020.  I haven’t yet won anything (although one judge is still deliberating…) but the string of entry deadlines kept me working steadily on poems-in-progress and even spurred me to start a handful of new ones. Oddly, I haven’t yet set myself any similar competition goals for 2021 (perhaps I can only take so much disappointment).

Even before Covid, I had to be quite well self-managed to deal with London Grip poetry submissions (four windows per year) while also commissioning, publishing and sometimes writing book reviews. I am also still exercising what’s left of my mathematical creativity in a project with two former work colleagues. Occasional preaching at our local church entails yet another kind of working with words. With several different things to do it’s harder to feel one’s creative life is totally over!


How were you able to balance your writing, editing and forays into online events?

London Grip editing can be a lifeline when my own writing is a bit stuck.  With regard to poetry submissions and I try to emulate Michael Laskey and the late Roy Blackman at Smiths Knoll in the 1990s by engaging in dialogue with contributors about some of the “nearly but not quite” poems. Advising others can seem easier than solving problems in my own work!

Handling London Grip reviews also keeps my mind poetically active even when I am not actually writing very much. Reading the thoughtful opinions of my excellent reviewers sometimes provides insights into my own compositional problems. When writing reviews it’s also inspiring to engage closely with the craft and imagination of other poets.

I haven’t really had much balancing to do in relation to on-line events. While I’ve been glad that they’ve become increasingly popular I’m afraid I’ve been rather slow to engage with them – perhaps because I spend quite enough time on zoom for non-poetry things.

(Stop Press: I can now report, however, that did my first zoomed open-mic spot a few days ago so perhaps I am slowly catching up with the zeitgeist.)

Do you think online events will change the poetry scene in the future?

It’s good that so many on-line events are taking place. Indeed, some of them couldn’t have happened in any other way, with readers and audiences coming together from different parts of the country or even different countries. On-line book launches can pull in bigger numbers that might have turned up at the local pub. Plus there are no room hire fees. And PayPal facilitates remote bookselling. Pity about the wine and nibbles though.

Obviously, the social pleasures of a live event are much diluted; and people will eagerly embrace “in the flesh” events when they become possible again. But the on-line genie is now out of the bottle. The potential for reaching wider audiences and / or bringing readers to rather remote locations won’t be forgotten and I’m sure that on-line events will continue to happen. I can foresee the emergence of “hybrid” events in which a traditional reading, complete with real audience, is made accessible to a wider clientele on-line.  (The latter group would have to bring their own wine however.) Nancy Mattson and I haven’t any plans to run a purely zoomed version of our Poetry in the Crypt readings – but a future hybridised version might be on the cards…


Over the last year did you noticed a change in submissions to London Grip in terms of quality, quantity and subject matter?

One change during 2020 – which may or may not be due to the pandemic – was an increase in submissions from the USA. This added new variety to the style and subject matter of the poems we see. Without doing an accurate count I have the impression that the inbox has generally been fuller this year – presumably from contributors with more disposable time?

Thankfully, the inbox hasn’t been dominated by Covid poems. While I have published a few of these, I’m not yet sure what I think the “definitive” Covid poem should deal with.  Obviously, it can simply lament loss of control and shrinking horizons. But there could be bigger themes: the results of intrusive human interaction with, and appropriation of, the natural world; or the way “civilisation” has masked our human vulnerability and dependence on one another.

Covid does seem largely to have replaced Brexit and the Trump presidency as the main source of angst-ridden and satirical submissions!

You have a loyal group of reviewers. Can you tell me something about them and reviewing books for London Grip?

At the start of the pandemic, I made a conscious decision to maintain, or even increase, the number of reviews we publish and also the speed with which they appear. I see this as one small contribution to keeping up morale in the poetry community during a difficult time. I am very fortunate to have about forty London Grip reviewers who are happy to take on one or two books every couple of months and give them a careful reading before producing a thoughtful discussion of the book’s themes and the poet’s craft.  London Grip reviews aim to be positive in the sense of looking first for what to praise rather than what to find fault with. But our reviews would carry very little weight if they did not also acknowledge any less successful elements in a collection.

mikeMichael Bartholomew-Biggs spent his working life as a mathematician and only began reading and writing poetry as part of a mid-life crisis!  In the last twenty-odd years he has published four full collections and five chapbooks – most recently Poems in the Case (Shoestring 2018) which puts a poetry collection within the framework of a detective story and The Man Who Wasn’t Ever Here (Wayleave 2018) which is a kind of poetic biography of his Irish grandfather.  More about these and his other books can be found on his website http://mikeb-b.blogspot.com/ (the updating and improving of which should probably have been a lockdown project but wasn’t.).

Since 2011 Michael has been poetry editor of the on-line magazine London Grip http://londongrip.co.uk/ and with his wife Nancy Mattson he has organised the reading series Poetry in the Crypt at St Mary’s church in Islington for well over twenty years.  Plans to give these events something of a facelift were thwarted by the Covid crisis in 2020 but it is hoped the series will resume when circumstances permit.


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