How did lockdown affect your creativity? And do you see a link with wellbeing?
When the first lockdown happened, I’d been in a lockdown of sorts working on my new show Shed. We were all rehearsed and ready to go for 3 London shows at the Marchland Season and a showcase at Norwich Arts Centre. I had other readings lined up and a couple of Dr Zeeman shows coming up. Of course, that all went and the future for both shows is at the time of writing unclear. The immediate effect was huge disappointment and a re-focusing of efforts. My next collection is a much-neglected folder haunting me, as shows have consumed me for a long time. In some ways, lockdown was a relief. I no longer have to keep 2 and at times 3 one hour shows in my head; it’s been a liberation not to use all my free head space to rehearsing and remembering. It took a while to adjust. to go for a walk with an empty head ready for thoughts and get writing single poems again.
I have also used the time to get to grips with film editing. I’m very lucky to have a playmate in Helen Ivory and we’ve had a hoot as part of the learning process and will be using what we’ve learned in a more serious way soon. The best thing we’ve done is Butchery Live, a monthly Zoom event we host https://www.facebook.com/Live-from-The-Butchery-100380041704407/ . It’s huge fun and we’ve had readers from Canada and America as well as some of the best in Britain. Our last event was Joelle Taylor and Sean O’Brien and we have Annie Freud and Jane Burn coming up in a couple of weeks. We get to see lots of old friends as well as hearing some great poetry. It is relatively easy to run and people pay what they can, so the writers get paid. We link it to Ink, Sweat and Tears which Helen edits. We have every intention of keeping it going post Covid.
Like everyone Covid has had an impact on my well-being. We’re much luckier than most, our income is relatively untouched and are good at keeping each other company – we’re a 24/7 couple already. I am anxious for those close to me, especially Amy my daughter, who has Down’s Syndrome and is blissfully unaware of how vulnerable she is. This is a blessing, but early on when she showed symptoms overnight and scared the hell out of us, only to cheerily get stuck into her lunch a few hours later as if nothing had happened. If she did get the virus, she would not understand what was happening and we nearly lost her 25 years ago to MRSA, so this is a trigger for me back to the worst of days. The thought of that is unbearable, she usually comes to stay every three or four weeks, and I miss that so much. Hopefully, she’ll be getting her vaccine very soon. Her mum passed away in June after a long term illness, which was a huge sadness, even though long expected and kinder than we could have hoped for. Inevitably some of my writing has drawn on this and as always the process has helped me come to an understanding. The pandemic has shown itself in a number of the poems. I’m a little wary of these ones at the moment. In time I’ll be able tell which ones still resonate beyond the current situation – the world will not be short of Covid poems.
As a poet and photographer what non-writing ways do you think poets can feed themselves with?
I can only really speak for myself, but guess other people will have similar ways. I enjoy good television a lot, I even enjoy some bad television a bit. People can be sniffy about TV, but we’re living through a golden age of television right now and there is much to enjoy and be nourished by. I love comedy; Schitt’s Creek and Parks and Recreation have kept our spirits up, and we’ll be turning to Malcom in The Middle again for the umpteenth time. I love movies and we’d go to the Arts Cinema most weeks at least once, and we miss that. We’ve caught up on a whole load of films, new and old over recent months. We’ve watched a lot of theatre too. I miss seeing the small-scale stuff live, but to be honest I think I’ve actually enjoyed the ‘bigger stuff’ more on TV. Our sofa is considerably more comfortable than expensive theatre seats and our lounge is not stuffy. Some though, such as Inua Ellams Barber Shop Chronicles need to be seen live.
Outside of the arts – there is always walking. We are five minutes’ walk from the 184 acres of Mousehold Heath, which has been a blessing, we walk there every day. A also swim and miss being able to drive to a lovely cold river or the sea very much. I plan to cycle to a river on Thursday to make sure I get at least one January swim in. Wild swimming is a bit like poetry I think, those that do it love it with all their hearts and are evangelical about; the other 99% of the population think we’re mad. We’ve a little old caravan on the East Norfolk Coast we can visit from May to October and because we weren’t travelling to festivals and gigs last year, we indulged ourselves fully It is stunningly beautiful and I get to swim with seals at close (sometimes very close) quarters every day. Again, we’re so lucky, it is the nearest thing to its normal self during this. It feeds us more than anything.
I often think of a poem as a snapshot. How would you describe your relationship with poetry and photography and are the two artforms linked?
My father was a keen amateur photographer and I had hundreds of images to draw on when writing Whistle, the collection dealing with my childhood. Although autobiographical Whistle relies almost entirely on ‘metaphorical truth’ – much of it is imagined. The mechanics, materials, science and process of photography provided endless metaphorical possibilities, as did its mysteries. Each image carried a memory or an insight into my parent’s’ lives before I existed.
Photography also gave me a metaphorical lexicon, allowing me to write about personal events that would otherwise have seemed unsayable.
The language of photography still sneaks its way into my writing. I photographed people and I write about people; small human stories are what interest me. I try to bring the same tenderness and gentle in both mediums.
I was a photographer first and agree parallels exist. The critical writing about both mediums cross over and are often interchangeable. Poems and photographs exist within a physical and temporal frame, giving the viewer/reader their own imaginative space. Both depend on acute observation, the moment or object that has something to say beyond its own self. Photographs depend on rhythm, shape and tone in presenting their moments. You could also see repetition of shapes and colours within a photograph, as rhyme.
How will you focus on your writing coming out of lockdown and do you have any tips for other poets?
I’m writing poems for my next collection at the moment, it is six years since my last one, although, no-one is begging for me to hurry with the next one and it will be ready when it’s ready. I’ve got a commission coming up to work with Side Gallery in Newcastle. It is the most important documentary gallery in this country and has an international reputation. Side Gallery and Amber Films have been documenting the industrial decline of the North East for sixty years now and I’ve been honoured to play a small part in that some twenty years ago. My relationship with the gallery (a co-operative) has endured. It fits in well with my collection and I can’t wait to get going with that, engaging with some world class photography. I’ve also just begun working on a collaborative project with the artist Natty Peterkin to make a sequence of small dark poetry films. He did the artwork for Shed the book and then the show and is brilliant. Shed the show, needs some development post a showcase we did in October and my producer and I are discussing when to time this in such uncertain times and what form it will take. Helen (Ivory) and I will be trying to fit in some poetry films around that.
As for tips I can only say what my (painful) process is. I have ADHD, which means my attention span is appalling, I have to trick myself into absorption and set myself strict rules about social media and other displacement activities. I don’t always succeed. Anyways here’s what I do. I write in 3 or 4 day blocks, if I possibly can (every week at the moment). This allows me to completely absorb myself in the poem. I begin those days with some poetry reading, an hour or so, which fires me up. I write in the morning, only very occasionally does it spill into the rest of the day. By setting aside a little block of days I find even the non-writing parts of the day still feed into the poem in progress. Cooking, shopping a tv programme or a walk can all contribute. On those days, the poem is what is on my mind. It’s more struggle than fun. This is useless advice, if you have a busy job, young children etc. The other tip is to marry a gifted poet, editor and teacher – Helen Ivory is taken I’m afraid. But if you can find a workshop group, again I am blessed. Writing can be a lonesome business and perspective can easily be lost. There are the Poetry Society Stanzas if you’re a member and Zoom should create opportunities for workshop groups beyond the local. Try and find like-minded writers and get together in real life or virtually. It doesn’t matter what others think or publish or reject, if you can sit down alone with something you’ve written and be astonished it came out of your own head, that is the most important thing. Our poems are usually cleverer than we are.
I have asked you for something to inspire writing. What have you selected and why did you choose it?
I’m touched by our fallibilities and delusions and when someone really reaches for something and doesn’t quite pull it off. When in Rome, we passed a wedding the expectation for which must have been high. I’d taken to street photography when visiting cities; this is a bit fuzzy taken on a small digital camera.
A little vignette – a Rome wedding, what could be more romantic and beautiful. Make of it what you will – is that a metaphor on the sole of your shoe? What lies ahead or what led them there?
Martin Figura’s collection and show Whistle was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award and won the 2013 Saboteur Award for Best Spoken Word Show. Other prizes include the Poetry Society’s 2010 Hamish Canham Prize and runner up in the 2017 RSPB/Rialto Poetry Competition. Shed (Gatehouse Press) and Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine (Cinnamon Press) were both published in 2016 and a new edition of Whistle (Cinnamon Press) in 2018. The spoken word show Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine, was shortlisted in the 2018 Saboteur Awards and is currently touring. He lives in Norwich with Helen Ivory and sciatica. Together during Lockdown, they began hosting Live from The Butchery Zoom readings with leading guest poets