In a new development for this blog, I’m posting an interview with a poet – the first, I hope, of several to come in the following year. Today, it’s the turn of David Briggs, author of The Method Men (Salt, 2010), as part of a virtual tour he’s been making in the last few months.
How did you come to writing in the first place?
I came to poetry relatively late, at the tail-end of my twenties. Apart from some clumsy attempts at prose, and an album of songs for a small independent label, I’d written very little. Around about 2000 I took a small group of secondary school students on an Arvon Course at Totleigh Barton, and David Morley, one of the tutors, was pretty encouraging of my faltering attempts to join in with the writing sessions. He suggested I submit for an Eric Gregory Award, which I did about a year later. Being callow in terms of writing poetry, I was very surprised to receive one, and at the reading it soon became apparent that the others were some way ahead of me in terms of developing their work. Jacob Polley, for example, was of the same Gregory vintage. But winning the award was a huge fillip: I plugged away for a few years, got some encouragement from a few poets I admired, Roddy Lumsden in particular, and slowly began to place poems here and there.
How do you balance it with your paid employment?
I’m Head of English at a large Grammar School, so I don’t write as much as I’d like to. But I do have weekends and holidays, so I manage. My partner’s a teacher and painter, and she’s very understanding of my need to use the holidays for writing (as much as I can) rather than for painting the kitchen, etc. I guess the administrative side of my job is less conducive to developing my work, but I do get to read a lot of poetry with my students, and at ‘A’ Level in particular that’s pretty stimulating. I try to introduce all my students to a lot of contemporary poetry, rather than always relying on the old chestnuts. We take a group of enthusiasts to the T S Eliot Prize readings each year, for example. And I teach a regular class for The Poetry School as well; so, I read a lot of contemporary poetry, and that, I think, is the best way to keep moving forward, especially in those phases when there are fewer chances to actually write.
What are the ideal circumstances in which to write a poem?
When I get an idea I scribble it down somewhere, anywhere. But if I want to work an idea into a poem, I just need a few hours with nothing else on the to-do list. A desk, a cup of coffee. That’ll do it.
How did you assemble the collection? How did you know, for example, when you had the makings of a full-length book?
I thought it was there a lot earlier than it really was. I sent an early version of the ms. to Faber, and they suggested I work on it for six months or so and re-submit. I took that as a huge endorsement (probably a larger endorsement than it actually was), but the ms. needed longer than six months. I can see that now.
The epigraph from Larkin’s ‘Dockery and Son’:
“ …a style
our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
suddenly they harden into all we’ve got”
provided a lens on the poems, in the sense that most of the characters in the book are navigating the world using engrained mental tics and routines that have hardened into something like character, a method by which to approach the world. Then, of course, there’s my own poetic style, or method, and the extent to which that’s either a source of creativity, or a kind of imprisonment. A limitation. There’s a thread there that, hopefully, holds the book together.
Thereafter, I was encouraged to give the sequencing a lot of consideration. So, I tried to place poems next to each other in such a way as to create echoes and arguments among the pieces. In doing that, I began to see that certain poems (even ones I’d grown rather attached to) needed to be excised entirely, and that others I’d put on the backburner might, with a little spit and polish, scrub up rather well.
By the time I came to submit to Salt, the book had been through a fair few revisions and formulations, and I was quietly confident it had settled into the shape it wanted to take. It took a few years, but the process taught me to be much more exacting in editing my own work. If you’re not completely happy with something, there’s really no point sending it out. Even when you are completely happy, it might be prudent to check again. And then again.
I was struck by the collection’s sense of history, and perhaps a specifically British history, as it has been and continues to be inscribed in man-made structures, on the landscape – as well as in the English language. Could you talk a bit about that? For example, why is time and the past a significant theme to you?
There are a few pieces with some basis in my own personal history. I guess that’s pretty common for a first collection. You mine your own past as best you can. The album sonnets are an obvious example, and there’s a sequence of pieces early in the first half that explore similar terrain. My hope for those pieces is twofold: firstly, that I’ve managed to set the personal stuff in a context that resonates with other people’s experiences; and, second, that the poems are interesting enough in a formal and structural sense to read as well-made poetry. Otherwise, I might as well have kept a diary instead.
But, as you suggest, there’s a broader interest in English landscape, language and history. Aspects of folklore and language linger on in a culture, like fossils. The landscape itself, man-made or otherwise, is a set of fossils. I’m not invoking psycho-geography per se, but I am interested in the inscrutable relationship between landscape and the mind, how we read what’s about us – a particular stretch of river, a street, a park, a cemetery, the sound of waves, an overheard phrase – in a way that acknowledges both the objective history or quiddity of those things, but also the deeply personal and idiosyncratic meanings we ascribe to them as individuals.
The long poem ‘Bloomsday’, towards the back of the book, is very much about this. The persona walks down a road lined with Edwardian lampposts, gets on a bus, strolls though a park. That’s about it really. But the lampposts are fossils from another phase in the life of that street, with a set of class-based associations that mildly intimidate the speaker of the poem who lives on it. The park, too, is itself, with its own history, and whatever’s going on in it at that moment; but it’s also full of very personal memories. In the mind of a person moving through a landscape, all of these things are happening simultaneously – the civic and the personal, the historical and the present – forming and re- forming in curious agglomerations. I wouldn’t pretend that this is in any way novel, but I do hope that the specific way I’ve done it is interesting to a reader.
Now that the book is done and dusted, what strikes you about it? Are there things you notice about it, for example, that have only arisen since its publication and promotion? Or have you resolutely kept the covers shut?
The reviews it did get were very pleasing, especially as all the critics commented on the sequencing, and perceived coherence in the book and its themes. I was pleasantly surprised that people read it so attentively.
Having given it a few outings at readings, I’ve begun to identify which poems I most enjoy reading, which ones generally go down well whether I’m in Brighton, London, Bristol or elsewhere. And they aren’t always the ones I expected. Some people have said it’s a knotty book, quite difficult in places. I was surprised by that. But I guess everyone thinks their own work is transparently, abundantly clear when, perhaps, it isn’t.
But I’m still pleased with it. Still enjoy reading from it, or talking about it.
What will you do next? A rest? More poems? Prose?
Certainly not prose. I bore myself halfway through a sentence when I’m writing prose. And all that maneuvering of characters: you’ve planned an episode you think will be really interesting, when Calvin (or whatever the character’s called) gets his comeuppance at a funeral, but first you’ve got to put him on a bus to Dalston, so you end up writing pages about the view from the bus going up Kingsland Road, and before you know it he’s got into a fight with someone outside a kebab shop, for some reason that seemed to make sense at the time, and all the while new characters keep barging their way in, demanding a motive for their actions, a backstory. Even when, or if, you finally get Calvin to the funeral, the episode you planned has lost its allure. Seems unconvincing. At least, that’s my experience.
Poetry’s the thing. I’m working on a second ms. I’ve become obsessed with the figure of the Fool: in the Tarot, in literature, in folklore, in English history, as an archetype. A few of my fools have found their way into magazines now, and there’s a set of them in a forthcoming anthology called Smartarse (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2011) but I’d love to get the whole lot out as a book-length celebration of foolishness.
The Method Men is available from Salt Publishing. I recommend buying a copy – and if you don’t know the publishers, do peruse their website. They’re NOT ‘regularly funded’ by the Arts Council and publish many beautiful and interesting things…