Merriam Webster defines poetry as ‘the productions of a poet’. And as a ‘writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.’ But in your own words, how would you define poetry?
Song. Poetry is Story in Song.
I'm not so keen on the ‘emotional venting’ school of poetry — and a lot of post modern poetry is like this — though poems can (and do) indeed deal with the crystalline pain or joy of the human condition. For me though, poetry is music with words. It’s the incandescent joy or beautiful agony of making language sing with deep soul. What I'm interested in, as a poet, is storytelling.
Once, back in the mists of time, all storytelling was done in sung or recited verse. There weren’t the clear distinctions there are today between prose and poetry. I’m a storyteller in the oral tradition, and therefore poetry for me is one way to tell a story or capture a moment in a story.
I think there are many ways to approach prosody, and place equal value on lyrics as I do on verse. In literary circles song-writers tend to get to be ascribed a low-status. In reality, all poetry has its origin in music.
Poetry is the beating heart of the English language. The essence of it is best summed up by the song ‘The Rhythm of Life’:
For the Rhythm of life is a powerful beat
Puts a tingle in your fingers and a tingle in your feat
Rhythm on the inside, rhythm on the street
The rhythm of life is a powerful beat!
If you don’t believe me, see the delight a child takes in something like Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. The child knows the story, it’s the glory of the way language is used that makes them wriggle, giggle and squeal:
Once more the maiden’s eyelid flickers--
She whips a pistol from her knickers!
As adults, we also delight in it. One of the funniest comedy sketches I ever saw was a retelling of Three Little Pigs by John Branyan to an adult audience, in iambic pentameter. The audience only knew that the comedian was telling them a commonplace story in the style of William Shakespeare: most of them wouldn’t be able to name the meter, nor could they tell you that they were listening to blank verse, but they were delighting in the poetry nevertheless. They were responding to the rhythm of life.
All great literary art contains poetry, and even the best of what we might term commercial genre fiction. I remember picking up one of the Iron Druid novels by Kevin Herne (Contemporary Fantasy), and reading a section where one of the characters, a Norse mythological being, spoke to the other characters completely in choriambs in the style of the Norse and Anglo-Saxon sagas. That was brilliant. It lent not only a distinct voice to the character, but also demonstrated that poetry matters in profound ways to the reader, and to the writer.
Who is your favourite poet and why?
I have so many! I love Latin American poets like Pablo Neruda, Roque Dalton, and Martin Espada. But my favourites — being something of a formalist and a fantasy writer — remain the Romantics, especially WB Yeats, and pre-romantics like Robert Burns, who comes from the same region of Scotland as I do. Then, of course, there are the greats of early modernity. I could get lost in the sonnets of John Donne for years.
Name one poet you wished more people knew about and why.
John Donne. Outside of Britain he’s rarely talked about, but as an early modern poet his works carry deep soul, emotional conflict, and a metaphysical puzzle to solve.
Explain your poetry writing process.
I write in formal verse — in everything from Korean sijo poetry through to English sonnet crowns. Formal doesn't mean stilted. In many ways there is great freedom in adhering to a particular structure since it forces you to be extremely creative in order to stay within the confines of the box. It also allows for the deployment of delightful humour, such as my epic poems The Death of Jar Jar Binks and The Comely Courtesan.
Aside from the popularity of haiku and other Japanese forms, traditional poetry isn’t fashionable right now. Post modern free verse, and much of the slam poetry coming from the streets and cafes we can liken to ‘free form jazz’. That has immense value, but I’m more like a classical musician to my jazz counterparts.
My first question is ‘does form follow function?’ To give you an idea, if you’re writing an erotic poem writing about ones lover deploying pink fluffy handcuffs, why would you write about that in free-verse? You need the restraints, because only then would you be able to work in the erotic tension of pulling against them. For a poem like that, I’d pick a traditional form like verse in iambic pentameter, and find ways of resisting the meter.
This National Poetry Month I’ve chosen to write in Korean Sijo forms, based on my experiences — and those of people I knew — living in South Korea. I chose sijo because it fitted my themes.
Once I’ve decided on my form, I then sketch the story. Narrative poetry is primarily storytelling. It follows a story arc just as a short story or piece of flash fiction would. This process depends very much on the story I’m telling. For example, I’ve just penned epic poetry based on the legend of The Lambton Worm, a myth from the North East of England. Some forms are harder then others.
How I write itself will depend very much on the length of the poem. Once in ‘the zone’ I find that I write organically, the words coming to me in a steady flow, and in that sense I’m probably no different in my creative process than a free-verse slam poet. I just do it meter, with the cuffs on. Of course, then you have a problem—you can end up thinking (and speaking to your mates) in iambics.
Oh yes, I grin an evil saucy grin!
However, because of the demands of the form, I usually have to spend a goodly period of time knocking the piece about after the initial process of creation with the old adjustable spanner to get it to work properly.
If I’m writing songs, then of course, I start with the music. The music of the piece comes externally from the tune or instruments, and not internally from the rhythm of the words themselves. As someone trained in the Scots/Irish folk tradition (occasionally I will study the dark American arts of Country music, Blues and trad jazz) the narrative nature of traditional song is very important. It’s from my roots in the Celtic and Scots oral tradition that the storytelling comes from.
The rhythm of life!