1) What am I working on?
A collection of poems about the Space Race and the rocketeers who made it happen. Tentative title: Desert Flowers by Moon-fire - The Men Who Raced to Space. Of course, that's really two titles - because I want this book to straddle the poetry and non-fiction divide, as my two previous books did. Having completed a sequence of 32 poems, I'm now working on some prose essays to sit alongside the poetry. My notion is that this is the first of 3 books because I'm itching to get out into space with the astronauts next - and then the Voyager space probe now travelling beyond our solar system. Journeys feature heavily in my work so far from indigenous peoples of the Arctic to Edwardian polar explorers, all navigating extreme landscapes. So it seemed natural to move out into that ultimate wilderness of space ...
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Well, if my main genre is poetry, mixing it with non-fiction seems unusual. Fortunately, my editor at OriginalPlus, SamSmith, is a man of many genres himself. In my first book Firebridgeto Skyshore: A Northern Lights Journey, he enabled me to combine lyric poems with travelogues, essays about mythology and science and woodcut illustrations by my sister. My Northern Lights book appealed to aurora enthusiasts as much as poetry lovers and feedback showed the mix of material was appreciated. I'd like my current book to be picked up by space geeks as well as those who want their poetry to transport them in time and place ...
3) Why do I write what I do?
Some novelist friends asked me recently if I might return to writing fiction which is where I started. But I seem to be addicted to themed poetry collections, each relating an epic tale rooted in history, in 'fact' and biography, in geography and science. In the world of modern poetry, narrativeverse seems rather old-fashioned. But I like to write in sequences which offer a story arc as well as the 'intense moments' and 'micro-universes' of a lyricpoem. It's a challenge to let each poem breathe and not be overwhelmed by the narrative function. But poetry was once THE vehicle of choice for storytelling. Think of those fantastic story-poems by the Romantic poets - TheRime of the Ancient Mariner or Keats' Eve of St Agnes - or go right back to Beowulf or Dante's Inferno. It's the immediacy of voice, the rhythms of the bard 'singing' the story, as well as the intricate patterning of metaphors across a large canvas that I enjoy.
4) How does your writing process work?
With poetry I found myself released from the 'work' of fictionalising into the accessibility of the 'real'. I love the excavation of the historical, the scientific, the biographical - the total immersion in a specific time and place. On reading Hilary Mantel's WolfHall, I realised I too am trying for that richly textured world, the smells and sounds of a culture going about its business. In that 'other country' of the past, I find my imagination breathes differently. So an initial wave of research comes first - books, films, SpaceCentre visits or You-Tube clips. It's amazing what you stumble across on Google Images. I'm writing a poem about the Russian engineer Korolev's childhood - and I find photographs of a museum in his home-town where they've reconstructed his mother's house. These borrowed details become the movie set of my poem, now 'dressed' for action. A poem needs that 'right-there' quality.
After research, there follows a quite intense, rapid period of writing first drafts. I've picked out 'moments' in the story arc that I want to zoom in on, stretching from 1902 to 1977. It takes a few months to get 20 or so poems mapped out. I read them aloud at LeicesterWriters' Club; I need to 'hear' them with an audience of listeners. Then lots of editing. I find poems benefit from being 'left in the dark' like a tray of seedlings for many months. When I return I re-enter the world of the poem afresh and see that it's about something else or has to arrive at a different place. Here dissatisfaction is my best friend. I need to listen to it and stop settling for quick fixes; I need to worry at some of these poems like a dog. Others I need to woo, circle with sidelong glances. Editing is creative too. It takes me in at a deeper level of the excavation. Sometimes all I can see is the rim of the trench, the glint of a coin ...
More research follows - the beauty of the specific often illuminates a poem. I assemble a new palette of words, a semantic field bringing its distinctive music. Yesterday, researching sedan cars from the 30s, I found vintage car dealers onYou-Tube lovingly detailing the selling points of restored models: white-wall tyres, split wind-shields, headlamp buckets and 'suicide doors' now enter my language. Sometimes ready-made metaphors leap out at me. I came across an account of the Cuban Missile Crisis where Korolev's wife served up watermelon to his anxious men. That detail became my 'Martian Watermelon' poem. And that is how poetry can offer a path into history that is wholly different from non-fiction.
I also consider how one poem interacts with another elsewhere in the sequence. Recurring themes and imagery offer a wider textual cohesion that needs tweaking across the collection. Reviewing the story arc - I write new poems to fill in gaps. But by now, the poetry is nearly done and I am turning to prose and even ideas for illustrations. And I am beginning to enjoy the wholly different rhythms of writing non-fiction, the elasticity of this after the compressed music of poetry. Eighteen months on, I am still in the throes of an obsession and I am writing for people who are likewise passionately curious and who love how words sing even in the darkest of stories.
Watch this space for news of the 3 writers I've chosen to pick up the baton on this Blog Tour ... First up is New Romantics 4 novelist Margaret Cullingford:
Margaret Cullingford, Mags to her friends, escaping the rumpus of a university department, decided to generate uproar she could control. She realized a long-term ambition to write fiction, and published her debut novel LastBite of the Cherry [eBook and paperback] in October 2012. Publication of her second novel, Twins of a Gazelle is imminent. Mags lives in Leicestershire with her long-suffering partner and their cat.