What on earth do poets do all day? It’s never been easy to earn your way as a professional poet, even for the greats. Wallace Stevens sold insurance policies, T S Eliot managed checking accounts, Marianne Moore worked in a library, Maya Angelou sang in nightclubs and Robert Frost was a chicken farmer (and his earliest writings were almost exclusively chicken-based before he was tragically led astray by poetry).
With a few exceptions, poets do not live on poetry alone and have to make a living by other means. Maybe the draw (and strength) of poetry is that it has no place in the competitive world of commercial employment? Whatever poetry lacks in financial windfalls it makes up for in cultural mindshare. Poetry is still one of the most important and well loved literary art forms – you only need to look at the number of poetry submissions magazines, including ones that never publish poetry, receive every day. There are secret poets everywhere, writing because they have to and as Charles Simic puts it, “We never got rich in the past and won’t see a dime in the future.”
Kim Moore is the Poetry School’s third Digital Poet in Residence and one of the thousands of today’s working poets writing away in semi-secrecy when the city has gone to sleep, stealing whatever extra time they can to jot poems down in-between the day-to-day graft. For Kim, being a decent poet is much more than finding the time to write poetry – it’s everything around writing you need to do to be heard and recognised. It’s writing covering letters, it’s a finding a good place to write, it’s daily routine, it’s drafting, it’s editing, it’s submitting to publishers, it’s doing readings, it’s making lists, it’s writing about poems, it’s reading other people’s work, it’s keeping a blog, it’s making a note every time someone rejects a poem and putting into a spreadsheet and then colour-coding it (that might just be Kim). It’s practically a full-time job.
We caught up with Kim to find out more about her residency.
Hi Kim. Your residency is called ‘Poetry in Process’. What’s more enjoyable – the process or the product?
Kim: If I think about this question too closely, I start to question what the product is – is it a finished poem, or is it a finished poem that is published? My gut reaction is to say the product is more enjoyable. But then if I think about it properly and slowly, I would say the process. If the product was the most enjoyable thing we would only need to write one poem, but it is the process of writing that I find irresistible and all consuming, whereas the victory dance (a routine in my house) around the living room when a poem is finished only lasts a couple of minutes. Maybe ten minutes if I’m really showing off.
As part of your residency, you’re going to be publishing extracts from an experimental ‘logbook’. Tell me more about this, and perhaps a bit about your general creative/editing process.
Kim: I’m hoping the logbook is going to be an online version of my notebook. I carry my notebook everywhere I go – it has starts of poems, ideas, things I overhear, rants about things that have annoyed me, poems that I’ve read that I like that I just felt like writing out, lists – I love making lists – and I use it a bit like a diary as well. I’m interested in how poetry fits around these things. So after I’ve written these things in my notebook, I’m going to try and post it online, without too much editing, which is a scary thing to do because my first drafts of a poem are awful. I probably cut 75% of my poems away – I like to waffle on and be left with enough to chip away at. It might be a bit like Bridget Jones diary but with less weight and alcohol units consumed and more on full stops and where a particular comma should go.
In general, I always write into my notebook first. The first time something appears in my notebook that might become a poem it is usually a block of prose. After a couple of days or weeks I’ll type this up and put line breaks in. I taught myself to touch type when I was 17 with a computer program called Mavis Beacon and I think part of the creative process for me is touch typing – I like the way that words are different shapes on the keyboard when you are touch typing. I don’t think I could finish a poem if I couldn’t type it up.
I also thought it would be an interesting process to try and be more open about the ups and downs of being a poet, to document rejections (maybe without naming the rejectors) as well as acceptances, to record time spent going to readings, open mics, etc. When I was first starting to write I would have quite liked to read about all this stuff, and to read about how it fitted in around normal life as well, whether that is a job or children or both. I think coincidences and chance encounters and luck and being in the right place at the right time should be documented as well as hard work and good poetry.
What else can we expect from your residency?
Kim: In many ways, the residency will be about the things around the act of writing poetry – submissions, acceptances, rejections, work, readings – all of these things can help or hinder your writing. I think poets are usually very private about such things, but I’m interested in what happens if you open all of this up to the open air. I also want the residency to be centred around reading other people’s poetry and how we respond to it and the workshop I’ll be running later on in the month will be geared very much towards this. The nature of the logbook is that it is hopefully fluid, and will develop in its own strange direction so the residency will, I hope, have a couple of surprises for all concerned as well.
When did you start writing poetry? And why?
Kim: I’ve always written poetry, but I didn’t show anybody my poems. At university I used to write a poem every time I was dumped – they were pretty awful poems. So at first, I wrote poetry because I was either a) melodramatically upset b) melodramatically angry. The first poets I read were Carol Ann Duffy, Charles Bukowski and Billy Collins, in that order, because that was what the Borders bookshop stocked in Leeds. I moved to Cumbria when I was 21 to take up a full time brass teaching job for Cumbria Music Service and I think I’d been there a year or so before I joined a local poetry group – Fourth Monday Poets – out of loneliness more than anything. I hadn’t written anything new, but I used to take along these ex-boyfriend poems but the group were very kind to me and very encouraging – and then I started slowly to write when I wasn’t upset or angry – just writing because I wanted to. Then I went on a residential at Ty Neywdd and this will sound cheesy, but that course completely changed my life. The tutors were Nigel Jenkins and Sarah Kennedy and they were again, so kind and encouraging. Nigel was very pragmatic. In my tutorial, he said that I should think of writing poetry the same way I thought about my trumpet – in those days I was practicing three hours a day still – a leftover from being at music college. He said if I wrote every day and read every day I would have a poem published within a year – and within a year of him saying that, it happened. I always think of that when someone asks me when I started writing – it is a complicated question. I’ve always written poetry, but I started really writing after going on that course.
You poetry has an incantatory quality that reminds me of old hymns, prayers and church songs. Sometimes the language is overtly religious (‘let them be plagued’, ‘a psalm for the scaffolders’, ‘a pillar of smoke’). Is this something you’ve consciously worked at, or did you arrive at this style organically?
Kim: I don’t know where it comes from, because my family are not religious at all. I remember at primary school we sang lots of hymns and I liked reading the Bible – but even though my family are not religious, I’ve spent a lot of time in churches as a musician, listening to the language that is used in services. The short answer is they pop into my head without being asked. I think the thing that is interesting about Biblical language is that there is often a power imbalance inherent in it, which is maybe what attracts me to it. Like the phrase ‘Let them be plagued’ – it assumes that there is a speaker who can call a plague on somebody else (and in the Bible there is).
Another thing that crops a lot in your work is wolves. What is it about wolves that you so strongly correspond with?
Kim: When I wrote If We Could Speak Like Wolves I’d just finished reading an autobiography by Sean Ellis. In the book he says that if human beings behaved more like wolves, there would not be so many problems – if we didn’t hold grudges for example. I connected with it immediately – if only I could growl at husband when he annoyed me, and he would roll over, submit and then we could all move on! This wasn’t the first wolf poem I wrote, but it became like a magnet and drew my other poems around it, and it was that poem that made the pamphlet come together.
Since then wolves have continued to steal in and out of my poetry. I don’t want to think really about what they represent in case they melt away and don’t come back. I’m just looking through my poems now and thinking about it – they often represent wildness, or something that can’t be controlled. I think it is interesting that contemporary poets still have animals that appear in their poetry – the most recent one I’ve noticed is the wonderful Chrissy Williams and her bears in her pamphlet Flying into the Bear (Happenstance).
I know you’re an ardent walker (when I found this out I had a certain clichéd image of you wandering the Cumbrian moors through heavy rain and roaring winds). Does walking help you find poetic inspiration?
Kim: I like that image – it sounds very Wuthering Heights. In reality, I don’t really like wind to be honest. Although tonight did see me running in the wind and the rain along the Walney Island beach path. I think the environment I live in is incredibly important to my poetry – I think this is partly because I don’t feel I really noticed anything properly until I started writing – it was like having my eyes opened. When I first moved to Cumbria I decided to move to Barrow rather than Kendal because it had more shoe shops. I didn’t notice the differences in the towns or even that Kendal was 45 minutes closer to the motorway!
I don’t really wander about for poetic inspiration though. I’m more likely to be found crouched in my car between schools with the heater blasting as high as it will go, writing very quickly in the five minutes before I have to be in teaching 30 trumpets with my game face on…
But I do love walking, hiking and running. Anything that doesn’t involve too much co-ordination or team sport.
There’s one poem of yours – ‘On Eyes’ – I found incredibly shocking when I first read it, for both the dark, lyrical subject matter and the cool anger of language. It’s brilliantly written and the way it articulates traumatic experience is quite transformative. Commonly you hear poets speak of ‘the poetry cure’, but there are also lots of historical examples of poets who ultimately did not find poetry alleviating enough to cope. Does writing poetry help you find what you need to be healed?
Kim: That poem comes from a sequence of poems about domestic violence which are based in personal experience. I think writing poetry does help heal something – or maybe, more accurately, it helps measure how big something is and allows you to get some sort of control over it. Poems start for me from a place of not knowing and by the end I might know a lot less. In the poem you mentioned I’ve cut up text from two websites – one had information on how to avoid a black eye, and the other was full of interesting facts about eyes so I just juxtaposed them together. This helped me get a safe distance from the material and maybe creates that ‘cool anger’ you’re talking about. As I was writing the sequence I realised there was a lot of transformation of various kinds going on in the poems so I started reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses and this started to creep in to the poems. I think the way Ovid writes about violence is really interesting because he is not writing about physical violence as we would recognise it, but he is writing about the transformation of the self by another, which is surely one of the most violent things that can happen.
You write very well about the body. Do you find this a useful starting point for a poem?
Kim: I think I’ve become interested in the body more recently – as a holding place for memory to start with but also as the thing that poets write about when maybe what they are really writing about is the soul. Jane Kenyon has a poem that starts ‘I wake up and I am still in a body’ – there is the division of self and the body which is usually so difficult for us to conceptualise, because we are literally and physically, so wrapped up in ourselves – and Jane Kenyon does it in one line.
I’ve been writing about the body recently because of the sequence of domestic violence poems I’ve been writing – the story of the body and it’s transformations are threaded throughout the sequence – although I think the motivation for this was a searching to articulate what happens to the soul, not the body, in these situations.
You work part-time as a trumpet teacher. Lots of poets and writers talk about the ‘music’ of poetry, but less actually play an instrument and compose. For you, what are the similarities and differences?
Kim: If music and poetry were represented by two intersecting lines, I would say line breaks are the point where they cross with each other – when I am writing I want the poetry line to be the same as a musical phrase. I want the poem to read like a musical score with the white space around the poem serving the same purpose as a rest would in a score.
I think practicing the trumpet used to give me the same feeling as writing a poem – it was all consuming and there was nothing else I would rather be doing at that moment. The difference for me is that playing the trumpet doesn’t really feel like a creative thing. I grew up in brass bands and trained as a classical trumpet player where what is valued is how accurately you play what the composer wanted, which isn’t creative at all!
I think being a musician and performing is a lot more stressful for me than being a poet. If a friend came up to me at a reading and said ‘not sure about that line in that last poem’ I would be interested and want to talk to them about it and take their opinion on board (maybe not if it was a random stranger) but if a friend came up to me and said – ‘your top g’s were out of tune’ I would be devastated! Even now, when I don’t make my living playing – even now, when I don’t practice three hours a day any more.
Performing as a poet or a musician does give me the same kind of buzz though. And one thing I do think is similar is conducting, which is just like editing a poem. The band and the poem are not really in your control and you are basically cojoling them to do what you want them to do.
Your debut collection is going to be published by Seren in 2015. How and when did you know you were ready/finished with the first book?
Kim: I don’t know if I will ever ‘know’ if it is ready. Amy (Wack – poetry editor at Seren) may have to prise it from my fingers in September, which is when I have to hand the final version in.
At the minute it is not really finished – it is bulging a little at the seams and has too many poems in, so I need to cut out at least ten. I am currently mobilising the troops and calling in favours to get various friends to read it through and give me their opinion – this is a really important part of the process for me. I won’t do everything they say, but it will help me look at it again with fresh eyes.
I had a false finish about a year ago – I sent it out to a couple of friends to look at and I had three poems from the domestic violence sequence. A little voice in my head kept telling me it wasn’t ready but I chose to ignore it – then I just started writing more poems that would go in the sequence. Once I finished the sequence, that’s when I really felt like I had a book, rather than a collection of random poems. The manuscript started to knit together then.
So the short answer is I’m not finished with it – still a lot of editing, rearranging and obsessing about punctuation left to do.
What living poets can you recommend. Let’s be mean – pick 5.
Kim: I’ve decided to got for 5 poets whose next collections I look forward to and get excited about, and I have tried to avoid the obvious or anyone I’ve mentioned previously.
Moniza Alvi – I love the way she writes about the body. I also think she is the Madonna of the poetry world – she constantly reinvents her poetry in new and exciting ways. She never sits still and thinks – ‘hmm that worked, I’ll just repeat it’. She always seems to be trying something new. She only just brought out At The Time Of Partition but I am already getting excited about what she will do next.
Kei Miller – I can’t wait to read his new collection. He is one of my favourite poets to see/hear read. A really musical poet.
Carola Luther – I met Carola when she was Poet in Residence in Grasmere. She is a lovely poet – her poetry, I think is ‘quiet’ poetry but it runs very deep. She is a really interesting writer and her Wordsworth Trust pamphlet is great.
Clare Shaw – Another great performer and a poet who isn’t afraid to write politically. Clare is a ‘body’ poet as well – I love the passion in her work and am already looking forward to her third collection.
David Tait – First of all a disclaimer – David is a very close friend of mine. BUT I think he is a fabulous poet, and probably the poet I have learnt the most from, just by talking about poetry and thinking about poetry and editing each others poems. He has his first collection coming out very soon with Smith/Doorstop – I think it is going to be one of the best first collections of the year.
What advice would you give to a young poet writing today?
Kim: Read at least twice as much as you write.
Think before posting anything on Facebook – in fact, if something on social media is taking up energy, go and read a poem instead.
If you read a poem by someone and you really like it, write to them and tell them.