by Victoria Bromley
We spoke to poet and professor Paul Farley about his writing journey and connection to the natural world.
Esteemed poet and Lancaster University Professor, Paul Farley, has published five poetry books and has won many awards, such as the 2002 Whitbread Poetry Prize and the E. M. Forster Award. Paul was my seminar tutor during my second year of university when I studied a module he led called ‘Writing place and landscape’. The module description intrigued me as I’d done a lot of work on ‘place’ for my Geography A Level and the idea of bringing that knowledge and turning it into something creative excited me.
I really loved being taught about how to use natural environments to shape my writing and the importance of setting. One of the stories I submitted for my portfolio is on the Swim Press blog if you’d like to have a read.
After being taught by Paul, I was fascinated to hear more about his own writing and his journey in becoming a successful poet.
Vic: What is your writer’s journey into poetry?
Paul: A series of accidents and unexpected turns and dumb luck, basically. I’m an art school graduate who stopped making art. I think I came close to just jacking it all in, but then what happened was, one thing stopping seemed to allow something else I that did, writing, to emerge from the shade.
This was the early 1990s, and I was in London, living in Kings Cross, and around the same time, by fluke, I found there was a writing night class for all-comers just up the road, run by one of the most brilliant poets at large back then, Michael Donaghy. From the second I walked in I knew I was in the right shop. It was one of those rare moments which you can point to and say everything changed from then on. I’ve always been grateful to him and to poetry because it felt like I’d been given a second chance.
Vic: What are your inspirations, habits, and advice for creative writing?
Paul: In a general sense it’s mostly other writers—whether they’re poets from the past who are like presiding spirits, or the people you’ve grown up writing with, and those new voices who come along every now and then and knock you for six. It’s mostly reading. I think artists often start by emulation and then find their own space, their own way.
Beyond that, it’s difficult to say what inspires us, because it’s so unpredictable. I’ve found it’s different in some way for every poem, which means I often never quite know what I’m doing or where things are headed. You never know what might catch your attention next. I kind of reserve the right to be surprised by or interested in anything. There’s something unpredictable about what gets you in the mood to write, too. Maybe the longer you do it the easier it becomes to recognise something like your own optimal conditions.
An American poet called Kay Ryan once wrote about how grappling with difficult, brainy, highly intellectual essays made her want to write a poem. Some writers have to tidy the house. I’ve found it’s good to always have something else to be getting on with, something that saves me from trying to fret a poem into being. Also, it’s useful to turn to modes of writing that seem to work at a different tempo, that use different muscles. But when you are in the mood, you need to find ways of prioritizing the time, of getting your head down and not being distracted, of saying no, which isn’t always easy.
As far as advice goes, I’ve often heard myself telling students that they should allow themselves to fall in love with a poet’s work, even individual poems. Which sounds melodramatic or corny, I know, but that intensity of connection, of being besotted with or excited by another writer’s work can be a kind of key to unlocking your own capabilities, because that work is telling you something important, it’s pointing you in a certain direction. Be under the influence of influence.
Vic: What do you love about teaching the ‘Place and Landscape’ module at Lancaster uni?
Paul: Lots of things, I suppose generally it’s a chance to think about place-writing as a way of locating us, and of allowing us ways of seeing again, or afresh, or differently, which is a simple but powerful idea when it’s aligned with where we’re living and how we live. If it’s true what the ecologist said about us only saving the things we love, then at the very least writers and artists can lead us back to the world, in ways we don’t ordinarily get to fully experience or have forgotten through habit or cliché or weariness.
Maybe poetry uses language to remind us how weird and amazing it is to be here. And looking and listening from the perspective of place and environment also suggests ways in which it isn’t always about us. And the non-human might get to say something.
Vic: Do you use the natural world for inspiration?
Paul: This might sound like a stretch, but the way I’d answer this is with an analogy: something like a beach is a dynamic system, which involves tides, waves, creatures in the water, in the air, rocks, sand, and human activity; and a poem can work in a similar way, a little dynamic space where lots of elements are swirling about and finding their patterns and shapes and points of balance.
Vic: As we are called Swim press, have you written much about water?
Paul: I love the verby-ness of the name you’ve chosen for your press! And the idea of being ‘in the swim’. Or swimming with (or against) the tide… Some of my earliest memories are of the River Mersey, the half-tide docks, the sluice gates along the waterfront. Even canals and ditches. I remember being fascinated by things like this as a child, the way lots of us are drawn to water. Which means I’d be surprised if I hadn’t written about it along the way. My work must hold water—I’ll go and check.