Award-winning poet Kim Moore studied music and was a trumpet teacher for several years. What the Trumpet Taught Me is a collection of vivid and immediate snapshots, from first lessons to music college, and from teaching the trumpet in schools and running a brass band, right through to playing in working men’s clubs in a ten-piece soul band.
In this interview, we talk to Kim about the process of diving into non-fiction and memoir, about using language and space on the page in a similar way to poetry, and about the lessons she’s learned while exploring her trumpet-playing past.
Kathryn Tann: So you’ve previously been a poet by trade, having published two collections, a pamphlet, and numerous individual poems. How have you found the process of writing non-fiction in comparison to poetry?
Kim Moore: I want to say it’s been easier, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. It’s maybe felt easier but that might just be because the stakes feel so high for me in poetry. Every time you set out with a new poem, you don’t know if it’s going to fail, or if it’s going to fly. In practical terms, I just set out once with this book! I also wrote the first 3000 words, when I thought I was just writing an essay in one night. My parents were visiting and they always stay up late watching television and I just sat and wrote in one big rush.
In poetry, it feels like there are a lot more places to hide – as soon as we start to use form, of whatever kind, we are manipulating language, and drawing attention to it as a material we can shape and change. With non-fiction, there aren’t those same places to hide – the convention is to tell the truth. When I was editing, it felt like a much bigger responsibility.
I do get the same feeling as I do when writing poetry though – as if I’ve got a balloon inside my body that’s going to burst, and I have to write really quickly before it pops. I think that balloon feeling is when the text changes gear a little and lifts off into poetry, hiding in the costume of prose.
KT: The memoir opens up a past life that I imagine many readers of your poetry aren’t familiar with. Why did you decide to write this book, and why now?
KM: There are lots of answers to this question and probably a combination of them is probably closer to the truth than just one, so I will list them…
- I’d just finished my creative-critical PhD and became really interested in critical writing and lyric essays in particular.
- I’d just finished the manuscript of my second collection of poems and in a melodramatic fashion, thought I might never write another poem again, so started writing prose to ‘fill the gap’.
- It was the start of the first lockdown. I had no work, but neither did my husband, so conversely, I had more time as he also had no work, so took on the primary childcare role with our daughter.
- I wanted to try and find out why I have such a strange relationship to music, and to my trumpet.
- When I thought about my trumpet and my other life as a musician, it always felt like a bruise I tried to avoid touching or even looking at.
- I wanted to touch the bruise.
KT: What the Trumpet Taught Me is made up of these quite staccato snapshots, punctuated by Emma Burleigh’s lovely little illustrations. How did this form – the use of short vignettes rather than conventional chapters – take shape?
KM: As I said before, the book started as an essay which was a couple of thousand words, but even then, I’d divided it into fairly short sections, using numbers at first. I’ve always loved the Wallace Stevens poem ‘13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ and the way the different parts of that poem speak and argue and ignore each other.
I sent the essay to Peter Sansom at Smith/Doorstop, because we’d been talking for years about the possibility of doing another pamphlet of poetry with them. I’d never been prolific enough to follow up on the offer though – it took me six years to write the second collection, so I wrote and asked if he’d be interested in publishing this strange little essay about trumpets.
Peter just told me to keep writing and that it wasn’t finished. That permission-giving to just keep going was so important to me. He also told me the sections were working and as the book progressed advised breaking it up more.
I think (or hope!) this use of form puts it more firmly into the lyric essay territory rather than just a memoir. I’m trying to use white space in the same way that a poem does – often years go zipping past in the white space, whole lives change, people and places disappear, but the trumpet remains.
When I was 16 I wanted a tattoo of a trumpet on my stomach, but my parents said no, and I was obedient so I didn’t do it. But I told Emma about this and tentatively suggested the idea of hand-drawn trumpets to separate the sections, which would also keep the trumpet in all its iterations as a character in the book. Now I think she must have reached inside my mind and pulled that idea of my trumpet tattoo out of my head.
KT: Having been through the process of writing a memoir-based book, will you be delving further into non-fiction prose in the future?
KM: I’m currently working on a book of essays for my poetry publisher Seren, which are drawn from my PhD research. They’ll be exploring sexism, gender, class and also performance as a female poet. I think writing non-fiction prose and poetry is all part of my creative practice now and they feed into and grow out of each other. I also feel like I need a break from writing poetry at the moment. I need something to shift inside me before I can start on a third collection, and the prose gives me a good project to get on with. It helps me feel like a writer still, even when I’m not writing poetry. The aim is for the essay book to be out before the end of the year.
KT: In the book, you talk about your writing pursuits eventually replacing your trumpet playing, but hint towards a reconciliation towards the end. I notice in the acknowledgements that you thank your band – Soul Survivors – for reigniting your love of playing. Have poetry and music found a harmony in your life now?
KM: I would say that it was the act of writing the book that created an ongoing reconciliation! It really confirmed for me that the most important part of writing for me is this question of transformation. It has to transform something inside me, or in the world or in the reader, and writing the book really did transform the way I felt about the trumpet.
Although I’ve been playing with the Soul Survivors for quite a few years and loving playing with them, I still had all the old hang-ups that I had – the performance anxiety, the perfectionist streak that meant I just always felt disappointed in myself.
And then it was lockdown and I wasn’t playing at all again, and I started writing the book. And one day, for the first time in about twenty years probably, I just felt like practising. I had no gigs, no reason to practise, but I just suddenly felt like playing. So I did. And I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t felt that feeling for so long of just wanting to play, just because I enjoyed it. I’m convinced writing the book did that for me, and that is the most beautiful gift. If the book does nothing else but that I would be happy!
And then I started to try and solve some of the problems I had with my embouchure and with range which have always bothered me, which led to me doing some research into pedagogy, and then that started to feed into the book as well, and I started to include some of what I found out in my writing. I actually started to practise to relive stress which is just the complete opposite to how I’ve played the trumpet my whole life.
I did my first professional trumpet gig for years at the end of 2021, playing in the Messiah. And by the time this goes to print, I’ll have done another one, playing a couple of trumpet solos in a jubilee concert at Ulverston International Music Festival. At the moment, I’m practising about an hour a day and really enjoying it.
KT: So what, in a sentence, did the trumpet teach you? (If it’s not too hard a question!)
KM: That is a very hard question! As I’m a poet, I can surely have a long meandering sentence? It taught me about discipline and hard work, about loyalty and haunting, about transformation and loss, about speaking and silence, about the body and breath, about the thirty six muscles of the embouchure, about wild hills and echoes, about loneliness and hiding, about truth and song, about service – what it means to serve, what it means to fail, what it means to belong.
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