Here’s a question – do you write because you feel you’ve got something worth saying or because you’re trying to figure something out? If your answer is both, you’re probably in a good place to make poems. These days I tend to lean more towards the latter, mainly because the older I get the more comfortable I am with being wrong, or, more specifically, with knowing there’s unchartered terrain up ahead. Put another way, things I already feel I understand interest me less.
In the early stages of my writing life, I’d need to have a handle on where a poem was going long before working out how it would get there. Now, my process is very much the opposite. I start with a line which does nothing but invite me in, asks me to remove my shoes, sits me down beside a modest fire, then leaves me thinking for months. Poetry involves a certain kind of restlessness, both of imagination and intellect. It relies on a necessary tension between the poet and its subject which resists containment, especially in its more traditional and aural forms. There’s a preoccupation with the unreadable, the enigmatic or whatever a poet believes possible to exist just over the fence, beyond the next hill and across the border. What some like to call difficulty in poetry I like to think of as a relinquishing of authority. The poet is in a perpetual state of reckoning and so needs to remove themselves from conventional systems of knowledge or assertion if readers are to join them in the infamous fog. Poems which instruct on how they want to be thought of can render the reader passive and unfulfilled; poetry becomes a spectator sport. Poems which challenge and probe, confound and startle grant the reader agency to roam the frontiers of their own reading-mind. That for me is where the true experience of language and thought happens. The intention is to be left alone inside a poem, which in turn enhances ways we learn to trust our deliberations on uncertainty.
I like to think of my life as one sustained by structure: I wake each morning, sit at my desk, write for some time, reply to emails, pick my kid up from school before preparing him his dinner. It leaves little room for spontaneity although encompassed within each fragment is an infinite number of possibilities. Spaces where wonder, inquiry, risk, and an overarching sense of foreboding can dominate the imagination’s courtyard. Writing isn’t the thing that happens when you sit at a desk, it’s everything that happens away from it. Being able to metabolise one’s life in this way is half the mastery. We may spend years working on a collection which garners little to no attention from publishers or becomes eclipsed by more centred titles during the year of release. There’s much to be said about the way market populism drives culture and reader sensibility in the UK, particularly among the literary arts. These forces are out of the poet’s remit, to agonise over them is a royal waste of energy. I see the job of a poet as someone who signs up to wrestle with disparate phenomena, to break apart pre-existing paradigms and binaries, modes of perception and social hierarchies, expanding on uncertainty, passing a silver question mark onto the reader.
A question I’m frequently asked from burgeoning poets looking at the sector from the terraces is what’s the best way to forge a career in poetry. It’s a tricky thing to answer correctly because it implies an orthodoxy, a formula which in truth doesn’t exist – it also assumes that I know. All I end up saying is keep reading and keep writing and allow your work to take risks. For most folk it goes something like: you have an avid interest in poetry, you write some bad ones, a poet whose work you really admire tells you they need development, you attend a few workshops, maybe join a collective, cut your teeth on the open mics, submit to magazines, get rejected thirty times, get accepted once, then within a few years you have a pamphlet lined up. And so on. Keep in mind pursuing poetry fame is very much like playing table tennis against a curtain. And there are poets who cross over into more lucrative commercial projects; they may collaborate with other artists or musicians, or make appearances on topical debate programmes, but that’s poetry appended. In its purest form, stripped of all the pyrotechnics, it’s a very different and difficult sell.
The poets I work with want careers. They want a loyal and discerning readership who will journey with them through a lifetime of thinking and making poems. I can’t labour this final point enough, so long as you’re sitting down to write you’re doing enough. Don’t let the pressures of the market and capitalism dictate a neurotic work ethic. Each month another disheartened poet tells me about a poem they had returned from an editor. A manuscript which failed to get signed. None of this is to say the work should be discarded, only revised. Put some distance between yourself and the poems, practise resilience, reach out to fellow poets whose work inspires you to push harder. Or poets who just think differently on the page. See if they’re available for mentoring. Then with all that indignation, inner turmoil, confusion, argument and joy, take it straight back into the poem.
Anthony Anaxagorou is a British-born Cypriot poet, fiction writer, essayist, publisher and poetry educator. His poetry has been published in POETRY, The Poetry Review, Poetry London, New Statesman, Granta, and elsewhere. His work has also appeared on BBC Newsnight, BBC Radio 4, ITV, Vice UK, Channel 4 and Sky Arts.
His second collection After the Formalities published with Penned in the Margins is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was shortlisted for the 2019 T.S Eliot Prize. It was also a Telegraph and Guardian poetry book of the year.
In 2020 he published How To Write It with Merky Books; a practical guide fused with tips and memoir looking at the politics of writing as well as the craft of poetry and fiction along with the wider publishing industry.