It’s our last evening in at Lumb Bank – 16 young writers on an Arvon writing residential we will never forget. Its dusk and outside the window the swooping valley is cast in shadow as the sun lowers on the horizon. The door to the kitchen is closed where a band of young writers laugh and joke as they cook. I’m sat in the dining room where endless writers, accomplished and unknown, have sat over many years. To my left sits Peter Sansom, veteran poet, editor and co-director of The Poetry Business, sipping a mug of tea. It feels surreal. Having been taught by him for 4 days now, I have so many questions I want to ask. Luckily, he’s all ears, smiles and, as expected, some great insights and advice about poetry.
How/when did your journey with poetry begin?
At school, because I had an English teacher who asked us to write a poem about autumn. So I wrote a poem, and it had the word ‘knife’ in it somewhere, and he thought it said ‘rifle’ because he couldn’t read my handwriting! And he thought “ooo, that’s an interesting image!”
I’m from a working-class background. I was lucky being at school when the comprehensive system was just coming in because there were a lot of breaks and good things happening. It seemed to me a level playing field, writing poems. You didn’t have to be brilliant to write poems.
Did your family and your parents encourage you writing poetry or was it self-fuelled?
I remember taking my O Level form home to say which ones I was doing. It said ‘English – O,’ ‘English Language – O,’ ‘French – O,’ ‘Geography – O,’ and my mum thought I’d got zero in everything! She just said, “oh, you didn’t do very well this year.” She wasn’t surprised or angry. I was the youngest in the family and very spoilt. My brother couldn’t read or write and I’m the only one in the family ever to have gotten qualifications, so they kind of encouraged me, but not specifically in poetry. When I was 16, I just thought, “I’m gonna be a poet.”
In the beginning, who really helped you to become that poet?
Well, in my generation, there were ‘the Liverpool poets’, and a bestselling book of 3 poets: Brian Hatton, Adrien Henry, and Roger McGuff. They wrote about working class things, and they did it in a really down-to-earth, non-academic way. I think that got a lot of people into poetry. And then there were the people like Ted Hughes knocking about that you felt, “oh yeah, it’s OK if you do this.” But most was when I went to college.
I went to the dreaming spires of Huddersfield polytechnic and there was a poet there called Stanley Cook – quite a brilliant man. His poetry is full of real detail, stuff from everyday life. It’s quite wonderful. He wrote to me – I was one of his students, and he was editor of a magazine called Poetry Nottingham. I was Nottingham Poet number 1! As in, my pamphlet was the first one he chose and published. That was what did it really, Stanley Cook! When I’d done that pamphlet, another publisher saw it and said, “These look like good poems, would you like to do a book with us?” So, I did a book about walking the Pennine Way, and then another publisher saw that and said, “When you think you’re ready, let my publisher know – let us see a manuscript.”
I said to my editor one “It’s quite hard to get published.” He said, “Not if you’re any good.”
Do you believe that higher education, for example an MA in creative writing, is a necessary step in pursuing a career in poetry?
God, no! On the contrary, I would say.
So is that more of, like, a passion project for people to inspire them to write?
I enjoyed the MA that I taught on – it was really an MA in poetry. But if you’re asking if people should do MA, I think yeah, why not? Because with an MA you get guidance – the support that you get, the writing exercises, the workshops, the direction, the impetus. You have to write because you have a workshop next week, you can’t just think you have other things to do. You can indulge yourself a bit if you do an MA.
What would you say inspires your poetry the most?
Family, probably, and friends.
Recently, there’s been more social media poetry entering the stream. Do you think that could potentially be detrimental to the poetry industry, or do you think we should embrace it?
What do you think?
I personally think we should embrace it. It’s just growth on old foundations. The old poetry hasn’t gone away to die, there’s just also a new side to it. Publishing, as well, is a lot easier, especially with social media, so I think it can open a lot of doors for people.
Like the Arctic Monkeys, you mean? Not that they’re poets.
Yeah, sure. There’s a lot of poets that I read that have been able to publish their work because they were scouted off Tumblr etc. So, would you agree with that? Or do you think it could be detrimental?
I think that if everything is available in the ‘poetry supermarket,’ then everything has a cut price. But I don’t have any argument with it. I do think it’s a good thing.
Have you noticed an obvious change in poems since the introduction of the internet?
They’re shorter. I like short poems.
Has the poetry business changed at all?
The means of production has changed. When we started the poetry magazine in 1986, poetry still seemed to have to do with London, and down south. Barnsley poet, Ian McMillan said, “You don’t get any vests or settees in poems.” And then you did. That’s partly a consequence of Bloodaxe Books starting, and the impact that they had on other publishers, including the people who publish me. They had to change their game because of Bloodaxe. There are a lot more working class and northern poets now than there were before.
When I first started, there was no such thing as writing exercises, even though there was Arvon – people just got together and didn’t really do writing exercises. It’s become a kind of factory, now. But that didn’t exist, which is amazing to me. I think it has still got a certain value, which it always had. Poetry has never had much commercial value, but it’s had kudos.
When I worked for Prudential as a company poet, every month I had to go to Reading, Stirling, Belfast, Bristol, and Paddington in London. They’d always put me up in hotels. In London, sometimes a hotel with a suite! Which, you know, was lost on me – I’m not interested! My wife would have loved it. But they did it because I was a poet, and I think people still feel that way about poets. But it’s more egalitarian now – anybody feels they can be a poet, whereas at one time you had to do something or other to be admitted.
You run The North magazine. What do you look for in terms of submissions, and what advice would you give to someone who was wanting to submit their work?
I think the first thing is, you have to be in it to win it. We almost never publish poems by people who don’t send us their work. It’s not always the case, but mostly. Sometimes we’ll ask people, but mostly if we’re not sent it, we won’t publish it. That’s where a lot of people fall down. They submit to us once or twice, and – even if we respond with something encouraging – they don’t send anything again, because they’ve been rejected. If you think in terms of it taking 6 or 8 goes before you get published, send the same poem off that many times. Look at your work with your friends and think – what would an editor be put off by?
It is, to a certain extent, horses for courses. If you send it to the wrong magazine, then, you know, you’re stuck. We always say, Anne Sansom (Co-director) and I, that we prefer to have poems by people we don’t know. Not that we haven’t met them, but that if we’ve got the same poet in 2 issues, we try not to have them in a third issue, because as a reader you’re thinking, “It’s always the same poet!” The trouble is, if you accept somebody, they might think, “They love my poems, I’ll send them some more.” And that has happened with somebody before, where we had them for the last 3 issues – we couldn’t have them again. But they sent us some more poems, and they were really good, and really different to the others, so we published those as well! It’s hard.
Then there are other people who you know you’re never going to publish, in conscience. Sometimes we think we should write to them and say, you know – have you considered taking up painting? Or, have you thought of this other magazine? And sometimes we do do that. If someone’s poems are really good, but they’re not for us. They’d fit here or here – why don’t you try them with it? Ted Hughes said that he wrote 3 different kinds of poems, and that if he put different names on them, people would never guess it was the same man. I’d be loathed to say to somebody – We’re never going to publish you, because they might eventually send something that we like. Also, I think it’s true that we’re different – editors, like everybody, are different at different times of day.
What advice would you give to a young writer who is just starting to submit their work? What should they put in a cover letter, how many poems should they include, etc.?
Don’t send more than 6. Don’t send fewer than 3. Because if you just send 1, and the editor doesn’t like it very much, or there’s something about it but it’s not quite right, it’s a bit frustrating really. Also, it looks a bit precious. Don’t send more than 6 because you just get tired. 6 is plenty. Covering letters are nice, I think, just give a couple of sentences. Ian McMillan, when we were just starting out, used to say, “just put: here are some poems. All the best, Ian McMillan.” So I was published as Ian McMillan for years!
You mentioned before about rejection, and how people don’t like being rejected. Do you think that it’s easier to deal with as you progress in your poetry – getting rejected more and more? Or do you think people still find it difficult?
No, I don’t think it does get easier, and I don’t think it happens that much. Once you get to a certain stage – in my experience and my friends’ experiences – the same magazines will take our work and ask us for work. It’s very rare, actually, for me to send work to somewhere that I don’t know.
Do you think that they see your name and don’t read it, almost, because they know the quality of your work?
I think there are certainly some magazines where they see my name and reject it straight away! I think with young people getting published, they always say to read the magazines. But my best advice is this: People will say, sometimes, that they won’t send it to big magazines because they think they’ve got to work their way up to them. But I feel that you send to little magazines, small circulation magazines, cheaply produced, perhaps, online magazines that don’t have much audience, if you like the stuff in them, if you’re excited by what they publish, then you must send them there. Otherwise, you must send to the top ones that are going to lift your profile, for 2 reasons: one is if you send to a middling magazine that’s only got a small circulation, and people won’t be reading it because they don’t trust it, then you’ve wasted your work; and the second thing is, often editors don’t know what they’re doing, and they’ll reject you.
Anne Sansom sent some poems to a magazine who rejected her. The guy is a really nice chap, but he felt he had to write a reply to everybody that entered. It was too much for him, so he sometimes said things he didn’t mean. And he seemed to be saying to Anne, “I don’t like these poems, because you don’t seem to be a very nice person.” I’m sure it’s not what he meant, but it’s how he came across. She was so annoyed. She sent them to The Time literary supplement, and they accepted them all, and the TLS was at that time, and still is, very well thought of, and they paid a lot of money. So what she could have done is thought, “they’re no good, these poems.” But instead she thought, “I don’t think that editor’s read them properly, so in the spirit of annoyance, I’ll send them to the TLS.”
So it is worth sending out to the right places and – if you’re not sure – why not go for the best known? And the ones that are going to reply quite quickly. One of the good things about poetry is that there’s a lot of good feeling – people read magazines wanting to be enthused by a new writer, and if you are good, if you’ve got something about you, I think other people will see it. You’ll be noticed in magazines and people will talk about you. It’s very grassroots, poetry. Though, after a point, it does become a bit of a Hollywood thing – there’s only room for a certain number of stars. And once you’ve got that status, you don’t have to do anything else.
What would you say is the best piece of poetry advice that you’ve ever heard that’s stayed with you?
I always quote Hunter Davis, the great biographer of The Beatles, Alfred Wainwright, and Wayne Rooney. And he said, “don’t get it right, get it written.” There’s some sense in that, though you can also get it right.
The other thing is, don’t waste your time. I wasted a lot of time writing quite poor things, not knowing what I was doing. The equivalent, really, to sitting in front of a piano and not having lessons, and not listening to other music. Philip Larkin said you don’t study poems, you read them, and you think, “what has it done? Can I do it?”
Who would you say are your favourite poets and what are your favourite poems?
Stanley Cook. I like Stanley Cook’s poems very much, because they’re about Doncaster and South Yorkshire and Sheffield, and they’re about real things. But they’re also numinous, they have this kind of visionary element to them. He’s quite a big-minded man, I think, but he works from the local. There’s a lot of interesting imagery, and he’s quite witty. He says things like, “and he was a little man you could have kept in a cupboard.”
I like John Keats. If you get past the language of the time – which is old fashioned – you can see that the poems are still alive.
When I’m writing, I go back to certain poets. Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Cook, Simon Armitage, and some early Carol Anne Duffy poems. When I started, Carol Anne had just published, and we had known each other a long time. I’ve known Simon Armitage a long time, and I often think I wish I’d worked slightly differently. One thing I think they did was to work out what poems did and what they needed to do in relation to it, and I didn’t do that. I was more interested in other things. But you can only do that to a certain extent – you can only do what you are. That’s the great thing about poems, isn’t it? Everybody is so different!
There’s John Hegley, who did a book called Glad to Wear Glasses – he’s a stand-up comic of a poet, really. And you’ve got Ian MacMillan who is unclassifiable – who is he?! He’s a kind of modernist, funny man. And then you’ve got what has become the mainstream, with Armitage and Duffy and so on, and then you’ve got these really weird guys, and the thing is, they’re just themselves. Even when they’re quite inaccessible poems, there’s something about them that makes people want to read them. That’s what you want, isn’t it? You don’t think, “How do I write a hit single?” You just write something, and when they hear it on the radio they think, “God, I want to get that!”
And finally, what advice would you give to young aspiring poets?
I think the most important thing is being open to experience. There’s an Armitage poem I usually use: It Ain’t What You Do, It’s What It Does to You. Just experience things, and then try and get the means, the wherewithal, to put that into language.
I wasted a lot of time reading poets who I never really got the hang of. I read the wrong poets, I think. Poets that weren’t helping me, and I think it’s much easier now to find poets that are available, and that give you the tools to say what you want to say. The trouble is, you can’t say it for other people.
Read widely, but read what you enjoy. Learn bits of poems by heart. When you read widely, you kind of skim poems. You don’t get changed by them. You are changed as a person by imbibing – making poems a part of yourself. By learning not the whole thing, but little bits.
Elizabeth Bishop said that she often feels distressed after spending months on a poem, and in the end she had to abandon it because it just wouldn’t work, whatever she did with it. But what she realised is doing the work on that poem meant that she got a free gift with a different poem just to write quite easily.
Another thing is, don’t expect people to come to you. I thought if I wrote brilliant poems, people would come and seek me out. But they don’t! It’s an amazing thing! Sometimes, it’s just enough to be in the right place at the right time and be the kind of person that people want to encourage. So try and be that kind of person.
Thank you, Peter, for taking the time to talk to me, and for your amazing answers.
Interview: Olivia Woodcock, 17 (Rotherham Young Writers)
Note: Peter Sansom with be running the following young poets (17 to 24), ‘How to put together a poetry pamphlet’ day on sat 3rd Feb at The Poetry Buisness in Sheffield in conjunction with Hive. Details here.