Lawrence Illsley introduces himself as our new poetry editor.
Hello! It’s the beginning of a new decade and I find myself sat here in the library in the Welsh Valley Town where I live, writing this as the new poetry editor of The Mechanics’ Institute Review. It made me think, as many things do at the moment, how did I get here? I think it has to do with the following facts: I write long, narrative poems, I have lost both my parents and I got an electric toothbrush for Christmas. Put these things together and I think you have, at least, the beginnings of how I was able to share my story through poetry and how, perhaps, poetry has a unique power to tell a story.
I have been writing poems and lyrics for a while now — twenty years on and off. I write some short poems. I write song lyrics. But the main thing that obsesses me and takes up all my time tends to be long, narrative poems. I love the intensity of poetry, the exploration of words, the rhythm of metre, but I also like a story.
My first long poem Astra and Sebastian was shortlisted for the International Proverse Prize. This came at an early stage in my writing career and took me completely by surprise. I was delighted, floating around on my own poetic cloud for weeks, but most importantly it gave me the confidence to apply for an MA and to keep writing. My most recent narrative poem, A Brief History of Trees in England and Wales was completed as part of my MA at Birkbeck. It follows the year of my life after I lost my mum and explores the lives of the trees that I suddenly noticed growing all around me. It won the Sophie Warne Award and, in a way, got me this job. I can honestly say it is the piece of work I am most proud of. I will be sharing excerpts of it over the coming year through MIR and Instagram @lawrenceillsley — keep an eye out for posts.
When I was writing I was influenced by:
Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems
William Wordsworth’s Prelude
Alice Oswald’s Dart
Robin Robertson The Long Take
Alice Notley The Descent of Alette
Edward Hirsch Gabriel
John Milton Paradise Lost
Edward Lear The Jumblies
and not forgetting my favourite collection of last year, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic
All of those poems and collections tell a story. I too like to write a narrative into my poetry — a journey, the passing of time, gaps, ellipses. I find that with a narrative, a poem is not only observation, a sort of painting with words, but is movement and flow and, like the rivers near me after the rain, has depth. I won’t deny that words are important, (I am a word nerd too), but it’s the story I need most, and for me the words should serve the story. I like to think about what I am saying, the world I am creating, not just how I am saying it. Some poetry loses me in a tangle of words and leaves me flat or I find that underneath a pretty surface a poem has nothing interesting to say.
In shorter poems it is often the volta, the poetic turn, that can provide the narrative and take me on a journey. T.S. Eliot, who I don’t often agree with, calls it “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer.” My favourite poems feel like a portal, they pick me up and transport me, so that when the journey is over I am facing in a completely different direction, staring at a world that is familiar yet forever changed. And, when it does this, with words, narrative and a volta, poetry becomes, as Mary Oliver says, more like a dance than music, a whirl around a room, participatory perhaps, rather than sedentary.
The poetry I like to write is not necessarily the poetry I like to read. I like poetry to show me the other – different experiences to mine formed into words and rhythms. And I like different poetry at different times. Sometimes I like poetry that is political and angry like Fran Locke can be. At other times I like poetry that is visual and ekphrastic like Rachael Allen. But always I want to read poetry that communicates, that shares with me something of what it is to live an individual life that is not my own. Poetry that tells a story. Poetry that does not get lost in language or in academic referencing or become trapped by a form or rhyme (although I love form and rhyme). Poetry that is not afraid of big ideas and isn’t afraid of sharing big emotion (but doesn’t confuse emotion with adjectives). There is nothing wrong with being contradictory.
Recently I have loved reading Gail McConnell’s Fathermother, Jay Bernard’s The Red and Yellow Nothing, Denise Riley, Sharon Olds, Mary Jean Chan, Will Hughes, and Vahni Capildeo, and two of the Forward Prize shortlist, Highbury Park by Liz Berry and Forty Names by Parwana Fayyaz will stay with me for a long time.
In my own writing, I am beginning to think about my next new project, what story I want to tell. I seek inspiration from others and from the world around me. I cherish those small moments alone with my thoughts such as when my new toothbrush buzzes around my mouth morning and night; four minutes – — two in the morning, two at night – — that I spend alone with my teeth each day. It’ll definitely inspire some poetry, although it probably won’t be about brushing teeth, I have a feeling it’s going to be about my dad, – — for me, that’s how things seem to work.
Poetry freed me, gave me a space to talk openly about my grief from losing my mum. It gave me the space to tell my story and now, as an editor, I look forward to reading yours.
To submit your poetry, go to mironline.org/submissions