PoetryPoet Alan Corkish interviewed by Gil Dekel.


Gil Dekel: I get the feeling that your poetry is based mainly on telling a story, an event, rather than depicting a picture. Is this correct? [1]

Alan Corkish: I’m not sure about what you mean Gil. Language is complex, I don’t think you can hang labels onto anyone’s poems that are that simplistic. To be honest, I sometimes write stuff just because I like the sound of the words; I think what you refer to are poems I label ‘snapshots’, they capture a moment in time… my 25000 word autobiographical poem Glimpses of Notes is a series of such snapshots… but sometimes the ‘picture’ is patently obvious. I went through a phase of writing ‘concrete’ poems which depicted nothing but the picture created from words. [2]

What is the difference between image and word? [3]

As a philosopher – and philosophy was my first love and the subject I studied for my initial degree – I could say there is no difference: a word, a letter, an image are all simply things viewed which convey information. [4]

As a poet though I’d answer that within a written page can lie both images and words, and words of course conjure images… they have to, otherwise all that would be left is the music which Kerouac and co. experimented with in ‘poems’ like Sounds of the Pacific Ocean in his novel Big Sur. This is why it is important to read poetry as opposed to simply going to open-floor gigs to listen; you need, almost always, to absorb the shape of a poem as well as hear the words, otherwise (like at most poetry open-floor gigs) poetry is reduced to a kind of low-brow music-hall entertainment. But Gil, I could probably do my PhD on the difference between image and word… so that for now is my condensed answer. [5]

What inspires you to write? [6]

You presume I’m inspired? That amuses me. In 2004 I put the nail in the coffin of anything to do with ‘inspiration’ in favour of perspiration and wrote one poem every single day; 366 of the buggers (2004 was a leap-year). I made myself finish each poem completely by midnight on the day and never altered a word after that. Mainly they work too. If you sit around all day waiting for inspiration you’ll not write much of anything. We writers are workers, artisans; if I could give some advice to would-be writers it would be: ‘you are not Gods, anyone can write, if you want to be a writer remember it’s a job’… now that may not sound very romantic but it’s true. [7]

I edit the poetry journal erbacce ; we get literally thousands of poetry submissions and 99% of it goes straight in the bin; mainly because it’s ‘inspired’ but lazy. A poem needs crafting, it needs working on like a sculpture. Idiots think they are inspired and so they slap down their alleged inspiration and think it’s wonderful; usually it isn’t, usually it’s self-indulgent. [8]

Coleridge said that poetry was ‘the best words in the best order’, and I think he got it spot-on; that means the poet has to alter, to think, to work. My favourite story concerns an exchange of letters; someone wrote to Oscar Wilde and asked how his latest poem was coming on. He replied: ‘Yesterday I worked for sixteen hours editing a section of it, then I removed a comma… today I put it back again…’ [9]

What is inspiration, then? [10]

It’s a word invented by idle bastards so they can laze about in a pub waiting for it. It’s an excuse not to write. [11]

So, have you ever met such so-called ‘idle bastards’?… and if so, what is the difference between their poetry and, say, the poetry of William Blake? [12]

What I meant was that everyone thinks they can write poetry be it appalling rhyme or (allegedly) ‘linguistically innovative’… and of course they can, to some extent, but the point about Blake, for example, is that he didn’t slap down a poem and then say ‘Oh how wonderful that is; I’ll send it to a publisher’. Not at all. Like Yeats, Hopkins, Yevtushenko et al. he then sat down and worked on it. [13]

The first outpourings of a poem could be compared to coughing up a large quarry stone; then the true poet uses wit, experience, passion, intellect, even genius to sculpt it into shape. [14]

Sometimes I sit and just tell myself to write a poem; that is what I did in 2004 when I wrote a poem-a-day whether I was in the mood or not… At other times something moves me deeply, often it’s anger. Writing poetry springs from many wells, I guess, and sometimes it’s just another job like being a stone-mason or a deck-hand on a whaler… [15]

What is your view on those moments when something moves you deeply? [16]

As I get older I find these happen less frequently. Besides, when I look back I’m not entirely sure that such ‘outpourings’ inspired by being ‘moved’ work. It’s like when I went through a phase in my life when I was drinking far too much alcohol. I’d down a bottle of whiskey and suddenly there’d be an ‘outpouring’. At the moment it would always seem like the best thing I’d ever written; but when I sobered up it looked more like an outpouring of vomit as opposed to genius. [17]

This doesn’t invalidate other poets who say such moments worked for them. Blake, for example, and Coleridge… and it has to be said that Shakespeare was so prolific that it’s hard not to believe that much of his work was so inspired. [18]

What I do now mostly, and it may disappoint my readers, is to sit and write for four hours every morning. I write usually between 4.30 and 8.30 in the morning, as I don’t sleep much… then in the afternoon or evening I print it out and edit it. Much more ends up in the bin now than it ever did when I was a young man… [19]

Do you work in any other medium? [20]

I paint; I am an avid photographer and I sculpt. I’m just not very good at them… and I so wish I could play a musical instrument but as hard as I try I can’t manage it. I’ve always had a guitar and every so often I get it out and have another go. But although I can carry a tune when singing I can’t get anything from those strings except a twangy howl. That said I know deep inside that I could learn if I put my mind to it… maybe I’m too old now to give it the effort required. [21]

Do you find any creative connection between words (poetry) and images (photography)? [22]

Yes, frequently, in the sense that I will often compose a poem following a long walk when I’ve been clicking away. I live close to Gormley’s ‘Another Place’ and love to walk and photograph those iron men in all shades of light and in all weathers. The photographs often revamp memories which in turn spark ideas for poems or prose; when I’m walking I have with me a hand-held recorder and at least one camera. The poems which evolve, however, may not have anything directly to do with the content of the photographs; the photographs often capture unexpected pointers or markers to other things. [23]

Let me give you a concrete example. I was walking in Ainsdale Woods recently; bluebells are coming out; while walking I concentrated on the sheer beauty of ‘now’ and photographed it. Later the photographs sparked memories of past events in other bluebell woods and eventually a distant memory emerged of a girl I knew a long time ago and how we’d planned to make love among the bluebells, but Fate intervened (the bastard often does)… some of that, the memory, the girl, the past is slowly erupting into a poem. [24]

What happened? [25]

I’m tempted to say ‘Don’t be so damned nosy!’ but I suppose writers have to lay themselves open… I will do when the poem is complete but for now all I can honestly say is that we split. Difficult to enlarge, really. For sure we were in love but sometimes love is not enough… [26]

You say, ‘…concentrated on the sheer beauty of ‘now’’. How do you concentrate on beauty and the ‘moment of now’? [27]

Mmmm; I am an atheist, more than that, I’m an anti-theist; I despise religion and all people who shut off their need to do anything in this world by having faith in the next. But, life is so beautiful, I call it the beautiful accident; however, most of the time we take it for granted until zap, something seems to hit us in the solar plexus. Like a few weeks ago – I was walking on Formby sand dunes when a flight of geese went past; perfect formation, about a hundred of them, the sun just tipping the edge of the sea, not a sound except the waves moving and no one in the world except me… it just filled my lungs; washed over me like an emotional tsunami. Then, for a split second, I could almost believe in a God and was saddened because my brain won’t allow me to. [28]

A God who created such beauty couldn’t possibly create the mayhem and horror which also fill this world. The difference between such moments and viewing the ‘daily activities’ of life lies within. Exactly the same moment at another time or on another day might pass me by entirely. Maybe it’s the light, or the mood that sparks it off… but I’m honestly not totally sure. [29]

Do you think that anyone can ‘alter’ their inner state in such a way to come to see more of the beauty of this world? [30]

As I just indicated, I’m honestly not totally sure. Acid maybe, or a good toke on some skunk; but I don’t use drugs anymore so I can’t be sure… but Kesey, Lang, De Quincy, Huxley et al. certainly believed that drugs helped. [31]

Sometimes creativity just happens and I’m sure it just happens to others as well. Creativity is capable of altering the inner state, I’m sure of that… [32]

Once creativity ‘alters’ your inner state, can you say what happens to you at that moment? [33]

Mmm; I sound as though I’m being evasive, or just plain stupid… let me explain something about altered inner states: I am bi-polar, it’s under control but it has meant in the past, and still means occasionally, that I have no control over my inner state; my state of mind is out of my control or at least it has been for large parts of my life. [34]

But again I have to say that when ‘high’ I’d write endlessly and try to explain to people how brilliant it was… Then when I normalised, the same thing, I would discover it was so much utter drivel. Drugs, alcohol, mental illness, they all alter states but I have no interest in what is then ‘seen’ or to discuss whether it’s ‘seeing beauty’ because it’s false. [35]

When on a sunny day I get suddenly and unexpectedly hit by the impact of this beautiful accident then what happens is private and personal, there is no point in trying to explain it to you or to anyone else. I may write a poem about it, but even if that poem is the best thing I’ve ever written it doesn’t come close to the ‘experience’. [36]

If I believed in a God, which I don’t, I’d talk about ‘communicating with something greater’ or some such drivel. But I believe in nothing except me. Maybe that’s it, maybe what happens is that I actually communicate with me, with the person inside whom we repress for most of our lives due to conditions of worth which are inflicted on us as soon as we take breath… yes, maybe that’s it, a sense of freedom-to-allow-the-real-me-to-breathe for a few minutes… I guess that’s as good as it gets. [37]

Have your views on life, on religion, on the beauty of the word changed over time? [38]

Remarkably no. Or at least very little. I was sent to various Churches and Sunday Schools as a child and none of it ever seemed anything other than a silly con-trick. As young as five I was sceptically asking my sisters ‘Who made God then?’ I suppose quite recently, within the past 10 or 15 years, I have become more orientated towards anti-theism and I speak out now openly when Christians or Muslims or Jews start talking about their alleged ‘faith’. I can’t help it, I just despise their smug cowardice. [39]

Has your creativity changed, or developed, over the years? [40]

‘Changed’? Well, of course, every time I sit at a PC or pick up a pen that which spiels out is different, a change from all else previous. ‘Developed’? I think that’s too subjective a word and anyway it’s for others to say; ‘develops’ indicates growth and movement, it hints at progress… that’s really not for me to say. [41]

But hang on, it sounds as though I’m being uncharacteristically modest when I say that so let me think: I began, about ten years ago to publish my work; payment would generally be just a copy of the journal or book my work appeared in and now I have contracts with major publishers so in one sense that is an indication that someone out there believes my work has developed; but maybe it’s they who have developed… yes, that’s it, I’ve educated the readers; I was always a genius, it just took the readers and publishers a long time to catch on, ha ha ha… [42]

… so, you are almost like William Blake, I guess? It took the community a long time to realise he was a genius… [43]

Indeed it did. Thanks for making me think, I hate interviews which are too ‘easy’. I enjoyed this… [44]

15 June 2008
Interview conducted via email correspondence during May-June 2008.
Alan Corkish is based in Liverpool, UK. Gil Dekel is based in Southampton, UK.