Blake Morrison is a poet, novelist and librettist, as well as the author of two bestselling memoirs, And When Did You Last See Your Father? and Things My Mother Never Told Me.
His first new collection of poems in 30 years, Shingle Street, is set on the Suffolk coast and Morrison will be reading extracts from the collection in Suffolk at this year’s Latitude Festival. He spoke to Glen Pearce ahead of the festival to talk about his writing and this new collection.
You’ve worked as a poet, novelist and librettist – do you enjoy the variety of writing different genres?
I do. I started off just as a poet while a research student, writing poems on the side, and then I ended up writing a couple of memoirs before moving onto fiction and more recently going back to poetry. But I thought I was a rather narrow little person and it’s been fun and liberating to have the opportunity to try other things.
Your first full-length poetry collection for 30 years features Shingle Street in Suffolk – what drew you to that part of the coast?
I’ve been coming to the east coast for the last 30 years. Having grown up nearer the west coast and having holidays on the west coast it took a long time to seep into my imagination, but my last novel The Last Weekend is set on the east coast but I’ve also been writing these poems. Shingle Street in particular I find a very haunting place, it’s kind of beautiful but eerie and there’s a strange history surrounding it. Not just older stuff of smuggling, but what happened there in the Second World War, or probably didn’t, with a rumoured invasion. All that history surrounding it is fascinating to me, together with the sense of mystery when you go to the place, it’s a beautiful yet dark place and I’m interested in that.
You’ve written in many genres, but this is your first full poetry collection in 30 years?
Something like that, it’s a horrifying idea, but it’s true! I’ve published a selection and a pamphlet, but this is the first time in that time that every poem is new.
You are appearing this year at Latitude, just a few miles away from Shingle Street – do you think the poems will resonate with a local audience?
I hope so. People will be coming from all over the place but I think it will be good to get up and read some poems that are set nearby and perhaps encourage people to venture out from the campsites, if not this time then the next time, to explore the local area, because there are some beautiful places in the area.
People have said to me ‘Oh God, you’re going to be encouraging people to come to places like Shingle Street or Cove Hithe. We love those places partly because nobody knows them.’ There is a downside, but there are some wonderful places along the coast.
I know I’ll be feeling when I stand there that these are poems set in Suffolk and I’ll be reading them in Suffolk, and that seems appropriate.
How important is it for festivals such as Latitude to include poetry and literature in their line up?
I think it’s great and it’s one of the really attractive things about Latitude in particular. You do get that variety – that there is the comedy tent, the theatre tent, the literature tent, the film tent. People want to tune out from music occasionally and want to go try something else. Not only does it have that family feel but it has that range of things that you can sample.
Are there challenges performing literature in a mixed arts festival environment?
Yes, I think so. I’m more a page poet instead of a performance poet, as many poets are. Some people are absolutely brilliant at standing up and engaging with a live audience while for others it’s more of a challenge, but I think you have to.
You need to be conscious that a) the audience may know nothing about you and have just stopped off at the poetry tent for a few minutes and b) you may need to put yourself out there a bit more than if in a quiet room somewhere. The music will be going in the background so you’re aware that you are up against lots of rival attractions and wanting to keep an audience there for a few minutes while you read some things.
Do festivals help draw in a new audience to poetry?
The whole idea of having the Henham environment with the different tents and marquees is that people wander round and think ‘oh let’s go check that out’. Sometimes there will be a breakthrough for somebody and they will get interested in a form they didn’t realise was interesting to them and they will pursue it more in the future.
A lot of your work draws on your memories and childhood – is it important for you as a writer to have a sense of yourself in a piece?
I think so. I’ve written novels which are nothing to do with me with made up characters that are nothing to do with my life but then I look at them again and I realise that I used that and that did happen to me.
With the poetry and the memoir in particular though it’s the first person voice, it’s me, its stuff that’s happened to me, stuff I’ve felt. Obviously it’s a challenge to interest other people – why would people be interested in you? – but if you can make the story interesting enough, if people recognise the thoughts ideas, feelings you are exploring, the experiences you had, they do engage.
You work as Professor of Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths College – how is the state of new writing at the moment?
It’s thriving. The whole revolution in self-publishing, e-publishing and crowdfunding have opened up lots of opportunities for people to put their work out there. Increasing numbers of people are looking to creative writing courses just to develop their writing but also in a very practical way as they know that agents are looking at these courses to discover new talent. It’s a healthy place, with lots of different things going on and lots of new voices.
What is your one top piece of advice for would-be writers?
Read a lot. You can never develop as a writer unless you are reading. The reading can get you addicted for a time to a particular voice or writer, but that’s all fine and all part of learning what your own voice is and what you are good at yourself. You’re never going to be a good writer unless you are well read in my view. That and being prepared to rework, revise and stick at it.
What inspires you to write?
I’d be tempted to say unhappiness, but that makes me sound like a miserable person and I’m not really. It’s impossible to say really but undoubtedly its awkward things, things that you feel you need to explore and writing is the way to explore them. I’ve never written anything where I know the answers and I’ve always started to write in order to find out an answer to something that’s bothering me, to articulate a problem. So its conflict really, not unhappiness, conflict difficulties is the thing that gets you going. Happiness is a very difficult thing to write about. I do have a poem in Shingle Street called Happiness, but it’s the hardest thing to do.
Blake Morrison will be appearing in the Poetry Tent at Latitude on Sunday, 19th July.