Gerald So regularly challenges me to write poetry. I usually find a way to avoid doing it, but I'm glad for his persistence. The only time that I've come up with anything passable was Cold Call.
His latest challenge was to get involved in the 30 Days Of The 5-2 to celebrate national poetry month. I'm a Limey, so for me that would be in October, but let's ignore that for now. His idea was simple; An April blog tour where writers talk about poetry, or their favourite poem, or even about how great his website is (he didn't suggest that last bit.)
What I like about trying to write poetry is that it forces me into something I'm not comfortable with. I prize that feeling. I wasn't raised to have any love or understanding for poetry (songs, yes, poems, no) and I have a very limited knowledge. I spent a few years writing songs for bands and various failed musical projects, but it's a muscle I stopped using a long time ago and sitting down to write poetry now is very challenging.
Settling on my favourite poem, however, was not a challenge at all.
I spent most of my twenties being one of those people who would tell you how much I hated school, and how little help I'd gotten from my teachers. The former is still true -I did grow up to become a writer, after all- but I've realised the latter simply isn't correct. It would still be fair to say I didn't get all that much out of the organised education system. A combination of my own attitude, a learning disability, some admittedly poor teachers, and the straight-jacket of the syllabus all combined to let me down. But as I've talked to more teachers, I've realised that many of them are not there for the good they can do "on the clock," but for what they can achieve in and around that. It seems that -for the good and great teachers- it's often about finding ways to make a difference despite of the demands of their job, rather than because of them.
When my first book Old Gold came out I started to do interviews in which I would be asked how I got into writing, and about what had influenced me along the way. I talked about family and comic books, about social issues and music. What I realised as I looked back was there was a key figure in a lot of my development- My high school English teacher.
So much of the literary side of my development can be traced to him, and none of it was "on the clock," none of it was contained in the lessons that he was being paid to teach. He was the first person to put a George Orwell book in my hand, and he sent me home with a copy to read in my own time. He lent me Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht (some of you will know of the obsession I developed much later with one of Brecht's other works.)
But as important as Orwell and Brecht would become to me later on, there was something simpler and more informative that happened during this period. He was my introduction to the Irish playwright Sean O'Casey, and the beginning of a long tradition of my finding subtle ways to steal from his work. This was the beginning of my focusing on social storytelling. The haves and have-nots. All the same issues I've blogged about many times.
And he was my introduction to the one poem I've held close for the past two decades. Digging by Seamus Heaney. I don't really know enough to know if it's a cliche or not to cite that poem, but I know the effect it had on me. There's one part in particular that became a motto-
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
I still remember the moment all the lights came on at the back of my brain as my teacher read that line back to me again and asked what I thought it meant. I still remember how those words hovered around my head the next time I wrote something.
I took that into everything that I wrote or read afterwards. I came from a family full of men who'd been good with their hands. There were engineers, steeplejacks, mechanics, even poachers. I wasn't one of them, I wasn't one of any of them, but like the narrator of the poem I watched with awe and guilt as adults went about their jobs with apparent confidence. But I had words, even if they were a struggle, and I could write about things that mattered to me. I could dig.
After years of saying how little teachers had done for me, I realised how much I owed to one in particular. Mr Leathem. A gruff old Catholic boy who dressed like he was auditioning for Doctor Who and smoked a pipe. His demeanour scared the hell out of so many students in the school, but if you asked him about literature or Irish history he'd come alive and talk for as long as you would listen. I tried to contact him recently, but found out he passed away a few years ago. I was left wishing I'd made more time for someone who'd always made time for me. Even if he did have poor taste in football teams.
So, when Gerald invited me to pick a poem for the 30 Days Of The 5-2, it was a no-brainer.