Interview with Marc Woodward – Guest Poet reading at CICCIC, Taunton, 8pm Thursday May 2nd
My name is Graeme Ryan and I am one of the Fire River Poets in Taunton who are hosting your reading on May 2nd at CICCIC.
I have very much enjoyed reading both ‘A Fright of Jays’ and ‘Hide Songs’, and recognise the integrity, depth and discernment of your responses to the natural world; the precision and flair in your use of language; the craft that shines through.
Thanks so much in advance Marc. Look forward to hearing from you
Marc: Hi Graeme,
Thanks for making contact – we met briefly at Teignmouth poetry festival last year. I’m glad you enjoyed the books, thanks for the kind words.
Graeme: What formative experiences have made you into a poet? Which of these relate to your childhood and/or schooling? Was there a moment when you realised that poetry was a key vocation for you?
M: I recall writing a poem in primary school aged around six or seven – something about ants I think – and being praised for it by the teacher who said I had a ‘gift’ (so perhaps she’s to blame?) and then thinking ‘oh this is it, I’ll be a poet when I grow up’ not aware that it wasn’t really a career option of course…
I was a voracious reader as a child and could soon recite the various poems from Lewis Carroll including the whole of the Walrus and the Carpenter – much of which is still in my head.
My father wrote poetry, although more satirical verse really, and was regularly published in the letters section of the Telegraph and She magazine of all places.
He was also a working musician so I guess I’m a chip off the old block.
G: If you could pick one or two poems in Hide Songs that lie at the heart of what makes you a poet, which ones might they be – and why?
M: I grew up in a rural village in Kent – in those days Kent was a lot more rural than it is now – and had one of those birdwatching, den building, fish hoiking, wandering childhoods, often alone – but being alone has never been a problem for me. And not for most poets I suspect – otherwise how would they ever communicate with their muse!
Events from my childhood are evident in Hide Songs – Fred on Birds for example is absolutely a true story about our neighbour who was a farm worker, mole catcher (employed by local cricket clubs) and known poacher with two concurrent families:
After laying the moles out on the wall
(glossy coats belying their broken backs)…
Fred would talk to me about all the birds
he’d eaten, how seagulls have little flesh
despite their size (less even than a rook)
and what they have reeks of garbage and fish;
Likewise the sad event told in Lapwings actually happened:
Some days the stillness was a lapwing’s egg
waiting to break under a boot of rain…
…fresh tyre marks in the A road lay-by
a track cut through the air-sucking bracken
to a bastard wood beyond our wandering…
And I did once rescue a coot the cat had dragged through the cat flap!
I go tripping off the tongues of grass
In flip-flops and tartan pyjamas
holding before me an ill-tempered coot
Like a tarred and feathered sextant.
In my twenties I worked as the group secretary for the National Farmers Union on Exmoor and it was during that period that I wrote Beyond Broadwoodwidger which was originally published in ‘Otter – New Devon Poetry’ (now long defunct) back in the early nineties.
What do you feel?
The brief breath of an owl;
The waiting silence after the fox’s cough…
Out here, in the twitch of spiders,
The fright of jays, the quick knee-jerk
Of a cricket’s ear…
Obviously some of the other poems such as Hairy Arsed Red Cattle and Blackmoor Gate hark back to that period.
I’ve never lived in any big metropolitan area – I spent a few years in Teignmouth but that hardly counts as an urban sprawl – and have really always lived in countryside, that’s where my heart is and is always evident in my writing.
However I have now vowed to be very strict about the inclusion of any more birds in my poems – after A Fright Of Jays, Hide Songs was my attempt to expunge all my bird poems – get them out, set them free, and then never write another one! We’ll see – I was doing a writing residency in California last October and – whoops – there’s a condor poem and look: a great horned owl has snuck in while I was asleep!
M: I’ve been a performing musician since I was a teenager. As I mentioned above my father was a musician. He’d had cancer in his early forties, his business failed and he’d resorted to playing the piano accordion – French Cafe style music and music hall singalong stuff – in restaurants and pubs and clubs and I soon joined him playing mandolin, going out night after night all over the South East.
I think my poetry is musical – I want to make it somehow melodious and I’m drawn to rhythm. I tend to be a stickler for structure – I count the syllables I’m afraid, and I wonder if this is as a result of the mathematical element in music? Perhaps not – I was drawn to Philip Larkin’s writing in my teenage years and always admired his deftness with form.
I did find that my muses would only visit as solitary souls – that is to say if I was playing a lot of music I probably wasn’t writing any poetry.
If the music backed off I’d write more. I think there is a strong relationship between the two arts – perhaps they are just one art in different expressions?
G: Your collection ‘Hide Songs’ features poems composed in America. Could you tell us something about your work over there and what new poetic territory America opens up for you, linked specifically to any of the poems?
Do you have any favourites overall in ‘Hide Songs’ – and why?
M: Re America
I was born in New York to English parents who returned to England when I was just 18 months old. Consequently I’ve always had this fascination with the US and have been back a number of times.
In October 2015 I was hired to teach mandolin at a weekend ‘mandolin camp’ on Cape Cod and the following weekend I was going to do some gigs in New Hampshire. So in between I rented a cabin on a lake on Cape Cod specifically to write.
A Fright Of Jays was already published and I was working on Hide Songs. I also had in mind a submission call for poems on the theme of Light. I wrote a poem called The Light at Cape Cod about whale watching which will be in The Tin Lodes – a collection written collaboratively with Professor Andy Brown and still awaiting publication.
In fact it’s this poem which is referred to in The Battle For Newcomb Hollow in Hide Songs (“Later I wrote of the kingdom of whales/ Every stanza a waterboard of light”).
Also The Miller’s Daughter was written around this time – again with references to Light.:
The revolutions of the mill
throw arms across the yellow field:
a clock of light which calibrates
the strength of wind, the bulk of sky,
the passage of the sun.
Distance Swimming was written there too about swimming in Gull Pond (where my cabin was) and is really the first poem alluding to my Parkinson’s which was formally diagnosed a couple of months later:
Slowly I wade into the shallow lake,
pale silt flowering between my toes,
a pike-fright of pondweed brushing my calves
I’d known since the beginning of 2015 that something was wrong – a weird ‘foot drop’ when walking and a stiffness in my hands affecting my playing – but didn’t know what.
I tried jogging it off running through the woods on the Cape – and this gave rise to the image in Aquatic Ape where I got lost running through the woods and ended up down on the beach:
Lungs expanding I dive down from the light
To meditate through flickering shoals.
In September 2017 I went to Nashville with the band Wildwood Kin who my wife manages. They were performing at the Americana festival with several other British bands.
I wasn’t playing – merely helping out – and wrote a few poems about it on my return.
In fact Nashville Brits refers to a back yard grill party the girls played at in East Nashville. There was a wonderful black British singer (and overall force of nature) called Yola with her band and I name check her in the poem:
At the backyard grill Yola wails a blues.
Yola Carter’s now a big star of course but back then we were all just doing our thing on a sunny afternoon in Tennessee hoping for a break…
I flew back alone via Detroit and this triggered thoughts about my father’s time in the States as a travelling salesman and the stories he told – which turned into Shining Planes.
In October 2018 I went to California to take up the offer of a writer’s residency at The Wellstone Center in the Redwoods near Santa Cruz.
I had the intention of writing about my parents’ six year stay in the USA in the late fifties early sixties – what it meant to them as war children going through bombing and evacuation and growing up with rationing etc – then escaping to the ‘promised land’ of glamorous 50s America.
A continuation of the theme in Shining Planes:
I thought of you and how you flew around
The wide mid-west in the crooning fifties.
What kind of plane transported you?
A polished glamorous Dakota?
Also my own fascination with America – I nearly went to live in San Francisco in my early twenties to try and play music in the scene that was occurring there around that time.
I did write a sequence about my parents which I’m still working on, and I also wrote a poem about going to San Francisco all these years later but now suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s – dealing with that bucket-list thing I suppose. That poem is due to be published shortly in Parkinson’s Life magazine around World Parkinson’s Day (April 11th).
In addition to those poems I also came back with several poems on the theme of the homeless in California. The good climate makes it something of a Mecca for the homeless and there is this strange two tier community – the affluent in expensive houses and a street community which seems to be quite settled and accepted – although clearly there are issues.
G: Do I have any favourites in Hide Songs?
M: It’s a collection that spans several different phases in my life so it’s hard to say. Beyond Broadwoodwidger was first published back in the early 90s when I was working for the NFU in North Devon – when it used to feel really remote (as I know you know) – so that has a special place in my heart. And at the other end of the book Revival – which is also a few years old – has always pleased me with its little last line twist. Finally Distance Swimming has a poignancy that to me is special for the reasons mentioned above.
I hope this is ok – let me know if you need anything else – although I fear I’m already in danger of spilling out my whole life story!
G: Thanks so much Marc, for your very interesting, informative and moving responses – it’s fascinating to see how your life and poetry are so interwoven. You have been very generous in your replies and I’ve really enjoyed finding out about you and your work, as I’m sure our readers will be.
We send our very best wishes to you and certainly look forward to your reading at CICCIC in Taunton on May 2nd!