Then and Now

It’s poetry competition time here at Autumn Voices, just in case you didn’t notice us shouting loudly about it all over social media. Throughout October we are running our annual autumn poetry competition, which will be judged by the wonderful Des Dillon, and also celebrating National Poetry Day on Thursday 6th October. This means our content this month is all things poetry. We’re bringing you blogs by several poets, telling us about their connection to poetry through various themes: being a poet in residence and what that means for the writing process, being inspired to write poetry about specific people, and the experience of writing poetry in two different languages.

This week, the legendary Colin Will tells about writing and reading poetry for decades and still going strong at 80.

Colin Will started playing jazz and writing poetry in the early 1960s, as one of the Edinburgh Beats. Then he got a proper job as a librarian and wrote nothing between 1965 and 1985. Since the latter date he hasn’t been able to stop. He worked mainly in science until he retired in 2002. He has chaired the Boards of the Scottish Poetry Library, the StAnza Poetry Festival and Dunbar’s CoastWord Festival. He ran Calder Wood Press for 20 years, publishing poetry and short stories. He’s now Editor at Postbox Press, which includes editing Postbox short story magazine. His selected poems will be published by Red Squirrel Press in July 2022, to celebrate his 80th birthday. It will be his 13th book, but he isn’t superstitious. 

I’ve been writing for a long time. Norman MacCaig, my teacher at Craiglockhart Primary School in the 1950s, encouraged my story writing – English Composition as it was called then. The curriculum didn’t include poetry at that time, not that he ever told us he was a poet, and not that it would have made any difference. I discovered poetry at secondary school. We had a heavyweight anthology which had everybody in it. To be frank, I couldn’t raise much enthusiasm for the classical poets who were the subjects of our lessons. Right at the back of the book was the only poet in it who was still alive, T S Eliot, and I found something in his words I could relate to.

As a student in 1961 I stumbled across Jim Haynes’ Paperback Bookshop, and modern poetry hit me, making an indelible impression. There were the Americans, of course, like Ginsberg, Kerouac, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, but also some British writers of the period, people like Edwin Morgan, Adrian Mitchell, Michael Horowitz and his crowd, and a whole raft of European writers, Paul Celan, Günter Grass, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann among them. I began to write myself, grasping the stylistic freedom of the modernists, never copying them, but doing my own thing in the way they did. By 1965 I was a professionally qualified librarian, engaged to be married, and settled on a career path. And the writing stopped. For twenty years.

In 1985, writing a Burns pastiche (Holy Will’s Prayer) to perform for an office Christmas party, I remembered that I had once been a serious writer. I did it then and I could do it again. The opportunity arose when I moved from the British Geological Survey to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1988 as its Chief Librarian. An enquiry about rhubarb from an American professor had me delving in the archives, where I found the transcript of a letter from a military doctor, writing to Edinburgh after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, about his treatment of sick government soldiers with a new extract of rhubarb. It horrified me, and I knew I had to write about it. I sent the poem to Cencrastus, a magazine I knew and liked, and it was accepted. The editor, Raymond Ross, sent me a copy when it was published, with a cheque for 10/6d, and a note which said I could now call myself a professional writer. I like to think he knew how much that would mean to me.

That poem was in my first book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Highlands, published by Diehard in 1996, and it’s also in my most recent book, Swept Together; Selected and New Poems, published by Red Squirrel Press in 2022 on my 80th birthday.

How has my writing changed over the years? Between 1996 and 2022, I’ve had thirteen books published: three of short stories, and ten of poetry. In addition, I’ve completed a novel, probably not yet publishable, written a play and had a poem set to music – so it probably counts as a song lyric. The forms I’ve written in have varied, and each has its own rules and styles of writing. A play contains dialogue, descriptions and instructions. A short story contains a narrative, which may contain dialogue, description and activity. The novel does the same, but on a bigger scale. So, in approaching each different form, my writing begins from a different starting position. 

If you find you stumble on a phrase, so too will your audiences, your readers.

That’s the bit you need to fix.

What about poetry? What does a poem contain? The glib answer is ‘Anything I want it to contain,’ but that’s not strictly true. There are poems which have a formal structure. For a variety of reasons, these don’t appeal to me, apart from the sonnet, for which I have a definite affection. (And even in a sonnet, I feel the urge to nudge the boundaries of structure, rhyme and meter). My early excursions into modern poetry gave me a taste for writing where the nature of the content, and its emotional consequences, were the central concerns. Reading Charles Olson, Ezra Pound and Allen Ginsberg I learned the importance of breath and rhythm in determining the length of a line, and the necessity of reading a poem aloud. Poems sprang from an oral tradition; they are meant to be read or performed aloud, to be enjoyed by audiences who listen. The act of reading your own poem aloud after you’ve written it, is essential. If you find you stumble on a phrase, so too will your audiences, your readers. That’s the bit you need to fix.

I can’t compare my present poems with those I wrote in the 1960s. I lost all the early ones in a house move in 1976. I don’t regret that, not even fleetingly. But there’s a 26-year difference between my first book and my newest. Are the early and late poems all that different?

I’ve still got the same scientific background, rather than an English Lit one. I’m not saying that’s better, it’s just that it affects my view of the world. But I also love music, art, travel and above all, people. My early poems covered these subjects, and so do my new ones. I spent twenty years in amateur drama, and that informs some of my short stories. I keep reading poetry, new poetry, by writers I like. I love discovering new poets, and watching poets develop as human beings and as writers.

I like to think I’ve developed too, that my writing is better than it was when I started. My ideas and attitudes have changed, as society has changed. I always strive to communicate better, because for me poetry is an art of communication, a meeting of people through the medium of words.

My new book is a selection from my published poetry, plus some new ones. Most ‘Selecteds’ are divided up into sections by the books the poems are selected from, but I was adamant that I didn’t want that for my own, because I truly believe that my writing is a continuum. The poems I wrote early in my writing career are as worthy of inclusion as any later poems.

Who I was is who I am. Who I will be is who I was.

Colin Will

Annual Poetry Competition

Theme: ‘The Environment’
Deadline: 31st October 2022 – Entries now closed

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