Interview with Roy Marshall – Poet & Blogger

Poet Roy MarshallI met Roy Marshall on a residential writing course at Tŷ Newydd, in North Wales, in 2012. Since then he has published his first full collection The Sun Bathers, with Shoestring Press. He has had poems published in a number of magazines, blogs regularly about the writing process and reviews the work of other poets. I started the interview by asking him to tell me how it all began…   

Hi Roy, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Looking back over the years, can you pinpoint a particular moment when you first began to write seriously, hoping for publication or recognition? Was there a particular success that encouraged you to keep going?

When I was a child I wrote stories. I remember being lost in the moment when I wrote. It felt as natural as breathing, and stories would unfold without me having to consciously think about them. I was lucky to have a teacher who liked them and she asked me to read to the class. So writing and recognition were tied together when I was ten. I pretty much stopped writing in my teens.

When my son was four or five I had a job which enabled me to stay at home with him two days a week. We’d go to the park or to Borders (a now defunct bookshop) quite a lot. They had a big poetry section, including poetry magazines, something I hadn’t known existed up to that point.  Discovering that there was a contemporary poetry scene was a revelation.

Roy's desk in its 'natural' state

Roy’s desk in its ‘natural’ state

The desire to improve my writing came from reading. I wrote when I could, drafting and re-drafting poems, working late into the night. I went to some workshops at the Poetry Business in Sheffield. After a year or so I began to feel that some of my work might be near the standard I’d seen in the magazines. I wrote because I was fascinated by the process and found myself drawn to it. It is a reward in itself. Writing was, and is, a sort of addiction.  The first publications are very exciting and a great confidence boost.  Of course work got returned too (I don’t like the word ‘rejected’) and I’d send it out again, sometimes after making a few changes. I was quite methodical in my approach to publishing, researching magazines and having a list of places I’d like to be published in.

The Rialto was the first magazine to publish one of my poems and another poem came third in the Ledbury poetry competition shortly afterwards. It’s important to remind myself that writing and being published, although related, are not the same thing.  Getting published is lovely, but it is not the same as working at writing. Being pleased with something you have written and maybe even staying pleased with it is the best buzz.

Thanks. It’s encouraging to hear about your success. When I met you at Tŷ Newydd, your pamphlet, Gopagilla, had just been published. What I liked about your work was the way in which it was concrete, clean, and genuine; each word had a reason for being there, and you weren’t afraid of writing short poems. Do you think your style of writing has changed since then?

Poetry pamphlet - Gopagilla

Roy’s first publication – Gopagilla

Thank you. ‘Genuine’ is an interesting term. I think poems that interest me have a certain ‘truth’ to them. It doesn’t have to be a literal truth, just something that someone else can recognise and perhaps relate to emotionally.

My pamphlet contains short poems partly because I didn’t have the technical ability to write long poems. Also, I had cut everything away that I thought unnecessary and ended up with very distilled, concentrated pieces. I’m still interested in removing the extraneous, but my style has changed as I’ve become more adept at sustained writing.

Lately I’ve done something a bit different, writing a couple of poems that play with language, to look at how language works.  You can’t force your evolution as a poet, but you can do things to facilitate it. Development happens gradually through reading and writing, experimenting to find what works.

You have written extensively on your blog about the writing process and writers you admire. You mention Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and others. Can you describe what it is that you admire about their work?

Those poets were some of the first I came across on my forays to the bookshop. Growing up I’d seen and been blown away by a couple of Hughes and Heaney poems – ‘Pike’ , by Hughes, and ‘The Tolland Man’ from Heaney. Those two poems in particular are so linguistically precise and visual that they are unforgettable.

In my teens I also read the poets of the First World War, the Metaphysical poets, Dylan Thomas and the Liverpool poets. Beyond that I’d not really read much poetry. So in my thirties I set about catching up as quickly as possible. I read Plath and Larkin, anthologies, poetry magazines, American poets, translations,  everything I could find. I discovered Clare Pollard, Jo Shapcott, Don Patterson, Robin Robertson, Kathleen Jamie and Jean Sprackland. Since then I’ve tried to keep up with new poets. Reviewing helps with this, as I sometimes get sent new collections to review for poetry magazines.

Your blog contains some interesting reviews and advice for other writers. What made you decide to start a blog? Do you think it has helped promote your work?

The Sun BathersI set it up as a place to share experiences and ideas as well as publicising what I was doing. Writing poetry can be an isolating activity, so it’s a way of connecting. I enjoy writing articles and they help me find out what I think. I only write the blog when I have something to say, so it never becomes a distraction from other work.

I don’t really know if it’s helped promote my poems. The page with my poems on is probably one of the least visited!  I’m with a small independent publisher so I have to try and arrange readings, and perhaps the blog has helped attract a little attention.

You’ve blogged about the importance of receiving helpful feedback for your work. When I first met you, we were both attending a residential writing course, and I know you have also completed an MA in creative writing… Did you find these times useful as a writer? Would you recommend any particular courses?

I applied and got a grant for the residential where we met in 2012. It’s the only one I’ve ever been on. I’d have liked to go again but it’s a question of having time and money. I’d advise anyone to go on a residential course if they can. There are some brilliant tutors out there and you can learn a lot in a short space of time.

With the MA I saw there was an award available, so I applied and won that, so my fees were paid.  I did it part time. I got a distinction in the end, but the particular course I did was quite disappointing and frustrating. Delivering feedback is a skill and if done poorly it can be disheartening and discouraging. During the MA, my book was getting good reviews and my poems were being published in quality magazines, but the feedback I was getting was vague and negative.  I felt like giving up. But when I had a half-hour session with a visiting professor I went away buzzing with excitement. Her feedback was clear and made sense. If she didn’t like something she explained why.  She was supportive rather than destructive and asked questions about why I had done things in certain ways, which made me think and consider alternatives. It made me realise what a difference a good mentor can make.

The MA did give me time to write and introduced me to new writers I’d not read. I also made some good friends. It was a mixed experience, and I’m still trying to figure out what I learnt, but I know I learnt a lot!

Following in The Guardian tradition of writers’ rooms… is there a particular place where you tend to write? Are there certain things which help with the writing process?

I’m fortunate to have a small office at home. It used to be a shared office, but I’ve gradually stolen it. It is peaceful and quiet. The desk tends to be partially buried, and sometimes areas of the floor are also covered in books and paper. I tidy up at least once a week.

Roy's office

Roy’s office in its ‘tidy’ state

There are rooftops in my eye-line and twice I’ve seen a Heron on the ridge opposite. I’d love a more interesting daily view but I’m not sure I’d look at it. I tend to write without looking up much. The bookshelves are full of poetry. A dictionary and thesaurus are usually to hand. There is a small electric guitar by the desk that I borrowed some years ago.  I pick it up and play absent–mindedly from time to time.

The marble block

The marble block

The pictures on the wall change quite often. The postcard of the oil painting at the bottom was given to me by a patient, the father of the artist. I have a light box on the windowsill to see me through the shortest days.  There’s a marble block with a plaque that was presented to my maternal Grandad. He was an Alpine soldier in the First World War.  The clock was my Grandma’s. It’s been set to English summer time all year and will soon be telling the right time again!

Your book The Sun Bathers was published in 2013. What are you working on now? Is there another book coming along?

I’ve written the new book and sent a draft a copy to one or two close poet friends. I’d like their thoughts before I send it to my editor, who has publication scheduled for 2017. I’m happy and think it is a better book than the first one – a little more sophisticated in places. There’s a sequence about my time in coronary care and when one of the poems from it was published in a magazine, people took the time to write and tell me how much they liked it. Some nurses in a CCU in Newcastle wrote to say they had it pinned to the wall. It doesn’t really get any better than that.

Thanks for answering my questions, and I look forward to reading the new book in 2017!

Visit Roy’s blog to read some of his poems and find out more about his work.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Roy Marshall – Poet & Blogger

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