Interview with poet George Szirtes by Press Literary Editor Jo Ely. See his poetry in Vol. III #11:
Tell us about your writing process. (For example, do you outline, revise extensively, use pen and paper, stickies, etc.)
I tend to write straight on a keyboard, edit rapidly as I write, revise and revise, then leave it a while–a few days, a week or two–then return and revise again if necessary.
Have you taken or run writing workshops? If so, what have you found to be most beneficial about the workshop experience? You can speak to your experience as a teacher or as a writer here, or both.
I have run workshops for many years and taught creative writing from 1994 to 2013 at all the various levels. I have never made a big distinction between being a teacher and a writer. The essence of a good workshop is intelligent, informed, wide-ranging discussion. That is what both teaching and writing can be.
Why did you choose poetry over other forms?
I didn’t choose. I knew immediately it was for me. I was seventeen at the time, not ‘studying literature’ (nor did I later). It was the concentration, the distillation, the pressing close of words, the patterns opening in eye and ear, the hope of the sheer complexity of life finding some kind of clarified echo: the kind of truth it was and can be.
Where do you write?
Wherever I am, which nowadays is mostly at my desk, but also at night, in bed, on trains, in hotels….
Do you have writing rituals or habits, and how do you make space in your life for your writing?
I just seek the space for it as much as I can. Sometimes when the children were young and I was teaching full-time, the space was very squeezed, but squeezed space can be very productive. There is something electric and electrifying about it. It is remarkably valuable.
Do you ever write longhand?
I used to. Less so nowadays, but still sometimes. But I think and feel fast so my handwriting tends to get illegible. Keyboard is better for that.
Szirtes’ writing desk
Who or what are your biggest influences, be it books, films, mentors, etc.?
I have loved many poets, some more at one time than another. Those who have had a major effect on me were (in rough order of time) Rimbaud, Eliot, Rilke, Auden, MacNeice, Bishop, Mahon, Brodsky, Marilyn Hacker. Two great mentors: Martin Bell and Peter Porter; one much admired friend, Peter Scupham. These are the poets to whom I showed my work in draft. And to my wife, Clarissa, a marvelous visual artist with a keen ear for verse. Her above all. Loads of books. And a good many films. The list of these would be rather too long. Not to mention music. Chamber music and human voice above all: Beethoven late quartets, Schubert, Bach cello sonatas. Early blues singers. Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs. Bill Evans, etc., etc…
What brought you to writing? Was there one pivotal event which catapulted you into writing, or have you written uninterrupted since you were a child?
It never occurred to me to write–we weren’t that sort of family, and in any case, English was, chronologically, my second language–until one particular moment in my sixth form in school when a friend showed me a poem by another student and I knew immediately what I wanted to do and be. I had never had that feeling before. Life changed at that moment.
Are there recurring themes or ideas in your work?
There must be, I suppose. History, the fragility of life, the sheer strangeness of mutability, brief wonderful resolutions when all seems clear or at least true. Art, photography, film. The way one experience comments or arises out of another…
What part, if any, does research play in your writing and how do you go about researching your work?
There’s not much research. Ideas arise out of reading which may then require more reading. But I am not systematic. All my life I have been instinctive and intuitive. It’s just that I like to think clearly about these things. Life as a crystalline improvisation.
If you have self-published or crowd-funded your writing, what has been your experience? What advice might you pass on to other authors?
I have very rarely self-published. I would feel rather awkward doing so in any serious way, the odd occasion being on a whim or for a small special intimate project. I can see why it can be necessary at times and it is by no means disgraceful to do so if circumstances demand, but you are less likely to be noticed when you self-publish. Hard-faced critical opinion tends to provide more solid ground. I have never crowd-funded myself. I have, however, contributed to other people’s projects.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you go about finding your readers, or enabling them to find you?
I don’t like importuning readers. I am a terrible salesman. I have a blog where I write about various things and people read that now and then. I have a Facebook and Twitter presence–the Twitter feed has well over 10,000 followers–but these are spaces for drafting new work rather than for seeking an audience for finished work. I have grown very fond of Twitter with its restricted space and evanescence. A good many of my poems in the last two years were drafted on Twitter. To my surprise people seem to be drawn to them. I don’t think I have exactly found my readers there but quite a number seem to have found me.