I’ve just finished proof-reading my latest collection of poems, The Goldsmith’s Apprentice, for Nadia Kingsley of Fair Acre Press; hopefully it will be published next April. Meanwhile Nadia has sent the PDF of the manuscript off to The Poetry Book Society to find out whether, by some incredible chance, it might be chosen for one of their recommendations. I am not hopeful. Glancing at previous PBS choices confirms my suspicion that the contemporary poetry scene is still dominated by the Big Six (or Seven or Eight?) poetry publishers, – Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Cape, Picador, Seren, and Faber, to name the best known. You can’t blame the PBS – they must be bombarded by manuscripts from dozens, if not hundreds, of lesser known publishers. The selectors will always want to play safe by concentrating their selective attentions on those with an established record of picking winners. My other cause for a rather hopeless cynicism is that, even among the Big publishers, there is always a predilection for the new, the young, the latest, what I would call “fresh meat” (they would call themselves “new voices”, often either the students or the teachers of those new semi-commercial creative writing courses) so that old lags like myself inevitably feel less interesting, out of date in style or subject matter or both.
Anyway, to move on from such gloom, I am actually delighted at the prospect, thanks to Fair Acre, of bringing out this new collection. Granted one’s usual predisposition towards self-deception, I think that it may be my best collection so far. Somehow the combination of retiring from teaching seven years ago, taking the lid off years of frustrated creativity, together with shifting westward to a different part of the country, has proved to be stimulating. For three or four years pieces seemed to pour out, culminating in this new collection. Also there has been the stimulus of being involved in two excellent writing groups together with a pressure to produce poems for them every month.
After consulting with two colleagues from The Bridgnorth Writers, Paul and Jeff, I decided not to divide the poems in The Goldsmiths Apprentice into separate sections but to try to develop the shape of the collection organically, as it were, building up internal contrasts and connections of theme and tone. Thus the collection starts off with a group of pieces about craft industries, then moves on to a group about the position and treatment of women, then on to a section about wars and political conflicts, and so on. I have ended with a group of poems about old age, juxtaposing them with the enjoyment of new life through grandchildren.
Reading back through this blog I am aware that it is even more solipsistic than usual – an (un)ashamed piece of self-advertisement. But perhaps that is ‘par for the course’ for would-be “poets”? Reading a wonderful biography of R.S.Thomas, The Man who went into the West by Byron Rogers, has made me both angry and amused at how entirely self-absorbed R.S. (Larkin called him “Arse-wipe Thomas”) appears to have been. He seems, for instance, to have stamped out Elsi-the-wife’s burgeoning career as a painter and crippled his relationship with their son, Gwydion, by sending him off to boarding school in return for some creative quiet in the vicarage. And yet, however unpleasant as a human being R.S.Thomas presents himself, always, in the best poems, compassion, humour, even love, threaten to creep round the edges of that complacent severity.
Anyway, back to me, me, me. Here is the title poem from my new collection:
The Goldsmith’s Apprentice
You will change into ‘trashers’, canvas shoes,
when you lock yourself in at eight.
Collecting your strongbox from the safe
it will be weighed. It will be weighed again
when you clock off at six.
You will sit at a vice with apron attached
to funnel the filed off dust.
You will blow your nose into newspaper
and not put grease in your hair.
Similarly, when you swill your hands
(your lunch box having been inspected)
it will be into this tank of sawdust
into which you will also expectorate.
All these – shoes, clothes, snot, sawdust –
will be burnt off at the end of the month
into a rough bar called an ‘elmer’
worth more than you earn all year.