A dialogue of creation – poet Mark Goodwin and editor Brian Lewis

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This interview piece first appeared in “Strange Alliances” published by Elaine Aldred in January 2015 under the title “Mark Goodwin’s Steps of creation”. It has been reproduced here with kind permission of Elaine Aldred and Brian Lewis from Longbarrow Press.

Every writer is edited before publication. But what if the editing process is undertaken by someone who knows the writer and his work so well that the editing process becomes intensive dialogue of creation?

This is what happened with “Steps” Mark Goodwin’s collection of poetry, published by Longbarrow Press and edited by Brian Lewis.

Mark, how would you describe how you approach your poetry in terms of construction? 

The word ‘construction’ is a useful word, because of its relationship to material and something substantial. In fact Brian and I were just talking about typo errors and how a typo error in prose (a novel for example) is not usually such a big issue. The reader notices it merely as a typo, a glitch that doesn’t really hinder, and so is able to easily carry on with the story. Whereas if you have a typo in a poem it’s the equivalent of a crack in a vase. And it jars in a way you can’t get past. A poem is very much more an object, almost a thing of substance, and those shapes on the page, as well as those shapes in the ear, matter. That’s something I’m very sensitive to and aware of. I make my poems with a close awareness of the substance of sound, but also with an awareness of space, texture, shape and pattern. So the blank paper is just as much a part of the poem as the darkness of the ink. And then how that relates to feeling, meanings, emotions, or place. It becomes entwined. Sometimes you could almost say it’s sculptural, certainly spatial…and ‘open field’ is an expression that’s been used to describe how the whole page is treated or engaged with as a field. So that is very much a part of my practice, that materiality, that construct, that distinct relationship to the page and even the paper as well…and then how that relates to the relationship between lungs, throat, tongue, eardrum and mind…as words are placed, sent and received…

When you write a poem, is it something that goes down straight away, or do you have to look at it and walk away and come back to it again?

I write various kinds of poetry and in various ways. Sometimes a poem may have been cooking away, gestating over a long time and then comes out and is nearly done. That happens every now and again. Sometimes it just starts simply by putting two words together and creating textures and sound, then playing with that and building up material. It may be that that build of material is where the process ends…or I come back and start taking bits away…a process of refining, which is often called editing. Sometimes there is a great distance between the first time I laid the poem on the page and when I came back to it. So I do write in various ways, and my habits are varied. I do call them habits, because I find myself returning to these things. Often techniques and modes are unconscious. But I also do use a wide variety of conscious, decisive ways of making, or of beginning to make. You could ask me to write a poem now and I have ways of starting that. However, you can ask me not to write a poem all day tomorrow and something’ll happen and I can’t help myself and I have to. Occasionally in the middle of the night something will happen; a line that sets me off. So sometimes it sneaks up on me and sometimes I decide to go and catch a poem. I do a lot of both.

How do you know when it’s right, when it’s finished?

I suppose the answer to that is not worrying about knowing when it’s right or when it’s finished, because the word ‘right’ is too constraining, as well as the word ‘finished’. Poetry is about process for me, the process is never finished. However, I don’t trust that famous expression that ‘a poem is never finished but abandoned’. That’s irresponsible, but there is a point where one has ‘left the process’. Happy to leave the process to others. That’s the important thing. There comes a point where you’re happy to hand the process to the creative reader. Indeed, it’s always possible for me to go back to a poem and continue the process and reshape material. In fact that has happened with one of the main poems in Steps, ‘St Juliot’: previously this very long poem had to be reprocessed so that it could be fitted into Longbarrow’s anthology, The Footing. But we didn’t want to just lift something out, so Brian and I again, collaboratively, re-edited that poem.

There’s an additional CD that comes with this book: this also shows poems being picked up and played with again, or played through or played out differently…each re-reading and re-speaking of the poem is bringing the poem back through process. My ‘gappy’ poetry, for example, can be read out loud, or spoken in at least two very different ways. You can read it honouring all those gaps, and so make a chain of little sound-units, as well as meaning-units, all linked by silences. Sometimes I’ll do a reading where I don’t honour that, where I do a much more traditional reading of the poem. So I do really distrust that expression about a poem being ‘abandoned’ and ‘not finished’. There comes a point for me where I’m happy to be finished with the process and to pass it on…but the word ‘abandon’ gives me a dangerous sinking feeling!

Brian, Mark’s poetry is very sparse. How do you edit something so minimal without radically changing it beyond recognition? Or is that as Mark was saying, you’re going back in to reprocess the poem?

Brian: I would say that the first stage in the process for me, as editor and publisher, is laying out the poem or poems on the page. By ‘page’ we now mean ‘screen’. But laying out the bones on the screen is something like the page format that will govern the performance of the eventual publication, then seeing how the work actually sits. Trying, I guess, to work ahead to the eventual publication.

Whether we know it or not, or whether we’re happy with it or not, increasingly, the screen itself is the thing. The screen is the place where we spend so much of our time and our effort and concentration – focussing on the screens. When in fact the screen is just the intermediate stage or portal through which we eventually bring forth the book.

So on a practical level what this means is that it’s all very well for me looking at something on a screen, but I have to try and think how that’s going to translate into a physical page and what that means for a reader’s experience of a poem. Are the pauses between pages intentional or not; are they going to aid or hinder the experience? First and foremost, that means looking at the space I have to work with and occasionally asking Mark about his intentions at various points.

So coming back to the question ‘Where does the editing start? Where for me do I find that connection with the poem?’

What I tend to do is to start by laying out the whole book as a PDF, which will then be passed back and forth between us.

Mark sent me the first version of Steps in 2010, which was in essence the script that we’ve continued to work with. You’ve added a few poems since then.

Mark: Yes, but the reworking at this stage is what’s really interesting. Funnily enough it does relate nicely to the reworking of the CD tracks. Some of the tracks on the CD, the way they fade in and fade out at their beginnings and ends, for example, are different to how they were presented individually…because the next poem you’re going to listen to, the sound is different. In some cases, if the end of one sound-enhanced poem comes up too close to the next one, it jars; so the way the poem recedes at the end has to be changed. So, there’s a similar problem with the turning of a page and the fitting of a poem onto a page. Talking of fitting to a page: I now write my poems on screen on an A5 setting rather than A4, because I had some interesting ordeals trying to translate my poem layouts from A4 to A5. So I now, to begin with, do my open field on A5, whilst thinking ‘This is a book page’. But inevitably the book that it will finally go into – with its layout requirements – is not going to match the space I first wrote the poem in. In a couple of cases, with regards to Steps, a poem has absolutely, essentially evolved to fit itself into the book, and there has been quite a considerable change to layout in these cases. For example, when you turn a page there is a problem. Where are you going to split the poem? You’re certainly not going to split it in a stanza, or very rarely (although there may be some artistic reason for that being valid). So where are you going to split it? That presents you with a problem. Problems are great because you can only meet them by starting to think creatively, and so stuff happens that couldn’t possibly have happened had you not had the obstacle to climb over…

That’s interesting, because I was going to ask you about having to make the poem fit the page and does it irritate you that you have to think about your poem differently?

Mark: Irritates me in a very positive way, because I’m very pleased to be irritated by it. It’s that’s old irritate the oyster to get the pearl scenario. You have to embrace that irritation … that friction…and you have to let processes happen, rather than resist them through control. It’s negotiation. Too often navigators make the mistake of not negotiating with the landscape (I know because I’ve got myself lost before!). And because of Brian’s openness to collaborate and not control, we spark off each other…and there are some fabulous developments.

How does this sparking work in the collaboration?

Mark: For me, it’s because I know that Brian has a very particular vision of how he wants to make a book, because a Longbarrow book has a very distinct feel to it. But at the same time he has a very particular attention to fitting the poet’s work as openly as possible into that.

Brian: A key part of that process is that I’ve never seen my business as editor to simply impose a house style onto a book. This is where it shifts to a dialogue where I will, for example, produce a PDF and say ‘Okay, for the most part things seem to line up with the original script without any real changes or unintended breaks, but there are going to be issues here and here where this seems too cramped and this seems too exposed in a way that you weren’t intending’. A good case in point is the first poem in the book, ‘Walk’, where the form has changed in number of ways. I think it was largely a question of identifying possible issues and indicating an openness to resolving them.

Mark: What we end up doing is serving the book. I think there’s a mistake made sometimes, when the editor tries to impose something on the poet and the poet defends their position, because they want it as they wrote it. The book is doing the imposing and Brian and I together respond to the demands of the book. I’m really happy to see a poem transformed because of the demands of the book. I have, for a long time, thought of a collection as one poem and each poem a stanza. That’s how I like to put a collection together. But when it comes to the physicality of the book, and the physicality of turning pages, you can think of it as sculpture possibly. Then you’re working towards an object, and you’re also attending to how that object works as a piece of technology, at the same time that practical-ness is meshed with the aesthetics. I really love the demand of the book. That it makes me, makes us, change the shapes of poems, and makes poems reach across from one side of the book to the other. Brian is very sensitive and open to all that, and he will make attentive suggestions…and because we know each other well, and because of the type of relationship we have with each other it sparks creativity through both of us. That’s when we make discoveries… about what the book is telling us, about what it could be, or needs to be.

Brian: Certain poems need to be in certain relationships and configurations on the page. If you placed Mark’s poems in a different order then you would have a different set of associations. ‘Walk’ is a good case in point. It’s not only the first poem in the book, but it also sets up some of the relationships that we see elsewhere to the book.

What we had in ‘Walk’ was a lineation that was initially much more concentrated. There were fewer spaces and fewer gaps opening up. The original arrangement of this poem left us with only one or two lines exposed at the very top of the second page that really didn’t look that great. So Mark went away to think particularly how this second page would work.

Mark: Yes, it was going over the page that was a problem, and often is, particularly if a poem fitted on a page beautifully and then it nips over on the other side and so the end of the poem is just left hanging there. In some cases that’s great – to leave it hanging, or perhaps slide it down, to put it in the middle of the page…but for some poems that’s not right.

Brian: Yes, particularly when it’s the first poem in the book. It leaves this unintended blankness that is not serving any clear purpose.

Mark considered the changes over a period of time and it was Mark who made the particular connections. I think we both had an idea of how to open up the space and make more use of it. A couple of the things that Mark came up with involved lining up two lines in particular with corresponding lines in the next poem (on the facing page). So if we look at the line ‘without knowing’ (in the first poem) that then speaks to ‘unknowingness’ (in the second poem). Then the very last word, ‘know’, which was always isolated in ‘Walk’. So the placement of the word ‘know’ has taken its cue from the composition of the second poem, which has the word ‘across’ isolated.

Mark: So, there is an alignment across a double spread, where lines connect across facing pages…and in turn this connection is made across the book. So, If you go to the bottom of the book’s first poem, and then go to the back of the book, you can see how this double-spread layout, or the ‘rungs of a ladder’ as I call it, are reflected, continued, or echoed…so those rungs, that connect lines and words across the double-spread between the ending lines of ‘Walk’ and the opening lines of ‘Whilst Carrying You Across Cadair Idris’, those kinds of rungs happen again in the final poem ‘Pinnacle’…and this even relates back to Brian’s front cover, the rungs or steps made by the book’s title, my name, and the sea slater image…in fact poet Chris Jones thinks this looks like some kind of visual haiku…the main point is how layout from one of end of the book to the other enhances certain words or phrases… and highlights some kind of negotiation between those distant phrases…

Brian: For example, the matter of the word ‘trust’ being isolated.

Mark: And how the isolation of that word ‘trust’ is also connected, across a distance, to the phrase ‘we huddle on’… and at a greater distance that word ‘trust’ then connects, through this pattern set up by rungs, to a particular word around the ending of the book’s first poem…which I leave to the reader to discover, or even decide upon! So, the whole poem – the poem that is the whole book – is about moving across, moving through, transition, and translation…and the steps that we take up or down the rungs of the ladder, the crag or the footpath. The book begins and ends that way.

Brian: We also have the ‘ghost’ verses, which features very strongly in the ‘St Juliot’ poem, the 60-page centrepiece of Steps (radically altered and extended from the 12-page version in The Footing).

This means that you’ve both had to edit out words between you. How does that work? 

Brian: It’s been more a rearrangement, and a few questions or comments along the lines of ‘Do you mean this?’

Mark: No, there wasn’t much editing of words, simply because those poems have been around a long time and have been looked at by various people over the years. Some of the poems were written in the 1990s.

Brian: Matthew Clegg went through a similar process with his book West North Eastlast year. Although Matt and Mark work in very different ways, both had a considerable body of work stretching back about 20 years. The idea that the collection should be simply a gathering of the work you wish to preserve from the last couple of years doesn’t really apply here. Some of the poems do have the date of composition to make that point.

So we’ve been working across those different time frames to produce a book that has an aesthetic where all the poems contribute to this idea of Steps and walking. The creative and discursive activity was largely around the arrangement of the poems on the page and in the book. Certainly ‘St Juliot’ is a case in point; the original manuscript for Steps was in A4, but you’d also produced a version of ‘St Juliot’ poem in A5.

Mark: I think I started St Juliot in A5 because I didn’t want to have to redo it…if I didn’t start it in A5, I’m pretty sure I changed to A5 early on so as not to have to go back and re-fit the whole lot. So, yes I laid it out on A5 and then handed it to Brian to tweak as he saw best.

Brian: Mark’s position was one of work with what you feel are the natural page breaks and work with your instincts for placing these line endings and various other bits of location-based text.

Mark: So, to emphasise this: I actually took a great deal of care how I placed the text, as I was making it in the moment. I’m a reasonable visual artist. But I know that Brian is a superb visual text artist. So, I was then very happy, once having made my efforts, to hand it over to him…It was a great feeling to be able to say to Brian ‘Right, now that’s your material to cut to fit as you need to. He literally is a co-writer, co-maker in that sense, because where stanzas are broken over pages, and where exactly to place ghost verses are highly creative visual decisions. But it’s also a creative decision in terms of meaning and mood as well. So Steps is absolutely a collaborative piece of writing in that regard because that final mastering, which is the essentialness of getting it right at the end, is down to Brian. It really has been just like working with another artist. I trust Brian…yeah, that isolated yet closely connected word ‘trust’, there it is again.

Brian: I don’t think I departed that far from Mark’s original arrangement. I see my part as being an interpreter, translating everything onto the page with all the creative potential and limitations that the page will offer. If the book was a single continuous scroll, these creative discussions wouldn’t come up. It would be a very different process. Working with pages, we have to consider the creative potential and the constraints. The constraints do enable at the same time.

Do you think you can work this way because you know each other so well?

Brian: It’s building up the trust and the understanding.

Mark: We’ve collaborated quite often now, and through different media. It is possible to collaborate with strangers and spark off them in certain ways…but to make a book of this kind is a very different way of collaborating. Yes, it depends entirely on familiarity and trust.

Brian: I think when you’re making these decisions they have to be weighed very carefully. Collaborating with people you’ve not encountered before can be really productive and you can have some really interesting outcomes, particularly in a live setting. Working on a book is very different, because those decisions will need to stand up to whatever scrutiny they are subject to in 10 years’ time. In that sense, it’s about knowing what questions to ask each other, which can only come through that trust and understanding of each other’s practices and knowing when to push each other in a particular direction and knowing that we can push each other without fear of offending each other or having to hold things back. The last thing you want to end up with is a book where you’re privately thinking it could have been better for one reason or another. So just having that honesty, that patience with each other.

Mark: And it is, as we’ve already discussed, recognising the shared demands of the book. A lovely example is that Brian decided that the pagination would have to be varied. There would be some places where the page number would not appear.

Brian: Yes, that was interesting, because there were one or two instances where I’ve had to introduce a break in a stanza. Normally the stanza breaks that occur in the book are breaks between stanzas that Mark had created as part of the composition. But in order to preserve that, in many cases I’ve had to dispense with the pagination. I’ve simply taken the decision to introduce the pagination where the space allows it, but if I feel it’s going to interfere with the poem or is too close at the bottom of the page, I’ve left it out.

Mark: Brian also came up with the idea of doing some of the pagination as ghost numbers, some of them being greyed out. This then led me to the idea of making the page number 67 line up with the grid reference quoted on that page, thus enhancing the idea of the grid of the book as a map, and that the contents page is a legend, or key. Page number 67 has slid out of its ‘correct’ position – as would usually be governed by in-house style – so we go outside the house, and the ghost verse nearest the page number 67 ends with the word ‘slip’, land slip perhaps, and the ghost verse just above the grid reference ends with the word ‘reading’. These are creative, interpretive discoveries, not things decided and designed beforehand, they are negotiative encounters in the book’s landscape.

Page 67 showing ghost verse
Contents page

Brian: We also have a distance marker of 1km just there as well.

Mark: Oh, yeah…of course, and so this happens just as we pass beyond the poem’s first kilometre…

Brian: This is the creative pleasure afforded by working with a poem that has so much white space around it, because you can bring all this material in. Again, this is my fairly light adaptation of Mark’s original design, but at no point does it seem cluttered.

Mark: I think the term ‘mastering’ is a good analogy. The job of the person mastering sound or music is to bring out the best of what the artist is trying to express, and it’s just that final enhancement of bringing one sound slightly up more than another because that’s where you can see the artist’s creative vision is going, but something technical – i.e. the sound not being clear enough – obscures that vision. This is exactly what Brian has done here. He’s preserved the integrity of my creative vision, not eroded it, or translated it, but enhanced it by sharpening the focus…and then also there is the added frisson of someone else’s creative activity being added to the work.

Brian: The relationship between the editor and poet changes for me not only from one poet to another, but also one project to another. It’s very different to the way we worked on Mark’s first Longbarrow pamphlet Distance a Sudden, which came out four years ago. It was obviously also at a much earlier stage of my publishing experience and our working relationship.

Mark: And also a very different type of writing. Distance a Sudden had a writing procedure imposed on it, which fixed the shapes of the poems before they met the spaces of the book…the poems’ shapes could not be changed, and so the book really had to accommodate those forms. This can make it very difficult for the editor, who then has to make those poems fit the book. Whereas the poems in Steps, when there have been procedures that have been carried out on the poems, but not imposed – and the difference between ‘carried out’ and ‘imposed’ is very important here – there is scope to depart from the poet’s initial procedures, and begin another layer of procedure focused around the meeting of poem-shapes and book space. There’s room to add or change things…

Brian: Like making some of the punctuation marks grey instead of black, which lines up with the grey pagination.

Mark: Enough said…you see, the editor has the final word on punctuation…

Mark Goodwin’s poem ‘i did’ is included in the Top 24 submissions in our “Walking Home” writing competition – read it here.

Mark Goodwin

Poet-sound-artist. Speaks & writes in various ways. Balancer, walker, climber, stroller. Mark Goodwin is published by a number of poetry houses including: Leafe Press’s Open House Editions, Longbarrow Press, & Shearsman Books. Mark ...

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