FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
NICK LAIRD: I think most kids write poems and maybe poets are just the ones who never stop. According to my mother I wrote my first poem when I was four: Bouncy bouncy on the bed, Happy couple, me and Ted. Ted was my teddy bear, who I found again recently when I was clearing out my parents’ attic. After thirty-something years in a bin bag, he’s now been adopted by my son. I still quite like that poem. Strong trochees.
FP: Please talk about your development as a writer of poems. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
NL: I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like I was a poet exactly. I am a poet, I suppose, since the poems come, but that state of being is very contingent on producing the next poem, and that always feels improbable. On the one hand, it’s always felt like a slightly shameful activity to me, absurd and indulgent. My family were farmers and shopkeepers. Practical people. My dad sold insurance. But on the other hand, I do think of it as serious, meaningful work, almost sacred in some way. Like philosophy, it’s concerned with how to live, how to be, but works upwards, I think, from particulars, not downwards from general precepts.
While I’m waiting around for the poems I end up doing other stuff. I was a litigator for a while after college, and now I write books and scripts and teach and review and curate and write essays. My parents weren’t university graduates (though my mum did an Open University degree when I was growing up) and it wasn’t the kind of house that had books in it, but I was always interested in words. I loved the language of the King James bible and The Book of Common Prayer, and I think one form of poetry began for me sitting in church listening to all that fabulous diction and rhythm – Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego. It was spell casting. I found a bible I had when I was a kid recently and I’d annotated a lot of it, highlighting and underlining. I think I thought I was learning about god but I was learning about poetry. Another form of the art was all the music and humour in the demotic speech of friends and my large extended family in Tyrone and Donegal and Armagh. Arguments and insults and extended storytelling were forms of oral poetry in a way. A lot of energy, fluency, imagination, and novel turns-of-phrase in those voices. I tend to go back to poems with an intimate, lyric voice: I like to feel the presence of someone else. A form of magic really, that a sequence of symbols in a certain order can conjure an aura, can evoke, can invoke. Spooky action at a distance.
I encountered actual poetry at school. Heaney and Yeats, and that was it really. Particularly in a place like mid-Ulster during the Troubles, poetry became a space where complication and nuance was possible. Poetry is a space for second, third, fourth thoughts, the clear expression of mixed feelings, where something complicated can be put into words, sometimes through ambiguity, paradoxes, tonal shifts, rhythm. I like Fred D’Aguiar’s definition of poetry as verbal compression with an endless expansion of meaning.
FP: Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?
NL: My dad died of Covid in March 2021 in Antrim hospital, and I wasn’t allowed to see him, as happened to many people. (After all those months of sitting in his living room, he finally caught it, he thought, a couple of days after he’d had his first jab, when he was in Lidl in Cookstown. doing his shop, and a woman without a mask coughed near him.) When my mum died five years ago of cancer I spent the last few days with her, sleeping on a camp bed in her hospice room in Newry, and the poems about her only came later – but because I couldn’t go in and be with Dad, and wasn’t fit for company, and couldn’t concentrate on anything else, I spent the time writing, sitting by the phone.
It helped to get it down in words in some way. When I was younger I thought of poems as being primarily exploratory, little trips into the language, but since I turned 40 and lost my Mum, and now my Dad, the consolatory nature of poetry, both in reading and writing it, has become more apparent and pressing to me. The poem is an elegy, obviously, and draws on that tradition, but has a weird real-time element to it that wouldn’t be there if I’d been able to be with my father, so it’s of the moment in that sense. It was the peculiar circumstances of the covid pandemic, where you couldn’t be with your dying loved ones, that brought the poem about in that form.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
NL: There’s so many, but looking at my shelves, and sticking only to the non-alive: Bishop, Auden, Yeats, Eliot, Amichai, George Herbert, Zbigniew Herbert, Dickinson, Wordsworth, Issa, Wallace Stevens, Whitman, Rilke, Louise Bogan, Thomas Wyatt, Heaney, Walcott, MacNeice, Kavanagh, Derek Mahon, CD Wright, Szymborska, Jane Kenyon, Etheridge Knight, Andrew Marvell, Keats, Norman MacCaig, Basho, Larkin, Berryman, Les Murray, Nicanor Parra, Donald Hall, Lucille Clifton, Thomas Campion, Rumi, Sylvia Plath, Paul Valery, Philip Levine, Larry Levis, Nazim Hikmet, Cavafy, Transtromer, James Dickey, Catullus, Mahmoud Darwish, Robert Herrick, Mary Oliver, Georg Trakl, David Berman, Lucie Brock-Boido, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Horace, Akhmatova, Robert Frost, DH Lawrence, Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, James Tate, Rosemary Tonks, Ted Berrigan… I could go on a long time. Emperors have their treasures, and we have ours.
I admire different things in different poets – but if you’re intent on distinguishing principles, I respond to a facility with language, something surprising and yet inevitable in the work, and strength of voice, of tone.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
NL: Writing some poems, I hope. And teaching. And writing about poetry. I’ve been reading around for a piece on Auden for the New York Review of Books, where I write about poetry or politics or other stuff occasionally. And I’m trying to put together a book of essays. A new collection is out next summer so I’ll be tinkering with that.