Mark Goodwin [Photo by Nikki Clayton; Mark Goodwin performing at the launch of Rock as Gloss, Sheffield 2019] is a walker, balancer, stroller & climber. He has been making poetry for over three decades, and has published six full-length books and eight chapbooks with various English poetry houses, including Longbarrow Press https://longbarrowpress.com/about/ & Shearsman Books https://www.shearsman.com . He has received various awards and grants, including, in 1998, an Eric Gregory Award from The Society of Authors. His poetry was featured in The Ground Aslant – An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, edited by Harriet Tarlo (Shearsman Books 2011) & The Footing edited by Brian Lewis (Longbarrow Press 2013). Both his books with Longbarrow Press – Steps (2014) and Rock as Gloss (2018) – were category finalists in the Banff Mountain Book Competition. Mark lives with his partner on a narrowboat in Leicestershire.
Mark tweets poems from @kramawoodgin
1 - How did your first book or pamphlet change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Firstly, rob, thank you very much for showing interest in my work, and asking such interesting questions.
That first question – how did my first book change my life? – is a very good question. It is, now, being some thirteen years later, not actually an easy one for me to answer. Soon after I’d published my first book the answer would’ve been straightforward, and would’ve focused on my pleasure, pride to some extent, and my relief for finally feeling, well ... validated. But now, I recall it as something else, realise it was, and is, something else ... but it is hard to explain. I will have a go, but will have to, I’m sorry, make use of more poetic language ... and so my answer might not – and in fact probably won’t – pin anything down.
My first book – Else, with Shearsman Books https://www.shearsman.com/store/Mark-Goodwin-Else-p102838741 – was not just affirmation from a good publisher, it was perhaps even more than that. It changed my life by appearing as a ‘thing’ ... being, for me, a physical object made from what I’d imagined. A solid paper book is such an essential bag, but also a map. As a walker, I’ve always liked my rucksack. And I love maps. I hadn’t realised until my first book was in my hands – and then placed inside a bag to be carried – that one’s own book can help to carry one’s self (or selves!). A self is not only a heavy thing at times, but it is also always a shape in mist, and so one’s own book offers a special corner or space or even landscape where you can follow the spectre of self. And that of course helps me to follow the selves of others.
Coming to your next questions about comparisons: For me (whatever me is), my most recent work does exactly the same as the earliest, in that it makes spaces for me to ‘put’ or ‘place’ where this strangeness known as ‘I’ has been, and wants to go ... and most importantly, my work can help make where that strange ‘I’ now is. I have always been fascinated by place, and my books, for me, are places into which and in which to place places ... And I hope to pass on places to others, give others the resonances of certain locations and landscapes ... transmit vibrations & images others also can imagine with. However, my work has changed (and not for the first time) its ‘way’. Whereas much of my earlier work attended to the intricacies of detail, a lot of my present work is now more like cairns made from few stones or even just a couple of stones, sometimes improbably balanced. My later poetry, compared to my earlier, feels more like swiftly moving with a familiar body, rather than deliberating over the legend of a map.
(In what I’ve said so far, I’ve been focusing on the majority of my books, which tend, although not entirely, to focus on place and landscape. However, I do write in various ways, and my book Shod, for example, focuses more on characters & narrative, and in ways that could be described as satirical & irreverent.)
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Poetry got into my mouth. The simple physical pulsations and clicks of it. My mother says that as a small child whilst on the back seat of the car I’d natter to myself and chunner along. Just the feel of vowels flowing through the rub of consonants. I do love a good story, and I love film ... and I do actually make fiction. But it’s the scraping of one word against another, or indeed the cracking open or snapping of words, without knowing how many sparks or what colours they will be or where or how far they will fly ... that is what really makes me want to make. It is the picking up of sound and ... handling it! But it is also the translations, and transformations of sound into marks & patterns on a page ... and the materiality of the alphabet and how it can be manipulated within the frame of a page, or through the space (place) of a page ... or of course, across a carefully placed series of pages ...
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I make poetry in different ways, and I guess I have experienced quite a few differing processes, and also procedures. Mostly I write quickly, but in a few cases poems have taken years. There have been poems that have been chiselled down to the last stones, but mostly editing is light, and is now more to do with moving small amounts of material around, rather than getting rid of lots.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I’ve always been working on “a book”, right from the start. I just didn’t realise it until much later. Before poems are bound together in a book, there are various hidden alignments of one poem with another across time ... it is as if some other self of me had been up to something else while I’d been getting on with living, and only later did I see the tracks of that other, and spot the clues that other me had left for me.
I have made my books by waiting and then sifting through poems until I found those that converse in the right way. I have for some years thought of each book as a poem and each poem as a stanza. I’m now starting to feel, as I’ve noticed – and even later intended – strong connections between my books, that possibly it’s each book that is now a stanza. I love that the word ‘stanza’ also means room ... and room is space ... it was for me that each room was part of a house, but now room is also broader space, room to grow ...
And as for where one poem begins for me – I’m not always sure. Sometimes it seems it begins as sound my mouth wants to shape synchronised with a vivid image rising ... but often later I realise that that ‘rising’ was not the start, and was instead my body noticing the shape, and that in fact the fluid crystal of it had been growing somewhere in my world for quite a time. However, there are times when I know a poem is the snap of a twig, and comes just at the moment of treading.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I am a maker who speaks, as well as writes, in various ways. Making the sound of poetry is essential for me. And so is intercreativity – seeing others listening and then feeling them pick up those sounds and also make with them as I speak is ... well, one of the most satisfying and thrilling things in my life.
Unfortunately (and indirectly related to Covid-19) my hearing in my right ear is now impaired, in that certain frequencies and levels of sound are unpleasant. It is improving, and I hope it improves enough for me to be able to speak out loud again to an audience, and also perhaps for me to begin again making field-recordings and sound-enhanced poems ... something that has been a vital part of my practice.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I wouldn’t describe myself as phenomenologist, as being a phenomenologist entails a very specialised rigorous yet gentle kind of interactive interrogation of worlds, beings & things. However, I’ve come to realise that my work is rooted in phenomenology. I am a poet of being and doing, an experiencer of ‘place’ and experiencer through ‘place’. Place is a phenomenon that makes me make my world, makes me make that strange ‘me’, and above all allows me to experience the people & places I love.
As for the current question – that of human survival – it is nothing to do with a supposedly threatened planet. It is rather, everything to do with a threatened ‘place’ ... and the threat of human ‘placeness’ disappearing. The unimaginably deep-aged & complex process that is a planet can’t be threatened by any animal. All species are ephemeral, and all animals’ brief ‘places’ are always under threat, because all animals are always subject to and dominated by aeon-enduring planetary forces. Our particular animal way – human being, being human – is now more in danger than it has ever been. Loss of solid, active and entwined connection to the beings & ground of this planet should be, to our species, the clear and present danger ... but this profound jeopardy seems to be largely unnoticed. I worry that the dis-ease perpetrated by digital puppeteers – such as Facebook – is growing out of people’s control, and could become a hidden pandemic of ‘placelessness’ ... It is a growing horror to witness humans float off the ground, being rendered by Google’s total surveillance ... being drawn away from the actualness of being embodied and physically emplaced. I am a rock-climber, for various reasons, but I think it is ‘touch’ that is the strongest reason. Staying in touch.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Artists should, of course, make art, and also encourage others to do the same, either through just making their art or through participatory arts and mentoring. It can seem at the moment that The Borg are on our doorstep, droning on about how ‘resistance is futile’. Well, art doesn’t care if it’s futile or not. Just making art is resistance. And not necessarily making anything that even critiques or exposes The Borg for who or what they/it are ... but certainly and vitally we need to go on being uniquely creative and disciplined with our human expression. And to survive, we must keep sharing that.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Depends on the editor. I’m very fortunate that my editors have been co-creators who love poetry and leave their egos out of it. And because of that I then don’t feel them to be ‘outside’. Such editors are not difficult, and are essential. They don’t cling to static templates of validation ... they are open to surprise and challenge. Tony Frazer at Shearsman has always been sensitive to the shapes on a page. And my experience of working with editor Brian Lewis at Longbarrow has been one of full artistic collaboration – an editing process that creates that astounding paper thing called ‘a book’. My latest editor, David Martin, of Middle Creek Publishing, has been hugely encouraging and open to the ‘way’ of my work. I think that after leaving the ego at the door, the next most important thing for a poetry editor is an adventurous willingness to carefully follow a particular ground, so as to work out the ‘way’ of that ground. There are, sadly, some authoritarian editors who tend to smooth out or even bulldoze over essential footprints. Who knows how much unique poetry has been lost to an overarching infrastructure, by being highwayed over in this way.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Always check your knot. ‘Check or deck!’ is the expression often used by climbers.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to sound work)? What do you see as the appeal?
Ah, thank you for asking that question that way – you’ve spotted my soundwork.
I often describe myself as a poet-sound-artist. Being a poet, of course, is being a kind of sound-artist. But it has been part of my practice for some time to ‘sound-enhance’ poems – to mix my voice with other sounds and musical elements, aided by software. And this has taught me much about ways of speaking, and has affected strongly the ways I perform to an audience.
And my places, and even places strange to me, have expanded through learning to listen, through field-recording, and through giving close attention to noise and sound. I love that if ‘noise’ is snapped and re-pron
ounced its sound is ‘no eyes’
So, I don’t feel that there is a moving between poetry & soundwork ... poetry is sound ... sound is poetry ... all of a piece experienced through differing frequencies ... and these frequencies are also held in the alphabet’s printed letters that I also work with ... shapes that contain a potential of vibration we can read or perhaps even feel through our eyes ...
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Of late I’ve been doing more running, and much much more walking. And that is good, because over the decades I have pushed, or rather constrained my body too much – too many hours hunched at a keyboard typing, and also too long at the computer working on sound. It is a daftness that I have had to put aside ... I’m fifty-two now – I really must not sit for a straight ten or twelve hours, sometimes even days in a row, writing or sound-making anymore. A twelve mile walk is far far less gruelling ... and in fact makes my writer’s neck much better. So, I’ve been careful to do less, make less, for over a year now. My body & I are now on good terms about my creativity. Body gives Self treats ... like allowing Self to run up steep slopes in Bradgate Park! https://www.bradgatepark.org Waaaaaaaayyyyy!
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Well, as I’ve just mentioned, I’m going through writer’s stop. But in the past, whenever writing wasn’t happening, and I hadn’t intended that, well, I’d just go and do something else. It always comes back. I was brought up on farm, and I actually went to agricultural college. There used to be this thing called ‘leaving a field fallow’, not done so much these days. Anyway, it’s good for pages, just like fields, to be left alone for a while.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Wood smoke. Open fire in the farmhouse of my childhood home. And now the smoke from the stove on the boat I live on.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I do agree with that, yes, books do come from books ... and it is such an important thing for poets to be aware of. But before that magic cycle of book-from-book-to-book-and-book-again ... books do actually come from people, and people come from places, and places are full of things, other beings, and happenings ... and so, perhaps you could say that a book is a very special kind of place full of other places ...
And yes, I am much influenced by nature, landscape, science, sci-fi, visual art, film, music, dance, climbing ... the list goes on ...
And I get much from collaborating with other artists. For example, I’ve made film-poems with Loughborough-based artist Martyn Blundell https://vimeo.com/284744666 . I’ve collaborated with Sheffield-based climber & artist Paul Evans https://seven-wonders.org/seven-wonders-2012/alport-castles/ , and I have an ongoing collaboration with Derbyshire-based artist Mark Spray https://twitter.com/kramawoodgin/status/1278396957363486722 .
Last year Martyn Blundell and I worked on a film-poem with Aberdeen-based artist and poet Dominique Cameron https://dominiquefcameron.com & Valencia-based sound artist Edu Comelles http://www.educomelles.com . It is called Moor, and is a portrait of Scotland’s magnificent Rannoch Moor. https://vimeo.com/434689472
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Long list of poets ... ever growing. Phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty and Bachelard, and more recently David Abram. Also Peter Redgrove, Rebecca Solnit, Peter Dent, Henry Williamson, Marina Warner, Geraldine Monk, Robert Macfarlane, Penelope Shuttle, Nan Shepherd, Vasco Popa, Tim Lilburn, David Graeber, Elisabeth Bletsoe, Peter Riley, Freya Mathews, Yuval Noah Hurari, Jorie Graham to name but just a few more ... yes, I could write a long list. Poets, novelists, non-fiction writers, film-makers & auteurs, musicians, visual artists ... and I have made such lists in previous interviews ...
There are some writers, though, that I’ve not mentioned before, and some of them are virtually anonymous to me. They are the numerous climbing guidebook writers I’ve encountered. Niall Grimes is a prominent example, as he has produced and edited beautiful climbing guidebooks for the British Mountaineering Council. For example – Burbage, Millstone & Beyond (edited by David Simmonite) – was a winner in the 2006 Banff Mountain Book Competition. https://www.banffcentre.ca/sites/default/files/Banff%20Mountain%20Film%20and%20Book%20Festival/Books/2006%20Book%20Competition%20winners_Archive.pdf I’m delighted that my poetry is included in some of these guides. Such guidebooks are full of photos, crag diagrams, & rock-climb descriptions. And they have been so important in my life, ever since I was fourteen when I first took up climbing. So many hours either poring over route descriptions at home ... or actually carrying a guidebook up a crag to help find my way. Yes, that book as bag thing again. Climbers actually put a book of climbs in a zippered case and clip it to their harness, so they can read on the rockface, to check the route whilst on their way ... Isn’t that fascinating ... what does that say about climbers – their carrying a book full of climbs up the crag the book describes ... ?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would really like to traverse the Cuillin Ridge on The Isle of Skye – miles of glorious scrambling and fairly easy climbing on rough gabbro https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuillin . I wouldn’t want to do it in a day. I’d like to take a couple of days, or perhaps even three. Not make it such a challenge ... make it more of a collaboration ... a meeting of being and place ...
And I’d like to take a mountain walking trip with my daughter and my son, staying in a Scottish bothy or two. Who knows when that will happen? Even without pandemics – daughter is a newly qualified vet, and son a training actor, so finding time and date might be tricky!
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
A dancer, a movement artist ... although, in many ways being a climber, and balancer, and even a walker is kind of that. In some ways I regret having given so much time to poetry. Yes, I could’ve been a dancer. But then, by now my body would certainly hurt even more!
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I just breathed it in. And it moved me, and I moved with it. And it was irresistible. And then it became my way.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Can I say two books, please? They are very different. A frightening but brilliant and essential study of our times, called The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshanna Zuboff. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Age_of_Surveillance_Capitalism
And a book of poetry, that was very kindly sent to me by Canadian poet Chris Turnbull @ChrisCturnbul, called Towards a Blacker Ardour by Phil Hall. http://www.knifeforkbook.shop/store/p107/PHIL_HALL_TOWARD_A_BLACKER_ARDOUR_%28Beautiful_Outlaw%2C_2021%29.html
And the last great film? Well, I do actually watch a lot of film, and re-watch a lot too. But what springs to mind of late is: Embrace of The Serpent directed by Ciro Guerra. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/feb/17/embrace-of-the-serpent-review-ciro-guerra-colombian-amazon
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve got a number of MSs on the go, and that have been going for quite a while – just finishing them off, tweaks & layout. Who knows when, or even if they will be published.
I’m also every now and again adding new wee poems to a big woodland of a MS called In Twigs Nor Sky. This is my first book that makes me make poems for it, rather than my bringing already-made poems with which to make the book.
And I’m just now going through the final proofing of my next chapbook, called Erodes On Air, which is soon to be published by American publisher Middle Creek https://www.middlecreekpublishing.com . This will be my first publication in North America. Erodes On Air is a highly compressed mountain travelogue.
And at some point soon(ish), I expect to be also doing final layouts and proofing with Tony Frazer, for my next full-length with Shearsman Books, called At, which also focuses on mountains and moorland.
Other than that, I’m delving into phenomenology, in the sense that I’m reading about it, trying to get to grips with it ... and by gods there is not a chance of doing long stints on that ... my brain sucks the sugar out of my blood very quickly and then goes off-line ... so I then tend to pack in some muesli and go outside ... or perhaps just lie down to stare through a window at twigs & sky ...