The second highlight of the Oxford Alumni Weekend was hearing three prominent poets read a selection of their work. After the readings, poets Bernard O’Donoghue, Jenny Joseph and John Fuller answered questions from the audience.
Q: Can you tell us something about the writing process?
JF: Sometimes a chance word in your notebook suddenly flowers and you’re off, and then there are those poems that you are bound to write. They’ve always got to be created from something somehow. You have to work on them and you can’t rely on flashes of inspiration.
JJ: I’m trying to avoid saying ‘bloody battle’! The Torrent took over two years to write. I had stacks and stacks of notes. At one point I was worried I wouldn’t be able to finish it. You’ve got to sit with the bits you’ve got and go on with it. The battle shouldn’t show in the poem. If it does show then the poem isn’t finished yet.
B O’D: There are poems that write themselves quickly and ones you have to work on. The ones that write themselves quickly are often the most satisfying.
Q: Do poets have editors?
JF: I’ve published poems for 48 years and 95% of the time I’ve had no editorial feedback. I recently got a new editor who has made suggestions on the placement of poems in the book or told me that they don’t understand a poem.
JJ: A publisher will feel that a poem is made before it gets to them. If the poem is commissioned, they do feel like tailoring it more.
Q: What relevance do form and meaning have in your poetry?
JF: I’m fully concerned with form in every facet, but meaning has to be there, of course.
JJ: I can’t separate them at all. I can’t think of form as a piece of clothing that you can take on or off. Mostly it’s the form that comes first in that you hear the rhythm or the shape of the poem. The words are hovering and you’ve got to sort of dig them out.