Five Minute Interview with Peter Sansom
Welcome to ournext Five Minute Interview, this time with the legendary Peter Sansom. Peter will be appearing alongside our special guest Stuart Maconie in a literary pub crawl, introducing audiences to a variety of new writing celebrating the British pub from the ‘One For the Road‘ anthology. This event is on Sunday 9th September, 3pm-4pm. Tickets are still available for this event from The Brewery Arts Centre for a mere £5.
Peter Sansom has published five collections of poetry, which include a Selected Poems with Carcanet and his most recent collection Careful What You Wish For. He is the director of The Poetry Business where he edits The North magazine and Smith/Doorstop books
Thanks to Hannah Hodgson, as always for this excellent interview and to Peter for taking part.
HH: Can you pinpoint a single thing that made you gravitate towards poetry as opposed to other mediums?
PS:Like most people ‘fit for nothing but literature’ I blame an inspirational English teacher. The first poem in my Selected Poems is about mine, Mike Allen — not much older than us and completely on our side though completely different, being from the South and public school. I’d like to write other things, best-selling novels for preference, but I don’t know enough and haven’t enough attention span. Radio 4 broadcast a couple of plays by me and I’d love to do more, but somehow never seem to. They were commissioned and while I was on with them it was like being a real writer.
HH: For anyone who hasn’t come across the Poetry Business, how would you describe the work that you do?
PS: We’re a publishers and writer development agency, or the other way round maybe, and from being a single trader in 1986 the Business has become an organisation (ten people, all part-time), with me and Ann Sansom doing most of the teaching, mentoring and editing of books, pamphlets and The North magazine. I’m fond of saying it’s better than being down the pit (which my mum worried I might) or being Peter Andre for a living (though actually he seems a nice man, Peter Andre). The PB is an exciting place to be esp with our youngish team and the younger writers coming up now; though it is rather wonderful to read and to continue to be able to publish our older authors. I like to think the monopoly that Faber (deservedly) had when I was growing up has given way a little and, though there’s more competition from other larger presses, specialist outfits such as ours are not as marginalised nowadays. I’d like to think that. But it’s human nature with books as in any other marketplace to trust the brand you know.
HH: If you had to pinpoint a person ( who may not be a writer themselves) who has influenced you, who would you choose?
PS: My favourite writer is the Sheffield poet Stanley Cook (1922-1991), who taught me at Huddersfield Poly, and whose poems spoke to me at once because of their honest, intelligent voice and their wit, and the way they look so closely at everything, especially the mostly working class world around him. He was an influence in so many ways, and it was through him that I got a job at the Poly, which developed poetry workshops in a happy time of being young(ish) alongside Simon Armitage eg and Ian McMillan and with the Poetry Business just starting. I wrote a poem about it (‘Sofa’) in my last book. There was an article about Stanley Cook anyway in my first year on the library noticeboard photocopied from The Guardian, ‘Poet at the Poly’, when he won a competition (£2000, big money in the seventies). Otherwise you’d never know he wrote poems. He never mentioned it and his books were in the library but not many bookshops. Later he was editor of Poetry Nottingham, which he published me in, and then Poetry Nottingham pamphlets with mine the first in the series. I still can’t believe it, because he really knew what he was doing, and I certainly didn’t. More amazing still was that he was an extremely private person and yet he let me read his long poem, ‘Woods Beyond a Cornfield’, in typescript when I was in my third year. Douglas Dunn among others admired this poem (‘a masterpiece’) and the privilege of Cook letting me read it and some of his other poems before they were published has never left me. The oddest thing is I do think he was well aware of my weaknesses (as a person and as a poet, posturing and that typical young man self-importance, some of which I hope I’ve grown out of, and shallowness) but he saw something else in me too, and that sustains me when I get knocked back or when (like almost everyone is) I am overlooked. I edited and published his Collected Poems after his death, and wish I’d thought to ask Simon A to ask Faber about doing it, because the PB didn’t have the clout to get him the readership he deserves. His writing is so rooted in real life, and so clear-eyed and yet completely imaginative and at times otherworldly. Stanley Cook also incidentally very much admired Ann Dancy, who later became the Bloodaxe poet Ann Sansom.
HH: You obviously have a huge workload surrounding the Poetry Business – how do you make the time for your own writing?
PS: I write sometimes in the mornings (if possible not starting PB work till after ten) and it feels great if I can get some headspace and the momentum of several days in a row. And now and then I write alongside others when I’m running a group. I don’t write as much as I might, because though I know it isn’t, it still feels like an indulgence. Even when poet in residence somewhere I’m comfortable actually writing, because people think my real gift is for getting others to do it. My editor Michael Schmidt at Carcanet (another important person for me) tried to dissuade me from the Poetry Business, because it would distract from writing just as Carcanet might have done him, were he not actually three people. Actually I think running Carcanet and PN Review and being a Professor of Poetry has distracted others from seeing him as a poet.
HH: Do you have any tips for any new or young writers?
PS: I like Hunter Davies’s dictum ‘Don’t get it right, get it written’ — which is obviously saying trust yourself, trust the process, don’t worry that you think you’re not good enough — but it is also saying get your head out of your poem’s backside and get on with the next one now. Most poets know their own writing down to the last syllable and never look with anywhere near the same attention at anybody else’s. It’s natural esp for beginning writers to be in love with their own work, but the poets who succeed grow into being interested in poetry rather than their own writing per se. The other essential thing is to get out there — networking, publishing. It’s not enough to write well, you have to be noticed. Ann and I at The North always say we’re very unlikely to publish you if you don’t send us your work. Magazines are a sort of meeting place, a place to see and be seen. And actually meeting other writers at festivals and such as The Arvon Foundation is a great resource — you grow as a writer for being with other writers and you support each other and make alliances and take over the poetry world. I may be wrong but it seems a very hospitable place the poetry world, but it naturally has factions and hierarchies, a word that spellcheck tells me I don’t even know how to spell. The other thing to remember is to enjoy yourself. The other other thing fogeys like me will tell you is to be yourself, but who knows how to do that, so maybe it’s just enough to enjoy yourself, and to bear in mind that most poems in the Oxford Book Of Now That’s What I Call Poetry were written by young poets, not the old fogeys they became, so think on.
HH: Thanks Peter! If you’d like to read some of Peter’s poetry, you can order some of his books over at the Carcanet website