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Mark Goodwin

19 June 11 words: Aly Stoneman
"Shod or The Rain Diaries should win the EMBA, simply because it’s poetry. As long as a poet wins, I’ll be pleased."
Mark Goodwin: A radical landscape poet.

Described by Robert MacFarlane as one of ‘the most interesting poets... currently writing’, Mark Goodwin has three collections of poetry under his belt. The most recent, Shod, has been short-listed for the East Midlands Book Award.  Aly Stoneman ventured into deepest darkest Leicestershire to meet him… 

Admitting you’re a poet can clear a room. What do you say when someone asks you what you do?

When I started out and I was really keen, I wanted to say it but wouldn’t. I’ve now reached the stage where I feel I can say, I’m a poet - and you deal with it. I’ve heard people say “I didn’t call myself a poet until I was called a poet by someone else” and you imagine if a plumber turned up saying, ‘call me a plumber, eh - and I’ll be one’. Everyone’s got a poem inside them - of course they have - and everyone, to a certain degree, can write a poem; but there are lots of people who can repair a sink as well and it doesn’t make them a plumber. It’s that obsession with wanting to write and read that makes us poets. 


When did you start writing poetry and what was your journey to getting published? 

I started consciously writing when I was 15 or 16 about climbing and mountaineering, and then I fell in love so I wrote a lot to her, and she finished with me so I wrote even more! My English teacher John Mitchell said read, just read – and I fell in love with poetry. But the journey to publishing was a long one because I published quite late.  There is a great advantage to knowing what you are doing before you get published so that you don’t look back and think ‘I wish I hadn’t put that in a book’. My personal relationship with publishing has been very tricky because I question what my motives are for publishing. Is it just to put myself forward into the world - or is it about poetry? So that is another good reason for doing it late, because I now know why I am publishing.


And why’s that?

Because unfortunately - or fortunately - poetry is always about ‘someone saying something about something to someone else’, so inevitably it is about something from you going out into the world. That is what publishing is about, although there are open mics and other ways of doing it - you don’t have to be bound between pages.


Such as your audio project on Soundcloud?

Yes, I’ve been playing around with audio for years, but at the start of 2010 I started producing poems that have a musical element and use various kinds of noise and effects. I found a kind of aptitude for it and this is something I now call Digitally Produced Audio Poetry. Then I discovered Soundcloud - which is fantastic, and poets need to get on there and make use of it. I started looking around the world for other people producing poetry in this way and I’m now, in a sense, a small publisher; I’m going out there and looking for existing work and also trying to encourage poets and musicians to experiment.


You were recently included in the much-praised anthology The Ground Aslant: Radical Landscape Poetry (Shearsman Books) edited by Harriet Tarlo. In his Guardian review, Robert McFarlane commented that ‘The Ground Aslant is explicitly not a collection of "eco-poetry"’. Do you consider yourself to be a landscape poet or an eco-poet and what is the difference?

I’m a landscape poet, although I’ve included concerns about eco-systems and the environment in my work. This is a complicated issue but basically, as I understand it, Eco-poetry is about a genuine concern to pass on political messages including the heartfelt message about problems with the Eco-system and how we threaten it, while a landscape poet is someone who writes about landscape, for whatever reason. I’ve been designated a radical landscape poet because I’m playing around with language in ways that are considered not so usual. 


You have described your latest collection, Shod (published by Nine Arches Press), as your ‘odd and naughty book’! What was the inspiration behind it?

I have a friend called Nick Mott who told me about a picture he’d seen in the Guardian showing a homeless guy who was wearing a pair of shoes that were identical to his own, exactly as it happens in Shod; and I suddenly came out with this idea about a Shoe Messiah who goes around giving away shoes and lo and behold, the local authorities and middle classes don’t like this, and so they have him crucified. I was quite ill for two years and I wrote it during that period; I wrote most of it in two weeks in a furious kind of outpouring. It obviously helped me but my relationship to it is not peaceful. It came out through an ordeal. I do like the book, don’t get me wrong, but I also don’t like it.


'It’s that obsession with wanting to write and read that makes us poets.'

You are explicit in your forward to Shod that you do not wish to offend anyone. Do you feel that there might be an inherent danger in referencing a religious text?

I’m not a religious person and I don’t practice any sort of religion apart from poetry, and I would prefer a proper secular world where every religion is allowed to be represented and people can debate freely amongst themselves. I don’t want to offend people and I have a massive respect for all religions, and for people who believe things so strongly, but at the same time I have a massive disrespect for those same people when they start using their beliefs in a way that impinges on other people’s rights to believe or not. I do believe atheists are actually the ones with the biggest faith in the world. I call them Fatheists! I mean, to have faith that there isn’t a God when there is this back-log of culture that says there is one is quite an extraordinary leap of faith in some ways. Whatever God is, it is just a word that describes the unknown or the unknowable.


Shod has been shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award (EMBA). Were you surprised?

My surprise for Shod being short-listed is because of its content, what it’s like and because of the initial judges as well. My previous collection, Back of A Vast (Shearsman Books) was also nominated for the EMBA but I knew that wouldn’t be shortlisted even though I feel it is a much more profound and accomplished work, as it is considered to be too avante-guarde - a label I absolutely hate. I may never write something as good as that again, because I discovered something, a way of working with poetry that is not entirely new but is quite distinct. I recently did a reading at Loughborough University and I read from Else and Back of a Vast and I sold four copies of Shod and nothing else.  And I didn’t even read from it.


Is Shod a political book?

Shod is an agitating book; it’s a political book as well. Shod is out there to upset you and shake you about in a particular kind of way, which I enjoy. I want people to make what they will of it but at the same time it is a book that comes from a great deal of anger about what human beings do to each other and to this world. 


Why do you think it was selected?

I think largely because of its narrative power. It carries you along, which is partly to do with me but also partly to do with Jane Commane from Nine Arches Press. I was putting together a book that had a narrative but was going to be much more challenging - much less traditional - in the way it delivered that. Jane made the narrative a clean line, making it accessible in one way where it wasn’t before. 


If you were going to place an EMBA bet at the Literary bookies, who would you back to win?

When I heard that the guest judge is Ian McMillan - who is of course a poet, loves poetry, promotes poetry, likes poetry that’s unusual and likes unknown poets - it struck me that there is a very, very good chance it is going to be either The Rain Diaries by Rosie Garner or Shod on those grounds. Of course, there are other judges and there is another book that’s related to poetry as well (The Poet’s Wife by Julia Allnatt), and there is a novel, Before The Earthquake by Maria Allen, which is beautifully written and full of poetry in a sense, so it is difficult to say. I think either Shod or The Rain Diaries should win, simply because it’s poetry and I really do feel very strongly about that. As long as a poet wins, I’ll be pleased.


Why do you feel it is so important for a poet to win the award?

To make it clear that there is poetry seriously going on in the East Midlands, it’s deserving of awards and people should pay more attention to it. In particular, every library should find out who their local poets are and stock their books and ask them to come and give readings.


And that isn’t happening?

Libraries have done and still do some excellent work encouraging local creative writing, but essentially they remain a service that provides for a mass audience and they perceive that a mass audience would like to take out DVD’s and books that you can buy in any bookshop such as Waterstones’. A library should not help to reinforce a powerful business market but actually pick up the slack where things are hard to get hold of so that people have access to different books in areas that don’t make money, like poetry. 


'Shod is an agitating book; it’s a political book as well. Shod is out there to upset you and shake you about in a particular kind of way, which I enjoy.'

On the subject of money - if you win the EMBA, how will you spend your £1000 prize?

I know exactly how I’ll spend it. £100 will be spent on books from Nine Arches Press, and because I live on a boat I probably won’t be able to keep all those books, so some of them will go to other people. And then £900 goes to my partner Nikki Clayton (who created the cover of Shod), because she supports me in many, many ways - not just financially. She gets £900 to go and start kitting herself out to move her photography forward.


Awards with cash prizes aside, is it possible to earn a living from poetry? 

You have to define what living is first. What I love about poetry is that it doesn’t have any problems with regards to consumerism, capitalism, money or greed in that sense. When I’m running workshops in schools and kids ask me about it, my advice to them is don’t do it, unless you can’t help it. If you can’t help it then you have to accept the life of not being able to earn a great deal. I think with regards to community work, there is scope to make money there and that’s the work that I do, but I purposefully don’t do too much contact work with the community because it can’t become just a job. The reason I am so good at what I do is because I absolutely love it. 


What are the best loved and most read books on your shelves?

I’m very keen on the poets Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle. The Wise Wound, which is a book about menstruation that they wrote together, changed my life. Also Ted Hughes, Peter Riley, Peter Dent and Lee Harwood. 


Any advice for new or developing poets?

Give yourself to poetry and poetry will give itself to you. And if no one ever listens to you, just know that the poetry is one way of being in the world and coping with the world and dealing with the world, and making your own world really. It can be as powerful as that. You shouldn’t be doing it for any other reason than the love of poetry.  Everything else will fall into place - and you will have to suffer everything else that comes with it. 



The East Midlands Book Award Ceremony will be presented by Ian McMillan on Monday 20 June 6.30 – 8pm at St Mary’s Church, Lowdham. FREE event.




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