With inspiration from Mark McGuinness, you’ll integrate poetry into your writing life as a pleasurable practice that elevates your prose.
In this interview, Mark describes the vision for his podcast and his own poetic beginnings, and he urges writers (and readers) to simply enjoy poetry.
You’ll see ways poetry intersects with and impacts prose—you can even play a literary game he describes at the end.
Learn from Mark:
- How a mouthful of air is a perfect image for poetry and podcasts
- How can we translate metaphor into our other forms of writing (without being weird)
- The metaphor that comes to his mind when describing himself and his writing
- How poems “mug” Mark and he drops everything to chase them like leprechauns
- The importance of getting input on your work and finding a writing mentor
- Plus, play his writing game (bring your prose)!
Listen to episode 245 and check out excerpts in the transcript below. You’ll be inspired by his warm, encouraging advice. If his subtle persuasion succeeds, you may embrace poetry as the next step in your literary journey.
Meet Mark McGuinness
Mark McGuinness is a poet based in Bristol, UK. On his poetry podcast A Mouthful of Air he interviews contemporary poets about their writing practice and draws out insights that can help any writer become more creative, expressive and memorable.
Mark also takes classic poems apart to show us how they work and what we as writers can learn from the examples of poets including Yeats, Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Chaucer and Edward Lear.
- Visit amouthfulofair.fm
- Listen to A Mouthful of Air on Apple Podcasts
- Twitter: @amouthfulofair
- Instagram: @airpoets
Mark McGuinness Interview
This is a lightly edited transcript.
 – Ann Kroeker
With inspiration from my guest Mark McGuinness, you may find yourself integrating poetry into your writing life as both a pleasure and a practice. I’m Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach. If you’re tuning in for the first time, welcome. If you’re a regular, welcome back. I’m sharing my best tips and training skills and strategies to help writers improve their craft, pursue publishing and achieve their writing goals. Today I have Mark McGuinness on the show, a poet from Bristol, UK.
On his poetry podcast, A Mouthful of Air, Mark interviews contemporary poets to discover their writing practice and draws out insights that can help any writer become more creative, expressive and memorable. Mark also takes classic poems apart to show us how they work and what we as writers can learn from the examples of poets like Yates, Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Chaucer and Edward Lear.
Listen in on our conversation.
[00:54] – Ann Kroeker
I am so excited to have Mark McGuinness on the call today on our show and we are going to talk about a lot of different things related to the creative life, the writing life, even the poetry life. Mark, thanks for being on the call.
[01:09] – Mark McGuinness
Thank you. It’s lovely to be here, Ann.
[01:12] – Ann Kroeker
I am looking forward to learning more about how you approach your own creative life and how you use and enable poetry to be part of what feeds your creative life, how you inspire others with poetry, because that seems to be a big part of your life.
Can you tell the listeners and viewers, can you tell us a little bit more about who you are and what you do?
[01:37] – Mark McGuinness
Sure. I am a poet living in Bristol, in the southwest of England, in the UK. I’ve been writing poetry quite a while and in my typical group of friends, I’m usually the one who reads poetry. I’ve always been quite aware that most people don’t read poetry most of the time.
There are a lot of people who are very literate, very well read, very avid readers, but who will generally read anything but poetry. And to my point of view, it’s not that hard. I think a lot of people get put off at school, they have a bad experience or they think it’s this thing up on a pedestal that they don’t understand or that isn’t going to speak to them in their lives.
And I got this urge about two years ago when I first got the idea for the show that I would really like to take some of these books behind me down from the shelf and just read a poem and just share it with people and say, “Isn’t that great? And notice what’s happening in the third line here. Isn’t it marvelous what she’s done with the rhyme or whatever?” And just to share the magic that I feel that I don’t think it’s that hard for other people to tune into.
[03:00] – Mark McGuinness
And then following on from that, I thought, “Well, actually, I know quite a few poets I’ve been to their readings. I’ve read their books. I’ve sat next to them in workshops. Why don’t I invite them on the show, too? And then they can read it.”
And so the way the show works is that every episode is focused on one poem, and the first thing you hear is the poem. Because if it’s a good poem, you don’t need an introduction. You don’t need to be told why you should like it or all the footnotes and stuff. You either like it or you don’t, or you feel something or you don’t. But you’ve really got to listen and put your kind of assumptions aside about it.
So we hear the poem read by either me, if it’s a dead poet, if they’re alive, I get them on the show and they read it themselves. And then we have a little bit of context, a little bit of, well, what’s going on in the poem? And again, if they’re alive and they’re on the show, I’ll ask them, where did the poem come from? How did you get the idea?
[03:59] – Mark McGuinness
How did you work it up? What process did you go through from the initial idea to what we have on the page or on the screen or in the ear. And quite often that journey is really surprising. I mean, as a writer, I’m fascinated by how things evolve. And if the poet is sadly no longer with us, then I will share my thoughts on why I think the poem is worthy of our attention and what I think is going on.
And then the end of the show, we hear the poem again. And even though it’s the same poem and the same recording, it should sound different. In fact, listeners tell me it sounds different because it’s a bit like a magic eye, because they can see things or they can hear things in it that they weren’t aware of the first time rounds. So that’s it. It’s all quite self contained.
[04:51] – Ann Kroeker
That is a wonderful concept. I took an online course in years past where we did these close readings, and it just opened my mind up. It took me back in time. I actually studied poetry and creative writing as an undergraduate at Big Ten University here in the States. And so I have a little exposure to poetry, and it was my entree into writing and building a writing life.
So tell us what the name of the show is and why you chose it.
[05:23] – Mark McGuinness
Okay. It is called A Mouthful of Air. And I know it’s a good title because I nicked it from W. B. Yeats in a little poem that he wrote, an early love poem. Would you like to hear it? It’s really short. It’s easier than me describing, of course.
Okay, so it’s called He Thinks of Those Who Have Spoken Evil of His Beloved.
And it’s not hard for us to guess that his beloved was like to be moored gone. Famously he was in love with her. She was a significant figure in the Irish political independence movement in the late 19th century. So it begins.
It’s just six lines, so blinking, you miss it, but it goes:
Half close your eyelids, loosen your hair,
And dream about the great and their pride;
They have spoken against you everywhere,
But weigh this song with the great and their pride;
I made it out of a mouthful of air,
Their children’s children shall say they have lied.
And I love the fact that Yeats, he emphasizes a poem, in which case a song. He was a very lyric poet. He emphasizes how light, how insubstantial it is. It’s almost nothing.
[06:56] – Mark McGuinness
“Weigh this song.” She’s being criticized by people. He doesn’t like “the great and their pride.” And he’s saying, but you can’t—don’t respond to the criticism. Just “weigh this song” with it almost as though he’s saying that poetry can balance the scales of this injustice.
And he says, “I made it out of a mouthful of air.” So that’s what the poem is made of. It’s made of speech, it’s made of breath.
And of course, this takes us back to the origins of poetry, which is even older than writing. So it would have been spoken or maybe sung way back before people thought of writing poems down.
And I think this is something for me, something quite magical about poetry, that insubstantial thing. You’re making it out of nothing, really. A mouthful of air that still survives into the 21st century. And I thought, Isn’t that a lovely way of thinking about a poem?
And it’s perfect for a podcast, because what you get on the podcast, of course, is the spoken poem. Again, we’ve gone from the text back to speech. So that’s where I got it.
[08:02] – Ann Kroeker
It’s both literal and metaphor. And metaphor is a big part of poetry, and we can grab it.
Most of the people, I think, listening to my show are writing prose or novels or short stories or essays or articles, and probably fewer writing poetry. Tell me how you feel like this. We can translate things like metaphor used commonly in poetry.
How can we translate metaphor into our other forms of writing without being weird?
[08:34] – Mark McGuinness
I mean, I’m thinking I can tell you about how to do it as a poet. And I use it a lot. I think I use it quite a lot in my nonfiction writing.
So I write about the creative process sometimes. But I think it’s probably basically the same process, which is on some level, the question you’re asking yourself is, “What does this remind me of?” Or, “What is this like?”
And you’re just allowing that thought to come maybe from the back of the mind to the front of the mind. If you have an image, I would say pay attention to the imagery in your mind.
If you’re picturing a character, say, and there’s an image of a waterfall in your mind, just trust that and say, you know, “She was like a waterfall.”
That’s a simile, technically, rather than metaphor, but you know what I mean. It’s the same kind of figurative language I would say or listen and take seriously the words on the tip of your tongue.
If you start to say, I’m feeling really heavy today, then just go with that heavy feeling. Or “He was feeling heavy. He felt the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
[09:47] – Mark McGuinness
I know that’s a cliche, but you can just go with that kind of language, I think. And the other thing I would say, of course, is read lots of poems, because you get loads and loads of metaphors and they just lodge in your mind and get you into that way of thinking.
[10:04] – Ann Kroeker
I appreciated how you modeled that close reading of the Yeats poem for us. And I think just with that alone, you’ve given us a powerful tool to do that, to pull a poetry book off the shelf or look one up online, read it, and then pause and look for those.
That would be a great place to start, I think, with metaphor. I agree.
I have a question for you.
What comes to mind when you think about your own writing life? What metaphor comes to mind for yourself?
[10:40] – Mark McGuinness
The image that came to mind then was kind of almost like a river bank, but it’s going up there’s the river down below, but then there’s the bank leading up, and there’s kind of trees and branches and hedges up there, and there’s all the life going on up there.
I’m waving my hand about for anyone listening to the audio version.
And I guess it feels if I’m writing, I’m going to go down here down by the river, and I’m just going to be out of sight for a little while. I can hear the world is still within earshot. I can listen to that. I can tune into that. But I can also listening to the river that is going in my other ear.
And I feel quite earth and I don’t know, you can’t quite say water, can you? Connection for water. But there’s a connection to the earth and water, which feels quite true to the spirit, I guess.
Well, that was the image that came to mind. I could run with that, plenty into that.
[11:47] – Ann Kroeker
Exactly. My mind was going, I’m imagining you dipping into that river that’s always flowing. And you do that with poetry you’re dipping in.
[11:56] – Mark McGuinness
Yeah, absolutely. And maybe take some back up over the hedge.
[12:01] – Ann Kroeker
Yeah. “Hey, drink this. Taste this.”
[12:04] – Mark McGuinness
That’s it. Yeah, maybe that’s it. That’s good.
[12:09] – Ann Kroeker
Has your writing life evolved in a dramatic way, a subtle way, from your origins?
Which…maybe tell us about those origins and then walk us through?
[12:19] – Mark McGuinness
That’s a good question. I would say my poetry, in one sense has stayed the same, which is that…so I remember the first time I really got excited about writing poetry.
We were at school and my English teacher, Jeff Reilly—wonderful guy, great teacher—he sets the task of writing a ballad based on the novel that we were reading.
And we got started in the class and then we had to go into the next class. It was probably chemistry or something deathly boring like that. And I found myself at the back of the class with my jotter, which I don’t know if your lot of us are familiar with that term it’s basically the rough notebook that we have with really awful paper that would probably take your skin off if you rubbed against it too hard. And I was writing in my jotter and I kept going with it…
I sat at the back of the class and kind of hid it behind my bag. And really I should have been doing chemistry but I couldn’t get the rhythm of this ballad—which a ballad’s is very strong rhythm—out of my mind.
[13:29] – Mark McGuinness
And I kept going through chemistry and history and goodness knows what and normally was the boringly good student who would be paying attention due to fully but I couldn’t. There was this mischievous thing in the poem.
Years later I interviewed the poet Paul Farley, who’s one of our foremost poets here, and he said to me something that really resonated because I was asking him about his writing life and he said, “I feel like I have to be skiving off to write.”
So skiving off is British slang for maybe you call it playing hooky, running away from school. Yes, he said, “I feel I have to be skiving off from something else.”
Like maybe he was supposed to be writing a review or a lecture or whatever and he would be scribbling in the margin. And I could really relate to that.
And I think, coming back to your question, my poetry writing life is not a million miles away from that. The poem is something that will come along and interrupt or tap me on the shoulder when I’m doing something else or even when I’m trying to sleep. Three o’clock in the morning is quite inconvenient sometimes.
[14:37] – Mark McGuinness
But I do have a rule with myself, with whatever else I’m doing, unless I’m in front of a client, I am allowed to go with the poem.
Even if I’ve said to myself I’ll be writing a podcast episode or something this morning. I’m allowed to write that poem because it’s a bit like a leprechaun, the Irish leprechaun. The little spirit’s supposed to appear in front of you, and you mustn’t take your eyes off him because he’s got a pot of gold at the end of his rainbow.
And if you make him, he has to give you the pot of gold. But if you look away and he will use all his tricks to get you to look away, he’ll disappear.
I think the poem is a bit like that, at least the initial idea. You’ve got to grab it before it vanishes.
And then there will be endless tweakings and revisions and rewriting over and over again. So I guess as far as poetry goes, it’s like that. It’s still quite feral, quite wild.
For prose, I’ve got a pretty well established routine, which is I write in the mornings and I do all my other stuff in the afternoon.
[15:47] – Ann Kroeker
No, go ahead. I love hearing about your process.
[15:50] – Mark McGuinness
Well, that was a decision I made about 15 years ago when I realized that my email inbox and my phone and running around after other people was running my schedule, my day. And I thought, “No, you’ve got to draw a line in the sand. You’ve got to actually start the day by writing and making something, not just reacting.”
And at that stage, I was so busy, I got up at 6:00 in the morning to write this blog. I had an idea for launching a blog, but to have it stuck with me.
Unfortunately, I’ve now managed to move the date further forward into the day, partly due to having children, when I capture every ounce of sleep I possibly could when they were small. But I still like that intentionality that that gives my day, that I’m starting off, I’m going to create something.
Later on, there’s plenty of things that I need and want to do for other people. But this is the thing I do that feeds me. First thing.
[16:55] – Ann Kroeker
As a writer, do you identify first and foremost as a poet who writes prose, or someone who writes prose and uses poetry…which comes first?
[17:04] – Mark McGuinness
Oh, poetry comes first. That’s much more exciting, at least in my mind, because to me, that is the most exciting form of reading or writing. And I love prose as well, don’t get me wrong. But what poetry gives me is that it’s even more concentrated, even more magical.
[17:25] – Ann Kroeker
What do you think is the biggest gift that a poem gives?
Is it the play with words? Is it conveying an idea slant? Is it something else?
[17:39] – Mark McGuinness
There’s a lot of pleasure in poetry, and I think that’s something that’s easily overlooked.
Like, we listen to music. We listen to songs because they’re fun. It’s not because we feel we ought to understand figurative language and Bob Dylan’s use of the metaphor, whatever. It’s because it’s a great tune and we like the sound of it and it sticks in our head.
And to me, first and foremost, poetry is like that, or rather, and also because I had to really think about this when I was launching the poetry podcast. Well, what does it do? And to me, it helps me make sense of the world, and that’s reading and writing.
And of course, Robert Frost put it much better than I did when he said, “a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” It becomes “a momentary stay against confusion.”
And I just think that’s so beautifully and precisely put because it’s momentary. It’s not like this is the Truth, capital letters, and it will always be, but a momentary. You go, “Actually, yeah, I’ve got that.” When you read the poem or writing it, “Yes, I captured that.” And then, of course, we’re back in the flow of confusion.
But yeah, that delight and wisdom that will do me for poetry.
[19:01] – Ann Kroeker
Where is that? I want to know the source of that quote.
[19:05] – Mark McGuinness
I think he made it like an offhand remark, maybe in one of his interviews or talks. I’d like to think he sat down and considered it because it’s pretty good, isn’t it?
[19:15] – Ann Kroeker
It’s like you’ve prepared that for this.
[19:17] – Mark McGuinness
It’s a prepared line. That’s right.
[19:21] – Ann Kroeker
When you think back to all the things that you have done and achieved as a writer, what are you most proud of?
[19:32] – Mark McGuinness
The poems that sing to me. And also I’ve heard they sing to…they sing or they speak to other people.
And I won’t lie, if a poet I really admire says, “I like that one,” that means a lot.
I think when you’ve got a fellow practitioner who’s further down the path than you, who says, “Okay, there’s something there,” ego aside and validation and aside, I think it’s a sense of “Yes, at least I captured that. At least I managed to kind of make sense of that little corner of the universe.” That’s quite satisfying.
[20:20] – Ann Kroeker
And that input that you’re getting that you know it sang to somebody, and it landed right, is that happening because it got accepted to a journal and it’s been read or available to the public? Or does this happen privately?
I’m asking because I’m thinking about all the people who are working so hard privately at their computers, at their notebooks, writing poems, writing other things, essays or whatever, and they’re hearing no from the gatekeepers.
So I’m just curious if some of this input that you’re getting…how are you getting it?
[21:00] – Mark McGuinness
Well, first of all, I’ll say if you want to get a lot more no’s, then write poetry.
Because the amazing thing is you walk down the street, you never meet a poet, and you submit to a poetry magazine and suddenly there’s hundreds of them in the inbox next to you. And I know this because I edited a poetry magazine once, and I saw what mind-boggling number of poems come in.
So I’m there with you. If you’re getting the no’s, I get more no’s than yeses. Most people do just because of the numbers. But the yeses outweigh the no’s.
And going back to the original question, which I think is a really good one, it’s interesting because the ones that come to mind aren’t publications or prizes.
When you asked the question, it was times when I’ve sat down when poet is tutoring me, because that’s when you actually see the real response, the one that they can’t fake. Either they frown or their face lights up and you can see even before they said something, “Oh, that one connected.” And then they will say something.
Because when you get accepted, generally you don’t get a lot of feedback.
[22:18] – Mark McGuinness
It’s just, “Hey, great poem, thanks. We’re pleased to have it.”
Whereas in a tuition situation or mentoring situation, I think you’re more likely to get a) the emotional response, and b) the more fulsome, detailed feedback.
So I would say if anybody is in that situation, get great feedback, find a tutor, find a mentor, somebody who really knows your genre.
And they’re not just going to give you general praise, but they can give you really specific praise or be open to the criticism if it’s not there yet. But that can really help you calibrate.
Because I think another thing I would say based on the experience of having edited a magazine is when we submit, I think there’s always a little frightened part of us that’s thinking, “Oh, will I be good enough?”
And if you get rejected it’s, “I wasn’t good enough. My poem wasn’t good enough. I’m not good enough.”
But rest assured, when I edited, it was Magma Poetry magazine. There were plenty of poems that weren’t of a great quality, that’s true. But there were also far more poems that were good enough—in other words, well written enough—than I had room for in the magazine.
[23:38] – Mark McGuinness
And so at that point it came down to my taste. It came down to the kind of context.
There were several sometimes that would form little constellations together. They would be on the same topic or around they seem to speak to each other. They kind of looked out for each other. And then the poor poem about a subject completely different wasn’t left on its own. It was harder to justify leaving that in.
Ever since then I’ve realized it’s not just about being “good enough,” whatever that means. Maybe think about that before you submit.
They always say read the magazine or read the books published by whatever. You really should because that will give you an idea of the kind of stuff that gets published there. Sometimes it helps to get an idea of if there’s a judge for a competition, sometimes, I’ve entered because I thought, “Oh, I like their stuff, I wonder what they think of mine?” So that can be interesting.
But the other thing is to just keep at it. And always have always have more submissions out.
Never have one submission at a time because when that comes back as a no, then you’ve got nothing to look forward to.
[24:56] – Mark McGuinness
But if you’ve got another two or three, then there’s a part of you that can go, “Yeah, but, well, maybe next month I’ll get a yes.” And then you rotate.
So the game is to always have more submissions always out there so there’s always, “Well, but maybe the next one.”
[25:13] – Ann Kroeker
So much good advice. And so reassuring.
Mark, I can’t tell you what a relief this is going to be for those who are in the trenches doing the work, submitting, to hear from someone who’s been an editor—and someone who has submitted their work and had to grapple with both sides.
That helps us get a vision for what these editors are trying to do with their work and how they honestly react and respond to pieces. And that there are many good poems that end up hearing no simply because it didn’t fit the theme that emerged organically. I loved that part.
I think that’s just one example of why we need to just turn around and resubmit.
Keep finding the right home for your work.
[25:57] – Mark McGuinness
That’s it. That’s the phrase. Find the right home for it.
Because if you go with the idea that, well, I mean…sometimes it’s been rejected enough. There are poems I’ve taken to Mimi Khalvati, my longterm mentor, and she said, “Well, you know what, Mark? Maybe it’s time to retire that one.” And that’s fine.
But sometimes it is a case of…I’ve had plenty of poems accepted by good publications that have been rejected several times by others, and it’s about: you could find the right home for it. I think there’s a lovely phrase to use.
[26:31] – Ann Kroeker
Is there a number we should keep in mind? Like when Mimi would tell us what’s the number of rejections where….yeah, maybe…?
[26:42] – Mark McGuinness
I don’t know, because famously, if J. K. Rowling had given up after, was it 29, 30 rejections, she wouldn’t have sent it to the next one.
[26:51] – Ann Kroeker
You said a couple of things that were interesting that I wanted to explore with you. One was early in the discussion with me today. You’ve talked about just start reading poetry. Then later here, we’re talking about creating poems.
So we’ve got sort of the person who’s taking it in and maybe for the first time, starting to integrate that as part of their writing and creative process. And then you have people who are actually trying to write poetry.
And you’ve suggested getting mentors, getting some sort of input with genre-specific, feedback, so that you can really learn and grow.
When would a person who’s just starting to read poetry know when they’re ready to start getting that kind of education and input? And where can they find it?
[27:40] – Mark McGuinness
I would say, if you really want to get going, then go and look for a course.
Obviously, look for a beginners’ course, but as well as the actual tuition and feedback you get, there’s nothing like being in a room full of people who want to do the same thing.
You know, I did a writer’s retreat a few years ago and we had to go round the table on the first evening and, “What does everybody want? What does everybody want from the week?”
And I just said, “I want a week where writing poetry is normal.” And there were a few smiles around the table because people recognize that normally, it’s not. Normally, they’re the odd one out. Normally, they’re fighting for that time or trying to sneak it away from other things in terms of where to go.
I mean, I’m in the UK, so to me the obvious place would be the Arvin Foundation, which does all kinds of different genres. It does poetry, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction and so on.
There’s also the Poetry School in London, which is a wonderful—well, they’re based in London, but they have courses online and they have courses around the UK.
[28:50] – Mark McGuinness
Arvin and Poetry School have been doing a lot more online since the pandemic came along. So that’s one benefit from somebody like me who doesn’t live in London anymore, or indeed, if you’re in the States or elsewhere in the world. I think those are my main recommendations. So it might depend on time zones and online availability, but I’m sure wherever you are, they will be.
If you Google fiction for beginners or poetry for beginners or nonfiction or whatever it is.
How did you find Mimi?
Good question. I found Mimi…I can’t entirely remember. I’ve got a feeling that I was in the Poetry Cafe in London in Covent Garden, which is a lovely space. It’s a cafe for poets and poetry. They do readings and drinks and stuff, and the Poetry Society is upstairs where it used to be. And there was a notice board.
I think maybe I saw her advertised for doing, because Mimi did a course for the Poetry School years ago called Versification, where she took all the major types of meter and verse form and we had to write them every week. I think we started with Anglo Saxon, and that was quite demanding course, but also a really amazing one, because at that point I’d done an English degree, so I kind of knew all of this stuff.
[30:25] – Mark McGuinness
But Mimi showed us how the craft of it works. “Okay, this is the result, and this is what it looks like when it’s finished. But how do you write a Petrarchan sonnet? How do you write terza rima? How do you write heroic couplets or blank verse or a villanelle? And how did it evolve and what does it do that other forms don’t do?”
So she really conveyed the magic of the form, really. And that was a lot of the traditional forms in poetry.
They’re not exactly endangered species, but they’re not the mainstream anymore. Most poets these days will write what’s called free verse, which basically means it doesn’t have a regular meter, it doesn’t have a regular rhythm, and it quite often doesn’t rhyme. And that’s great. But it turns out that’s not predominantly the kind of poet I am.
I really like the pulse, as I call it, of the rhythm of the meter, and I like the rhyme. To me, there’s a magical quality to those old forms.
And Mimi really showed us how to tap into that and use it in our own voice. So that’s how I met her. And I just kept going to different classes, and she’s currently mentoring me one to one.
[31:53] – Ann Kroeker
So you must have just asked and she said yes? I love it.
[31:58] – Mark McGuinness
Yeah. I would say again, if there’s a writer that you really admire and you think, “If I could write a bit more like them,” or “I’d really love to get their view on my work,” or just to learn more about how they do it, just Google to see:
Are they giving a talk? Are they being interviewed? I mean, there’s loads of interviews on podcasts, for example. Are they offering classes? Is there any way that you can get into that person’s orbit? And you can learn a lot.
[32:30] – Ann Kroeker
When you are working on a poem or any creative project, how do you get started?
Like, where do you start with an idea, with a phrase? Tell us a little bit about your process.
[32:41] – Mark McGuinness
A lot of the time it kind of mugs me.
There’s another thing that Paul Farley said. He said, “I want the poem to mug me when I’m doing something else.”
So it’s the line that pops into your mind, which is quite a well established phenomenon for a poet. Paul Valéry called it le vers donner, and le vers calculer.
Le vers donner is the given line. This is the line that the muse or the unconscious or whatever we want to call it, pops into your head.
And then le vers calculer is the line that you make yourself.
So I was once on getting on my children on the Tube, and…I remember just setting them into their seat on the Tube and then the line “terminate the human race” came into my mind and I thought, “What is that?“
And it was the start of a poem. And it was interesting. As soon as I heard that line, I knew what shape and size poem it was and how it related to another poem that I knew.
And it had nothing to do with children, so don’t worry about that. But it just shows how inconvenient and how completely unconnected it can be with whatever’s going on in the rest of your life, it will pop into your mind.
[34:08] – Mark McGuinness
I think actually it’s possible to kind of prime the pump, so to speak.
So a few months ago, I had an idea that I wanted to have a ballad in my poetry collection, because I had a few times that were kind of almost ballads or next door to ballads, and I thought, “Oh, come on, you know you could do the actual thing.” But I had no idea what I would write about. And then—let me show you.
[34:35] – Ann Kroeker
You pulled out your notebook from childhood and the ballad that you are hiding.
[34:40] – Mark McGuinness
It’s interesting because that’s probably the last time I’d written about it.
No. Maybe I wrote one in Mimi’s class, but I went on the internet and I ordered this. Which is the Faber Book of Ballads, from the ’60s. And it’s all lots of old traditional ballads. Irish. Scots. English. Nearly all anonymous.
And I just read it from cover to cover, and then sure enough: A few days later I wake up at three in the morning and there’s my ballad starting to write itself.
And it was a topic I would never have guessed. So that can happen.
If you can kind of say that I’m going to mark out the ground and invite the spirit of the form in, then sometimes they answer the call.
[35:28] – Ann Kroeker
It reminds me of two things, and the first is just that you seem to have like, that invitation—that openness to whatever might come, whenever it might come, and then trusting it when it comes. That is one thing that strikes me about how you approach what enters your orbit, to use your phrase from before.
The other thing that strikes me, too, with that story in particular is I’m a big Sting fan.
[Oh, right.] There was this era where he says that he was creatively blocked and it was old music that had kind of been lost and forgotten. I think there’s a TED Talk that he gave about it, but that’s where he went when he needed to reignite his creativity—it’s going back to the older music and letting that stir something up in him.
I’m not trying to quote him or anything, but it seems like that you pulling that book off the shelf, revisiting what was long ago, allowed you to bring that into your own contemporary life and something came.
What was the theme of that ballad?
[36:35] – Mark McGuinness
I can’t tell you. Literally. Well, actually, I can tell you it was about the pandemic. I can’t quote it because I’ve sent it out on submission, so I don’t want to jinx it, okay? But it was about the pandemic, and I never thought I’d be writing about the pandemic because it’s a big theme to explore and there is quite a lot of pandemic poetry out there.
But anyway, sometimes you’ve got to do what the poem tells you you’re going to do.
[37:01] – Ann Kroeker
There you go. There’s a line. Yeah, “You’ve got to do what the poem tells you to do.”
[37:05] – Mark McGuinness
But to your question about the traditional, I do think it’s important to know whatever genre you’re writing it.
I mean, for me it’s poetry, but different types of fiction, it will have begun at some point. And there’s a backstory, there’s a history, there’s a tradition, and it’s your job to know that and read that because it’s evolved and you learn so much. And there’s a sense that you’re carrying that torch forward for the next generation.
We love to think we’re so individual, particularly poets. Goodness me, we love that. But at the same time we’re kind of part of a procession or part of a team, even. And I think it’s important to know what people further down the line have done.
I think my experience of writing the ballad was I wanted to tap into that whole very old oral ballad tradition.
A lot of people who “wrote” ballads were illiterate. They were songs, they were sung, and they were recited orally and changed. They went through many hands.
And just to pick up a kind of a wave, the metaphor that’s come out like a rippling wave from that and just to go, “Okay, that energy can flow into my poem.”
[38:31] – Ann Kroeker
Where do you see…so you’re entering the conversation now.
You’re entering that with your own energy, adding to that pulse of poetry, that pulse of ideas. Where do you see yourself headed?
As a poet?
As a creative person, I guess? You can broaden it if you want to.
[38:52] – Mark McGuinness
Yeah. So the image that’s coming to mind now, which is one that comes up quite a lot when I think about poetry, is because I think it’s like a big group writing project. And the image I have is a Persian carpet and all the poets throughout history and all the different languages, they’re all weaving it together simultaneously throughout time and space.
And of course, in the middle you’ve got Shakespeare and Homer and Dante doing the big flourishes and whatever.
But even if I could just do a little Bird on the Border or I could do a bit of the trellis work or whatever, I’d be happy because I’m connected up to that grid.
So it comes back to that. It’s not to say I’m not ambitious to do the best I can, but it’s more and more that phrase you used earlier, just find a home. Just write the work that I feel I want to write and find a home for that and just pass it on to the next.
What a beautiful image.
That’s not to say I don’t have ego and ambition and all of that, but there’s a time and a place for that, and that’s not really where the real writing comes from.
[40:07] – Ann Kroeker
Mark, that’s so beautiful, the image you’ve given us, the desire to be one color, one thread woven into that carpet, into that tapestry. I’d be happy to be part of the fringe. I don’t mind.
[40:21] – Mark McGuinness
[40:22] – Ann Kroeker
Just straighten it out a little bit.
[40:24] – Mark McGuinness
[40:25] – Ann Kroeker
Because that adds to it. Right? We’re all adding to it.
And when it comes to ideas, I think there’s a common word that people use, which is this ecosystem of ideas that we’re all connected to. This giant pond area.
But I love your image. It’s so much more beautiful and a much stronger metaphor, and one that I think we could all dream of to add color to this world. Yeah.
Any parting words that can inspire us and leave us ready to go do the work?
[40:56] – Mark McGuinness
Well, I’ve got a little suggestion for a little game you could play with some writing if you’re remotely curious about writing poetry or just using poetry as a way to look more closely at the words that you use.
So for instance, if you’re a novelist, then you will know far more about plot and story and narrative structure than I will ever know. But what poetry can help you do is to really hone in on the words and that close reading that you were talking about.
So I would say you don’t even need to write anything new for this little game. I would say take a piece of writing of yours that you pretty well like that doesn’t make you cringe when you look at it, that you think, “Okay, I like that.”
And then I want you to copy-paste it and get about one page, a fourth’s worth, or maybe half a page is probably better.
Then I want you to play the game of chopping it up into lines. Because that’s really the only difference between verse and prose—it’s that the verse means a turn. Somebody once said it’s writing that doesn’t meet the right hand margin.
And it’s debatable whether that—and it’s not the same as poetry, which we could argue all day about what the definition of that is—
[42:12] – Mark McGuinness
but for verse, it’s divided up into lines.
So take your poem and divide it up into lines. And don’t get too…try to do them kind of much of a muchness, roughly the same length.
And just look at it on the page, and read it like that and see what difference that makes. And see if it changes the way you see the words or the way you might try speaking it aloud. That would be really interesting. Read the prose aloud and then read that aloud.
Then take that same text and divide it up into stanzas of four lines each. And don’t play with it, just chop it up and just put an extra line space in, and then have a look and see what difference that makes.
And you can keep playing. You can try it with two-line, three-line, five-line stanzas.
You can try longer or shorter lines.
You could try it with what they call verse paragraphs, where you have one section is altogether as a block and then you break it up and there’s another section.
And copy all the different versions of this and maybe print them out and you can just see.
[43:23] – Mark McGuinness
That will teach you a load about poetic form and about the effect of it without anyone having to explain it to you because you will see and feel and sense the difference between the same words in different arrangements.
So that’s the game I invite you to play.
[43:41] – Ann Kroeker
I like that game. I will play it this afternoon. Thank you, Mark. How can people get to know you better? Where do you want to send them?
[43:50] – Mark McGuinness
If you listen to podcasts, wherever you listen to podcasts, search for A Mouthful of Air, and you will find us.
Or online, AMouthfulofAir.FM. Now, the great thing about the website is, remember, poetry is what I call an amphibious art, which means it can live in two different elements. It’s not water and air, but it can live on the page and it can live in your ear.
So if you go to the website, you will find the text of all the poems. And it can be interesting. You listen to the audio and you look at the text and there’s also a transcript of every episode with links to all the technical terms I mentioned. I do try and explain them as we go, but if you want to know more about it, then go there and there will be a link to explain all of that.
And you can sign up and you can get it delivered via email. You get the audio and the email, or you can just subscribe and listen to the podcast. And I do have some people who only read it because they just prefer to read and that’s cool, too.
[44:50] – Mark McGuinness
So that’s where to go. I think on Twitter, it’s @amouthfulofair. And on Instagram, I’m putting the poems on Instagram, it’s @airpoets.
[45:00] – Ann Kroeker
You are investing in writers so generously. This is incredible. I think we talked about finding a class, finding a mentor. You can be our first mentor, I believe, with all of this.
[45:13] – Mark McGuinness
[45:13] – Ann Kroeker
Yeah, thank you. Well, thank you for your time, too, and it’s been a pleasure to get to know you better, to get to your work and to introduce you to listeners of “Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach.”
[45:23] – Mark McGuinness
Well, thank you. With a coach and a podcast, you ask great questions and it was a real delight to talk to you. So thank you.
[45:31] – Ann Kroeker
Are you ready to make poetry part of your writing routine? You can let Mark continue to guide and inspire you through his podcast, A Mouthful of Air. I’ll link to that and all things related to Mark at annkroeker.com/amouthfulofair. That’s annkroeker.com/amouthfulofair. I can’t wait to hear your best takeaway from this interview. Thank you for being here. I’m Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach.
Dheepa R. Maturi says
What an enjoyable interview! Loved the idea of being connected—even on the fringes—to an extensive and intricate tapestry of poetry and poets. And a great reference to Sting (!), who goes “back to the beginning” when he seeks creative inspiration!
Ann Kroeker says
You were the one who reminded me of his TED talk, which I’d watched when it was released back i 2014, but had forgotten about. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oy25A7vnigg