In my first interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Bert Flitcroft about his Offa Press pamphlet Thought-ApplesFullSizeRender (2)

‘Thought-Apples’ is such an intriguing title. Even before I’ve opened the pamphlet, I’m thinking about how thoughts grow, the Garden of Eden, tree of knowledge…before my mind goes off at too great a tangent creating its own thought-apples, could you tell me how this title came about?

The title is taken from the poem in the collection ‘Forbidden Fruit’ and surfaced during the editorial process with Simon Fletcher at Offa’s Press. We were discussing titles when I was struck by the thought that each of the poems individually could be considered a ‘thought-apple’ and the idea just seemed to resonate. It offered a conceptual framework for the book which seemed to fit the poems and once it surfaced we quickly agreed. As you say, it’s the sort of title that opens up all sorts of possibilities.

In some ways I think all poems are thought-apples, in that that they capture thoughts which might otherwise be left unspoken and fallen by the wayside like wasted windfalls. It seems rather ironic that the poem was originally born in a workshop which I found difficult to engage with and just couldn’t find a way into.

I’ve heard you talk about the difficult line in poetry between true emotion and potential sentimentality. Reading the pamphlet, I think one of many techniques you use to manage this is a light humour based on close observation. Could you tell us about where and when treading this fine line tends to confront you and how you negotiate it?

For me the best art, certainly art that remains memorable, speaks to both the mind and the heart, and as I tend to write from emotional impulse I have to wait for poems to come to me. As they are more often than not about people, what it is to be human etc. I consciously choose to err towards sentiment – in some ways I feel poetry should always do this if it is to avoid being just a mechanical exercise. Once I realised that’s just how I am, endlessly intrigued by human behaviour, treading the fine line becomes a constant matter of judgement during the crafting process. In a really obvious way, it usually comes down to the oft-repeated advice about ‘showing not telling’.

I don’t deliberately set out to use humour as a way of negotiating the problem – it arises spontaneously really, but I do know why it happens. I did a series of four workshops 3 or 4 years ago with Billy Collins at Ledbury, which I found inspiring. He likes to give his reader a surprise, something unexpected, during a poem, and when you couple that with the belief that life is pretty random anyway, what you often get is something quirky, a sort of light humour. I’m sure it must be very common to be drawn to poets whose view of the world resonates (that word again) with your own.

Writing about the small things in life, the quotidian if you like, it helps if your poetry isn’t too earnest all the time and taking itself too seriously. That way people engage with it easily. If you believe poetry is a way not only of knowing yourself but also a way of helping other people to do the same, that seems quite an important thing to me.

What is the most important of all human emotions, why and how/where will we find it in ‘Thought-Apples’?

I think the most prevalent emotion we humans suffer is uncertainty and fear, particularly that low-level sort of anxiety and insecurity caused by the fear of failure, of being judged inadequate by other people, of ageing, and so on, which lies just beneath our level of consciousness. There are poems in ‘Thought-apples’ such as ‘It’s all in…’ and ‘What I know’ which address this aspect of life more or less head on.

However, much more important to me is love (and to a lesser degree genuine friendship) and I would like to think that my poetry is basically optimistic and celebratory of the many ways in which love manifests itself. So there are poems here such as ‘Forger Gravity’, ‘Little ways’, ‘Waiting for Anna’ and others which are concerned directly with the power of love. I am daily reminded of Ezra Pound’s dictum that ‘Emotion is what remains’ and Wordsworth’s joy at ‘what is felt along the heart’.

Reading your poems, I have a sense that real life inspires you (viewed through imaginative, shaping poet eyes), but also perhaps the actual crafting itself around a conceit or idea. Do you look for inspiration or does it come to you, so to speak? And, if you did ever feel the need for new inspiration, where would you go, or look?

Yes, I think it is true that real life is what inspires me, so I tend to write about the small things, the moments and incidents which catch and illuminate some aspect of how we are in the world. After that it is the usual case of 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration before I am satisfied with what I have written. And like most poets, much of it doesn’t see the light of day because it falls short of that.

I don’t think I have ever started a poem with a conceit in mind; to me that would feel like painting by numbers. But I’m aware that they do tend to be a feature of my poems. I must have some neglected interests from my past which are lying dormant, and these are the things which break through the crust and emerge spontaneously – usually as a vehicle for something else – during the crafting process when the poem begins to take on a life of its own. It is evident from this small collection, I guess, that science, maths, railways and history are the ones that feature largely in this respect. My science poems, for example are almost invariably not about science.

On the other hand I do know that many of my poems are also quite direct and come at a subject head-on to capture reality when I feel that is what a poem is calling for.

I have never been a great one for research as poetry has never been my job, as it were; it has always been more of a passion and a way of living my life meaningfully, but I think I am at the stage where I would like to take my writing in new directions and to be out of my comfort zone. I am looking forward to my next two years as Poet Laureate for Staffordshire : new commissions, new places, new faces, new challenges and so on.

In ‘Thought-Apples’, we see that even objects that you don’t find inspiring, such as apples, can be turned into a wonderful poem. Is there anything that would would absolutely never write about and why? And, if there isn’t, could you say a bit about how you find a way in to initially unappealing objects or topics?

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Yes there are things I have no desire to write about. Top of my list would be war and the futility of war. It’s been done a million times by writers much better than me. Neither am I a campaigner so I would hesitate to pick up the cudgel for a particular cause, and I do not feel that politics is something I want to write about. I have strong views about both, deeply embedded from my upbringing and my (later) political education, so maybe I’m just at the age where I have done all the campaigning I need to.

Are there any particular poets, or lines of poetry, that you carried with you while you were writing Thought-Apples? And any poets, dead or alive, that you would really love to be able to read and discuss poetry with?

In terms of my own taste in poetry you could probably trace a straight line through the mainstream, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Wordsworth to Hardy to Larkin, and all points in between. However, like everyone else I am a creature of my time. There is so much lovely stuff being written today, with such a sense of freedom, that I buy a poetry book a month to enjoy.

I don’t think I carried particular lines with me when I was writing ‘Thought-Apples’ but I am aware of the poets that seem to have ‘shaped’ me and how this can be seen in many of the poems. Reading Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’ at A level definitely sowed the seeds of Romanticism, and I shall never forget reading Thom Gunn’s poem ‘On the Move’ for the first time, which helped me understand the restless nature of man and his need to be always searching. It was also the poem that first made me realise that it is ok. to write poetry about motor bikes, supermarkets and so on, and that the most mundane of details can reveal greater truths. This view was given greater legitimacy (for me at least) by Larkin. In a way it’s like recognising these poets as kindred spirits.

Would I love to be able to read and discuss poetry with anyone? If I had to choose, I think it would be Ezra Pound, who I mentioned earlier. His list of ‘Don’ts’ and the way he challenged the orthodoxies of his time are still a major influence on the advice given to would-be poets a century later. This, and his influence on T.S. Eliot, who came to emphasise the importance of the ‘objective correlative’, mark him out, to my mind at least, as someone who must have been truly inspirational.

He must also have been immensely courageous and a man of great conviction when you read about the personal and political decisions he made later in life which caused him such anguish and made him deeply unpopular with so many of his contemporaries.

What question haven’t I asked that I probably should have? (And what is the answer?!)

If there is a question you haven’t asked, for me it would be the question of accessibility. Keats expressed it best, I feel, when he wrote ‘simplicity can be immense.’ Someone recently said (but I can’t remember who) that we now have a coterie of ‘establishment’ poets who’ve reached the position when the only audience they need is each other. While that is clearly a generalisation and many would say a distortion, I cannot help feeling that there is some truth in it. 95% (?) of the population are unaware of the possibilities of poetry and feel only an increasing sense of alienation from it, much of it due, to my mind at least, to the relatively inaccessible nature of so much self-regarding poetry.

Maybe that is just the nature of poetry – it is after all one of the greatest civilising influences we have – and maybe in some small way I am as guilty as everyone else. But I do feel that we poets should have a greater respect for our audience and be recruiting a wider readership. When someone tells me that my poetry is thoughtful yet accessible I take that as a great compliment.

FullSizeRender (2)Where can people get a copy of ‘Thought-Apples’?

The easiest and quickest way to buy a copy is online, direct from the publisher at www.offaspress.co.uk.
I do have copies myself for posting out if anyone wanted to make contact via my website at www.bert-flitcroft-poetry.com. There is also a direct link from my website to Offa’s press.

Thank you, Bert, for sharing these thoughts and insights into ‘Thought-Apples’.