It cannot be denied, Britain has produced many an excellent poet in the past: take your pick from Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats and T. S Eliot, to name just a few. Poetry itself still has an important presence in our contemporary literary landscape, with the post of Poet Laureate still a relevant and celebrated position, and by still featuring heavily in our national curriculum. However, despite its contribution to our cultural heritage, it has developed a reputation for being ‘boring’ and frivolous. I think that it’s time to get excited about poetry again, so I interviewed Leo Cookman, an emerging poet and musician originally from Kent and now based in Manchester.
Leo has been published by Penguin in a collection called ‘The Joy of Sex’ in an anthology featuring the likes of Shakespeare, Philip Larkin, Carol Ann Duffy and Alice Oswald, due for release in January 2014 (conveniently close to Valentine’s Day). His work has also appeared in ‘The Best of Manchester Poets Volume 3’ anthology, published by Puppy Wolf, which can be bought online and in literary shops. His sonnet sequence can be found at www.theanatomy.co.uk, and copies of his poetry pamphlets can be requested from Leo himself at firstname.lastname@example.org
How long have you been writing poetry for?
Three years. I used to absolutely hate poetry, but then two friends got me into reading it with a poet called John Berryman, who was inspired by Nick Cave. The more I read, the more it occurred to me that there was an art to this: that it was a craft, not just a bunch of pretentious knobs writing any old words down. Poets are like word sculptors and poetry is amazing. After that realisation I started trying to write it myself.
Why do you write poetry? How does it compare to prose?
Prose is like a long three course meal: you can develop your argument, state a case, and hear different opinions from any point of view you want to share. Whereas poetry is like a very sweet effervescent snack, like a sherbet lemon. You get an instant rush from it because it can recreate a specific moment really quickly and thoroughly through its language.
Who are your favourite poets?
You can’t write poetry without acknowledging that Shakespeare was the best there ever was, he set the bar, people have met it but no one’s surpassed it… yet. I like Blake and Byron, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and I’ve really got into Louis MacNeice recently. Then my favourite living poet is Don Paterson.
What inspires you?
Very specific, sensual things: something I spontaneously smell, see or touch triggers a specific memory or feeling that then develops into an emotional response. I talk about big concerns like love death and happiness, but my feelings regarding those things are triggered by something very small and specific.
How do you start the process of writing a poem?
Most of the time I come up with a title first, pick the form I want it to be in and then write the whole thing in one go for about an hour. Then I’ll leave it and come back to it and edit it. It needs distance and separation because you get whipped up in an emotion when you’re initially writing, and you need to take a step back and change it so that it’s actually coherent and not embarrassing.
Why should people read poetry?
People are put off by it and I get that, I completely hated it because I thought it was snobby and pretentious. But I really do believe that there’s a poem for everyone and a poet for everyone. Something or someone will speak to you in a deeply personal way, which will make you do a complete 180 in the way you look at and think about the world. It’s very powerful in a way that cinema or music can never be.