Where do you write your poems? We’re fascinated by the places where poetry happens, the idea that inspiration might not just be a moment-in-time but in a moment-in-place. The Guardian’s regular feature on writers’ rooms is popular for just that reason: there’s something very compelling about being able to see inside an artist’s study (or shed, in the case of Louis de Bernieres), almost as if we imagine there might be traces of what provoked the work snagged in the hairs of the carpet or shadowing the walls. As if a room can be responsible for a poem. No wonder writers become almost superstitious about the environments they write in, from Andrew Motion’s insistence on a bare desk to Michael Longley’s presiding talisman or “genius loci – a raven created out of scrap metal by the magnificent Scottish sculptor Helen Dennerly.”
But others find the notion of a writing room restrictive. As Philip Hensher remarked: “I don’t have a writing room, and don’t want one. I’ve never written successfully at a desk.” As someone who writes primarily on the move, I can sympathise with him. Most of my best poems are composed when I’m out running, walking or even rock climbing (though hard rhymes and hard reaches can make for a hazardous combination). There’s something about the rhythm of moving through a landscape that helps the rhythm of the poem and something about the strange, half-delirious states that distance running can induce that helps me form unusual connections. I often take an initial idea or line for a poem out for a run with me and build on it, trying out different phrases that suggest themselves. As the poem grows, I become increasingly terrified I’ll forget it. But, inevitably, by the time I get home, the best lines have stuck and only the weaker ones, the ones that didn’t quite work, have been forgotten.
This preference for writing on the move is by no means unusual. A recent book by Merlin Coverley, ‘The Art of Wandering’, discusses writers who have combined walking and writing, from Wordsworth to Iain Sinclair. Coverley’s interesting thesis is that walking and writing are essentially one activity. To illustrate this he looks at a diverse range of walker-writers stretching from early pilgrims, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the present day, via John Clare, William Blake, the English and American romantic poets, Parisian flâneurs and many more. Similarly, Robert Macfarlane’s new title ‘The Old Ways’ explores the significance of Edward Thomas’ walking journeys.
When we journey on foot, perhaps it’s ‘place’ in the broadest sense that inspires us: the landscapes we pass through (or rather, the landscapes that permit us to pass through them), whether urban or rural. As a previous poet in residence at The Wordsworth Trust, I was lucky enough to live in Grasmere for a year and had the chance to explore the Cumbrian fells that inspired the Romantics. Strangely, I found myself writing poems that were mostly set in the ex-industrial area of North Derbyshire around where I grew up. It was as if the scale of the Lake District was too vast and too beautiful to write about, so when I ran through it I found myself thinking of elsewhere. Sometimes, we can only write about places when we aren’t in them.
If you’re thinking of entering the Magma poetry competition this year, why not try writing on the move? I can only imagine walking a poem is like walking an unruly dog: you’ll have to stop, go round in circles and you’re likely to be dragged round hairpin bends and down dark, suspect-smelling alleyways. But you’ll certainly end up somewhere interesting.