At Home with the Hoglets

Beginning with A Restricted View from Under the Hedge to Sticklebacks and on to The Cult of the Spiny Hog, along with a classic collection of inspirational writers, Mark Davidson and his poets are turning hoglets into must-have bookshelf desirables. Over a series of interviews I will ask the same 11 questions to a group of Hedgehog poets and Mark himself, and hopefully we’ll uncover what it takes to put pen to page, poem into print and pamphlet onto that prized position on every reader’s bookshelf.

Today we are joined by a happily married man who writes in the attic and so insures that perfect marital bliss. Today’s guest is Brian McManus and his new collection is called Liar Liar.

Thank you for joining us Brian, let’s get started…

1 Why did you write this collection, what is it about and what would you like the reader to take away after they turn the last page and find that perfectly prized place for it on their bookshelf?

I wrote this collection of poems to hold to account the ineptitude of Boris Johnston and his Conservative government around their inability to formulate a coherent response to the greatest public health challenge of our times, and to give a voice to some of the many ordinary people who have paid the price of that ineptitude, sometimes with their lives. There remains an egregious sense of injustice in the country around the copious mistakes made by politicians and I wanted to articulate that through the medium of my poetry.

2 My chillout time comes from cooking, endless hours lost in the kitchen along with a blaring radio of eclectic tunes and golden oldies, but I can only chill when the cupboards are well stocked with the basic ingredients. Firstly, what is your chillout routine, your escape from the pen and all the pondering and, secondly, what are the basic ingredients you need when it comes to settling down to write- what factors or futons make the best mix for your creations?

I don’t really feel that I need an escape from the pen, writing poetry for me in a sense gives my life the sense of legitimacy I need, and in terms of our collective wellbeing I consider my poetry my most important contribution to that wellbeing. I have an incredibly supportive wife who has placed my own personal wellbeing and my happiness above her own all our married life, and we have been blessed with two wonderful and very gifted children and three very special grandchildren. My thoughts are that it would be greedy to ask for any more out of life.

3 Sticking with the cooking analogy for a moment, do you follow a specific recipe for writing or do you throw all the ingredients into the bowl and see what happens?

I answered this question for someone else only recently. I’ll start with the germ of an idea about what I want to write about, play around with that idea for a bit until the general shape of what I want to say begins to emerge.

Then, over the coming days and sometimes weeks, I’ll edit and re-edit often to the point where the original idea looks markedly different. I’ll leave it for a while at that point and let the subconscious work on it, then drift back to it once again, where in a perverse sense the poem sometimes takes on a bit of a life of its own. I then have to guide it back into the structure I want. I like my work to be accessible to the reader but I’m not one to give up the poems secrets or explain any dark places. Uncovering that little bit of mystery is the job of the reader, as is the ultimate interpretation of the poem.

4 In these days of social media, you’re nothing if you’re not seen and in these unsettling, uncertain days of Covid, seeing, listening and buying has moved online and readings and live launches in libraries and lounges are a rare happening or else there is a limit to the amount of people in attendance. How are you dealing with having new collections coming out right now? What is your way of being seen? How are you coping with the fact that being a writer today also requires a certain amount of spotlight, certainly more than the days of Ms. Dickinson?

Yes, the shape of our new normal has certainly redefined such matters. I don’t have a big social media presence but I have fairly recently become one of the twitterati, and I do find that I’m able to present and express myself, I hope, in quite a meaningful way on Twitter. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some very interesting people online and build up some important friendships and contacts. There is a very active and supportive poetry community on Twitter. Say hello to me @brianmcmanus999.

I am also a member of the Cult of the Spiny Hog which is the hugely innovative 100 member poetry club run by Mr Mark Davidson, the founder and editor of the Hedgehog Poetry Press, my publisher. Mark, apart from being a real gentleman, puts a huge amount of effort into finding and publishing new and emerging poets and works very hard at being in the vanguard of innovation in the poetry world. This flows down to all the poets, or Hoglets as we are known, and we all support each other when it comes to marketing, promotion and Zoom launches. The process of being an active poet only begins with publication, it certainly doesn’t end there.

5 Speaking of being seen and getting noticed, how important are acceptances from writing journals and how do you deal with the rejection which comes, no matter how much acclaim you have received? The reality we must learn is that not everyone is going to love our work, which can be heart breaking as we’re basically offering up our poetic babies to be loved, though no one loves a baby as much as the parent. So what keeps you going? Head up and move on or hide out and wait till the hurt passes? What encouragement do you have for others starting out?

I tend to write thematically, and I find that such writing is better represented when supported by the other work within the theme, and so a dedicated chapbook, pamphlet or full collection is the route I choose rather than individual pieces being offered to magazines and journals where, for me, I find they sometimes struggle in isolation.

That is not always the case, and there are some quite outstanding poetry publications out in the world right now, so perhaps I need to adjust my methodology to take account of that. Rejection is part and parcel of any kind of writing and if that is based on someone else’s interpretation of the work then that is as legitimate as the poet or the writer’s interpretation.

If you are easily discouraged by rejection as a new or emerging writer my simple advice is to consider and reconsider the reasons for the rejection and learn from it. Also do your research and target your work at the journal, magazine or other poetry press publication which is most likely to accept it. Colin Bancroft’s Poets’ Directory is a good place to start and there are others.

6 If you had to pick one piece of your own writing that most represents you what would it be and why and would you like to share it or part of it here with us?

The following poem did represent me, albeit historically now, at a difficult time in my writing life, where I was on the point of throwing in the towel but got myself out of a hole with the help and guidance of an old friend of mine, the very special poet and equally special person, the grand old man of poetry, Mr Maurice Rutherford. Maurice is 98 years young now and doesn’t keep the best of health, but his indomitable spirit defies belief. This is my poem in recognition of that difficult time and in recognition of the part Maurice played in getting me back on the poetic rails:

Words With Maurice
For Maurice Rutherford, my friend and
mentor, the grand old man of poetry

I sat with Maurice late one cloudy night,
with tangled thoughts ping-ponging through
my head. Picked out his little volume, thought
I might agree some form of settlement. Instead,
I found that Maurice showed me through a door,
the rusty key turned stiffly in the lock.
A place I’d lived and died in years before,
while standing in my slippers in the dock.
This esoteric form of mission creep,
my boots back on, I’m marching against sleep.

But where to now? No map, no Google Earth,
no tortured muse to lead me by the hand.
No colour-coded nightmares, just a dearth
of light. Refracted? Maybe. Grains of sand
slow-trickled through the barren months and
years, and counted off collective times of trial.
Your list records the triumphs of my peers
My list? A sombre scratch against the dial.
No better place to go to, not just yet.
These lines attest the nature of my debt.

So now I stalk the thing that’s stalking me,
and try to get myself back in the game.
I need to write the words which need to be,
I’ve had my fleeting quarter-hour of fame.
The clouds are gone, the sky is inky-black,
but clearer for it. All at once I sense
my smallness and my greatness. Looking
back, a qualified but welcome recompense.
Now time grows short, there’s plenty work to do.
The bag-man’s got his marching boots on too.

Seems like a long time ago now, but keep well and
stay safe Maurice.

7 Writing poetry, more so than any other writing form, is often the art of peeling back, removing the unnecessary, eliminating lines to uncover the hidden truth- how bare does it get for you? How difficult is it, at times, to tell your story within the lines and framework of a poem? How comfortable is it to be naked with so few words to cover over the possible discomfort or is it just a part of the process you get used to?

Yeah, it does seem simple to say so, but it is just part of the process. Eventually you don’t even notice it. The poetic autopilot steps in and takes over. The autopilot in terms of Mindfulness isn’t always a great thing, but it does help get you out of a spot at times in the poetic sense.

8 When it comes to titles, our pieces as I said, are like children- each needing special consideration and attention- how do you name your poems, short stories, collections or novels- is the name a starting point, a midway consideration or a summation of the theme afterwards? Sometimes I worry when I come up with a really great title it might overpower the poem itself- is there a balance between the two?

Well in terms of the last part of the last question there, I’d think the actual work needs to respect and represent the title. I’ll have perhaps a title in mind when I start off, but much like the changes I might make in the work itself I might well change the title part way through the poem to better represent what I’ve written. For me, commercial considerations don’t come into mind in terms of poetry, although many moons ago when I was writing crime fiction I was very careful to ensure that if nothing else the title didn’t at least confuse the reader.

9 For myself, writing started in childhood as a purely cathartic process, even if I was too young to fully understand this, it was a way of self-analysing and coming to an understanding of the world and my place within it. How did you find your way to writing and what was it about the process that kept you hooked?

It was more than 30 years ago now that I started to write poetry with some conviction. I had dabbled with little bits of writing before then but nothing serious, and it took a major negative life event to eventually lead me down the path of poetry. It was ultimately a cathartic process for me also, and it was a very difficult and challenging process.

I had been a Serious Crime Squad Detective Officer at the time and I was called down to Lockerbie on the evening of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over the town in December 1988 with the loss of 270 lives. I was asked to take a spare shirt with me as I might have to stay overnight. In the event I played a central role for nearly four years in the international criminal enquiry which followed the bombing. My experiences were subsequently documented in the book of poetry, prose and photographs I had published a few years later, Blue Daze, Black Knights – The Story of Lockerbie.

The process didn’t keep me hooked, just the opposite. I stepped away from poetry after that for some considerable time, and it was only the intervention of Maurice Rutherford and his work which brought me back into the poetic fold.

10 For the most things that fulfil me in life, the surrounding visuals are very important, and over the past few years the relationship between the photograph I take and poem I write becomes integral to the success of both- sometimes I never know which inspired the other more. What is your favourite accompaniment while creating a piece of writing?

Peace and quiet and no interruptions to be honest, nothing more complicated than that. I have a little study at the top of our house and I board myself up in there, replete with snacks. I can be in there for many hours at a time. It makes for a very happy marital relationship 😊

11 The more I write, the more it becomes my oxygen, the more my hand shapes itself to the shape of my favourite pen or now my iPhone which has replaced the laptop as the most at-hand instrument to record my thoughts, and these days I have to catch them quick or they are lost forever. As a kid I wanted to be a famous fashion designer and lived in 4 different countries working for various fashion brands, though the writing was always there. Since then, cooking and photography have come more into the forefront. What were your childhood dreams, what were the jobs that followed to fulfil them or just fill time and what, other than writing, would you consider doing in order to express yourself?

At school, I wanted to be a journalist and went to a jobs fair in my teens to see if I could progress that, but the lack of support from my tutors and the lack of interest from prospective employers knocked that on the head in short order. I ended up working in the NHS, where I was fortunate enough to meet Jean, my good lady wife.

I have an interest in Modern Art, particularly Abstract Expressionism. I did consider converting the garage or building a little studio behind the garage and starting to paint again. I had painted in oils for a few years earlier than that but this would have been acrylics. The idea would have been that the paintings would marry-up to the poems, but I never got there, deciding that I couldn’t justify it as I had a responsibility to invest what time I had left in writing, rather than becoming distracted.

I do consider that involvement in the arts, in whatever fashion that might be, helps to legitimize one’s life, and I take my responsibility to poetry very seriously nowadays.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts, insights and mental workings with us. It’s been a pleasure to dive inside your head from the comfort of our own armchairs. Before we depart, if you were to leave us with one line, one phrase, one lyric, a one-liner or a once-in-a-life-time admission, either yours or someone else’s, what would it be?

Remember that we are all artists, and that every authentically lived, happy, useful and balanced life is in itself an evolving work of art. If life is a dance, then emotion is the music of the dance. Be yourself, and make that self worth being, and never forget that the joy is in the journey.

Thank you 😊

You can find Brian’s book here…


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