GOLDEN LANGUR INTERVIEWS MIKE AGIUS
GL: When did you first know that you wanted to write? Was there a light bulb-moment or a particular experience that triggered it?
MA: Have I ever wanted to write? I don’t think so. I have always wanted to have written, but the idea of all the hard work to get to the ‘have written’ state never appealed. I have always battled against laziness. I realised some time ago that in order to have written, I needed to write. I have, as long as I can remember, had stories in my head. Sometimes I just wake up with them. The big one is set in Malta at the time of the 1565 siege. I told my childhood friend, Mike, about it, and he pestered to me get it writ, so I started. Mike devoured each chapter and kept on pestering me for more. Then he died, and I stopped.
GL: How important is reading poetry for you, as a poet? Please could you name the poets whose work you enjoy? Is there any particular poet with whom you identify?
MA: I am a computer programmer and run a small software house, so I don’t have much spare time, especially given the current economic situation. When I do stop, I tend to veg out in front of the telly and then regret the wasted evening. I still do it though, despite everything. With the health scare, you would think that I would blaze all the time, but no. I veg, instead of reading and writing, which, I must admit, can be a chore. If I spent less time working, I would be more inclined to write, but when I finish work I am generally knackered. I enjoyed, and still do, Browning, who I did for ‘O’ level at school, because we had an inspirational teacher, Mick Curran, who brought English to life.
When I was young, my Dad, with all his innate wonder at the power of language, had me and my sister learning poetry. Daffodils and Eagles, and all that stuff that I disliked then, and avoid now. But I don’t regret the learning, and the sense of wonder it imbued. More recently I have consumed everything from Catullus to poets alive today, such as Jane Yeh, Mark Haddon and Richard Price, and loads of others that our youngest daughter has nicked. I enjoyed Donne with my girls when they did him in English Lit. When I was the same age as our youngest (18), I read poetry by Blake, Hopkins and others, just like she is doing now – except, where I bought the books, she just ‘borrows’ mine.
Do I identify with a particular poet? I don’t know enough about the subject to give an informed answer. I haven’t attempted to be like anyone.
GL: The prose poem, Yummy, is about your wife, Liz. To quote a passage:
‘. . . My heart beats faster when you’re my pasta. A little arrabiata for a starter, with red wine, basil and pasata, plus thyme and, sizzley, some woo woo chilli, and holy moly macaroni – hot tomalley unravioli.’
Another poem, The Sadness of Gloves, is also inspired by Liz. How central is she to your writing? Does she critique your poems?
MA: She is central, I suppose. I have never felt about anyone the way I feel about her, so I do get moments of inspiration when I want to write about her in poetry. But Liz, and our eldest son, Alex, don’t get poetry at all, and freely admit it.
However, they are very patient with me, and when I sit them down to listen, they do so intently; then tell me it ‘is nice’. I could be reading any old crap though. Our girls are my critics. They read pretty much everything I write.
GL: Do your girls suggest edits to your work and do you accept their suggestions?
MA: Yes, both Georgia and Verity offer suggestions and if I agree I will heed them.
GL: You have written about your friend, Michael, who died six years ago. To take a few lines from the poem, Sometimes:
‘. . . I reach out,
and you vanish,
as you always do,
but still I reach.
It seems simple;
elementary logic –
I reach out, and you
Do you find writing about him cathartic? Or do you write to keep his memory alive? Is he your muse?
MA: Mike’s death started me writing poetry. I suppose it was, subconsciously, a neat way to package up the way I was feeling, and I have not stopped. I don’t write about him to keep his memory alive. I think about him every day, but I don’t think he is my muse. I write about Mike when we have met in my dreams. Generally, we get up to no good, and have occasional deep conversations. Just like life really, except when I wake up he’s not here.
I wish that I dreamt about him more.
GL: In recent months you’ve written about your own diagnosis of cancer and treatment. In the poem, Exhibit, subtitled: Man – With Cancer – 2009, you express a sense of guilt:
‘. . . Have I betrayed them
I’m a Daddy,
I cannot be sick;
yet I have arrived
at Cancer Station
un-aware that I was travelling.’
In another poem, Welcome the Bad Days, you say:
‘. . . Cry in the rain
so no-one will see your tears.
Good days make you smile,
bad days shape you;
make you what you are.
Welcome the bad days,
and smile when they are gone.’
How has your illness shaped your writing?
MA: I wrote a few miserable poems, but other than that I don’t think it has shaped my writing any more or less than anything else. In all ways we are the sum of our DNA and experiences; it’s the weight given to experiences that affects us on a day to day basis. You don’t have to succumb. Resistance is not futile.
I always thought that I had plenty of time to do everything I wanted, but the cancer made me realise that I don’t and that I must prioritise and organise, and fight the tendency to laziness.
I have an English side, which I know and understand, but my Maltese half is largely a mystery to me. I know the history of Malta intimately, but I cannot think in Maltese, and I believe that to really understand a culture, you need to think in it’s language. So, I have started to learn Maltese. I just got back from a holiday there, having reconnected with relatives, some of whom I have talked with over the years, but the majority I have not seen for 19 years, other than at my Auntie’s funeral last year. We fell into conversation so easily. It was great to see them all again. More importantly, it was revealing the way our kids saw their own personality traits, and senses of humour in others, as well as who looked like whom. It is true that the cancer shaped my writing while I was recovering, and cancer has turned me into a raving hypochondriac. Pain in toe – oh no, toe cancer – I remember – I just stubbed it. That kind of thing. So it is an ever present demon. I look out for symptoms all the time, I guess.
Exhibit was a grind of a poem. It had a few decent lines – the Cancer Station line and the last one, which packed the punch. That was what all the other words were for – to support those two statements.
We went to London to see the museums and galleries before I had to go into hospital. At that point in time we didn’t know if the cancer was stage 1 or 3 and we had 4 months of not knowing, which was a strain. I was trolling round the museum with the youngest, and she went off to the book shop so I sat on a bench at the end of a hall of exhibits, on my own, feeling alone, sad, lonely and scared. That made me think. That’s where that idea came from.
Some of my pals have got cancer too, which stirs it up a bit. I am not much of a fan of my own poems but I wrote A Frightened Man as a result of what a couple of mates had said, and I do like that poem. It is sad, yet defiant.
GL: The American writer and literary theorist, Susan Sontag (1933 – 2004), said:
‘It is not suffering as such that is most deeply feared but suffering that degrades.’
Do you think that suffering adversely affects the creative imagination? Or does suffering make one a better poet or writer? Please could you elaborate a little?
MA: I don’t think I have suffered. I got lucky. I didn’t have a battle with cancer. Who does? You just lie back and let the specialists exercise what they know, play the odds, and do what they have got to do. It’s not a question I have the experience (thankfully) to answer.
GL: A recurring motif in your writing is a questioning of religion. In the prose poem, Ants, you toy with the idea of the ant being an ‘agnostic.’ In another poem, I quote:
‘God resides in a two-up, two-down . . .’
Charles Bukowski (1920- 1984) said:
‘For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written . . . We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church . . .’
Do you think this ‘unlearning’ of religion is vital for the craft of writing in this day and age? Do you, as a poet, find it liberating? What is it about religion that you, as a poet, find problematic to articulate?
MA: I have had a problem with Catholicism for a number of years, then faith. My Dad, being Maltese, was brought up as a strict Roman Catholic and so was I. I lost religion years ago, and I believe I am an agnostic now.
I had had my prognosis in November 2009 and it dawned on me that I had not prayed once. Not even, ‘Oh God, why me?’ It never occurred to me to pray, and I had quite happily surrendered to science. OK. The number of candles burning in Malta probably increased global warming considerably. There’s a lot of good in religion though, and some solid logic in the philosophies, so I don’t have any hatred for the religious. Also, I know some people that I totally admire who are inspired by religion. It just ain’t for me.
However, I do wonder if there is a correlation between the decline in the number of people who believe that God is watching them and the increase in the number of CCTV cameras.
Does it affect my writing? I don’t know. I don’t think I feel that strongly either way. I am conscious that I have said ‘I don’t know’ a number of times, but it is true. The more I learn, and the more I think, the more I realise how little I know, but I don’t turn to God to provide that knowledge. As a race though, the more we learn, the farther God seems to retreat into the gaps in our knowledge. Analogous to the Emperor’s clothes and Salome, and to mix a metaphor, God is running out of veils, and could soon end up naked and exposed. I know people who have done some ugly things and caused great hurt in the name of religion, and others who have shone a light into peoples’ lives, and I cannot rationalise, or accept a judgement, that grants salvation to both.
We’re on this earth a short while, and then we are done, and in that short time we have to do the best we can, hurt as few people as possible, improve as many others’ lives as possible, and have as few regrets as possible.
GL: You often write about events: personal (Sweetest Pollen), historical or political (Black Gold, Just Make it Stop, Guernica). What are your main sources of inspiration – people, political events, travel, films or music? Please could you share a few details?
MA: Politics, travel, film and music would really have to stir me up to write about them. People, history and science float my boat. I think that it is the job of the writer to create a world where we can explore the universe and the human condition. The ancient Greek root of ‘poet’ is to create, and metaphor is to transfer. I like the idea that in our created worlds we can defy natural laws: have plants and animals that talk, and people float into the air. I like that we can paint a world with oblique strokes and somehow transfer it into someone else’s mind to make them laugh or cry.
Can I do that? I think maybe I have, on the rare occasion: that I have got it right.
GL: Would it be fair to say that you are an urban poet, i.e. that the city and urban-scape dominate your writing? What is it particularly about this that inspires you?
MA: I live in a city and, although I occasionally write about the countryside, I tend to write about the things that happen around me mostly. People have said that I am an urban poet, but I don’t think I am. Maybe I wrote a few poems together that made people think that, but it was an unconscious process for me.
GL: Do you write your poems quickly, as the ideas come? Do you keep notes? Do you need to be at a particular table or in a particular room to write? Do you write straight away on your computer or by long hand?
MA: Yep. I generally wake up with them, or they pop into my mind. I rarely sit down to compose, or struggle with an idea, and they happen anywhere and everywhere. I only use paper if I don’t have a computer to hand, so I bash them straight into my lovely Mac then ignore them for a while. It takes a day or so for me to detach myself from them. Then they are no longer my babies and, although I am still interested in them, I can slash ‘em up. Once they are out there, I am no longer that interested.
Occasionally, I break that rule: write and post within an hour or so. I always regret it and edit them online.
GL: In discussion about your poem, Awash, which was accepted for the We Are All Japan anthology, you say:
‘I don’t like my poem much, but hey, maybe that’s the key to success, only run with the stuff I don’t like.’
Is this a lack of confidence? Why are you so critical about your writing? Do you regularly revise? Do you ever reach a point when you think a poem is as perfect as it can get? Or do you never reach this stage?
MA: I don’t think I lack confidence, I just do stuff and move on. There are a handful of poems I have written that I like. The Reluctant Cub Scout is one that I like all the way through. Others have some phrases that deliver so I consider them OK. I like what I have been writing recently more though.
I am critical and will rarely see a poem, or anything I write, as perfect. I am a perfectionist who has learned to live with my own imperfection. Having a short attention span helps. Boredom is good for me. It drives me to try new things. So I do get to a point where I accept that a poem is as perfect as I am prepared to make it. I am always mindful of the law of diminishing returns, so I cut my losses and do something new.
GL: Your poems in the main poetry forum, here in Writers’ Dock, regularly get Pick of the Week commendation. Have you thought of sending your poems out for publication? Could you share a few publishers you have approached and where your poems have been published?
MA: I had one published in an anthology early on. It’s not good though. I sent off a bunch to Carcanet and they were rejected. I hate that. Not that they were rejected, but I that I was not told why. I think I was batting well out of my league there though.
So I don’t bother. Maybe I should send some of the more recent ones.
Christmas Surprise was picked up at www.christmas-time.com/christmasurprise and I like that poem. In hindsight, it has a neat harkening back to ‘He grasps the crag with crooked hands’ from my childhood learning. Not that the line was conscious though. It also has a sense of mounting panic, which I think is quite comedic.
For the time being I am happy and grateful that a jury of my peers judge anything worthy of PoTW.
GL: James Joyce (1882- 1941) wrote:
‘Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.’
Of course, Joyce was writing from the perspective of an Irish national at the time of the British occupation of Ireland. Are you ‘torturously’ conscious of your choice of words, not just in terms of meaning but also in terms of sonority and enjambment of lines?
You have mentioned a ‘Salfordian’ accent/patois. How does this influence your writing?
MA: Not so much Salford. I went to school in Salford but I am, at heart, a Mancunian. I write the occasional poem with a regional accent. I did Joyce at Teacher Training College, so I appreciate his perspective. Also, 40% of the intake were from Ireland. Interesting days. I think that ‘choice of words’ tortures all writers. I’ve yet to meet one who doesn’t agonise over a phrase. You just have to read some of the postings on WD to realise that.
GL: Malta has featured in your writing. Please could you elaborate on the importance of this place for you?
MA: Oh, it is very important. I am half Maltese, from my father’s side. The English half of me gets sun burnt though. Malta is like a poem. Everything is all wrapped up in a neat package: history from megalithic times to present, art (Caravaggio’s The Beheading of John the Baptist, is worth the air fare alone), architecture, music, religion, sun, sea, and food and wine. Plus, most of my relatives are there.
GL: You have recently mentioned a novel. Would you care to share a few details about this?
MA: The thought occurred that, when Harold Godwinson supposedly swore to back William the Bastard in his bid for the throne of England, there were no English witnesses, and that history is written by the victor. Also, some scholars doubt that the meeting ever took place. Why would Harold do that anyway? He was a clear contender to be elected by the High Witan. He was smart, brave, handsome and well liked, by all accounts, so why would he?
So, I decided to have a couple of heroic young men witness the meeting from a hiding place – but they are discovered. The story follows the youngsters through to manhood: in Normandy with Harold and then at Stamford Bridge, and finally Hastings where they end up fleeing in separate directions for their lives. The second book is about how one of them fights alongside Hereward the Wake, and how the other survives through various means, and their eventual victory and reunification. I have the timeline and most of the characters in place so it is pretty much plotted.
I am going to publish it through Amazon (assuming I get time to write it) under the name of Jack Slaughterman, because I do kill an awful lot of people.
GL: Finally, if you could have a wish for your writing, what would it be?
MA: Having some publishing success would be nice. To have written means that, I suppose. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone picked up one of my stories on Amazon and liked it?
So my wish would be . . . to have written.
— Golden Langur