Alumni Profile: Michael Blackburn, Poet
As Richmond’s Walking and Books Festival is underway, it seems a fitting time to share news of Michael Blackburn, a poet and alumnus of Richmond School. As well as being a published poet, Michael has been a lecturer in Creative Writing at Lincoln University, worked as an editor on Stand Magazine (one of the country’s most prestigious literary quarterlies), set up two publishing concerns of his own, directed various festivals and has been a reader for London-based literary agents. We were delighted to hear from Michael and hope you enjoy reading about his work and love of writing below, including ‘The Ascending Boy’, his collection of poems that are based on the landscape of Richmond and his experiences of growing up here.
My time at Richmond School took place not just in another century but what feels like another world. It was then still a small grammar school down by the river. The masters wore gowns and things were run on traditional lines. I got a good grounding in English Literature, French and Latin, and also learned how to avoid getting flattened on the rugby pitch at Easby and navigate the quagmire of Boggy Lane on the cross country. I seem to have been involved in the annual school play most years, starting as a humble member of the Chorus in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and ending as Becket in my final year.
My interest, however, lay not in theatre but in literature, and the school library was well-stocked with the kinds of books I needed. That’s despite the efforts of a drunken, suicidal soldier trying to burn it down one night!
I went to study English Literature at the University at Leeds where I joined its long-running student poetry magazine, Poetry & Audience, met other aspiring and established poets and started to write decent poetry and get it published.
I set my sights on being a poet and literary man in general but made the sensible decision to get a proper job and became a trainee computer programmer in London. It was not a success. From then on, I went freelance, basically subsidising my writing through a variety of literary (and occasionally non-literary) jobs until the last thirteen years before retirement when I was a lecturer.
Listing all of these projects would be tedious but some of them included: working as an editor on Stand Magazine, one of the country’s most prestigious literary quarterlies; setting up two publishing concerns of my own (Jackson’s Arm poetry and Sunk Island Review); being Literature Development Worker for Lincolnshire; directing various festivals at Lincoln Central Library; being invited to events in Switzerland, Italy and Slovakia (where I learned two important phrases – “I am an English poet,” and “I have a hangover,”); being one of the first poets to be resident on the internet; acting as a reader for some London literary agents; running a number of writing groups, and conducting numerous writing workshops up and down the country; doing poetry readings; spending three years as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, and once being paid by the Russians – for some poems translated and published in Estonia. For this I received a cheque for £16, which, being a broke poet at the time, I cashed. I should have had it framed.
My first collection of poems, The Constitution of Things, came out in 1984 and various other titles followed, one of which, The Ascending Boy, contains many poems based on the landscape around Richmond and my experiences growing up there.
Along the way I’ve met, booked, published or performed alongside numerous poets and writers, including Colin Dexter, author of the Morse books, Beryl Bainbridge, Ken Smith, Jonathan Coe, Robert Edric, Sean O’Brien, Carol Rumens, etc, and a couple of Laureates. As a writer and editor I’ve engaged in debates over the years, sometimes to the consternation of others, but if writing isn’t about freedom of thought then what is the point?
I suppose this is where I should offer advice for anyone considering a career in writing or publishing. The problem is there is no single route into it, so the only thing I will say is: if you intend to go freelance or set up your own business – get an accountant. They’ll save you time, trouble and money.