The importance of the perfect pen: Sean O’Brien discusses his process as a poet

On 1st March, Hercules Editions (along with co-hosts Jill Abram and Waterstone’s Piccadilly) welcomed Hammersmith author Sean O’Brien to speak to a packed room of writers and readers about his process as a poet.

Jill and Tamar Yoseloff invited questions from the audience, and wanted to share some of Sean’s wisdom, particularly for those who couldn’t attend . . .

How do you approach writing for a deadline or commission?

Sean replied that such poems, written for an occasion, are a special case. There is always the concern that readers will feel the poet is simply doing it for the money (a comment which produced general laughter from the audience), or that the resulting poem doesn’t stem from true inspiration. But Sean mentioned that he likes deadlines: ‘fear is a good generator.’

Do you have any particular ‘rituals’ necessary for writing?

Sean told us that he rises very early, usually by 6am, and that his best writing time is between 6am and 11am. He commented that he is a ‘desk junky’, and needs to be harnessed to that location. On his desk he typically has a number of poems in progress to attend to. He also has a special kind of pen he likes to use (he produced one from his pocket to show the audience): ‘I use a UniPin fine line. I think it’s a drawing pen but I like it for writing – a strong black line. I get through a lot of them. At the moment I alternate between a .2 and a .3. They’re about £1.95. I buy them from Blackwells in Newcastle. But the quest for the ideal disposable pen is endless.’

How important is the first line?

Sean said that the first line must be interesting and arresting in itself. ‘If I’m not interested in the first line, the poem doesn’t run.’ He talked about the first line as being a run up into the poem, like a ski jump. It is often disposed of later, or repositioned as the poem goes through the drafting process.

Do you build up layers of music in your poems?

Sean commented that it varies according to the occasion. He’s interested in what he called ‘opportunistic rhyme’, accidental occurrence. He doesn’t go in for making lists of rhyming words, as some poets do, but he follows echoes and chimes that he hasn’t deliberately contrived. This happens naturally, because of the concentration you apply to the music in a poem. ‘The ear is going about its own work.’

Do you still seek feedback from other poets?

Sean mentioned that he still attends the Northern Poetry Workshop once a month. The group has been meeting in Newcastle for about 25 years, and regularly has 10-12 members. It’s a place to try out work on his fellow poets, who can point out tendencies the author isn’t always aware of. Sean mentioned a current workshop trend, which he is keen to discourage: ‘bobbism’ (the habit of listing three things in a poem, without a connective ‘and’).

Sean was then asked a question about word order, in relation to his poem ‘Jaguar’, which he’d read to us earlier in the evening.

He replied that he is always trying to keep the poem propulsive. He is interested in sentence structure, and how you keep the reader going through a long sentence (in the case of the poem in question, by opening with a declaration). ‘The carrier is the rhythm.’ The rhythm of English is a very simple binary – the way to get hold of it is to read poetry aloud, only then can you hear the cadence. ‘Rhyme is the great enforcer – it gives truth.’ Rhyme seduces us into thinking something has meaning. Sean also mentioned his interest in the second-person address – it helps the writer avoid the first person, which can often be confining or presumptuous. ‘You’ has universality.

The final question came from the poet Stephen Watts: Who are the poets who portray the world you wish you were in now?

Sean first mentioned Douglas Dunn, especially the work from his middle period. And he admires the ‘utopian spirit’ in Derek Mahon: ‘however grim the poem, the poem itself is a creative activity and adds to the store of what we have now.’ In that vein, He also referenced Zbigniew Herbert’s poems ‘The Envoy of Mr. Cogito’ and ‘Elegy Of Fortinbras’.

Report by Tamar Yoseloff