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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

Sean O’Brien & David Harsent in conversation 14th November 2016


On Monday 14th November 2016, Hercules Editions and Travelling Through Bookshop invite you to a conversation between the TS Eliot and Forward Prize winning poets, Sean O’Brien and David Harsent.

They will be talking about the crucial role of place in their work, as well as other influences and themes. There will be an opportunity for questions from the audience and to meet the poets, who will be available to sign books after the event. The evening will be chaired by Tamar Yoseloff of Hercules Editions. Doors 6pm for a 6:30 start. Refreshments available

Travelling Through is located at 131 Lower Marsh, London SE1 7AE. Nearest tube: Waterloo. 

Tickets are £10, which includes a copy of Sean O’Brien’s latest chapbook Hammersmith and a glass of wine / beer / soft drink.

 Tickets are on a first come, first served basis and are available on the door on the night. Places can be reserved by contacting Travelling Through: (all reserved tickets must be collected by 6pm, or can be paid for by visiting the shop before the event). Spaces are limited, so please arrive early to avoid disappointment. Cards accepted by cash preferred.


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Travelling Through bookshop

Night and The City – a night to remember with Sean O’Brien and Andrew Pulver

We gathered on Monday (27/6/16) in one of our favourite London spots, the Cinema Museum in Kennington, for an event celebrating the enduring appeal of the great British noir classic, Jules Dassin’s Night and the City. The film, starting Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney, is a favourite of poet Sean O’Brien, the author of our recently published chapbook, Hammersmith. Dassin’s film, especially its iconic final scene set on Hammersmith Bridge, was an inspiration for O’Brien – Widmark is even name-checked in his poem!

Awaiting the film at the wonderful Cinema Museum
Awaiting the film at the wonderful Cinema Museum

Before we settled in to watch the feature, we were treated to the London premiere of Kate Sweeney’s lyrical animated short, Hammersmith, based on both O’Brien’s poem and Dassin’s film. Sweeney was on hand to introduce the film, and to say a few words about the process of collaborating with a poet. You can watch the film here:

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Andrew Pulver (left) and Sean O’Brien in conversation

Then Sean and Guardian film critic Andrew Pulver took to the stage to discuss Night and the City and its shadowy depiction of post-war London, its extraordinary cast of characters (including some famous wrestlers of the period!) and why it is still worth watching. We then settled back and enjoyed seeing a rare 35mm print of the original British version (Hollywood made some changes before it was released in US – the American version is now the standard), expertly projected for us by Ronald Grant of the Cinema Museum.

Here’s a link to Andrew Pulver’s guide to the film:

And to Sean O’Brien’s Hammersmith:


Travels of Hercules

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Tammy introducing the reading

Hercules Editions hosted a reading last Friday at the wonderful Travelling Through Bookshop, site of our recent series of Winter Writing Workshops. The poets who contributed with their enthusiasm and ideas read new work inspired by the sessions. Sue Rose and Claire Crowther, two of our Hercules authors / workshop leaders, were also on hand to read their work, and Tamar Yoseloff read for Hannah Lowe, who is currently on an author’s tour in New York. We also paid tribute to our friend, the poet Kenneth Hyam, who died in February, and who joined us last for our walking workshop back in October. A full report of the evening can be found here, from participating poet and Write Out Loud editor Greg Freeman:

Below: a slideshow of some of the readers

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Announcing ‘Hammersmith’ by Sean O’Brien, with introduction by Owen Hatherley

Hammersmith Bridge photographed by Sean O'Brien
Hammersmith Bridge as seen in the book

We are thrilled to announce that Hercules Editions will be publishing Hammersmith (buy it here), a new chapbook by the award-winning poet Sean O’Brien, in May 2016. We’ve been fans of Sean’s work for years, so this is a particularly exciting project for us. Hammersmith is focused around the first two cantos of a longer poem exploring the West London region, where his parents met just after the war. Sean’s poem is a meditation on place, memory and nostalgia, informed by the voices of John Snagge, Richard Widmark and the Irish immigrants who filled the pubs along the riverside. He is already known as a poet of urban landscapes, having chronicled his hometown of Hull and his adopted city of Newcastle. He is also a poet of water, those ‘blue contested spaces’, and of rivers in particular, from the real Humber to the mythical Styx.

The poem will be accompanied by photographs taken by Sean during his perambulations around the area, and an essay on his thoughts about the project. There will also be an introductory essay by the architectural critic Owen Hatherley, whose new book, The Ministry of Nostalgia, has just been published.

There is an Indiegogo campaign for the project, which will enable our sponsors to see their names in the book, and to receive special offers, including an extra poem not included in the book, and an exclusive limited-edition print, both signed by the author. You can view the campaign here:

There will be two events to celebrate the publication of the book. The first will be a reading at the Newcastle Poetry Festival (with Linda France and Colette Bryce) on Thursday 5th May (, the second will be a London launch at the Auriol Kensington Rowing Club, on the river at Lower Mall just next to Hammersmith Bridge, on Monday 16th May. Watch this space for more information on both.

And here’s a link to another poem from Sean’s recent Picador collection, which was a Guardian Poem of the Week:

Another Hammersmith photo by Sean O'Brien
Another Hammersmith photo by from the book

Poems from our Claire Crowther, Sue Rose and Hannah Lowe workshops now online

• Click here to see the poems resulting from Claire, Sue and Hannah’s workshop days.

Following on from the success of our walking / writing / street photography workshop in October, we held three more sessions led by our brilliant Hercules authors. The venue was the lovely Travelling Through Bookshop, one of our favourite places on Lower Marsh: an engaged and talented group of poets gathered in the downstairs café to exchange ideas and images.

To read the full story, and some of the great poems that resulted, visit our workshop showcase here.

And don’t forget that we will will celebrate the work created in these sessions on the 18th of March, when the participating poets and workshop leaders will gather again at Travelling Through for a public reading of their poems. The event begins at 6:30, and entry is £5, which includes a free drink. More details here:

Below is a slideshow of images from the workshops.

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Hercules Editions winter poetry workshops (booking closed)


Now the days are drawing in, join our authors for a series of mind-warming winter writing days at Travelling Through bookshop, an independent gem on London’s South Bank.

You can prowl old Lambeth’s streets on an urban exploration; delve into the psychological depths where silent film meets horror; write about your heritage and history using a personal object as inspiration; or turn your hand to composing homages and elegies. And there’s a public reading for all participants at the end of the series.

Workshops are £69 each (£60 concessions) – or book all four, and save £25. See below for full event details and the booking links.

WORKSHOP 1: Saturday 31st October 2015
The Poem of the Street: psychogeography & photography
with Tamar Yoseloff & Vici MacDonald, authors of Formerly
• This combined walk and workshop examines how psychogeography, urban exploration and photography can create material for new poems. Join Tamar and Vici for a walk around Lambeth (an area with connections to William Blake, Captain Bligh, Charlie Chaplin and Chaucer) and a discussion on the intersections between poetry and photography. Participants are asked to bring a camera (or a phone or tablet with camera), but no photographic expertise is required.

WORKSHOP 2: Saturday 5th December 2015
Poetry Noir: how to write a horror poem
with Claire Crowther, author of Silents
• In such classics as Beowulf, Dante’s Inferno, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Terrible Sonnets and James Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night, poetry has always delivered emotional and aesthetic expressions of nightmare. This workshop will discover the hidden world of horror poems and use silent film clips to inspire our own fearfest. And no images are more horrifying than those at the start of the film era: for example, Nosferatu, Häxan and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

WORKSHOP 3: Saturday 27th February 2016
Reconstructing History
with Hannah Lowe, author of Ormonde
(Note: this was originally listed as 30th Jan but is now definitely confirmed for 27th Feb)
•  How can we reconstruct or reveal personal histories through creative writing? In this workshop, we will look at how poets have written about their personal heritage and ancestry as a starting point for writing about our own family histories, using memory, anecdote, heirlooms and / or photographs as a way to explore the past. Please bring with you an object of significance in your family history, and a family photograph.

WORKSHOP 4: Saturday 30th Jan 2016
Writing Absence, Praising Presence
with Sue Rose, author of Heart Archives
(Note: this was originally listed as 27th Feb but is now definitely confirmed for 30th Jan)
• Drawing inspiration from artist Christian Boltanski’s use of collective and personal memory to document and memorialise the past, this workshop will examine the ways in which the written word can commemorate the dead and pay tribute to the living. Participants will explore a range of different poetic responses to love and loss, and turn their hand to writing their own homages and elegies.

PLUS a public reading for all workshop participants
Everyone who takes part in the workshops will be invited to share their poems in a reading at Travelling Through bookshop on Friday 18th March 2016 at 6.30pm. Tickets will be available on the door for £5, which includes a glass of wine.


Travelling Through, 131 Lower Marsh, London SE1 7AE. Nearest tube is Waterloo.
11am to 5pm. See above for dates and descriptions.
The price for each session is £69, £60 concessions. A discount is available if you book all four workshops: £250, £215 concessions (a saving of £26/£25). Note, lunch is not included in the price of the workshop, but drinks and food can be purchased from the bookshop’s cafe or one of the many food outlets in the surrounding area.

Below: our venue, Travelling Through, as featured in Tired of London, Tired of Life and We Are Waterloo