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The poetry of dreams; AUTHOR'S NOTES.

It is not quite true that I have never wanted to be anything else. I spent a few weeks dreaming of being a hovercraft pilot, and I also liked the idea of being a vicar because I fancied writing a sermon every week - which suggests that I saw the Church as a special case of the literary profession anyway.

But writing seemed the natural career for someone who spent most of his time reading and who worried sometimes about the prospect of exhausting the world's supply of books.

At 11 I spent an evening at the dining-room table opposite my father. He was writing a textbook called Canteen Catering: A New Approach, while I was writing a historical novel, From the Roundheads' Point of View.

Historical fiction, especially about the English Civil War, was my craze at the time and I had noticed that none of the writers in those days ever took the Puritan side ('Right but Repulsive' as Sellar and Yeatman put it in 1066 and All That).

Both of us had spotted a gap in the market, but neither had much staying power and our books didn't get beyond the first paragraph.

For my 16th birthday, my eldest brother Richard, then starting out on his own career as a novelist and academic, gave me a copy of Robert Lowell's Selected Poems.

The first half of the book was dense, allusive, difficult; then the tone changed with the Life Studies poems, free-verse, almost prosy, autobiographical pieces with lower-case letters at the beginning of the lines as if repudiating all the solemnity previously associated with poetry.

The subtlety of Lowell's buried metaphors (references to fishing scattered all the way through a poem, for example) fascinated me, and I decided to write a poem a month in an exercise book.

Having never really mastered readable joined-up writing, I invented my own form of pseudo-printing for it, the handwriting I have to this day.

On my last day of school I walked out with my two best friends on our way to get drunk.

Passing the job centre, we discussed for a moment whether we should go in and ask if they had vacancies for a poet, a hit-man and a black magician. At that age a career plan and a pose are pretty much indistinguishable, something 'employability' consultants would do well to note.

At least I was by this time writing poems, whereas my novels were still not getting beyond that barrier of the first paragraph that had stopped me at 11. Another friend used to do an impression of me raising my index finger in the air, an inspired look on my face: "I've thought of another chapter heading!" At about the same age, I had my first-ever date, with a sophisticated girl with hennaed hair who was said to shoplift from Biba (the trendy London store of the '70s).

Realising that I was too shy to ask her out, she asked me to go to the Victoria and Albert Museum with her, and afterwards we went back to her house in Hampstead and she showed me her poems.

I told her that poetry was not just self-expression, that it had to be worked at and rewritten again and again until you had said something you perhaps never knew you wanted to say, and which might have very little to do with yourself as a person.

We didn't have a second date. In the end, for all the planning and dreaming, writing felt more like something that happened to me rather than something I deliberately achieved.

I was living in a student hostel in Hove, supposedly working on a PhD about modern American poets (Lowell among them), but really worrying about nuclear war, possible symptoms of cancer or schizophrenia, and my lack of a girlfriend or any sense of my place in the world.

I stayed up till the small hours in the communal kitchen writing a despairing long poem. Other students came and went, drinking mugs of coffee, telling me about their own troubles, which were always much more dramatic and interesting than mine.

One was a woman in her 30s, a student who hated students, a working-class northerner in the bourgeois South of England, a Thatcherite in what felt like one of the most left-wing buildings on Earth, in the middle of a bitter affair with a married man, always shouting at him or anyone else who crossed her path.

"And as for you," she said one evening, as I looked up from my writing, "anyone can write. It won't come to anything. Think you're bloody Sophocles!" I got my revenge by writing a story about her. | Singing a Man to Death is published by Cinnamon Press, PS8.99.

HAVE YOUR SAY...

So which book from the English language shortlist deserves to win Wales book of the Year 2013? Once again, WalesOnline is teaming up with Literature Wales for the People's Choice Award. Cast your vote from the three categories on the English language shortlist at walesonline.co.uk/lifestyle.

Your vote will also mean that you are eligible for our prize draw to win a pair of tickets to the awards ceremony.

Last year Philip Gross was named winner of the People's Choice Award for his poetry collection, Deep Field.

ON THE SHORTLIST FOR...

Roland Mathias Poetry Prize | Rhian Edwards: Clueless Dogs (Seren) | Deryn Rees-Jones: Burying of the Wren (Seren) | Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch: Banjo (Picador) ... and in Welsh | Llion Jones: Trydar Mewn Trawiadau (Cyhoeddiadau Barddas) | Eigra Lewis Roberts: Parlwr Bach (Gwasg Gomer) | Aneirin Karadog: O Annwn i Geltia (Cyhoeddiadau Barddas) Fiction | James Smythe: The Testimony (Blue Door) | Gee Williams: A Girl's Arm (Salt Publishing) | Matthew Francis: Singing a Man to Death (Cinnamon Press) ... and in Welsh | Manon Steffan Ros: Blasu (Y Lolfa) | Dewi Prysor: Cig a Gwaed (Y Lolfa) | Tony Bianchi: Ras Olaf Harri Selwyn (Gwasg Gomer) Creative non-fiction | John Harrison: Forgotten Footprints (Parthian) | Jon Gower: Wales at Water's Edge (Gwasg Gomer) | Meic Stephens: Welsh Lives (Y Lolfa) ... and in Welsh | Meic Stephens: Cofnodion (Y Lolfa) | Aled Jones Williams: Tuchan o Flaen Duw (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch) | Heini Gruffudd: Yr Erlid (Y Lolfa) WHAT'S THE PRIZE? Each category winner will receive a prize of PS2,000, and the two main winners in each language will receive an additional PS6,000.

The Wales Book of the Year Award winners, along with the People's Choice Award winner, will be announced at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff on July 18.

Tickets to the ceremony cost PS10 and can be bought by contacting Literature Wales on post@literaturewales.org or 029 2047 2266.

CAPTION(S):

Dr Matthew Francis reads his work to passengers on a Valleys Line train
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jun 22, 2013
Words:1121
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