Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is a writer, artist and musician from Southampton and the father of two young girls, ages 4 and 2. In November 2016 he was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer with secondary lung.

He is the lead singer of the band, Delays, who have released 4 albums and was a winner of the Best in The South of England at the National Open Art Competition and exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

 

Greg Gilbert's collection Love Makes a Mess of Dying has been selected by Carol Ann Duffy for the 2019 Laureate's Choice series.

 

Greg Gilbert – On His Work

 

How did you start writing?

I started writing lyrics at a young age and I would write pages of free verse from which I extracted fragments for songs. When I became interested in reading poetry I became more interested in the free verse than the lyric-form.

My reason for writing poetry didn’t so much change as was given greater focus and intent by my cancer diagnosis in 2016. Writing has been a way for me to engage with the fear, trying to own it but also trying to distance it by placing it outside myself and on the page.


Do you have a poem or poet that you go back to?

Leaves of Grass was the first poetry collection that completely absorbed me. It has a chiming, chant-like quality that I find hypnotic and the language straddles the archaic and eccentric. Thematically it feels so abundant and I never come away from it uninspired or narrow in thought.

John Ashbery’s translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations is very evocative and strikes a perfect balance between Rimbaud’s mass of youthful feeling and Ashbery’s contemporary sensibility.

Two single poems actually come to mind: John Berryman’s ‘From Job’ and ‘Picture of a Nativity’ by Geoffrey Hill. Both draw from scripture creating a compelling arc across time and both have a gravitas which seems apt for my situation. I’m not religious but find myself drawn to religious writers and artists for the lack of irony in their works. Emily Dickinson is a writer who also falls into this category and who I always return to for guidance.


Where do you write?

I mostly write in cafés where the split between solitude and company is just right. If I work from home I can fall down the rabbit hole of my illness, which is never very helpful. Writing in public keeps a sort of membrane between my attention and that stifling insularity (plus overheard conversations are a great source for detail).


How does a poem make it from idea to page?

I tend to nurture a build up of enthusiasm/excitement toward writing, which I feed with reading. Eventually I allow myself the freedom to write without editing in a great outpouring and, within that, I find the seeds for poems. These I finesse over a longer period of time. I don’t always go into a poem knowing where I want to go as I want the finished piece to still retain an alien quality. However, many of the poems in this sequence sprung from new (to me) insights into life with cancer and felt well established thematically before their writing.

These periods of waiting are very short, a couple of days at most. But I’m never without a notebook and I walk everywhere jotting down scenes, thoughts, words, graffiti etc. It’s a personal archive of detail to dip into.


What was it like being chosen for the Laureate’s Choice Collection?

Overwhelming, surprising, motivating, imposter-syndrome-inducing, thrilling.


What advice would you give to other poets?

An A&R man once offered: ‘if you’re feeling short on inspiration then always go back to the first records that inspired you’ and that advice seems applicable to writing: go back to the first poems and writers that impacted you.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about your forthcoming pamphlet, Love Makes A Mess of Dying, due to be published in February 2019?


Love Makes A Mess of Dying covers the first year following my prognosis. This sequence has its roots in confusion: a cancer diagnosis is so traumatic and you’re left trying to understand the new thing you’ve become and how it relates to what you were. Everything requires reframing and poetry has allowed me to do that.

Seeing others reveal their inner strangeness/fears/anger through art has always made me feel less alone. I think this is the role creativity can play when it is expressed honestly. An artist like Francis Bacon, in presenting an often violent vision of the world, helps everyone who sees it feel a bit better about the darkness they also carry. It helps to normalize things that spike anxiety.

But there are also positives: the title is an acknowledgement of the overwhelming support that came my way and carried me through the first year. These voices countered the inevitable pessimism and helped pull me from self-obsession.

There is a tick-tock between being a realist about the situation but also trying to externalize it and make it other on the page. The sequence Love Makes a Mess of Dying is the result of that effort.


On Love Makes a Mess of Dying

The search for the truth of an experience which seems to belie words gives Gilbert’s poetry urgency, eerie clear-sightedness, and a lush Keatsian lyricism 

– Sasha Dugdale

Love Makes a Mess of Dying

Laureate's Choice 2019

 

Examining the collision between tragedy and hope, Love Makes a Mess of Dying follows the struggle to make sense of the prognosis and treatment of a life-threatening disease whilst surrounded by the love and support of friends and family.

 

Love Makes a Mess of Dying

from Love Makes a Mess of Dying

 

Love makes a mess of dying,
Requires a division of healing
Between what you can allow yourself
And what you can allow others;

It holds you the centre
Of a tolerant universe; such
A simple thing for one, now splintered
Prismatic, unruly.

Love makes a mess of dying,
Rarefies what you’ve got left and
Draws close those for whom you’ve been
Essential architecture, each seeking
A totem.

Whatever tricks I tell myself to deaden before dying –
That I’m alone, that alone is the essential state – comes
Undone at the sight of love and I’m afraid, not of dying,
But of leaving a mess for love.

Titles by this author

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