How much does Canterbury inspire poets? How much does it act as a cradle for the act of writing? Clifford Liles became serious about writing poetry after he moved here. He talks to Neasa MacErlean about inspiration, love and beauty.
NM: You lived in Canterbury for over a decade before moving away (to Hereford) just as Lockdown started. So to what extent have you written about Canterbury?
CL: I found Canterbury to be a very good environment to write in but there are relatively few places there that I have written about. Having said that, “Dissolution”, the poem I wrote that is in the underpass near Toddlers Cove (Westgate Gardens) was inspired by St Augustine’s Abbey. And “The Old Bookshop” was inspired by the old Chaucer Bookshop. And “Jealousy” is set in Folkestone Leas ballroom.
The tourist aspect of Canterbury is intensely difficult to write about without being clichéed. A lot of poets draw on earlier experiences when they write. I have lived in other cities and places, and I do write about them.
I see things in Canterbury that are not part of the tourism appeal, and I sometimes write about them. One of the Extinction Rebellion protests was a trigger for my “Seen Through a Prism of People”. And I have treated homelessness in a couple of poems, and that was triggered by seeing homelessness in Canterbury.
NM: How has the Canterbury Festival inspired you?
CL: I’ve benefited most through the poetry workshops run by , a local poetry group, an umbrella event at the Festival each year. One work, “At the Tumbleweed Diner”, started life at one of these workshops and has just been published in Orbis [the Quarterly International Literary Journal].
NM: Can you compare Canterbury to other cities you have lived in as a source of inspiration?
CL: I’ve lived in Munich, Sydney, Brussels, New York, London and Grenoble. Everywhere I have lived has provided inspiration. Munich was especially intense as an experience. I was initially looking for a job there, had very little money and was living in cheap accommodation. I eventually wrote “The Density of Loss” about it. But when you live in the classic artist’s garret, you are very much focused on where your next meal is going to come from. You don’t necessarily write the poem then. Wordsworth wrote about poetry taking “its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”. That’s true for me.
NM: Your “Dissolution” poem is up on the ring road underpass near Toddler’s Cove as a result of your winning the Canterbury ‘Art in the Underpass’ poetry competition in 2014. How has that helped you?
CL: In fact, I met the judge of that a couple of years ago and was able to tell her how much that win for this early work encouraged me to continue. A number of people have told me how they have read the poem and the impact it has had on them when they stopped to read it. I feel very pleased about the effect it has had. The poem there was just the start. Since then I’ve been published in literary journals (particularly Orbis and London Grip). But having the poem on the wall there encouraged me a lot.
NM: Love matters greatly to most poets. So can you tell me the role your wife has played — as muse, for instance?
CL: Gillian has been a muse and a subject. We’ve been together 20 years, married for 15. I have written a couple of poems about her — “Finding Helen” and “Winter Journeys”. [The latter was the “People’s Choice” in the Canterbury Festival Poetry Competition of 2013.] She’s been really good as a trusted reader of my work, very honestly telling me what works and what doesn’t but not wanting to make suggestions. She doesn’t want to influence me.
And love is one of those things that a poet has to think about very deeply. I do think a lot before I write. Love is about a number of complex things working together. It underpins a relationship that’s based on common ground and being able to communicate very well together. It comes from shared interests, shared humour and trust, for instance.
Gillian bought me Stephen Fry’s book on poetry, “The Ode less Travelled”, at the beginning of my journey, and that’s helped me enormously.
NM: And another easy question for you. What does female beauty mean to you and how do you express it?
CL: A phrase comes to mind: “Beauty is weightless but can stop your world.” That’s the initial impact, the coup de foudre. That very much happened to me when I first met my wife. But it goes broader than that: beauty is allied to balance and poise. (It can be captured in art and music too.) There are different aspects as regards the relationship between men and women — beauty, lust and attractiveness. Most men can distinguish between those three things. The focus for me in on essence — the attractiveness that is embodied in a woman’s personality and behaviour. So, if you would like an example, the last six lines of my sonnet “Finding Helen” are about Gillian:
“Later that night, clutching my clinking gin,
in a compression of strangers in heels,
one woman stands out. With eyes full of Spring,
hair like rain on a silver Rolls, I feel
a shortness of breath on that precipice
she creates with her presence, my perfect bliss!”
Writing love poems is very difficult which is why I haven’t written very many. You have to avoid cliché.
(Image of Cliff Liles: Image courtesy of Ian Laker Photography, ianlakerphotography.com. Image post-production: Sanjay Kalideen)