Monday, 16 March 2009

The garden of forking paths

I gave myself a straight choice at the age of twenty-two – either I headed for the smoke in search of a mentor a la Lumsden, Donaghy, etc, or I left for the poorest, most remote part of Spain (as described on my travel website at Extremadura Guide), which I knew and loved from my year abroad. I was aware that I’d go for several months at a time without speaking English except a weekly phone call home, living in a dusty town where I’d be the only foreigner. Bear in mind this was when the internet was in its infancy.

I obviously chose the latter route. It might not have helped me in terms of climbing ladders or having someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me where I was going wrong, but this isolation enabled me to develop a distinctive poetic tone. What’s more, I had no choice other than to write if I wanted to express something in English.

Have you ever imagined how your writing might have developed if you’d taken such a route? Exile sharpens understanding of your home, as it provides an incomparable counterpoint, while immersing yourself for years in a foreign language sheds new light on your original tongue. However, many critics would argue that you lose touch after so long away, that your views lose validity as a result of such a decision. The garden of forking paths, as Borges would have it.


  1. Interesting. I spent five years in Italy (I've only been back in Scotland for 4 years) and my poetry did develop there. It's hard to know whether it would have developed in a different direction had I not gone, although I definitely wouldn't have been able to write certain poems (but may have written others I wasn't able to write due to the decision I took).

    That said, chapbook and book publication only happened when I returned. But some writers (e.g. Liz Gallagher in the Gran Canaria - her debut collection from Salt will appear later thia year) manage to get a first publication while living abroad.

    John Ash is another writer whose time abroad seems to have changed his poetry radically. He has lived in Turkey for over a decade. The poetry he wrote before going is very different to that afterwards - although both periods are good.

  2. Hi Rob,

    There's no doubt that living abroad and learning another language changes the way we write, but my case was even more extreme - for the first few years after coming over to Extremadura I had virtually no contact with other foreigners - total immersion!

    As for publishing while being over here, there's no doubt I have to clock up Easyjet miles and get to as many readings in the U.K. as possible - I read at launches for The London Magazine and Under The Radar last autumn and hope to give more readings this year.