Bruce Marsland was winner of the Sentinel Literary Quarterly poetry competition in February 2016 (with A green activist considers the police state) and commended again in August 2018. He was shortlisted for the Hammond House international literary prize in 2017 and a runner-up in the Prole Laureate poetry competition in 2018. He has performed several of his poems at ‘Poetry & Jazz’ in Helsinki, Finland. His poetry has also appeared in Sixfold, Page & Spine, and Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine, among others. He has self-published three poetry collections: Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Those Footsteps Behind, and Quarantining: Poems in the Time of Corona.
Born in Wales, raised in England, and married in Scotland, Bruce holds a Bachelor’s degree in English and theatre studies from the University of Warwick and a Master’s degree in applied linguistics from the University of Edinburgh.
Since moving away from the United Kingdom for the first time in 1991, he has also lived and worked in Bulgaria and Finland, and he is the author and editor of several works on language teaching, most notably Lessons from Nothing, published by Cambridge University Press.
In 2012, he upped sticks again to be with his wife, Noreen, in the United States. They are currently resident in Portland, Oregon, where Bruce is a self-employed editor and writer under the business name The Text Biz.
The Monday Writer Interview
The Beginning: …that stuff was awful
Like many of us, I suppose, I first wrote poetry as a teenager at school. It seemed a more natural fit for me than prose fiction, even though ‘story writing’ was a mainstay of English classes. However, it stopped there for a while. I went on to study literature and linguistics at university, but I didn’t pick up a poetry pen again until I was in my forties. At that point, I opened up a couple of dusty poetry notebooks from my school days and thought, wow, that stuff was awful. By then, though, I had learned and experienced a lot more, and my first step was to re-craft some of my old material and present it to a writing group. I found the process of editing in this way to be developmentally just as important as creating new material. Moreover, I find I can do the necessary work of fine-tuning my material even on days when a new line or a new piece refuses to sing its way into my head.
I pay my bills by editing and writing non-fiction prose on subjects such as education, business, technology, and the arts. This keeps me aware of modulations in grammar and vocabulary, and it helps me to focus on clarity of expression.
In poetry, I tend to write multiple pieces around one theme at a time. I have groups of poems on travel, on relationships, and on politics, for example. The global pandemic has been a large presence in my writerly head recently, as it has for many people, and I have put together a self-published collection on the subject, Quarantining: Poems in the Time of Corona.
on why he writes
I write poetry because it is a sort of compulsion in self-expression. Working with different written forms is appealing to me, as is putting a poetic form in either concord or discord with its content. While it may sound romantic to call oneself a poet, however, the word does not sit easily with me as a descriptor. Unfortunately, the concept of a poet is often of someone who is altogether too self-absorbed, too limply detached from reality. Nevertheless, I feel that the poet as a wordsmith philosopher, as an expresser of truths, does still have a potentially important role to play in today’s world. If I am to be a poet, though, I feel the honour of that label should be bestowed by others, not claimed by me as a job title.
How much of his writing is autobiographical?
Life experience informs many of my poems, but if the outcome was a chronological record of events in my life, I doubt that would be of interest to many readers. Personal details need to be set against a wider frame of reference if they are to find resonance. This is particularly true if we want poetry to be seen as more broadly relevant in contemporary society. So my work is semi-autobiographical in the sense that it expresses my perceptions and reactions in relation to the world, but it does not always tell ‘my story’.
However, my poetry often includes elements in the first person. This provides an immediacy in style, but it does not mean that my work is always, in narrative terms, autobiographical. There are occasionally, of course, vexing questions that go with that. How far can we stretch the use of ‘I’ into a fictional world or into somebody else’s head? Is it the poet’s job to do just that, or is there a point at which empathy and imagination become inappropriate appropriation?
On challenges he has faced as a writer
Working freelance, receiving many more rejection notes than acceptances, often waiting for several months after submitting a treasured piece for consideration, a writer can weary in self-belief. Impostor syndrome can be a substantial issue: who do I think I am? This is also a mental barrier to overcome in the necessary business of self-publicity. Yet all we can really do is have integrity in our writing and take delight in any opportunities as they arise. It is up to others to decide how they receive this.
On advice received from writers and non-writers
Both writers and non-writers have said the same thing: keep writing. Maybe you’re having a difficult day or month or year, but if you can get some words down on paper, not only does that help your own process of working and living, but it also means that on another day or month or year, you can come back and maybe find inspiration in yourself.
What advice does he give other writers?
If you’re looking here for a recipe for success as a writer, I’m afraid I don’t have one to offer. If there is a secret door to relevant poetry, meaningful poetry, appreciated poetry, it isn’t one that I can claim to have found yet. Let’s keep writing. Let’s keep editing. Let’s be true to ourselves. Let’s not give up.
On which of his books or poems he finds himself reading when nobody is watching
The poems of my own that I tend to re-read on the quiet, are those that have been acknowledged in competitions, such as in Sentinel Literary Quarterly. I keep coming back to these because I know that someone, somewhere found merit in them. Yes, I like to bask in that little satisfaction, if only for a minute.
On best books read and influences
I constantly seem to be collecting books, from classical literature to small-press poets. As Shakespeare had it, though, “comparisons are odorous”, so I would not like to make a call on which works are the best. King Lear or A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm; Prufrock and Other Observations or Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats? They serve different purposes and use different approaches.
Similarly, I find that influences are often cumulative, taking subjects, perspectives, and styles from different places to build a whole: what is an apple pie, why is it significant, and how can I describe it effectively?
Nevertheless, there are some names that pop easily into my mind when it comes to poetry and poetic form. Early on, the Liverpool poets (Henri, McGough, Patten) loomed large in my consciousness, and their lines still dance around my inner ear, especially when it comes to the agony of relationships. Then there is the unparalleled word music of Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood, simultaneously nimble and sure-footed. And sometimes it takes a parodist to illuminate the mechanics of expression, which is when I reach for my treasured signed copy of Wendy Cope’s Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis.
Does it matter if he is misread?
Once a piece of poetry is released into the wild, I believe I lose the right to tame it into a particular ‘correct’ interpretation. Once published, poetry belongs in the eyes and ears of the reader or listener, who is free to understand it and interpret it in a way that works for them.
The cut flower’s lament
as I die dismembered
in an agonising
I am cut.
I am slain.
I am forced
to give pleasure
to rapists with secateurs
who waterboard my foliage
in saturated foam.
Rootless, I wilt
in the hot sun of torture,
waiting, just waiting
for my colours
with her obituary.
Leeward, the older men concentrate.
Rods whir, water ripples gently.
Sandwiches in Tupperware,
the catch dripping in baskets.
A couple look on from deckchairs.
I watch a while and think of her.
At pier’s end stand the daytrippers
gasping at the breaking waves.
Bikinis and lollipops,
goosebumps and rubber toys,
scents of salt, sugar, and suncream.
I watch a while and think of her.
Windward, the youngsters cluster.
A few dangle baited lines.
One of them gets lucky
and brains a flapping fish
bloodily against a mooring post.
I watch a while and think of her.
Chasing lions in our pyjamas
Hoedspruit, South Africa
It is nothing to the leopard,
twitching an ear on a high-hung branch,
that we pass by in our Land Rover
muffling our oohs and wows
as it sucks at its impala-flavoured gums.
We could be anything to the warthog,
trotting off with tail aloft;
or to the skittish rhinoceros,
myopically bulldozing a trail for its calf
away from the stench of diesel.
Giraffes peer down unspectacled noses.
Elephants sniff through periscopic trunks.
Baboons listen from behind a termite mound.
But it is nothing to the lion
that we are herded impromptu
after sundown, dressed for bed,
into back-row seats without popcorn,
bumping elbows by torchlight,
picking thorn pricks from our khakis,
bouncing through unmade tracks in the bush,
straining necks and eyes
for sightings of a buffalo’s demise,
senses swallowed by a deep-throat growl
broadcasting territory, predation.
The next day we return to bleeps and bling
of traffic lights and casino jackpots,
demands for tax and ads for cologne,
artificiality that pales against super-reality,
where life for us from this point on
means chasing lions in our pyjamas.
How change arrives on supersonic wings.
Disaster flies at you, striking
before the boom of its approach.
Recovery plods behind, an exhausted
steeplechaser drenched in liquid mercury.
Isolated and restrained, the time from
Monday morning to Monday lunchtime
is stretched to a week in the rack.
Scribbled wish lists and to-do lists crumble,
giving way like ancient papyrus
to the sharp strike-through of cancelled plans.
In frustration, we grab time by the neck
to interrogate today about tomorrow,
but time won’t squeal,
and so we beat and frogmarch time outside
to shoot it as we would a rabid cat,
then hurry back to find time has escaped
again and faces us on all sides
with the delirious tick of a thousand
atomic, quartz, and mechanical clocks.
‘The cut flower’s lament’ First appeared in Sixfold, Winter 2018.
‘Seaside holiday’ Published in Magnetic Resonance Imaging, 2019
‘Chasing lions in our pyjamas’ Published in Those Footsteps Behind, 2019
‘Marking Time’ Published in Quarantining: Poems in the Time of Corona, 2020