Michael Symmons Roberts

b. 1963

Michael Symmons Roberts was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2014.

My latest book of poems – Drysalter, published in 2013 – consists of 150 poems of 15 lines each. It took some of its thematic and formal bearings from the psalter, but I wanted it to feel full and various like the old drysalters’ shops. For five years, there was one question I never had to ask of a new poem as it started to emerge – how long will you be? As a consequence, it took me months after Drysalter to push a poem into a sixteenth line and beyond. Now I’m halfway through the next book, and the poems are coming out in all shapes and sizes – anything but 15 lines.

I used to think I did my best work when I had concentrated time to focus on a single project. But I’ve come to believe that’s not true. Although I’m a poet primarily, the poetry has led me to work in a variety of other forms, and I’ve usually got several projects running at the same time. I’ve just been making a Radio 4 documentary about Byron’s daughter Allegra, and I’ve got several radio dramas on the go including a dramatisation of Thomas More’s Utopia. I’ve also been working with the pianist Cordelia Williams on a commission to write new poems in response to Messiaen’s amazing piano work Vingt regards sur L’Enfant Jésus, and we’re in the middle of a year of concert performances of the music and poems. I’ve got a Selected Poems coming out next Spring, so I’m finalising the selections for that, and I’ve recently finished a film for BBC4 on the doomed life of the poet Thomas Chatterton.

I’ve come to realise that this way of working suits me. The projects often inform and inspire each other, and a surge of work on one of them allows the others to lie fallow, then I see them in a new light when I pick them up again. I’ve always loved collaborative working – with producers, composers, directors – but at the core of it all is the making of the poems, which is perhaps the most solitary creative process of all. Perhaps that’s why I tend to bounce between big collaborative projects and periods at home where I can put words on a page again. By the time I finish one phase, I’m usually longing for its opposite.

Image credit: Martin Bence