Why I Write Poetry 

3rd December 2021
6 min read
4th January 2022

We spoke to Ian Humphreys, editor of Why I Write Poetry (Nine Arches Press), about the process of curating a collection of essays all about what motivates poets in the 21st century and what keeps them writing.

Why I Write Poetry

1. Where did the idea for the anthology come from?

Jane Commane, the brilliant director and editor of Nine Arches Press, came up with the book’s concept and also its title. Jane very generously invited me to edit the book – to bring my own creative approach to the project – and offered invaluable help and advice throughout the anthology’s development.


2. Could you talk us through the process of curating an anthology? How did you select the contributors?

For me, the starting point was my hope for the book – what I hoped for, artistically, from the end result, those 200-plus pages. Who would the anthology give a voice to? Which contemporary poets best represented what’s happening today on the UK poetry scene? Who was our ideal reader?

After considering – then quickly forgetting about – these questions, I simply made a list of some of the UK poets working today who I most admire, and hoped they were available and interested in the project. Instinctively, this list included a large number of voices who I believe are writing important, beautifully-crafted poetry. It was also distinctly varied – and I was excited about this, not least because diversity wasn’t something I was consciously aiming for. Despite this, the poets came from a wide range of backgrounds. What’s more, a lot of them were based in regions outside of London and the south-east.

Diversity within poetry has improved in many ways over the last few years thanks to initiatives such as The Complete Works and Ledbury Poetry Critics. However, poets from outside the capital can still find it tough getting a seat at the table, and some in the business believe that British poetry is becoming as London-centric as it was back in the 1990s.

Even though it felt exciting to work towards producing an inclusive book, my focus always remained on the quality of writing. Or at least, my personal perception of quality. All of the poets we invited write exceptional, thought-provoking poems in my opinion, and I was certain they had the talent to create compelling, innovative essays. Thankfully, I think I’ve been proved right.


3. We talk a lot about the editing process where fiction is concerned, but could you talk us through how you approach editing essays?

With this particular book, a large chunk of the editorial input came from the commissioning brief. The title of the book is ‘Why I Write Poetry’ – and when I delved a little into the motivating factors affecting my poet friends and contacts, it became clear that many had similar reasons for why they do what they do, including compulsion, and also to try and make sense of the world and ourselves.

Naturally, neither Jane nor I wished to produce a book filled with different versions of the same essay, so we identified what we most admired in the work of the selected poets, and asked each of them to explore a theme reflecting this idiosyncratic gift.

Ian Humphreys

4. What are the challenges and rewards of a project like this?

The main challenge was to achieve a book with variety and texture, and I believe we’ve achieved that. Many of the poets have been very open and honest about their poetry journeys, which has created a lovely thread of intimacy and authenticity throughout the anthology. Several poets have explored their craft in a very political way, others have adopted an academic approach. There are one or two direct, nuts and bolts discourses, while several contributors have written surreal, dream-like or lyric essays. The mix of styles is a joy, the narratives and insight are often startling.


5. There is a writing exercise after each essay. Was this a conscious decision to include such exercises? What do you hope readers will take away from them?

One of our key audiences is writers and aspiring writers. This group is eager to find out more about the writing life, and also enjoys trying their hand at writing prompts. People have also come to expect stimulating writing exercises from Nine Arches Press’s poetry writing handbooks. This is the fourth in the series, following on from 52: Write a Poem a Week. Keeping Going, How to be a Poet and The Craft.


6. In the introduction, your response to why you write poetry is: ‘The need to voice the unsayable – reach for the ungraspable.’ Has this always been your main reason? Or has it changed throughout the course of your poetry career?

It remains the same, and it’s ever-changing.


Ian Humphreys lives in West Yorkshire. His debut poetry collection Zebra is with Nine Arches Press. His work is widely published in journals including The Poetry ReviewThe Rialto and Magma. Awards include first prize in the Hamish Canham Prize, and highly commended in the Forward Prizes for Poetry. Zebra was nominated for the Portico Prize. A fellow of The Complete Works, Ian’s poems are showcased in Ten: Poets of the New Generation (Bloodaxe). www.ianhumphreyspoet.com

About Why I Write Poetry

What motivates poets in the 21st century? How do they find their voice? What themes and subject matters inspire them? How do they cope with set-backs and deal with success? What keeps them writing? Why I Write Poetry, edited by Ian Humphreys, combines lively and thought-provoking essays, along with individual writing prompts to help you create your own new poetry.

Includes essays by: Romalyn Ante, Khairani Barokka, Hafsah Aneela Bashir, Leo Boix, Vahni Capildeo, Mary Jean Chan, Jo Clement, Sarah Corbett, Jane Commane, Rishi Dastidar, Jonathan Edwards, Rosie Garland, W. N. Herbert, Ian Humphreys, Keith Jarrett, Zaffar Kunial, Rachel Mann, Andrew McMillan, Kim Moore, Pascale Petit, Jacqueline Saphra, Clare Shaw, Daniel Sluman, Jean Sprackland, and Jennifer Wong.

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I really love poetry, but I'm not good at writing it myself. I admire people who know how to express their thoughts beautifully. I have had difficulties with it since high school. After graduation I wrote a research proposal online рhttp://www.phdresearchproposal.org/, but only with the help of specialists. I am actively working on my writing skills. And hopefully someday I will write my own verse.

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