It’s very important to write things down instantly, or you can lose the way you were thinking out a line. I have a rule that if I wake up at 3 in the morning and think of something, I write it down.
As a financial historian, I was quite isolated in Oxford – British historians are supposed to write about kings – so the quality of intellectual life in my field is much higher at Harvard. The students work harder there.
I decided very early that I wanted to write. But I didn’t think of it as a career. I didn’t even think of it as a profession… It was the most exciting thing, the most powerful thing, the most wonderful thing to do with my life.
I don’t like scaring people off. When I tell people I’m a writer, they look kind of interested. Then I tell them that I write poetry, and they think I’m weird.
I have this magpie instinct for the next glittering object. There are one or two things I know I can’t write about, though: DIY, cricket, automobile repair. I could study it for a lifetime and not produce a word on the carburettor.
If you write a letter of resignation or something with an agenda, you’re simply using a pen to record what you have thought out. In a poem, the pen is more like a flashlight, a Geiger counter, or one of those metal detectors that people walk around beaches with.
Sunday is a likely day to write a poem. Because poetry is a piece of language flying around: you’ll find notebooks, something on your phone. It’s about finding them and getting them off that crumpled piece of paper and onto my computer.
Before the Civil War, there were no national cemeteries, no processes for identifying the dead in the battle. There weren’t any dog tags, and there was no next-of-kin notification. You didn’t necessarily even hear what the fate of your loved ones had been. It was up to their comrades to write and inform you.
I still have a feeling that I haven’t written the best that I can write. I think all poets must feel this: that there is constantly something new to be discovered in the language. It’s like a thrilling encounter, and you can find things.
I deliberately decided to write a kind of guide to leather bars for straight people, for people not into leather, so that people could see what it was all about.