New Teacher for Cowboy School
Are you a sharpshooter
and quick on the draw?
Can you jangle your spurs
and lay down the law?
If you enter a classroom
and the cowboys are rowdy
can you obtain silence
just by hollerin’ Howdy?
Welcome to the Poetry Zone, Bernard. Tell us, when did you start writing?
At primary school age I wrote stories. I remember writing my own version of Treasure Island. (Very similar to the original but much, much shorter!). As a teenager I began writing poetry. And songs. (I’d begun playing guitar by then).
Why do you write poetry?
These days it’s what I do for a living (or as my wife calls it ‘His so-called work’) so there is the practical side of writing to earn money but it’s still what I love doing and feel the need to do. It’s a habit/addiction.
As a teenager, because I was fairly shy and quiet, it was a way of expressing myself without attracting attention. I didn’t show my poems and songs to anyone. But I kept on doing it as I got older and (this still amazes me) it turned into my job. Wow!
What books have you written?
I’ve been in loads of anthologies and have three collections of my own still available. You can find out more at the end of the interview.
How long does it take to write a poem?
Much longer than it used to! Sometimes I think something’s fine as soon as I’ve written it but when I take a second critical look there’s usually more work to be done. As a child I thought all writers were geniuses (and, of course, we are!) and that what I’d read in a book had come, fully-formed and perfect, out of their heads. What I later discovered was that it can sometimes take hours to complete a poem. But I like the fact that you have to work at it.
How do you write your poems?
In pen. On scrap paper. I finally end up with a neat handwritten copy. Then I type it up and probably make a few more changes to it.
Do you have a special time or place to write?
If I’m at home I do sit at my desk and work on a current poem or try to start a new one. Particularly if there’s an anthology I’ve been invited to submit poems to. A deadline is great for making you write. Also, with my wife at work and my daughter at school, I’d feel guilty if I ‘wasted’ my day lazing around, playing my guitar, listening to music, watching TV etc. (That’s just in case my wife and/or daughter read this!)
Actually, the great thing about writing poems is that you can almost do it anytime/anywhere. I often write on holiday. I wrote one called When Great-Grandmother Takes Her False Teeth Out in Majorca. The sky was blue (so was the sea), the sun was shining, a beautiful day, and I wrote about false teeth!
Are you at home in the saddle
as you are holding chalk?
Do you like eating baked beans?
Can you drawl when you talk?
Can you herd cattle
and control a lasso?
If you answer Yep!
this job could be for you.
Do you visit schools?
Yes. Sometimes five days a week. I never tire of it. I usually give a performance in the hall. Some poems I’ve read hundreds of times but when there’s a new group of people in front of you (the audience) it still feels fresh and exciting. And it gives me the chance to test new poems.
I accompany some with guitar and that always goes down well. I’ve put one of my poems (Traffic Jam – it’s in Wanted Alive and The Poetry Store) to music recently and that’s being really well received. I’ve been getting requests to play it again before I leave. (Which beats having rotten eggs thrown at you. Not that that’s ever happened to me. Yet!).
And I love leading workshops in schools because absolutely brilliant poems get written and performed by children of all ages.
How many schools have you visited?
I really have lost count. Probably hundreds. There are even some who have me back each year.
Do you travel around much?
Obviously you get known locally so I get quite a lot of work within a 50 mile radius but sometimes I’ll spend more time travelling to a school than working in it! Occasionally I go so far from home that I need to stay overnight.
What was your most memorable day?
I’ve had fantastic experiences in schools. It’s very rewarding when you’re told by a teacher that a pupil who usually does very little has been inspired to produce a really good poem or when someone who usually keeps very quiet (like I used to at school) is so pleased with a poem they’ve written that they’re confident enough to perform it in front of their class or even the rest of the school.
I’ve also had some pleasant surprises. I was performing a loud football poem called Ref Rap once when I heard it coming back at me. A class had chosen it as their favourite poem and had learned it. I stopped and let them finish it for me.
Have you got favourite poems and poets?
Loads! Roger McGough was the first poet I took notice of and I’ve got all of his books. I buy masses of poetry books (adult and children’s) and like Kit Wright, Charles Causley, Ian McMillan, Adrian Mitchell, Carol Ann Duffy, Matthew Sweeney, Norman Silver, John Mole… I could go on and on but I’d better mention Trevor Millum who I sometimes perform with as Double Talk!
Of all the poems you’ve written, which is your favourite?
I’m pleased I’ve got Ref Rap in my repertoire even though it’s not my favourite. It’s very useful. I usually finish with it (it’s loud and fast with a noisy clapping chorus) and even grown-ups will join in with that one. And it’s been in a few books; including a text book published in South Africa. So it gets read and studied in South African schools.
I’m quite fond of Wanted Alive: New Teacher for Cowboy School which is where the title for my latest book comes from. I also like School for Daydreamers which is also in the new book.
But you gotta look good
in a ten-gallon hat
if you want to work here.
Any problem with that?
Then mosey on down
for a tough interview
and show the posse
what you can do.
But one piece of advice
I’ll give you, son,
if they start shootin’
you better run
It’ll mean they don’t like you.
They don’t want you around.
You ain’t been successful
so get outa town!
What questions are you most asked in schools?
Are you famous? Are you rich? And how old are you?
And what are the answers?
Thank you, Bernard.
Wanted Alive – Hands Up Books
Poems by Bernard Young (Hands Up Books)
Illustrated by Jessie Gillick
Bernard’s other books -
Brilliant! (Kingston Press) ISBN 1902039084
Double Talk with Trevor Millum
(Kingston Press) ISBN 1902039130