Hello, Carol. Welcome to the Poetry Zone. First question. When did you start writing?
As soon as the teacher taught me the letter shapes!
As soon as that, eh? Why do you write poetry?
It’s just something I’ve always done, from a very early age. (That’s a more sensible answer to the previous question!) As soon as I noticed how powerful words could be, I wanted to play with them. I can best sum it up by quoting the introduction I wrote in my collection of poems, “Creatures, Teachers and Family Features”: –
“For me, poetry is the fascinating challenge of word juggling – and once you’ve learnt one trick you just can’t wait to try some more. The poet’s job is to choose words carefully and then ‘throw’ them with skilful precision, so that the magic of rhythm and good timing keeps them all in the right place!”
Of course, the poet’s job also involves observation – noticing things. There are poems lurking everywhere around us. The poet must hunt them down and capture them on the page. Taste, look, listen, touch, sniff the air and say to yourself, “There’s a poem around here somewhere!” – then swoop down with your pen and write it!” By the way, I promise my other answers will be shorter!
Do you write for adults?
Occasionally. I started off writing poems for adults only and worked as a performance poet. However, now I write mostly for children as I’ve come to enjoy it more. I like to see if I can use the same ‘poetic techniques’, found in adult poetry, in the poems I write for children.
How long does it take to write a poem?
A poem can be written in a few minutes, but they usually take longer. The mistake many people make is to think a poem is finished before it really is. They end up with a good poem instead of the brilliant one they could have written if they had crafted it a little more! Some poems teach you patience. For some reason you can’t finish them for a long time, then you see something, go somewhere, experience something and finally you find the missing piece of the puzzle.
What is the most unusual event that has inspired you to write a poem?
Probably, when I was at the zoo looking at baboons’ bottoms! This was the result: –
Are so rude,
Red and shiny
And so nude;
With a laugh
They flash them
For each photograph!
Bright and lewd,
Blue and yucky,
Oh so crude!
I think my aunt
Would be more happy
If they were made
To wear a nappy!
What a sight!
Designed to give
Your gran a fright;
Who can’t believe
The age-old rumour
That God has got
A sense of humour!
Do you have a special time to write?
I like to work in the day, especially in the morning, when I feel fresh. I tend to block off a few weeks together for concentrated writing, as I don’t have much time (or energy left) when I’m travelling around the country doing workshops and performances. However, I have been known to dictate lines to my husband, when I’m driving in the car, so I don’t forget
And do you have a special place to write?
I like to work at my kitchen table, because it’s big and I can make a lot of mess. It also means that I’m near the tea and coffee, not to mention the biscuit tin! In the summer I like to work in a wooden gazebo at the end of the garden, because it’s under a large, shady tree, which keeps the gazebo cool.
Do you visit schools?
I visit many, many schools each year in lots of different places. I love to work with all ages, even teachers! One day I could be with nursery children doing action rhymes, the next day I could be talking to sixth formers – I love the variety. I also give INSET training to teachers. I’m a member of the team of poets delivering teacher training on behalf of the Poetry Society. The scheme is called ‘poetryclass’, and you can recommend it to your teachers if you like!
Do you work in any other places?
The grandest place I’ve led workshops is Buckingham Palace.
Oooh! That must have been amazing! But have you had any bad experiences?
One or two. Once I was expecting to start the day in one school with a 20-minute reading to the whole of year 9, then found out (five minutes before) they’d be with me for an hour in the school theatre! I think I ended up giving my best performance ever… it’s amazing what you can do when the adrenaline is REALLY flowing!
Of all the poems you’ve written, which is your favourite?
My favourite poem is not actually what I would consider my best one. It’s probably a poem called “You’re Dead” because it’s like an old friend – it never lets me down and forces the audience to join in. It was particularly supportive when I was trapped in one school theatre with the whole of year nine! (See above)
If you copy from a friend
If you give the truth a bend
If you run instead of walk
Or shout instead of talk
If you forget your pencil case
If you make a funny face
If your pages are all blotchy
Your teacher will go potty
If you walk over the grass
If you pick your nose in class
If your reading book gets lost
You’ll have to pay the cost
If you’re talking at the back
If your finger nails are black
If you’re late in your arriving
Not much chance of your surviving
If you fail the tables test
If you take a little rest
If your games kit’s being washed
Or your topic’s sort of squashed
If you jump the dinner queue
If your name’s scratched on the loo
If your homework is in late
Then you’ll have to meet your fate
If you’re sent to see the head
If his face gets kind of red
If he reaches for the phone
And makes contact with your home
Do you always write humorous poems?
No, but I do write a lot of humorous verse; I find it very useful in performance. I like to write about many different subjects in many different ways. My favourite free verse poem is called “The First Bit”. I wrote it for a World Book Day poetry book, “The Rhyme Riot”, published by Macmillan. There’s a poem in there by someone called Roger Stevens as well, so it must be worth buying!
THE FIRST BIT
I love the first bit of the morning,
The bit of the day that no one has used yet,
The part that is so clean
You must wipe your feet before you walk out into it.
The bit that smells like rose petals and cut grass
And dampens your clothes with dew.
If you go out, you will bump into secrets,
Discover miracles usually covered by bus fumes.
You will hear pure echoes, whispers and scuttling.
I love the first bit of the morning
When the sun has only one eye open
And the day is like a clean shirt,
Uncreased and ready to put on;
The part that gets your attention
By being so quiet.
Did you write poems at school?
Yes. When I was 11 years old I saw my first poem in print, in the school magazine. It was about a guinea pig running about in a garden at the same time as someone was cutting the grass…must have been a disturbed child! Can’t find it now. I also wrote a play when I was about 13 years old – it took up a whole exercise book and I thought I might get into trouble. However, my teacher got the office staff to type it up and make a set of copies for the English Department to use with classes. I was dead chuffed. I think it was then that I discovered that it gave me a great buzz. Can’t find the play now, either, so you’ll have to take my word for it!
What do you do in your spare time?
I do lots of housework and shopping and washing and… feel sorry for me yet? (I’m going to show this to my family!) I also: go to church (what a good girl); go to the cinema (what an ‘in touch’ girl); go to the theatre and art galleries (what a cultured girl); and watch a lot of football (what a laddish girl)! I support Manchester United – and, no, I’m not a glory supporter, I’ve supported them ever since I could say the word ‘foul’!
Sort of team!!
What did you do before becoming a poet?
What, as well as the housework and shopping and washing and…? I used to be an English teacher in a large comprehensive school.
What advice would you give to young poets?
Read, read, read! If you want to learn anything you have to observe other people doing that thing, to see how they go about it. If you hear that a poet is giving a reading locally, try to get along to listen. You’ll probably find that their performance makes the most of the words they’ve used. Also, take an interest in words and play around with them until you find out their amazing potential.