How important is poetry?
Poetry isn't really important, it's necessary. There have been lots of tribes in the history of the world who've had no education, no schools, no television, no all sorts of things, but every tribe in the world has always had poetry. Sometimes it's poetry that's song and dance, sometimes it's poetry that's recited in a trance - it's all sorts of poetry. But you can't have a tribe without poetry. And if you have a country without poetry it's an impoverished country. It's like a country without music - unimaginable.
Where and when do you write?
I write in my house, at home usually - I have a small room in which I have an Applemac, and I work on that some of the time and then sometimes I go into a bigger room which I've got which I call my study, rather laughingly, where I do what I also laughingly call research - which means reading lots of books by other people, and lots of poetry, and newspapers, and sometimes doing a crossword, or just talking to the dog. But I write wherever I am: I carry little cards, little library file cards in my pocket and always about three pens, and wherever I am I scribble things down while they're hot, and I take them back and I then look at them and see, you know, I throw away some of the cards, I say oh that's rubbish . . . that's rubbish . . . that's rubbish . . . ooh that's a good one, needs some work, yeah, cut out the boring bits, and maybe I get enough cards and they form themselves into a poem sometimes.
How does a poem begin for you - with an idea, image or phrase?
It's usually, a poem begins by words in my head starting to do acrobatics or having fun or just repeating themselves. Yesterday what happened was I'd been watching a documentary about Bob Dylan the night before; and it was very exciting, and I went out with my head full of Dylan, and I was walking my dog on Hampstead Heath, and along a hillside and I started off with a sort of a line about walking on a hillside, "My trainers drenched in dew/One of my legs is longer than the other, but only by a sentimental metre or two/My head was kind of empty I was thinking of you" And it was sort of coming out a bit Bob Dylan-ish. "And it was something else" (that's the chorus) and that was sort of coming out as a song and I was writing it in my head as I walked along to the beat, which I was walking and it was about the fact that I was walking -So it can be that, or it can be I'm on a bus: I travel a lot on the bus because I have a free bus ticket these days, and I listen to people on buses and they talk to each other and sometimes they talk on their beautiful little mobile phones and they talk very loudly and I write down what they say. I'm a spy on the bus, and I write down things and sometimes I turn them into poems. So a poem can begin like that or it can begin by reading a newspaper and getting excited or moved or angry or sad or happy by something I read and I start writing about it. Or it can be a phone call, it can be what my wife says to me at breakfast, or doesn't say at breakfast, or the way that my dog looks at me, it can be anything starts a poem, anything at all. I don't go looking for them, I've got enough to write about for the rest of my life, and for the rest of several more lives.
Can you remember the first poem you wrote?
I can because my mother wrote them down, some of them. When I was about two and a half, I used to go round the house shouting rhymes, and some of them went, 'Molly and Polly get your dolly', and 'Gertie and Bertie don't be dirty'... But the first one I can remember that I wrote for other people was - I was about seven and I wrote a poem about Christopher Columbus, a pretty bad poem about Christopher Columbus which I'm not going to do for you, and at that time I was writing to please my friends, just to make my friends laugh, really. And when I was fourteen I started to write because I fell in love, and I didn't know what to do with it, and so I wrote poems every night to this girl I didn't see except once a year, and never showed them to her. And at the same time I was writing poems about war, because I was getting very angry about war and trying to find out why it was that people killed each other. So I was writing poems to try and understand love, and to try and understand war.
What is the relationship between your speaking voice and your writing voice?
I'd like the voice in which I speak poems to people to certainly be my own voice. I don't want to turn it into a solemn poetry voice, which I detest. I hate that kind of pompous, serious, "This is poetry so listen" voice. Can't do it. I hate it. I want it to be real. And I want it to use my own rhythms, my own speech rhythms, but I intensify them for poetry, and what I'm aiming at is somewhere in between speaking and singing. That's what I'm going for when I'm doing poems out loud. Sometimes I use my own voice, sometimes I use voices of other people - people I've met, enemies, friends, famous people - different styles, like I do some Country and Western poems sometimes, and I have to do an accent for that, and I've got a Scottish poem that I do, using my father's Scottish accent as far as possible, and I get away with it in Scotland. So, you know, it varies, I like to vary it. When I'm doing a poetry reading it's a variety show: I like to have a sad poem and then a serious poem and then a funny poem and then an angry poem. I like a patchwork quilt of different moods and different kinds of poems, so, yeah, different voices for different poems.
What do you think should be the relationship between a poet and the society he or she lives in?
I used to dream about the bomb and I sometimes still dream about the bomb because the bomb hasn't gone away to fairy-land - it's still above our heads. So I react to these things. And I react to the fact that we've got an incredible number of poor people in this country, and throughout the world there are an awful lot of poor people, and there's a war between the rich and poor people, and so I take notice of these things. I try to write about everything. I write about nature, I write about dogs, I write about high art, I write about low art, I write about the people I love especially, and I write about politics and war, and peace. Peace most of all. But I can't tell anyone else what to do, and I wouldn't want to. Poetry is a free country, a really free country: you've never been in such a free country. And there's room for everybody. Well, just about, I mean I'd kick you out if I thought you were a racist. Or a fascist. Or you were trying to tell me what to write. No, don't let's do that to each other. When people ask me "can I do this in a poem?" I say "yes". I spend a lot of my time saying "yes". When I work with children, they say "Can I write about my dog?", "Can I write about my football team?" Yes. Yes yes yes yes. So I like to say yes. My poetry likes to say yes. And I'm sorry so much of my poetry says no, but so much of the world is poisoned and painful and dangerous, so I say no as well as yes.
Do you think poetry ignores more or fewer people now than when you first started writing?
Way back, I said and wrote, "Most people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people." And at that time I'm sure it was true in England: published poetry was very much the prerogative of male, middle class, university-educated poets. Now there have always been a lot of poets who are none of these things, but they weren't getting a shake, they weren't getting the exposure, they weren't getting their books published. Well, luckily, Michael Horovitz came along in 1959 and ran a magazine called New Departures, and then started a sort of circus for poets to go round performing, called Live New Departures, and that led to a huge explosion of poetry readings in this country. There were very few when I was young: there were about ten poetry readings in Britain a year. And now there are thousands. And this has led to an expansion of poetry in all senses - I mean we have all kinds of poets being published, and some of them are intellectual and academic, but not all of them by any means, and that's right because the days when only very difficult poetry could be published are gone, are gone for good, and now we know that a poet can be quite clear in what he or she is saying or they can be very complicated and it doesn't matter if the poetry's good. As long as the poetry's good. As long as the poetry's good there's room for everyone - there's room for all good poets, whatever kind - whatever belief, whatever colour, whatever sexual preference, whatever - you know. There's room for everyone.
What advice was most helpful to you when you began to write?
I think it was Allen Ginsberg on New Year's Day, 1964, in New York City, and it was the morning, and I'd been asked to do a reading in a New York coffee house at about ten o'clock in the morning. New Year's Day, hey - who's going to turn out? Well, a couple of English friends turned out, and about six Americans, who included Allen Ginsberg, and his boyfriend, Peter Orlovsky. And Allen was very kind. He stayed, he listened, and at the end he said "Well, I think a lot of your poems are very uptight because you're writing in such strict form and things like that. It doesn't seem natural. But I think you should listen to the way you talk and take those rhythms and use them. You've got to listen to those rhythms in your own voice and use them to drive the poem along, use them to find out how long the lines of your poem ought be, and so on. And there's this poem you've done about your mother, which is in free verse, and I like it better than any of the others." And I said, "Well, it's not finished." And he said "Well, no, but, maybe it is!" And, yeah, Allen was very understanding, was a very understanding poet. He was a great poet, and he helped a lot of people. So that was the best advice I had.
Do you write with a specific audience in mind?
When I'm writing, I quite often beat out the rhythm or walk around trying to get the right rhythm on the poem, and so I do think about the audience a bit. Sometimes I write a poem specifically for somebody, and sometimes I name them, sometimes I just think "Hey, would Albert understand this, or would Celia like this bit, would it make them laugh?" With plays, of course, it's even more: when I'm writing a play for children, I think about my grandchildren and I think "Would Lola understand this? What would Lola like in this play? She likes ponies very much: maybe I could get a pony in this play..." And so it's very good, I think, to write for a particular person, to have that person at the back of your mind - not necessarily when you're writing your first draft but when you're thinking about your first draft and rewriting and thinking "Would this work for this person?" Because all the great children's writers, for instance, wrote for particular children -Lewis Carroll wrote for Alice, the real-life Alice, Edward Lear wrote for the children of his friends, Beatrix Potter wrote for specific children that she knew. And that's a good guide, I think: you don't write for children in general because it doesn't work, there aren't any children in general. You don't write for adults in general, you write for your friends. Or your enemies, if you like. Write with somebody in mind, maybe. Or re-write with somebody in mind. Because poetry is a gift, so the only point is to give it. I mean, just writing for yourself, well it may satisfy you, but it's no use to me or anyone else. Poetry is a gift so give it with open hands.
Tell Me Lies, Bloodaxe Books 2009Buy
Umpteen Pockets, Hachette 2009Buy
Daft as a Doughnut, Orchard Books 2004Buy
Dancing In The Street (editor), Orchard Books 1999Buy
Balloon Lagoon, Orchard Books 1997Buy
The Orchard Book of Poems (editor), Orchard Books 1995Buy
All My Own Stuff, Simon and Schuster 1991Buy
Strawberry Drums (editor), Macdonald 1989 - out of print
Nothingmas Day, Allison and Busby, 1984 - out of print