Why is poetry important?
Poetry can help us to get in touch with our feelings. It can help us come to terms with the grim reality of life on earth. It can also make us laugh. It can help us celebrate how beautiful the world is. It's memorable if it's any good and lines sink into our consciousness and come back to us - like this weekend - we were driving along a country road and I suddenly said "In full grown thickness every May" which is a line from Larkin's poem 'The Trees'. When my mother was very old and had dementia and could hardly remember anything and could hardly enjoy anything I used to read to her from an anthology of poems she'd won as a school prize - and I knew which ones she liked because she used to read them to me when I was little. And what happened was when I read her these poems she'd known when she was young she would join in - she would remember them and join in, though she could hardly remember anything else, and she would laugh at the funny ones. It was wonderful.
What prompted you to begin writing poetry?
I suddenly began writing poems in my late 20s and I think looking back on it I think there were three things that happened at the same time: one was that I was working as a primary school teacher and I was doing a lot of creative work in music and poetry with the children and that was one thing that got me going; another was that I had just moved into a flat on my own so for the first time there was no one at home to talk to; and the third thing was that I'd been in psychoanalysis for six months when I suddenly began writing and I was getting in touch with some powerful feelings I didn't know I had and I needed some way of expressing them. So I think those are the reasons I suddenly began writing poems.
How does a poem begin for you, with an idea , a form or an image?
It's not with any of those things - it's usually some words. There's usually some words in my head that I think oh that could be a line of a poem. Sometimes it's that I'm feeling very emotional about something and if I'm feeling intensely about something then I think there might be a poem there and I'll start looking for some words to express the feeling.
A lot of your work is in strict form. How do you choose the form of your poems?
Sometimes I know what form I want to write a poem in. Sometimes there's a bit of trial and error and it only gradually becomes clear to me what form the poem should be in. Quite often I will begin a poem in free verse and then realise it could be a sonnet or a villanelle or whatever. Sometimes it will change from one form to another - what will sometimes happen is that I'll start off in quite a short form like a triolet and then I'll realise there's more to say so I'll have to expand it into a longer form. Sometimes I'll try out a form...sometimes I'll write something just as an exercise, as a way of trying to master the form but those aren't usually publishable.
Are there any forms you haven't tried but would like to?
There are - I haven't written anything in ottava rima for example or in rhyme royal and there's various kinds of rondels and roundels. I can do a Chaucerian roundel and I've done more than one but when I try other kinds of rondels and roundels it doesn't quite seem to work out so I've written those as exercises. I don't experiment as much as I ought to because if I'm seized by an idea for a poem then you know I tend to fall back on forms I'm familiar with and I know I can do and I should experiment more with form. I look at Kipling and I see how he invented his own forms - and I mean I occasionally do do that now - I occasionally...I realise I don't have to restrict myself to forms that have been used in the past; I can make up one that happens to suit me for that particular poem.
What conditions help you with your writing process?
A certain amount of time on one's own I think is important. It could be somewhere where there's other people, like a train, as long as there's nobody you know wants to talk to you. I don't listen to music or anything when I'm writing because if I've got music on I listen to it - I can't concentrate on my work. I'm always very surprised when I hear about people listening to music while they write. If I haven't written anything for a while and I want to get myself going there are two things: one is reading some poems, and the other is writing anything, writing my diary or writing anything and if I do those two things for a bit usually some idea for a poem will come up.
Where do you write?
I have a study and I suppose most of my writing is done in my study. But the wonderful thing about writing poems is that all you need is a biro and a piece of paper and the back of an envelop will do so you can do it anywhere. And I've been very tough with myself about not getting superstitious about you can only write in a particular place with a particular pen and a particular notebook or whatever because then you're actually free to do it anywhere. And I've deliberately gone on writing my poems in longhand not on a computer - obviously I put them on a computer later - but I don't want to get so I can't write unless I'm with my computer.
What is the relationship between your speaking voice and your written voice?
Well, the way I read my poems is the way I like them to be read. Although I have heard them read very well by actresses who just seem to get the right idea. It doesn't work if the actress is too young, for example - I've heard occasionally my poems being read by an actress who sounded very young and sounded kind of surprised by everything and I suppose there's a slightly world-weary tone in my poems and in the way I read them which is appropriate.
What do you see as the role of humour in poetry?
I don't set out to write humorous poems it's just sometimes my sense of humour gets into them - well quite often. As a reader I suppose I laugh when I recognise something - I think laughter often is when you recognise something is true but you'd never actually allowed yourself to think that or you'd never heard it put quite so well. I think it's possible for a poem to be funny and serious at the same time and I get very annoyed with the assumption that if a poem is funny then it can't be saying anything important and deeply felt. Some of my poems are just playful and could accurately be described as 'light verse' but I think in a lot of my poems, although there's humour in them, they are saying something that matters and something that's deeply felt and I don't think...I think those things can co-exist in the same poem.
On Shakespeare's Sonnets: A Poets' CelebrationBuy
Family Values, Faber and Faber, 2011
Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems 1979-2006, Faber 2009Buy
George Herbert: Verse and Prose (editor), SPCK, 2003Buy
Heaven on Earth: 101 Happy Poems (editor), Faber...Buy
Big Orchard Book of Funny Poems (editor), Orchard, 2000Buy
The Faber Book of Bedtime Stories (editor), Faber...
The Funny Side: 101 Humorous Poems (editor), Faber...Buy
If I Don't Know, Faber & Faber, 2001Buy