An interview with
Allan Ahlberg

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What kind of poems and stories do you write?
I enjoy writing different kinds of things so it isn't just prose and verse, it's also long and short, it's happy and sad, books with letters in them, books with holes in them. It entertains me to try and make a different book each time. I don't always succeed, but that's what interests me.

When did you start writing poems?
When I was really quite young, when I was twelve, I enjoyed writing when I was at school. My handwriting was poor, my spelling was awful, I didn't punctuate very well so I didn't get very good marks, but I enjoyed writing and I did write the odd poem then. But I guess more effectively I began writing poems twenty-odd years after that in my thirties and I began to find things happening in schools that interested me and I found instead of writing stories I found that what I had to say turned into a little poem or verse.

Where do you get your ideas from?
Many of the poems I've written about school life were from things I saw and heard in schools, things that children told me or things that I remembered when I was a child in school. But it's also true that things just pop into your head or that you make things up that never happened, they can be part of poems and verses as well. Finally I would say that in a way I don't actually want to know where I get my ideas from. It worries me sometimes that I'd be a bit like a man who's got a watch and he says, "I wonder how this watch works?" and he takes it to bits, puts all the bits on the table, has a good look and then tries to put them back together again and can't, so he can no longer tell the time, and I think if I analyse too closely what I do I may not be able to do it, so I just get on with it by instinct and see what happens.

How important is the look of a poem on the page?
I think the way poems and stories are printed and made into books, the way they appear on the page matters a great deal to me really. Most of the books of verse that I've done have been illustrated and when I'm lucky enough to get an illustrator like Fritz Wegner, for example, it matters hugely that not only is there a poem on the page, but there is a delightful picture that Fritz has produced. But then of course it's not just the page, but the sequence of pages, the way, of course with a book you turn from one page to the next, the whole book, from cover to cover, the actual look of the cover, the end papers if there are any. I'm actually a book maker I think, consequently the whole making of the book interests me. I start with writing something, but the job isn't finished until there's actually a book on a shelf, preferably in a shop or in someone's hand after they've bought it.

When you finish writing a book of poems, what happens next?
Often an important decision is what is the type-face and that controls the whole look of the book, and then of course you're involved in collaborating not only with an illustrator, but a designer. I've been lucky to work with a designer who's also a friend of mine, Douglas Martin. Douglas chose the type and designed the pages for a book of poems I did called The Mighty Slide. I like the look of the pages in that book very much. Unfortunately not too many other people seemed to like the poems themselves, so you may not have heard of it. The Mighty Slide - see if you can find it.

How long does it take you to write a poem?
Yes a common question, how long does it take to write a poem? The easy answer is of course, "How long is a piece of string?" Some poems have only four lines some poems go on for ten pages in my case. I write stories in verse at times. So I think the quickest would be five or ten minutes and you never have to change it. It all comes out in one single bit. In other cases I've had to keep poems for years because I had three quarters of a poem, but I couldn't find the ending or there was a bit that wasn't any good. I remember when my daughter Jessica was six going to a school assembly, which was about time and I stood at the back of the hall with other parents watching the little children do a show about time, digital watches, calendars, the phases of the moon and they did a little play with a six-year-old little old grandma, hurrying her family through the day and I made notes at the back and the notes that I made effectively was a poem called 'The Infants Do an Assembly about Time' so that poem took me the time it took to write those notes which was perhaps ten minutes.

Where do you write?
Most writers like to find a place to work which is away from the house they live in and mostly through my life I've had sheds down in the garden and I have one now in this house that we've moved to in the last year or two. I like the idea of leaving the house and going somewhere else, quite small, a little room where I can make a cup of coffee and gaze out of the window, think of various things and occasionally write the odd word, but it always needs to be away from the house. I sometimes write on trains when I'm travelling around. I rarely write anywhere else with good results unless it's in the particular little shed or room away from the house that I have sorted.

Does music play a part in your writing?
I think music does have a part in the poems and verses I try to write, because quite often, what I'm writing is a sort of song. Some of the poems in my books are actually called songs and some of them are set to tunes, either traditional tunes that everybody knows, or the occasional Broadway tune even, or old folk song, but also a tune or a rhythm that's in my mind to start with and I'm fitting the words to the tune, so yes, music - melody and rhythm - has a part in some of the verses that I've written.

Do you write with a particular reader in mind?
In one sense I do write for a particular audience, which is what I guess most writers do, I write for myself. I like the possibility of an idea and I pursue it and try to finish it. And generally then other people will decide whether this is a piece of work which entertains babies or twelve-year-olds. You can have a book that can be enjoyed by all sorts of children. In a way it could be that you have a book that's a bit like an onion: initially the baby might enjoy the book but when the baby becomes three or four he or she could enjoy the book all over again in a different way because there are other things in the book. The book still might be enjoyable when the baby has grown into a child, a ten-year-old. Adults too can find things in picture books that appear to be for the little child but can contain things for the parents, luckily because the parents may have to read the book to the child thirty times in a fortnight and be sick of it.

I'd like to be a writer, what should I do?
If you feel like becoming some sort of a writer you have to find a way of getting the words down on paper in some form or other, preferably regularly in a place that you go to, a door that you close, with a note on the door saying "Do not disturb, writer at work" and keep doing it and fail and do it again and fail and hope that at some point you get good enough at it to satisfy yourself and then maybe somebody else.

What's your favourite of the poems you've written?

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What do you like doing when you're not writing?
This is one of my favourite activities (Keepie Uppies). If there were another ten people in my team, I'd just do this around Beckham and all of them. It's quite nice on the grass. We can do this on the internet for about four hours. I would like to dedicate that display of football skill to the best team in the land, West Bromwich Albion. Up the Baggies!

Select bibliography

  • Cops and Robbers, London, Heinemann/Penguin, 1978
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  • Please Mrs Butler, Penguin Books, 2003
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  • The Mighty Slide, Penguin, 1988
  • Heard it in the Playground, Penguin, 1989
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  • The Mysteries of Zigomar, London, Walker, 1997
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  • Friendly Matches, Penguin, 2001
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  • Allen Ahlberg Reading from his poems, The Poetry Archive, 2005
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  • Collected Poems, Puffin 2008
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  • Everybody was a baby once, Walker Books 2010
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