An interview with
Jo Shapcott

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Why is poetry important?
I suppose it has to be a matter of faith or belief that poetry is important rather than a matter of fact. Although I'm convinced it's still the language people speak at moments of high emotion: when something terribly important happens to someone they turn first to poetry to express it. And I find this out you know just when I meet people through doing readings or whenever I'm just out. People ask me what I do and I say I'm a poet and they'll 90% of the time say "I wrote a poem once" and if you question them a bit further you'll find they wrote the poem when something terribly important happened - they fell in love or a loved one died - and whatever the result of their writing, it interests me that their instinct was to turn to poetry to find the language to express those feelings. And if that's true, then of course it must still be important. What the question suggests though, "Why is poetry important?", is that there is a gap between people instinctively feeling it's important for their own expression of things of high importance, and their reading of poetry books, and I think that gap is a fact and perhaps a problem.

How does a poem begin for you - with an image an idea or a phrase?
I find it hard to separate those three things and it may be that it comes to me all as one so that the word is the image, and the image is the word. And certainly when words come to you like that you get that tingle and you know a poem is about to happen. To help that along like most poets I guess I've got a very fat notebook full of ideas and those important thoughts that otherwise you'd lose, that you have in the middle of the night, that you jot down - and so that's a great resource, you know a whole kind of tome of teaming ideas which may be bits of conversation I've overheard, maybe something from the paper, or something from my reading, some important quote or just that exciting, tingly image, come language, come phrase that inserts itself into your mind. A few times I get phrases coming to me almost as if they're set to music and they kind of sing into my ear and demand to be written. I wish that happened more - but when that happens it's very satisfying.

How do you edit your poems?
There's absolutely no rule about the editing process for me - it can be very, very lengthy, it can be years, so that the poem is begun and then worked on, put away, worked on over a number of years and even then sometimes abandoned. Or it can be quite speedy - speedy is less often than lengthy. When it's speedy that's very satisfying - when a whole poem plus the drafts come through in one or two days - that is fantastic but not frequent. But the editing is terribly important - a crucial part of the process for me, something I enjoy and something I enjoy doing with other people's work too, both as a teacher and through my work with Arc Publications as a consulting editor.

When and where do you write?
When I'm in Wales I write in a shed at the end of the garden which is really wonderful because it's very peaceful - it has a great view across to the hills, across some fields, so when I look up from my writing I can see hills, sky, and get beautifully distracted. But it's also the quietness that makes it very easy to concentrate. And my best writing in Wales I do very early in the morning, especially in summer when the light wakes you up and the birds wake you up - I go out there about 6am and get two really good hours done.

Can you talk about the importance of sound in your poetry?
I certainly try out poems in my mouth as I'm writing them - I'll often read out loud as I work, and sometimes, very occasionally, whole phrases of poems occur to me almost like phrases of music and I'm very very concerned with the music in the work. My job for a long time actually was working at the Festival Hall (part of the South Bank Arts complex in London) involved quite deeply in all of the arts actually that are performed there, but perhaps especially music. And I spent a lot of time talking to composers and orchestral musicians and soloists about music and about words, what they thought about language and its relationship with music and it was like an incredible university education in what lyrics are and how intonation works - how vowels are percussive, what rhythm is and that is something that's now deeply engrained

What advice was most helpful to you when you first started writing poetry?
I think the best advice I ever had was to try and make your weaknesses your strengths. And that was particularly relevant when I was starting out because - I'm sure many young poets feel like this - that my work felt different from the work of the writers that I admired. And I couldn't see a way that I could ever put myself in their shoes for all kinds of reasons, not least the reason of gender. So it took a while to find my confidence in my own aesthetic and to understand that what I did was not like what other people did but that that was a positive, that things that I might have perceived as weaknesses - for example not having a particular region of the country that I related to, that my work came out of - I mean a good example of someone who does have that is Seamus Heaney who connects language and landscape so strongly that he even talks of "vowel meadows". Now I grew up in a new town where there were certainly no "vowel meadows" and no one way of speaking at all and no connection between language and landscape but what I came to discover was something I now feel is very contemporary - and that is a kind of aesthetic that demands travel, it demands, in a sense, rootlessness and even exile.

Can you read some poems that connect to the Welsh landscape where you're living and writing now?
I'm going to read three from a sequence called 'Gladestry Quatrains' and they're all set in the Welsh borders round where we live. And all have place names, Welsh place names as their titles: 'Gwaithla Brook', 'Cefyn Hir', 'Glas Cwm'

Select bibliography

  • Electroplating the Baby, Bloodaxe, 1988 - out of print
  • Phrase Book, Oxford University Press, 1992 - out of print
  • A Journey to the Inner Eye: A Guide for All, South Bank Centre, 1996 - out of print
  • Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times (editor with Matthew Sweeney), Faber and Faber, 1996
    Buy
  • Motherland, Gwaithel & Gilwern, 1996
  • Contemporary Slovenian Poetry (editor with Francis R. Jones), Bloodaxe, 1996 - out of print
  • Penguin Modern Poets 12 (contributor with Helen Dunmore and Matthew Sweeney), Penguin, 1997
  • My Life Asleep, Oxford University Press, 1998 - out of print
  • Last Words: New Poetry for the New Century, (editor with Don Paterson) Picador, 1999 - out of print
  • Poetry Quartets 5, Audio Cassette, The British Council/Bloodaxe Books, 1999
  • Her Book: Poems 1988-1998, Faber and Faber, 2000
    Buy
  • Elizabeth Bishop: Poet of the Periphery (editor with Linda Anderson), Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Series: 1, 2002
    Buy
  • Discourses (editor), Gulbenkian Foundation and the Royal Society, 2002
  • Tender Taxes: Translations from Rainer Maria Rilke, Faber and Faber, 2002
    Buy
  • George Herbert (editor), Faber & Faber, 2006
  • Jo Shapcott Reading from her poems, CD, The Poetry Archive, 2006
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  • The Transformers, Bloodaxe, 2007
    Buy
  • Of Mutability Faber, 2010
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