Why is poetry important to you?

Poetry is important because it reaches the places that other kinds of writing can't reach. I became aware of this myself when I was working as a receptionist in a hospital, and saw how much the doctors and nurses had to leave out of the queernesses and sadnesses of the patients because they were confined to prose. Prose is all right but it's a young brother compared to poetry. It didn't begin to exist until well on in the career of poetry. Poetry has all the voices - wit, sincerity, pastiche, tragedy, delight, and most importantly it's with us from the start of our lives to the end: at the start of our lives, with lullabies and mothers crooning to babies, at the end of our life, with hymns over a grave. It's there all the time, and for the biggest moments of all.

What would you like to be if you were not a poet?

Well, my desires are totally unrealistic. I'd like to be either a musician in an orchestra or a mountaineer. A musician in the orchestra because I think it would be so nice to do things with other people, and have the same feeling of joy and triumph when it was all over. And a mountaineer because I should like to be exposed to all that space and that vision and the courage of the people who do it. But as I have no head for heights and I also have no ear for music, both of those are absolutely dead in the water.

Where do you write?

Everywhere, and nowhere. Good places are in trains and on the top of buses; as far as home is concerned, I actually get down to writing a proper version in the kitchen as a rule. What I like is the fact that the place is not bothered by expectations; I don't have to feel that anybody thinks I'm going to be writing something important. I'd like to be like Jane Austen, scribbling away and then putting it under the blotter when somebody comes into the room. The really basic thing as far as I'm concerned is the pens. I have three pens; I keep them in my left hand pocket, and they're always there because if I haven't got a pen I'm really lost: I don't remember my brilliant insights! And the other useful thing which I recommend to people who write is when you're stuck, go upstairs or, if you've got a hill handy go up a hill. The actual motion of going up a hill or going upstairs seems to dislodge whatever it is that's got in the way.

How does a poem begin for you?

A poem begins in all sorts of ways. Sometimes I stalk a poem and try to overhear what people are saying, as I did with various poems about Wotton characters. But, more likely, people suddenly tell me things - not because of any gift of mine but because they want to talk - and this will give me, frequently, the best sort of material for writing a poem. The one I'm thinking of is called 'The Constant Tin Soldier', and it's about a man, a soldier, in 1918, who was on the losing side when the Germans were making a great push, and he found he had to retreat on his own. He was alone, his friend died - all these solitary feelings that he had because he was used to being part of a group. And when he told me all this, which he did in a house otherwise empty, I was overcome by the need to tell other people what he had told me about retreating and solitude. And then, of course, there's what other people say, just passing them by in the street: there's often a rich mine of information, and an image, a phrase, an idea - all of those will just come and beautifully come. Sometimes you spend a lot of time writing about them and then decide that there isn't anything there after all, and of course that's a common experience, but sometimes you find that just one single word or an idea will set you off.

Is there a relationship between your speaking voice and your written voice?

Trouble with my voice is I don't like it. Whenever I hear it, I think "Oh dear, does it sound like that? I hoped it didn't!" So that I'm quite keen to get other people's voices in on the act. And then Rosie (Rosie Bailey) does all the speaking voices: she has a marvellous version of Macbeth in which Lady Macbeth speaks pure Morningside, and McDuff speaks pure Highland and the sons of Duncan speak rather classy English. I mean she can do all that and hear them and I can't do that kind of thing so I just use my voice for galumphing along and keeping the rhythm going, not trying to make a big point with it - because what you don't say, of course, is as important as what you do say.

How does being English affect your poetry?

I should mention first that I'm so old that I remember the last war when I was a child growing up and therefore I remember England as under siege, a feeling of bombs being about to drop and things of that sort. And that meant, for some reason, the impact on me was the specialness of England and the English language. I like being at home, which is the essence of England I suppose, but I don't like to miss the point of things. And when I'm abroad I feel I'm missing so many subtleties - it's quite easy to miss the point. And I was lucky that my course at Oxford included Old English which gave me a sense of continuity because the language hasn't changed all that much, though a lot has been added. There's a pleasure as a writer in using such an experienced language, a language with so many words in it that you can use in so many different ways.

How do you think poetry is best taught in schools?

I think it's best taught by, ideally, people who love poetry. You can't teach poetry in a sort of detached way or a clinical way without spoiling something that's basic to the poetry. Of course a very important thing, which people are much better about nowadays, is getting the children to write themselves and there are various competitions for children as well as just doing it in terms of the school magazine. And the seven to elevens have a wonderful brightness and spontaneity which you probably won't catch again so it's important to get them to write when they're that age. And of course the twelves to eighteens have all the excitement of widening experience - all the possibilities are opening up to them. So, I think, write and be surrounded by people who are keen on poetry is the thing.

Can you read me one of your poems?

This is a poem about having my photograph taken. Not only having my photograph taken but having a cameraman come from London to do it. Unfortunately he came in autumn, in November - not the best time for me because he wanted it to be out of doors on a fairly high local hill. And I knew before we started that my hair would not look its best.

Awkward Subject

'The light is wonderful!' he says. 
Not light For house agents, certainly.
They avoid November shots, when wisped and bony trees
Throw a disturbing shade on property.
'Stand there! Just a bit further. Don't look at the dog.'
My casual adaptation to the place
(One hand in pocket, right knee slightly bent)
May not be what I mean, but is in danger
Of immortality.
I feel my teeth support me
Against my inner lip; face him with all my skin.
Sensing my misery, 'Would you rather smile?'
He asks.
And break the lens, I hope.
Words are my element.
Photograph them.

from Collected Poems 1978-2003 (Peterloo Poets, 2005), copyright © U. A. Fanthorpe 2005, used by permission of the author and the publisher.




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