When I was seven, I wrote an endlessly marvellous ballad all about Fairyland, in a school exercise book. Someone, my mother the chief suspect, threw it out, and Fairyland never breathed again. Had I made it all up? Of course. Undaunted, a year later I copied out a clever verse I fancied (a four-liner translated into English) by Madame Perrault, famous collector of fairy stories: it was her ending moral on the story of Bluebeard. Four perfect lines, rhyme, rhythm, morality and wit! My older brother read it and stared at me with new, amazed eyes. It took him about ten more minutes to check out the book, and sadly, all of a sudden, I wasn’t a Judith Shakespeare-to-be after all. Still, it’s not impossible my short happy dishonesty first seeded the idea of a poet.
Child then teenager. I wrote crummy ballads, then Wordsworthian blank verse about glorious nature and me, and so on, up to college days. Then I read The Wasteland. That was it, I more or less gave up. I took to having babies and, later, to painting. In 1973, quite accidentally, I read and was driven by Sylvia Plath’s The Colossus. Following this revelation of what language could do, I took my vengeance on the destroyer of Fairyland all those years before. I wrote a furious anti-mother poem. But it unleashed the daemon or demon or the hardworking muse, come to that. After many months of frantic writing, I joined an eccentric poetry circle, and out of that sprang a foursome. We were the Prodigal Daughters – I was (secretly) no longer Judith but Lilith.
We trod the boards wherever we could, and read our poems about motherhood and witches and revolt. I had already written on women’s emancipation – Women in Revolt, it was called (not revolting women, as Victorian misogynists called feminists). Inspired by Seventies feminism, I came almost dazzled to the idea that I might compose a poem that said something important to other women too. It was then and still seems a very satisfying aim, but readers aren’t necessarily lined up so neatly: all my poems from first to last have really been written for whoever wants to read them.
As for me, the chameleon nature of English in its written and spoken form both enchanted and infuriated me from one day to the next. But I wouldn’t, couldn’t give up. I was the prisoner of that house of endless, whispering voices, now metrical, now free verse, now slipping between that and the old iamb. The rhythm or rhythms set the tone, my mood or obsession set the tone which set the rhythm or rhythms: a circular dance if I was lucky and listened, a fall flat on the face as often.
Feminism meant so much because by then I was deeply conflicted by my wife and mother role and particularly by the image I felt it locked me into, another kind of house. Then came a car crash which made it literally hard to get out of the ‘prison house of home’ (as Victorian feminists called it) and find work as the children grew up. So therapy as poetry, yes, of course. I wrote to save my self. To open what was closed.
How odd that some British writers still mock this fundamental reason why writers may need to write or artists to paint or film-makers to make movies. Every writer, artist, every film-maker knows the craving to make good magic out of bad. To spin gold out of flax. If you can. If we can. To sit out the night and see what spins from the spinning wheel. And it isn’t poor old fairyland, it’s the real thing.
In 2007 Judith received the Cholmondeley Award for Poetic Achievement.