I never asked where Granfer’s love of poetry and the spoken word came from - unlikely to have been from home. He used the public library regularly and, as a lad, had been fascinated by the Mummers. He often made up songs round my name, laughing as he roared them aloud, told me tales of his boyhood, his mate Joe Tie and sometimes chanted lines from the Mummers play:
It cures the itch, the pitch, the pain, the gout,
the pain within and the pain without.
Best of all were days when he would take me on his lap and read aloud from one of his two books. They never left him, those pocket-sized copies of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the poems of Robert Burns. I sat for as long as he chose to read.
From birth until I was four I lived with my parents in a run-down cottage surrounded by scrubby grass with no neighbours or transport of any kind. My only companions were, briefly two goat kids and whatever I found to interest me in the ‘garden’. Plants and small creatures, whatever I saw and touched, sniffed, picked and tasted I grew to love.
When my Mam and I moved to a council estate Granfer came most days to see us.
I look back on these as as highly significant. Granfer’s tales often involved the natural world. When he strode into our back yard I always hoped for a ‘walk’, a fairly silent time when he would raise me up onto his shoulders, stride away from the streets, main road and traffic to the nearest scrap of countryside. I especially loved our outings to the Rabbit Warren. On reaching the lane I would be lowered and instructed: Use your eyes. Use your ears, my Jo. Then I trotted beside him, asking questions but silent as we approached the warren.
Curiosity and a delight in rhyme were further fostered at primary school. Each day I sat transformed as our top class teacher read aloud from prose and poetry, teaching us poetry by heart. He played the piano several times a week, taught us folk songs and, at the end of each day, accompanied us as we sang a hymn.
It was around this age that I began to fantasise about the night sky. In bed, light out, I travelled in my mind, experienced the enormity of the sky-world. A fascination for the sky and what might lie ‘beyond’ has never left me, encouraging me to attempt to read about modern physics and the natural sciences.
I have always tried to encourage the children and young people with whom I work to share my fascination with the natural world - black holes, bower birds, black bees, mountain hares, rhinos, ants, trees and the insects that live on them.
In March this year Grey Hen publish my chapbook for adults Tequila and shooting stars - an intriguing selection of poems around my travels including work I have been surprised and delighted to make.
With Tequila ready for publication I am, at last, ready to focus on work around a lifelong fascination in Nature with a new and celebratory children’s collection. My first-ever collection was for small children and published by international childrens charity UNICEF: Celebration (1993).
I hope my most recent collection will be memorable, drawing on years of believing that our world, Universe and whatever lies beyond is unique, astonishing, magnificent. That it can be weird and terrifying. It will be celebratary, enriched, I hope, by my experiences as writer and poet, tutor and editor and by my travels. I have benefitted greatly from spending time, working with and learning from people in Canada, India, Norway and in the U.S: New Mexico, California, Vermont.
One of the most useful pieces of advice I was given early in my career was If you want to write good poems you must read good poems*. Reading widely, especially from contemporary and early C20th poetry and attending writing courses has been invaluable.
I compare my process when beginning a project or commission to that of tracking a wild animal. For me this means taking time with, perhaps. some research. Play is essential - with colour (paint or textiles), using all my senses as I examine plants, weeds, herbs in my small garden or while taking a walk - not necessarily to the countryside, even streets and gardens of the suburbs can surprise and nourish.
Some years ago I taught alongside an American artist on a residential course. She recommended journalling to our students and since then I have always had one to hand. I scribble in ideas, thoughts, notes, add quotations from newspapers, overheard conversations, tv with clippings from every possible source. It has become habitual.
If I am considering a new project or commission I often turn to these journals, make an intuitive selection and place on my work-table with plain paper and other notes/ reading materials. Then, for perhaps thirty minutes, I paint, go outdoors - in my garden or wandering round the block or nearby memorial gardens.
Feeling ready, I engage in my simple coffee-making ritual, pour out a small mug of coffee and focus for two or more hours………..dipping into journals, etc. mind flowing lightly as I jot down anything of particular interest.
This process continues for another day or two or until I have enough ideas and phrases for a first draft. Then I put this aside to return with a fresh eye next day or in a few days. Once I have some shape I read through my embryo poem aloud, again and again as I edit. I find this to be most useful. For me I gain deeper understanding and a stronger editorial voice if I read work aloud. Unless a word or phrase deserves a place in my poem, clarifying or enriching in some way I delete it.
A good poem can be rich as hot Venetian chocolate but must be sleek as a mountain hare.