Sunday, 23 May 2010
Answers for the Children on the Danish Island of Sejer
How did you start writing poetry?
From a small child I always loved reading. I loved the way you could just put marks on a piece of paper and people could find in them another world, perhaps a pretend one or perhaps a real one that I would never be able to see for myself. The children of Sejer may find it strange but reading helped me also find out things about myself, even when I was very young. In a story I would think, what would I do if I was in the same situation as some of the story characters? So I began by loving reading, loving books and then I eventually came across some poetry books and a teacher that loved to read poems to the class at the end of the day.
So I started out by reading as all poets and writers should do, reading everything I possibly could. Then I thought I wanted to try writing some stories and poems and so I began to write them down, just to please myself.
I kept writing things down and eventually I decided to show some poems to others who’s opinion I valued and they said they were good, so I sent things out to magazines and a few got published. I got many turned down but with all writing and with life you have to keep going and not give up and I began to win some prizes in poetry competition and then eventually I published a small book of poems that a play writer turned into a radio play that was broadcast on national radio which was very successful. Then a big publisher agreed to publish a big collection of my poems and that was published last year.
I work with lots of children in different schools as my day job but I also spend a lot of time going to places all over the country to read my poetry to people. I am also in a poetry group, we are five poets who go to all sorts of different places and festivals and read our poetry in different ways so that people can see that poetry does not have to be boring.
Just the sound of the words can be very exciting, and if a poem has words that rhyme or nearly rhyme the sound of the poem feels right and makes me feel as if it is a piece of music. The rhythm of the words also adds to the excitement, just like a good modern ‘rap artist’ can use rhythm and rhyme to make a song work and stick in your head so can all the good poets. For instance there is a poem called Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll who wrote Alice in Wonderland that is full of nonsense words that he made up but still the sound and rhythm of them feels right as if they should be real words.
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Here is the link to the Muppets performing Jabberwocky Don’t worry if you don’t understand it, just listen to the sound and rhythm of the words.
Poems also make you think very hard about the words you choose because the idea is to use the best possible word in the best possible place so that no word, no sound is out of place. Sometimes a very good poem can say something in just one or two lines that you think would take pages of writing to say. It can be a way of making something very clear and at the same time very beautiful and complex.
It is one of the oldest arts, for thousands of years people have made poems, even before writing was invented people used poems to tell others stories or histories of their tribe. The rhythm and use of the words was a way of making people really listen and also of making it memorable. Tribes from all over the world from Europe to Africa to the Americas and even the aborigines in Australia understood about rhythm and sound and saying a story or something in a poetic rhythmic way so others could experience it and almost feel it in their bodies. Before musical instruments were made people used the beat of a drum or just a stick banging on a hollow log to keep the poem rhythmic. So poetry is very old and I think somewhere deep inside all of us we can feel a good poem almost like a piece of music.
Why do we need poetry for in a modern society?
We don’t need poetry; we don’t need music or art. We just need food, shelter, warmth and air and all the other things we need to survive but if we want to be more than just an animal that survives we may need these other things to make us better people. Music and poetry make us listen; make us think about things in a way we may never have thought about. Art and painting makes us look at things in a different way.
When I was invited to New York with other poetry friends to read our poetry it was just a year after the twin towers had collapsed and the city was still in shock. Everybody felt sad, frightened and most people knew someone who had died in the disaster. All around the city in the big railway stations and on boards near the site of the twin towers, poems started to appear. There were hundreds and hundreds of poems about friends or relatives who had died that day the towers collapsed. Some poems were famous ones written by poets of long ago but many were written by the relatives or friends themselves, simple little poems about how much they loved that person and what they wanted others to know about them.
I think it is common in times of real hurt or pain that people turn to poetry and why is that? I think it is because not only is there comfort to be found in a poem but there is something magical about how words can make some idea or someone live on in your head, it is a way human beings can connect with each other, how they can experience something common and human together.
Poems must also be important and powerful because in countries where freedom and liberty are threatened the poets and writers are often the first people to be arrested as governments know the power of poems and how they can inspire and move people. A long time ago in Chile many people were fighting for freedom against a bad government In one prison cell a poet wrote on the wall in his own blood, ‘The poets are the first to be taken.’
That shows that poetry is not just an old fashioned dead thing but a living thing which can give people hope and courage even when the world seems without hope. A famous Russian woman poet a long time ago had to commit all her poems to memory and then burn them (and she had many of them) because if the government found any paper with her poems on they would arrest her. Later when she was in prison she taught her poems to other women so that when they were released from prison they could tell these poems to others and somehow the outside world would hear how badly people were being treated. If poems were not important in a modern world why would people still put their lives in danger to write them and risk getting others to read them?
It can also help people hear what they are losing and what they need to fight for. Many poets now write about global warming, the loss of species of animals and their poems fly round the world so that others can hear them and perhaps try to change what is happening.
How do you learn to write poetry?
I think the best way to learn to write poetry is to read and listen to it as much as possible. Always keep a little notebook and when you hear something interesting or just a word you like always write it down. Poets have to be very good at listening to others and watching them and the world around them.
When you are older you may want to go on a poetry writing course, I went on many of these. Find out if there is a local poetry club or sometimes a café or place where people go to read or talk about poetry. I go to a café in a town near me every month where people bring poems to read and we chat and talk about poems. The best way to learn to do anything is just by trying to do it. What you write may not be good at first but there is always something to be learnt by looking at it and saying what could you change about it to make it better. Talk about poems you like to others, share your favourite poems with them. I know many people who you think would not like poetry but when you talk to them often they secretly write poems themselves or have a favourite poem. On a train once I happened to sit with a lot of football supporters going to see their team playa match a long way from home. It was a long journey and we started talking to each other and when these young men found out I was a poet they started to tell me all about the poems they liked and two or three told me that they wrote poems themselves including love poems for their girlfriends. So don’t think only certain types of people like poetry, it may surprise you how many people do like it.
What's your favourite poem?
This is very difficult for me as I love so many poems for so many reasons but I suppose one of the first poems that made me really love what poetry could do was written a long time ago in 1684 by an English poet called John Donne. It is very famous here.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
I like this poem because in just fourteen lines it doesn’t tell me things it just shows me a picture in my head of all of us being like little islands and how that seems slightly mad. It makes me think about how each of us is connected in some way and that we cannot ignore others and what happens to them no matter how far away they seem. If we do ignore them and what happens to them, it makes us die just a little inside. We are involved in the world even if we want to think we can live in our own little island and think that what is happening outside in the world will never be anything to do with us. This poem was written nearly four hundred years ago yet I think it is still very powerful and in a time of global warming and other global events it still has a message for us.
If I were to translate this poem into more modern easier English I would perhaps say it like this.
Thought Number 17
No one can be like a little island
all on their own,
everyone is part of the whole world,
the whole thing.
Even if a tiny bit of mud is washed away,
the earth is made a tiny bit smaller
just as much as if a big headland
or your own home
or your friend’s home were swept away.
Each person’s death makes me smaller,
because I am part of all humanity.
Don’t ask why the alarm is ringing,
it is ringing for all of us, you and me.
Your favourite author?
Again I like so many authors but I have always liked Charles Dickens and Jane Austen but I also like many American authors like Raymond Chandler who wrote detective novels many years ago. I also like reading old myths and legends and stories like the Odyssey, which is actually a great adventure story about a soldier trying to get home to his wife and all the ways some of the gods try to stop him getting home. It is a story about how using our wits and your mind is sometimes better than being the best or strongest soldier. Poets I like are too many to list and I think I love particular poems more than everything a poet writes. If I had to choose a modern poet then maybe it would have to be Pablo Neruda a Chilean poet or an American woman poet called Elizabeth Bishop.