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Thursday, 19 April 2018

THREE POETS WHO HAVE INFLUENCED/INSPIRED/BEEN GOOD TO ME

This is a blog post about three poets who have in some way had a positive impact on me. I'm not merely talking about poets whose writing has influenced my own - there are far too many people to mention in that respect. Rather, I'm talking about poets who have been, in a more rounded, personal sense, influential in my development from bumbling, clueless graduate to professional poet and performer. (Some might say I'm still bumbling and clueless.)

Neal Zetter

When I was twenty-four I had just finished university. Towards the end of my first year as a Philosophy undergraduate at UCL, I decided that the best thing for me to do would be to indefinitely postpone my entry into the 'real world', and to remain a student for as long as possible. I therefore put all of my energy into my academic studies, went on to complete a two-year Masters programme, and came out the other side emotionally and psychologically drained. I had no real idea what it was I wanted to do next, but I knew I needed something that wasn't academia. I also knew that the world of graduate training schemes at big corporations was not for me. I kind of liked the idea of working with young people, but all my friends who were teachers always went on about how knackered they were. I didn't want to be constantly knackered.

As an undergraduate I regularly attended Poetry Unplugged in Covent Garden, where poets are given five minutes to read or perform anything they want. I had written poetry spontaneously since studying Philip Larkin at A-level, and had a special line in fabulously awful, self-indulgent teenage twaddle. I also wrote the odd comic piece, largely to entertain myself during my studies. I found the buzz of performing my work addictive, and especially enjoyed getting laughs from the audience. The great thing about poetry gigs, unlike stand up comedy, is that you don't have to be funny, but if you are its a bonus. So after my studies I harboured a vague idea that becoming a poet was something I might like to do.

But, Michael Rosen and Roger McGough aside, poetry wasn't a real job; it was just something people did in the evenings after work, right? This is what I thought, until I found an article about Neal Zetter in the Evening Standard. Neal had been doing some work to promote one of the paper's literacy campaigns, and the picture of him was captioned something like 'Neal Zetter, professional comic poet who works with children'. Professional? Comic poet? Works with children? This was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do. I looked up Neal on t'interwebs, sent him one or two of my poems and said, basically, that I wanted to do what he did, and how do I go about doing it. I thought there was probably less than a 50% chance that he would reply to some random stranger.

However, Neal did reply. Not only did he reply, he was very encouraging about the work I'd sent him. We conversed a little bit more, and we're getting married in May...Jokes, jokes. What did happen, though, was that we spoke about the work he did in schools, and he invited me to come and do some 'work experience' with him. I realise now how risky this was: he was inviting me, a total stranger off the internet, to come and 'shadow' him during one of his school visits. He didn't know me from Adam, and he put his professional reputation on the line in having me come and work with him at school. This piece of generosity was hugely important in many ways. Firstly, it was the beginning of a friendship, and secondly it showed me that, yes, you can make a living as a freelance performing poet. Since then, that has been what I've been putting my energy into doing. And incidentally, Neal and I have a joint poetry collection out now with Troika Books.

Tim Clare

Now, I have never actually met Tim Clare, and I'd be surprised if he had any idea who the hell I was. I've only ever spent about twenty minutes in his presence. Why, then, is he on this list? About the same time I met Neal Zetter I started attending poetry gigs on a regular basis. Most of the gigs I went to had both what's called 'open mics' and 'features'. Open mic means, essentially, that anyone can get up on stage and do whatever they like, for about five minutes. Open mic performers might be good or they might be bad. Sometimes they might even be painfully bad; there is generally no quality control. Featured performers, on the other hand, have been specifically invited by the promoter to perform. They usually have a longer time on stage, and sometimes they might even be paid.

Most of my 'featured' work to date has been in my capacity as a children's poet. Even though I have recently published my first collection of grown-up poems, I continue to be heroically ignored by most adult gig promoters. Oh well. Anyway, that's not what this blog post is about. The point is that I have always been the kind of person who longs to run before he can walk, and even when I started attending poetry gigs I hankered after featured slots. I balked at the notion of having to 'put in my time' on the open mic. That was until I attended a night called Bang Said The Gun, at which Tim Clare was featuring. What I experienced caught me off-guard. We are going back about six years, so I might not be remembering everything correctly, but I remember Tim sort of shambling on stage, spending a good ten minutes breathlessly pacing about in a kind of stream of consciousness tirade of hilarity, balancing a pint on his head whilst performing a poem, downing said pint, doing some stuff on a ukelele and generally smashing it. This was the first time I thought to myself 'no, you can't just waltz into the scene and expect to hit the heights straight away; you need to put in a lot of practice. In short, you need to up your damn game'. I was a League Two player who had just caught a glimpse of the Champion's League.

I haven't seen Tim Clare perform since then. I hear he has a novel out. I also think (hope) that I am a much better performer and writer now than I was six years ago. Be all this as it may, watching Tim perform has had an impact on me.

Roger Stevens

The desire to run before I could walk applies equally to publishing as to performance. One of the first things I did after getting the notion that I wanted to be a poet was get myself a copy of the Artists' and Writers' Yearbook and look up the contact details of all the publishers and agents who were interested in children's poetry. At this point I had in my arsenal about twenty-five poems, of which maybe about five were any good. No publishers or agents were interested in a full-length collection from me. However, one piece of advice imparted by the Yearbook was to seek out the names of people who edit anthologies, and to introduce myself to them. So that is what I did; I went into shops, and took down the names of all the editors of the kids' poetry anthologies.

One of the people I contacted was Roger Stevens, whom I had seen had edited many such books. I sent him a couple of my best poems, and asked him, very nicely, if he could consider putting my name on his mailing list for when he next had a commission to edit an anthology. He very kindly obliged, and I ended up having my first children's poetry publication in his book Off By Heart.

This was lovely enough, but it was only the beginning. Another thing Roger did was to invite me to an annual get-together of children's poets. This involved spending a couple of days in a lovely house in Bath with loads of well known children's poets. I was honoured to have been invited along, and I got to know several wonderful poets and people, such as (and I'm sorry here if I've left anyone out!) Michaela Morgan, Liz Brownlee, Ian Bland, Phil Waddell, Celia Warren, Cheryl Moskowitz, Matt Goodfellow, Sue Hardy-Dawson, Andrea Shavick, Jane Clarke and Jan Dean. It was Roger's generosity in inviting me along that enabled me to make some wonderful connections and (more importantly) friendships.

But it still doesn't end there. A couple of years after having had my poem published in his anthology, I cheekily asked Roger if he'd recommend me to his editor at Bloomsbury, where I hoped to pitch a full-length collection. He did, and they liked my work. The result was I Don't Like Poetry, which has gone on to be a wonderful success. I don't really know how to quantify success, but I feel it has been one. So I have a lot to thank Roger for.

Special Mentions

Special mentions must also go to Brian Moses, who was good enough to feature my poetry on his blog long before I had anything of note published, and Michael Rosen, who visited my school with his inspirational poetry show when I was in Year 4, and who subsequently taught on my MA at Goldsmiths College. He was good enough to provide a lovely quote to go on the cover of I Don't Like Poetry. So thanks both!




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