Can you tell our readers a little bit about your new poetry collection A Bad Influence Girl?
It’s published by The Rialto, the UK’s leading independent poetry magazine. The Rialto also publish pamphlets (a collection of about 25 poems), they only publish one or two a year so I was very pleased to be chosen. A Bad Influence Girl is really a collection of poems of the imagination – they have been described as surreal, although I didn’t have surrealism in mind when I wrote them. I’d describe them as poems that are populated by interesting characters doing interesting things.
Which poem did you get the most satisfaction in writing from the collection?
The title poem, I think, because it does something with sound that I haven’t been able to do as successfully in other poems. I’m very interested in sound and the concept of sound as meaning and I think that this poem manages to use sound in an interesting and appropriate way. When I read it, I like the way it feels when I say the words, and I think that’s always a good measure of how effective a poem is. A lot of my poems gather dust because even though I think they are good poems I just don’t get any pleasure from reading them, none of the ones in A Bad Influence Girl are like this I hasten to add.
Do you have a favourite?
My poems are a bit like children, I’d hesitate to name a favourite – they all have their moments! But I suppose right now my favourite is, ‘The Lovely Garden’, which is quoted below. It’s a poem that I have had a lot of feedback on, and that’s a great feeling. Someone told me that they read the poem to their partner, who didn’t like poetry at all, and that he really liked it and wanted to be buried in a circle because of it. It’s very nice to have written a poem that strikes a chord with people.
You recently completed a Masters in Creative Writing, what was your creative writing background before this and why did you decide to take the Masters?
I didn’t have any creative writing background to speak of, I chose creative writing simply because there wasn’t another suitable MA at my local university, and I was keen to return to academic study. My partner had done a creative writing course and I used to always think that there was no way I could do it, just writing to order like that, I didn’t think of myself as creative in that way, although I am creative artistically, drawing and so on. Then one day when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, I had a moment of realization, that whatever I do should be connected to words in some way, because I love words, the way words are arranged in songs and films and so on and also I had always been good at academic work, I actually like writing essays. At first I thought journalism would be good choice, and it would be, in another life, but not this one. So I thought, I’d try creative writing and see where that led. I loved doing my Masters, it didn’t even feel like work, and that’s apparently a good sign that you are doing what you are meant to be doing.
When did you realise that poetry was your passion over prose?
Throughout my whole life I hadn’t really understood what the appeal of poetry was, what the point of it was, and I know I’m not alone in thinking this. When I started my MA, the first week we did a writing exercise in class, and I wrote a prose piece which was diabolical, and the homework was to take a line from it and make a story or poem out of it. I had no ideas for a story so thought I’d quickly write a poem, how difficult could it be? From this moment I saw the potential of poems, it took writing one to actually understand how poems can be put together, how there can be subtext and how what is unsaid can be as important as what is said. The whole thing was enlightening, all week I played around with the poem, editing it and getting it right, it wasn’t very good, but I loved the process. From that point on it was poems, poems, poems.
You did a project in a prison that was very successful during your masters, can you expand on this for us?
As part of the MA students had to choose a project where they took their writing out into the ‘world’, I chose prison because I wanted to challenge myself, to do the thing that I thought would be the hardest thing to do. I wanted to see if firstly I could teach at all, and secondly if I could teach in a difficult environment. I taught a 12 week creative writing course. I figured that most people don’t like poems because they can’t relate them to their lives, they think poems are only about love and birds and flowers. I wanted to show that poems could be exciting. I was very naïve, each week I would take poems in and the students hated every single one of them, they loved writing their own poems and stories, but they just couldn’t be bothered reading them. I tried everything: contemporary, traditional, prison poems, even lyrics from The Arctic Monkeys and The Velvet Underground. I came to the conclusion that poems were a hard-sell in prison. What surprised me though was how much the group, once they got started, loved to write their own poems. It was a successful project in that I got a very good mark for it and also more importantly the group produced a lot of great writing and they didn’t want the course to end, but I don’t think I convinced anyone to read poems for pleasure.
I’ve been back to prison since and taught different groups, and I was able to engage them more successfully with poems, so I definitely think initially some of my methods were flawed. As a teacher you have to constantly adapt, and if you aren’t engaging your students it’s your fault, not theirs. I learned a lot from the experience: about people, life, teaching and poetry.
Did any of the experiences you had whilst there affect this collection?
No, there is nothing about prison in my poems. I would tell my students that you don’t have to be good at English or spelling to write poetry, that their opinions, experiences and ideas were just as valid and interesting as someone with loads of academic qualifications. The men I taught had material that could last a lifetime of writing and I heard lots of fascinating stories while I was working with them, but I’d never use them, they aren’t mine to use.
Who are your main influences in poetry?
My favourite poets are Mark Strand and Charles Simic, but I read very widely and like a lot of different kinds of poems. I am trying not to be just one kind of poet, but would ideally like to try different things so I browse all over the place looking for inspiration and new ways of doing things. I subscribe to several poetry magazines, because I think it’s important to know what other poets are doing, and magazines are a great and relatively inexpensive way to gain access to a wide variety of poems.
Who do you most like to read, both poems and prose?
I don’t read novels very much anymore. I don’t seem to have time, though Paul Auster is my favourite writer. I reread, for nostalgia purposes, A Clockwork Orange and To Kill a Mockingbird every once in a while, because they make me feel happy, maybe because I was very young when I read them first and it takes me back into that mindset of ,‘wow this is what a book can do!’. I mostly read poems, and books about poems. I have several books on the go at any one time. I also like short stories, books about Art, photography, creativity, the brain and learning and anything else that might be useful in generating ideas.
What are your future plans for your poetry?
I’ve just started a PhD at the University of Manchester, so my plans are to get much better at it and to write loads of poems. My pamphlet is still very fresh, so I’m enjoying reading from it at open mics and readings. I’d like to publish more of my work. I want to try different things, to write memorably, to challenge myself and be adventurous with my poems.
What is the best piece of advice you can give to an aspiring poet?
That’s a hard one: I suppose it would be to send out your poems in a steady stream to publishers, ignore rejection, always be taking action to get your poems read and heard. Don’t over analyze which poems to send where, my experience tells me that the poems you least expect or even like are invariably the ones that get chosen. I intend to take that advice myself actually, starting from next week. Oh and write and read a lot!
Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process and how your poems evolve?
I read poems, look at photographs, paintings, watch films or any other activity that might give me ideas, and as soon as something seems interesting I start writing. I write quickly and think about it later. Once the poem is there I edit for a long time and then I like to show it to someone else and get a second opinion. When I can read it out loud and feel that it sounds good, it’s usually done, for the time being at least. That’s the main way, though I sometimes get an idea and do research on it and write in a more methodical way, but on the whole spontaneity tends to work best for me. Furnishing your mind with raw material is very important, so that your brain has an abundance of information and ideas to draw on. If you do that and write a lot, you have always got a store of material to work with, and the more writing you generate the more likely it is that there will be something good there. Invariably, I don’t even recognize what is a good idea straight away, so I keep all my notebooks and look through them periodically to see if I missed something.
You can get a copy of A Bad Influence Girl here: www.therialto.co.uk/pages/pamphlets/janet/
Female First Lucy Walton