When I was a young poet, inexperienced and clueless about publishing, I used to read poetry widely, discovering and taking home books from Widnes library to devour at my leisure. I kept a folder of poems which I could not live without: when I had to return the books, I’d copy out my favourite ones. I still have this file. The poems in it all helped to tune me in to the craft.
I was writing seriously from the age of 14, and used to put together collections of my poems, all neatly copied out, and get people to read them. I was fond of saying to my readers: ‘is THIS a poem?’ ‘And THIS?’ I was published in the school magazine. I made all the usual mistakes that teens often do: big words, portentous style, abstractions. But I kept at it. I was highly commended in a W. H. Smith national competition, and I was awarded a grade 2 for my creative writing portfolio which was a voluntary extra for A level English Literature. Today young poets can enter many excellent competitions and have their own network as part of The Poetry Society, These are fantastic for encouraging young writers.
I walked out of my careers interview at school because I couldn’t get the person advising me to understand when I said I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t mean a secretary. At university the career advice was no better.
I met Matt Simpson and showed him my poems, when I was 19. He said I ‘had something’. The following year, when I was in secnd year of my degree course, I had a poem published in Arts Alive Merseyside, on their poetry page. I didn’t realise that was an achievement. I showed my work to several lecturers. One loved my work, but another one was very critical – she actually rewrote one of my poems for me and turned it into appalling cliche. But I believed her and did not send any more poems out anywhere for ten years! Instead of submitting, I bought a book called Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary by Frances Stillman, and worked my way through every poetic form she includes. I taught myself the craft of poetry, I read ever more widely, I went to readings and I performed at open mics, such as The Why Not in Liverpool. Back then Liverpool was a fantastic place for poets. There were many independent bookshops which stocked poetry books and pamphlets.
By the time I felt ready to submit again, I had graduated, married, lost both my parents after having done a good bit of looking after them, and had a child of my own. I was published in Orbis, Envoi and then had a marvellous acceptance for London Magazine, when Alan Ross was editor. I’d love to say things really took off for me, but it wasn’t like that. I’d never heard of the Gregory, so never applied for that. I was lucky to get the chance to bring out a debut collection with Stride in 1988. It was the epitome of a slim volume – only 23 poems, and I dedicated it to Matt Simpson, who had mentored and tutored me at his critique class in Runcorn library, and in letters.
Looking back, I realised the very negative effect the critical lecturer had on me. She was the only one who failed to encourage me, and many others did, But I still hid my work away. When I was pregant with my first baby, I attended a course at Arvon, led by Liz Lochhead. She told me I was a born poet and I HAD to write and publish my work. It was as though I needed permission.
Young poets can be sensitive and easily discouraged. It is so important to take them seriously and give helpful and constructive critisism. When I was a teacher, I had a saying in my classroom, which is now in my study. It says (original in Gaelic) Encourage Youth and it will Prosper.
Poets, this is your mission. Encourage young poets, tell them what is out there for them. Show them poems you love, buy them books. Be like Liz Lochhead and not like my American Studies lecturer, whose name I don’t even remember.