Tell me about your background. Where were you born and brought up?
I was born in Liverpool, and have lived there, or in the area, on and off for most of my life. I am 48, married to Hilary, with six fabulously wonderful children (who do their best to keep me impecunious), two wonderful shoe chewing poodles, a crazy swing-ball playing rabbit and a health-freak hamster.
Do you come from a literary family?
No, but I have always felt impelled to write and drawn to music although there was no active writing or reading going on around me when I was a child. In fact I would say the opposite was probably true. But to add grist to the nature/nurture argument, I was adopted and later found that my birth parents families where highly literate and contained other writers and musicians.
When did you start writing poetry?
For some reason poetry was always something I wanted to do. My first poetry came through the song lyrics I heard on the radio, and I can always remember trying to write songs from a very young age. Mostly it was just intuitive rhyme.
What were the books\events that most influenced your beginning as a writer?
I was only in my early teens when the Cuba crisis, came along. Watching the tension rise and seeing the effects it was having, really made me grow up and accept the world was a different place to what I had believed before. The first poem I wrote which was a stand alone poem without music, was a response to that. The sudden arrival of the Beatles shortly afterwards, and the effect that had on the art community in Liverpool, was enlivening.
What sort of poetry did you begin writing - what were its main themes?
War, more war, doom and gloom, adolescent angst. The first poetry worth the name that I brought out into the light of day, was all angst ridden adolescent tosh. Which I read to groups of angst ridden adolescents at poetry nights in Liverpool in the early 1960's.
and its techniques?
The technique, because I really only knew one, was to play with the sounds of words and create puns and punning word combinations. I was heavily influenced by the Liverpool scene - felt myself to be a part of it - though in retrospect it was a very amorphous thing at best. You must remember that in Liverpool we call ourselves "Liverpudlians". To me that name is a poem, instead of Liverpoolians we turn the pool into a puddle, a metonym that is hard to match, as it says so much about the Liverpool way with words, and the strand of self deprecating, probably Irish influenced humour, which is mixed with a sarcastic hard edge that passes as wit or Liverpool humour. It is a unique place in the way that Glasgow, Dublin and New York are unique. The people who come from those places are touched with a pride in their roots and an attachment to the place that others cannot even begin to understand. Or so we like to think - see that's part of the arrogance that comes with being from a place like that.
To what extent do your 'roots' influence what you are writing now?
Almost totally. I write quite personal pieces about places and people I know, and situations from my own background which I am familiar with. Obviously I am also open, as everyone is, to many other influences, but my poems and stories grow from my background and personal experiences. Perhaps the biggest influence is in terms of the voice I think and write in which is strongly accented with its own cultural rhythms and references.
How did you first go about getting your poems published?
For many years I thought of myself exclusively as a performance poet,
was not convinced that my poetry would stand up to reading, because I
thought it depended on my accent and pronunciation. But this perspective
changed after I entered a competition in the late 70's and won a major
prize, I can't remember what that was now but it really gave me a boost at
the time. I
have been a supporter of legitimate competitions ever since and enter quite
a lot of them,
picking up quite a few prizes along the way. It was at that point I started
to think about
the words on the
page having a
life apart from me, and I started to let go of more poems. I was
to have an agent due to other, technical writing, which had been
successful for me.
The first chapbooks where published by Gail Keech, through her own
company, Grove, and several more followed. These where produced to
readings and tours and sold quite well.
How does the way you make a living influence your poetry?
I earn my living as a writer, lecturer and performer, with a bit of journalism
thrown in, as I have for over twenty years. I have written many technical
books, and some for children. Being a full time writer means that I have
the time I spend doing other things, so I am often sitting looking for
things to write about and exploring things which I turn into
To some the term 'teaching poetry' is a contradiction. I suppose most people can learn to write verse, but how do you get them across the bridge to poetry?
Well to be honest, no one can teach anyone else to do anything. People
have a tremendous capacity to learn and teachers can create the
which learning can take place. Ultimately the teacher is a facilitator.
In teaching creative writing and poetry however, as well as being a
facilitator, the teacher is also a midwife.
Can you describe your most effective working method? Do you wait for inspiration, or sit down every day with the intention of writing?
I write something everyday. Though many of the pieces come to nothing.
scribble on bits of paper, on a word processor and in note books.
as a professional writer means I sit down everyday with the intention of
writing, sometimes it turns out to be a poem, sometimes a song,
How do you decide that a poem is finished?
This is my worst thing. I keep going back to old pieces and thinking of
changes I would like to make. I have now convinced myself to accept the
discipline of not doing that, unless the change is necessary for
How important to you are formal workshops, or getting the opinions of other poets about your work-in-progress?
Workshops are extremely important to me. We are all a little insecure, but when insecurity was given out I was at the front of the queue. I like to get feedback as soon as possible on a poem. Which is why I often introduce new poems at my Monday afternoon university workshops, or at the Inklings group on Wednesday afternoons. I also read at the Dead Good Poets in Liverpool every month to get the feel of new pieces in performance. I do get problems from people who turn up at these readings expecting to hear some familiar pieces, and then hear me trying out new poems which may not quite work, so I throw in the occasional familiar piece.
To what extent if any do you collaborate with other artists?
I don't really collaborate on poetry but that is only because the
opportunity has not arisen. I collaborate on other projects,
anthologies which I have
edited several books I wrote as collaborations, and a new project with
which is a lexicon of poetic and literary terms. I have also been
involved in several renga
Who do you write for? - Do you have a particular audience or person in mind?
I suppose I must, but it is an amorphous idea. I think I try to write the sort of poetry I couldn't find when I was younger, so I suppose I write for the younger version of me.
Does poetry have to be 'simple' to get a hearing?
That question presupposes that poetry can ever be considered simple. My
feeling is that the for a piece to be considered poetry it must display
layers of meaning. But even very complex layered poems can be presented
in a very simple and accessible language or style.
Which of contemporary poets do you find most interesting?
Jim Burns, is a long time favourite, John Kinsella who's work I have
come to in the last four years, has an amazing talent. Roger McGough (who I am
sick of being compared to), came back for me with the collection "Defying
Gravity". John Cooper Clark is a brilliant performer, and I loved the
description of him as "His own creation. A slim volume." by James Young
in the book "Nico". Bill Griffiths is another fine poet who I love to read,
his Mr Trapscott should be required reading
on any poetry course. I have also recently come to the work of Robert
Shepherd and I find his empty diary series intriguing.
Others would include, Vicky Feaver, Benjamin Zaphaniah, David Bateman,
Fanthorpe, Cope, all of whom have much to recommend them.
Mention of Roger McGough brings us back to the Mersey Poets. Who were they? How did they fit, or not, with other poetic trends of the time?
The whole Mersey Poets thing was a loose association of poets and
who where caught up in the pop revolution that hit Liverpool in the late
exploded onto the world stage with the coming of The Beatles in '62.
The core of the Mersey poets is seen to be Roger McGough, Adrian Henri
Brian Paten who where picked up for a poetry anthology published by
Penguin in 1967 and
which was very successful in terms of its sales. It also helped to
identify the style which became known as the Liverpool Poets.
The truth is that there where hundreds of poets because there where
Which trends in modern poetry do you find most interesting?
I tie myself to the imagists and the realists. I like contemporary free verse which is accessible and visual. I also find sound and linguistically innovative poetry very interesting. I find LANpo, for example, fascinating. I think the recent publication, Other has helped to record and in some ways define contemporary innovative poetry.
Does poetry have any influence outside poetry?
I would like to think so, but I have no evidence for that belief. I suspect any influence is individual and perhaps works on how people interpret the world round them. I think the greatest influence that poetry exerts is on the poets themselves.
Do you see 'performance poetry' and 'slam' as side-shows or a return to the origins of poetry as story-teller and social conscience?
Creating a forum for people to read their poems should never be
described as a side show. Even a poorly written poem means a lot to the writer and
that should be respected. For me it is better that a few naff poems emerge
in an evening reading, or transversely, a few good ones in an evening of naff
ones than the frustrated poet gets ripped off by bogus publishers in an attempt to
audience. And incidentally in this I support the work of Johnathan Clifford
in identifying and clarifying the advertisements from these sham
What use do you make of the internet?
I am on a number of discussion lists and like to exchange poetry and
comment. I do everything by email these days. I can see me using the net more in the
next few years.
Is internet publishing just a cheaper way of getting your poems seen by a wider audience, or is it liable to produce new kinds of poetry?
The hypertext and multimedia options on the internet are expanding and have not yet been explored. So I think as a new generation of computer literate poets emerge, and by this I mean those who write on and for the computer or website, we will see more use being made of these remarkable tools. I hope I can learn fast enough to share in the exciting potential of the net.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am preparing two Scripts for US TV with an option of a third, so that is taking up a lot of time at the moment. I also have a job as technical advisor on a major motion picture pending, which should start in terms of script supervision in the autumn, this may cause me to decamp to LA in 2001 for a while. I have also been writing a series of poems, which I call by the generic title of Down In Liverpool. I had a publisher lined up for the book, but they closed up shop and I have not been able to place it yet. I am also working on the final draft of a lexicon of poetic forms and terms, which will be published some time late in 2000 or early in 2001. And some updates are required on some older books and they will be republished on a rolling schedule between now and late 2001.
© Jim Bennett, Ted Slade 2000