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Les Merton Interview

by Jim Bennett

Les Merton, as he says, is a Cornishman and proud of it. Editor of Poetry Cornwall magazine, and the new anthology from Bluechrome, 101Poets for a Cornish Assembly. Even the loss of his house by fire and the destruction of all his archives and books did little to slow him down. One of his biggest concerns was to ensure that his magazine subscribers database was rebuilt as quickly as possible.
Tell us something about yourself.

I am Cornish and proud of it. I was born in 1944 and enjoyed a childhood of
total freedom in the mining and farming area surrounding Medlyn Moors, (a
hamlet situated between Helston and Falmouth.)  I was the only child of poor,
but proud parents.  I attended the local country school for 10 years, 
deliberately failing the 11 plus examination as my parents did not believe in
asking charity for money for the grammar school uniform.
I left school at 15 to work for the local Co-op and became the youngest shop
manager within the Co-op at 18 years of age. Since then I have had a variety
of jobs: coal man, bus conductor, film extra, factory worker, canvasser,
national sales manager, fortune teller, entertainment agent where I went on
to fail as a comedian. I now edit Poetry Cornwall/Bardhonyeth Kernow,
publish other writers and poets via Palores Publications and I have ten books
to my credit, four of these are poetry.
How/when did you start writing?

I started writing at 16. I had virus pneumonia and was unconscious for five
I spent the next month in an isolation ward of a local hospital, during that
time I wrote three poems about death. When the nurses read these poems
they cried and I thought I had mastered the power of the written word.
However, none of the three poems were ever offered for publication and even
if I had spent from then until now submitting them to magazines they still
would never have been published.

Later, in 1968 my first short story 'Gunfight' was published in the
Manchester  Evening News, I received three guineas for it. Many rejections
followed. In the 1970's I stopped writing to concentrate on bringing up my
three daughters as a one parent family. During this period of my life I also
devoted a lot of my time to yoga.

In 1996 on my doctor's advice, I changed direction. I decided to try writing
once more. I did two media courses and started to send my writing to
different magazines. I had my first poetry collection Cornflakes and Toast
published by The National Poetry Foundation in 2000.
I also self published two other books, one a dialect book (Missus Laity's Tay Room)
and the other a book on the Cornish Chough (The Spirit of a King). This led to
my first writing contract with Countryside Books.

Was there anything that particularly influenced you?

When I was working on my first poetry collection I was advised to join a
poetry group. I joined Falmouth Poetry Group who's members  included, Peter
Redgrove, Penelope Shuttle, Caroline Carver, Michael Bailey and other high
profile poets. The help and advice of modern poetry greats certainly
influenced me and helped me to find myself.

Do you have any strong influences on your writing now?

The strongest influence on my writing is my life. I am a survivor! Over the
years I have been burgled seventeen times, had two attempts on my life, I
have been mugged and in 2005 I lost my home and all my possessions in a
fire. Experiences sharpens awareness and stimulates the mind.

How do you write? Do you have any particular method for writing  poetry -
short stories?

I write directly unto the computer. If it is a subject I have researched I
keep my notes beside me. The first draft is rested and reworked until I feel it
is ready to send out. I also believe even after an item has been published it still
can be reworked and sometimes improved. I usually have several different
pieces of writing on the go at the same time. When a part of the new work is
being rested I know my subconscious mind is still working on it and the next
time I physically start working it again a lot of the work has already been
done by my mind.

I am also dyslexic and suffer from Scotopic Sensitivity, so all my writing
needs proof reading and I am lucky I have good friends who help me with

You are known for your work as an editor.  What are you looking for when
you select poetry?

My criteria is simple, I select what appeals to me and what I feel will give
a balance of styles and themes to the magazine. I also look for poems that
have an original voice and at the same time I try and encourage new writers.
However I'll reject work if it is on a theme where I already have several
poems on that theme already accepted for publication and I will automatically
reject submissions because they are not submitted within Poetry Cornwall/
Bardhonyeth Kernow's guidelines.

Is there anything that particularly upsets you when you read it? 

Nothing really upsets me when I read. However, good writing is in control of
my emotions and I react with tears, laughter and with all the other feelings
that go with being a sensitive person. 

Is there a right or wrong in creative writing?
There can never be a wrong in creativity. Something judged to be wrong is
more likely  unsuitable to that particular judging reader. Creative writing is
expression, it is never wrong to express oneself. The more a person practises
creative writing the more likely it is the writing will improve and be accepted
by more people.

Do you make much use of the internet?  Do you find it a help or a

I use the internet for research and find it useful, however it is easy to
get side tracked. I also think many of the so called facts on the internet do
need  checking. The internet is very useful to get the feel of magazines and
writers through their own web sites.
Why poetry?
Poetry is a form of expression. I want to express myself in different styles
of poetry. My main interest at the moment is based on beat poetry and I call it
beat reality. This poetry style includes researched pieces from 1930 onwards,
poetry inspired by beat magazines and poetry based on my life experiences.
Is there anything else you would like to add?

I enjoy being a poet and for me poetry is a very powerful voice. I have just
edited the anthology '101 Poets for a Cornish Assembly.' Through my poetry
and editing I try and promote all the things I believe in. I think Cornwall
should have its own assembly and editing an anthology in support of this
helps to raise the level of the campaign.

Poetry Cornwall/Bardhonyeth Kernow the magazine I publish and edit also
promotes the Cornish language, Kernewek, and Cornish dialect. The 
magazine has made more people aware of these aspects of Cornwall. Both
Kernewek and dialect readings were included in the recent Poetry Cornwall
festival I organised.

....... ............ ...... .............


Day out in Bartow is a poem that was inspired from researching American
history. I have tried to write it in a voice from the times.

Day out in Bartow

'All around you are signs
repeating the magic phrase:
Drink Coca-Cola'

Erskine Caldwell; January, 1934

It's another day out
for families from Bartow, Georgia.

No one has any spare cash
but days like this make life more bearable.

Someone will know the words
and start singing the Woody Guthrie song:

End o' my line, end o' my line...

We all knew Woody was singing
about dust storms

but the song seems appropriate:
sets the tone for the afternoon's show.

Some nigger, we heard,
didn't show proper respect for white folks;

he was sorted.
Now, it's time to string him up.

Only trouble is
all day long our kids will be asking

for a Coke. There ought to be a law:
banning 'Coca-Cola' advertising.

Monday Evening - Redruth  - one Monday evening I couldn't think of any
subject matter to write on. I went out to look for a poem, verses 1 and 2 are
what I experienced  verses 3 and 4 are based on a news item I heard later that

Monday Evening - Redruth

From an embankment fir tree,
the magpie's call sounds like machine gun fire.

An army of dark clouds position
behind Carn Brea, and the drummer in a band
that will never make it beyond practice sessions,
rolls thunder across roof tops.

A boy racer burns rubber
squealing to stop at red lights,
revving the highly tuned engine louder
than the thump-thump of his sound system heart.

On orange he accelerates,
from naught to his sunset in sixty seconds.

And the children - it could be a warning!

And the children

And the children:
swig bottles of wine,
swallow spirits neat.

And the children:
enjoy ecstasy,
snort neat lines.

And the children:
gather in gangs.

And the children:
by fornicating
in the streets.

And the children:
the wild and corrupt
who lead them.

And the children:
machine gun
and distil hatred.

And the children:
pick pocket,
shop lift, ram-raid, 
mug, and terrorise.

And the children:
guns, knives, clubs,
they are ready.

And the children:
are anonymous
martyrs buried
in mass graves.

And the children:
are cult worshipped
by the next generation;
and these children...

La Loba - another poem inspired by reading. I particularly like the last three

La Loba
(A Native American legend)

an old woman surviving
on thunder and lightening

travels plains and prairies
gathering bones

bones bleached by the sun
bones blessed by the moon

but only one type
the bones of the wolf

a hip bone, a rib cage, a skull
collected and treasured until

there is enough
to make an entire skeleton

this bone sculpture
is a cradle of incubation,

the old woman sings her song
la loba - la loba

a hip bone, a rib cage, a skull,
flesh out - become furred

the creature comes into being,
its tail curls, it breathes,

opens its eyes and leaps away
running towards the horizon

the old woman smiles - the wolf
shifts in the moonlight

a maiden fades into the night.