The PK Featured Poet – James Bell

"...genuine poetry has a certain glow that's like finding gold. It's a wonderful feeling when you see it and recognize it." – James Bell

Regular members of the PK List will be familiar with James' comments on other members work and will know how incisive and helpful his comments are. They will also know that he brings the same expertise to his own work, and over the months I can recall reading many of his poems posted to the list which have brought a fresh and interesting view of both familiar and unfamiliar subjects.  One of the aspects of James' work I most admire is his range and grasp of his subject matter.  (Jim Bennett)

Featured Poet 5 – James Bell

Please briefly outline your life and career.

I came into the world in1950 in Edinburgh, Scotland and either through indolence or being too comfortable I mostly stayed there until the late 1980’s when I moved to the other end of the country and now live in rural North Devon. Exeter is the nearest city and with its university and cathedral is redolent of what I still call home, though its colours are different and the lines a lot softer. I left school at sixteen and started an apprenticeship in a garage spraying cars and read Hemmingway and Steinbeck in my lunch break. Thus commenced a series of jobs taken either for convenience or money or both while I pursued a career as an actor. The main thrust of this was working as a mime artist. The original publicity photographs now decorate the kitchen walls. After marriage to my now long wed wife I began to think more long-term and in 1976 went to Stirling University as a mature student and took a BA in English Studies which encompassed all sorts of interesting things. I then entered the job trail again at a higher level and went into sales and marketing (I still wear the scars) in different roles. After becoming tired of being a well paid, company car, expense account cloned yes man I went back to education and did a post graduate diploma to allow me to work as a Careers Adviser. This brought me to Devon where the plan is to stay a little longer.

How/when did you start writing? Was there anything that particularly influenced you?

Writing has been part of my life since the age of 11-12 years when I began to read voraciously things like Biggles, Just William and John Buchan’s novels. It led me to write stories of my own in notebooks. Poetry came into the picture in my mid-teens. I still have a folder of juvenilia I occasionally look at and wonder at whom might have written all that angst. Later poems of that period (late sixties) I self published and hawked at poetry readings at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh Festival. I met and was exposed to my first real poets then. The role call goes something like this: Norman MacCaig (who was later one of my tutors at university), Robert Garioch, Edwin Morgan, Alan Bold, Alan Jackson, Pete Morgan, all of whom influenced me in some way. I also went along to mind blowing readings from people like Adrian Mitchell and, of course, the Liverpool Poets - MacGough, Henri and Patten. I think poetry seeped into my consciousness too through the wonderful songs and music being created at that time in the emergence of singer songwriters. Then I touched on some earlier writers like Ginsberg and the other beats.

Do you have any strong influences on your writing now?

Gosh, yes! As I get older I think I go back to Norman Mac Caig more and more for direction. I was recently bowled over by Edwin Morgan’s New Selected Poems and the sheer variety of forms and styles in which he works. These are both Scottish poets and I think there is a doppelganger that exists in every Scottish writer in whatever medium, Hogg and Stevenson are well quoted prime examples, that allows us to see things in two different ways at once. It’s partly to do with language; MacCaig always denied this, where there was always a language of the playground and one of the classroom. The tendency with Scots is not to put boundaries around themselves either and are happy to be citizens of the world rather than confining themselves to a particular bit. Nevertheless, my origins exert a terrible influence. Apart from that I tend to favour oriental poetry, Japanese and Chinese. I also love the acute poetic angles from which Eastern European poets like Holub and Ceslaw Miloslav work. I stopped writing poetry in 1980 and wrote little until about 1997 and wrote novels instead, none of which are published. What brought me back was entering a poem for a competition I had dashed off as I was revving up for a novel and came runner up to the national winner. I then got the bug and bought some anthologies to see what was current and found poets had established reputations in the time I had been away. I read Hughes and Heaney because I recognised the names and was duly moved, especially by The Birthday Letters. I love the Emergency Kit anthology edited by Matthew Sweeney and Jo Shapcott and for a while carried it everywhere. I read a lot of terrific contemporary work now but would find it difficult to pinpoint specific influences.

How do you write? Do you have any particular method for writing – time of day?

I write practically anywhere. Not quite the back of a cigarette packet job –, as I don’t smoke anymore. I always carry a couple of small notebooks with me. Sometimes I will get only an idea and a few words. Once these are down the poem is on its way. Most of my stuff is shortish, the longest being about 120 lines, which can be partly attributed to writing on the hoof. I travel around a lot so this means I might be writing in a car park or by the side of a road. Another favourite time is late at night where there’s a good chance of a complete poem being written. If it gets written down in the first instance, it’s got a chance of being finished. Time scales for completing a poem are irrelevant for me, extreme examples are the handful of poems I wrote in the 1970’s and revised and published in the late 90’s. Poems tend to come in surges of two or three at a time. I’ve even had the experience of writing two poems at the same time that are quite different. I re-draft a lot, changing form and words. I tend to see the form of a poem rather like musical notation and affects how it will sound when read out loud, so I try to work hard at this. Also, as I write quickly in early drafts, I try to draw a tension between preserving the original impulse and something that is carefully worked. It worries me that I could draft something out of existence though feel comforted by how the final poem seems to announce itself eventually.

Why do you write poetry?

I think its always been there and I’ve learnt to respond to the impulse that comes from goodness knows where. I’m now an incurable addict and can’t stop. The great fear is that my next poem will be the last I will ever write. I can write something like a hundred poems a year which averages at around two a week. In reality it is rather like a drunk going on a binge when I just can’t stop; then I go on the wagon for a while and look and act like any other normal adult human being with responsibilities. The urge is to create and make sense of life events. Sometimes it’s like a parallel existence. 1 Corinthians expresses it better than I ever could: "For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face." There’s the doppelganger again.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’ve been writing poetry again this time round for 4-5 years. One thing that seems to bother people other than poets themselves is how old they are. I feel the established order is on constant look out for the vibrant young poet like a quest for the holy grail. I’ve know people as young as 16/17 being feted as the next best thing which is probably more destructive than helpful to the poet, poets of quality that young are the exception rather than the rule. I think it borders on a kind of fetishism. I’ve just read a newspaper article that publishers of fiction will no longer look at new writers unless through an agent and especially those who are older. We all have to serve our apprenticeship and I see this as corporate publishing lunacy. The disease is present in contemporary poetry too. As a reader of poetry who performs his stuff I find it does not do poetry any favours when it is not read well. A friend has suggested that any old rubbish would sound good if it was done well. I wouldn’t go that far. There are lots of people writing utter tripe who are products of workshops and a hobbyist mentality that would do better in the advanced origami class. May there always be those with enough second sight to know the difference between the Emperor’s new clothes and the real thing. I feel privileged to have met the real thing in the flesh and emerging poets through the likes of Poetry Kit to feel that genuine poetry has a certain glow that’s like finding gold. It’s a wonderful feeling when you see it and recognse it.

The Poems

I wanted to include this poem, as it was the first poem I published for about twenty years in 1998. Patricia Oxley at Acumen gets acknowledgement and thanks for taking the work of a total unknown.


Once upon a time
there was imagination
and you could dare imagine
anything you wanted.
Nobody said what should
happen. Then there was some
kind of snatch and grab and
nothing was left behind,
only a sense of an
ill-defined substance
metaphorically abused
beaten up and left for dead,
only the sense that
imagination could be
a bad sort of thing
if actually used.
Imagine, if you dare,
a place where imagining
is banned, then, if you dare,
take a look around.
There is just a feeling
when you look at a rose,
watch a sunset, fall in love,
that nothing more can be done.


This second poem lies to rest a lot of feelings I had about my relationship with my father. It’s a kind of reconciliation I did not have time to make with him before he died. Acknowledgement is due to Jeremy Hilton for publishing this poem in Fire 13 this year.


This is the man who drove a huge truck for
hours without sleeping and remembered his eyes
closing for only a second in the convoy.
He did not say when or where it happened
though he'd talk about Russians and German
prisoners in Austria just after the War.
This is what he did, who he once was.
He still drove big trucks when I came along
and when knee high to one of their thick tyres
was allowed a ride in its cabin's noisy rattle,
awed at moving so fast, so far away from the ground.
And this is the man whose photographs I possess
now that she and he are both gone. Yes, there are
the trucks again, cumbersome, old fashioned,
as seen in black and white films from the forties.
And that was it, that was his time, just as
this is mine. His photographs are the elegy
for the man he once was before I saw him
finally weak and bowed in a hospital bed
where he lay in drugged pain one day
and the next day was gone, taken away
on a small wheeled trolley close to the ground,
the man who once stood barrel chested, at
attention, in a Royal Artillery sergeant's uniform
smiling, proud, for the box camera and her
and later, for me, in Kodak monochrome
in a time that sees everything in colour.
Now she and he and the trucks have all gone,
like the dying empire that wanted them both -
but most of all him and who he became for a time.


A lot of my poems are influenced by visual imagery. There is a sample of that in this poem, which reflects my admiration of children as artists. I feel that all true artists must have great resilience because social conditioning has not beaten their original freshness out of them. This poem was originally published in Links 7.


It is high art, The Python On The Grass.
Notice, the python is on the grass
and not in it – clear unfettered vision here.
What good would a python in the grass be anyway?
The picture would just be of grass alone because
the python would be hidden inside a streak
of luminous green boldly executed in one
stroke across the sheet of grey paper.
The picture would instead be called Grass
not The Python On The Grass. A long look
at the picture reveals the logic in this
for painted above this prominent streak
is another image clearly sitting on it
and similarly stretching the whole length.
There is neither head nor tail for the python is too long
to fit the paper. Instead the artist depicts
a hatched white and grey creature mottled
with stripes of brown, ridged in a way that states
the python is running on the grass and as
it has no feet has squashed its body
concertina-like in order to propel it forward.
The artist’s thoughts are as manifest as the picture’s colour.
It’s title could be nothing but The Python On The Grass
painted by the artist whose name is given as Alison, aged 3.


This next poem is a sample of my fascination with Japan. The castle at Himeji was a location for the James Bond film "You Only Live Twice" but this fact has nothing to do with the poem whatsoever.


A boy sits in the shade
of a cherry tree and sketches
on a pad, in hatched charcoal,
the image of Himeji Castle.
This white crane castle stands before us,
thrust proud
from its lush greenery on the plain
it still dominates.
Soldiers once watched the scene
from loop holes
down the end of a musket
or an arrow nocked bow.
We climb the spiral path through open gates,
negotiate the angled walk ways
where defenders could make surprise attacks
and pass the squared stones that lift the fortress.
Another day for Himeji
begins to end as neon lights flicker
on in the ferro-concrete city below.
Muskets and gunpowder, arrows and bows
in the castle slumber.
From the highest level of the castle
I look and notice the boy has gone.


The next poem is significant because it is reflective of going about my daily business. It’s about an ancient stone cross I used to pass often on the A30 going into Cornwall. The county is literally peppered by these old monuments to early Celtic and Cornish peoples. The poem was published by Poetry Scotland this year.


This is the first that people see from the road,
planted deep in Cornish rock as if grown
from the place, a mass of moss and lichen
peppering proud stone for a disguise.
Only a crossbar above the stem remains
below a part circle like a crescent the sun
passes behind, shines through the irony of a pagan
symbol it was once mounted to eclipse, the position
is high, answering the need of early supplicants
to realise their proximity to heaven.
Absence of a cross would make this place less,
cause the road overlooked to take another direction,
instead of being glimpsed from above the cut engineers
carved so cars could flash by at seventy,
sleekly, in the same smooth way the Celtic mason
formed his fine knots in rough rock that cast
shadows in angled light. It is homage from new builder
to ancient that the stone stands, venerable survivor
of a people who chose to inscribe their belief
by shaping stone with ardour, though now become
part of the landscape for birds to perch on.
Constant, solid through hard times in a hard place,
the standing stone is a pulse beyond deference while
fog-lamp and headlight pierce winter dark and grey.


The last poem here is a little longer than the others. It’s a kind of dream poem that reflects my ambivalent attitude towards the state of being Scottish. I will be returning to Scotland this year for the first time in eight years and did the journey in my mind first. Jock Tamson is what you could call the Scottish everyman.



Between the first black bun and a bastart hangover,
in the time it takes Jock Tamson,
the wife and bairns
to have their tea
go down and queue at the off-licence
and bring back the juice,
several twenty-four can cases of beer
and all kinds of fancy and fancied spirits
I would have driven the A1
from Berwick upon Tweed
and entered Edinburgh
by taking the turn off for Leith
having travelled through scattered, by-passed
towns and villages where
untold numbers of men and women have stood
at bars and sat on bar stools
and never moved
bar to shout at the bar staff for more drink
in a one way conversation –
tell them to have one for themselves –
ignore everybody else
not in the company
When I was around ten years old –
the gullible age when your mind
thinks about big daft questions
that embarrass you now, I thought
how great it was to be
Scottish – not something else
like most other folk in the world
and unfathomable aliens in the Universe.
Now, between Tranent and Mussleburgh,
it hits me again that for some
the whole of East Lothian is the centre of the world –
every closed down mining village and steel town
all over Scotland is still the centre
of somebody’s world.
The thought stays with me
until I drive up the London Road
and find the centre of Edinburgh is closed
for Hogmany –
what used to be free
is now a tickets only affair –
you have to pay to fall down
in the centre of my world
at least for one night of the year,
while untold numbers of men and women
totter and stand
and gabble in many languages central
to other worlds
for beyond The Tron, The Bridges, Princes Street,
Lothian Road, Shandwick Place,
the corner of Binns where lovers would arrange
to wait and meet, come here and meet again
in that time where the year ticks away
and might stop,
wait for the moment when the clock
chimes in the next one
cheer and embrace all and sundry
then ignore all those not in the company.
Just the same
all the way from John O’Groats
through Aberdeen,
right across to Stranraer,
always be the same and will be the same
next New Year when
Jock Tamson, the wife and bairns
sit down for their tea.



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