Can you tell us about your journey as a poet? Where did it all start for you?
It came out of the blue, and bit me on the bum nearly 7 years ago. Life hasn’t been the same since. At the age of 54 I wrote my first poem (a comedic one about Wigan pies) and performed it at a one-off event at the Museum of Wigan Life. It was a terrifying experience and I vowed never to do anything like it again. Seriously, I couldn’t ever have imagined what was to come next.
At the event, I’d met some lovely poets who told me about a regular Write Out Loud poetry open mic night at the Tudor pub in Wigan. For a few months, I lurked quietly at the back until one evening, some other “newbies” sat at my table and we made the sudden decision to perform. I read my one and only poem for a second time. It was still a terrifying experience but something had changed. I couldn’t say that I’d enjoyed it because again it had been terrifying, but I had to admit it was thrilling and I had the urge to push myself further – to see what I could achieve.
From that moment, there was no looking back. Whenever I performed, I challenged myself to conquer my nerves. I deliberately set out to scare myself a little more each time (trying to memorise my work, incorporating audience participation etc).
As my confidence grew, I started to go further afield to other poetry monthly nights across the North West. Although they were lovely and welcoming, I was surprised to find that the atmosphere at many felt flat in comparison to Wigan. Inadvertently I’d “cut my poetic teeth” at a full-on, raucous, fun filled, unruly, love it/hate it, quite unique night. The Tudor had a proper stage, lighting, a guy in a sound booth and a packed room drunkenly cheering and heckling with earthy yet clever wit. It was always unpredictable, unpretentious and welcomed the weird and wonderful. I fitted right in!
There was one aspect of those nights that turned out to be a major influence on my future creative path. Many people who had come to the pub for just for a drink got drawn in and discovered a love for poetry. Some of them even started writing and performing. I saw so many, like myself, transform and grow through the sharing their words.
Later on I found out that the Tudor was nicknamed “The Bear Pit” and I’m sure that if my first experiences there had been less anarchic and more sedate, then I would never have become a poet. The pub has sadly closed but the night continues in true WOL Wigan style, now based at the nearby Old Courts.
Nowadays I enjoy live poetry in all its various incarnations, but I avoid predictable or pretentious nights (there are a few around!). I get energized by those with energy and passion, where poets are encouraged to take risks and audiences are enthused.
Before I knew it, I was travelling all over the country headlining events, winning awards, slams, etc, and I’m still pinching myself. Family and friends are amazed at what I do. Once I’d stopped worrying about making mistakes and looking like a fool, endless possibilities opened up. For example, one highlight from last year was the Isle of Wight festival. As well as performing two sets on the Cirque De La Quirk stage with Verbal Remedies, I organised a flash mob and did pop-up creative activities with the crowds.
Truth is, the spoken word community is like an adopted family – totally wonky bonkers the lot of them, but they have embraced me and encouraged me to find my own voice and take risks. I am so happy that I’m now doing the same for hundreds of other people.
I can best summarize my poetry journey as being like Alice falling down the most surreal rabbit hole ever.
What inspires you to write and perform?
People. Life. Anything. Everything. From the tiniest thought or observation to massive things that seriously matter. I only share a small fraction of what I write because, well, I mainly write for myself.
For over 50 years I really believed that I had no creative talent whatsoever. All attempts at music, art, crafts etc ended in frustration and a sense of failure. I did appreciate and admire others’ creative talents in all its forms, but I just couldn’t imagine myself having any aptitude.
I worked as a teacher and for many years I ran a Pupil Referral Unit for excluded pupils. I brought in a range of creatives because I could see how the pupils engaged easily with the arts. I knew that when learning is fun, it can powerful – a path to empowerment and long term lasting change.
It took me a long time before I could describe myself as being a poet instead of saying that I dabbled and messed about with words. Coming late to this poetry world, it feels like now that I’ve opened the floodgates, I couldn’t stop writing and performing even if I tried.
Now I love that every day I help people discover their creative ability. Connecting with people in a meaningful way is essentially why I write and perform.
Do you have a set writing routine?
Routine? What’s routine? Seriously. Since giving up work a couple of years ago, life has been chock full of wonders, with no two days ever being remotely the same. I do “routinely” (as in every single day) enjoy the spark of spontaneity. People are always commenting on how many projects I have on the go at once but I’m loving it, so I say “Why not?”
I write whenever and wherever. Of course my muse is mischievous as I usually get my best ideas or words when I don’t have a pen or any technology to hand.
You’ve recently recorded some poems for TV adverts. How did you get involved with this? What’s it been like to see yourself on screen?
Like most creative things I have done, it came to me. Earlier this year four of my micro poems were regularly shown as ident adverts for ITV Documentaries sponsored by Nationwide Building Society. Currently two of my poems are heading their latest campaign on ITV, Sky, commercial radio etc.
The opportunity came via The Poetry Takeaway who are managing and casting for the Voices Nationwide campaign, they are representing the poets involved and are passionate that they are treated properly. The Creative Agency responsible were also fantastic – utterly professional yet grounded and fun to work with. I learned a lot. Throughout the process I had full creative freedom and they helped me raise my poetic / performance bar.
I believe strongly that poets should be treated the same as other artists, musicians etc. Unfortunately, many organisations still believe that poets should get little or no payment for their work. I’ve turned down work on the basis of ethics or personal principle and will continue to do so.
Seeing myself on TV is a bit weird but fine – though I genuinely get flummoxed when strangers stop me to talk to me because they’ve seen me on TV. I’ve still not figured out what to say.
Essentially getting poetry out to a wider audience is fantastic. I don’t mind if people don’t like my work. Nobody likes every kind of music, and poetry is the same. There’s something out there for everyone if they look. Lots of companies are using poetry to promote their products. This advertising campaign is getting real poets doing their own poetry to a wider audience. If families are sat at home discussing why they love or hate a particular poem, then that’s surely got to be a good thing? If someone sees one of mine and says “I could do better than that” – well that’s great. If they then have a go at writing … BINGO!
I love watching poetry slams. What’s it like to perform at one?
Terrifying. Exhilarating. Perplexing. Of course I understand why the issue of judging poetry divides people. If slams are viewed as serious competitions where the scores matter, I agree that they are a ridiculous concept, but that viewpoint misses, well, the point. In reality slams range from the sublime to the dire. They are a fun entertainment vehicle that provides a chance for poets to raise their bar in front of an unpredictable audience and panel of judges who’s scoring generally baffles everyone.
A badly organised slam is without doubt something to be avoided but luckily for me I’ve experienced some real corkers. Oh, and if anyone gets the chance to go to an Anti-Slam (where the worst, lowest scoring poem wins) then please do – they are simply inventive irreverent and hilarious.
There are a number of you tube clips showing you performing your work. I think ‘Mam’ is beautifully written. It’s incredibly moving and loving. Is it easy to share childhood memories like these?
Yes, I find it easy because whilst the poem calls on my own personal childhood memories, it’s also about the here and now. It’s about love. My mam is in her 90s and is an amazing inspiration for me and many others. It’s my most performed poem and I never tire of sharing it. It’s my most watched video online too and I think people connect strongly with it because it reminds them of their own much loved mams, nans, sisters, aunties, etc. Often people are moved to tears saying “I’m crying, but in a good way.”
One often cited quote seems appropriate here:
“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”
I also saw your poem (think it was called) ‘Trump, Trump, Trump’. Do you think your writing has become more political since Trump’s election? Do you think it’s important for artists to challenge what is happening in the world?
I can only speak for myself. I don’t think that poets / artists HAVE to respond to issues but in these most challenging of times it’s very heartening to see how many are. I personally have no choice. I am compelled to speak out. Whether it’s about fracking or miscarriages of justice, or whatever, I’ve now found my voice and I’m not afraid to use it.
“My words can comfort or amuse,
dig deep or brutally bruise…
I refuse to keep my words in.”
A link to my poem that contains these lines appears later in this interview. It’s my story. Take a look and you’ll hopefully understand why I’m passionate about what I do.
Oh – and there is a post-election rewrite of my Trump parody that I now regularly perform.
Can you share any details of projects you’re currently involved in?
My current post as the first ever Creative-in-Residence at Afflecks (Palace) has been my main focus for the last 20 months. Afflecks is an iconic emporium of independent sole traders. It’s been at the heart of Manchester’s culture (& counter culture) scene since 1982. I have set up a Creative Space there. It’s free to use and always open. It has transformed 100s of people’s lives, including my own. Take a look at Afflecks Creatives on Facebook to get a glimpse or better still visit – it’s a short walk away from Piccadilly Gardens.
A recent quote from a visitor: Afflecks is a place of wonder, but the Creative Space curated by Joy France is something beautifully unique. Frankly it is a bit of magic for everyone to experience. A hidden gem that 1000s of people (local and worldwide) will be recalling fondly and telling their grandkids about how special it was.
I’ve just counted up and I’m currently actively involved in well over 30 big projects. Here are a few:
I’m writing my fourth One Woman Show. It’s about my 4 month adventure trying to do 60 new things (low cost and through real people) before I turned 60. It’s actually about age, taking risks, stereotyping and attitude to life.
I’ll be expanding my own quirky take on engaging people with words creatively via a new series of ventures. Essentially I’ll be building and strengthening communities through creativity.
I hope to have a massive an exhibition about Manchester & specifically my residency at Afflecks
I have a documentary film team currently following me (eek) capturing me as a baby boomer who is living life beyond the normal.
I’m performing at festivals and taking poetry to places where it’s not normally found. I’m carrying on engaging with poetry haters.
Even though writing and performing poetry, running workshops etc will always be at the heart of what I do, nowadays I’m enjoying exploring new art forms. Mixing things up. Collaborating. Oh – and definitely carrying on stepping out of my comfort zone to scare myself a little or a lot.
Many of my plans are still hush but I promise they will be interesting. There are over 50 of them so I’m looking forward to involving many other people but again I’m likely only to share a few of them online.
What are you reading at the moment?
You won’t be surprised to hear that I always have several books on the go at once. In the Creative Space there are lots of books with advice or words of wisdom to young writers, penned by the authors and poets. I often do a “lucky dip” grab and indulge thing. Recent additions include several new collections from Flapjack Press. It’s fascinating seeing how poems I’ve only seen performed are transformed when on the page. I’ve never been interested in having my poems published as a collection. I’m still not sure but I’m reconsidering. Maybe a book of my thoughts / memories / ideas / prompts with a sprinkling of my poems might one day be “a thing.”
Would you share one of your poems with us?
This is a recently recorded version of the poem I mentioned earlier, about finding my voice.
Have you got anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning anyone by name because there are way too many to mention and I would inevitably leave out key people. I want to say a massive thank you to all who support and inspire me. I’m so lucky to be part of the Spoken Word scene at this exciting time.
Also – thanks for asking me to do this interview as it’s given me a rare chance to take a pause from my hectic schedule and reflect. I’m now even more curious and excited, wondering where this creative journey might take me next.
So finally … I had so much fun doing my “60 new things before I turn 60” challenge that I’m carrying on my adventure by doing “61 new things in the year I turn 61” – Time’s running out.