Inky Interview Exclusive: Former Cheshire Poet Laureate Joy Winkler

You were appointed Cheshire Poet Laureate in 2005. That’s wonderful. Congratulations. What was the process of being appointed Laureate? What poems were you commissioned to write? How did you find the overall experience?

Thanks. The Cheshire Poet Laureate scheme was in operation when Cheshire was a unitary authority, not separate as now into East and West Cheshire. The person who thought up and implemented the scheme was the then Literature and Reading Development officer Liz Newall. There were only ever six poets who held the post. The process of being appointed involved an application and an interview at which I had to answer questions and read some of my poetry. The interviewers consisted of Liz Newall, the deputy leader of the council David Rowlands, and a representative from the Arts Council. I have to say it was just a little bit daunting. The intention of the scheme was to raise the profile of poetry within the county, and as such I was commissioned to write at least five poems relating to the Cheshire County Council year (I got paid for these – hooray, the first time I had been paid for writing a poem). Also, I was expected to instigate events and projects which would encourage people in the county to take part in poetry events. I invited well known poets from all over the country to visit our libraries and facilitate workshops and give public readings. I also gave personal readings in libraries and schools.

The commissioned poems were a great opportunity, as well as varied. They involved quite another way of writing than I was used to. The first one was to write a poem to be performed on Holocaust Memorial Day. I spent most of Christmas 2004 thinking about this which was both a salutary and sad experience. All the commissions were challenging and unusual. For example, one was to write a poem for Ellesmere Port Library as part of Ellesmere Port Civic Square redevelopment. The trouble was that they needed a one liner from the poet to etch into stone in the new square, they needed it fast, I had to come up with the one liner and then later write a poem around that. I came up with ‘set sail on the ocean of your imagination’ and of course it’s still there, cast in stone.

Another interesting and challenging commission was to write a poem to encourage people to vote in May 2005. The brief was for the poem to be short (so that it could be read on radio) and for it to encourage people to vote in both local and national elections. No pressure then. The most difficult thing about commissioned poems is that you are not quite writing as yourself, and that sometimes you have to disregard your own feelings in order to complete the brief. That is really hard for a poet.

The most enjoyable poem I wrote was commissioned to celebrate Adult Learners’ Week to be read at their North West Regional Awards ceremony. I used the idea of a villanelle, but then slotted in a rhyming couplet to each stanza to make it more cheerful.

From ‘Change your Life’

There’s a treasure chest of maths and reading schemes,
Learning is a river in full flow.
See what’s under a car bonnet,
Poke and tinker with a sonnet,
Change your life and realise your dreams.

One more notable commission was when I was asked to write about the Ploughing Match at Dunham Massey. I had never been to a ploughing match before. I was advised to go along before it started and stay all day. I did. It was a great experience to see it all take shape, the tractors old and new, the shire horses, the hedge layers and all the rest. When I read it out at their annual dinner there were tears. Of happiness I believe.

The overall experience of the laureateship was one of learning new skills, feeling more empowered, of being more self-assured, and of being at last convinced that I had earned the right to call myself a poet.

You were Writer in Residence at HMP Styal. You must have empowered many people during your seven years there. What did you learn from it yourself? Have you any memorable moments?

I learned such a lot during my residency at HMP Styal. I had never visited a prison before, knew nothing of the rules and protocols and yet, naively, I wasn’t worried about that. I was given a short induction, a set of keys and the rules about using them, and an office in the prison library. Then I was pretty much allowed to get on with setting up whatever projects and workshops I could think of. I suppose you could say I learned as I went along except for the sessions I had with a wonderful organization called Writers in Prison Network who supported lots of writers in residencies and who paid us, arranged to us to swap stories, advice, gripes and solutions. Prisons are not easy places to organize new projects in. I once had a visiting poet, Joolz Denby, visit us. She was expecting to read and perform to a room of about 40 women. That day the numbers didn’t add up after lunch so there was a lock down and she ended up reading to four of us. In situations like this the regime has the only say (quite rightly) but it can be frustrating. Thankfully, the Governor agreed to pay for her to do a repeat visit and all was well on that occasion.

I learned simply to be pro-active. I would go onto the Wing and sit at a table with my books and paper and pens and wait for women there to approach me. “Got some paper for me to write to my fella?” was a regular request but a bit of gentle persuasion, and they would sit with me and write a poem or a story, and others would come by and join in. I learned to be brave in the sense of not worrying if I got knocked back, and I learned a lot about prison life and the lives of the women who ended up there and how and why they ended up there. I learned a lot about life and people. I also learned how to enthuse people into writing and reading, activities which I know to be not only educational. but therapeutic as well. There is not space here to tell you all about my work in HMP Styal, maybe I should write a book. I’ll put that on the list.

A few memorable moments though. The day I took small sachets of herbs from my garden in to act as stimulants for ideas. Just as well I wasn’t searched on the way in even though they weren’t that kind of stimulant. The day a woman tried to steal the Christmas tree from the library for her cell. She hid it up her jumper. The librarian said it could have been worse as there were many other inventive places for hiding things. The day I arranged for a van load of drums to come in for a workshop and there were no officers around to accompany the van. I had to undo the huge gates and walk alongside the van which was supposed to drive slowly. I had to break into a jog and the women prisoners were shouting to the drive “Hey up mate, slow down. Can’t you see she can’t keep up?”.

We had visiting authors, visiting poets, drummers, Chinese ribbon dancers, circus skills artists, and so much more. It was a privilege to work there and I shall never forget it.

You are currently Writer in Residence at Tatton Park in Knutsford. Please tell us about the workshops you do. What are the future dates?

I have been facilitating workshops at Tatton Park for a few years now. There are generally around 6 or 7 a year for adults, and a couple for children. Next year’s workshops start in February and details can be found on my website, Tatton Park’s events page, or Eventbrite. This year though I am also there as Writer in Residence and plan not only to write poems inspired by the park and its attractions, but also to encourage members of the public and members of staff to put pen to paper about their experiences in this fantastic place. In the past I have written a lot of poetry inspired by flora and fauna and so this particular project is icing on my literary cake.

I would also like to get more written work out and about in the park. Some enterprising person has already made up a chalk board with stories of the fruit varieties on them. I am considering taking that idea a bit further. Watch this space, or rather the space in Tatton Park.

Can you please share with us a couple of your poems and walk us through the ideas behind them?

This poem was written when we were in the car travelling North. It struck me that it was a moment in time when people and birds were all moving in different directions and for different reasons. The prime inspiration was the glimpse of a magpie, the way it flies wings extended in a way that makes it look like a crucifix. Therefore, the bird theme led the poem; ‘seasonal plumage’, ‘peck at your foibles’ etc. The poem contains all things I actually saw in a very short space of time – I often think ideas are like a camera shot with our own eyes, the image lasts sometimes and it’s great to use that. This poem will be the title poem of my new collection.

Wings, Planes and Weather Vanes

Huddled in seasonal plumage
we move into the slipstream of slow traffic,
join the migration to lakes and frozen valleys.
I peck fretfully at your foibles,
you preen a little in the rear-view mirror.
The weather vane points North.

Some plane’s vapour maps a route
in the other direction to a warmer winter.
It’s all a matter of personal choice.
A magpie stiffens its wings,
marks the space between us,
makes like a crucifix or a blessing.

The next poem is an example of me writing about a person. People fascinate me and of course by people watching we can’t always know what their lives are like. Therefore, a sprinkling of poetic licence goes a long way. However, in this case I did know a lot about this person, a neighbour, and I was moved by her story and wanted to write about it. I was thinking one day about the disintegration in her life and circumstances and I happened to be jointing a chicken while I was thinking. The stages of the two things somehow joined together into this poem.

On Thursday

Jointing a chicken, breast from ribcage,
you think about her face, deflated skin, yellow eyes
clavicle like a wishbone. If you bend the legs back,
twist until they crack, your knife will find the place.

You think about blood around her mouth, how
the paramedic called her the wrong name, how
she used to carve her way up our street like a model.
On the slab, legs, breasts, wings in pairs

the rest in the pan keeping the tempo
of a rolling boil. Where she fell, a bottle
of gin, small jigsaw pieces in a knotted
plastic bag. I took her arm, we’d never

touched that much before, years of neighbourly
routine. She was bristling angry when her legs
gave way. The fat in the chicken stock floats,
small islands, the carcass rendered down.

Where is the best place we can get copies of your poetry collections, such as Morag’s Garden, and Stolen Rowan Berries?

I have a few collections but sadly two are out of print now. These are Morag’s Garden and Built to Last, my first two collections published by the National Poetry Foundation. I still have copies of On the Edge which was published at the end of the Laureate year and which has the commissioned poems included in it, and of Stolen Rowan Berries, which is my most recent collection. I am happy to supply copies of these on request. My email is [email protected]. Stolen Rowan Berries is also for sale in the shop in Tatton Park.

Tell us about TOWN, your verse/drama.

I wrote TOWN after being inspired by two other pieces of writing. Katrina Porteous, a poet based in the North East, wrote a piece for radio called ‘Dunstanbrugh Castle, a secret as old as the stones’. What impressed me was the way it was produced using different voices and sound effects to tell a story. I then read Amanda Dalton’s sequence in her poetry collection, How to Disappear. She says she used a newspaper article to get the story, then wrote poetry involving each of the characters involved in that piece. I took that idea but made up my ‘article’ and used ‘girl finds her mother who has only ever lived a few streets away’. I wrote individual parts for six characters, one of which was curmudgeonly Town himself (i.e. Macclesfield). Each part was written in poetry, not as dialogue. The story was based on the town’s Barnaby Festival and I had Barnaby as a visiting stranger/magician/performer of art who turned the whole thing around. I performed the verse/drama myself with support from Andrew Rudd who composed and performed a music scape for it. Andrew was also a former Cheshire Poet Laureate – see how we progressed. We toured with it around 12 venues.

This was a really exciting project as it led me to think about using poetry in a different way, gave me permission, I suppose, to be more experimental with my work. I also learned a lot about bidding for Arts Council Grants, booking venues and performing in front of audiences.

Your play, Lightning Under Their Skirts, about growing up in 1960s Barnsley, was a huge successCan you give us a brief synopsis? Who else was involved in this production? How do you approach writing a play? What advice would you give?

Lightning Under Their Skirts is another example of giving myself permission to be experimental. I had the idea after TOWN to write something still using poetry but also including dialogue and having other performers as part of the whole.

It’s 1961 and we are in a small end of terrace where the mother rules the roost, the son gets away with anything, and the daughter is walked over by everyone. The father plays piano in a pub to earn extra money and apart from that, he doesn’t get a say in any of it. Gary, the son, gets his best friend’s girl pregnant. He gets into a fight with best friend at the local dance hall. He doesn’t take responsibility for the pregnancy. The best friend marries the girl. Back at home Sandy, the sister, tells her troubles to an agony aunt, finds out her own mother is seeing another man, is angry at all the secrets and lies in the family and eventually loses it with them all and leaves home.

I had lots of advice on the script from Kevin Dyer who acted as both dramaturg and director. I had worked previously with Kevin on TOWN and a couple of other performance projects. Also, there were two really brilliant young actors Josie Cerise and Harvey Robinson. I performed in the play as ‘POET’ and as ‘MOTHER’. This was a new challenge. I know nothing about acting but had to learn quickly and the two young people helped me along with great generosity and patience. We had a stage manager Alice Longson and a producer Laura Duncalf. Also, Harri Chambers composed original music and soundscape which played at various points in the play.

My first draft of the play was way out. I know now that I should get the arc of the narrative, build inside from that. I know that dialogue isn’t like ‘he said’ ‘she said’ but it’s short stabs and people cutting across each other. I know that even though a play might be based on a personal story, I have to leave ‘real’ people behind and discover the dramatic character who, after all, is who the audience is interested in.

I would advise reading scripts, watching live performances, and having a go. After all, you can’t work on something if there isn’t anything there to start with.

What advice would you give to budding poets?

Read lots of poetry of all kinds from every era. Don’t be put off if you don’t understand what the poet is saying at the first reading. Read it aloud even if you are alone – you will get it more easily. Go to readings of both published poets and of budding poets. Make up your own mind about styles that you are inspired by. You are allowed to be inspired by one style and yet write in a different one.

Join a writers’ group. If you don’t enjoy the first one you join, join another. They do vary.

When you feel comfortable with your writing, start to send some off to magazines. There are lots of magazines to choose from so do some research to see what kind of poetry each publishes. These can be very different. It’s never been easier to research these online, but it’s a good thing to subscribe to a couple also. It’s hard to keep these magazines going and they need our support. Don’t be dismayed by rejections. Use it to look again at your poem, can you change it, does it need changing? Never be satisfied but always look to improve a piece.

Find a mentor if you are not sure of your next move. You would be surprised at how helpful other writers can be, you just have to ask.

What are you reading at the moment?

I am beta reading a novel by a friend who attends our writers’ group. It’s a pleasure, it’s really good. Also I am reading poetry by Katrina Naomi ‘The Way the Crocodile Taught Me.’

Who inspires you?

That is a very difficult question to answer as inspiration comes from different quarters and changes all the time. I recently read a poetry collection by Cheryl Pearson. Cheryl won the Cheshire Prize for poetry a couple of years ago and her first collection is called ‘Oysterlight’ published by Pindrop Press. It has some really surprising and genuine imagery and ideas in it. I would recommend it.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

To be brave and have the courage to share my ideas. I was a quiet child and even now I question whether or not what I am writing is any good. Maybe this is a good thing as we should always strive to be better. However, I have noticed that people get on well by being proud of who they are and what they do. I wish my younger self had known that.

What is next for you? What plans have you got?

I have the draft of another collection ready to be printed and hopefully this will be out in February 2019. I will then work on poems inspired by Tatton Park and hopefully that will result in another collection towards the end of next year. I have a novel which needs my attention – it is written but I want to revisit it with the idea of including an element of poetry, myth, mystery. And I have written a second act to Lighting Under Their Skirts and at some point I would like to tour this but need funding first. And of course the workshops. They are ongoing and it is delightful to meet talented, like-minded people and to hear their work.

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