A writing childhood
At some mysterious level, I have always thought of myself as a writer. I had my first poem published when I was seven, in a girls’ comic called Tammy. With the £2 postal order they sent, I bought a miniature Pippa doll, with a sparkling green evening dress and golden, fairytale hair. Encouragements of this kind are incredibly important, at any age – and they don’t have to be at the level of global acclaim! Although I’d have to wait a long time to see my next poem in print, that early experience planted in me the notion that such things were possible.
Weston Park Infant School was a short walk down the road from our pebble-dashed semi on the outskirts of Southampton. I’d written poems there too. The first poem I still have was about what it feels like to be hot or cold (a prompt from the teacher) but I remember feeling confused when the teacher asked me to add a few words to my poem because it didn’t make sense. Here’s what I had written for the cold day:
The class teacher explained, very gently, that I needed to add “I would eat” after “liver” to complete the sense. But to me it already made perfect sense! I wrote in the extra words for her but when we were allowed to take our poems home at the end of term, I promptly rubbed them out again. Didn’t everyone know what it felt like to “shiver and liver”? I think children have a clearer grasp of the meaning that’s transmitted at a subconscious level by the sound of words alone. I don’t think I had real brooms in mind either, but “booms and brooms” made a noise that reminded me of thunder. I was about five when I wrote that poem, and many years later I would read what American poet Robert Frost had to say about “the sound of sense”, whereby the sound the words make echoes the sense, and it felt like coming home!
If I were to be in a cold and rolled sort of day
With booms and brooms and crashes on thier way
I’d shiver and liver.
If I were to be in a sunny and runny day
I don’t quite know what I would say.
I’d feel sticky.
Throughout primary school, I wrote stories as well as poems. I filled my exercise books with tales of Alice-like adventures where no-one was quite as they seemed and holes in tree roots provided portals into other worlds. These stories took up pages of the school’s magazine, The Baddesley Bundle.
Writing as escape
My teenage years were spent in the suburbs of Southampton, on a dead-end road with a chemical factory at one end and a smaller electroplating factory at the other. On summer nights, when it was too hot to keep the windows closed, there was a constant hissing sound above the hum of the traffic. In the daytime, at pretty much any time outside school hours, someone somewhere would be practising an instrument. There was French horn, ’cello, piano… All three of my brothers eventually won music scholarships to famous schools or music colleges.
For a while, I took part in the general musical din. I played the trumpet – purely because that was the only instrument they had offered at my village primary school. I schlepped my way up to grade VI, but my heart wasn’t in it and I was never very good. In any case, it was always too much of a struggle to find a free room to practise in. I longed for quiet, and a space of my own. My solution was to move out, during the year of my exams, to the caravan parked in the driveway. It was here, under the quieter hiss of a gas mantle-lantern, that I first experienced the sense of calm and interior richness that solitude can provide. For the first time, I had space enough to follow my thoughts and imaginings wherever they wanted to go. Sitting at some remove from the world I noticed, ironically, that I felt more connected with it.
I would come to learn that, for a writer, this “alone-time” is fundamental to the whole enterprise. Perhaps it’s one of the paradoxes of a writer’s life – that in order to communicate something to others you need to spend long stretches of time alone. Conveniently for me, at the time, solitude was what I craved. I continued writing poems now and then, and reading a few too – mainly classics that we were given at school – but very little that was contemporary. On our bookshelves at home there was a copy of Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse, which contains a poem called ‘Summer Lightning’ by Norman MacCaig. It begins “Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass / And hang zigzag on hedges”, and it’s the first poem that gave me goosebumps.
Plath: role model for a generation of poets
But it wasn’t until after university that poetry really clicked into place. It was like the bolt of a great and heavy door sliding open. I was living in Kent at the time, working as a second-hand book seller. One day, waiting around for customers, my boyfriend Charlie handed me a copy of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar. It was one of those books that leaves you wanting to know more about the author. I soon got hold of a biography and read that too. Finally, I came to the poems. Here was much of the same material (The Bell Jar is largely autobiographical) but framed in such a way that the words – visceral and super-charged – left me changed. After looking up from Plath’s Collected Poems, the world seemed like a very different place. How had the writer pulled off this conjuring act? I wasn’t sure but somewhere inside me I felt it was something I might be able to emulate. I spent the next few months trying.
Discovering contemporary poetry
Reading Plath made me want to find out what poets had been up to in more recent years. Now in my mid-twenties, I knew no other writers and had no idea how or where to find good poetry. The first contemporary poetry collection I read was Electroplating the Baby by Jo Shapcott. I had discovered it by chance, browsing in Maidstone Reference Library. The poems were surreal, engaging and disarmingly direct in tone. After reading it I began to hunt out other contemporary poetry – whatever I could lay my hands on; at the same time I continued working on my own poems. I joined a local writing group run by the Welsh writer Lynne Rees. Lynne and other writers in the group encouraged me to keep going, and at one of the sessions, she thrust a flyer into my hands for a local poetry competition.
Submitting to magazines and prizes
The competition was judged by the writer Michael Baldwin, who had been friends with Ted Hughes, and I ended up winning third prize with a poem called ‘The Sea Polyp’, which eventually made it into my first collection. I entered another competition and won first. These were small contests but the affirmation they provided for a novice was vital. Lynne also pointed me in the direction of the wonderful Poetry Library in London; I sent off to them for a list of magazines and started submitting poems. For the uncertain, fledgling writer, the impersonal process of submitting to magazines and competitions is a godsend: sending a poem or story out to an unknown editor or judge can feel less daunting than sharing it with someone we know.
Finding a publisher
In 1994, a year or so after I started submitting to magazines, I read about an award exclusively for poets under thirty, run by The Society of Authors. This was the Eric Gregory Award. By now I had amassed nineteen poems of my own; I filled in the form and off they went in their buff manilla envelope to London. Winning one of the five Eric Gregory Awards for that year was a real turning point for me, as it has been for so many poets – Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy among them. Carol Ann had since progressed to being a judge: she was on the panel for my award. Most importantly, winning this award made me feel for the first time that becoming a writer might be a viable option for me.
It was yet another competition (this one run by The Kitley Trust) that put me into contact with Bloodaxe Books founder and editor Neil Astley. The incentive for entering was not the prize money, which was £10 for each of the ten winning entries, but the fact that Neil was the sole judge. As luck had it, my poem was awarded one of the ten prizes, and by a round-about route, this led to my first book being published. I showed Neil my best fifteen poems; he was enthusiastic, and over the following year or so, I continued publishing in magazines and occasionally sending bundles of poems off to the Bloodaxe offices. A book began to take shape and before I knew it I was choosing an image for the cover. The Shuttered Eye was accepted in 1994, and published the following year.