It’s an old story, but poetry didn’t mean much to me at school. I loved English Literature, but poetry was just something you had to write an essay about. Weirdly though, I did write poetry for myself. I found an old green notebook the other day. The cover fell off because it had become so dusty around the staple holes. It was full of poems that I had written when I was sixteen. At the time I did not regard it as poetry, because it was so far away from the formal 17th and 18th Century poets I had learnt about.
Poetry came alive for me about fifteen years ago, when a friend gave me a tape of a poet called David Whyte. I listened it while sitting the Botanical Gardens in Sydney. Tears rolled down my face. I did not understand half of what he said, but it was like a stone being dropped down a well and hitting water deep, deep down inside, that had lain undisturbed for years. I had been writing fiction for a while, but David inspired me to write poetry. A couple of years later, I went walking in Ireland with him for ten days, meeting local storytellers, poets and musicians. I never looked back.
Returning to Oxford, I met Steve Larkin, and he introduced me to performance poetry. Steve encapsulates lots of qualities I love – bravery, inspiration, being provocative and entertaining. David taught me how to connect poetry to something meaningful, to ask a big question. Steve showed me how to make it accessible and fun, whilst still maintaining integrity.
After that, I would say that pretty much all poets are my mentors. True some of them show me the pitfalls and mistakes, and the ways I don’t want to do poetry. But most show me something beautiful. I love the simplicity and grounded-ness of John Hegley, the wit and rhythm of Elvis McGonagall, the incisiveness of Fleur Adcock and the spirituality and delicacy of Mary Oliver. I could go on….. but I won’t.