“Write with reckless abandon”: in conversation with Caroline Bird, Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2018 judge

We have very exciting news: the brilliant Caroline Bird will be one of two judges of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2018, in the competition’s twentieth anniversary year. We reveal this year’s artwork, and chat with Caroline about her experience winning the award herself, discuss the ‘page’ vs. ‘stage’ divide, and get her top tips for entering the competition when it opens later this month.

Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2018 artwork by James Brown

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. First, I’d like to ask if you think winning the Foyle Young Poets of the Year (then Simon Elvin) Award at the age of 13 and 14 change your approach to poetry in any way?

Of course! It fuelled me. It took me from being a secretive-behind-my-bedroom-door scribbler to being an out and open poet. I realised that other young poets existed… in this amazing parallel universe where writing poems was cool… and more than cool, important; that it was okay to care about something so utterly and bodily and completely. I’ll never forget my first tutorial with Ann Samson in which she asked me “so, what poets do you read?” and I shiftily replied “oh I write more than I read” and she recoiled in horror, grabbed my sleeve and said “Caroline, you must read a thousand times more than you write.” A week later I marched into Borders bookshop with all my pocket money (I’d previously been saving up for a portable television) and I bought poetry books… I didn’t know what was good so I bought ones with exciting titles: ‘Trembling Hearts in the Bodies of Dogs’ by Selima Hill, ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg, ‘The Adoption Papers’ by Jackie Kay, ‘The World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy…. then I went home and devoured them all. I remember thinking ‘I’m not old enough to watch Trainspotting in the cinema and yet I’m allowed to read these books… ha ha.’ I had instant access to all this rage and joy and lust and bitterness and shame and love. My poetry improved pretty quickly after that and I knew, beyond all doubt, poetry was the world for me. So yeah, winning the Foyle Award totally changed my life.

Reviewers have called your work ‘surreal’, but as Ian McMillan suggested at the T. S. Eliot Prize readings, perhaps Elizabeth Bishop’s idea of the ‘always-more-successful-surrealism of everyday life’ applies best to your writing. Who were the poets who first inspired you to develop this style? Who are the poets who inspire you now?

It’s true, ‘surreal’ is a reductive word because life is surreal, the world rarely makes any sense. I remember the first poem that really punched me in the gut was ‘I Take Back All My Kisses’ by James Tate. The first line is ‘They got me because if the forest has no end I’ll go naked.’ To this day I can’t tell you – in words – what that means, but I know it on a dream level, a subconscious level. For me poetry isn’t about ‘understanding’ – it’s about experiencing, like a dream, or a movie played on the inside of your eyelids…  I love ‘surrealism’ – for want of a better term – because it stays alive in your mind, you can’t pin it down, which, for me, is how reality feels.

My favourite poets are James Tate, Selima Hill and Charles Simic. I tend to get obsessed with poets one at a time and read everything they’ve ever written. I’m currently obsessed with Mary Ruefle and Richard Hugo.

Tunnel made of books, reminiscent of Alice falling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland

You have a really engaging performance style, and some have called you a performance poet. Do you think of yourself as a ‘page’ or ‘performance’ poet, or both – or neither?

I really hate those labels to be the honest. I’m a poet and the word ‘poet’ is more than big and elastic enough to contain everyone. If you restrict a poem to one mode of delivery you are limiting its life. All good poems sound good because poetry is woven with musicality and if it’s dead in the mouth it’s dead on the page. Plus, all poets perform. I’ve never met a poet who didn’t read their poems out loud in some context, be that a literary festival or a pub. When people brand me a ‘performance poet’ it’s generally because they see me talking loudly with lots of wild hand gestures… but that is how I naturally am and how I talk. If I were a quiet dignified person I’d perform with quiet dignity. I think everyone should perform their work in a way that feels true to who they are.

I write the poems on the page… and they have a performative life there too: my voice is just replaced with the inner voice of the reader, and their phrasing, their tone. Line breaks control the breath of the reader, and the shape of the poem on the page is, in many ways, ‘a staging.’ You can completely change the impact of a poem by the way you stage it on the page.

Sometimes people ask me, ‘do you write for performance?’ Not at all! I don’t write to be read either! I don’t write for anyone! If I thought about an audience – in any form – while I was writing, I’d have a head full of imagined opinions and judgments and that’d be awful. I always pretend to myself that literally no one is ever going to read it apart from me. That allows me to be brave and uncensored. I’m a people-pleaser so it’s really important that I don’t let that impulse corrupt or change what I write. I think it’s vital, with first drafts, to let them fully exist in the privacy of your imagination first. You know how, in baking, if you open the oven door too soon, the cake sinks? Well the same applies to a poem… if I expose it to the world too soon then it can’t grow.

book cover for Caroline Bird's collection 'In These Days of Prohibition'

Your latest collection, In These Days of Prohibition, explores suppressed secrets and some of your mental health journey. What do you think of the idea of ‘poetry as therapy’?

I think it’s a very misleading comparison. Poetry deals with the personal – our ‘material’ is the contents of our memories and our hearts – and so there is overlap in terms of content… you might write about the same dark secrets that you would discuss in a therapy session, but that’s where the comparison ends. Writing will not necessarily make you feel better about anything, simplify or solve or soothe… in fact it often does the opposite; poetry has kept me wallowing in traumas I should’ve moved on from years ago. If I wrote poems for the purpose of receiving consolatory emotional returns, the poems would either revolt against me or crumble into sentimental waffle. However, I love poetry and I love writing and if I didn’t write I’d go fully insane, so I guess it does help just as I imagine a carpenter’s mental health is assisted by the process of making a chair. 

Your first collection was published when you were just 15 years old – do you have any tips for young poets looking to publish their poetry?

When I was 14 I bought The Writers Handbook 1999, circled some poetry magazines with posh names, printed off six poems, wrote a short cover letter, then shoved them in the letterbox and hoped for the best. That sounds mega old-fashioned now! I think you just have to send them off to places and write to people and don’t be disheartened if they reject or don’t reply… keep sending them off, and entering competitions, and making contact with other young writers, find some kindred spirits. Just remember, if you feel crushed by a rejection – that means you’re a writer. If you weren’t a writer, you wouldn’t care so much.

What is the best and the worst writing or editing advice you’ve ever been given?

The worst? Add more adjectives.

The best? Cut the explanations (or ‘the scaffolding’) and let the imagery hold up the poem.

We’re really excited that you’re going to judge the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2018 in the competition’s 20th year (opening late March). Which part of the judging process are you most looking forward to?

That’s an easy question. Reading all the poems.

What are you looking for in a winning poem?

A poem that feels alive on the page… rich with imagery and playfulness, highly alert to language. I want to feel that the poet has surprised themselves, stumbled upon something they didn’t know they knew. I’m not really interested in reading an exciting first draft, I want to read an exciting fifth draft, or tenth draft; a poem that the poet has lived with and pawed over and tinkered with and sculpted and cared for and properly enjoyed…

‘Elemental’. Photo credit: Jim O’Neil / flickr

What advice would you give someone entering the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award?

Nothing is off limits… don’t be well behaved, you can write about the secret things, the forbidden things, the dangerous stuff. And you don’t have to write like the judges, write like yourself.

With your first draft – try and get disqualified from your own poem, overwrite, let it be a total process of discovery, write with reckless abandon. As Wislawa Szymborska once said ‘inspiration comes from a continuous I-don’t-know.’ There doesn’t need to be a moral or a message, it doesn’t need to conclude neatly… you can end on an image, you can end mid-air, you can swerve to a different subject matter entirely half-way through; let the poem disobey you. But then – once you’ve written that first draft – re-draft. Please don’t write and send the poem off on the same day. Sculpt. Edit. Savour. Mutter it to yourself. Blue-tack it to your bedroom wall and cohabit. Try out ten different titles. If you happen to write the first draft in school then finish it at home, make sure that it belongs to you emotionally. And don’t take any editing advice that you disagree with… trust your head, you’re the poet.

The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2018 will launch by the end of March 2018. To register your interest and receive email notification when it opens, email fyp@poetrysociety.org.uk with your name and email address. If you’d like to be added to the Young Poets Network ebulletin, keeping you up to date with all The Poetry Society’s opportunities for writers up to the age of 25, click here.

Photo of Caroline Bird

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet. Her debut, Looking Through Letterboxes, was published when she was 15. She won a major Eric Gregory Award in 2002 and was short-listed for the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize in 2001, and the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010. Her latest collection, In These Days of Prohibition, was shortlisted for the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize and for the Ted Hughes Award. She was one of the five official poets at London Olympics 2012. She is also a playwright and in 2013, she was short-listed for Most Promising New Playwright at the Off-West-End Awards.

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