A poet who left the past behind

GARY Longden has been talking to Jo Bell, the Director of National Poetry Day,  a working  performance poet, about her career, her role as Glastonbury Festival website poet in residence and National Poetry Day on October 7. 

Q: How do you have time to write?!

I don't, dammit. I make time for commissions or jolly festival/ performance poems, but my more thoughtful work suffers from the busy-ness.

 I have been trying to remind myself that you can start something worthwhile even in snatched moments.

Poet's corner: Jo Bell, a performer who made the journey from digging to  gigging when she left a career in archaeology to become a full-time poet

Q:Have you always been a poet?

I wrote poetry until I discovered boys. When I was sufficiently messed up by boys, I began to write poetry again. So I was about 30 when I began to take myself more seriously.

Q:What inspired you to change careers?

I was an archaeologist for 18 years and latterly was doing it part-time, alongside the poetry. When I got the job of running National Poetry Day, I had to choose whether to leave archaeology completely. It hasn't gone away, just become part of my hinterland.

Q:What was your favourite poem as a child?

I don't remember reading poetry at all as a child, and I'm still suspicious of the turgid narratives which some adults like to think are appealing to children. But I remember learning Tennyson's The Dragonfly as an experiment.

Q. How healthy would you say modern day poetry is?

There's a lot of it, but it often has its head up its arse. ‘Twas ever thus. The audience for poetry is tiny, and too many poets are secretly quite content to move in that small circle. I want to get out there and convert the world – I assume the missionary position. There are plenty of great poets writing, and plenty of great performers performing, but they need to get out and see each other more – each has a lot to learn from the other.

Q. Are performance and page poetry now diverging?

No, they are beginning to come together in a more interesting way. We have to face this fact: with some noble exceptions, most  performance poetry is simply not as accomplished as the best published poetry. We like to tell ourselves that ‘it's a different tradition' and so it is – but even so, we sometimes settle for a brilliant performance of second-rate material. Both poets and audiences deserve better.

 I want to see page poets learn to get their heads out of a book and do the audience justice; and performance poets raise their game to write better, more challenging material, not just the crowd-pleasing or polemical work.

I want to see published poets like Simon Armitage showing up at Mike Garry or Tony Walsh gigs – and stage poets like Byron Vincent turning up at Seamus Heaney readings. We all work with words, and we should be much less territorial about sharing our skills.

Shows like Martin Figura's Whistle or Aoife Mannix's Different Words for Snow show that good poetry and good performance together are more than the sum of their parts. A Night on the Tiles (Ben Mellor and others) and Fourpenny Circus (my own show, natch) were more theatrical and about reaching new audiences with real poetry. It doesn't have to be a technical extravaganza – just done with absolute conviction and high production standards.

Q:Which current poets should we watch out for?

Go see Elvis McGonagall or Robin Cairns for humane humour, Byron Vincent for bitter-sweet laughter, Tony Walsh to be uplifted, Martin Figura to be disturbed and moved, Helen Mort for dialogue and truthfulness. Read the journals – Magma, Acumen, Poetry Review - to find fine poets like Alan Buckley, Kate Noakes, Liz Loxley. Read Alice Oswald and Katrina Porteous for a fine balance of place and sound.

We are blessed with a fine generation of mature poets – at the top is the demigod Heaney, but also we have Philip Gross, Vicki Feaver. Read American poetry for its different cadences – Fred Voss, Stephen Dobyns, Sharon Olds, CK Williams. Anything that Bloodaxe publishes is good enough for me.

Q. You seem to be around the Midlands a fair bit, are we doing something right?

: ) I have strong links to Stratford and Birmingham where I lived for a while, and to Ledbury where I'm very involved with the Poetry Festival. I have lots of friends and contacts here, I've been working on Writing Squads with young people in Brum, and I love to work here!

Q. Is there a link between Rap and Folk music , and poetry?

When rap is good, it's sexy, funny, powerful. But often it's lazy poetry – loud, fast and bad – and not to be confused with the deeper traditions of dub poets like Jean Binta Breeze or Linton Kwesi Johnson. Most of the poetry we do at festivals and open mikes might be called ‘folk poetry' – it wouldn't stand up in the Norton Anthology, but that's not what it's for. It belongs to a tradition of storytelling, sharing, and drinking that comes straight from the Odyssey, through Beowulf and onwards.

Q. Are there any Rap and Folk music artists whom you admire, and why?

I love Bellowhead – they take an entirely authentic English folk tradition, but aren't afraid to modernise it with a bit of brass and some stagecraft. And a lot of it is about boats, and shagging.

Well versed in festivals: Jo Bell performing at Glastonbury as Website Poet in Residence

Q. How would you characterise your own poetry?

It's about boats, and shagging…. It's about relationships and in particular friendship –  the love that need not speak its name. It's about the world I live in as I move around on my boat, which is a strange mixture of the raggedy industrial landscape and the hidden rural world of the waterways.

Q. You were the “Glastonbury Website Poet in Residence” this year, what was that all about?

The lovely team at Glastonbury invited me to do this – which meant writing a constant supply of poems for their website. I did a lot of crowd-sourced poetry and list poems, which could be written briskly but reflected the huge variety of people who pass through that enormous transient community. I asked festival-goers to Tweet me with a six-word festival memory, and worked them all into a Glastopoem – watch the result at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NvZDp1cXpzk.

Q. Tell us a little more about your “Four for the Port” play, how did it come about?

There was an open submission of work, and I was chosen as one of four new playwrights to work with Action Transport Theatre in Ellesmere Port. It's a theatre company for young people, so in October my 20-minute play will be performed with three others at the Chester Literature Festival by actors of 14-24 years old. Mine is about Gertrude Bell, the archaeologist, explorer and stroppy anti-suffragist who drew up the boundaries of modern Iraq, and whose story was eclipsed by that of her friend T E Lawrence.

Q. You are involved with local poet and author David Calcutt with “Bugged”, what is it all about?

Bugged is my brainchild, and emerged from my habit of eavesdropping as a source of writing material. David and I devised Bugged as a project that encouraged writers to listen carefully on one day in summer 2010, and write from what they heard. The response has been amazing. Submissions are closed now and we're just beginning to put a book together which will launch in October. We think (naturally) it's going to be a funny, moving and extraordinary reflection of one day in Britain's writing community. Have a look at www.bugged.org.uk.

Q. You  are Director of National Poetry Day, how did you get involved?

I went to the interview and got the job!

Q. When is it this year? What is the theme? How can everyone get involved?

It's on Thursday October 7th and the theme is Home. We don't run events ourselves, we're just a big umbrella for publicising the work that everyone is doing across the UK in poetry. We're updating the website and we want to hear from anyone who is running an event on or around the 7th October. You could run an open mike, you can download our lesson plans if you work in school, you could run a themed event or reading, or visit the South Bank's Global Poetry System and upload photos of poetry in your home town. Visit www.nationalpoetryday.co.uk to find out more.

Q. Where can we find out more about your work and buy your books? When are you next appearing in the Midlands?

My own book Navigation is being reprinted and will be available in autumn, but you can buy the Bugged anthology from mid-October on Amazon. I'll be in Birmingham at the Ikon Gallery on the evening of 21st October for the West Midlands launch of the book – come and join us to hear readers from the book and to buy a copy. It really should be a good read and a fine celebration of writing talent in the UK. It's free, but if you get a moment do book through Birmingham Book Festival so they know how many to expect!


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