Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Grace Nichols

Grace NicholsGrace Nichols was born and educated in Guyana. Since moving to Britain in 1977 and winning the 1983 Commonwealth Poetry Prize for her first collection; ‘ I is a Long-Memoried Woman’ she has written many books for both adults and children including a novel, 'Whole Of A Morning Sky'. Her adult poetry collections include her popular; ‘The Fat Black Woman’s Poems’ and ‘Sunris’ which won the Guyana Poetry Prize and more recently ‘Picasso, I Want My Face Back’ (Bloodaxe 2009) and ‘I Have Crossed An Ocean’ (selected poems, Bloodaxe 2010).

Among her poetry books for children are; ‘The Poet Cat’ (Bloomsbury);  ‘ Sun Time Snow Time’ (A&C Black) and her newly published 'Cosmic Disco' (Frances Lincoln 2013).  She has also co-edited several anthologies for children with her husband, the poet John Agard and received a Cholmondeley Award for her work in 2000. She is among the poets on the current GCSE syllabus in the UK.

She was poet-in-residence at the Tate Gallery for a year and her book, ‘Paint Me A Poem’ - poems inspired by paintings (A&C Black) was named the 'Children's Poetry Bookshelf Best  Single Author's Collection.’

What does poetry mean to you?

Because poetry attempts to say the unsayable, it is a way into those parts of yourself that are beyond words. Ever since I was a child dipping into my father's books I was moved by poetry and the music of words and the spell-like quality a poem casts. To say that poetry is important to me is to say the obvious. It goes far beyond that.

Why is poetry important for children?

It helps them to see the world with new eyes, as each poem is like a freshly created little universe, at the same time awakening them to the power and rhythm of language.

When did you start writing poetry for children? 

Not until I came to Britain in the late 70's when I was in my late twenties.I guess the emotional separation from my own culture had something to do with it, even though I'd already written half of my first novel before leaving Guyana. I found myself getting deeper into poetry both for children and adults.

What part did poetry play in your own childhood?

A very big part, as my father was a headteacher, and he had books by poets like Wordsworth, Keats, and of course Shakespeare. My dad also had us reciting poems, sometimes about experiences far removed from my world, yet I found myself as a child moved by the narrative and the beauty of the words.

Which poets do you most admire and why? Or which have been most influential in your own development as a poet?

It's hard to single out, as I'm inspired by so many poets. Derek Walcott, for example, the way he evokes the Caribbean landscape in imagery I can identify with; our own Guyanese Martin Carter for his metaphysical vision; Elizabeth Jennings for her complex simplicity and her deep human experiences; Sylvia Plath for her starling use of imagery and her hard-edged destructiveness which carries a strange life-giving energy at the same time. The Russian poet, Pushkin, whose work I simply love.

Do you follow a reqular process in creating your poetry? Do you draft your poems?

I write when I'm inspired and I like to write my poems by hand, rather than straight on the computer. And yes, I do have to work at them through several drafts, but I like this shifting around process, following your instinct and imagination, until you finally end up with a living miracle that is a poem. There
are some poems that come almost as gifts and you don't change a thing but that doesn't happen often.

Do you read your poems aloud?

Yes, I do read them aloud in my head, so as to get a sense of the different sounds and music of the words, and to stay in tune with the feeling of orality.

Which are your favourite poetic forms and why?

I can appreciate the skill behind a well-executed villanelle or sestina, but I like my poems to build their own organic forms and architecture. Of all the traditional forms though, I'm most drawn to the sonnet and have written some sonnets, maybe because I was most familiar with it at an earlier age. I like the musicality of it and its exploration of a particular idea.

Which topics influence your poetry?

Of course, my Guyana childhood, which embraces the power of memory. I also like to explore linkages to mythology and history, dreams and landscape. I love the living landscape and always keep an eye on it. But everyday happenings also inspire poems like when I first saw these two teenagers on a skate boards, I imagined they were two 'teenage earthbirds' trying to take off which led me towards a poem.

How would you describe your poetry?

I think that's best left to the reader but since I love the image-making power of poetry I'd hope some of that image-making freshness appears in my my own work. I enjoy writing in the voice of a persona, for example, the 'Fat Black Woman Poems' or more recently, Dora Maar in 'Picasso, I Want My Face Back.'

How do you see the role of illustration in poetry books for children?

An illustration can open up another dimension to the poem, evoking a sort of visual trail into the poem. But the ones that work best are those which don't illustrate in an obvious manner what the words are already doing. Collaborating with a great illustrator is very rewarding and helps to give the book an original feel.

What do you think children get from your poems?

I hope the joy of words and rhythm, a sense both of fun and thoughtfulness in their response to the world around them.

How do you stop writers' block? 

Like the seasons you go through fallow periods, but you could engage yourself reading other poets, getting on with the things of everyday life, doing new things, then when you least expect it, a poem begins to nibble.

You are married to John Agard. How has your development as a poet been affected by this? Do you write poems together? Is he a writing partner for your work?

Writing poems is a solitary activity in that it has to come from your own individual awareness and imagination but once the poem is written we are each other's first reader and critic. We do bounce off each other and inspire each other a lot. Of course we have our own passionate likes and dislikes. We've also enjoyed collaborating on a number of anthologies for children such as; 'A Caribbean Dozen' and 'Under the Moon and Over the Sea.',

What advice can you give to aspiring poets?

My advice would be to read widely from poets of different cultural backgrounds
including poetry from the oral tradition and to be true to your own imagination. If an idea or image persists, then you should go with it. Write about your own experiences. It's what you know best. Write about things that really matter to you, that excite you, so that at the end of the day, at least you'd be writing about your own truth and not somebody else's.

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