Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with John Hegley

John HegleyJohn Hegley was born in north London and was educated in Luton, Bristol and Bradford University. His first public performance monies came from busking his songs, initially outside a shoe shop in Hull, in the late Seventies. He performed on the streets of London in the early Eighties, fronting the Popticians, with whom he also recorded two sessions for John Peel, and has since been a frequent performer of his words, sung and spoken, on both local and national radio.

He has produced ten books of verse and prose pieces, two CDs and one mug, but his largest source of income is from stages on his native island. An Edinburgh Festival regular, he is noted for his exploration of such diverse topics as dog hair, potatoes, handkerchiefs and the misery of human existence.

He is an occasional DJ, dancer and workshop leader, using drawing, poetry and gesture. He has been awarded an honorary Doctorate of Arts from what is now the University of Bedfordshire and is a Fellow of the English Association.  In 2012 he was Poet-in-residence at Keats House, Hampstead.  His latest books are:  I am A Poetato: An A-Z of Poems about People, Pets and Other Creatures  (Frances Lincoln Children's Books) and  New and Selected Potatoes (Bloodaxe).

What does poetry mean to you?

Poetry means meaningfulness without necessarily getting the meaning or the spelling. Poetry is a home improvement. A healing swelling. A thing for telling. For sharing. For swearing by.

Why is poetry important for children?

I have always been inspired by children brought up bilingually. It makes for flexibility, elasticity, double vision.  Poetry alongside the everyday language of getting by, is bilingualism.

When did you start writing poetry for children?

First poems for children, haikus about things in a classroom. Seeing them with a vision other than the usual. A piece of chalk is a snail. Obviously a while ago. 1984.

What part did poetry play in your own childhood?

Loved any poetry I could get. Hilaire Belloc at 10 was a big one.  The relentless rhyme rhythm and rush. And playground rhymes were just pleasing. Mrs White has a fright in the middle of the night. HOORAY! I was hungry for poetry, but feeding times were, unfortunately, few.

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

The first real immersion in poetry was as a seventeen year old making  acquaintance with Hardy and Hopkins. Hardy -  not quite so hard. Fine crafting. Hopkins the difficult word twister. Him the acrobat and Hardy the word/blacksmith.

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

Poems are often scribbled on bus and train tickets. A regular process. Sometimes there are 3 or 4 drafts and sometimes a poem comes as Keats suggests it should – as ready as a leaf to a tree. Hopefully not as slowly.

Do you read your poems aloud?

I read other people's poems aloud to friends. I read my own to strangers.

Which are your favourite poetic forms and why? Are there any you would still like to try?

The limerick is a trusted friend. From which I have developed the verse about an arm or a leg  - the Limberict. The villanelle is a lovely form which lends itself well to being sung, with repeated lines sometimes sung in chorus.

When you write poems, do you have a target audience in mind?

The target audience is the world, but I need to improve my dancing. And my French.

Which topics influence your poetry?

Topics are Family relations, potato rotation, fig roll rations and osmosis.

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

Illustration can be a foil to the writing as well as a depiction of the content.

What do you think children get from your poems?

Hopefully on hearing my poems, a child might think, ' I can write poems too.' And hopefully there is some hope in the lines.

How do you stop writer's block?

If you have writer's block, do some reading. Or some drawing? Or some swimming?

Of all the poems you have written, which is your favourite?

A poem that has served me well, is one about a dog that is continually breaking wind.  It has stood up well to late night comedy scrutiny and in the classroom provides a chuckle as well as impetus to tell the story from the dog's point of view. I tell it from the viewpoint of an outside human, the children give voice to the underdog.

In this digital age, what do you think of technology in creating and/or promoting poetry for children?

In terms of using technology, I would say that typewriters can be fun.

What advice can you give to aspiring poets?

Read poems at random.  Enter a public  library, find a book and a page with a poem. If is hard, it might be Hopkins. Seek out the gem in the woodpile. Speak the poem aloud, but perhaps ask the librarian if it is ok to do so.

Here's a quote from The Observer: 'John Hegley is to potatoes what Wordsworth has been to daffodils.'   Why do you like writing about potatoes?

The potato is the Number One in the vegetable basket. The king and the peasant. The ever-present foodstuff. Something that in my country, originated from far afield and yet is treated as a native. L'existance sans pomme de terre, c'est comme la revolution sans Robespierre, ou comme le magnifique, sans l'ordinaire. The spaded spud, I'm glad it's there.

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