Becoming a Poet: In Conversation with Poet in Residence Rachel Piercey
I caught up with Poet in Residence Rachel Piercey for an informal chat about all things poetry. Rachel has been staying at Cyprus Well, Charles Causley’s final home in Launceston, for a few weeks now. During her stay she has run workshops in Launceston’s local schools, digital workshops for aspiring adult poets and several poetry-driven events in the community. With the end of her residency fast approaching, I was keen to get a glimpse of her journey in becoming a poet, how she first got into the writing space and why she loves Charles Causley’s work.
How did you first get into writing poetry?
I remember writing my first poem outside of school at primary school age. I wrote about a golden eagle even though I’d never seen one in person. I showed it to my teacher, and she was really encouraging.
When I got to university there was a poetry society which ran workshops and held readings by established poets once a week. I went to both events every week alongside my studying. That really cemented poetry as something I wanted to continue doing.
I know that you write poems for both adults and children, who do you think is easier to write for?
Gosh that’s hard. I really don’t know. You have to really think hard about your audience when you’re writing for children, which means an extra layer of thinking during composition. You have to engage them; they’re not going to sit and listen politely and applaud at the end if they didn’t enjoy it.
Having said that, writing for children gives you a great freedom. One of your main functions is entertainment: to play and be joyful, and ultimately write for the fun of it.
Was there a particular poem or poet that inspired you to start writing?
It was a long time ago! I always loved Allan Ahlberg when I was a young child. As I got older, I guess Spike Milligan and Tennyson. I liked the medieval stories like The Lady of Shalott. Those three make an interesting cocktail!
Any tips for overcoming writers block?
Well, the classic one is to read loads, and I absolutely agree. Personally, I find poetry magazines and anthologies really inspiring because you get this whole range of voices and scenes and approaches. It gives you this sense of all the different things that poetry can do and be. In terms of jolting, you out of potential writer’s block, it really is inspiring.
You’re involved in a variety of different projects, what would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?
I think probably going into schools because children naturally love poetry. They remain uninhibited around poetry so it’s a real joy to go in and work with them. To know that you’ve held the attention of a hall full of children and entertained them is really rewarding. And hopefully stimulated their imaginations!
My teacher telling me that she liked my poem was such a big thing for me, so the idea that I could be that person who encourages someone to think ‘yeah, I can do this, I can write poems’ is really rewarding.
Do you have a favourite Charles Causley poem?
Gosh that’s tricky. I really love, ‘Tell, Tell the Bees’ because of its beautiful repetition. There is a long tradition throughout Europe that when a beekeeper dies, you have to tell the bees that they’ve died and that there’ll be expecting a new keeper. A beautiful tradition in itself; I feel like it’s very Causley themed. Causley is a master of repetition and uses it in particularly resonant ways. He never ties anything off neatly and lets it echo just like in the poem when the first stanza is repeated at the end.
In my experience, not a huge amount of people know about Charles Causley’s work. Why do you think that is?
It is a shame. He was so well known and well-loved in the 20th century. One thing I’m really keen to do is spread the word about how amazing he is: for children and for adults. To see him deploy his unique voice for children and for adults is very inspiring to me. He often published the same poem in collections for adults and for children. I think that’s lovely, having no dividing line between adult and child and what they would enjoy. I think he really respected that.
Do you have any advice for people who want to begin writing poetry and are perhaps apprehensive?
Read loads! That’s always my first piece of advice. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was the poet Julia Bird who talked about the pleasure of writing poetry: when she writes it, she feels like she’s part of this community of people doing something special. I really keep that with me. Even if you’re not necessarily going to send something off for publication, you’re still participating in this world that is really rich and beautiful.
My advice for young people is always don’t worry about rhyme. I love rhyme, but I think it can sometimes be a bit pressuring. I think people instinctively try to rhyme when they write a poem, but it can be more freeing to write in free verse.
My final piece of advice would be to try and get along to a poetry event. Often local workshops have a huge variety of styles and voices and are generally really friendly. I found these really helpful. Getting feedback and advice from a group of other poets is invaluable. If you can find a workshop, join that!
Words by Caroline Bond