jo bell interview: she lives the poetry she cannot write

the day cools from another stolen English summer afternoon. The Rochdale canal is still, the lines of the fisherman extend from pinpricks on the surface; I wonder are their lines even bated, having never seen one catch a bite, or whether that’s the point at all amidst the tranquillity of a tinny radio like white noise a hair above silence, chilled cans raising as if synchronised from one stranger to the next, poised like the timeless subjects of Yvon’s Paris in monochrome as the towering buildings either side of the water cool to shadow.

Beyond the silhouetted cityscape the perfect sun dips from tomorrows pewter rain cloud like treacle from a warmed spoon, and the opening gates disrupt the hoodlum geese, upsetting the calm with a cacophony of honking, the froth of waves muddying the waters. It occurs to me Jo Bell will likely be passing through this lock gate on her way to the Castle Hotel in the Northern Quarter at the end of the month, where she’ll be the featured poet of June’s Bad Language.

“Canals are my home, so they appear a lot in the poems,” says Jo. I emailed as we both have writing to do. “Oddly enough I wouldn’t say I write about them much; they stand for other things. For instance my poem Lifted is nominally about working a lock, but it’s also a dialogue between two people or two opposing forces, coming to a compromise that satisfies both.”

It is difficult not to think of Jo Bell, the UK’s Canal Poet Laureate, as a character of folklore and fiction, living many a bohemian’s dream as she travels the waterways on her boat, Tinker, pausing to write poems for her new book ‘Kith’, which she will soon be reading at various events around the country.

“I scribble down everything that I can see and everything that’s in my mind at the time of writing, in a big stream-of-consciousness splurge, editing as little as possible to catch that particular moment. I try to keep the internal editor tightly bound in a cupboard. Then I start working on that raw material to find out what the hell I was trying to say in the first place, and whether it might interest anyone else.”

It seems like Oscar Wilde’s words couldn’t have been better suited to the poet when he said, “She lives the poetry she cannot write.”

“There is melancholy as well as mischief here, and a real poets’ eye and ear for the foibles of being human,” said Stuart Maconie. An award-winning poet, her acclaimed work has been praised by many, with Carol Ann Duffy stating, “Jo Bell is one of the most exciting poets now writing and no time is wasted in the company of her work.”

Her words tattoo the canals that she travels.

Her words tattoo the canals that she travels. The 2012 Locklines project saw the lines of Ms Bell’s poetry, along with Roy Fisher and Ian McMillan’s, carved into lock gates across the country.
“The slow machine that England was straightened, straitened, boxed and sluiced,” reads the inlaid words of the lock 9E of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. And just as the canals shape the country and many a person’s historic path, the waterways also shape Ms Bell’s poetry:

“Culturally, the waterways are really important to my sense of self, in ways that can’t help but percolate into the work. I think in water – I often find myself explaining how something works, or expressing an emotional reaction, in terms of water. There’s a constant sense of inconstancy, or the possibility of movement.”

Asked if poetry is as relevant today as it once was, she firmly replies, “Yes.”

And the future of poetry?

“I honestly have no idea! Each generation takes poetry in whichever direction it can, and enriches it with its own rhythms and technologies.”

Writing commissions for the likes of the National Trust, Canal and River Trust, Stratford Poetry Festival and Glastonbury Festival, Ms Bell was also the director of the UK’s Poetry Day for six years as well as a mentor to aspiring poets. But what are the qualities that draw her to a good poem?

Jo Bell: There are ever so many ways to write a good poem – but the bad ones all have one or two things in common. The beginning of a poem has to be necessary, not just a preamble. The ending has to give a sense of the poem’s self and purpose, rather than telling me explicitly what I’m supposed to think. Most bad poems fail because the ending is weak; the poet starts with good intentions but realises halfway through that they have nothing to say. I want a poem to communicate something to me, even if I find it abrasive or untrue.

Photos by Lee Allen
Photos by Lee Allen

So what is the first rule of poetry?

Jo: READ. You have to be interested in poetry, not just your own poetry. Read widely and deeply, get a sense of the environment and times in which you are writing – so that you don’t for instance, try to write like Keats or Edgar Allan Poe. Learn everything you can about how to write and how not to write. Then, equipped with that knowledge, write like nobody but yourself.

What’s your favourite part of the writing process?

Jo: The part when it’s over, and the partial thoughts that made me want to write have found their right expression. I do love performing, because that’s the moment when you find out whether your words have any resonance with an audience – but I don’t think that’s part of the writing process.

When you sit down to write, how do you know when a poem is complete?

Jo: When I can’t take anything away from it, or add anything to it, without buggering it up.

Do you write with an audience in mind? And did being made Canal Laureate change this?

Jo: I do write with an audience in mind if it’s a commission, because I have to meet a client’s needs. Otherwise, to write with an audience in mind can kill the poem, just as a person who always agrees with you can seem a bit dull.

If you could have written one other poem by another author, which would it be?

Jo: Auden’s In Praise of Limestone – or MacCaig’s A Man and a Boat. They’re very different but they share an economy of speech, a sense of delight and of the thing at hand standing for something much larger.

“Love, sex, boats and friendship” are the themes of Kith, Jo Bell’s new book of poems. Gongoozlers don’t worry, you don’t have long to wait as the Canal Poet Laureate sets sail to read at various events across the country.

There’s not yet any poetry carved onto the lock gates in Castlefield so, until then, here’s an extract from ‘Things Which Are’ to keep you going:

Alchemy has fuck-all
to do with it; we’re making ordinary miracles
in spite of winter; in a blaze of sweat and bone, of slick and tangled bodies. What we are is this:
a man with faults in him, of course
but also love, as true and ragged as a stone; a woman, ready – yes – for
all the subtle give of tongue and muscle, or
for intimacy with its firework scatter
of consequence and chaos. Bring it on.
Put up a finger for the year to swivel on;
we don’t accept defeat. We’re here to start again;

nb. I’ve since learned that sailing to read at events around the country would take weeks, and so Jo won’t be passing through the Rochdale Canal for Bad Language. Still, a nice thought.

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