An Interview with Popular British poet Philip Bell by Dr. Amitabh Mitra

1. You are an Environmental Engineer based in UK and have been writing poetry for children and adults. When did you start writing poetry for children? My daughter who is 9 years old was sitting with me when I was reciting your poems. She has quickly picked up your poems and recites them now and then. Your poems have a lyric and a rhyme. They can be sung and recited. Let us know about your experience in children’s poetry movement in the UK.

I started writing poetry seriously in 1984 at the age of 36 and was already blessed with three children. I had always enjoyed reading stories and poetry to my children but it was my daughter that stretched my imagination to start writing for children. She was quite demanding with her "Read me another story, daddy" or "Read me another poem, daddy". Soon I was running out of books and decided to make up some stories and poems for her.

It was many years later though, when I shared my poetry with other children and discovered that they too seemed to enjoy my rhymes. I also at this time discovered how important rhyme and meter was for children.

As much as I was writing, I was also listening. Listening to childhood playground verse that my daughter and her friends would share with me. Passed down and sometimes adapted from many past generations, they were rich in rhyme and meter.

Children also delight in 'made-up' words that are sometimes difficult to pronounce, in the same way as we describe tongue-twister rhymes. How I enjoyed sharing these delights with the children that surrounded me. I really felt as if I had re-discovered the child within me and determined not to let that feeling go.

I was also fortunate in being asked to share my verse in poetry projects in schools and was interested to learn that quite young children had amazing grasp of ideas when presented within poetry. This awakened my memories of early childhood and how poetry was a great part of my life from a very early age.

Your request to learn about my experience in the children's poetry movement in the UK touched on a sad element of literature in general here. Whilst there are exceptions within some schools, I am concerned that the modern curriculum for primary education, does not allow the time for the appreciation of poetry. All too often it is considered a non-essential element of the education. Yet, in addition to learning the basic skills of reading, writing and the foundation elements of mathematics, children so desperately need inspiration to excite their imagination. The introduction in secondary education is too late for many and can turn a joy into a chore.

2. Being a qualified professional and having published a lot of technical papers, does writing children’s poetry give you an outlet and yet a challenging task to create something magical?

Oh yes, indeed. It would be wrong to give the impression that writing technical papers does not call for creativity, but it is creativity in a different form. Based on adherence to analytical proof and the study of facts, it has no room for wild supposition or plain fantasy.

We all learn from a tender age that gravity keeps our feet firmly on the ground, yet in our dreams we can free ourselves from all the physical constraints. If we are free from natural laws, then anything is possible, and it removes the chains, which bind us.

The pragmatist may disapprove of a child's fantasy world and it may be true that it is possible to overstep the boundary between reality and fantasy. I do believe however, that removing fantasy completely would be immensely damaging, as it would affect a persons ability to challenge existing knowledge and thus learn more of our universe. Perhaps this is the gift that we were given that truly advances mankind.

Such an attitude can benefit writing for children and adults alike. If we lose understanding of this then we cannot complain if the adult audience turns away from our writing. How true is it that adults so often enjoy reading stories or poetry to children for their own sake. When at a craft fair I read to children – my adult audience is there in the background, with big smiles on their faces.

3. I suddenly remembered the lines of Sir Walter Scott in Lady of the Lake ‘Oh Caledonia, Stern and Wild, Land of my Sires…' Your poems have a beautiful mythological background, does that relate to your days in school and your love for mythology?

In primary school, I was very fortunate to have several teachers that clearly enjoyed poetry and would sit us down as a class and ready from many of the great poets.

To understand my love of poetry and mythology I have to recall the sequence that perhaps sowed the seeds in my mind. Few of the poems that we were read would be regarded strictly as children's poems, yet they most certainly were.

The first of these was "Cargoes" by John Masefield.

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

As a small child, I couldn't fully understand all the words, but with a little help from the teacher, it sparked my imagination.

The list of poets would be far too extensive to present here, but they all helped to extend this desire to seek out more poems and stories.

Soon as I grew older, I was introduced to classical tales from Greek and Roman Mythology wondering at the imagination of the writers of such tales. Closer to home I realized that within my own country, there was local folklore and legends that would fill my life with an almost inexhaustible supply of stories and inspiration.

How could all this not influence me?

4. Children’s poetry in English in India is still in its infancy. How do you view the children’s literature movement globally and its fusion with art, music, drama and films?

Fragmented at best.

We are continually battling with imposed ideas from misguided although possibly well meaning literary figures. Whilst my argument applies across all forms of literature, poetry has been affected more than anything.

Here in the UK, the poetry 'establishment' has done more to damage this art and craft than they might ever admit to. In the move to encourage free verse as the acceptable face of poetry, they systematically set out to destroy rhyming poetry. The publishing fraternity would describe any efforts to rhyme as 'forced' and apart from a handful of children's publishers would generally refuse to handle any poetry that rhymed.

Now I have to stop here and say that I am not against free verse. Indeed I write free verse myself. However, the damage was done when such attitudes effectively destroyed the process by which children could learn rhyme and meter and in so doing removed a basic skill by which even where it was not necessary, free verse would suffer from a lack of meter in the presentation of poetic thought.

I describe poetry as both an art and a craft. The art of poetry comes from within and is influenced by our surroundings and the inspiration that we receive. The craft is learnt over a period of time. Learnt from reading, from understanding form, the construction of words and sentences from basic syllables and the use of meter.

Removing either art or craft from the equation reduces the end quality of a poem. A poem does not have to rhyme, but the craft learned from form, rhyme and meter will enhance the free verse.

In addressing the fusion with art, music, drama and films I am concerned that the mass media approach is concerned more with making money than being concerned with the art and craft that lies behind the media.

When a children's writer is assessed on whether his 'characters' can provide secondary industries for merchandise, it may make economic sense, but it would be wrong to think this has anything to do with the foundation of literature. If you look at the western 'manufactured' music for example, you quickly realize that it discourages the real musician. Maybe our society is poisoning literary gifts in the same way.

5. You have written a collection of beautiful love poems, off course in rhyme, I almost thought that they can be used by record companies for launching new voices. What is your opinion of contemporary Indian poetry and British poetry of today?

My love of poetry has led me to explore poetry from around the world and my only sorrow is that I am not a linguist and find learning a new language difficult. I have on many occasions said that if I could be granted one magic wish, it would be to understand all languages both in the written word and in the spoken word.

With respect to Indian poetry, I have to rely on those Indian poets that write in English. A simple translation may not carry the original well into a different language and culture. What I can say is that when I have read the English Language poetry from those of an Indian culture I am truly touched by the beauty in the majority of poems that I have read.

Defining contemporary may be different for Indian Poetry than for British Poetry in that I feel that Indian contemporary poetry has not lost its links with the past and retains substantially the craft. The art may change with time and as culture draws in influences from modernism and our global community.

British contemporary poetry and there are exceptions to this, is more extreme in its attempts to sever itself from the past and in so doing loses the craft.

Poetry by Philip G. Bell

February 26, 2006