Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Stephanie Bowgett

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following poets, local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Stephanie Bowgett

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

I was a teacher in my forties. I had always loved poetry and enjoyed introducing poems to children and enabling them to write their own, but as a working mother of two with a demanding job, I had never found time to write myself, till I entered a Times Educational Supplement competition which had the wonderful prize of an Arvon week at Totleigh Barton. I was lucky enough to win a place and our tutors were Kit Wright and the late Gerard Benson. Gerard kindly encouraged me to carry on writing and pointed out that Huddersfield was a good place to find workshops and readings.

I was introduced to the Monday workshop which was full of published poets, David Morely, Janet Fisher, Milner Place, John Lancaster and my three fellow Albert poets, John Duffy, John Bosley and Phil Foster among others. The council provided the space at that time and, two or three times a year, for a few weeks, a workshop leader. These included Simon Armitage, Jack Hirschman and Martin Stannard. It was terrifying. Every poem was pulled apart and analysed without mercy and I realised what an unforgiving discipline it is, but I also realised it was something I wanted to do.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I grew up in a house that was full of books and music. My Dad came from a poor London family and won a scholarship to Grammar School,  but had to leave as soon as he was old enough to work, but his love of all the arts and thirst for knowledge never left him. He was emergency trained as a teacher after the war and took his young family to Germany to teach army children. English books had to be shipped out and he ordered all the new poetry books . I still have many of these, including the Faber Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn and several volumes by TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas. Although I had children’s books, he read adult stuff to me as well. I remember my brother and I banging saucepans with wooden spoons chanting, “We are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men …” which, to be fair, probably made as much sense to us as most nursery rhymes. I had “The Book of a Thousand Poems” and loved to learn stuff by heart. Being a pretentious child, I started with Shakespeare -“Full fathom five”, “Ye spotted snakes”, “This England never has nor shall”

I think a huge influence for children of my generation was hymns, the book of Common Prayer and of course, the Bible. Although much of it went over our heads, the sense of rhyme and rhythm, the musicality of language became part of our DNA. I have not been to church for decades, but still know the words to hundreds of hymns, psalms and prayers.

Similarly, the great American songbook was unavoidable.  American Forces Network and the American NAFFI provided blues records and both my parents knew all the old music hall songs. My Dad would sing to me and play records, so Cole Porter’s wonderful lyrics, Leadbelly, Josh White singing blues and ballads, Hoagy Carmichael, English whimsey from Paddy Roberts and bawdy ballads from Elsa Lancaster all introduced me to new kinds of language and a fascination or how it works.  I find I often use ballad and song forms and love the musicality of the best poetry.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

I mostly remember being taught doggerel at primary school. “Cricket in Fairyland” and a bizarre poem that ended, “and I know it’s very naughty/but I don’t like cook!”, but I do remember doing “Hiawatha” which I loved and “The Pied Piper” because I lived in Hameln for a bit. I think I knew some big names because of home. At secondary school, we only studied poetry in exam years. I did Shakespeare, of course, Robert Frost and Browning and Tennyson and also Hugo, Baudelaire, Lamartine in French. I then went to drama school where verse speaking was one of the main disciplines. Pope, Milton, the Romantics were compulsory, but we also looked at 20th century writers including Americans, Whitman and Vachel Lindsay, and lots of Berthold Brecht. My most intense poetry study was with the OU where our main focus was Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Hughes, Plath Robert Lowell and Dylan Thomas. Seamus Heaney came to read at our summer school in York, He had a drink with my tutor group, about 8 of us, in the bar afterwards and then decided to stay over. He came to all our session for several days which was a real privilege.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I don’t have one, I write in bursts as and when I have the time and feel the urge. Having something to take to our Monday workshop is a great motivator. John Duffy and I run workshops in the library and at the Huddersfield Mission where we set exercises and prompts which we also write to and this makes me explore ideas that I might not have come up with otherwise. For instance, John set an exercise to write using only words of one syllable and this led to me exploring whether I could express complex ideas using very simple vocabulary. The result is “White Bear” a sequence of poems in the voice of a seven-year old girl. It is in my pamphlet, “A Poor Kind of Memory”.

5. What is your work ethic?

I work on poems for a long time, often revisiting after years, and I reject most of what I write. I am very bad at sending things to magazines or seeking publication. I did when I started and have been lucky in competitions, but rarely enter them, so maybe my work ethic is not all it should be! I do spend a lot of time planning for workshops and organising The Albert poets, though.

6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I think wide reading is the most important tool for me as a writer. It widens the scope of what I attempt, and I hope has given me an ear for rhythm and musicality. I hope it helps me to choose an appropriate register for each poem

7. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I am lucky to workshop with some of my favourite poets, John Duffy, Carola Luther, Mark Hinchliffe, Judith Wilson, Julia Deakin, John Foggin, Anthony Costello and my ellow Calder Valley poets  to see their work in progress as well as having their critique on my work. I am inspired by and in awe of all of them.  My favourite poet changes week by week and we host so many brilliant poets at The Albert. I am reading a Black American writer called Shane McCrae at the moment who writes to his own adaptation of forms which have very stringent rules. His work is very moving and often covers historical themes.
9. Why do you write?
I enjoy it and it helps me to work things out.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Read loads and widely and then just write. Find a critical workshop

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I have an ongoing project based on the life of my maternal Great-grandmother, I have been writing it for some years and I think it is almost finished. It has involved a lot of research. I want to celebrate the domestic everyday lives working class women such as my ancestors, the small triumphs and tragedies. David Starkey has said that women can’t write history because “it’s not about them.”   I think it’s all about them.

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