Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Liz Brownlee

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers 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.

Liz Brownlee

is a National Poetry Day Ambassador, a School Patron of Reading, and does readings and workshops in schools, performs at literary festivals and libraries etc., and organises poetry events.

Her other books are Reaching the Stars, Poems about Extraordinary Women and Girls, , Macmillan, The Same inside, Poems About Empathy and Friendship, , Macmillan, Apes to Zebras, An A-Z of Animal Shape Poems, Bloomsbury, and Be the Change, Macmillan.

poetliz@mac.com

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

I’d been writing stories for my local primary school, and a friend suggested I should go on a writing course. I can’t drive, and when some time later she said she had to go on a creative writing course and would I like to go with her, I accepted. Then, when someone else we got to know there turned out to live near enough to give me a lift, she dropped out. Her creative writing enthusiasm was really a ruse to get me there (I have some very good friends).

The (luckily) excellent tutor said the first thing I wrote showed I was a poet. Subsequent writing did seem to confirm this, and I enjoyed it. I wrote my first children’s poem there about my son, who stuffed his pockets full of all sorts of things, which ended up in the washing machine.

Then the second friend asked me if I’d like to accompany her to Bath Uni for a course and gave me the list of courses to choose from. One was for children’s poets, run by children’s poet Mike Johnson, serendipitously on the same day and at the same time as the course she was doing. He sent off some of my course poems with his to poet anthologists and I was published (thanks, Mike!). In fact, that first poem I wrote was my second to be published. When my first poem was published, my mum gave me a box from her attic – it was called ‘Lizzy’s kiddy drawings and poems.’ I’d forgotten all about my earlier efforts!

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

Poetry was everywhere when we were little. There were always children’s pages in all the newspapers, with puzzles, cartoons, crosswords and poems. My first poetry book was called Jolly Jingles, read to my brother and I often by my mum and dad, and I still have it. Children’s annuals always contained poetry – Treasure Annual introduced me to Edward Lear’s The Pobble Who Had No Toes, who drank lavender water tinged with pink, and who lost all his toes swimming in the Bristol Channel – very glamorous and slightly unsettling to a child who was born in Bristol. R L Stevenson’s From a Railway Carriage was wonderful to charge around quoting – who could not fall in love with the rhythm of Faster than fairies, faster than witches/Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches! AND – my favourite poem read in childhood, Overheard on a Saltmarsh by Harold Munro, which still sends shivers up and down my arms.

At Grammar School, we had a wonderful English teacher (who is still alive), who read us delights to tingle spines and make us breathless, such as The Listeners by Walter De la Mare, and Tarantella by Hillaire Belloc. Other poets were introduced by the O and A Level curriculum.

3. What is your daily writing routine?

I get up. Have breakfast. Do some Tweeting and any blog work that needs done, and round about 11 when I have finally woken up after a coffee I start researching, or writing, depending what stage I’m at. It takes a while to get into the writing. Lots of false starts. Lots of deleting and starting again in a different form or style or pace or angle. If I’m deeply into a project of writing I will start that straight away and carry on, my husband comes home around 7, and I’m still at it, and I often continue through the evening, because once I have got going, I find it hard to stop. The final poem may not be the final poem. Sometimes it takes a few weeks or months of tweaking. Sometimes you just know that is it.

4. What motivates you to write?

Enjoyment.

5. What is your work ethic?

Write the truth.

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

I loved animals and read a lot of animal books, Gerald Durrell, James Herriot, and lots of non-fiction facts about animals. I write a lot of animal poetry. But I also read a LOT of fiction, very eclectically, favourites being Aldous Huxley, Isaac Asimov, all Brontës, Jane Austen, John Wyndham, Franz Kafka, Heinrich Böll, J R Tolkein, Stephen King, Harper Lee, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula Le Guin, Enid Blyton, J Meade Faulkner, Marjorie Rawlings (never read the Yearling again, too sad!), E Nesbitt, Alan Garner, C S Lewis … my parents did not censor anything. I made no distinction between adult or children’s books and read them both, and have done ever since. I think everything you read influences you and feeds into the rhythms in your mind that you can source to create.

7. Which writers do you admire the most and why?

I don’t admire anyone the most. How can you? People are so different, writers are so different, you read them all for different experiences. I can tell you my favourite books – To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (we read this at school, and my teacher let me keep my copy as she could see I was having hard time handing it back!), Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, Brady Udall, Cancer Ward, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Time Must Have a Stop, Aldous Huxley, Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, The Chrysalids, John Wyndham, Helen Dunmore and Bill Bryson always, and anything by Paul Auster, Tim Winton and Raymond Chandler, those spare prose styles I find delicious, I Robot, Isaac Asimov, oh, I can’t write them all – anything that makes me laugh.

Poets? Let’s just say I try and read everything I can get my hands on. Particular favourites, Ted Hughes, Stevie Smith, Leonard Cohen, Pablo Neruda. Children’s poets? I read them ALL. Lots are my friends. I have my favourites but I’m not saying.

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

I write because I was led to it as you can see from the answer above, but also, I am not allowed to drive, due to my habit of becoming unconscious fairly often. Which of course makes having a job fairly tricky. I have, since my writing career started, become much better, as I now have an assistance dog who lets me know when my blood sugar is falling, which it does frequently, quickly and without warning. I also have a blood glucose sensor implanted as well. This has revolutionised my life. I write poetry because my brain flits and poetry fits.

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

Read a lot. Write a lot. Go to a writing class. Never expect to finish learning how to write.

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

My newest book, just out, is Be the Change, Poems to Help You Save the World. I was noticing and reading that children are worried about the continuous feed of worrying information about the climate crisis. They are powerless, and that makes them feel more scared. The poems in the book, which I’ve written with Matt Goodfellow and Roger Stevens, address most of the 17 UN sustainability goals, and each poem has little tips at the end, which give a child small ways of helping the climate themselves. Having something constructive to do helps with anxiety. And I believe that if we all pull together, we can save the world. Here is the last poem in the book:

Snow

Swirling slowly
in lilting flight,
as cold as stars,
the soundless white

of drifting feathers
spreading wings,
to sing the songs
that snowflakes sing,

of how small gifts
of peace and light
can change the world
in just one night.

>© Liz Brownlee

I’ve also just handed in a book of shape poems about people who have shaped the world – this is an anthology and my first project as an editor. I thoroughly enjoyed this process!

I’m busy writing for another few books, but it’s too soon to mention those – but it is true that I am never happier than when ‘ping’ I suddenly ‘get’ how to shape the words I want into a poem, or how to shape the words I’ve already written into a shape poem, or when I’m shaping poems into a book.

12. Do you do anything other than write children’s poetry?

I used to draw a lot. If I’m not writing I have strong urges to do something else creative – draw, sew, make something! But if I’m not writing, and even when I am writing, I run several websites and Twitter accounts. I have my own blog which I add to fairly often (http://www,lizbrownleepoet.com), and Poetry Roundabout (http://www.poetryroundabout.com), a website on which I post anything and everything to do with children’s poetry. It includes an A-Z of current children’s poets, a series of famous children’s poets and their favourite children’s poetry books at the minute, and I also post reviews, information for poets and people who love poetry, poetry news and competitions etc. I believe supporting children’s poets and poetry helps us all. Then there’s my Twitter – https://twitter.com/Lizpoet
I also post the blogs on the Children’s Poetry Summit blog (https://childrenspoetrysummit.com/) and run that Twitter account, https://twitter.com/kidspoetsummit
And last but not least, I walk my assistance dog, Lola.

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