Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: James Carter

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.

 

James Carter

is an award-winning children’s poet, non-fiction writer and musician. An ambassador for National Poetry Day, he travels all over the UK and abroad with his melodica (that’s Steve) to give very lively, action-packed poetry/music performances and workshops. His latest verse non-fiction series for KS1 & 2 (Little Tiger Press) is translated into over 8 international languages.

James is a former lecturer in Creative Writing/Children’s Literature at Reading University – and in the last 18 years he has visited over 1300 Primary/Prep schools; what’s more he’s performed at various prestigious festivals including Cheltenham, Hay and Edinburgh. In one Primary school in Cheltenham, an OFSTED inspector gave him an ‘Outstanding!’

www.jamescarterpoet.co.uk

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

It’s a number of things. I’ve always really loved words – reading everything from comics/non-fiction as a child to novels as a teen/young adult, and now mainly non-fiction/poetry/plays. I’ve always been a bit imaginative I guess, and as soon as I bought my first electric guitar at 15, I just started writing lyrics to songs. Actually, I wrote my first lyric/poem thing, The Electrified Spiders, aged 8 or 9. I played in bands all through my 20s, writing and recording music. But as soon as I went to uni aged 29 I knew I wanted to write, to be a writer. I tried fiction at first, but it was the poetry/non-fiction that took off.

I’m a bit of an outsider (I’ve often been called ‘contrary’, and I certainly do question everything), always have been, and poetry fits in well with this sensibility, as poetry should show you the world from a different/fresh perspective. In a poem I have to be as original as possible – I feel that I’m implicitly saying ‘Hey look at that – but look at it like this…’. Also a poem has to say something, communicate something, even simply present you with a thought, an idea or a single image.

I like writing for children as it disciplines me. I can’t indulge myself too much, I have to ideally keep my young invisible reader interested. For me, children for me are the best age group to write for. I have no interest in writing for adults per se, but if adults ever like a poem I’ve written with children in mind, then that’s nice! This happened with a kind of eco poem I wrote for a school for World Book Day last year – Who Cares? – it went on the National Poetry Day website (I’m one of their ambassadors), and it was picked up by Radio 3 for their prose and poetry series. I never saw that coming! As a writer, you never know who will read your work, or how it will be received. I even had an email this morning from a woman asking if her 9 year old child could read my poem Love You More (it’s at my website – www.jamescarterpoet.co.uk) at her wedding. How lovely is that? As a poet I couldn’t ask for more.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

School – Macbeth / Canterbury Tales at O level, Philip Larkin at A level, then much later as a mature student, the lecturers at Reading Uni (on the B.Ed degree) were very passionate about poetry. It was the Craft of Writing course in particular that got me writing. In my twenties I went to a fair few John Hegley gigs. Great poet, great comic, and a wonderful person. He showed me you can write about literally a n y t h i n g…

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

Weird question! Actually, I’m now an older poet myself. And still I’d say the children’s poetry world is led by older poets – but thankfully we have lots of younger voices coming through. And crucially, I very much believe the poetry world is far more welcoming to new poets than it ever was. But I think that writing for children is not something that most people consider anyway until they have children / grandchildren or worked as a teacher or have been on the planet for a while…

4. What is your daily writing routine?

Don’t have one! I write anywhere, anytime. In a sense, I’m always writing. On trains, in cafés, on hilltops, in car parks. Depends what I’m writing though. If I’m writing a poem, I can even write/re-write aspects of it in my head, and then I’ll have to make a note of it on my phone or the envelope I keep in my pocket. (Worked for Paul McCartney when writing Hey Jude!) I often get obsessed with a poem as I’m writing it, and will run lines/phrases over and over in my head, chanting them, mouthing the words until they really flow – and every single syllable/word etc is just right. But if I’m writing a non-fiction verse book, say like Once Upon A Star / Once Upon An Atom, I need to either work on my laptop, or better still, on paper. I will take the manuscript with me wherever I go, making a great many tweaks/edits/changes.

5. What motivates you to write?

Two things – a) a love if not obession with words and the music of language, b) a fascination with the world – and a need to make sense of it, and I find writing a poem on a topic will help me to explore and express something on that subject / idea / memory. I’m always thinking about something or other, so a poem is a great place to put or distil my thoughts.

6. What is your work ethic?

I’m a workaholic. I’m always writing, at least always thinking about writing. Perhaps tweaking a line, refining a title, developing an image, or mulling over an idea for a new non-fiction book.

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

As Morris Gleitzman so nicely expressed it, everything you read / think / observe / experience goes into the ‘mulch’ from which your writing grows. Specifically, I know that many rhyming things I write are to the rhythm of lines from Macbeth, or my favourite picture book Where The Wild Things Are (a massive influence on me) or even Tom Waits’ spoken word piece ‘What’s He Building In There?’ But I’m sure I’m influenced by lots of things I’ve read without even realising it.

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

As poets go, I really admire the Americans Billy Collins, Mary Oliver and Lilian Moore. As children’s writers go, I like Shaun Tan and Oliver Jeffers – and a great many others. But in the main, I try and read more widely, away from poetry so I can be inspired by other things – so it’s often plays and non-fiction.

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

I have done other things from teaching to lecturing to office work, but writing / working in schools as a work shopper and performer is by far the most rewarding thing I have ever done. I so enjoy working with children and teachers and librarians. Performing – all that showing off is fine, it’s great fun, but for me it’s all about switching children on as writers. I love the finales we have at the end of a visit, where the children read their poems. I was actually very close to tears yesterday when we had a Year 6 finale in one of my very favourite schools, in Newbury. The poems were quite brilliant. I feel that what I do now – my writing / workshopping and performing – is a culmination of all I’ve ever experienced, plus my two degrees – my teaching degree and my Masters in Children’s Literature.

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

Write. Write. Write. Write. Read. Read. Read. Read. DON’T expect to get the first/second/third thing you write to be published as chances are it won’t be. Only JK Rowling was published immediately, everyone else pretty much has to serve an apprenticeship of years of writing in the wildnerness. Don’t be too inspired by what you read as a child, look to see what is published right now. If you are writing for children, make it modern. Don’t trust your own children as readers/listeners – of course they’ll love it as they will want to please you. Even more writing, even more reading… Find out through trial and error, not only what you want to write, but what you are best at. I thought I’d be a novelist, but I’m actually a poet/non-fiction writer – and I’m more than happy with that!

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

A kind of best-of poetry book for 7-11s – Weird, Wild & Wonderful – to be published Jan 2021 by Otter-Barry Books and illustrated by the fantastic Neal Layton. I literally just finished the final new poem to go in the book. The book is a round up really of all the most popular poems I have written, published and performed over the last twenty years. But there’s a selection of brand new ones too. As with all my books I’m aiming for a real range of poems in terms of forms / tone / topics. What I want from one of my poetry collections is a book in which a child reader will not know what they are getting next. I want my collections to read more like anthologies, as if they were written by many different poets. WW&W is divided into three loosely-themed sections Weird (more upbeat humorous and daft poems) / Wild (nature/animal poems) / Wonderful (memory poems/quiet, reflective pieces) – but even within those there is a range.

When I began writing in the late 90s (1990s, not 189s, obvs..) there was too much emphasis on humorous poetry I thought, and I’ve tried to resist that in my books. I want a real range. And actually I find it’s often the quieter poems that really stick with children, and mean more to them. When I perform for 7-11s I’ll mainly do the more serious poems, but I’ll also do some improvised comic stuff in between, even some music – piano, melodica and guitar. I still write instrumental music to this day.

Apart from Once Upon An Atom (Caterpillar Books/Little Tiger Press) – a book on science in verse for 5-8s, I have another book in that same series (as yet untitled!) which is being illustrated right now and that is on the subject of palaeontology – going back in time, exploring various extinct creatures from the past – from woolly mammoths to trilobites to T.Rexes. I really love writing non-fiction. Researching a topic for months, and then finding an interesting angle to tell the story of that subject. I don’t want too many facts. Other books do facts, so instead I try and establish a narrative thread of some kind that takes a reader into or through a subject. Once Upon An Atom is slightly different in that it has three sections – Chemistry / Physics / Biology, and in very simple poetic language explains/explores each of these. It was probably the toughest book I’ve ever done – explaining science to an infant isn’t easy! The illustrations by the Brazilian artist Willian Santiago are just brilliant – very vivid, slightly retro sci-fi at times.

12. Why did you write Once Upon An Atom?

I’ve always been fascinated by science. Biology was my favourite subject at school – until I did a week of it at A level and decided it had effectively turned into chemistry and physics, which I wasn’t happy about it, so I dropped it! Instead, I got into English big time – Shakespeare, Larkin etc. And later at uni I studied English with education – but I’ve always had an interest in science, particularly natural history and anything space-related.

I’d already written six or so books in this series for Caterpillar Books, and each one, though non-fiction – and in verse – told a linear story – eg Once Upon A Star (the Big Bang/formation of our sun) / Once Upon A Raindrop (the story of water on this planet, including water cycles) / Once Upon A Rhythm (the story of music). This time I wanted to write about Science, but however I thought about it, there was no actual simple and direct story, just a very complex/interconnected  sequence of inventions/discoveries etc from the last 10,000 years, and that wouldn’t do for a younger children’s picture book. I’d read – rather tried to read – Bill Bryson’s (and I’m a massive fan of his usually) impenetrable The History Of Nearly Everything. I couldn’t read it. It was too dense. Too clogged with facts. I don’t gravitate (ho ho) to facts, as essential they are – for as a reader, I like some kind of coherent narrative. And I had that book at that back of my mind for the many months I was writing this one.

So for a structure for Once Upon An Atom I ended up with three basic parts, which were effectively chemistry, physics and biology. Initially I explained what they were without actually explicitly naming those disciplines as I thought it would be way over the heads/comprehension of 5-8s, the target audience of this series. It took ages to get it right – to find simple enough concepts for each scientific area without losing the real essence of what each is. I finally handed the manuscript in and the wonderful editors at Caterpillar said that they liked it, but that I HAD to include the terms physics, chemistry and biology. I tried to fight my case, but lost! I’ve learnt to trust editors 99% of the time, as they have the objectivity that I don’t, and crucially, they know the market. So a massive re-write followed and unfortunately, Pat and Isabel at Caterpillar were totally right – once again! – and I think/hope it became a better text for it. For the illustrator, they chose Willian Santiago from Brazil. (All the illustrators for the series are from around the world – Spain, Japan, Italy, Northern Ireland…) I was thrilled. His bold, bright exuberant style brought so much to the book.

I’ve since written a related book on inventions for the series, which I didn’t have space to cover in Once Upon An Atom. My editor Pat gave me the challenge of writing a book on materials (wood / glass / metals .. etc.) as her daughter, an Infant teacher, had told her that that is what she’d need for her class. And actually, that was an easier book to write as I simply wrote about the sequence of materials that homo sapiens have used over the millennia – and how each of these have helped us to build the modern world. I would never have thought to have written a book on inventions in that way –  ie through the prism of materials – but it gave it a fresh perspective.

When you write for younger children, you can never lose sight of your reader. I simply now try and write books that I would have wanted to read at that age. I had a few nature books – typical 60s fare – The Observers Book Of British Birds/Mammals etc.. – but nothing on generic science. The two things I try and consider when writing this series are – is the language inviting enough? Am I enthusing / entertaining my reader somehow? And is this interesting / relevant enough? How can I make it more enticing/fascinating? To this end, I often find I spend more time on the first few pages than any other in a book – to get the tone / feel / voice / music of the language just right. You have to grab your reader literally from the first syllable… and that’s a challenge I really enjoy!

I visit a lot of schools, and I see a lot of non-fiction books in school libraries and in topic displays in classrooms. Apart from books like the Horrible Science/Histories series, I do wonder to myself how many of these books are actually read. I know that many non-fiction books we dip in and out of anyway and wouldn’t dream of reading chronologically, but with every non-fiction book I do I love the idea that the reader might experience the book from beginning to end, and follow a linear thread. The books in this series are short, snappy and meant as a taster books for a subject. (If a reader wants to know more, there will be many other books that go into greater detail.) And this certainly affects the way I structure and shape what I am writing. It’s all about the story for me – though I do always have a factual acrostic at the back to include a few dates, a few figures and background information. Facts can get in the way of a good story, so where better to place them than at the back of a book?

And oddly, I’m probably one of the least knowledgeable people I know. In theory, I shouldn’t be writing non-fiction! As a person, I have my own limited interests, but as a writer I’m into E V E R Y T H I N G. It’s not WHAT you write about, but HOW you write about it. And what I do have in abundance is enthusiasm! I’m absolutely hopeless at retaining facts, and because of this I have to do a lot of research. But I guess it does mean I come to every subject as a non-fiction writer reasonably fresh, and I’m literally learning as I’m researching and then writing – and I try to then distil that initial fascination/passion for learning into the text of whatever book I am working on.

13. How did you collaborate with Willian Santiago?

Apart from my forthcoming poetry best of collection Weird Wild & Wonderful (Otter-Barry Books, Jan 2021) – for which I cheekily requested – and got! – the utterly fabulous Neal Layton – I never get to choose illustrators. Caterpillar books are brilliant at trawling the world for new talent and matching my text with an illustrator’s images. With every book they have found e x a c t l y the right person. And this must be the case as the second book in the series, Once Upon A Raindrop – the story of water – illustrated by the incredible Nomoco – is longlisted for the Kate Greenaway award! And I’m absolutely over the moon for Nomoco, Myrto (the book’s designer) and all the wonderful humans at Caterpillar Books. They really deserve it as their books are so fresh, vital and innovative. It’s a real honour to work with such a creative/dynamic team.

And I never have contact with an illustrator during the process. I may have a few very occasional responses, but in general, I trust the editors/designer/illustrator. Visuals are not my area. I’m primarily and solely concerned with the words inside. Plus, too many cooks…

14. Page or Stage?

Although I do strongly believe – as a white, 60 yr old middle class male – in the craft – I’m very much into page rather than stage poetry, but I equally love the fact that there are younger poets coming through, a variety of ages, a wide mix of races.

15. Accessibility?

I also enjoy stage – but that comes much, much later in the process. I’ll often write a poem and not actually ever read it for months/years. I write primarily for readers. Also, I try and make my work so simple and uncluttered and direct that it is as if it has just
flowed out…craft is trying to make it look easy. Which it certainly is NOT!!!!

16. How do you think being a musician helps your poetry?

Great question, Paul! Apologies if my answer comes over a bit pretentious.. it can get a bit la-di-dah when you’re talking about such things!

In a sense, a poet IS a musician. A poet orchestrates the music of a poem – using consonants, vowels, syllables, alliteration, assonances, rhyme/half-rhyme – line breaks/lengths – all this is linguistic music. And I do think to be a music-musician (guitarist/terrible keyboard player) for me is both a curse and a blessing. A blessing in that it helps me to feel my way along each line of a poem, to instinctively know what works/doesn’t work as I weave words/sounds, syllable by syllable. But it does mean that I sometimes procrastinate over even a phrase for many months. It means I tweak/edit/re-write obsessively. It means I find it very hard to read or even finish a rhythmical rhyming poem by another poet that doesn’t scan. A rhyming poem that doesn’t scan is akin to driving down a bumpy road. You keep trying to avoid the bumps, and you don’t quite know when/where they are coming. If a poem doesn’t scan, it isn’t finished.

If a poet ever says ‘Oh, it depends how you read it’, I don’t follow that. (But if it’s just performance stuff, spoken word that is not published on the page, just done in a live context, that’s very different). As a poet on the page you are giving your reader a poem that has implicit instructions on how it is to be read, and if they have to keep stopping to adapt/adjust because it doesn’t flow, then the poem isn’t fully doing its job. With my non-fiction verse series, I often imagine my readers as either busy parents/teachers/librarians reading aloud to a young child. If the text doesn’t scan, they have to work harder at delivering it to the child. And I don’t want that. I want it to be an easy, positive experience, so the words just readily sing and flow off the page. Also, if I have a 7-11 yr old reading one of my poems themselves, I don’t want them to struggle with a poem,I want them to enjoy it, to get it, to know what it’s about, and be moved/inspired/enlightened or whatever. Bumpy lines will not help this experience. Children more readily read fiction/novels, so I don’t want anything to deter them from reading one of my books. Instant readability is ESSENTIAL! But that doesn’t mean I want my poems to necessarily be superficial or lightweight all the time – which some indeed are, but I do want a great many poems to be re-read, and stimulate a bit of thought or reflection.

And overall, for this very reason I generally avoid reading rhyming verse nowadays and mainly read free verse, which I absolutely love. I try to start many of my poems as free verse, but invariably a rhyme, metrical pattern slips in. Some poems just demand to rhyme. Others will let me be more loosey-goosey and play with a free verse form, but even then I may play around – do free verse and make it into a midline acrostic as well. Depends on the subject/age group I’m writing for. With younger children, 98% of my stuff rhymes, for older readers, I’d say it’s about 60%. And in a sense, rhyming stuff is easier for me as I know how it should flow/sound, but free verse is not so obvious, is prose’s half-sibling, and has a quieter, subtler music. Writing rhyming verse is akin to a pop song in 4/4 in a major key. Free verse can be more like a very slow piano piece in waltz time in a minor key!

Whenever I read a poem (ie one by another poet) for the first time, I’ll be listening solely to the music, the soundscape.

I’ll trace the rhythm however blatant or subtle. I’ll listen to the vowels, the consonants, rhymes, alliterations, all of the tricks the poet is using. On second and third readings I’ll be processing the meaning, the message, the narrative or idea that the poem is expressing.

And that’s the same for writing for me. I’m initially concerned with the soundscape – but ultimately and clearly both are equally important. Above all poetry as far as I can see is language at its most musical and memorable – therefore the soundscape has to be well constructed. A poem built with craft is a poem built to last!

As daft as it sounds, when I’m working on a poem I will often carry it around in my head and I’ll be sounding the words out loud, all the while listening for opportunities to tighten the rhythm and the flow – but equally looking to see where I can include extra assonance alliteration and rhymes or half rhymes. All the while I’ll be ensuring that the poem says what it needs to say and I don’t care if it takes months because I want it to be the best it can be. I love words, so working with them like this is a real joy. I scrap far more poems than I keep. In one of my poetry collections I might write many hundreds of poems but keep only 40-50 or so. I want to minimise filler! In theory, I’d rather write just one single poem that I’m really happy with than thousands I have dashed off. This is why I won’t ever read a poem to an audience for many months even years as I want to ensure it’s totally finished. And even when I do eventually read it, I may well find extra tweaks I need to do!

And I’ve observed that children write in a very different way to adults. They’re far less self-critical and therefore they can write more quickly and freely. A child’s first draft will invariably be much better (relatively speaking) than an adult’s. Adults often write very slowly and cautiously knowing they can tidy it up later on. Not so children. Children I have discovered (having worked in over 1300 Primary schools!) write with verve and freshness and also very swiftly and will have no interest (unless without adult encouragement) in writing for any more than the 40 mins or however long that first version takes. Picasso said he wanted to paint like a child. I know what he meant. I certainly try to write is as openly as I possibly can in the first version. I tell teachers in INSET that you have an angel on one shoulder telling you ‘hey, you’re the best writer in world, go for it!’ but then later the devil on your other shoulder pipes up and says ‘Dream on, matey! What were you thinking of? What you’ve just written needs A LOT of work!’ And that analogy works for me!

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