Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Catherine Baker

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.

Catherine Baker


Catherine Baker

works as an editor, writer and consultant in primary educational publishing. She spends most of her working life thinking about how to make books that are both fun and appropriate for children who are learning to read. She posts very short poems on Twitter @CatBake. She lives in West Oxfordshire with her husband and two children.

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

I was a poetry-writing and poetry-reading child, but I stopped writing completely in my early 20s. I was 48 when I started again, in October 2014, almost by accident.

The first thing that prompted me was a kind of experiment – I had been wondering for a while what Twitter was ‘for’, and I decided to give myself a month of daily tweeting to find out. I quickly realised (like lots of other people) that the old-style 140-character restriction on Twitter was perfect for a haiku, or a slimline tanka. So I started writing and posting a very short poem every day. At first I thought I’d run out of ideas within a few weeks, but that turned out not to be the case. I found lots of fascinating poets on Twitter, and I have learnt a lot from reading their stuff, too. Five years on, I’m still posting a daily poem on Twitter. I think I’ve found out one of the things it’s for!

The other thing that inspired me (and still does) was my daily run. This is another thing that I began in 2014. I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence or not, but that autumn I entered a period of quite severe depression, and I found that a combination of daily running and writing helped me to keep my head above water. Where I live (in a large semi-rural village not far from Oxford) there are plenty of good running routes. I like to run about 5 kilometres every morning, and I enjoy getting out into the fields and footpaths. I am a slow runner, and this gives me plenty of time to notice what’s happening around me. I try to notice something every day, and often this forms the spark for a poem. It means that a lot of my poems are about hedgerows, birds, trees, winter light, etc. Fortunately the world is different every day, so it doesn’t get boring. Or it hasn’t yet, anyway.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

This might sound boastful, but I think I introduced myself. Neither of my parents was particularly interested in poetry, and I don’t remember any of my teachers specifically encouraging it. In fact I once got told off for copying down the words of a poem during an English class (when presumably I was really meant to be doing something else). The poem was ‘He who would valiant be’, by John Bunyan! I do remember finding a copy of Walter de la Mare’s anthology Come Hither in my primary school library, and reading it obsessively. Later I found another de la Mare anthology, Behold, This Dreamer, which I also loved despite finding it quite scary.

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

I’ve never really thought of myself as a poet in any professional way, so I don’t think I’ve ever felt dominated by older poets – possibly you have to feel they represent something you’re aiming for yourself, in order to have that feeling about them.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I write at least one short piece every single day – I haven’t missed a single day since late October 2014. Even in times of stress, anxiety and illness, I’ve never gone to bed without writing a complete piece. You can tell from this that I am an obsessive person! At least I mostly tend to write 3- or 5-line pieces, not sonnets or epic poetry, so it could be worse. The reason for this persistence is that dailiness liberates me to write. If I had to wait for inspiration, I know that I would never write at all – I’d always be waiting for the perfect idea. This way, I often work with ideas I know are far from perfect, but the game is to make the best thing I can from them. I’m sure my writing is sometimes banal as a result, but the other plus-side of dailiness is that the pieces themselves are quite ephemeral. I don’t tend to look back at them much once they’re written. So if they are banal, I don’t spend long beating myself up about it. I’ll just work harder on the next piece I write, and hope for better ideas tomorrow.

The other thing that liberates me to write is a tight form. Unlike most true haiku and tanka poets, I work within rigid syllable-counting rules – sticking to 5/7/5 or 5/7/5/7/7. Most poets who write haiku and tanka in English nowadays don’t count syllables, and I do understand why – counting syllables can give a forced, artificial feel to a haiku and can detract from the more important elements, such as conveying a clear sensory moment to the reader, using ‘openness’ to invite the reader’s collaboration, etc. But I have found that counting syllables really helps me to find the best words. Without the constraint of form, I feel I’m floundering, and I don’t recognise my own voice in what I write. When I started writing these short pieces, I used to describe them as haiku and tanka, but as I’ve learned more about haiku and tanka I have come to realise that these are not actually what I’m trying to write. I am not interested in any of the ‘rules’ of haiku and tanka except for the syllabification – so in that respect I’m actually the opposite of a haiku poet!

I often start writing a piece as I’m running – I’ll be playing with words to express a visual idea, and often I stop running and type lines, or a whole piece, into the Notes function on my phone. Sometimes pieces start with the visual impact of something I’ve noticed on my run, and sometimes the start is a group of words that are sounding themselves out in my head. Quite often I’ve written the piece by the time I get home (I’ve got over 2500 of these small pieces on my phone now!). But sometimes it takes me all day to get it right. Of course I don’t think about it all day, but it’s as if I take it out of my pocket now and again throughout the day and just play with the words until they’re as right as I can make them.

Some days I have no ideas at all. Then (despite what I’ve just said about haiku) I turn to the classic haiku masters for inspiration. I love Basho and Lady Chiyo-ni, but the one I find most reliably inspiring is Issa (possibly because he writes very differently from me, with a warm and earthy humour, often juxtaposing the conventionally beautiful with something much more down-to-earth). Another really good thing about Issa is that all of his poems are available online, on the brilliant website haikuguy.com, where you can click to see a random haiku from Issa’s massive output.

5. What motivates you to write?

Partly it’s my obsessive nature, but I think I’m also trying to get better at writing, and that motivates me too. I feel as though I have a lot to learn, and the best way I can do that is through daily writing (and reading too of course). I do also want to communicate through my writing, which I guess is why I share it on Twitter. I’m always so pleased when someone comments that something I’ve written reminds them of something they’ve seen or felt.

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

I think a lot of the poets I loved when I was young still have a huge influence on me. The main one is probably Gerard Manley Hopkins. I ‘did’ him for O Level and he has never left me since! I know two of his poems by heart (‘Inversnaid’ and ‘Spring and Fall’) and often think about and read his work. I admire the way he crafted a new and shining thing out of the language he used. It speaks very directly to me, and sometimes I consciously try to put words together in a way I think of as Hopkins-like. I loved the poems of Rudyard Kipling too (especially ‘The Way Through the Woods’). I’m not sure I consciously copy Kipling in any way, but I do love the way he uses rhythm and the importance of sound in his work. I try to make sound important too. As I child, I loved Dylan Thomas as well. These days, I don’t think I understand Thomas any more – I can’t quite recapture what I loved as a child. But again, the huge importance of the sound of words in his poems is something I still respond to. When I was at college, I discovered Jeffrey Wainwright and I read his Selected Poems so much that I think I completely internalised them! I still love his poetry, and I still have in my head some of his poems that I learnt then without even trying.

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

I love Alice Oswald for the austere beauty of her writing and her subtle use of form. I like to read her stuff out loud for the music it makes, and I was once lucky enough to hear her speak some of her poems at the Woodstock Poetry Festival – not all poets are brilliant at reading their own work, but she is! I love the work of lots of other contemporary poets too – including Imtiaz Dharker, Alison Brackenbury, Don Patterson, and Liz Lochhead. And Jeffrey Wainwright of course! There are many fine poets writing for children whose work I really admire, too, including James Carter, Sue Hardy-Dawson and Joseph Coelho.

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

I think it’s the best way that’s open to me of making art – it’s how I can communicate the itchy ideas that occur to me and try to make them into something that other people might want to share. I don’t think I could do this in any medium other than words, though I very much admire those who can!

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

I don’t really have much useful advice about that, except the very familiar exhortation to keep on reading and writing! I wish it were easier for new writers to get published. There are lots of brilliant voices out there who never get heard! I think persistence is probably the key, but realistically most of us will probably never be published. So I would also just say – please try to love the process of writing itself! Then it really can be a joyful end in itself.

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

I’m keeping going with my daily short piece/s which I share on Twitter @CatBake and also archive on my not-very-whizzy blog, fromfourlanes.wordpress.com. I’m also experimenting with some longer forms, and at the moment I’m trying to write at least one piece per week that’s in a form other than haiku or tanka. It’s early days so far. I’ve written one ghazal that I’m pleased with, and one that definitely needs some improvement. I’ve also written a triolet that nearly managed to express what I wanted it to! I’m going to keep going with ghazals and triolets, and also have a go at some sonnets, maybe a rondel or two… I can confidently predict I’ll never write an epic, though.

I sometimes think about trying to get some of my pieces published in book form – for instance, I’ve probably got enough three- and five-line pieces for a ‘poem a day’ collection! But at the moment I’m concentrating most of my spare energy on just keeping going with the daily writing, and I’ll see where that leads me!

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