A couple of months ago, I was running a poetry workshop in a small Cumbrian primary school on behalf of the Wordsworth Trust. At the start of the session, I asked the children whether they had any questions about poetry or about being a poet. One boy put up his hand and asked, ‘Are you on medication?’
As if that wasn’t enough, this then shaped the questions from the other children, such as: ‘Do you have any allergies?’ I then had a sensible one (‘How long have you been writing poetry?’), but it was instantly followed by, ‘How old are you?’ and several minutes in which the children frantically tried to guess my age. (If you were wondering, by primary school calculations I could apparently be anywhere between 19 and 43.)
I then started asking around, to see if other poets had similar stories of being asked interesting questions. Turns out, they do – particularly when children are involved.
Some of my favourites came from Helen Mort: ‘You’re the Derbyshire Poet Laureate, so does that mean you write poems about cats?’ Another child asked her, ‘Have you written any poems about sparkly fairies?’ – rounded off by a small yr 3 boy in a primary school workshop, who asked her what was in her handbag and if he could have a look.
Another question, which seems universal, is: ‘What do you write about?’
Universal it may be, but it’s still nearly impossibly to answer – so much so that Alex Bertulis-Fernandes described it as an ‘odd question’, despite the fact that it’s annoyingly common: ‘I’m not quite sure why I find it so strange, and I’m sure I’ve asked others the same – my answers to the question always feel unimpressive though.’
Polly Atkin agreed: ‘I hate being asked ‘what kind of poetry do you write’ as though there is an answer to that.’
She also ventured a couple of things she’d been told as a poet, as well as questions she’d been asked, such as a suggestion that she should use her 3rd place competition prize money buy a notebook so she could ‘keep practising’, as well as the cheek of a male poet who told her she should ‘stick to the women’s magazines’.
Another writer who had been told where he should publish his poetry was Owen Collins: ‘my Mum, when struggling to get her head round my ambitions, once told me that she thought I’d be very good at writing the poems for inside birthday cards…’
I’ve experienced this one myself. When I showed people the first good poem that I wrote (well, I thought it was good; it won a prize, so that’s something), one of my parent’s friends told me it was so good, it should go on the inside of a greetings card. I’m pretty sure he meant it as a compliment, but as it was a poem about dissatisfaction with a dying relationship, I’m not sure what kind of card it would be appropriate for. Maybe some kind of ironic Valentine…?
But I think my favourite contribution came from Lindsey Holland, who was asked: ‘If I write about breasts as hills, from a microscopic perspective, is that landscape poetry?’ And I desperately hope she answered yes.