A.F. Harrold is a poet, performer and children’s author based in Reading. A former Glastonbury Festival and Cheltenham Literature Festival Poet-In-Residence, his work has been broadcast widely on radio. He is active in schools work, running workshops and slams and giving performances, and has published several collections of poetry and a number of popular books for children (including Things You Find in a Poet’s Beard). He is coming to Taunton CIC centre on 1st February – do not miss him!
Given that poetry is play, what difference is there between writing for adults and writing for children?
What I find interesting, is that by putting in twenty odd years of writing poetry before I began writing prose for kids, I had given myself a useful apprenticeship, in a way. What writing poetry (any poetry) and writing children’s stories have in common is it’s all about ‘getting on with it’, about cutting out the guff and waffle… Unlike a novel for grown ups where you can spend the first fifty pages talking about how you can’t get to sleep until your mother kisses you goodnight and how sometimes you had to make do with the nanny instead, when you sent a note down in the middle of one of their dinner parties… and so on, you simply have to tell the story. If you go back and read a book by, say Roald Dahl, any of the good ones are like an arrow loosed from a bow – whoosh, you’re off and it arcs up and down and spring you’re done. They are streamlined and beautiful things. And yet, at the same time, they still say interesting things round the edges – and I think, swimming in poetry for so long was a good training ground for cutting away, or not being afraid to cut away, all the guff.
Now, writing children’s poetry… which is what your question was actually about… well, half of what I did, in grown-up poetry, was always comedy and performance poetry, and basically I just still write those things, but now more often present them to kids… there’s very little difference in the work. Occasionally something more serious slips through, but not often.
Given your range of writing styles and audience, is there a definitive / quintessential A.F. Harrold poem (or A.F. Harrold)?
No. Possibly. Probably not. I suspect, maybe, but unlikely. No? It’s tempting to quote the bit of Walt Whitman everyone knows (multitudes, contradictions, etc.), but I won’t. Two early and lasting influences were Noël Coward and Frank Zappa, neither of whom could be quintessentialised either (they contained contradictory multitudes, you might say), and that was what I admired about them. So, no. I wouldn’t imagine so, except: ‘the whole lot, as a whole’.
Your collection Flood ends with a letter which describes the importance of seeing ‘the books and the world… mesh’. An earlier poem in that collection (‘Sketch: February 4th, 2008) bemoans the impersonality of letters from B.T. and British Gas. Is poetry a way of reinstating that personal connection over distance until it seems adequate?
One of the things that seems to have changed in recent times, is the opening up of channels of communication between artists and audiences – most obviously with the accessibility of many writers (and others) on Twitter and the like. I visit lots of schools and meet thousands of kids each year, talking about poetry and my other books, showing off and answering questions. I can’t remember meeting an author when I was a kid. We had films about being killed crossing the railway, and wandering theatricals would come to visit, of course, but I never remember a writer coming. Those names on the fronts or the spines of the books I took from the library or got for my birthday were just names – I never really supposed they were real people, as such, that becoming one of them was a possibility… I never went to a literary festival when I was small, never saw Roald Dahl or Michael Rosen in the flesh.
Now everything is different, children’s authors are out there visiting schools every day, engaging and interacting. I don’t know what this does for the kids’ relationship with the books, I don’t know what it would have done for mine – I hope it lowers the barriers a little, without removing the magic. I hope it shows a door through which the writer at the back of the class might pass, or a path they might follow, without spoiling the book…
As a teenager, making little photocopied pamphlets, I sent them off to writers I admired, and some of them responded – and that little touch, mind to mind, was a spark, a flame, an encouragement… I always reply to kids’ letters, if there’s an address to reply to, because I want them to know their kind words reached me, just as mine reached them in the first place.
I remember the first poetry reading I ever went to, as a sixteen or seventeen-year-old, I went by myself to the Hawth in Crawley to see Brian Patten, and a few things stick in my mind from that long-ago reading: he was wonderful and I was awestruck (I’d fallen for the Mersey Sound by this point, of course); and in the interval he just came out into the bar and chatted with people – I had never expected that… at that age I had expected barriers to exist, but they didn’t, because he didn’t put them there. And I realise this isn’t answering your question, being about the physical rather than the metaphysical aspects of connection, but one of the beauties of poetry, as a swimmer-in-its-waters is how low and even the hierarchy is, how easy it is to meet your heroes (there are some, of course, you shouldn’t meet, some who simply don’t want to meet you, but on the whole…)
In 2014, you published The Point of Inconvenience, which details your mother’s illness and passing. Many readers have been struck by the honesty of these poems, which admit to feelings that are often glossed over in elegies and accounts of the death of a loved one – indeed, the final poem ‘Get Over It’ is primarily composed of euphemisms for death. Did you have any reservations about publishing such a frank book, and what has been your experience of giving public readings from it?
I didn’t have any qualms, as such, about the book. These were the poems I’d been working on while she was dying and after she’d died, and it seemed natural and right that they be a collection on their own, rather than scattered amongst other poems on other subjects, or just a section at the end of another book. While she was ill I spent a lot of time with her, staying in her house while she was in the hospice and nursing home, and writing poems was the only thing I knew how to do. There seemed to me to be no point writing them if they didn’t try to be honest – no one needs platitudes and soft focus, that serves no one well. Did I feel some of the poems were unkind, harsh, close to the bone? Did I feel some of them were ungenerous, painting neither her nor I in particularly good lights? Well, yes, obviously – but terminal illness and death doesn’t always bring the best out in people… that’s just the way it goes. Did I feel it was something of a betrayal to publish the book, an invasion of privacy, perhaps? Well, yes, of course it is… and if she came out of the book looking worse than I did, then that would be a concern, but I think most of the bad light, if you see it that way, falls on the narrator or the poems, rather than the addressee.
I’m glad the book exists, and I think I did as good a job as I could in approaching the truth, looking in the right direction, being as honest as I could – of course, much of it is arty posturing, I’m sure, but at least, I hope, I was facing the right way and I tried… I think a poet has a duty to truth, the duty that led Auden to revise poems, to change that last line, ‘We must love one another or die’ to the more honest, ‘We must love one another and die’ and then, when that still wasn’t sufficiently honest, to delete the poem from his records. That’s, perhaps, what we as poets should be doing… going through our work every few years and striking out what no longer seems entirely honest… at the end of our lives maybe we’ll have whittled our work down to one or two pieces… but the good ones.
In this respect I think of the ‘Postscript’ to Auden’s poem ‘The Cave of Making’, from About The House, his elegiac address to Louis MacNeice…
Time has taught you how much inspiration
your vices brought you, what imagination
can owe temptation yielded to,
that many a fine expressive line
would not have existed, had you resisted:
as a poet, you know this is true,
and though in Kirk you sometimes pray
to feel contrite, it doesn’t work.
Felix Culpa, you say: perhaps you’re right.
You hope, yes, your books will excuse you,
save you from hell: nevertheless,
without looking sad, without in any way
seeming to blame (He doesn’t need to,
knowing well what a lover of art
like yourself pays heed to), God may reduce you
on Judgment Day to tears of shame,
reciting by heart the poems you would
have written, had your life been good.
As to public readings, there are a handful of poems I sometimes read from it, but I’m usually doing comedy and cabaret (and children’s events), so it doesn’t have much of an existence as a live document. It’s mainly just paper and dust.
Are you working on any poetry for adults at the moment?
I’ve not written anything, specifically, for adults, bar a few odd commissioned pieces for some years – the last six years or so I have been swimming in children’s literature and am quite happy here… After The Point of Inconvenience I didn’t seem to have anything else left to say in poetry, so far.
It should be noted, however, that the themes of The Point of Inconvenience carry through in my children’s books, and there are some children’s poems directly addressing my mum’s death in Things You Find In A Poet’s Beard – in addition, The Imaginary has loss and absence, forgetting and memory at its heart, and begins with Christina Rossetti’s Remember which I read at my dad’s funeral and mum wanted read at hers; The Song From Somewhere Else has, as one of the threads through it, a lost/missed/missing mother, and begins with Brian Patten’s The Stolen Orange, which I also read at my dad’s funeral; and at the end of this year a book called The Afterwards comes out, about a girl called December (whose mum is dead) who goes into the afterworld to try to bring her friend back… that one starts with a quote from the Just So Stories and a fragment of Douglas Dunn’s Arrangements: ‘A tidy man, with small, hideaway handwriting, / He writes things down. He does not ask, / “Was she good?” everyone receives this Certificate. / You do not need even to deserve it.’ – Some wounds you cannot get away from, wherever you write things down… perhaps being an orphan is one of those.
What next for A. F. Harrold?
Well, this year it’s lots of school visits, some literary festivals, some talking to teachers about poetry in schools, all that sort of thing. Some of it will be spent having baths and avoiding writing books. Some of it will be spent talking about and waving around Greta Zargo and the Amoeba Monsters from the Middle of the Earth, the second kids’ sci-fi comedy novel about schoolgirl-cum-newspaper reporter Greta Zargo, which comes out in May. Some of it will be spent talking about and waving around Midnight Feasting, a collection of poems for children on the subject of all things edible that I’ve edited (with amazing poems by some of our best living poets), which comes out in October. Some of it will be spent talking about and waving around The Afterwards, which is being illustrated by Emily Gravett (with whom I did a book called The Imaginary in 2014). That comes out in November, so it will be a busy end to the year. Then I’m thinking about a book of kids’ poetry for 2019… and although that seems a way away, publishing is a slow moving world, so we’re also thinking about what we’re going to do in 2020… But, really, after saying all that, mostly I’ll be spending 2018 in the bath avoiding writing the things I’ve said I’ll write.