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Joan Murray

 

Jim Bennett - on the spot

 
 Jim Bennett lives near Liverpool in the UK and is the managing editor of www.poetrykit.org.  His most recent publication is a poetry collection called "The Man Who Tried To Hug Clouds" Bluechrome Publishing 2004 (2nd edition 2006).  Jim teaches Creative Writing at the University of Liverpool and tours throughout the year giving readings and performances of his work.  He is published widely and has won many awards for his poetry, including; 3 DaDafest awards for performance,(2003-4) and the Robert Frost Award (2006).
 
 
In April 2006, as part of the Liverpool Poetry Festival, Jim Bennett was invited to read his poems at the Albert Dock in Liverpool.  An afternoon session involved several invited local schools and his reading was followed by a question and answer session.  The questions, from 11year old children, were spontaneous, and the answers unprepared.   Joan Murray a year 7 teacher kept the score and wrote the following article which first appeared in her school magazine.
What makes good writing?
 
Well that is a loaded question.  For me the only thing that matters is if the reader is able to connect with the writing in a way which is meaningful and perhaps fulfilling to them.  In other words although there are some techniques which work better than others and which we can identify as good technique, for me it is the response of the reader which is of paramount importance.   If a piece is very well written using all the best technique and good practice in writing yet the reader is bored because its content is weak, then it is difficult to claim it as a piece of good writing, even though on an objective assessment you may feel it should be.  And another piece which may have a number of flaws and deviate from good technique may have such interesting content that the reader forgives the flaws.  For me a successful piece of writing is one which I enjoy reading and which leaves me glad that I spent time reading it.
 
How did you become a writer?
 
Well I have told this story a number of times and it is true.   When I was 8 years old I read one of Enid Blytons Famous Five novels something about it really excited me.  It was a good story and I liked the characters.  For me aged 8 it was brilliant, it was the first full length novel I had read, it engaged me and I remember sitting and turning pages wrapped in the story and transported to another place and time with the story playing out like a film in my imagination as I read it.  I thought about it for a while after then I went to my dad and said to him that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.  Now my dad worked on the docks and in shipbuilding eventually retiring as a Heating Engineer, so his knowledge of writing as a career was limited.  However he thought about it and eventually gave me some advice.   ďIf you want to be a writer,Ē he said. ďYou have to first be a reader, and read to learn, good books.  So keep a notebook and write down any words you see that you donít know and if you see something written very well write that down.Ē    So that is what I did.  I still have the first notebooks I kept and still look through them on occasion.    What that did was to make me aware of writing.  To some extent it helped me to explore the magic that writers used to get the effects that they do.   When I read a particularly exciting story narrative or a really good evocative description, I would look at how the words used and their layout had achieved that effect.   I still do that to this day.
 
The most important thing that my dad did was to give me permission to be a writer.  By that I mean that in treating my question seriously he opened the door for me and once it was open I just blundered on through.   I wrote for years before I got published but that time was spent learning how to write.   Another thing I learned from my dad was the importance of redrafting what I had written. he would often read something and give it me back with lots of praise, but then suggest I take a look a t a few things he had noticed in it and when I did I always found that it was something that needed changing.  I donít think may writers have ever written anything worth reading without redrafting and rewriting it a few times.  Unfortunately that is were the hard work comes into it.
 
Is it easy to become a writer?
 
Yes it is very easy, you pick up a pen or pencil and you start to write, you could even just sit down at a computer and start to write.  But if you mean is it easy to become a writer and earn a living telling stories, writing poetry, screenplays or  factual information and to get published then that is a different question and the answer is much more complicated. 
 
For me being a writer is about wanting to express myself and capture something that can be either remembered later or shared with other people, it is not all about getting published or paid for it.  I think that a lot of writers who are successful, if they had not been lucky and successful, they would probably write anyway even if it was just for themselves or their friends and family.  Most writers start out like that anyway.  We write because we have to.  If you are successful as a writer then you soon realise how much good luck is involved. 
 
Is there anything that you can do to help yourself be more successful?
 
Yes well there are lots of things that will help.  Doing courses on writing, attending seminars and festivals for example.  Taking the opportunity to listen and if possible question writers.  But more than anything else keep the big secret of success as a writer to yourself.    It is simple but true, the big secret is that you must persevere.  When you begin to write and eventually want to send out your poetry or stories to magazines, that is when you need to develop a very tough skin.  Because a lot of editors will write back and although they thank you, if they do not want what you have sent them, they will tell you, and most writers could paper their bedrooms with rejection slips.  There is no way out of those rejections, except a strong will to succeed and an ability to ignore them.  The only way to get past them is to persevere.  Keep sending stuff out, and if it comes back rejected, pop it into another envelope and send it off somewhere else.
 
 
What is the difference between a story and a poem.  Some of your poems donít rhyme and sound like stories not poems.
 
I think that is a great question unfortunately I donít know if I have a great answer.  Let me try to answer it in three ways.  First. There are losts of different styles of poetry , like there are different styles of music; like pop, classical, jazz   Some poetry is like pop music, it has strong rhythms and rhymes and it bounces along.  Other poetry is a little quieter and uses a different quieter rhythm and may rhyme or rhyme occasionally or may not.  And some poetry is very loose and has different length lines and works in lots of different ways, not relying on the rhythm or even a strong rhythm to help it along.  But all of them are poems, just like all music is music, even though we may prefer one sort over another.  That is the first point, so poetry is lots of different things not just one style.
 
The second point is the difference between poetry and stories or prose writing.  There are lots of views on this but I will tell you my point of view because I am here today and other people with a different view are not.    For me the difference is in the way in which the writer sees things.   As a poet people think I observe life and write about it, but I must tell you, that in my opinion that is wrong.  I am actually writing about how I see and respond to what I am observing.  It is only a little difference but I think a very important one.  So poetry is about me looking into myself and seeing how i see and respond to what is around me, it should always be honest but not always the truth sometimes the reality has to be changed slightly to reveal the truth behind a situation.
 
Stories are a bit different. With a story I am telling a narrative which I am making up.  It is looking outwards instead of inward and I donít want to stand in the way of the reader enjoying the story by being too obvious as I tell it.   If they realise that they are being told the story then it can spoil it.   Remember I said before about reading the Famous Five story and seeing it like a film, well that is what I aim to achieve for my readers.  I donít want to be the person who keeps standing up blocking the view of the screen; I want people to forget that they are in a cinema and really get into the story as if they were experiencing it in real life.   That is the aim but you donít often achieve it.
 
The third point is that poetry can be anything you want it to be.   So if I write something and say ďThat is a poem.Ē  It is a poem, but it may not be a very good poem because there may not be anything about it to which people can respond as a poem.  But then we come back to the type of poem that it is, pop, classical or jazz.
I can say something is a poem but then other people have to decide if it is a successful poem which engages them or not.
  
How much do you earn as a poet?
 
Not enough.

            

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