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Introducing King's High's Poet in Residence

We are delighted to welcome King’s High’s Poet in Residence, Dr Gregory Leadbetter.  Director of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing at Birmingham City University, Gregory Leadbetter’s poetry collections include The Fetch and The Body in the Well. His shimmering, haunting poetry is widely published. He chairs Literary Festivals, and can be heard broadcasting on the BBC. He was Poet in Residence at Anne Hathaway’s cottage for the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival, and was part of a poetry project run by Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre, supported by Arts Council England, Asylum Welcome, and Refugee Resource. His role as King’s High Poet in Residence sees him working collaboratively with girls, on a variety of projects and workshops through the year, to produce an anthology of work that will celebrate the first year in our new school.

Here is an interview our girls did with him, as he shares his thoughts on Coleridge, Curiosity, Drawing, Law, Language, and the Nature of Poetry…   

What is the best part of being a poet?

I think a great pleasure is seeing the effects of poetry on readers and listeners.  Because I very much believe poetry is to be heard, as well as just read, so I think for me, it’s to do with making something for other people – it’s a kind of gift economy, rather than a commercial economy. So that’s what I love - seeing how a poem can actually alter the way we think and feel.

What topics do you focus on in your work, or do you have an infinite range?

As a poet? Almost anything, but I am very interested in voice, so even though I use the first person in poetry a lot, it’s not necessarily me talking.  I am interested too in thinking about the lyric tradition – often associated with love and direct statements of emotional state – and in changing that a little and fusing it with more mythic quality. That fusion of the lyric and mythic is very important to me.  I’m also very interested in the connection of the sensuous and the numinous, the mysterious, so I’m very interested in mystery, how you experience the unknown, and how we experience things we inhabit all the time, that are actually beyond our comprehension. I’m also interested in the natural world, the living order we are part of, and affect by our actions. And buildings. I have written a sequence of poems about an imaginary city that was a response to whole series of photos a former colleague took of Dundee, back in the ‘60’s.  Almost anything can trigger a poem.

What is your favourite poem you have written?

That’s very tough! I have a favourite at the moment, but I think that’s probably going to change. It’s not been published yet – that’s a bit of a tease, I know. It’s something I wrote for my next book of poems, based on a 14th Century idea – essentially, the ‘College of Joyous Knowledge’, and the cultivation of lyric poetry. I took that idea, with this kind of imagined member of this imaginary college of poetry speaking. It was one of those poems that just developed a life of its own, as you hope it would.  I’m afraid I don’t know it off by heart – I should do!

Did you like poetry when you were younger, or was it as you got older?

I remember things appealing to me when I was quite young, but it was drawing I really focused on, in terms of my creative work. I didn’t’ think of it as work – let’s call it play.  So I was very much a drawer, painter, and it’s funny, but I think my interest in stories and language grew out of that.  At secondary school I started to read poetry a bit more widely for myself, and Shakespeare really excited me, but it probably wasn’t until I was fifteen or sixteen it really took hold of me, and the whole possibility became really exciting.

Do you illustrate any of your poetry?

I’d love to, but I’m quite out of practice. Sad truth is I’ve neglected that side of things recently.  I did a portrait of my wife some years ago and a portrait of my younger daughter, who is 10, but I’m a bit rusty.

What inspired you to write poetry in the first place?

Probably reading Coleridge’s  Kubla Khan, back when I was a teenager.  I was so taken with that, it triggered a whole wave of really poor imitation from me,  but it got me going, thinking I can participate in this, because we always learn by imitation to a certain extent, and by trying things out.  Reading that really opened up my life as a writer, in some ways.

And when did you decide you wanted to become a poet?

In the rashness of youth, I probably decided quite quickly – when I was 17. I only really became happy with the work I was writing in my twenties. So I wrote a lot, and thought I’m getting something, but I didn’t end up producing work I felt I would want to publish until then.

Did you do English A Level?

I did English Literature, History and Archaeology, and read Law at university. The obvious thing to do would have been English, and I was very close, and I just thought I’d like to do something different. And of course Law is at the junction of language,  history,  current affairs,  philosophy.  So even though Law wasn’t always as pleasurable as I might have hoped, I had some absolutely wonderful tutors. My favourite tutor, Philip Allott, is in his 80’s now, but we’re still in touch and he sends me his work to read. He’s a wonderful man.  He was a great embodiment of a kind of humane and daring intelligence.  He was professor of public international law, so the law that governs relations between people and states, as well as constitutional law, so that was hugely exciting for me. He was very interested in that kind of optimism of humankind,  and a revelation in our own being, so he served as a wonderful example to me. I did practise as a lawyer for a while – once a lawyer, you’re always a lawyer! -  but in the end I realised I was going to have to leave  if I was going to take my own poetry seriously enough to give it time and space to develop.

Tell us about your job?

I work at Birmingham City University, where I’m a Reader in Literature and Creative Writing. A Reader is a wonderfully medieval sounding title – essentially it’s one below Professor.  I teach both, and I’m also a research scholar, specialising in early 19th Century Literature and the Romantics.

Do you have a preference for writing poetry, or your work?

Both! I very strongly don’t believe there is a strict divide between criticism and the creative act.  They are two different things, but for me, they come from a common root, the way we learn things through language, and the way language works upon us. There is cross-fertilisation, as my research helps my work as a poet, and I think my work as a poet helps me as a reader of poetry and literature.  

What was your PhD about?

It was on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I really discovered him at A Level, when his work just took hold of me.  I suppose my PhD was about me trying to understand what excited me so much about his work. And what I found was that  the moments in his poetry of exaltation were also represented as a kind of transgressive moment,  as if he’d broken the rule and almost done something he wasn’t allowed to. That kind of drama about that kind of moment ended up becoming my book, Coleridge and the Daemonic Imagination, which came out in 2011.

Why Coleridge?

As well as a poet, he was a very broad ranging thinker.  It’s a bit like entering a labyrinth, because he thought about absolutely everything. He called himself a ‘library cormorant’.  He was an absolutely avid reader, obviously deeply interested in language, and the powers of language, and what language does for us in our lives, and how it relates to the rest of our experience, as well.  He was a political thinker. He began as a radical lecturer in Bristol as a young man, speaking out against the slave trade and opposing social injustice.  Later on, alas, he got addicted to opium, which did blight his life, and became a controversial element in his public reputation, but it didn’t prevent him writing an astonishing range of works, even though he was known in his day as someone who kind of underachieved. It’s ridiculous to think of that now, but one of his colleagues and friends, Robert Southey said: ‘Coleridge is infinitely and ten thousandfold the most intelligent mind of his generation, and it saddens me to know that no one will ever know it, as he doesn’t write enough’. If you go into a library now, the collected works of Coleridge are some 6ft deep. He wrote an astonishing amount of work.  He was a wonderful notebook writer. One of the great things in his work writings is the energy in his notebooks, particularly his engagement in the natural world. He was the most wonderful observer of the processes of life.

Do you think your work has been influenced by him – and who else has influenced you?

For sure my work is influenced by him, particularly  this issue about the power of language,  and what it can do: the way language works, both at that kind of conceptual level, the understanding of the dictionary meaning of the words, but at the same time as a kind of physical presence upon us, so the music of language,  and the way poetry in particular can bring elements to life,  and language that might not normally not be noticed. That fed into my work, both as a poet and critic. I carried on reading at univeristy – Yeats, Robert Graves, Ted Hughes. I was briefly in touch with Ted Hughes. He sent me a book, it was a wonderful thing.  I read an essay he wrote on Coleridge, and I thought ‘I’m going to tell him I really liked this,’ so I wrote to his publisher, and within a week he had written back and sent me his book on Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, that he had inscribed to me. That’s one of my most treasured possessions.