Working as a poet in schools, I regularly get asked the same few questions over and over again – one of them is: ‘How did you become a poet?’ The simple answer is: music. My dad is a massive music fan. Throughout my childhood, Bob Dylan’s hypnotic, incantatory voice was the one I heard the most.
‘I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me’
‘Leave your stepping stones behind now, something calls for you’
I had no idea what he was singing about. But it intrigued me.
My mum and dad were divorced when I was 18 months old and both found new partners. Other than me and my sister, Jane, the only thing that unified the four of them was one album: Famous Blue Raincoat – The Songs of Leonard Cohen by Jennifer Warnes.
‘Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free’
‘And deep into his fiery heart, he took the dust of Joan of Arc’
Beautiful stuff. And again, it interested me. I heard the songs all the time. Still do.
I don’t remember reading much when I was at primary or secondary schools, although Alan Garner’s ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ certainly left its mark. Precise, poetic language. I used to walk in the woods at Alderley Edge, a few miles down the road from me, hearing the voices of Colin and Susan, the sneer of the shape-shifting Selina Place.
I must have studied ‘Ode to Autumn’ by Keats at some point during secondary school – and something about it stuck in my head:
‘seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ – I liked that.
As for writing poetry, the only memory I have is of writing a rhyming epitaph in, perhaps, Y8?!:
‘in this grave, lies a man, who died by means of a frying pan’
I thought it was pretty good. The teacher’s response: ‘you didn’t write that!’
Schoolwork (other than maths!), especially reading and writing, always came pretty easy to me – and I never really saw the need to extend myself. This attitude towards academia continued all the way to studying English at Manchester Met (where Carol Ann Duffy was my poetry tutor).
By about 15, I began to discover music and words of my own that spoke to me. In 1995, The Charlatans released a self-titled album that I listened to over and over. I didn’t know what it meant. But it sounded great:
‘here comes a soul saver on your record player, floatin’ about in the dust’
‘take your pick who’s your saviour, come in five different flavours’
‘kiss behind the coolest of walls’
I loved ‘immerse me in your splendour’ from ‘This Is the One’ by The Stone Roses. And so, without really reading poetry, by 16 I was full of it. I’d been playing the guitar for a few years and started up some bands. I was a pretty rubbish musician, but I enjoyed performing. And I began to write the lyrics.
I carried on with music and words, bands like Doves continuing my lyrical fascination, until I finally realised I had no musical talent whatsoever – and put down the guitar at about 23. I became a primary school teacher, which filled the entirety of my head for a while. Words began to surface, though, and soon I was writing songs for assemblies and poems to use in class.
Twelve years later, here I am: a poet. Fancy that.
Matt Goodfellow is from Manchester, England. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, and delivers high-energy, fun-filled performances in schools. His most recent solo collection is Chicken on the Roof (Otter Barry 2018), and most recent book is Be the Change – poems to help you save the world (Macmillan 2019), written with Liz Brownlee and Roger Stevens. His next solo collection, Bright Bursts of Colour (Bloomsbury) is published Feb 2020.
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