I’d like to welcome my next guest on Ink and Quill, Al Lane, from Al The Author, a writer of poetry and songs, for both children and adults. As Al says in his interview, he like most writers, is searching for his voice. It seems his children have helped him find his niche and passion, which I can really relate to.
NAME: Alistair Lane. Al to my friends. We’re all friends here, right?
Please tell us a little about yourself:
I am a writer, of stories, of poems, of songs, of whimsical ditties and heartbreaking ballads. Of haiku and rhymes, for children and adults, on Star Wars and superheroes and zombies and love and clouds and puddles and cake. Of words that will lift and inspire… and (sometimes) words that don’t quite work. That clunk and crash.
‘But without the permission to make mistakes, we can never really free ourselves from our shackles. Stick with me while I’m finding my voice.’
When did you first start writing?
I like to think I’ve always had something of a way with written words (certainly more so than my verbal ability!), but the inciting incident was the birth of my eldest son six years ago. We started reading to him from an early age, as many parents do, and the rhythm of those rhyming picture books (especially Julia Donaldson) got into my system. It infected me from top to toe.
Reading to my son was an amazing way to bond, and something that he really responded to (his reading ability now is incredible)… who wouldn’t want to be able to generate that reaction from their own words? So, I started trying to write rhyming picture books, and developed from there into children’s poetry, short stories, and poems for adults too.
This has helped me to “find my voice”, but also it helps to keep things interesting, to constantly challenge myself to write in different styles, for different audiences. I have just started a screenwriting course for this exact reason.
What does poetry mean to you?
‘Poetry is the distilled expression of a moment. It encompasses the history of the universe, and the flapping of a butterfly’s wings. It is the universal and the personal, the bludgeon and the rapier, the heartbreak and the rapture.’
It is a way for me to communicate the more interesting (I hope) ideas that pass through my head, and give them a form that (I hope) merits attention.
I’m also a big believer in keeping poetry accessible. I’m an intelligent person. I don’t need to demonstrate this by using obscure, fancy words, and don’t react favourably to other poets who write this way. (Anything that distances the poet from the audience bemuses me, for one.) I’m all for layers of meaning, and finding the perfect word, but there’s a reason that many people profess not to like poetry, and such intellectual snobbishness perpetuates this.
I believe that one of my strengths is the ability to keep things simple, while also conveying wider themes. Although I’m serious about my craft, I don’t take myself, or my poetry, too seriously. Profound messages can be put across behind a veneer of fun. For proof of this, check out how often Dr Seuss’ quotes are used for writers’ motivation!
What might inspire you to write a poem? How does a poem begin for you, with an idea, a form or an image?
I take part in a number of poetry/ haiku challenges – I enjoy taking the prompt words and bending them to my own shape. I will play with the words in my head, looking for an interesting angle to take, trying to avoid the obvious where possible. Often, especially with haiku challenges, I write a whole stream of unrelated haiku, using the words in different ways, some comic, some serious, some direct, others more layered. I enjoy the mental workout this gives me.
For unprompted work, the ideas can come from anywhere – lines from TV shows, films, print media, books, something I hear on the bus, fun turns of phrase that my boys come out with… I make a note of the idea on my phone, and work it over in my mind, seeing if it develops. Some don’t. I have numerous ideas recorded on my phone that will never go anywhere. But if something sparks, or I get an idea for a refrain… then I will develop it into something more substantial. I literally had one line pop into my head while I was in the shower last night – “these words, alone, to woo” – and have written a poem around that theme, with that as a recurring end line.
All of my ideas revolve around words, and ideas. I am not a visual thinker (even for picture book texts that I’ve written, I have no strong ideas of what the characters look like). I love language and playing with words, and follow them down alleys and cul-de-sacs to see what might become of them.
Which writers/poets inspire and influence your own writing?
My favourite authors are Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams. They are both huge influences, in terms of style and sense of humour.
In terms of poets, I have binged on children’s poetry in the last couple of years. Allan Ahlberg and Julia Donaldson are probably my top picks there. I do get frustrated by the number of instantly forgettable, single joke poems that persist in the world of children’s poetry publishing. We can do better for our children. Joseph Coelho is a notable recent exception to this trend.
I have a range of poetry books and pamphlets that I dip into – I read different poets every day, for different reasons, studying their turns of phrase, or the way they use rhythm, or rhyme. In the reading pile, I currently have: Roger McGough, Shel Silverstein (big fan), Roald Dahl, Jim Carroll, Billy Collins, Spike Milligan, Ogden Nash, Michael Rosen, TS Eliot, WH Auden, John Hegley, Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin…
The poet who has had the biggest influence recently is definitely Billy Collins. I binge-purchased half a dozen of his books. I’ll never finish them, because every time I read one of his poems, it inspires me to write one of my own, riffing off a phrase that he has used, or an idea that he’s created in me.
I should also give a nod here to two musicians, whose lyrics have a very poetic quality, in differing ways: David Bowie, and Nick Cave. The combination of music and poetry, in such hands, is intoxicating.
Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?
I don’t think so: it’s such a personal, malleable thing anyway. My appreciation of poetry, good poetry, though – that’s a different matter. The more I read, the more I appreciate.
Tell us about your writing process: Pen and paper, computer, notes?
Everything starts on my smartphone. I commute to work on the bus, and use that time (plus any snatched moment around the clock) to draft and edit poems and story ideas, texting them to myself with each revision. I don’t like typing them up on the laptop – there’s something about seeing the words on a computer screen that’s too final, when the text may not actually be ready yet.
I sometimes make notes with pen and paper, but that tends to be at the brain-storming phase, taking a word and expanding out the possibilities contained within it, until I find something that fires my imagination.
When my phone needed repair last year, I didn’t write a single poem in the week I went without it. My process, as well as managing my life, is totally dependent on it!
Please share your favourite piece/s with us and a brief description of the inspiration behind it:
This is my favourite recent poem: Al The Author: Ten Tired Parents I met the author of the children’s rhyming picture book Ten Little Pirates at a writer’s conference last year, and gushed to him (at the bar!) about how much my youngest son loved his book… We became Facebook friends, and I made a joke at the time about writing another one in that series for grown-ups. As happens often, I didn’t do anything with that idea. And then, recently we were invited by friends to come and spend the weekend with them while they were on holiday with their young children… I wrote this on the way home, with all of those previous elements coming together at once. Some of it may be autobiographical!
I sometimes adopt personas for poems, or write about ideas or positions that I don’t agree with, or haven’t experienced. Not this one. This one is very personal, and self-explanatory – a haiku on first meeting your newborn baby –
Haiku: ‘Tight and Warm’
Newborn fingers grip
Warm, soft skin seeking comfort
From here, I am hooked
This limerick is in a similar vein –
On the wonderful day of your birth
I was the happiest person on Earth
Now you teach me each day
In your own special way
How much this life truly is worth