Photograph portrait of Joseph Coelho inside an illustrated picture frame. To the right of the picture frame are illustrations of pencils, painbrushes, a pencil sharpener with shavings, paint palettes and an eraser. These are on a white background

Interview with Joseph Coelho

‘We know that nothing else can quite get across how we are feeling like a poem can.’ Discover poetry memories and insights from Joseph Coelho, plus five brilliant tips for budding poets.

Why do we need poetry?

Poetry translates the soul – it is a means for us to share our most intimate feelings and beliefs. We intrinsically know this. It is poetry that we turn to in times of need, for instance during a funeral or a wedding or when celebrating a new addition to the family. We know that nothing else can quite get across how we are feeling like a poem can.

What are your earliest memories of poetry?

It has to be Dr Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat – I don’t think I ever labelled it as poetry, I just knew that I loved it.

To this day my grandmother still has a Mabel Lucie Atwell poster on her bathroom wall. Mabel Lucie Atwell was an illustrator and writer in the 1920s and 30s creating these cherub-like illustrations of children, often with associated verses. The poster on my grandmother’s wall includes a poem about civil bathroom use. I saw this every time I went for a tinkle and by osmosis! Learnt the thing off by heart. I think everyone should learn a poem whilst on the loo.

Did you write poetry and stories when you were a child?

I recall tracing a copy of Raymond Briggs’ Fungus the Bogeyman and writing my own captions under the pictures. I liked making up ditties and rhymes with my friends and sister, often for comedic effect. My friend and I would record tapes of us doing silly character voices or imagining what we thought were hilarious scenarios. In primary school I once wrote an entire story in bubble writing and got in trouble with my teacher. I was always centred on the audience which is, I guess, what paved the way for an initial career in theatre which bled into playwriting and then books.

Who or what inspired you to be a poet?

I still vividly remember poet Jean Binta Breeze visiting my drama class at school and reading a poem about the softest touch. That was the first time, I think, I realised that you could be a poet as a job, that it was something you could go out into the world and do. I was (and am) also constantly inspired by poets like Michael Rosen and Lemn Sissay for their sheer dedication to the craft.

I was extremely fortunate to discover poetry organisation Apples and Snakes right at the start of my career and through them got to work with incredible poets like Francesca Beard (who I first shadowed at a workshop held at the British Library during your Silk Road exhibition). I’ve also had the pleasure of working with Jacob Sam La Rose who really showed me the ropes for how poetry can be used in an educational context.

Where do you find inspiration to write new poems?

I read a lot of science non-fiction and greatly enjoy visiting museums and galleries. I often come across a scientific idea or a turn-of-phrase that might spark off a poem or story. I enjoy searching for ideas in unlikely places – for instance, reading a book about forest management to deepen a magical poem that features a tree.

Can you tell us about the creative process behind your poems? Do you make mistakes, experiment or make radical changes to early drafts?

For me the creative process is all about getting into a zone and having faith that you will get there. I like to think and read widely around a topic or theme and let it all percolate over weeks or months, sometimes years. It is difficult to force the process. You have to have faith that the muse will arrive as long as you create the correct setting, get lots of sleep, eat well, exercise and turn up to work. In my case that means going into the study and sitting with the idea.

I don’t think you can make mistakes in a process that is itself exploratory. You go on a journey following winding paths and gaps through hedges, climbing trees, some branches break beneath you, some paths end up nowhere, but through this adventure a poem, a story, a book is formed.

How does it feel to read and perform a poem?

Nerve-wracking
Soul-warming
Smile-tugging
Hug-giving
Knee-jerking
Rainbow-tickling
Rain-laughing
Heart-kissing.

How did you develop your own poetic style?

I never wanted to sound like anyone else, so I was always looking for that new way of looking at a subject or expressing an idea.

In poetry circles there is often a lilt that poets will fall into. It’s a curious thing. The same thing has happened in the United States, with their lilt being quite different to ours. It always grated on me and at times it felt like the definition of a performance poem was reading something with the correct intonation, so I strived to sound different.

In my early work I celebrated my south London twang. Over the years I have found that my voice feels strongest when reflecting on emotions and heart and feelings.

Which poets do you admire, and why?

I’m a big fan of A F Harrold. He has a wonderful imagination which soars through his poems and his novels. I’ve had the pleasure of performing with him on stage with John Hegley (another poet who I hugely admire). Both of these guys have performance running through their cores and it shines through their writing.

If you had to pick one favourite from your own poems, which would it be?

My poem ‘If All the World Were Paper’ is one of my most well-known poems and one of my oldest. It’s my favourite because of the doors it has opened for me and the impact people tell me it has had on them.

What makes you happy?

The sea makes me very happy. It always has done, when I was a kid I dreamed of living by the sea and would borrow books from the library about beach-combing and all the things you could find in rock pools. I now live minutes from the sea and it never fails to bring a smile to my face.

What advice would you give to young people writing and performing poetry?

Here are five tips…

  1. Keep a notepad with you wherever you go, keep it by your bed at night. Whenever an idea for a poem hits, write it down.
  2. Get curious about the world and ask questions about the things you see: Where was this can of coke made? Who was the first person to lay hands on my trainers? Why is the sky blue? Has that bus ever broken down? The questions might be silly but you never know what ideas or stories they might lead to.
  3. Read widely, not just poetry. Read magazines that interest you, borrow books from the library. Make words your friends and they will do wonders for you.
  4. Share your poems. We can get tempted to hide our poems away but poetry is written to be shared. Try reading a poem to a friend or a family member. When you’re feeling brave try larger audiences – your class, your school, the world!!!
  5. When performing your poems make friends with the audience. Invite them to join in on any repeating lines, ask them questions, look at them and smile. It will make your performance far more enjoyable and will help with the nerves!

Joseph Coelho’s poetry collection A Year of Nature Poems illustrated by Kelly Louise Judd is now available in paperback. His latest poetry collection Poems Aloud will be out in February 2020 and include tips and tricks for bringing poems off the page and onto the stage. Both books are published by Wide Eyed Books.

Find out more about Joseph’s work at www.thepoetryofjosephcoelho.com

Banner image ©  Ella Kasperowicz

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.