Jo Bell is a writer and performer, live literature producer and manager of creative projects across the UK. Her main job is to co-ordinate National Poetry Day for which she is the Director. She is also a director of Living Derby and the writer in residence for the Royal Derby Hospital. Jo Bell was the website poet-in-residence at 2010's Glastonbury Festival.
Jo Bell's new project Bugged encourages the UK's writers to eavesdrop and to write new poetry, fiction or drama based on what they overhear. Jo is also one of four new playwrights showcased by Four for the Port and has one collection of poetry under her belt ('Navigation') as being widely published in journals including Magma and Envoi. These are just a few of the many projects Jo Bell is involved in nationwide.
How old were you when you started writing?
About fourteen. I stopped at eighteen and took it up again at thirty. I had nothing interesting to say till then, and possibly still haven't.
When and where was your first poem published?
In the magazine Raw Edge, about ten years ago. Raw Edge existed to showcase new writing in the West Midlands, where I was then living - it played a vital role in encouraging people to keep going, and is a sad loss.
What was your favourite book as a child, and do you think it influenced your writing?
It was a book called 'The Little Captain' by Paul Biegel. It had no influence whatsoever on my writing but may have got me thinking about the joys of living on a boat.
Who are your literary idols?
W H Auden for his apparently conversational rhythms and fluidity; Czeslaw Milosz and Miroslav Holub for their stark truthfulness and their kindliness. Seamus Heaney for everything. Norman McCaig for his all-seeing eye; Fleur Adcock and U A Fanthorpe for their accomplishment in balancing humour with honesty. Sharon Olds for her visceral language.
As a spoken word poet yourself, can you recommend any other spoken word poets we should see live?
I'm not a spoken word poet per se, I think I'm a poet who speaks her words reasonably well. For good performance, though, see Byron Vincent or Elvis McGonagall who will make you laugh; Tony Walsh who will warm the cockles of your heart; and Martin Figura's Whistle, a new show that will make you cry. Or attend any of the slams run by Marcus Moore and Sara-Jane Arbury, which always bring new talent to light.
Do you have a favourite poem you've written?
The best one to perform is a splendidly shallow piece about sex called 'Coming'. The best piece I've written is probably 'Watershed', which I never perform because it needs to be paid a bit of attention on the page.
Do you have a special place you write?
Long train journeys and long waits between missed connections are often helpful.
Glastonbury is known more for the music (and mud) rather than poets and poetry, though poetry and lyrics aren't worlds apart! Do you feel the poets performing at the festival are helping change the general pre-conception of poetry, that it's boring and old-fashioned?
I hope so, and we certainly had good audiences throughout the festival. Helen Gregory who plans the poetry stage there is working hard to shift perceptions.
Do you think enough is being done through education and the media to celebrate National Poetry Day each year?
NPD is the best and biggest celebration of poetry in the UK, and we exist only to highlight all the work that is being done across the country - new books, new shows, competitions or artwork, and public events to celebrate poetry. We publish online education plans and do a lot of work to make sure we reach the media - I think it works pretty well but would always welcome more coverage!
How can people get involved in National Poetry Day if they haven't already heard about it?
Go to our website at www.nationalpoetryday.co.uk and see what's on! We encourage everyone to run their own events and publicise them through our website. They can read our blog, attend a local event, and see a selection of videos and poems to help them celebrate our theme of HOME. Why not organise a poetry reading with home cooking - an open mic in the local pub - a competition on the theme of home?
What is your secret to poetry success?
Bloody hard work and decent writing.
What is your greatest (poetry) success to date?
Having a beautiful stone designed by artist Kate Genever, to carry a short poem of mine which will go in my native Peak District. It's one of twelve stones by different artists and poets - see www.companionstones.org.uk for more information.
You've recently written a short play for Action Transport Theatre, how does writing a play compare to writing a poem?
It's very different. In a play people actually have to talk to each other - in fact, that's all that happens - and that rarely takes place in a poem. A play is a properly collaborative work - meanings and characters shift once they are in the hands of a director and cast, and your work takes on all kinds of new levels and subtleties.
What literary ambitions do you have left to fulfil?
I don't have a Literary Ambitions List! I just want to write as well as I can, and for other people to think it's worthy of respect.
What was your personal highlight from this year's Ledbury Poetry Festival?
It was the best festival ever so this is a hard one. I loved Martin Figura's piece Whistle, and we had Estonian poets/ singers whose work was uplifting and powerful. Mick Wood is a good new voice, and I enjoyed hearing from the small presses like Nine Arches who are turning out beautiful new pamphlets.
Tell us more about Bugged …
Bugged is about creative eavesdropping. We want people across the UK to eavesdrop somewhere, and then to use their overhearings as a starting point for a poem, short story of 5-minute script. It's really taken off and we have new submissions coming in every day. The website is www.bugged.org.uk and the closing date is 15th August 2010.
Tell us more about Living Derby …
Living Derby is a Community Interest Company, which does what it says on the tin. We include artists, graphic designers, community workers and other creative people. Together we run creative social projects in Derby like the ongoing Illuminate festival, which celebrates Florence Nightingale.
Are there any projects in the pipeline you'd like to share with us?
My work as writer in residence at Royal Derby Hospital continues and I hope to be doing some collaborations with other artists. I'm hoping also to put together a new poetry roadshow for 2011 with Alan Buckley, and I've got one project in particular that will take up a lot of time in spring. But if I told you I'd have to kill you.
For more information about any of Jo Bell's projects please visit www.bell-jar.co.uk. Jo Bell is available for workshops, talks, TV, radio, editing, judging and residencies. Whatever your need, Jo is the lady you should talk to - contact her at email@example.com.