To Ullswater with year 10 students


It’s Saturday morning and I’m on the 6.50 train to Penrith. This has meant a very early get-up, though the sun is already pounding away, and my jacket grabbed in a ‘just in case’ way is already looking redundant, and slightly silly.

I’m off to Ullswater in the Lake District to meet students and staff from the very wonderful Millfield Science and Performing Arts College. My task is to be inspirational, creative and generally fizzing with energy and bonhomie.

I feel every single day of my sixty-three years.

And then as the train leaves Yorkshire and starts climbing across the centre of England something magical happens, as if I am part of many other journeys while the landscape from my train window gets more and more dramatic. I think of Larkin’s poem which begins, ‘Coming up England, by a different line’, and possibly because I’ve just begun to really wake up, I feel full of promise and possibility.

Getting off the train at Penrith, my taxi driver is already waiting for me with my name on a board, and we set off together on our adventure. On the last mile or so of the journey we strike off from the lake and up into the hills along a track. I think we’re both feeling very intrepid now, me because I spend most of my life in a big city, and him because he’s worrying about his back axle.

And then I meet the ‘kids’, [sorry students] and they’re delightful, as are the teaching staff. I ask them to do twenty difficult things and they just say, ’Ok’ and get on with it. I’m getting them to think about writing a short story, so we’re looking at creating characters, setting and plot.

I’ve brought my characters with me in my bag; fifteen or so photographs of different people, cut from magazines and newspapers, with one wild card, a picture of me aged five, wearing a bow-tie.

Thanks Mum.

We spend the morning and early afternoon together, perching on a flat rock in the sun to share our emerging stories, as I ask them more and more questions designed to add texture and depth to what they are writing.

And, boy, is their writing good. I love that look of pleasure on a writer’s face when they read out something which surprises them with its quality and flair. I am giving special mention to three of the best stories, just as my taxi scrunches up the drive behind me. There’s just time to say thanks and good-bye as I hurry away to catch my train home.

But I have some great memories of the day to keep, and hopefully another session next year to look forward to.

And my tomato head has at last stopped looking such an angry red…

Interview with poet Jo Brandon...

Wise and thoughtful words from Jo Brandon, whose collection Phobia is out now from Valley Press, and also as an ebook for Amazon Kindle.
Jo Brandon Headshot

When did you start writing? What kind of things did you write?

 I started writing poetry when I was nine and it was my way of processing the big things around me. My first poem called ‘Life’ (sweeping title!) was written while I was watching the news. I also wrote a lot about myths and legends as I found all those sorts of pseudo-historical things fascinating. Before then I also used to invent these really detailed narrative games which I’d convince my brother to play too and at around ten I began to turn one of them into a novel. It was about a young orphaned girl and her brother who ended up dying and visiting heaven and hell and purgatory and eventually made it back to earth with the knowledge to live happily and survive by themselves – I was quite a dramatic, tragic sort of child. I pity my parents a bit in retrospect!

Do you have a writing routine?

 Not a consistent one. I love routine but I like to vary it often and the same applies to my writing but this is one area where I’m trying to be stricter with myself. I like to really immerse myself in a project so I tend to write quite a lot in short periods of time and then have a little gap and then write in another block. That’s why I like to have different external projects on the go because when you’re writing to a deadline or as part of a collaboration I find I do write more consistently and more often.

What part does reading play in your life?

Reading is really central to my creative and day-day life. I go through cycles of inspiration and I know when my writing begins to dry up I need to go through a reading binge. I love to research history, psychology, and philosophy, read novels, poetry – whatever captures my imagination at the time and then my way of processing what I read is to write. At the same time I also like to visit new places like museums, galleries or parks and be around people in cafes while I read. I have the temptation sometimes to withdraw into my own little world and this is my way of keeping my mind supple. It may not instantly get me writing but often it gets me thinking in the right way. I feel that reading is so central to expanding my thoughts and ideas but it can also be a real sanctuary and place of escape.
Are there any writers that you go back to/have influenced you/inspire you?

 I could give you a ridiculously long list here but some of my key and continuing influences in terms of poetry have definitely been Sylvia Plath, Linda France, Denise Levertov, Geraldine Monk, Jackie Kay, R.D. Laing, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Moniza Alvi and Philip Larkin. I’ve also been really influenced by a number of prose writers, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison and Angela Carter, in particular and I also continue to be inspired by a good deal of medieval female devotional writing like that by Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich and Marguerite Porete because the imagery they use is so fresh and convincing. I also find song lyrics really inspiring and love listening to people like Joni Mitchell and Alanis Morisette where there is often a really sincere and emotive narrative. These are the sorts of writers that I like going back to and keep finding new depth in as I get older.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on quite a few things at the moment so feeling very productive. I’m working with a composer, Ella Jarman-Pinto, who I met through the Leeds Lieder+ festival and we’re developing a song cycle inspired by Pope Joan. I’m also starting to draft poems for my next collection, which has a working title of Cures.

Aside from writing I’m also involved with some great poetry projects and events this year. My publisher Valley Press has organized some events which I’m looking forward to performing at.
the Manchester Book Market (8
th June),
Bridlington Poetry Festival (8
th-10th June)
and the Hull History Centre (2

I’m also facilitating a poetry competition for Southwark Cathedral, which will be judged by Carol Ann Duffy and I’m a young Producer for the Poetry Parnassus taking place in London this Summer. I’ll be updating my website with news about these events too.
Is there a particular poem you’ve written which you’re proud of?  [Do you want to quote from it and give details if it has been published?]

There are two poems in my collection
Phobia that I feel particularly proud of for different reasons. The first is ‘Arachne Phobia’ which was one of my first ‘phobia’ poems and it has been the poem that gets the most personal response from other people. I think people can identify quite strongly with that change from child to adult and I’m pleased if people feel it’s capturing a sense of an experience we all go though. The opening lines ‘Caught in a lattice of change/gangling growth of limbs’ probably best represent some of the central ideas in the poem.

The second poem is ‘These Bones’ which I feel the greatest personal connection to. I think it’s a poem that can seem very simple at first, there is a very childlike quality to the persona but it deals with some of the biggest questions I ask myself. Questions about religion, belief, the physical versus the spiritual and overall the poem is about how difficult it is to articulate these questions, and how we try to find the answers or some kind of proof within ourselves.

Have you any advice for writers at the beginning of their career….

In a lot of ways I still consider myself to be at the beginning of my career too but there are definitely a few things that have helped me get to this point of having published a first collection and being involved with some fantastic writing experiences. At fifteen I joined a local writers group and this was invaluable for encouraging me to write new material regularly, learning how to perform my work in front of groups of people, learning to deal with constructive criticism and about how other people write. Submitting to magazines that offered editorial feedback was a great help and offered me an extended writing community. In my case it was Cadaverine Magazine that really supported me - they published my work, gave me feedback, put on open mic nights and I was so inspired by what they did I went onto join the editorial team and eventually become General Editor. If you are a ‘young’ writer (under 30) then I would definitely take advantage of any young writer development programmes or workshops you come across. The young writers Hub and NAWE have great listings as does the Ideastap website. The Poetry School also produce excellent workshops for all ages and I think attending local literary festivals and listening to and meeting other writers is incredibly inspiring.

Finding a way that you’re confident performing your work is also really key. Whether that is learning to memorise and perform work or learning to read in a clear and engaging way as long as you do what best represents the work you’re reading. I’ve learnt that it doesn’t really matter if you mess up in front of an audience as long as you’re reading with conviction and look as though you enjoy being there.