William Letford

How did poetry first appear in your life?
My primary teacher, Mrs Alison, asked our class to write a poem for homework. I forgot, and woke on the morning it was due without the homework completed. I switched on the television and the King’s Cross Station disaster was all over the news. I lay down and began to write.

Mrs Alison liked the poem so much she sent it to Roger McGough who wrote back telling me he enjoyed it very much. At the bottom of the letter, in capitals, with an exclamation at the end, were the words—KEEP WRITING!

Someone says ‘you should write a poem about that’. What do you do / say?
I tell them if I had a pound for every time someone said it, I wouldn’t have to work again. Then I open the palm of my hand and give them my best film star smile.

Has a poem ever changed your life?
Reading poetry led me to writing poetry and my life has certainly changed. Every morning, when I open my eyes, I have something to do. And a purpose can’t be underestimated.

Tell us something about your writing process / the process of writing a particular one of your poems.
I worked as a roofer for my family company. There were times when I would write poems onto joists or in the void of a flat roof before we sealed them up.

There was one particular day—the sun had crested and fallen until it was almost gone. My dad’s shadow had moved right around the workbench as he cut wood to size.

We both got onto the flat roof and wrote a poem together before we sealed it. A long day, and a good day.

Do you have any bad poetry habits?
When I was a little younger and frequenting parties on a more regular basis you would often find me having cornered some poor unfortunate—laying poem after poem upon them. They’d stumble away weary and probably ready for home. And still I can wake up on a Sunday morning and think, oh no, I’ve done it again.

How do you feel about making a living from poetry? Do you do it? Do you avoid it? Do you want to do it?
At this moment I’m managing to get by on work generated from poetry. I suppose I miss the physical feeling of having worked using my body in a manual job. Didn’t matter how well the day had gone, when I sat down after a shower I knew I’d done something. However, my toolbox is lighter now that my imagination is the only thing inside it. There’s pleasure in that too.

What’s a good poem idea that you’ve had but never managed to write?
Ha! Like I would tell you…

Have you ever learned a poem by heart, and which one was it? Can you still remember it?
I know many of my own by heart, but no one else’s—and yes, the faint whiff of hubris just entered the room.

Tell us something about putting together your most recent collection, or what you’re working on now.
During the writing of Dirt I was given an Artists Bursary by Creative Scotland, which allowed me to spend 6 months travelling through India. While I was giving a reading on Havelock Island I met the woman that would become my wife. I knew poetry could lead you in unexpected directions. Marriage definitely wasn’t a direction I was expecting. I’m delighted by the surprise.

William Letford reads with Ruby Robinson and Katherine Towers at Upper Chapel, Norfolk St, Sheffield, S1 2JD on Thursday 25 May. Click here for further details. Read William Letford’s poem ‘In a bamboo shack on the edge of a beach’ here.