An interview with Mary Dickins

When I first started performing I would travel up to London every month or so and perform at open mics. This was a great way to meet new people and see other poets. One of the biggest and noisiest nights was Bang Said the Gun, which took place at the Roebuck pub near Borough, and I would go often, sometimes just to sit and watch, and sometimes to perform.

It was at one such evening that I first saw Mary Dickins. I fell in love with her poetry immediately. Joyous, funny, an delivered in a deadpan that added to the comedy. We would later work together making TV adverts for a certain building society, and at one or two corporate events. Mary’s poetry has a joyful playfulness which masks a serious subtext. Well observed descriptions of every day life combine with a true poetic sense of wonder.

Mary’s book, Happiness FM, has just been published by Burning Eye, and I thought I’d use this as an opportunity to interview her.

How did you get into writing poetry?

I have a distinct memory of writing my first poem when I was four. It was a nonsense poem called “The man wrapped up in a Pin” and it rhymed. I was much more excited about it than the rest of my family. Throughout my life I’ve used poetry and creative writing as a therapeutic outlet but I saw it as more of a hobby and I never thought my work was ‘good’ enough for performance or publication until much later.

I’ve seen you loads of times performing on the London spoken word scene. How did you start performing live?
I have always been interested in the performance aspect of poetry and in my professional life was a conference speaker and lecturer but it wasn’t until I was 60 and attended an Arvon course run by Matt Harvey and Kate Fox that I got the confidence and self-belief to give my poetry a try. This led me to do open mic at the brilliant Bang Said the Gun and for the first time I experienced a really noisy and enthusiastic response. I thought that was wonderful and I wanted more.

Who are your influences as a poet and artist?
My influences are many and varied. I was very taken by the Liverpool poets and the irreverent breath of air that they brought to the poetry establishment in the 60s..  I was an early and devoted fan of John Cooper Clark and John Hegley and also poets such as Maya Angelou and Grace Nicholls. I am now an avid reader of all kinds of poetry and I think I probably take a little bit from everyone I like.

Your collection Happiness FM has a bright, upbeat feel. Was this a conscious decision at the start of the project?
I do feel that the best poetry is usually uplifting in some way so I suppose I do aim for that. I guess this evolved as I thought Happiness FM made a good title poem. My daughter Hannah designed the cover around that and together we aimed for an eye catching joyful feel. I was worried about the irony bringing out  a book with this title at a time when the vast majority of people were feeling singularly unhappy then I thought maybe it could bring a little joy into my readers lives.

You have a wonderful knack at finding the eccentric and the odd beneath everyday reality. How did you develop this quirky worldview?
Is it me that’s quirky? I always think it’s everybody else. I think that feeling excluded while growing up (long story) made me into an acute observer and gave me the ability to step back and view reality objectively. Let’s face it there is plenty about the world that is eccentric and odd so there is no shortage of ideas.

Your poetry can also be deeply serious. Do you think it is a poet’s duty to look at the bigger issues in society and life?
I’m not sure about the word ‘duty’ as this rather saps the enjoyment out of it. Poets describe and interpret the world around them and also chronicle the times they live in so the bigger issues are pretty hard for any of us to avoid. Exploring identity, for example, inevitably leads to us to examine and challenge existing values and systems. Poetry can be a powerful tool for change and personally I do like my poems to contain some kind of social comment however oblique. I think anyone with a public platform has a responsibility to try to make the world a better place and that includes poets. I want the poets I admire to have integrity and be truthful. But they should be allowed to express themselves as they choose.

What is your writing process? Do you have a specific time and place for writing?
I’ve never been very good at keeping to a self-imposed writing schedule although I can be disciplined and dogged if the situation calls for it. A lot of my writing takes place in my head and I find that 2am in the morning is the time when random ideas and solutions suddenly emerge. This means that the kitchen table is often littered with strange and obscure post it notes to self in the morning.  I find poetry courses and writing groups very useful as they give you homework deadlines and a reason to persevere.

What was your best ever gig as a performer?
It has to be when I won the Golden Gun at Bang Said the Gun a few years ago. I performed a somewhat blasphemous poem called “The Richard Dawkins Delusion by God” and Andrew Motion who was Poet Laureate at the time and also performing said how much he liked it. I floated home on the tube that night.

What are you working on at the moment or what will your next project be?
Well this is the rub. At the moment my biggest challenge as someone in a vulnerable category for Coronavirus is how to maintain a poetry presence and promote the book. Luckily there are online opportunities at the moment and I hope these continue as there are a few of us who might be stranded if they don’t. I have a number of new poems up my sleeve so I am looking towards the next collection.

What advice would you give someone who would like to follow on your footsteps and be a poet and a performer?
Don’t wait as long as I did but at the same time it’s never too late to start.

An Interview with Hannah Teasdale

Hannah M. Teasdale’s collection ‘Laid Bare’ is a beautiful selection of autobiographical poems built around themes of love, loss, longing, physicality, the body, motherhood and relationships. The book tells the story of the poet’s relationships with her family, with a lover, and with herself. And as such it is a powerful work, deeply honest and frequently mesmerising in its use of language.
I’ve known Hannah for a couple of years and her performances are equally assured and honest. She connects with the audience with a measured insistence that feels easy, allowing us to glimpse the human within. 

Your poetry is very autobiographical. How useful is writing poetry in order to explore your own feelings and emotions?
 The emotion is already there. The writing of it comes as a natural process, as a consequence; it is simply a way of ‘setting the emotion free’ from my mind – and to some extent, my body. The only way I can manage my feelings is to pour them out onto a page. 

That said, I enjoy writing commissioned pieces where I am given permission to use language without the blood-letting.

The entirety of Laid bare was written ‘in the moment’ – some of the pieces, when they came to editing, I had barely any memory of writing. I estimate I wrote around 500 pieces in a six month period. Clearly, only a small selection made the final cut. 

Clive Birnie was very clear from the outset that he wanted the book to follow a narrative, a natural arc. Therefore, I chose poems that followed this brief and could take the reader on a ‘journey’. I hope that it has been successful in creating a story that readers can follow, in a similar way to a short novel but also that the poems can stand alone, in their own right. There are poems, that for their literary quality, I wanted to keep, but knew they would take the reader off-course from the story. By the same token, I have included pieces that helped to knit the narrative together. I never censor myself during the process of pen to page, however, there are pieces that will never see the light of day due to their potential impact on other people. When I was a child, I wrote a story about my best friend’s family and was completely baffled why she didn’t speak to me for a month after I read it to her. I haven’t completely learned from that experience as sometimes, I have overstepped the mark, but I do put out a clear caveat to anyone who might become intimately involved with me, that I do have a tendency to speak my truth…


Some of the pieces were written for performance, and editing them for the page, was difficult. I began as a writer for page, screen and theatre. It was only after my first pamphlet was published, that I began to read my own work out loud. It has been an almost excruciating process and even at my first book launch, I couldn’t read my own work – I had friends ‘perform’ my poetry.


I learnt the ‘art’ of performing by watching others and understanding the need for flow and rhythm in my writing. This has stood me in good stead with other genres of writing and I am now more competent at both writing and performing. When it comes to answering the question, ‘which poem has received the biggest response?’, I think it would be true to say that sometimes, a poems such as ‘How not to say you love me’ and ‘Simply enough’ , have always been enjoyed by an audience but maybe for their lyrical quality and the ease at which I can perform them. However, there are other pieces that I don’t generally perform, like ‘Torn’ and ‘The Phone Call’ that I receive positive feedback for when people have read the book.
Do you write specifically for performance?

 I do keep in mind whether a piece of writing is intended for performance to a live audience, or to be read on the page by the reader. This debate over ‘performance’ and ‘page’ poetry is a palpable hot potato currently and one that causes so many unnecessary divides at a time, when as writers, we should be embracing the art as a whole and not seeking to label and divide. It was said to me by a Professor of Poetry that ‘poetry is not meant to be accessible’, that it requires intellect to analyse and unpick. Others have argued the very opposite and have found great solace in discovering a genre that is not reminiscent of their claustrophobic school-days texts. Some have said that ‘Laid Bare’ dares to attempt to bridge that gap, but I am sure there are many critics who would argue against that.


Who are your literary influences?

My literary influences are broad in genre and writing style. I am naturally drawn to writers who speak a truth about human existence in a way that hits you in the stomach. Deborah Kay Davis consistently surprises me with her succinct use of lyrical but slicing language. She hits ‘that spot’ so effortlessly. Ted Hughes will always provide me with a come-back-to point of reference. If I am ever ‘stuck’, I open Birthday Letters and perhaps find a couple of words to write from. I will always be awestruck by his ability to draw upon the natural world to express the human consciousness. And it goes almost without saying, Dorothy Parker is a complete stand-alone in her ability to pull strands of light through the darkest of black.

What projects are you currently working on?

 Over the past year, I have been working on a third collection that consists of much shorter poems dissecting the psychological and physical impact of brief sexual encounters. I hope that it pushes even further through the uncomfortable boundaries of the sexually taboo – without being too explicit. 

 Recently, I have been involved in a number of creative art’s projects – working with young people and vulnerable adults as a creative writing facilitator but also with artists on collaborations. 
What advice would you have for aspiring poets?

 I don’t know if I feel qualified to be giving aspiring writers or performers ‘advice’ as it is such a personal journey; what may be right for one person, is not for another. There is a fine line between pushing yourself just far enough out of your comfort zone to grow as an artist but keeping yourself safe and sane enough to keep going, without destroying yourself in the process. A very fine line indeed…