Poetry: words of wisdom from a British Poet Laureate – part 1

Mark Niel is a well-established British poet who recently won the accolade of “Poet Laureate” for England’s most recent, and (in my opinion) most progressive new city – Milton Keynes. Although “Poet Laureate” status is awarded quite widely in other countries in the UK it’s quite a rare status, so we must be conscious of just how much of an expert Mark is. We’re fortunate, therefore, to share his advice and views in this two-part interview…


When did you start writing poetry, and why?

I seem always to have written for my own amusement. I used to be a singer/songwriter and some of the lyric ideas worked better as poems than songs. I wrote poems as a way of expressing myself at times of high emotion or for special occasions. I also write sketches and plays and humour figures strongly in my work.

Three years ago I submitted poems to a local magazine and they published a couple of them and encouraged me to go to an open mic event and read. The poems were well received and the audience reaction was very pleasing. This led me to seek out further opportunities to read and I found a world I didn’t know existed but where I felt I belonged. I made a decision to devote time and energy to writing and performing (a lot of my poems are performance pieces) and I went to a lot of open mic events and poetry Slams.

Three years on, I’ve made over 200 appearances and started to be booked at festivals and events as well as featuring on local radio.

What poems have you had published, where, and in what format? (Anthologies, your own books, etc.)

I have been published by Monkey Kettle magazine, United Press, Forward Press, South Bank Poetry and in the Wenlock Festival poetry anthology. I also compiled and published “Reflections from Mirror City” last year which is an anthology of local and guest writers that have read at my event “Tongue in Chic”. I have also self published a couple of small pamphlets to sell at gigs and produced some poems on postcards.

In addition I’ve had work broadcast on BBC Radio and some of my performance pieces can be found on Youtube.

What connections do you have with Milton Keynes, and how did you become its Poet Laureate? What does this involve?

I first came to Milton Keynes nearly thirty years ago as a voluntary church worker. Though I travelled extensively at that time Milton Keynes was our base, to which I always returned. After the two year scheme finished, I decided to stay here, then met a girl, fell in love and been here ever since. All my creative endeavours have been based here.

I’ve been working over the past three years to give a platform and voice to local writers and encouraged them to seek audiences further afield. Our anthology was launched by the then-Mayor, Debbie Brock, last year and she really enjoyed the event and loved listening to our poems. This led to invitations to read at civic events and earlier this year, the Mayor asked me to help run and judge a competition to find a poem to celebrate the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. I also feel proud to have played a part in helping Milton Keynes to make an impact on the national poetry scene as I travelled the country and won various competitions.

The Laureateship is a new role and I think it will be up to me to shape it. I will continue to read at some civic occasions such as the annual Civic Service and on special occasions. I would like to write a collection based on my experience and appreciation of Milton Keynes.

I will get involved in activities to promote poetry in particular as well as literacy in general. I will consider commissions from the Mayor’s office and also write as I feel inspired. I hope to do some educational work to plant seeds for the future.

What contribution do you feel contemporary poetry makes to our modern culture?

Globally, I think it makes a significant contribution though the UK still has to catch up. There is a surge of interest here in more populist poetry with an increasing number of Festivals including spoken word stages. Tim Key won the Edinburgh Comedy Award two years ago and a genre of “Stand Up Poetry” seems to be emerging which I hope is a way of attracting more people who use it as a gateway to more serious writers.

Some poets are issue-driven and use poems to make their point and the complexity of some live literature events means poetry is just one strand of multi media presentations. By being at the cutting edge of new media, we stand a good chance to reach more potential converts

People seem to turn to poetry at emotional high points in their life and at their best, poems capture a thought or feeling within an economical, beautiful, surprising way. I don’t think that will ever change. As long as there is love and other big emotions, there will be poetry.

What would we lose if poetry were no longer part of our lives?

A powerful lyricism that can’t be replaced by any other form of writing.

What pleasure should “ordinary people” gain from writing poetry of their own?

Write for the joy of words and use of language. Write to express a thought using the fewest, simplest and most beautiful words you can. It can be a cathartic experience but you can write to express joy and as well.

Would you be prepared to answer readers’ questions for us about writing poetry?

I’d be happy to.

Mark, thank you so much! And let’s have your comments and questions here please.

Next week … Mark shares his views on how you can write poetry that means everything to you…

Follow Mark on his website, “A Kick In The Arts” or on his blog, “Pawhouseboy

Some help to make you  write poetically:

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

“The English Language Joke book”…hundreds of laughs about this crazy language of ours

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