Hi Neal! It’s been great fun working with you on our book. But as an author and illustrator in your own right, how do you feel about working with other writers and illustrating their words?
Hello, James! I love working with writers because reading their words takes my imagination to new places. Like your weird world and wonderful poems which really spoke to me. This is one of the reasons I LOVE reading… but this process goes one stage further when as an illustrator I seek to somehow represent in line and tone the feelings and ideas the author’s words conjure up in me. The tricky bit is making sure my my illustrations work alongside the words, in harmony, rather than at cross purposes. It’s very easy to muddy the essence of an author’s writing with bad illustration. This is especially important when illustrating poetry, because the words have been so carefully chosen, and the purpose of the writing so distilled. It’s feels quite a responsibility to ensure my drawings stay true to the true essence of the author’s work.
Neal – you have certainly achieved this with our book, I feel our images/words are coming from the same place. I love the way that when I’m daft and playful you are too, but when I’m quiet and reflective you match that so sensitively. Could you please tell me about your process overall – as well as talk me through a couple of specific poems, explaining what aspect of each you chose to illustrate, and how you went about it? Did the images evolve/change much in the process, if so, how?
I’m so happy you like the work I did for the book. It was a joy to illustrate, but also quite difficult, taking much longer than I thought. A lot of the time was spent letting the poems ‘sit with me’ until I felt I had the measure of them, and also trying out things… experimenting. It’s often easier to know when an idea doesn’t work!
I always draw in pencil to start with. Sometimes the sketches are very ‘hazy’ as I am feeling my way… it’s almost like I’m shaping something like a blob of clay… trying to give it form and identity.
Like this sketch for your poem ‘How easily’… it doesn’t look much, but when I did it I knew I’d found a visual way to approach the poem. This was one of the most difficult poems for me to illustrate, as for me it so perfectly captures complicated feelings of memory and time! In fact it took a long time for me to find an approach for it, but it ended up being one of my favourite drawings in the book.
For the air guitar poem I had to try out a few different characters, with a guitar, without a guitar, until eventually I hit upon the idea of a dotted line to denote the imaginary ‘air guitar!’ I added the mirror to give a feeling of a bedroom performance.
So James – how did you decide you wanted to be a poet, as opposed to say an author, or songwriter (I think you play instruments!?)
Everything just happened really! I’ve always loved music and reading. And I guess my creative life began at 15 when I bought my first electric guitar. I dashed home from the music shop and I just sat on my bed and started writing songs, out of nowhere. 45+ years on, I still play the guitar – as well as the piano and the melodica. Nowadays I write instrumental music, and I guess those song lyrics eventually became poems!
When I went off to uni and trained to be a Primary teacher, I really got the writing bug there. I’d previously enjoyed writing song lyrics – and stories along the way too – but with children’s poems I could go deeper, celebrate the richness of words, their sounds and their musicality – and I loved the philosophical way that poems have of looking at the world. I’ve been writing poems for 25 years now, and all my favourite and (hopefully!) most popular poems for 7-11s are in our book!
James, I LOVE reading poetry but find the idea of writing it quite mysterious! Have you any advice for young poets out there? How to go about writing a poem, what things might you need?
I don’t know if it’s like this for illustrating, but I think what I’ve learnt most of all is that writing poetry takes time. A lot of TIME! And you shouldn’t be in a rush to write or finish a poem. And to write poetry, it’s good to know all the various things a poem can be. So you could look up all the different forms – haiku, kennings, cinquains, riddles, conversation poems, shape poems and yes, rhyming poems. I love writing all these different types. And those rhyming poems may seem the easiest BUT they’re actually the hardest to write really well. Rhyme is like Nutella! It’s great stuff, but you don’t want it all the time on everything you eat or it all gets quite samey. So maybe try writing some free verse – it’s a great way of expressing and exploring your thoughts, ideas and memories.
You talked about the last poem in the book, ‘How Easily…’. That poem was also tricky to write. I was working on it on and off for about three years. The first version was called ‘Remember’, and I had the lines about moths and raindrops, and I really liked those images, but the rest of the poem wasn’t working for me. Then I decided to write a new poem for a Year 6 class that were leaving my residency school in Newbury to go on to Secondary school. I included those two lines in the new poem and eventually it was finished. With this new poem I’m trying to encourage readers to write down their memories, as they are so important – and so many of them will indeed disappear if we don’t celebrate them in words – AND pictures, of course! Here’s the very first draft of the poem that I wrote off the top of my head..
Call it a corner,
a new chapter, a bend
in the river – whatever,
it’s coming and there’s
nothing to do to stop it.
this will all be gone, like
like moths into the darkness, or
rain upon a lake.
The thoughts you had,
the words you said
the things you did
will mostly pass, be lost
to the past.
What to do?
for as long
as you can.
of the future:
it’s always nearly
Some tips? Read a poem every day if you can. And do some writing – even just a word or two in your head, and every day. You don’t need to show it to anyone, do it just for you. Leave it for a few days maybe, then weak it a bit if you want.
I really like it that you call poetry ‘mysterious’, Neal! I don’t think I try for that as such, maybe it just happens – but I certainly love the idea that poems are like little word-worlds where we can go to quietly ponder over the mysteries of life! Illustrating is ‘mysterious’ to me, as a word-person – how you as an illustrator can conjure up all those gorgeous images – that’s magic!