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Interview with Grace Nichols

Grace Nichols was born and educated in Guyana in the West Indies. She came to Britiain in 1977with her partner, the poet John Agard. They live in Sussex. She wrote a collection of original Caribbean nursery rhymes, ‘No Hicory, No Dickory, No Dock’, with him and has edited several anthologies as well as writing her own collections and performing regularly. Pupils from The Mount School, York, interviewed Grace Nichols

As a child, what did you dream of being? Would the child you were be surprised at the adult you now are?

I don’t think the child I was would be all that surprised at the adult I’ve become. I haven’t changed that much. I’m still essentially a bit of a daydreamer and still like space into which I can escape as I did as a small girl. As a child I never really thought of what I’d like to be when I was grown-up. I was much too busy enjoying myself with my friends and six sisters and one brother. When I was older, a teenager, I fancied myself as a singer and wrote out the lyrics of my favourite pop songs in exercise books. I used to tape-record myself singing and would meet up with friends in the hope of forming a band, but nothing came of it.

Did you enjoy writing as a child? Was poetry always the sort of writing which attracted you? When did you realise that you were a poet?

I enjoyed writing as a child but loved reading much more. English was my favourite subject at school as we got the chance to make up stories at times and use our imaginations. My mother liked reading the stories I wrote and would remark on them. I read just about anything I could get my hands on as a child as long as it held my attention. I particularly enjoyed reading poetry curled up in bed, probably still one of the nicest ways of reading poetry, completely absorbed in the work of another mind, intent on the feelings yet indolently losing yourself in the music and rhythm of the lines. We had all these old books by English poets, poems about weary ploughmen, soldiers dying alone on battlefields, young girls dying, like ‘Lucy Grey’. Some of them made me sad, others left me with a puzzling happiness. But it was only after coming to England some twenty years ago and having my first book published, ‘I is a long-memoried Woman’, that I began to name myself as a poet.

Do you have a favourite of your own poems? or of another poet’s poems? Can you tell us which and why? Are you influenced by any other poet?

Well, one of my favourites is ‘Praisesong for my Mother’ who died when I was twenty-one. I particularly like that one even though it’s a small poem, but the images came out of a deep focusing on my mother and a reconnecting with her memory. It’s a very personal poem and does capture for me something of her spirit. I admire and read the work of many poets.

Where do you write your poems? Do you have a special place? Do you move about while you are thinking about them or sit still?

I tend to write my poems mostly at the dining table or upstairs in bed. I like that delicious feeling of being completely on my own when I’m creating. When the poem is about to come or I’m composing it in my head I do tend to move about, trying to shut everything else out. I guess it can be pretty irritating to others as when you’re consumed by a poem they can’t get you to do anything else.

Your poem, ‘Love’, is very romantic. Do you believe in love at first sight?

Of course people can fall in love at first sight, but can fall out of love fairly easily. I think real love is a much more powerful and enduring thing.

We were moved by your poem, ‘Black’. How do you respond to racism and how would you advise others to respond? As a black poet do you think you are seen as first black and then as a poet? What do you feel about this issue? Do people have different expectations of you because you are black? Or because you are a woman?

While racism is one of the evils of the world, it is too easy to blame racism for everything and see oneself as a victim. It’s better to get on with your life and focus on developing yourself. People who are racists are usually narrow-minded, unhappy people who probably envy you. But serious racism should be confronted and reported.

How would you describe yourself?

My nine-year-old daughter always says: ‘You’re a short-memoried woman, not a long-memoried one.’ I suppose I’m a bit of a head-in-the-clouds, feet-on-the-ground type of person.

Do you have general advice for young writers who want to improve their poetry?

My advice would be to read widely, poets and writers from different backgrounds, different cultures. Be true to your imagination. If the idea and image persist then you have to go with it. Begin by writing about your own experiences. It’s what you know best. Write about things that really matter to you, that excite you, so that at the end of the day at least you’d be writing about your own truth, and not somebody else’s.

Thank-you very much Grace Nichols!

Read more interviews of leading authors by children.

YoungWriter was a magazine published from 1995 to 2003 by Kate Jones.
We here at Myst Ltd had the pleasure of producing the magazine for Kate.
Sadly, Kate passed away in 2010.