It’s Poetry Time – Interview with the Organiser of National Poetry Day, Jo Bell

October 8th,  for those of you who might not know, is National Poetry Day. Which is a very good thing. 

Another good thing is below, an interview with Jo Bell. Jo’s a poet, the organiser of National Poetry Day (October 8th) a runner of workshops and, amongst many other things, a very lovely lady. So, on with things…

So, Jo Bell. Who are you? What do you do?

I have no idea, actually, but I always seem to be busy. I call myself a ‘poetry professional’ because most of my work is poetry based. I work freelance and my main job is to co-ordinate National Poetry Day across the UK. I also write commissions such as a recent series of poems on food for the National Trust. I do readings and performances such as themed evenings based on Christmas or gardening. I run workshops to help people write poetry and I’m doing a lot of work in Derby, where I hope to be poet in residence at the new hospital next year. 


What is National Poetry Day? How can people get themselves involved?

National Poetry Day is the biggest celebration of poetry in the UK, and this year it falls on Thursday October 8th. Our theme is ‘heroes and heroines’ (yes, technically ‘heroes’ would cover it). The Poet Laureate herself, Carol Ann Duffy, has written a poem for us and you will hear a lot of poetry on the radio and TV. There will be hundreds of events across the country run by poetry-lovers; poetry marathons, readings at libraries and festivals, children’s events, performances. Visit our website to find out what is going on near you. If there isn’t anything listed, then do something yourself – get your writing group to discuss poetry, organise a poetry reading at the library….


What do you think makes a great poem?

Its truthfulness; it has to chime with the reader as a true reflection of the world. Its use of language – using the right word in the right place, with no linguistic showiness – and its imagery. A good poem should show you afresh something you’ve seen many times before, and make you examine it closely for meaning.

And what makes a great poet?

The ability to write a great poem. Nothing else.


How do you think poetry and prose are related? Siblings? Cousins?

Close but bickering relations, circling the table at a family gathering and eying the same sausage roll. We tackle the same material in very different ways: I love good prose, but would have no idea how to start writing it.


It’s a (kind of) well known fact that most of the poetry sold today is poetry written by people who are no longer among the living. With that in mind: which living poets’ work would you point us towards?

Read Daljit Nagra for his ‘Punglish’ take on multicultural London; Tobias Hill for precision and observation; Wendy Cope for wit and battle-of-the-sexes truths; Clare Pollard for youthful savviness. Oh, and me, for poems about sex and boats.


I saw you in the brilliant show, The Fourpenny Circus. Can you tell us a little about that?

It’s a show that uses costume, props and a bit of simple choreography to make poetry appealing. Let’s be honest – people expect poetry readings to be bloody boring, and they have good reason to think so. But years ago I saw the brilliant poet Michael Donaghy, a mesmerising performer of his own work. He showed me (and many others) that poetry should be well written and well performed, to really move people. When I was Cheshire Poet Laureate in 2007, I corralled my predecessors into a live roadshow, Bunch of Fives, which was a huge success. So we had to write another one, and are now on the road with Fourpenny Circus. It’s lively, silly, serious and engrossing. We want to get our poems over to people who wouldn’t normally identify themselves as poetry fans; and if that means me wearing a top hat and jodhpurs, I’m willing to suffer for my art.


Tell us a secret.

My first name is Alexandra. No-one has used it since the day I was born.


What’s next for you?

National Poetry Day on October 8th, followed by a short period of lying down in a darkened room. Then Fourpenny Circus has an autumn tour; then I’m very involved in planning a festival in Derby for next summer, and hopefully a couple of poet-in-residence projects. I hope 2010 will be my busiest year.


Anything you’d like to add?

Yes. Does anyone know how I can make time to write some poems?





Jo Bell was born in Sheffield. After a career in professional archaeology she began to work in poetry, and is now a full-time poetry professional. She is the co-ordinator for National Poetry Day, and other work includes performance and workshops. Living on a narrowboat, her place of abode is not fixed but she travels the waterways in search of an inspiring mooring with internet access.

Click here for Jo’s blog.

Here’s Joy Winkler, a fellow member of the Fourpenny Circus team performing a piece from the show at the launch of the 20 Photos & 20 Stories book launch earlier in the year (all proceeds of which will go to The Alzheimer’s Society). There are still some copies left – visit my online shop to buy.

4 Comments on “It’s Poetry Time – Interview with the Organiser of National Poetry Day, Jo Bell

  1.  by  Rachel Fox

    Enjoyed this – especially the bits about what makes a great poem and a great poet.I'm organising an event for NPD up in Montrose (north east Scotland) this year. I hope some people come to be the audience!x

  2.  by  kim mcgowan

    I really enjoyed this interview, thanks. When I read, ‘I love good prose, but would have no idea how to start writing it.' There was an almost audible sense of cogs shifting in my head. I think I'd imagined that writing poetry was harder than writing prose; and now I have to think again, which is always

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