Man who took poetry to the Pru (and M&S)

PETER Sansom quite likes attention, though not necessarily everything comes with celebrity. When he became poet-in-residence at Marks and Spencer, headlines like Poetry Among the Knickers were something he had to grin and bear.

PETER Sansom quite likes attention, though not necessarily everything comes with celebrity. When he became poet-in-residence at Marks and Spencer, headlines like Poetry Among the Knickers were something he had to grin and bear.

On the plus side, the unusual marriage of poetry and business captured the imagination of The Big Breakfast TV show - earning him an on-air kiss from presenter Denise Van Outen and impressing his teenage daughter, who thought dad's five minutes of fame on national TV was dead cool.

The novelty of the collision between commerce and connotation, retailing and rhythm, also brought poetry commissions from newspapers and radio stations who'd never before glanced in his direction, and some work from The Swedish Club - which, rather disappointingly, turned out to be a marine insurance outfit based in Gothenburg.

Nevertheless, he rated his six-month stay as one of the most enjoyable and poetically profitable periods of his life - despite staff at the M&S head office sometimes thinking this stubble-faced, jumper-wearing, tatty notebook-carrying fellow was a lost soul wandering the corridors of Baker Street, because he wasn't clad in de rigueur jacket and tie and armed with an electronic personal organiser.

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In fact, he came back for more - not to M&S this time but the financial services group Prudential. His four-year spell as company poet ended just before Christmas. Again, he was knocked out by the benefits to one and all.

Both stays proved “a real eye-opener; because poets don't normally see business, and vice versa. It puts poets in touch with 'real' people, and vice versa. I'm not saying poets aren't real people, but all my mates are kind of Guardian-reading people, and the people I bump into at writing groups are all . . .”

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He's trying to find a diplomatic way of saying “of a type - in the nicest possible way”. Going into another brought the excitement and refreshment of diversity.

When you write with folk, and read your material to each other, you really get to know each other on a deep level, he says. And it was also good for business. A lot of people at Prudential who might have worked with each other for years would open up when writing together. Friendships and trust can be built in that way. There are relationships built, often between people in different areas - actuaries and cleaning staff and people on reception - who normally wouldn't see each other at all.

“Again and again, what I worked on with people was trusting their imagination and allowing themselves non-directed time: 'play.' They would often come up with better ideas because they weren't actively searching for those ideas; they didn't know quite where they were heading when they set out.

“We mainly did that through language - writing quickly, writing exercises - and having permission to use your imagination in ways you often feel there's not room for. In business, you might not think you've got time to play. But, if you don't, you're never going to move forward.”

Peter will be in Aldeburgh in November to present prizes to the winners of the Suffolk Young Poets Competition 2007, sponsored by the East Anglian Daily Times.

The poet, born in 1958 and for 10 years a teacher of poetry on a master course at Huddersfield University, is encouraged by the state of poetry in schools nowadays.

Many more poets are visiting schools and helping to demystify poetry, and “children are being encouraged to be creative, rather than writing what they think they ought to write”.

He winces at the memory of a particular series of school workshops run by him and wife Ann, also a poet, in which youngsters were encouraged to write poems in five minutes. “One of the schools had a rather traditional teacher, who then got the kids to turn these poems into rhyming verse. It was horrible! Completely missed the point. She couldn't believe that these things, written so quickly and which didn't rhyme, were really poems! They weren't what she was used to.”

So what tips does he have for aspiring poets - other than getting his influential book Writing Poems out of the library!

“However old or young you are, you should trust yourself and write about the things you are interested in. Me and Ann judged the Young National Poetry Competition a while ago, and one of the things we found was a real split between young people who felt able to write about what they felt was important, in their own language, and those who tended to just turn things into verse; into a kind of rhyming poem that wasn't really about anything and was often rhyme-driven.”

So don't feel compelled to wax lyrical about the chaos of Iraq or global warming - unless you genuinely do have personal experience or feel mightily strongly about those issues. It's much better, he advises, to use things from your own life. Don't be scared to write about your dog, or fish and chips.

Why is poetry important?

“Even the most personal of fiction stays somehow separate from us. Poetry's personal in a way that fiction isn't. Poetry talks to us. The writer opens his or her imaginative experiences to us in a poem, and readers respond to that.

“Also, there are other elements. There's music to it and a kind of powerful, concise potency to poetry that people respond to. We don't all go ballroom dancing, but at some stage we all dance, don't we, even if it's only at the disco at a wedding!

“If you begin to write poems, they might not be brilliant, but while you're writing them they take you out of yourself and make a real contact with your imaginative experience in a way that's very difficult to do in a story, because you've got so much more to deal with - characterisation and plotting and all that kind of thing. But you can write a poem anywhere, in a short space of time, and do something that can be quite fulfilling. People often remember poems. They have an impact.”

THE deadline for entries to the Suffolk Young Poets Competition 2007 is Tuesday, July 31.

The contest is open to all young poets living in Suffolk or attending a Suffolk school in 2006-7. Poems may be typed or hand-written, and each one should begin on a separate page. A maximum of three poems per entrant is allowed.

Entries are judged in two age groups: 11 years and under, and 12 to 19 years old.

Successful writers will receive a £20 book token and perform their poems on stage at the 2007 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, the UK's leading annual international celebration of contemporary poetry, on Friday, November 2.

Prize-winning work will appear online at and in the East Anglian Daily Times.

Last year's winners can be found at

AFTER the success of the first Ipswich literary festival, it's back again in 2007 - bigger and better. Well-known names coming to town include BBC reporter Rageh Omaar and Suffolk-based Esther Freud, whose novels often combine love with the darker side of life.

This year the programme is being extended to celebrate local writing, too. The “festival read” is Catch Me When I Fall, by Nicci French - husband and wife team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. They will be discussing their work with BBC Radio Suffolk's Rachel Sloane (June 30).

EADT theatre reviewer Ivan Howlett will be discussing The Dig with author John Preston (June 25). It's a fictionalised account of the Sutton Hoo treasure discovery near Woodbridge.

The festival's first literary lunch continues the local theme when Geoffrey Munn gives an illustrated talk about his celebratory book Southwold - An Earthly Paradise. Lunch features fish and chips and some of Adnams's finest (July 7).

BBC Radio Suffolk's Lesley Dolphin will be asking Lesley Glaister about her new novel, Nina Todd Has Gone (June 27); and D J Taylor - novelist, biographer and literary critic - joins short story writer Alison Macleod to discuss the renaissance of the genre (June 26). They will also present the prizes for the festival short story competition, which is backed by the East Anglian Daily Times.

Youngsters aren't ignored. Authors Philip Reeve and Kes Gray, who lives south of Colchester, provide a fun-filled afternoon exploring the world of children's books (July 7). Philip will present the prizes for the children's short story competition.

Rageh Omaar has become a household name reporting on Iraq for the BBC. He will talk about his career and discuss his book Only Half of Me - Being a Muslim in Britain (June 29).

Esther Freud will appear in Ipswich not long after the publication of her sixth novel, Love Falls, which is billed as a coming-of-age tale set in Siena over one sun-drenched summer (July 4).

Through writers' workshops, a writers' café and the short story competition, the festival is encouraging regional writing talent. The workshop, open to all and with the emphasis on fun, will help beginners start writing and those with some experience to develop their skills.

There will also be chances for people to share their poetic talents in a poetry tent - as part of Ipswich Music Day on July 1 - and a poetry café event at Starbucks the following evening.

The literature programme is part of the annual Ipswich Arts Festival - better known Ip-art.

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