Frequently Asked Questions
A few of the questions I'm frequently asked:
When did you start writing?
I started writing songs at the age of 15 and I played in all kinds of bands for many years. But I didn’t start writing and publishing poems until the age of 37 – over ten years ago. I write guitar music even now, which I play as part of my poetry performances in schools. And I still get a thrill every time each poem is published. The biggest thrill was in 2002 when I got my first book of poems, Cars Stars Electric Guitars published – with a little help from the awesome Jacqueline Wilson. You might have heard of her!
Why did you decide to become a poet?
I never set out to be a poet, it just happened. I found myself coming up with ideas for poems, and I just start writing them. I so enjoy writing poems because I love WORDS. The sound, the feeling, the textures, the rhythms of words. Playing with words. That’s what poetry is for me – language at its most playful and musical. I love the fact that I can write a very sad, short poem – like my haiku poem about a reindeer being shot in the snow – to a zany, playful poem in the shape of a little bug to a long poem telling of something funny that happened on the beach in Cornwall one holiday. I love the variety that poetry offers.
How long does it take to write a poem?
Usually up to three months. I’ll tweak a poem for ages until I’m happy with it – changing words, verses, moving lines around, adding extra lines, doing anything I can to make it better. I call this ‘tweaking’. A poem has got to be as perfect as you can get it. It has to be tight and punchy. My wife sees all my poems first and she’s very harsh in her criticisms – and quite right too! A poem has got to work well on the page.
I also love working out how I’m going to perform a poem – maybe with music, or with actions, or where to go soft, and then loud, or stop for a while for dramatic effect.
What is your favourite poem you’ve ever written?
I don’t really have one favourite, I just enjoy writing. If I had to pick one, I’d say the very soppy slushy lovey–dovey one I wrote for my wife. It’s called Love You More and it’s in my book Time–Travelling Underpants.
Why do you write funny poems?
It’s funny because I don’t think of my poems as ‘funny’. I tend to think of them as quirky. I’ve always liked quirky and unusual things – from comics to watching Monty Python TV programmes in the 70s to watching one of my own favourite poets, John Hegley. He showed me that you can write about everyday things in a quirky way. He writes very amusing poems about things like dogs, potatoes and wearing glasses. So I write about garden sheds, the dark, guitars, trees, moths – just everyday things that are around me. That’s where I get my ideas from! My daughter Lauren had a wobbly tooth once. It fell out and she put it under her pillow. So I wrote a poem about staying awake to meet the tooth fairy.
Why do you play the guitar in your performances?
Why not? It seems the most natural thing to do. Poetry is so musical anyway. Poets have been performing with all kinds of instruments (harps, drums etc...) for thousands of years. Plus it’s great fun. Also, it sets up an atmosphere and a rhythm for poems – and it gives me a chance to play my Electric Guitars poems with all kinds of riffs – from Deep Purple, The Beatles, Blur, the Pink Panther Theme, James Bond...to name but a few!
Do you like visiting schools?
You bet I do! I’m so lucky to do the job I do. I get to perform my own poems, play the guitar, I get to meet and work with wonderful children and teachers, get whole classes writing great stuff. What more could you ask for?
Do you do your own illustrations?
Oh gosh no. I can’t draw! Two of my collections – Cars Stars Electric Guitars and Hey, Little Bug! have been illustrated by the amazing Mique Moriuchi. She has the perfect tone and style to match the voice in many of my poems. She brings such magic to every page.
What poets do you enjoy?
John Hegley, Michael Rosen, John Agard and Roger McGough and ‘adult’ poets like Dylan Thomas, Billy Collins, Carol Ann Duffy and Mary Oliver.
What are your favourite children’s books?
There’s loads – including Don’t Put Mustard In The Custard by Michael Rosen, Ring of Words by Roger McGough, Monkey Do! by Allan Ahlberg, The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban, Skellig by David Almond, Igor – The Bird Who Couldn’t Sing by Satoshi Kitamura, Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.
Where and when do you write?
I write everywhere, but mostly on trains. This makes the drivers really cross. I tend to write in quiet times and in-betweeny times, like when waiting for the kettle to boil. Most of all, when my daydreamy self is in charge of my brain. Writing is not just about picking up a pen - it's about working on ideas, and often this is best done in your head - thinking words or lines through, or maybe spending time considering a title or a phrase or an ending. I often doing this when I'm out shopping or watching TV!
Why do you play guitar and write poems?
I'm mad about music and I'm mad about words. For me, the guitar is the most exciting instrument to play, and poems are the most fun you can have with words. And they've so much in common, see poems are words at their most musical, magical, playful, rhythmical.
It's what I love writing most of all, and I hope what I do best. I like the fact that in a poetry book I can put in daft poems, mad poems as well as very serious and thoughtful and quiet poems. Plus I love the fact poems come in all sorts of shapes and styles - of course rhyming stuff - but also lots of free verse and shape poetry, and poems can tell stories - real ones or invented, tell jokes or help you think about your life. As a guitarist I like dabbling in different styles from jangly pop to country to jazz, and that's what I do with poetry too. I dabble! If asked, I say I write playful stuff for 7-777 year olds that makes you think about things. But I also write little rhymes for little people aged 0-6.
JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF JAMES
IN 6 ACTUAL FACTS
IT'S A FACT As a boy, James was BONKERS about books (especially Tintins) - and still is. He was also GAGA about guitars (especially electrics) - and still is. Saturday mornings would begin with him strumming along on his tennis racket to his favourite radio show. Later on, he'd cycle down to the shop to buy two comics and then whizz back to read them on his bed. Nice!
IT'S A FACT James has been playing guitar - REAL ONES, NOT JUST TENNIS RACKETS - for over 35 years now. But he played biscuit tin drums in his first and short-lived band The Electric Spiders. Sadly, the band broke up after one morning when his best friend's mum wanted her drum sticks - well, knives and forks - back. Five years later, James' first school band, Villain, were booed off at their first concert during their very first song! Not nice!
IT'S A FACT James wrote his first poem when he was 17. All he remembers was that it was entitled 'One'. He wrote it for the school magazine, but they didn't like it and didn't include it! James didn't give up though, for ONLY 20 years later, he had his first poem ('Rules For School Trips') published. Very nice!
IT'S A FACT James loves school dinners custard - so long as it's yellow - and not pink. Pink custard? Yuk!
IT'S A FACT James used to be a trainspotter. But he's given it up. HONESTLY! No, really. Seriously. Nowadays he travels by train to schools all over the UK and abroad and does most of his writing on trains. This makes the drivers VERY cross. Ouch!
IT'S A FACT It takes him at least three months to write each poem. Some take years. Fussy or what? James writes poems because a) it gives him something to do with all his daydreaminess and b) he loves words, and always has, and he believes that poems are the best fun you can have with words. His favourite word? Rhythm. Funky!