John Foster

children's poet

A Poet's Secrets

John Foster reveals the secrets of how and why he writes his poems

How did it all begin?

When I started to make up poems for my own children, Ian and Simon, to stop them from getting bored on long car journeys. That was 40 years ago. And recently I've been doing the same for my two grandchildren, Evie and Louis.


Why do you write poetry?

I write poetry because I'm fascinated by words. I like playing with words, their sounds and their meanings. I like trying to write different forms of poetry too. Sometimes it's like trying to solve a difficult puzzle, for example, when you're writing a clerihew or a triolet.


Where do you write your poems?

I write my poems anywhere and everywhere – at home, on the train and on the beach. The strangest places I've written a poem are on the top of a snow-covered mountain in Italy and in the bath. I had to get out of the bath quickly and get the words down on paper before they disappeared!


Where do you get your ideas from?

Getting an idea for a poem isn't easy. They come in three different ways. Firstly, they come from my own experiences. I remember when I was left at home with my brother, while my mum was out shopping. We started to play football in the hall and we broke a vase that had been given to my mother by her grandmother. That gave me the idea for a poem called 'The Vase' in which two children are sitting at home dreading having to tell their mum how they broke a vase while she was out.

Secondly, you get your ideas from your observations – things you hear or see. I was in a school once and I saw a picture of a tropical rainforest that was being cut down in order to build a highway. Later that day I wrote a poem called 'Where is the Forest?' about the destruction of the rainforest.

And thirdly, your ideas come from your imagination. For example, in my poem 'Interview with a Dragon' I imagined the questions an interviewer might ask and the answers a dragon might give.

Whenever I get an idea, I scribble it down on a piece of paper that I keep in my jacket pocket, so that I won't forget it.


Do you write stories as well as poems?

I once wrote a book of short stories called 'My Friend Cheryl' about two 12 year old girls who were best friends and I put a story of mine in a book I edited called 'All For Love', which was a book of love stories for teenage girls! But while some of my poems are storypoems, it's over 30 myears since I've written a story.


How long does it take you to write a poem?

Obviously it depends on how long the poem is. But the best answer I can give is that for a poem that's about 16 lines long it probably takes an hour and a half to two hours. It takes on average about 45 minutes to do the first draft or sometimes longer if I get stuck! I'll then go back to the poem later that day, or perhaps even the next day, and do a second draft which takes another 45 minutes or so. I nearly always write the poems with a pencil or a biro and there are lots of crossings out and changes as I search for exactly the right words. When I think it's almost finished, I type a third draft up on the computer, and even at this stage I may alter one or two words.


Does anyone help you with your poems?

I always feel pleased when I've written a new poem, so I print it out and show it to my wife Chris. Then I wait anxiously to see how she reacts. Often she'll just say, 'That works really well.' But other times she'll say, it's a good idea, but I'm not sure about that particular line or that particular word. She may suggest alternatives or simply say, 'You need to try to find a different word or phrase.' She always spots the words that I've been struggling to get right and there are quite a few poems in which I've made changes as a result of what she's said.


Have you ever used a pseudonym?

My first poems were published under the pseudonym, Derek Stuart, because at that time I didn't want anyone to know I was writing my own poems, as well as collecting other people's poems in anthologies. And when I did a book of Really Rude Poems, I called myself Ivor Cheek.


You can find out more about John Foster at the Oxford University Press website