■ The Poet Laureate, 57, on his band, LYR, his early experience on stage and making the move from probation officer to verse-maker
What’s your new band, LYR, all about?
We’ve been on a slow burn making tracks for five years. We got more interested in it and we were taken up by a label so it’s now grown into something with purpose.
What can people expect from the album? A combination of music and spoken word?
It’s a hybrid. I’m not sure if there’s a template for this work. It’s spoken word but also Richard [Walters] sings — a lot of it might be described as ambient but I don’t know what genre we’d fit into.
What was the first album you bought?
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust from Ashton-under-Lyne market. The first gig I went to was The Skids at Huddersfield Poly, during the punk era. So it was all pogoing and spitting — a messy affair.
What are your other musical influences?
I started listening to music just before the end of punk. I listened to punk, post-punk, new wave, then I went through the ska, mod and new romantic period. I also liked The Smiths and The Fall and I’ve always liked electronic and ambient music. Now I’m listening to things from the 1960s and 70s and classical piano music so it’s difficult to define.
Have you been in any other bands in the past?
I was in a band at school called Tess And The Durbs. We were all reading Tess Of The d’Urbervilles at the time and thought it was a cool name. We performed in a school show. I found a photograph the other day and we didn’t have guitars — we were posing with cardboard guitars and making the noises with our mouths. There was a big fantasy element about being in a band. More recently I was in a DIY band, The Scaremongers. We released an album and paid for everything out of our own pocket. I was the singer and wrote most of the lyrics. I was never particularly comfortable on stage. I perform a lot giving readings but it’s just me — it’s a one-man show. I can control everything. Whereas in a band I didn’t feel in control of anything. This is a more comfortable fit with LYR.
Is poetry still regarded as elitist and inaccessible?
Not by me. It’s never been a front-line art form but that’s one of its attractions. It’s a refuge for some people who don’t want to engage in more mainstream activities but it’s certainly a lot more popular than when I started writing. The definition of what poetry is has really expanded over the past 20 years to include aspects of performance that shade into music or theatre. It has more hybrid tendencies these days.
What are the highs and lows of being poet laureate?
It’s an opportunity to promote the art that I’ve been passionately involved with for 30 years. It’s a chance to encourage other people towards that art form. I see it as a celebratory role. There aren’t lows with it. I’ve been doing it for just over a year and lockdown has brought some of the projects I was planning to a halt. I was supposed to be doing a library tour. We’ve been developing the idea for a national poetry centre in Leeds but some of that planning has been slowed down.
What does the job entail?
There are no official duties or obligations. One of the tasks is to award the Queen’s Gold Medal For Poetry every year, which went to Lorna Goodison this year. But other than that it’s a role that can be interpreted however the post-holder chooses. I’ve written a variety of poems as laureate for a range of organisations.
Do you ever miss being a probation officer?
I don’t think I do. I can barely remember it. I was a probation officer in Greater Manchester for eight years. It was quite troubling work. Some of it filtered through into the poems. Maybe the poems were a way of dealing with it. I don’t think I was great at being a probation officer. I did my best and I’m glad I worked in that field for a while.
How did you go from being a probation officer to a poet?
I finished in the mid-90s. At that point I’d published two books and was about to publish a third. I was developing a career as a poet and there were more and more work opportunities coming from that direction. I went part-time as a probation officer and did a job share but then I took a risk and jumped. They said they’d keep my job open for a year. That turned out to be really useful. It meant I had a safety net if I needed to go back but I didn’t.
Will lockdown change society or does everyone want to forget about it?
I’d like to think it can bring about change — that we could be more co-operative, considerate and contemplative. There have been some side effects that have benefitted the environment and I hope we can convert those things into future policies. Industries are already revving up, people are desperate to get out and pick up with their old lives. I’d like to think we’ve learned something.
■ LYR’s new album, Call In The Crash Team, is out now