If you’re wondering why Tony Mitton’s name is so familiar, think back to your English classes at school or time spent in the reading corner as a young child. Perhaps you even saw him perform in person. An award-winning and celebrated poet, with his debut novel due out in the autumn, Tony frequently pays visits to schools and festivals to inspire young minds. His work range from poetry anthologies such as ‘Plum’ to the 2000 Smarties Book Prize winner ‘The Red and White Spotted Handkerchief’, and spans from picture books to his new novel ‘Potter’s Boy’. Born in North Africa, he came to England at the age of nine and went on to read English Literature at Cambridge University under the tutelage of poet J.H.Prynne. Formerly a teacher, Tony has been a full-time writer for many years. Following the loveliest email chain which shines with his sincerity and genuine passion for the poetic, Tony answers my questions about changes to children’s literature, whether we should control what kids read, and the art of reading and writing generally.
What does poetry mean to you?
This tends to be a personal matter. One thing I continue to feel is that every poet gradually evolves their own sense of what poetry, for them, should be about, what shape it should take and what purposes it should serve. My personal answer to the question is that poetry is a way of exploring and expressing oneself and the world through language. I think of poetry as a kind of dance of the mind-and-heart combined, a kind of seriously playful thinking-and-feeling through language.
Has university impacted your writing, and you in general?
Well, I’m 66 now, so University seems a long time ago. I can’t deny it was influential. I won’t say formative, as these days I perceive myself as having been ‘fluid’ across my lifetime. I’ve found that an open, receptive, approach to life has resulted in me becoming and re-becoming at successive stages of my life. I don’t mean anything weird or mystical by that. I simply mean that I think the idea of formative early influences ‘fixing’ one for life has been over exaggerated and that recent neurological research bears out the idea that we are neither the prisoners of our genes nor of ‘formative’ experiences.
There were a lot of negatives in my university experience which were probably necessary for me to undergo but which I am happy to have left behind. As for writing, I think my writing has continued to change as I have, going down many dead ends but occasionally coming up with something satisfactory and worth sharing.
What do you do if you have “reader’s block”, and lulls with reading?
I read less or stop reading and do other things. Go for a walk, buy tonight’s supper, meditate, do yoga or pilates, go to an Art Show, watch some drama on telly etc. At 66, I don’t have to worry about ‘whether I’m reading enough’, or ‘whether what I’m reading is worthy’, or some such notion. The great thing about leaving University behind and sailing off across the sea of life is that you can stop feeling beholden to culture. You can take the attitude that it’s there for you, not you for it. Just as my own writing swings between the deeply serious and the playfully silly, my reading does the same.
Did you find you had time for writing at university? Did you join any writing societies or share your work with friends?
I was very unsure of myself in respect of writing as an undergraduate. In my first year I wrote a lot of experimental poetry, none of which I kept and very little of which I showed to anyone. I went to student literary gatherings and in my very early days dared to read stuff during open platform sessions. But I didn’t really know what I was doing and my writing was in many ways formed from received notions of what poetry should be. I spent half a lifetime subsequently as an intending, attempting poet before I stumbled on kinds of writing that other people wanted to read and were prepared to pay for. I was in my 40s by then and didn’t get to write full-time freelance until I was turning 50.
What did you do with your first pay check from writing?
I used my first writer earnings to buy an electronic typewriter. In those days I literally cut-and-pasted when working on texts, using scissors and glue!
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author, and what has been the best compliment?
The best compliment was hearing from the mother of a twelve year old girl that her daughter’s favourite poem was one of mine (Plum, as it happened, the title poem of my first collection). She said her daughter had written it out in her best handwriting and stuck it up on the wall above her bed. Apparently she would sometimes recite it to her mother at breakfast time. The thought that a piece of work of mine had so featured in another person’s consciousness…felt to me very moving and an achievement as significant, if not more so, as winning a literary prize. On another occasion a young woman told me that she had chosen a poem of mine to be read out at her wedding (the final poem, ‘Days’, in Come Into This Poem). Again, I felt privileged and honoured to have had something of mine singled out for such a purpose.
The most damning thing was an online critic blogging to say that they thought that my book ‘The Red and White Spotted Handkerchief’, a long narrative poetry work for children, should be burned… Well, it’s a response! It won a Smarties Silver Medal, back when a Smarties prize was one of the top prizes in children’s literature, which goes to show how when your work goes public it will get all kinds of response. Sometimes critics just don’t ‘get’ what you’re doing. And sometimes they do and they just don’t like it!
Are there trends you’ve noticed in children’s fiction recently? If there are any in particular, what do you think of them?
These days I’m getting out of touch with children’s fiction. Since the 60s I think English Language children’s fiction has had an incredibly strong tradition, from Philippa Pearce (Tom’s Midnight Garden) onwards. And of course she’s preceded by stalwart writers such as C S Lewis and E E Nesbit.
I think there are two clear strands in children’s fiction since the 60s. One characterised by Roald Dahl: the playful, fantastical, comic style echoed most recently by David Walliams. The other characterised by writers who come across as potential adult novelists who’ve chosen to write for children or younger readers…hence creating what is sometimes referred to as ‘crossover’ fiction. A case in point would be Philip Pullman, whose work is read by older children, teenagers and adults. Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night’ was published simultaneously as an adult and as a younger reader’s novel. There’s some very fine writing in both of those strands, which continues, I think.
I remember being mesmerised by ‘Forbidden’ from Plum when I was little, because it celebrated the prohibited at a time in my life when adults were always telling me there was literature I shouldn’t read. How far do you think efforts should be made for adults to protect children from what they read?
This brings up big issues, doesn’t it? These days, by comparison with content and imagery accessible through devices, the idea of literature as potentially damaging to people, including children, seems pale or mild. I used to be against the idea of censorship of any kind in the arts, since it was usually characterised by autocratic and moralising attitude. Now that we have the internet and most very young people have extensive access to it via their devices I’m not so sure. As a parent I feel lucky that my children were adults before the worst excesses of social media (trolling, sexting etc) were rife as they now seem to be.
When I wrote ‘Forbidden Poem’ I was mostly thinking about the way in which to forbid something from a position of authority can make it seem desirable, give it a kind of glamour and a sense of enticement. And that children with their natural curiosity will often seek access to what is withheld from them by virtue of their age. When I was young an X certificate on a film exercised a kind of lure if you were under 16. I think that children now are in far more jeopardy from forms other than literature. But where disturbing combinations of cruelty, violence and sex are involved then of course I feel adults should be cautious of what children might access through literature.
When I was younger, I was always nervous about the fact inanimate objects could potentially be alive (Toy Story didn’t help!) – did you intend a kind of menace behind the poem ‘Plum’?
No, I didn’t. ‘Plum’ is a very mindful and philosophic poem in its intentions. It encourages an acceptance of transience, of the ephemeral nature of all being, while also offering the consolation of continual regeneration in Nature. Everything dies or is consumed so that new life can come about. Death, decay, resurgence, life… and all that. It’s a very western attitude that reads menace into such things. I’m sorry if, as a child, you took it that way. There’s a certain attitude in Buddhism which thinks of everything, in a most unsinister way, as being alive. Once you get the point of that it seems simply obvious.
On your website, it mentions you write poetry outside of your work for children – what sort of poems do you write?
You can read a selection of these for nothing on my open website at www.tonymittonpoet.co.uk The poems and prose on there will make sense of the way that in my interview answers here I probably come across as more serious than the person behind my better-known children’s writing. There’s no contradiction, of course. It’s all me. It’s just that if we become known out there in the world, particularly these days, then we tend to be given just one dimension in terms of our profile. We are thought of in terms of quite a narrow range of our attributes. So things which appear to contradict that are made to seem anomalous. As they say in Zen, in the end, there are ‘no contradictions’.
If you think about the fact you will perform poems when you write them, do you do anything to make them more ‘performable’? Do you have any tricks to hold children’s attention?
No. The thing is, I never thought of myself as a Performance Poet. I always maintained I was, at the most, a Performing Poet. Big difference. A Performance Poet writes poems as scripts, I would guess… [while] a Performing Poet is a poet who happens to take the trouble to make their work come alive, orally, via public reading or recitation. I’ve always thought of myself as, in the first instance, a writer rather than a performer. There’s a bit of me that doesn’t really like performing, believe it or not. I know I can come across during a good performance as enjoying myself. And when it goes well it is a lovely experience. But anything I do to help a poem come across live is something secondary to the poem itself. I’ve rarely, if ever, written with performance in mind.
What are you working on at the moment, and what can you say about upcoming publications?
There’s a follow up for my verse picture book ‘Snow Bear’ with Bloomsbury, with the same illustrator (Alison Brown): ‘Snow Penguin’.
But mainly, and a first, is my forthcoming first novel, ‘Potter’s Boy’ due this Autumn from David Fickling Books. Probably perceived in publisher terms as a ‘crossover’ title, though to me it was simply the novel I wanted to write in the way it needed to be written, so not, by me, targeted in any sense to any notional readership. A serious book which for me drew together a lifetime’s interest in Buddhism, Mindfulness, Zen and the arts of China and Japan. It’s also a good yarn, though…
What are you reading right now, and how are you finding it?
I’ve just finished reading a prose work by Norman Fischer (a contemporary American poet and Zen priest). It’s called ‘Training in Compassion’ and is a commentary on a classic Tibetan Buddhist training manual. Sounds a real page-turner, doesn’t it? BUT I tell you … (and no, I’m not kidding) for me it was one of those rare, remarkable reads which really speaks deeply to you, or to me, at least. Full of the best kind of writing. On the surface, simple, clear, lucid. But reaching deep parts. The best writing feels like a real gift from the writer, like a wonderful present.
Is there anything else you want to mention or recommend?
Yes. My wife, Elizabeth McKellar, wrote a wonderful novel called ‘Tourist in Bohemia’. It’s not a children’s book nor is it a travel guide. It’s an adult novel and quite racy! You can find out more about it here: http://www.tourist-in-bohemia.org.uk