Cliff Yates

Cliff Yates was born in Birmingham. He left school at sixteen and did a variety of jobs
before returning to full-time education. He won both the Aldeburgh First Collection
prize and the Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition with Henry’s Clock
(Smith/Doorstop, 1999) and received an Arts Council England Writer’s Award for
Frank Freeman’s Dancing School (Salt, 2009; KFS, 2015). His Selected Poems
ebook is published by Smith/Doorstop. Pamphlets include 14 Ways of Listening to
the Archers, Emergency Rations and Bike, Rain. A former English teacher whose
students were renowned for winning poetry competitions, he wrote Jumpstart Poetry
in the Secondary School (Poetry Society, 1999) during his time as Poetry Society
poet-in-residence. Formerly Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Aston University, he is a tutor for the Arvon Foundation. 






'Cliff Yates is one of my favourite poets, writing in an idiom I’d like to call ‘Skelmersdale Mystic/Domestic’ if he was in a band that band would produce hit singles that would linger in your head for years and if he was a greengrocer his vegetables would always be startling shapes. There’s childhood here, and love, and a way of seeing the world with the wrappers off that is, ultimately, Yatesian' — Ian McMillan

'Cliff Yates is an absolutely remarkable workshop leader and teacher of poetry whose own pupils have consistently won prizes in poetry competitions for young people. He is one of the best in the country working as a writer in schools. Highly experienced as a teacher, he can inspire staff as well as pupils through workshops which get to the heart of what writing is all about' — Chris Meade

'The work that Cliff Yates has done for poetry with children, and for children with poetry, is exceptional and heartening. He is at once expert and inspiring – always proving how necessary it is to recognise that ‘creating’ is a vital part of ‘educating’'  Andrew Motion

Cliff reading for Poets & Players


Life Studies

I meet Tom for soup & sandwiches at Euston,
it still looks good, his twenty quid haircut, then I take
the Hammersmith & City to Goldhawk Road.
Someone said the best moments are moments
of realisation. On the bumping underground
I read Life Studies for the first time
since the seventies in my old Faber Selected (45p)
signed and dated with my younger signature.

O’Hara wasn’t keen on Lowell and I love O’Hara
but there’s something in Lowell that I recognise.
I recognise these underground stations
their names though I’ve never been here before.
That song by Gerry Rafferty with the unforgettable sax…
I sit next to a girl who smells like a bag
of crisps or maybe I can just smell crisps.

It’s not a girl I realise, it’s a boy
with dreadlocks eating a pear at Paddington
in a pink and white scarf, camel-coloured coat,  
pin-striped trousers, red and black boots…
‘Baker Street’.

 - from Jam


i) How did you start writing?

I wrote my first ‘real’ poem in a workshop led by Pete Morgan on a poetry course for
English teachers in Anglesey, some time in the 1980s. I went home and started
writing every evening after work, when the children were in bed. Ian McMillan
encouraged me to send poems out to magazines, and the impact of publications that
Ian recommended, such as The Wide Skirt, The Echo Room, Harry’s Hand, Iron, The
North and Joe Soap’s Canoe was hugely important for a variety of reasons - the way
some of the writers in those magazines wrote about working class experience was
important to me at that time; also the presence of and influence of American poetry
on the magazines, particularly the first and second generation New York Poets, who I
hadn’t encountered before. Huddersfield was a hotbed of poetry activity  at that time,
and I would spend more time there doing poetry-type things than in the North West
where we were living. Frank O’Hara, had a massive impact when I read him soon
after I started writing, also Tom Raworth and Roy Fisher. At university, I had read a
lot of American poetry, and I’m sure that was important when I started out: Hart
Crane for example, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. It’s not influence
as such, that I’m talking about here, and not that I wanted to write like the writers I’ve
mentioned, but they helped give me the confidence to find my own direction.

I was born in Birmingham and grew up in Birmingham and Kidderminster. My dad
was a carpenter and joiner. My mother had been the first woman toolmaker in her
factory during the war: they would come down from the offices to watch her because
they couldn’t believe a woman could do such a skilled job. I messed up my eleven
plus and went to a Secondary Modern School where I was bored, disaffected and
disruptive: ‘the clown of the class,’ according to my PE report. I left school at sixteen
and did a variety jobs before returning to full-time education at Kidderminster
College. I went on to obtain degrees from Swansea University (English & American
Studies) and Warwick (English MA) and, much later, I completed a PhD in Poetry &
Poetics at Edge Hill. I was the first member of my family to get into university, which
was a big deal in those days.

iii) Which are your favourite poets and poems?

Coleridge’s conversation poems (esp. ‘Frost at Midnight’). Frank O’Hara (esp. ‘The
Day Lady Died’ and ‘Why I am not a Painter’,) Tom Raworth (early work) Roy Fisher
(everything he’s written, though ‘Of the Empirical Self and for Me’ is one of my
favourite poems of all time), Lee Harwood, Barbara Guest, Katia Kapovich... (the list
is growing and I’m always looking out for new contenders)

iv) Where do you mostly write? What do you do instead of writing?

I write anywhere. I started writing when I had no time to write, teaching full-time with
a young family, so I’m used to finding time when there isn’t any, and writing without a
set routine. Apart from the writing, I work as tutor for educational organisations such as the Arvon Foundation.

The Collection: Jam

Jam is the distillation of six years of writing. When it’s time for a book, I look at all the
poems I’ve written since the last collection which I’m happy with, and take it from
there. Some poems might not make it even if they’re strong, because they crowd out
some of the others, or take up space better left empty. And what I find, putting the
book together, is that the poems talk to each other in ways I hadn’t anticipated, so it’s
a bit like finding you’ve been working on the one long work, without realising. At the
same time, there’s a certain amount of tension betweeen the poems, because I’m
restless: my ideal would be to write a poem completely unlike anything I’ve written
before. Like Picasso said: ‘If you know exactly what you’re going to do, what is the
point of doing it?’ Exactly. So in all three of my collections, including Jam, there’s a
certain amount of ‘push and pull’ (to borrow a phrase), whereby poems move in
different directions, as if they could be part of a different type of book. The title is
always important, the title of a poem and of a collection. Sometimes the title comes
early on and sometimes it arrives when the book is more-or-less done; I always
wanted to call a book Frank Freeman’s Dancing School, for instance, and Jam just
had to be called Jam.

Titles by this author

  Henry's Clock
Henry's Clock


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