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A F Harold

A F Harrold. Photo (c) Jennifer Wicks

Outside Now 
By A F Harrold

Pigeons the size of dodos
are wading – wings wide,
chests as entirely ruffled
as all Elizabethan possibilities –
are paddling in the puddled pools
that lake across the flat roof
outside my window.

Two of them, one nearer,
one further, stop their bathing –
stand all prinked out
like startled puffer-fish –
and cock an eye each in my direction.

I step nearer the window,
smile at their swollen size,
invite them to stay, to carry on,
but not having the language
we misunderstand each other
and in a moment they pull on
their coats, do up their buttons,
look like pigeons everywhere
and waddle away.

© A F Harrold

Interview with A F Harrold

How old were you when you started writing poetry?

I took the conscious decision to make it a thing to be doing somewhere in the midst of being a teenager. I’m sure I would have written things before that, but nothing that has survived.

When and where was your first poem published?

I don’t remember, but I know at my VIth Form college I was one of the editors of the English department’s creative writing magazine (even though I never studied English there or later) and almost certainly slipped some terrible poems in amongst the terrible articles I also wrote. I spent that period, right up through university, collecting poems together in little self-made photocopied pamphlets and handing them out to uninterested parties. I was always a bit gung-ho about just getting on with it. Only later did I learn about sending poems out to magazines and getting them published there.

Your poetry collections have some eye-catching titles and your poetry is unique in its style – where do you find your inspiration?

The inspiration comes from the same place as everybody else’s inspiration: from being alive, living in a world filled with other people and by having a brain that works. There’s no secret.

Which of your poems is your favourite and why?

That’s an impossible question to answer. None of them are quite what I’d hope for. Some disappoint less than others. But which ones I like most is an unimportant question; the interesting question would be, which ones do you (the reader) like? 

What has been your greatest (poetry) success to date?

I don’t think I’ve had any poetry successes, not in the sense I think the question means. In my youth I won some fairly large poetry slams, which were useful indicators that maybe I should stick with this job, and finding someone else willing to take a punt on publishing some of my work was a similarly encouraging sign. A poetry success is any poem that I write that seems to end up close to what I imagined it might be when I began it – but that’s purely private. The only real and important success I can think of is the fact that I do this for a living, that I can write and read poems and perform auxiliary acts (run workshops, compere events and so on) and make a living out of it. It’s a very modest living, but it shows what one can do by just getting on with things.

Do you have a special place you write?

On my laptop, at my desk.

Who is your favourite poet and why?

Poets I like a lot include – taking a random dozen off the top of my head – Norman MacCaig, Brian Patten, Billy Collins, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Donne, Philip Larkin, Alan Buckley, Douglas Dunn, Elizabeth Jennings, Catherine Smith, James Fenton and Jane Williams.

Is it difficult to judge other people’s poetry?

It’s not difficult to tell a good piece of writing from a bad piece. It becomes difficult trying to tell a good piece of writing from a really good piece of writing. All judgments of this kind are subjective – not only is the quality of writing important, but also the resonance and importance of the subject matter. What appeals to one judge because the subject strikes a chord, might not resonate with the next judge because life has been different to him or her. Because there is no objective calibration, and there are a number of factors to take into consideration, these judgments are always tricky and to a certain degree arbitrary – by which I mean faced with a dozen potentially prize-worthy poems and only one prize, someone has to win and someone be runner-up. If the wind blows in a different direction you’ll get a different winner.

What was it about Andrew Barber’s and Cleo Henry’s poems that won them the Poetry Rivals competition?

Fortunately I didn’t make those decisions. I was only involved with the judging along the way, with no responsibility for final decision. What I can say though is that when I heard and read these poems, I agreed with the other judges that both they definitely deserved to be in that final handful of really high-quality pieces that could be thought of as a shortlist. The youth competition (that Cleo won) had a very high quality, I was astonished by the quality and variety and confidence of many of those poems, and Cleo’s poem was right there in the middle of that brilliance – it was dark, moody, accomplished. I liked it. Andrew’s poem was an enjoyably satiric condemnation of Mammon, skilfully wrought and bitingly told.

If schools would like to book you for a poetry workshop, how do they get in touch?

They can drop me an e-mail at schools@afharrold.co.uk.

Can you tell us more about the Poets’ Café and Bohemian Night? What does the ‘A F’ stand for in your name?

Poets’ Café is a monthly night I run and host at South Street Arts Centre in Reading. We have a guest poet and an open mic each month. It’s been running for more than a dozen years and is a warm and welcoming place to come and try out a poem or simply sit back listen to some off the best poets around share theirs with you. Bohemian Night is an open mic music night I compere each week in Bar Déjà Vu, also in Reading. That’s been going for over a decade too. The A and the F stand for Ashley and Francis respectively.

A review of one of your performances refers to you as ‘an eccentric Englishman’ – do you agree?!

The hat fits.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of taking part in a poetry slam for the first time?

Rehearse beforehand. Time your poem and make sure it’s going to fit in the time limit (usually three minutes). Enjoy yourself.

For those out there who think poetry is boring and old-fashioned, (and will be unlikely to read this question, but it’s a possibility thanks to my web optimisation!) how would you convince them otherwise?

I wouldn’t. If there are other things that interest them and make them happy, then great. If they want to pick up a book or visit a poetry reading, then that’s fine too. But I’m not interested in convincing people.

Do you have any poetry ambitions left to fulfil?

No ambitions. I’ll just keep on getting on with things. I’ll do it as long as I enjoy it, and take each job as it turns up. The great thing about this job is I never quite know where I’m going to be next – last year it took me to Australia, this year it took me to Peterborough... Who needs ambitions when you have surprises?

What is the greatest accolade you have received for your poetry?

The fact that sometimes people pay money to hear it or to read it. That says a lot – either people like it, or they’re very kind, and either way I’m happy with that.

Do you have any projects in the pipeline you’d like to tell us about?

My next book is due out in the summer, which is a novel called The Education of Epitome Quirkstandard. Technically it’s probably a comic novel, though I dislike that label (especially since I keep cutting jokes out), but it spreads outside its genre (as most books do) into tragedy and history too. It has a picture of a dog on the front cover. I don’t like dogs but there’s one in the book, and I think my designer has done me proud because it’s going to look beautiful. So, I’m keeping an eye on that as it heads towards the presses. Other than that there are various bits of writing in various stages of incompletion, slow work on another collection of poetry for kids, more novels and so on. But really it’s the same as ever – just getting on with stuff.

Drop me a line at info@afharrold.co.uk saying ‘count me in’ to be added to my newsletter list or join my group at Facebook and you’ll be kept up to date with gigs and books and the like. Or visitwww.afharrold.co.uk to see what’s what.

Or www.myspace.com/afharrold to hear some poems and songs and that sort of thing.


A F Harrold is a multiple slam winner and top UK performance poet, regularly appearing at poetry clubs around the UK and on various radio shows. He’s also a respected published poet with several collections to his name.

Just Say No
By A F Harrold

They offered him a cream cracker
said it wouldn’t do no harm
but we found him six months later
with crumbs all down his arm.

A week after he had that cracker
he tried a custard cream
said he’d only have the one
but soon he began to dream

of bourbons and pink wafers
and there beside his bed
soon sat a biscuit barrel from which
his waking dreams were fed.

Sometimes he’d do two at once,
a ginger nut and a rich tea
and we knew he had a problem
when one day he gobbled three.

He said we just were being silly,
he said he could stop at any time
and besides he didn’t believe biscuits
were immoral or a crime.

But the proof, we said, was in the pudding
and he never seemed to stop
and soon it wasn’t just digestives
that he brought back from the shop.

For as certain as water rains on you
and as sure as enough’s enough
cream crackers will lead to bourbons
which will then lead to harder stuff.

We hadn’t seen him for a while
and fearing he’d done something rash
we crept into his house one night
to confiscate his stash.

We broke down the back door,
it wasn’t locked, just badly hung,
and we found him in the front room
where he was laid among

the metallic looking wrappers
and the moulded plastic trays
of decadent indulgences,
a designer choc chip craze.

I don’t know where he got the money
to satisfy his habit
because some of those posh biscuits
cost over a quid a packet.

When the ambulance arrived
he was already three days dead;
overdosed on fig rolls
was what the doctors said.

So, now children tell your parents
and parents you tell yours
of the consequences following
from that initial crackered cause.

It’s an easy road to fall down,
it’s a tempting slope to follow,
but remember those who fell before you
when you feel inclined to swallow.

© A F Harrold