By Anna Cathenka
“Poetry is always beyond definition, it is bigger than anybody ever realised and as long as we keep that sense of scale and cosmic piety about it, we won’t lose its deep magic,” says Philip Wells. His passion for poetry is fiery and contagious – and explains his moniker, The Fire Poet. Wells’ new book, Horse Whispering In The Military Industrial Complex is about using poetry as “a channel through which to speak the truth,” he explains as we discuss his poetry and activism ahead of his appearance at the North Cornwall Book Festival.
“I have fond memories of Cornwall from childhood holidays, but walking 270 miles barefoot along the coastal path made it very special,” he says. Wells is one of the founders of Barefoot Billion, the project for which he walked 1000 miles barefoot in order to raise awareness of the 1 billion children living in poverty. The walk started in Cornwall: it raised £23,000, as well as getting children in 80 different countries writing poetry.
The walk also “awakened the conscience of the world” in Wells. It allowed him to discover “the absolute kernel of what matters: a connection, a golden thread that runs through us all, asking us to change the world and stop all this ridiculous inequality. Now is the time to act, I will use poetry to do that.”
His visit to the North Cornwall Book Festival is an exciting prospect for the poet given the influence of John Betjeman on the Barefoot Billion project. “Myself and the education officer who started the project met at the statue of Betjeman in St Pancras station,” he explains. “For me he’s the perfect example of a poetry activist. It’s extraordinary how he created the energy and the interest to save St Pancras station.”
Wells is also looking forward to working with poetry therapist Victoria Field at the event. Philip works at The Children’s Trust with severely disabled children using interactive poetry, based on principles of music therapy, to “co-create an improvised language that opens up a new healing conversation.” Working with the children has been inspiring, he says. “Their listening is extremely acute and as a result they teach me what works in poetry. This makes it much more alive, much more spontaneous, much more daring.” This experience has helped Wells to rediscover the original musicality that he feels has been lost in much modern poetry.
His work with children at The Children’s Trust and on the Barefoot Billion project is continued in his children’s book The Alien Guide From Inner Space which he describes as “a romp through inner space and the imagination, with the message of planet-saving at its core.”
He is also working with a street photographer to create a new book about public performance poetry, inspired by the bardic tradition that he felt connected to during his barefoot walk. Philip describes his public performances as freeing: causing shock, wonder and puzzlement in his unsuspecting audience. “People don’t know what’s hit them!”
I finish my conversation by asking Wells if he has any advice for me as a student starting out on her poetry career. He immediately replies: “Be utterly yourself and listen beyond listening.” He admits that there is always a temptation to win prizes and go for the money, but reminds me that when it comes to the Romantic poets, “nobody reads [poet laureate] Robert Southey. Shelley and Keats wrote from the heart, they wrote like lightning, and that’s the only way to be a real poet.”