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Cameron Self

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Where did the idea for Poets' Graves come from?

In 1994 I spent a holiday in the south of England and visited Hardy's grave at Stinsford and Eliot's grave at East Coker and it occurred to me that 'Poets' Graves' would make a good book. ( I had previously been to Drumcliff in Ireland and to Grasmere in the Lake District.) When I got home I wrote to about 15 publishers - but when 15 rejection letters came back I filed my notes and forgot about it. By 2003, however, I was starting to play around with websites and then suddenly remembered PG.

Is it true that the BBC were interested?

Yes, in 1994 the veteran BBC producer Edward Mirzoeff phoned me up and was considering it as a vehicle for Lucinda Lambton. He thought the title was a bit gloomy though. So I said, 'Change the title!' However, in the end, nothing happened.

Did you suspect that PG would become as popular as it did?

Not really no. By 2003 I understood how search engines worked and I knew that there would be a certain number of people 'out there' searching for information on poetry. However, when I was writing it, the hit rate rose very rapidly and after only 6 months I was up to about 1000 unique visitors a day. It was the glossary of poetic terms that really seemed to hit the spot. Today it averages 2000 unique visitors a day.

When did you add the poetry forum?

The poetry forum was added in 2004. I had previously taught creative writing so I knew that poetry could be improved by constructive feedback from other poets. At that time, most of the forums on the internet were (and probably still are) either teen angst dross or cheesy, greeting card dross. From the start I wanted PG to be a serious critical place and so I set about critiquing a lot of the poor quality stuff that was being posted. This started to pay off as serious poets started to sign in. One of the first of these was 'camus' from Grimsby who was (and still is) an original and talented poet. Others soon followed and an atmosphere of constructive criticism was established. To be honest, I hardly ever look at the forum these days - but it's still going strong - thanks mainly to our excellent team of moderators.

So when did Literary Norfolk come along?

Lit Norfolk actually surfaced in 2007. Originally I pitched it at Norfolk County Council as an idea for a leaflet-based literary tour. As normal nothing happened - so I launched it as a website instead. Working on PG had made me acutely aware of literary landmarks and had also focused my attention on local poets. In fact, in 2003 the first grave I visited was William Cowper's at St. Nicholas' Church, East Dereham. I was also influenced by two splendid books: East Anglia - A Literary Pilgrimage by Peter Tolhurst and Literary Norfolk by Julian Earwaker and Kathleen Becker - both of which are now sadly out of print.

What advantages does a website have over a book?

Well there are advantages and disadvantages to websites. On the plus side websites are as easily accessible in Australia as they are in Dumpling Green and, barring server problems, are viewable 24/7. Surprisingly, they also have greater longevity than local books which tend to go out of print after a couple of years. Also, without wishing to sound like a control freak, they allow me complete hegemony. I write the content, take all of the photographs and make all the decisions. The main disadvantage is that no one pays you any money but, as a poet, I'm used to that. Actually I do make a few quid selling books via Amazon.

Talking of photographs, what camera do you use?

Originally I used a Fujifilm 'point-and-shoot' but now I use a Nikon D40. In fact, photography has recently become a bit of an obsession with me. Travelling round the Norfolk lanes and the Norfolk churches is really as good as it gets. Recently, I've even set up a Flickr site to showcase some of the best photographs.

You obviously love Norfolk? Where is you favourite part?

I was actually born in Cambridge but my family moved to Poringland in 1964 when I was 2 years old. With the exception of a few years at University, I've been here ever since. I suppose I love the fact that Norfolk isn't on the road to anywhere and is also essentially unforthcoming. I'm not sure what my therapist would make of these projections though.

My favourite place would probably be the Tas valley as it's where I spent much of my childhood: cycling or fishing for dace. And, at the heart of the  Tas valley for me, is Shotesham Mill where we used to swim in the old mill pool under the giant horse chestnut tree.

I notice that the site is supported by Norfolk Tourism?

Yes, they kindly agreed to cover the web hosting and domain name costs for me. I think they see the site as contributing in some way to 'cultural tourism' in the county. It arose from my original approach to them. Although I have to confess that I'm not entirely comfortable with anything that markets the county too forcefully. I suppose I'm probably part of the 'drawbridge' Norfolk brigade at heart.

I understand that humour is very important to you? And in particular Norfolk humour.

Yes, absolutely. Many people look at my websites and assume that I must be some dreadfully earnest guy who spends his life poking through graveyards and second-hand bookshops. (Not that there's anything wrong with that you understand.)  But, actually, I came very close to making it as a sitcom writer. Long before I was gripped by Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, I was in love with the Pink Panther films, Monty Python and The Goodies.

Norfolk has a great humorous tradition you know. My parents inherited a copy of 'The Boy John Letters' from an old lady who lived next to us in Poringland - and the book somehow found its way into my possession. Grapes' work has certainly influenced my own poetry and also some of my (un-produced) plays. I also remember seeing The Kipper Family at the Arts Centre in the 1980s - which was another important moment for me. The Nimmo Twins are pretty damn good too.

Are there any plans for 'Literary Suffolk'?

Probably not. I reckon there's another couple of years left in 'Literary Norfolk' yet. And when that's finished I might go back to 'Poets' Graves'. Suffolk is full of interesting literary locations but it's 20 miles further away and I'm keen not to pollute the environment while searching for literary landmarks.





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