Poetry: “2020 was my annus Mirabilis!

James Leader, pictured, won the Luxembourg national prize for literature in 2016 and second place in the 2012 contest LaLa La Photo

James Leader, pictured, won the Luxembourg national prize for literature in 2016 and second place in the 2012 contest LaLa La Photo

Poet and teacher James Leader talks about how lockdown unlocked a hugely creative period of his life and the joys of publishing late in life.

Some made sour dough, others indulged in green fingered activities. For poet and teacher James Leader, lockdown in Luxembourg was a fertile time for poetry.

“It was my annus Mirabilis [amazing year]. I wrote 30 poems which is like 30 years’ output in three months!” he remembers wistfully. The latest works join a back catalogue spanning 32 years, “written before computers were invented, on a typewriter. I’ve taken them around the world.”

Besides being published in anthologies and winning scores of prizes including his most-recent, the 2020 Moth Poetry Prize, Leader has not published a single collection. “It’s been an absolute blessing because I’ve heard of people who were published early and regret it because they’ve written something they would do differently, they’ve changed their opinions or what they wrote is no longer politically or culturally acceptable.”

After 30 years’ of tinkering and tweaking his works, he has enough to fill two poetry collections, so what is holding him back? “I’m hoping someone will say ‘would you like us to publish your poetry?’ I get grief from my wife about how bad I am at self-promotion,” the father-of-two jokes.

Fame was never Leader’s motivation when he began writing poetry at the age of 16. “It was a way to deal with the horrors of living in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. Depression, being a teenager and all that stuff,” he jokes. “I really loved it as a very private form of talking to myself about things.”

He says that back then, writing poetry was almost shameful, “particularly for a young male.” But he continued and found affirmation when he enrolled at Oxford University and won the Newdigate Prize.

Leader seems regretful he did not make more of the opportunities to network with other poets. He blames shyness but today he is far from being a tortured reclusive writer. At the monthly poetry meetups Leader has been hosting for adults over the last two years he talks animatedly about the poets and their works, particularly his favourite, Elizabeth Bishop.

These meetings, which were paused during lockdown, restart again in September, something Leader is clearly excited about. “Whenever you read a poem with a group of people there’s an amazing synergizing that happens. You may have read the poem 50 times but with a group you see things you’ve never seen before. It’s amazing!”

In recent years Leader’s writing has been getting more attention in Luxembourg. He won the Luxembourg national prize for literature in 2016 for his novel, “The Venus Zone”, and second place in the 2012 prize for his short story collection “Rendition”. And this year he was selected to represent Luxembourg in the “Printemps des Poètes” (Poets’ Spring) event, which has been scaled back and rescheduled for 25-27 September.

“I will be the first poet to represent Luxembourg in English. It’s nice to see English getting a little more recognised,” he says.

Another fixture that was postponed is the Dubai World Expo where, the Luxembourg contribution features two of Leader’s poems alongside two from Anna Leader, his daughter.

Leader, who previously taught in Abu Dhabi and loves to travel, says he has no plans to attend the Expo. In any case, the networking “is just now starting to happen” in Luxembourg, where he is busy with a new school year and 2020 is far from over.

Hear James Leader speak at the Printemps des Poètes on Saturday 26 September at Neimënster at 7pm, and on Sunday 27 September at Galerie Simoncini at 11am. For information on future poetry meetups, visit the Facebook group Lux Writers Who Talk. Read more about James Leader here. 

You can also catch "Deliver US", a play written by Anna Leader, performed in English at the Grand Théâtre on 2 and 3 October.