We meet in a library. A new library. It’s Sam Cox’s choice.
She wants to chat somewhere surrounded by words. And where better than an old Woolworth’s store converted into a library.
As Portsmouth’s newly-appointed poet laureate, Sam is delighted that in this grim world of deep public sector cuts, Southsea has acquired this new, book-lined and PC-filled setting in the heart of the Palmerston Road precinct.
There’s another reason. Libraries these days come complete with cafes and she finds the accompanying background hubbub of muffled conversation and clinking of cups rather stimulating.
‘I love writing in coffee shops,’ she says. ‘They’re probably the places where I’m most inspired.
‘I don’t take any alcohol at all, so for me social drinking is going out for a coffee and writing to the sounds of all the hustle and bustle and that lovely reassuring sound of teaspoons going round a coffee cup. It’s life. It’s busy.’
As a result of her love of the cafe culture, Sam, 38, has a large collection of serviettes on which she has jotted down ideas for poems, along with a huge collection of half-used notebooks.
‘I’ve lost count of how many I’ve got. I keep buying them when I’m out, have an idea and haven’t got anything to write in.
‘I write on whatever’s available as soon as an image enters my head. I’ve got boxes full of paper napkins with poems scrawled on them.’
Sam, is a former deputy head at Charter Academy, Southsea (once St Luke’s C of E School), and still teaches three days a week in Essex.
‘But the other four days I’m at home, and I really can call Portsmouth home now. I feel very settled and absolutely love it here. It’s a remarkable place for a poet to live. It provides endless inspiration – from the beach and the sea to the Great South Run.’
There’s nothing hoity-toity or classically bardic about Sam. She’s no stranger to Essex. She spent holidays there as a child and has family there today.
She was born in the East End. Stratford to be precise, close to the Olympic stadium. Her voice is ingrained with the accent.
And it is that voice she uses for her poetry, because Sam, who has yet to be published, is largely a performance poet. She writes, she commits her work to memory and, by and large, she performs them as a piece of theatre.
Her job at Charter brought her to Portsmouth and a home at Gunwharf Quays. ‘I knew nobody, but what’s wonderful about this city is that it’s so easy to fit in.
‘I love being near the sea, the percussion of the beach, just walking across the stones, cycling along the seafront. For me, there’s endless inspiration in all of that.
‘There’s also Southsea Common and all the events that take place there in the summer, the coming together of so many people.’
She joined Tongues and Grooves, the flourishing poetry and music group which meets at the Florence Arms, Southsea, and hasn’t looked back.
She’s now the second person to hold the laureateship in the city.
‘It’s a real honour,’ she says. ‘It’s a massive opportunity to showcase my work and help inspire others to write and find inspiration from this fantastic city of ours.’
Like countless others her love of words began at school and Sam is passionate about using poetry to enthuse children and improve their literacy and is a big supporter of The News’ Read All About It campaign to boost literacy across the area.
‘Poetry and use of language, particularly expanding a child’s vocabulary, can really help enthuse children for reading,’ says Sam.
‘It really helped me. At my school we had a monthly magazine to which you could submit poems. I had a go and they were published and that encouraged me to keep going.
‘I found it was my opportunity to analyse life and what was happening to me and around me, to record things. I was never into writing a diary or keeping a journal. Instead I would write a poem.
‘But I don’t want people to think I always had my head buried in poetry, I read lots of novels as well. Just so long as I was reading, that was the important thing.’
It was the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden which first gave her the confidence to stand up in front of an audience and recite her work. She was in her 20s.
‘I was inspired by what I saw and heard. Quite often words on a page will change if you have to read them out loud.
‘My poems don’t rhyme. There are no rhyming couplets. What I am fascinated by is the sound of words, the diction, the pronunciation, the emphasis – the difference between the rhythm and musicality of words; how we can stop and pause and play with silence as well. I love to explore all of that.’
Sam enjoys the discipline of having to stand up week after week in front of an audience and recite new work.
‘It keeps me writing, knowing that I have to produce a fresh piece. It helps me keep momentum, keeps me pacy.’
Doesn’t she find it daunting?
‘I’m always nervous before I stand up in front of an audience at a poetry event and, yes, to be honest, there are times when I forget the odd word, line or verse. But as if by magic, something else always pops into my mind.’