Mark Pajak: “The purpose of a poem is… to make the ordinary magical”

Stella Bolam catches up with this year’s Sheaf Poetry Festival poet-in-residence Mark Pajak

Q: How did you start writing?

A: My first poem won an autumn-themed poetry competition at primary school. It was the sort of poem you’d expect from a child. I described ‘dying trees’ as ‘crying leaves’. But it stays with me because (as an overweight, awkward and dyslexic nine-year-old) it was the first time I’d won anything. I thought, finally, here is something I might be able to do. Although I didn’t consider writing to be my goal profession until I was nineteen.

Q: Where do your ideas come from? Do they generally come to you suddenly or take time to form?

A: It depends on the poem. Mostly, they take a lot of time. It can take a whole week or two, getting up early and spending two or three hours on a poem, before something clicks and I realise where it might be heading… and even then it can change direction a few times and even fail completely.

Q: I understand that you write every day – how important is having this discipline to your writing practice and have you always done this?

A: It’s vital and I’ve done it since I started writing seriously. Although what I love about process is that there is no one right way to write. I get up every day and write because that’s the way I work – it is my job and so I must go to it each day. However, I know many other fine writers who do not work in this way. Instead, they prefer to let the writing come to them rather than going after it doggedly and monotonously like I do.

Q: Tell us about the work you’re doing for your residency?

A: I’ve been involved in three projects as part of the residency. Firstly, the Poetry Ghost Walk; in this project I lead audience members through seven choice locations in Sheffield’s old town, using poems and stories to reveal Sheffield’s ghostly history. [Ghost Walk tour, Friday 17 May, starts 9.30pm from Lloyds Bank Cathedral branch, High Street S1 2GA, free to attend. Dress warmly and bring a torch].

I’m also involved in High Score Haikus, a project in association with the National Videogame Museum, here in Sheffield. I commissioned two talented and emerging writers (Bella Fortune and JP Burns) to write ten haikus about ten of the museum’s exhibited videogames. These haikus now form a poetry installation at the museum [located at Castle House, Angel Street, Sheffield S3 9LN], which is completely free to see!

Poetry Everywhere is the third project I’m involved with for the festival. I won’t say too much on this one, as places and times are still being confirmed. I’ll just say that, over the past few months, the literary podcast ‘Two Minute Stories’ has recorded several poets involved with the festival (such as Vahni Capildeo and Rachael Allen) reading their poems. These will now be broadcast at public spaces throughout Sheffield.

Q: What else are you currently working on and what plans do you have on the horizon?

A: At the moment I’m beginning work on a commission for a BBC Radio 4 programme commemorating the Peterloo massacre. It’s a subject I’ve found fascinating and one that I’m looking forward to writing about.

I have few other projects a little further down the line, but mainly I’m just trying to write enough poems for a new book and sorting out moving house.

Q: How important is the act of performance or experience – speaking or hearing poems out loud – to you as a poet and a poetry lover?

A: I started the habit of reading poems out loud very early. I got that from my dad, who would read Burns to my brother, sister and I when we were young. It feels strange and uncomfortable for me to read poems only in my head. It loses all the music. So, for me, poems are only poems when spoken.

Q: Your ‘Spitting Distance’ collection contains some dark themes, with our (humans’ and animals’) mortality and confusing childhood experiences common threads. Do you find yourself revisiting such subjects over time and, if so, how much do you think that writing is a way focusing our minds to find our place or make sense of our experiences in an often chaotic world?

A: I do keep returning to these themes – generally because they make me feel uncomfortable and discomfort can reveal something vulnerable (about me or the reader).

The purpose of a poem (as far as I know at this early point in my development as a writer) is to tell things vividly as they are, which we tend not to do in normal speech, and to make the ordinary magical. Not the Disney version of the word ‘magical’ but the Alan Moore version. Like he says…

‘…“the book of spells” is simply a fancy way of saying “grammar”. Indeed, to cast a spell, is simply “to spell”, to manipulate words, to change people’s consciousness.’


Mark Pajak appears with Georgie Woodhead and Juxtavoices at the Festival Launch at Upper Chapel, Sheffield, on Friday 17 May; click here for more details. Later that evening, he will lead a Ghost Walk through Sheffield city centre. Click here for details of his Killing Time workshop on Sunday 19 May (10am-12pm, advance booking essential).

To find out more about Mark’s work, visit