As she prepares to be honoured by the Queen for her poetry, Gillian Allnutt talks to Jenny Needham about what inspires her to verse

Gillian Allnutt is a woman of words, but even she gets stuck sometimes. The County Durham poet writes by hand, usually at the kitchen table, heading upstairs to the computer when she wants to see how the poem is shaping up in typescript. Her only ritual is that if she gets really stuck with a poem – “usually with just one bit, and towards the end of writing it” – she will go and wash some clothes by hand. “I don’t know why, but it nearly always works and the right word comes,” she says.

The 68-year-old from the former colliery town of Esh Winning is preparing to meet the Queen when she is honoured with the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, and there will be no old sweaters or odd socks to hand-wash should she find herself stuck for words in the royal presence. Gillian has already thought of that. “My mother often used to say she felt sorry for the Queen because, if she had a bad day, she couldn’t just get up and clean a window, which is what my Mum would do to shake off gloom. If there’s a suitable pause in the conversation, I might say that to her - and see what she replies!”

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Gillian has always had a deep love of language. “I’ve always loved words,” she says. “I love etymology - looking up the history of a word and seeing which language it came from in the first place and how its meaning has changed over the centuries.” She wrote her first poem when she was 15, and the family had just moved from living in Newcastle to Dorking, in Surrey. “I think the huge change jolted me into starting to write. The first poem was about a larch tree in the garden of the new house. I just liked it,” she says.

Now Gillian, who moved back up North in 1988, finds herself moved to verse by all sorts of catalysts. Sometimes a poem will start in a writing class or workshop that she’s teaching. “I always ask people to write during the session and I do the exercise too. That means that quite often I start by writing prose, just so that I can have something shaped enough to read out after half an hour or so. Later, I turn the prose into a poem,” she says. At other times, a word or a phrase or a thought will come to her when she’s doing meditation and later she’ll start with that and go on to work it into a poem.

“A poem can start anywhere - on top of a bus, say, and then I have to scribble down the first draft in the back of my diary,” she says. “Often I’ll work from a picture of someone - usually a painting rather than a photograph - putting myself in their shoes and writing as if in their words, telling their story. I like that, it’s liberating not to be me! Then the history of the region, especially early Christian history, inspires me and that brings in the landscape too - Lindisfarne, for example. I have a few poems about it. Sometimes I have no poems to write and just have to wait.”

Gillian’s own favourite poet, and poem, has changed many times in the course of her life, though TS Eliot has been an inspiration ever since she discovered Journey of the Magi when she was 16. Of her own poems, “I am proud of the ones the world likes - ‘Ode’, for example, a daft poem about my bike. But also a much more serious poem, ‘Attenuation’, which I think of as an elegy for my Mum, though I wrote it about a year and a half before she died. It has a sort of strong hypnotic rhythm.”

The Poetry Medal Committee recommended Gillian, who is published by Hexham-based Bloodaxe Books, to receive the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry on the basis of her hugely respected body of work. The Poet Laureate, Dame Carol Ann Duffy, explains that from her first collection in the early 1980s, Gillian’s work has always been in conversation with the natural world and the spiritual life. “Her writing roams across centuries, very different histories and lives, and draws together, without excuse or explanation, moments which link across country, class, culture and time. The North is a constant touchstone in her work; canny and uncanny, its hills and coast, its ancient histories and its people. Her poems progress over the years to a kind of synthesis of word-play and meditation. In her work, the space between what is offered and what is withheld is every bit as important as what is said. She has the power to comfort and to astonish in equal measure. In her outlook, her imagination, her concerns and her lyric voice, she is unique.”

The Poet Laureate e-mailed Gillian back in the autumn asking for her phone number – “to talk, as she said, about ‘a poetry thing’ - I was truly surprised and delighted when the ‘thing’ turned out to be nothing less than The Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. I am sad, though, that my mother is no longer here. She was always a staunch supporter of my choice to be a poet and she would have been so proud. Born in 1924, two years before the Queen, she often used to tell us, my sisters and me, about the way the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose helped, through their visible presence, to keep the home fires burning during the war.”

One of Gillian’s own earliest memories is of standing at the gate in front of her great-aunt's house in New Cross, South London, in the summer of 1953, waiting for the royal open-top car to come by as part of the Coronation celebrations. “It was hot, I was four, the Queen was held up. She did come, though, as I remember.”

Now, she looks forward to the honour of meeting the Queen in person. “When I undertook to do a writing residency with asylum seekers the North-East in 2009, I felt privileged and grateful to have contact with those people through something, writing, that is so central a part of me,” she says. “It is an equal privilege, now, and I am grateful, to be able to imagine meeting the Queen herself - and in connection with nothing less than that same old, dear old ‘poetry thing’.”

Gillian Allnutt joins four other Bloodaxe poets who have been honoured with the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry: Imtiaz Dharker (2014), John Agard (2012), Fleur Adcock (2006) and the late RS Thomas (1964). Her retrospective How the Bicycle Shone: New & Selected Poems (2007) draws on six published books plus a new collection, Wolf Light, and was a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation. Her latest collection is indwelling (2013). W: bloodaxebooks.com