Look. ‘Look’ said each wondrous comical hodgepodge of illustrations. Just one word, the perfect invitation to draw in a child. I spent hours staring at each page, whispering the word like an incantation as I mined it for stories, or put in the ones I’d read and heard, from Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood to The Three Little Pigs and Puss In Boots. Soon I no longer needed the pictures to look, though my favourite books were generally those with illustrations, beautifully painted ones like the version of Black Beauty my mother found in the library, or the abridged version of Wuthering Heights in which each page of text was faced by a black-and-white illustration that I coloured in myself.

As I grew older, I began to read everything I could find, encouraged by my parents, who took me to two excellent libraries and bought me all the books I wanted. There were Blyton and Dahl books galore, the Hardy Boys, Harry Potter, Narnia, Tolkien, Alcott and Burnett; Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Georgette Heyer, Dickens, Thackeray, Twain, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, Wilde, Hawthorne, the Brontes, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Scott … and so on and on: everyone and everything, abridged at first and then unabridged. Later still came living authors – Kamila Shamsie, Khaled Hosseini, Mohsin Hamid … another inexhaustible list. I did read poetry too: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Burns, Browning, Emily Dickinson … but especially Enjoying More Poetry and the Teachers’ Collections of Verse, at least half of which I copied out by hand.

Everything I wrote myself I hid or promptly threw away, whether revenge fantasies or what I later found out is called fan-fiction. I had no notion of becoming a writer, however, until I was nearly eighteen years old. At that point I quite suddenly realised I was one, whether I would or no. I began to write in dreadful earnest, slaving over each line and crumpling up paper after paper. Writing, at this stage, was either pure exaltation or unmitigated despair, depending on whether I loved or hated what I had written. Now I am learning at last to laugh at myself a little, to concede that nothing will ever be quite as awesome or quite as awful as I think it, and to write on regardless of imperfection.

Poetry came later, and if I had realised it was doing so I would have fought it: I had accounted myself a writer of stories for nearly half a decade by then and never written a poem in my life. It would probably have won notwithstanding, for poetry has a most exasperating habit of sweeping aside all ditherings and what-ifs and existential crises. Stories often need coaxing and persistence, what Jack London called going after inspiration with a club. Poems tend to find you, club in hand, and clobber you until they are written. Some poems are nice enough to write themselves down quickly and almost independently of your brain, while others dance just out of reach for weeks on end, driving you to distraction. There is absolutely no way of knowing when the next poem will be written, what it will be about, or what form it will take. One thing however all poems do have in common: they all say ‘Look’. Look at this image, this thought, this feeling poured into words, and bring your own withal. Look.