General Non-Fiction posted April 14, 2024

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Teacher, Writer, Rebel with a Cause

Interview with...JSD

by Rachelle Allen

        Months ago, after reading some of John’s posts and becoming mesmerized by them, I asked if he would please allow me the pleasure of an interview. Graciously, he acquiesced. But then some chaos roared through the Allen house, and next thing I knew, it was April!

        So, I’m very embarrassed that it took this long, John, but let’s go with the adage about the good things in life being worth waiting for. You on board with that?

        I have to believe that the good things in life are worth waiting for! I have three failed marriages and now a new partner who’s half my age!

        O-KAAAAAYYYY!!! Looks like we’ve got a live one here. Buckle up, Everyone!!

        Adding to my guilt and embarrassment, it dawned on me just yesterday that your days here on FS are extremely numbered. I say this because I remember reading a post you penned in mid-December, entitled “Blind Contest,” in which you voiced disgruntlement with the inability of the site to keep blind contest entries truly “blind.” Trust me when I tell you, I could not agree more. But, you declared in that piece that you would not be participating in contests any longer, nor would you be renewing your membership when it expired at the end of May.

        The educator in me recognizes a No Nonsense Teacher Edict when she hears one, and that certainly qualified as such!

        Is your decision about that still the same?

        I think I was annoyed by the silliness of the paid-for contests and thought they were not really worth the effort or cost.

          Any ideas where you’ll take your talents after next month then?

       Thirty-four years of teaching youngsters creative writing and using my own creativity to boost the creativity of others meant that early retirement at fifty-eight has bought me the time to use my skills on my own work. Obviously, I have also been inspired to follow the wonderful poets whose work I taught: Larkin, Heaney, Plath, Sheers, Armitage, Hardy and the Metaphysicals. But having said all that, I also will continue to enter national and international poetry competitions. So far, with the exception of one shortlisting, it’s been to no avail. But I feel this is a far more worthy source of recognition. So, I plug on.

        I know I, for one, would sorely miss your poems which I love because, unlike so many who write “poetry,” yours always have perfect rhythm and unforced rhymes, two commodities that appeal to my musician’s ear. Is there a musical source in you for that?

         I cannot read music. However, I spent my younger years in choirs and choral societies, from my early treble years of being head choirboy at school and in church. My father was a vicar, so I was automatically involved in church proceedings. That said, I love music and listen to it all the time. I am a BBC 6 music fan and download new albums to my Spotify on a daily basis from the things I hear. I am a punk at heart (I was thirteen in 1977) and still go to gigs and get involved in the mosh-pits. I love noisy, atonal Indie rock or anything that lacks a commercial air. You would probably hate it all.

        Yes; in fact, my eyes are crossing at this point, John, as I try to assimilate the beauty of your melodic words and phrases with you gyrating around in a mosh-pit. Calgon, take me AWAAAAAYYYYYY!!!!

            Now, ordinarily with interviews, I like to cozy up to my prey – er, I’m so sorry, I mean my SUBJECTS – first and have them share their vitals right away. But, with you, I want to do things differently. I want to focus first on your immense GIFT – and, rest assured, as a teacher, I am VERRRRRY stingy with that word. But in your case, it absolutely, positively applies.

         I find your writing nothing short of luminous, and that is not hyperbole. It’s visceral and even quasi-feral. I love it for its ferocity and for the way it’s honest beyond anything I’ve ever been able to write, myself. When I read “The Storm – Fifteen Months On,” I sat in my chair, unable to move, other than to blink in astonishment. It was so obvious how uncommon your talent was.

         And by virtue of the fact that, only three months into membership at that point, you were awarded the #3 ATB, obviously a multitude of other members felt the same way.

        How would you describe your writing or want your writing to be described?

        I would rather be recognized for metaphor, suggestiveness and ideas that make readers think. The English language is so malleable. Its possibilities are endless. I have written before about the space between words. I’ve said to pupils for years, “Why do poets write? So we can read and connect with their ideas.” And the ideas should be universal. This is why Shakespeare survives. If a writer has nothing to say to the reader, then there is no point. Of course, the reader can also make their poetry out of what is written. I am all for the idea of once the work leaves the ‘pen,’ it becomes the reader’s.

        As for my style, my liking for free verse or enigmatic connections goes back to my early years as a punk.

        Oy, John; please!! I had JUST gotten that image of you in the mosh-pit out of my brain.        

           What does writing bring to your life?

        I have dabbled in writing all my life, but more through teaching and making suggestions to generations of kids on how to improve their own writing. Nurturing good writing and an appreciation of what is good in others has always been central to my career.

        But writing is also a skill I know I have, and I revel in my abilities. I read “The Guardian” every day, a traditional ‘broadsheet’ newspaper in Britain, with left-wing leanings, and use it to constantly try to improve my thinking about issues in the world.

         Is it easy or difficult, when you write a piece like “The Storm” to bare your soul? And is it need-based or bravery-induced? 

        Baring my soul is still difficult at the moment. It is approaching two years since I was last allowed to see my daughter, who is now six. I mean to write to her, a journal or something, that she can read when she is in her teens. That would be writing for a genuinely personal purpose. To be honest, I can’t always allow myself to tell the truth too much; it’s too hurtful.

               Okay, because I identify with this a lot and can feel the rawness of your pain here, I’m going to step away from my Interviewer seat for just a moment and speak to you, parent to parent. I am urging you to absolutely start a journal for her at once. When my daughter began her Senior year of high school, I started a journal for her and wrote in it, daily, all that was going on in my head and my heart, as she did all her “lasts” – last swim meet, last high school play, etc.

        I handed the journal over to her just before we said our good-byes in her new dorm room, and within an hour, she texted me, “Best. Present. Ever. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” She’s about to be forty-two and still has that journal OUT – not even on a bookshelf, mind you, but OUT - on a coffee table in her living room. So definitely, please follow your instinct on this, John. Keep a journal for this little girl you love and ache for. It will keep you both connected forever.

        Thank you, Rachelle.

        Regarding your question about “The Storm,” I didn’t find writing it helpful. It just made me cry.

           Oy. I’m so sorry to read that, but I do appreciate your candor. Not every facet of life can end with “and they lived happily ever after.”

        Another fascinating part of your talent in my eyes is that, besides being able to gut me, your writing also has the ability to double me over with laughter! Take, for example, “FanStory Japanese Poetry Forms.” O.M.G!! Absolutely HILARIOUS!! Just FALL-DOWN funny!

        I was going to ask: “Will the real JSD please stand up,” but I knew that a writer that well-rounded is like a multi-faceted diamond – a true treasure, as opposed to a Cracker Jack prize. (Are you even familiar with that confection – it’s kind of vintage at this point – in the UK? The jingle for it was, “Candy-coated popcorn, peanuts and a prize. That’s what you get in Cracker Jacks!” Listen, I realize it’s not mosh-pit-worthy, but it’s the best I got.)

        ANYWAY…as long as we’ve touched upon the UK, let’s talk about where you live.

        I live in the Midlands of Britain. But I still feel like a Londoner at heart. I grew up there and still hanker after the art, the theatre, the music. It’s so expensive to live in the South East now, but they have it all. That said, there are great cultural opportunities near me, great cities, such as Sheffield and Manchester, and, of course, the most wonderful countryside of the Peak District, The Yorkshire Moors and, a bit further, the Lake District.

        Wow. That sounds fabulous!    

        Now I’m hoping that I’m about to turn the tables and impress YOU. In true investigative journalist style, I’ve come armed with some other facts I have learned about you:

  1. JSD stands for John Sentance-Davis
  2. You’re sixty years old
  3. You’re an ex-English and Drama teacher who has always taught in private schools.

        Teacher-to-teacher, here’s an assignment: Give us a summary of your years in Education – but in Sonnet form.

(Good-Boy John’s Sonnet)


If Education’s purpose is to teach,

Who said that this should focus on dull facts?

Why kings and queens, a birth and death for each?

Why leaders and their foolish warring acts?

Chief cities, rivers, borders blur on maps,

Then angles, circles, give the brain a wrench,

While physics’ myst’ries leave kids in a flap,

And which sad fool said they should learn le French?

No. Gen’ral knowledge matters not a jot!

True teaching needs to make us fit to live,

Prepare for pain, for debt, for grief’s sad lot,

For friendship, or for what a child can give,

Or guide our souls to wonder what’s above,

But most of all, our schools should teach us love.


(Mosh-pit John’s Sonnet)



He’s raised to win and score a string of ‘A’s,

To be the best in class, a gem, a jewel,

The fastest, too, the winner of each race,

Alas, he’s just an intellectual fool.

So handsome, too, the envy of the rest,

The perfumed women gaze with jealous drool,

At work adored, but no one there can guess

He’s really just an intellectual fool.

He strolls through life, his clever mask on tight,

But mental chaos lurks beneath the cool,

He’s lonely, sad, has fevered dreams at night,

And drinks to kill the intellectual fool.

The brightest fish is drowning in the pool,

A sad end for the intellectual fool.


            In your post, “Public School Drinks,” you touched upon feeling like an imposter as Director of Drama because, although you loved the teaching-and-being-with-students aspect of that gig, the socializing with other teachers wore on you. Is that what eventually led to your leaving the profession?

          I am a rebel. I have a silly picture in my phone which challenges: “Describe yourself in three words.” The answer: “I am a rebel.” Life is too short to be serious or pompous. Of course, such an attitude has gotten me into a lot of trouble many times in life, including being ‘released’ from one school (with a very lucrative NDA) for daring to lead the common room in a protest against the way the school was run.

          I left teaching for a number of reasons, but mostly because of aspects of the job that we never signed up to do: the pointless administrative tasks, the staff-room politics, the forcing of teachers to do things that undermine the real job. It is a cliché, but walking into the classroom and shutting the door and then, forty minutes later, to have a bunch of sulky teenagers walk out thanking you for the lesson, saying, “That poem was actually alright, Sir!” was worth more than gold.

          How did you get into teaching in the first place, and were you hired as Drama Director because you had experience performing on stage, yourself?  Please elaborate! (This time, I won’t assign you a format.)

             The Drama was an accident. My father refused to let me do O Level or A Level Drama because it was not a proper subject. So, I ended up with an English A Level A grade, a BA and an MA in English, and then I went into teaching English. I was on a hamster wheel, but I did enjoy it, even if journalism or law could have been an outlet, too.

           I think I could have had acting talent with training, if I’d ever had the opportunity. To a degree, my theatricality added to the charisma of my teaching. But my English background made me ask to direct a school play at my first school. Then I started writing little plays, and, on the basis of this, I got a job at Hampton School as a part-time Drama teacher. I got involved with a great bunch of lads who wrote their own stuff and wanted to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. So, I was their mentor, director and organizer. We went there three years in a row, and, the last year, we got five stars for our show. This gave me enough of an edge to get the Director of Drama job at Repton School, a very traditional boarding school that basically wanted an English specialist to teach English and direct the school play. I made a lot of changes to that over my fourteen years there.  

        Except for the contest fallibility, have you enjoyed your time here on FS? Not to sound like your Mommie, but have you made friends?

        I do enjoy FanStory. The greatest reward was forcing myself to write. I now have a portfolio of sixty or more poems which I will one day look at publishing if I can.

        I definitely made friends - Debbie D’Arcy and Paul Manton, particularly, but also Franca (Tempeste) was constantly kind. There are lots of others, just too numerous to mention.

         If you were in charge, what would you do differently here?

        As for contests, the fact that you can win one with a dozen or so votes – out of the hundreds of members enrolled  – is just silly, and one gains little but praise from doing so. I have asked Tom on a number of occasions to introduce a banner on the front page, inviting members to vote for the current contest, and I agree, as some members have suggested, that giving a few cents for a vote is also a good idea. The other type of contests seem fairer, I think, and I have placed in quite a few and won one. For this, you get seven stars.

        I’d also be more censorious about racist or homophobic writing, but that is obviously a can of worms.

        The star system sort of works, but I’d have more sixes available each week.

        I wish there was more freedom to give lower marks to awful writing, but egos are too sensitive for that, including my own! I’d also control some of those prompts that are simply ludicrous. One line is NOT a poem! And 2-4-2 or 1-6-1 are similarly pointless, but I’m probably just being picky.

        No, you’re not! You’re being candid. I asked you a question, and you answered it honestly. All I can add is: From your mouth to G-d’s ears! I’d love to see every single one of your suggestions implemented. Forget “Harambe for President;” I say JSD for president…well, you know, of FanStory!

        Okay! Any final questions or parting thought you’d like to add?

        I think I have said enough.

        Shhh! Writers are NEVER supposed to use those words!!

        Thank you, John; you have been an open, interesting person to chat with, and I loved every minute of our schmooze time. I knew you’d be delightful.

        I can’t let this end without saying that I consider your writing talent substantial and rare, and I so genuinely hope you renew when your membership runs out next month. The “contest issue” was one that infuriated me, as well, for a good, long stretch. But I finally just followed the wisdom of a meme that reads: Let go or be dragged. This site is so much more than contests; they’re merely that metaphoric tip of the iceberg. I genuinely hope you’ll give us a second year to enjoy you. Xoxo



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