'As a child, I wrote in a little notebook I hid in a bush. It was 20 years before I went public'
What got you started?
At eight, I made a commitment to poetry. Until then, I thought I'd be a policeman. But I went a whole night without sleeping and the next day the world had changed. It needed a different language.
How do you write?
When I was young, I composed in bed without writing and had a little notebook that I hid in a bush, so I'd jot it all down the next morning. I only went public 20 years later when I started sending things out. I never meant to be a full-time poet: I started out as a gardener, an ideal job for a poet because your head is left free.
What does it mean to be a poet today?
To be a poet is as serious, long-term and natural as the effort to be the best human you can be. To express something well is not a question of having a top-class education and understanding poetic forms: rather, it's a question of paying attention.
Which artists do you most admire?
At the moment, I am fixed on Milton, but I always think Beckett is interesting. He's a pinhole writer: he created a darkroom of language through which, despite himself, light passes. And there's Samuel Johnson. I am slowly reading his dictionary.
Does poetry have a place in the modern world?
I don't think you should compromise what you need to say to scoop an audience. But I do work on projects to bring poetry into people's lives. I'm working on a 12-hour reading of Paradise Lost with the communities near where I live in Devon. We will perform all 12 books in Totnes next summer.
Where does a poem start?
The rhythm is always first.
How do you deal with distractions?
It's impossible to combine work and motherhood – I have three children, aged 9, 13 and 16 – but poetry starts from impossibility rather than possibility. I set up a bookstand next to the cooker so I can read as I cook. My cooking has always been terrible: it's worse now.
What music is important to you?
I work a lot with musicians, and I'm interested in how music sets up expectations and either meets or doesn't meet them. Poetry is a slightly different kind of music, beautifully limited.
Are there any songwriters who have influenced you?
I like Patti Smith's lyrics, and sometimes think I could be influenced by them. But she has a kind of cool that's beyond me.
What is your greatest ambition?
It's only ever to complete the next poem. When you start working you get drawn into the big human questions: how to live.
Born: Reading, 1966.
Has written six collections of poetry. Her most recent, Memorial, reworks Homer's Iliad. Her first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile (1996), won the Forward poetry prize for best first collection. In 2002, she won the TS Eliot for Dart, about the river in Devon.
"The period of excitement before writing a poem, when you sense something whole is in your head."
"There are always technical low points: two-thirds of the way through a poem, I enter a moment of absolute despair."
• 4 October is National Poetry Day