Anyone who has tried to earn a living from writing poems can appreciate how fortunate — and talented — Kate Clanchy was to not just find a publisher for her first collection, but to win Britain’s main poetry prize, the Forward, at the age of 28.

An English teacher at a comprehensive in Romford, she was lucky enough to be sent on a creative writing course by her headteacher, and to meet Carol Ann Duffy, now poet laureate, who became her mentor.

Before Ms Clanchy was 40, she had produced three collections, winning countless literary prizes.

Her poetry focuses on women’s experiences, with her third collection, Newborn, centred on pregnancy (“you, love, / are perhaps ten cells old”) and childbirth: “There, / you issued forth in scarlet flumes, / in cinescope, in a sunrise of burst veins.”

As a former teacher, she can see exactly why her poetry is popular in schools, with Timetable having been used in a Scottish Higher exam. The poem describes “the lino warming, shoe bag smell, expanse / of polished floor” and how you can “hear the bells, sometimes, / for years, the squeal and crack / of chalk on black”.

She said: “I received £17.50 as a fee from the exam board. But it's an accolade, I suppose. Very few of the things that you learn at school stay with you, but poetry does.”

Even a prizewinning poet cannot earn enough to make a living from writing alone — why buy a book when you can download poems free from the Internet? However, she was able to give up full-time school teaching and earn money from journalism, radio play-writing and teaching creative writing (she is a Fellow on Oxford Brookes University’s creative writing course).

She continued to write poetry, despite the fact that publishers and literary agents — as well as book-buying readers — prefer novels. As she says: “People love to write poetry, but very few want to read it. But you have to write what is there. You can’t just turn on a tap.”

Ironically, having made her name as a poet and resisted pressure to write a novel, since Newborn she has been writing more and more prose. Her non-fiction memoir, Antigona, about a Kosovan woman whom she met in the street, and ended up employing as a cleaner and nanny, was published in 2009.

Then her second attempt at a short story — The Not-Dead and The Save, about parental love and sacrifice, set in a hospital ward — won a £15,000 prize from the BBC, with the judges lauding its “rich lyricism” and “deeply affecting style”. She beat more established authors such as Sarah Maitland and Lionel Shriver.

Having honed her plotting techniques by writing radio plays, she is now mid-way through a novel. “I started something as a short story, about a 17-year-old Scottish boy coming to England in 1989, but it has so many different threads that it has grown into a novel.”

It is provisionally called Meeting The English — something she herself did at 18, when she came from Edinburgh to study at Exeter College, Oxford. “My father is Scottish, but at school I was alway identified as being posh and English. It was only when I came to Oxford, and met people here who were infinitely more posh, that I realised that I wasn’t.”

She was “too intimidated” to find any writing inspiration at university and was already an established writer when she moved back to Oxford 13 years ago with her husband Matthew Reynolds, an academic and author of the novel Designs for A Happy Home.

And this year she was made City Poet of Oxford, a role created jointly by Oxford Brookes University and Oxford City Council with a £2,000-a-year salary, designed to bring poetry to the city’s communities and inspire people to write their own verse. She been heartened by the success of her job as poet in residence at the Oxford Spire Academy, in east Oxford. She is also working with primary schools to produce poems for Light Night on December 2, and hopes to encourage secondary schools to enter Carol Ann Duffy’s Anthologise competition.

She will also be promoting Oxford’s bid to become Unesco’s World Book Capital in 2014.

It’s a busy life, but she says that now that all three children are at school she has plenty of time for her own writing, in a hut in her east Oxford garden “with a paper-thin dividing wall between me and Matthew”.

Her radio play Iced, about a teen eco-blogger on an Arctic expedition, will be on Radio 3 at 8.45pm on Saturday.