Hi Dai. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your debut book The Claims Office with Seren. For the uninitiated, can you tell us a bit more about the poems and how you feel they hang together as a collection?
The short answer to that, prosaically enough, is claiming, or maybe reclamation. I’ve always seen the poem as a place where one can mediate between the various puzzles of identity: who am I, where have I come from, what forces have moulded me and determined my place in the world? Beyond that lies a question that I don’t think enough modern poetry wants or feels equipped to grapple with: what vision for society can the poem imagine?
There’s a poem in The Claims Office called ‘Boys of Leisure’, which elegises the passing of ‘turnstile Britain’. By that I mean the early twentieth-century world of leisure centres, libraries, football stadiums and the like, a world where the good things in life – education, health and recreation – were valued and made accessible. As I wrote the poem I found myself pining for that world, the ruins of which we live amongst today, and wanting to reclaim it. I’m not saying that ‘Boys of Leisure’, or any poem for that matter, could open a public leisure centre. But if you write the poem, the vision that made public leisure centres necessary doesn’t die – well, its death is deferred, at least for the time that the poem is a living part of the language.
I guess I’m saying that The Claims Office is a social book, a political book, and a personal book, in no particular order. Taken together, those epithets might sound unpromising, as if they add up to a book of documentary realism and confessional agit-prop. I hope it isn’t that. Indeed, one of the things about claiming that attracts me is how claims will be disputed; they’re not cut and dried, even to oneself. So it felt like a way in to a poetics of identity that didn’t just peddle complacent certainties.
Haunting the collection is a statement of Aneurin Bevan’s, made famous by the Manic Street Preachers: ‘This is my truth; tell me yours.’ When people hear that, or think about Aneurin Bevan at all, the image is likely to be of a tub-thumping moralist with a waxed side-parting and a three-piece suit, eternally assured of his beliefs. But with that single sentence he articulated one of the great postmodern ideas, allowing the relativity of truth while staking a claim on what it meant to him. If there’s anything good in my book, it’ll catch something of that Bevanite glint.
I get the impression you’re very engaged with poetics in light of your academic studies, your critical essays and book reviews, and your involvement with Prac Crit. I’m curious how you approach the balancing act of writing impulsively and creatively from the heart versus the more cerebral aspects of being well-versed in poetry theory?
It’s hard, no doubt. I suppose in an ideal world my poetry will be cerebral, and my criticism will be from the heart – and vice versa, of course. But in practice the two get jumbled up and thwart as much as they nourish one another. I wouldn’t write criticism if I didn’t think it was vitally important – there are easier ways to make a living (ha!) and I’m not sure, on balance, how much the personal benefits (exposure, nice feedback, the intrinsic pleasure of doing it) stack up against the time investment, which is significant, even for a short review. So I do it in a possibly misguided attempt to carry forth the torch of William Empson, Marjorie Perloff, Geoffrey Hill, Veronica Forrest-Thomson – all the great critics who have shaped my own enjoyment and understanding of poetry.
It gets in the way of writing poetry, for sure. An article is a discrete task with a set deadline, so when you’ve got one to write it naturally takes over; sadly, when you do, say, half a dozen articles and reviews a year, that side of writing tends to crowd out the space that should be reserved for self-expression and creativity. I’m not sure I’ve got the hang of that balancing act yet – well, I definitely haven’t – but I think the only solution is to be disciplined about the time that gets devoted to writing poetry, to treat it as just as much of a non-negotiable commitment.
Over the last few years, two things have started to structure my life as a critic and lend it the veneer of professional logic. Those are Prac Crit and my PhD at UCL. Prac Crit is a joy. My co-editors (Sarah Howe and Vidyan Ravinthiran) and I have just been bowled over by the response to our website, which continues to attract a really wide and appreciative audience. It’s hard work, albeit sporadic, but well worth it.
The PhD is good because it enables me to practice criticism on a wider scale while underwriting all my other precarious activities. I think I’m one of those mad creatures who’ll actually get on well within academia, if there are still any English departments left by the time I graduate. But while I’ve been scoping out these other sides of the writing life, my poetry writing has definitely taken a hit. I’m about halfway through the manuscript for my second collection, and ideally it would have been quicker in the writing.
As well as studying in America for a couple of years, you have also mentioned in past interviews how you are drawn to and influenced by American poetry and poets. Do you think there is a transatlantic outlook or sensibility that still pervades your more recent writing?
Yes, and it’s only getting stronger. Looking over that manuscript for the second collection, I see a lot more of Ashbery and Lowell. How those two very different writers combine, within a voice that will still strike most readers as thoroughly Welsh and Dai George-like, isn’t straightforward to explain, but I see it at least.
I’m writing about Ashbery for my PhD, which is on (post)modern poetry and syntax – mainly, though not exclusively, American writers – and I’m trying to make a welcome for that influence in my own writing. It doesn’t come easily, for all the reasons you might be able to guess from what I said in answer to your first question – the notion of staking claims and searching for truth is more or less antithetical to the Ashbery project.
But that’s all the more reason for me to reckon with it. Though I suspect I’ll always write with at least one eye on meaning – propositional, semantic meaning, that is; the effort to get particular words to express a particular thought as best they can – I’m trying to loosen things up. I guess you could say I want to write with a less determined idea of what that final thought will be, to discover what I think along the way.
I enjoyed your Bruce Springsteen themed poem published across at Poems in Which earlier this year, and I understand you have written other poems exploring your love of music. Can you tell us a bit more and what draws you to it as a subject?
Thanks! You’re very kind to call ‘Poem in which my hairline recedes’ a Bruce Springsteen themed poem rather than a poem of fear and loathing about the aging process. I’m glad that my veneration for ‘Thunder Road’ came through more strongly than my vanity and angst.
Music is a big deal for me, always has been, and I’m interested in how poetry offers a means to explore my feelings towards it. My first published writing was music criticism, though it’s been a long time since I dabbled in that area. To be honest, the Internet hit me hard; I haven’t been able to recapture the passion and knowledge I had as a teenager when I was reading the music press and choosing which CDs to invest in every week.
The wild west of digital music culture is almost completely alien to me, so I doubt I’d even know enough to write about it as a critic anymore. I only listen to second-hand vinyl now, not because I’m a snob about the format but because its physical obsolescence speaks to me; it captures something crucial in my relationship to the music. My tastes are frozen in amber. I’m still hung up on the same soul, reggae, girl groups and rock ‘n’ roll as I was when I was nineteen, and I don’t know of anyone making music now who could possibly speak to me as Dusty Springfield does, or Aesop Rock.
There’s a big element of unresolved mourning in this slide towards ignorance. My second collection is almost certainly going to be called Karaoke King, with many of the poems exploring themes of belatedness, longing and the anxiety of influence, often in dialogue with my totemic music. Right now I’m working on an autobiographical sequence called, modestly enough, ‘A History of Jamaican Music’, which is really a history of me, filtered through reggae.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this year or are looking forward to in the future?
The Forward Prizes were great, not least because my friend, the wonderful poet Melissa Lee-Houghton, was nominated for best poem with a piece first published on Prac Crit. Obviously it was a shame for us that she didn’t win but we still had a great time, with Sarah and me proudly flying the Prac Crit flag. Vahni Capildeo’s victory in the best collection category felt like another decisive step forward for modern poetry, regardless of the predictable though no less horrid bleating about positive discrimination and political correctness in certain elements of the press.
For me, though, the big story of the year has been the flowering of poets who used to be on the Salt list. There was a very lively and exciting few months back in the summer when Mark Waldron, John McCullough and John Clegg all had launches for brilliant new books in close succession – really felt like something was in the water, not that you’d know it (sadly) from glancing at any of the prize shortlists.
Penned in the Margins deserve particular kudos for enabling this post-Salt transition to take place as cleanly as it has done. They’ve been on fire this year, publishing among other great things my own book of the year, Luke Kennard’s Cain. That’s a phenomenal and unique achievement. It’s just bizarre to me that it hasn’t been shortlisted for any of the major prizes – an indication that we still have a way to go in making sure that the best work is justly recognised, regardless of the size and pedigree of the publishing house behind it (not that Penned in the Margins is short on pedigree by now, but you know what I mean).
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I’m sharing a poem called ‘The Mercury Mine’. I wrote it for one of the great ‘–oke’ events organised by the poets John Canfield and Alex Bell, where a classic pop artist is singled out for celebration and poets respond with new work inspired by, say, The Smiths or David Bowie and some valiantly intoxicated karaoke renditions of the hits. (As you can imagine, these events couldn’t be more up my street if they tried.)
This year it was the turn of Bob Dylan to be okied, and I came up with this. Dylan is a big figure for me – big – and the poem was inspired by my immersion over the last year in The Cutting Edge, the latest instalment in Dylan’s official ‘Bootleg’ series mopping up all the offcuts and extras over his career. This one was the mother load for me as it covers my favourite Dylan period, the so-called ‘thin wild mercury’ music of his classic trilogy, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. There are six discs altogether, including one devoted wholly to the recording process behind ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, and to be honest even I thought it was going to be a curio I listened to once and then filed away. Yet I found myself coming back to The Cutting Edge, time and again, and above all feeling incredibly moved by it.
I guess beforehand I’d assumed that this thin wild mercury tumbled out of Dylan unbidden, like so many conkers from a tree. It has that quicksilver swagger of genius about it. But the full recording sessions offer evidence to the contrary. Over six or so takes of a particular track you can hear him obsess over the details, small or large, that make a song work – or if you’re lucky (if you’re Dylan) make it brilliant.
Rather than dispelling the magic, peeking behind the curtain and hearing the outtakes only served to deepen my love. I’ve had a tough time lately trying to pick up the pieces after a novel I’ve been working on forever was turned down by various publishing houses last year. As I’ve tried to take on board the (very generous) feedback of editors and make that novel stronger through further drafts, it’s been such a solace to have Dylan’s own painstaking drafting process playing on loop in the background.
It shows how even genius requires long hours of thankless labour to get it right, let alone one aspiring first-time author’s historical novel. To articulate that idea, I came up with the metaphorical image of Dylan working a mine. The first line of the second stanza is composed of various tags attached to the song titles on The Cutting Edge, and the italicised phrases about being lost in the rain in Juarez – which you can hear Dylan finessing across separate takes, just as I’ve documented here – are from one of my favourite of his songs, ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’.
The Mercury Mine
after Bob Dylan
For anything so thin and wild there must be
graft: long shifts crouching in the seam
at the delicate joint where rock could give
and gush the silver that your genius conspired
to hide. What, you thought this was any old
everyday pact with brilliance – bread delivered
hot and easy from the devil’s van? Nice dream
bakery you got there, pal. Meanwhile the elevator’s
dropping storeys through the pit, carrying the few
who know that mercury’s a hard and dirty trove,
a supper you gotta sing for first, and sing for,
groping, sing for while the blisters needle
hot and weeping on your picking hand.
Take 12. Fragment. False start. Remake.
When you’re lost in Juarez, raining, and it’s
Easter too, and there’s nothing left to do
but hack the syllable till it wedges tight
and you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s
Eastertime too, with a gravity that drops
then fails, the smell of another country’s
road and liquor fogging heavy in your mind,
you’ll know then that you’ve found the place
I mean, the deepest shaft, where you must
go to work, however much you stoop
and hurt, and dig until you strike upon
that metal burning liquid in your palm.