Photo Credit: Barry Hobson
Hi John. Thanks for taking the time to chat. The poems in your most recent collection Full Blood touch on many of the big subjects – love, death, sex, war, identity – and seem to carry a certain spiritual awareness. I’m curious if you view the poems you write as a vehicle for you to make sense of the world?
I’d say you were right on the mark. Poetry at that time was a way for me to see what was real about things, to weigh the soul of a situation, a person, a story. My goal with Full Blood was very similar to something Hemingway once said about his work in a letter to his father that he “wanted to write so the reader felt like they had lived the story, and actually met and been part of the character’s lives.” I wanted to paint pictures in the mind and consciousness of the reader.
Since Full Blood that basic movement is still there in my writing, but I always try to shift my gaze from book to book. Writing and reading has taken me on such an adventure through this life. I count it as a blessing. It has taken down barriers and connected me to the lives of others, to the extent I now see how much our global troubles arise from the basic delusion that we are somehow separate from others and the world around us.
The book contains a powerful set of two list poems ‘One Hundred’ which reference the war dead on the British side and Afghan side of the 21st century conflict in Afghanistan. Can you tell us a bit more about the genesis and motivation behind them?
These two poems got quite a bit of attention when the book came out, I’m pleased to say. I’ve been very lucky that my poems seem to find real people and hold meaning for them. It’s not something you can plan. All a poet can do is work as honestly as possible.
At the time of writing, I simply listed the names of the last two hundred people killed on the so called ‘sides’ in Afghanistan. I had travelled through the country as a child and remember it even now as one of the most beautiful places I‘ve been to; I wrote the poem ‘Kabul’ in the same book to illustrate the beauty I saw when I travelled there.
The news only serves us certain images, which it wouldn’t be a stretch to call propaganda. It’s just that we tend to believe our propaganda over others. During this period the Blair government moved to make it illegal to protest in Parliament Square and to publicly speak aloud the names of the dead with any sympathy if they were considered enemy combatants. There was a move to label such a thing as treason.
When I looked at the list of names I just saw lives lost and that many of the names on my Afghani list were young children or family members at a wedding party. This moved me greatly.
I mixed in the names with some landscape writing to break things up a bit in the poems. These lines were drawn from found text on a British soldier’s blog about the beauty he saw all around him in this place that we only get to see filled with sand, rubble and tanks.
As well as writing poetry for adults, you have published a poetry book for children and have worked with children in workshops and schools encouraging them to engage with poetry. What is it that motivates you to get young people involved with poetry, and do you have to get yourself in a different frame of mind to write a children’s poem versus an adult poem?
No, I don’t have any different mindset when it comes to children’s writing really. I love writing for young people. My goal is pretty much the same as what you might call my adult work: to meet the subject, and through whatever ability I have as a writer, be transparent enough to place it down on the page so that it might live in the heart when it is read.
If there is any difference at all, it’s that I may vary my vocabulary and the musical choices in my delivery, but the soul remains the same. Children deserve the very best writing and my motivation is as simple as that. I don’t know what the drive is for any other writer, but as a lifelong reader myself, I just want the good stuff that shows me the world, and allows me space to see my own face reflected back as a part of all things.
I understand you worked on a commission recently as part of an event at the Ilkley Literature Festival called ‘The Haunting: Ghosts of Every Shade‘. Can you tell us a a bit more about the event and the resulting poems that arose from the commission?
It has been a very exciting project. Alchemy, who commissioned pieces from myself and others like Simon Armitage and Imtiaz Dharker, always give me so much room to explore things that it allows me to bring myself to the work fully.
I have a completed manuscript for a new book, but I’m without a publisher at the moment. So, in lieu of that body of work getting out there, I feel very grateful to have commissions like this to keep things going.
During research for the project I was lucky enough to discover a signed copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in Leeds Library. This sparked off a new poem called ‘Emissary’, which is one of those poems that kind of hums with its own life while you are writing it. I was certainly a channel for this piece, rather than the writer. Calliope must have been happy with me that day.
I also got to finally write a poem that has been sketched out in my notebook for at least a decade, which was about the ghost of my Irish great-grandfather who died at the Battle of St. Quentin in World War One.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed or are looking forward to this year?
I’m not really in the poetry world much these days, and I don’t have any interest in prizes and fame and so on. If I’m honest I found twenty years of being on the ‘circuit’, as it were, quite a lonely experience.
My work as a meditation teacher is a much more nourishing home for me now, although it hasn’t taken me away from literature completely. Some of my closest friends still are volumes of poetry.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I’ve selected a new poem called ‘Rebellion’. The story was told to me by a friend who watched the scene in the poem unfold in front of her, before she moved to become the protagonist herself. For me it’s a picture of everyday human love, longing and beauty, and I wrote it down to record the gift of it, and to make it available for others to read.
In the aroma of coffee, surrounded
by Greek and Arab voices, sits a man
whose life has piled the stones upon him.
No one sees him, and he looks at no one.
Large hands take pink paper and a small
‘nail file’ tool from his backpack.
Folding in on himself, he does not reach
for coffee or water. He does not
look up or around.
Folding in on himself. No one sees
his engineer’s fingers move delicately,
precisely, as if he were playing a Bach prelude.
Folding in, scoring, folding out.
Eventually he places a perfect origami rose
on the table, puts on his coat and pack, then leaves.
Amongst her books and her eavesdropping of
the glossolalia of the coffee crowd,
sits a woman pretending to read,
folding in on herself.
All her life those who have loved her
have called her flower. Closing her study book
as the tears fall, she goes to the man’s empty place
to take the rose as a gift for herself.