Hi Jonathan. I hope you are well. Congratulations on the success of your debut collection My Family and Other Superheroes which scooped you a couple of poetry prizes in 2014. Now you’ve emerged at the other side of getting your first book out there and having it well received, what for you are the standout or key moments that stick in the mind?
Thank you so much for involving me. I’ve been phenomenally lucky with My Family and Other Superheroes. There were about ten years of plugging away with magazines and really not getting very far at all, and then woosh! And of course all that desire and hard work makes you better equipped to really appreciate it and be enormously grateful.
I think reading at the Hay Festival and the Ledbury Poetry Festival were major highlights, because these were places where I’d seen my heroes read year after year. And the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival just blew me away – it was the first large audience I’d read to really after having travelled everywhere with the book to read to three people at a time. Suddenly there was a world in which poetry really mattered.
I could go on and on about highlights and I need to apologise to the people I’m not mentioning, but two more things stick in the mind. The first is Caban Sgriblio, a schools project run by Emma Beynon in mid-Wales. This gives pupils who would usually struggle with English access to poets and poetry, and makes an enormous difference to their confidence and development – a heroic project, and it was wonderful to be involved with their workshops.
The other thing I’ll mention is a day I spent in Chester Library last October. The idea was that people brought in an object, a memory, and poets would write by request a poem inspired by it. As it was winter we wrote for the homeless people who’d come into the library, as well as children, fellow writers, the curious…
There was one lady who came in whose grandfather had brought home from World War One a tiny model elephant. Then, in tribute, her father had brought home, from World War Two, another. And there they were, these little trunked things, these bits of history, ready to write poems about.
I think it’s those moments of connection between people which poetry does better than anything else, and you’ll remember those forever.
Although the book often takes flights of fancy or approaches subjects from an unusual perspective, it still appears to be very much about people and places that are important in your life. I’m curious if the tactic you use of approaching personal topics indirectly is as much about trying to surprise yourself as it is the reader, or perhaps more symptomatic of that experience many families have of not talking directly about feelings?
I think to be honest the unusual perspectives are very often about the poems of others which I’ve read and loved. Thomas Lux, Jo Shapcott, James Tate and David Wojahn were big influences on these poems.
I think another thing is that the choice to write a poem is the choice to go and sit in a room rather than going out to play football or watch a film or something. So I think first and foremost you try and invent ways of making writing entertaining for yourself, as a way of lulling yourself into it.
If I’m pursuing an oddball idea in order to see where it will lead, or writing a poem to praise someone, I’m more likely to stick with it than I am if I’ve set out chiefly to write a good poem – that seems too scary. Hopefully in the process something takes off and you get somewhere which matters, and then you know the poem might be something.
You’ve mentioned in past interviews that some of the poems you most admire are those which can pull off the tricky balancing act of being both comic and serious or poignant at the same time. Who for you are some of the writers that are best at this and are there any particular poems you would cite as being good examples?
I think the poets above are the most significant examples for me. Thomas Lux’s ‘Wife Hits Moose,’ for example, is a poem which starts with great humour before his wife’s accident moves him to tongue-in-cheek speculation on the theological – that poem was a huge influence on my poem ‘Nun on a Bicycle.’
David Wojahn has a wonderful sequence, ‘Mystery Train,’ which is one of the best collisions between pop culture and poetry I’ve seen, and it was certainly that which guided me to writing about Evel Knievel and Gregory Peck.
James Tate’s Return to the City of White Donkeys was a wonderful discovery, really just in terms of the sheer unpretentious joy poetry can be. That book very much opened up a vein of writing that’s represented in my book by poems like ‘FA Cup Winners on Open Top Bus Tour of my Village’ and ‘In John F. Kennedy International Airport.’
Among British writers, I’d mention Deryn Rees-Jones, and especially her early work – I think the influence of ‘Lovesong to Captain James T. Kirk’ from her first collection, The Memory Tray, is clear on my surreal, pop culture family poems.
You’ve been judge for some poetry competitions this past year or so, namely the Fair Acre Press Pamphlet Competition and The Interpreter’s House Poetry Competition. I get the impression you relish the task of close reading and finding new poetry that moves or inspires you. How important do you think competitions are in the poetry landscape?
In my own writing, they’ve certainly been important. I live in a place which is really quite isolated from any sort of poetry network or support, with the significant exception of Literature Wales, who do an amazing job. If you’re serious about writing it entails sacrifices in your professional and personal life, and if you’re not surrounded with other writers, those decisions can look hard to justify – even to yourself.
Competitions are validation, encouragement to keep going, hope – and they can also, of course, be the most money you’ll ever make out of poems! With poetry it isn’t that time is money but rather that money is time, and competition success might sometimes give you a chance to buy your way to the next poem.
The role of judging poems and also doing editorial work is a responsibility and a privilege. The number of brilliant poems which get entered into competitions is extraordinary, and you get to the stage where you’ve forgotten you’re a judge and are simply reading for pleasure. It gives you a great perspective on your own work, as well as inspiring new poems.
I’m currently judging the PENfro competition and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what I’ll discover.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you’ve enjoyed this year or are looking forward to?
I very much enjoyed teaching a residential course at the legendary Tŷ Newydd with the very awesome Patience Agbabi, on writing poems about people. I’ve been really lucky with my book in terms of the places I’ve read it in, and one thing you notice, whether you go to Genoa, Gdansk, Kolkata or Cardiff is that people really respond to poems about people who really matter to the writer – there’s a universal language there when someone starts reading a poem about their mother, brother, spouse…
I also enjoyed the South Downs Poetry Festival last month, for which Tim Dawes put together a marvellous line-up.
And then I have a number of readings in the autumn, including a reading in Kenilworth which will also feature Sarah Howe and Jo Bell. It’s been put together by David Morley, my university mentor who is really the person who got me started as a poet, so I think that will be particularly special.
Hopefully time too for some new poems, with that second book in mind – the pages of handwritten scribblings are stacking up!
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
‘My Family in a Human Pyramid’ I suppose builds on the discussion above about flights of fancy and outlandish ideas. It was actually inspired by an episode of The Simpsons, in which Springfield tries to break the world record for building the world’s tallest human pyramid.
One thing which draws me to writers like James Tate is that they understand we’re living in a world in which someone might make the choice between reading a poem and watching The Simpsons, or even reading the poem in the advertising break.
This was one of the earliest poems in the book I wrote about family, and it and ‘Evel Knievel Jumps Over my Family’ became a reason to try and build a sequence around the approach they used. Like a number of short poems in the book, this was initially much longer, but pruning got me here.
I sometimes think that my poems are like arm-wrestles or tugs-of-war between my love of the surrealism, playfulness and apparent freedom of writers like James Tate and Thomas Lux, and my love of the formal brilliance of writers like Don Paterson and Glyn Maxwell.
That’s why this poem ends up as a sort-of-sonnet – the fact that the rhymes are so shabby is all down to me. As a final word, I should mention for the sake of posterity that Samuel Luke, who appears as a baby in the poem, is now sixteen years old, and lead singer in an enviably talented Welsh thrash metal band called Satan is my Handbag.
My Family in a Human Pyramid
My uncle starts it, kneeling in his garden;
my mother gives a leg up to my gran.
When it’s my turn to climb, I get a grip
of my bamp’s miner’s belt, my cousin’s heels,
say Thank you for her birthday card as I go,
then bounce on my nan’s perm and skip three rows,
land on my father’s shoulders. He grabs my ankles,
half holding me up and half holding me close.
Here he comes, my godson, Samuel Luke,
passed up until he’s standing in his nappy
on my head. And now to why we’re here:
could the Edwardses together reach a height
that the youngest one of us could touch a star?
Sam reaches out. He points towards the night.