PART ONE: THE POET
Paul: You were born and grew up in Crosskeys, south Wales. Can you tell me about the town?
Jonathan: I fear that if I tell the truth about the beauty and character of my village publicly, the only possible outcome is that the place will be turned instantly into a tourist attraction, with enormous double-decker buses clogging the narrow lanes and casting imposing shadows on unsuspecting dog walkers. Images rush to mind of huge Americans with multiple cameras dangling round their necks straining over walls to get a shot of Mrs Morris hanging out her authentic-looking washing, while my harried mother rushes back and forth to the kitchen in order to satisfy the demands of cutlery-thumping visitors to the bistro-cum-living-room my enterprising dad has just announced the opening of.
And so on. There’s nothing here, essentially, and I love it. We’re surrounded by enormous natural beauty – you get used to the huge sweep of hills, but they are stunning. There’s a gorgeous stretch of canal, which I’m in the process of writing about for The Poetry Society, and it’s very quiet, which is great for poems.
There are a bunch of things about the place which feed into the poems. First is a sense of how gossipy these terraced streets are, the fact that everyone knows everything about everyone and tells stories – that’s great for a poet. ‘Colliery Row’ is the poem which deals most obviously with that experience, and the prose poem ‘FA Cup Winners on Open Top Bus Tour of my Village’ explores both the strong bonds of a community and the darker side of an us-and-them mentality.
The other thing which is worth mentioning is the way in which the area has changed, even in the last twenty years, from somewhere that had half-a-dozen pubs and the same number of shops, to somewhere which is really exclusively houses. The rise of the supermarket, improved transport links to Cardiff, the smoking ban – all sorts of things have changed the community. Poems like ‘My Uncle Walks to Work, 1962,’ are interested in how different this place was when my parents were young. For my gran, an excursion to the Co-op was only partly about what you might buy there, far more about what you might find out, and there was far more a sense I think of the village being a self-sufficient world.
Jonathan: There are prominent Welsh writers currently writing who don’t like Dylan Thomas, what he stands for or his position in Welsh writing. I adore him and everything about him. He is a writer of extraordinary range, from the deep humour of Under Milk Wood and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog to the high lyricism of something like ‘Over Sir John’s Hill’. To track his evolution as a poet is to see his development from a writer of astonishing phrase-making but only occasional clarity, to the later masterpieces – ‘Fern Hill‘, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,’ ‘The hunchback in the park’ – where he’s managed that perfect balance of incendiary voice with really communicating something that all of us can appreciate. He’s a wonderful writer for children – the best way to teach descriptive writing to Year Nine, for example, is to have Dylan read ‘Holiday Memory’ to them. Other than the collected poems and the collected stories, one of the most interesting books you can buy by him is Paul Ferris’s edition of the collected letters. For me, what emerges is that he was a victim not so much of booze and a dodgy American physician as he was of dodgy freelance employers – I think anyone trying to make it as a freelance writer in Wales now will recognise a lot of the same problems that are clear from his begging letters. The level of ambition in his work is a constant inspiration. I’ve written more about Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ here: https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/english-association/schools/Edwards2.pdf
If Dylan is a poet to read, admire, love and be inspired by, RS Thomas is all those things too, and in many ways has been a more direct influence on my writing. I think it’s clear to see the ways in which my character sketches of twenty-first century village Wales draw on the approach of Thomas poems like ‘Evans’ or ‘Cynddylan on a Tractor,’ or the way in which place is captured, in his poem ‘The Village,’ becomes an inspiration for poems like ‘View of Valleys Village from a Hill’ and ‘View of Valleys High Street through a Café Window.’ A better way of putting this is that I got much of this approach from Owen Sheers, for whom Thomas has been important – the character sketches and sense of place in The Blue Book were an important influence on the poems in my collection. As well as technique and approach, the simple fact that there was a writer a few years older then me, writing successfully about the lives I see around me every day, showed me that it could be done.
Paul: You have an MA in Writing from Warwick. Could you tell me a little about the course and the people who taught you?
Jonathan: My time at Warwick is the reason why I write poems. I went to university wanting to write plays, but when it came to nominating options the tutor for the drama course was on research leave, so I found myself on the poetry course by default. I was taught by David Morley and Michael Hulse, and the thing at Warwick was that there was a vibrant community of visiting writers – Peter Carpenter, Eva Salzman, Simon Rae and Matt Nunn were among generous and inspirational figures – as well as a group of fabulously talented, go-getting student writers. The energy of that time and those people would be enough to keep any writer going for a lifetime. I was extraordinarily nervous about the publication of my first collection, and may well have tried to withdraw it, had it not been for the reassurance of David and Michael on the manuscript. Their teaching gave me a sense of myself as a writer which I’ve always wanted to live up to, a sense of vocation and what I’m here for, and for that I will always be enormously grateful.
PART TWO: THE BOOK
Paul: You published the book in four parts. What determined this structure?
Jonathan: I think the four-part structure is a nod to the section divisions used in collections by lots of American writers I love, such as Thomas Lux and David Wojahn. The process of working towards a first collection can be very chaotic and in my case was spread across a decade of trying lots of different subjects and approaches as a writer. So when I was putting together a book, the four-part structure seemed the best way of giving the book shape while also not being too restrictive, allowing these poems, in a book which is essentially a ‘best of,’ to sing individually, as well as working together. The first sequence gathers the family poems, and all the surreal approaches to the family, getting to my parents and grandparents by way of Gregory Peck, Evel Knievel and IKEA flat-pack furniture. The second section focuses on Wales, the experience of living in a Valleys community, but also aspects of Welsh history, such as Chartism and the flooding of Capel Celyn, which are important to me. The third section has love poems and the fourth has a bit of everything which didn’t fit anywhere else: poems about writing, work, animals, character sketches, poems which comment on each other formally… Then you have to factor in of course how you want to open and end the book. I began with the poem ‘My Family in a Human Pyramid’ because I wanted that image of building and climbing at the start – my family building a human pyramid and passing a baby to its summit. The collection ends with ‘On the Overpass,’ and the intention was that the book’s opening image would be balanced here by an image of falling, a teenager on a motorway overpass who may or may not be about to jump.
Paul: David Morley said of your book that it was ‘serious, hilarious and a beautiful event’. Do you think it takes a particular voice, craft or technique to subtly combine seriousness with humour? How do you achieve this balance?
Jonathan: I should say that I never have and never will attempt to write a funny poem. I saw Simon Armitage read at Hay a few years ago and someone asked him about humour. His response was that he sits in a room and tries to write the most serious and meaningful poem that he can – then he goes and reads it to people and they start laughing. Blessing or curse – and I lean very much towards the former – this is very much how it’s been for me. So much poetry is tedious or pretentious and I don’t think it’s a bad thing if poetry entertains. What’s become clear is that my conception of what a decent line of poetry is is everyone else’s conception of what a funny line of poetry is. I can’t do anything about this and don’t want to. To paraphrase one of my favourite quotes about poetry by James Tate, the humour happens, but what I’m interested in is getting to something emotive. The poems which tend to survive make me laugh as I’m writing them – to write poems is to be in constant doubt as to whether what you’re writing is any good, so that bodily reaction becomes one you trust. But I’m not necessarily laughing at that point because they’re funny – rather with joy that they go somewhere which matters, as so few of them actually do.
There’s a much wider issue here to do with the writers that I’ve always loved. Dahl and Twain were the earliest writers I can remember being read to me, and so I’ve always loved the funny – Salinger, Wilde, Shakespeare, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Jonathan Safran Foer, Charles Simic… Humour is also, more than anything, familial. My gran was an absolute genius of sarcasm who, in her 90s, could reduce a room to tears with one raised eyebrow. Two generations back, my family were Valleys butchers, which is a performative role, one part salesman to three parts stand-up comic, laughing the money into the till and that night’s bread onto the table. I love the idea that, genetically, my grandfather’s and great uncle’s patter is in my pen. Given my background it is of course utterly absurd that I could write poems – it’s the sort of aspiration you’d get slapped for in the play yard – so the humour comes out in the writing also as a defence strategy, because I carry that absurdity every time I pick up a pen.
Paul: You capture local people and communities very beautifully, even affectionately. One senses that you are very tolerant and sympathetic to all those around you. Would you say this is true? Are you ever tempted to write darker or more disparaging portraits?
Jonathan: One thing to say here is that I am, simply, extraordinarily lucky to live where I do, among the personalities, wit, tenderness and stoicism of this place. Being a poet isn’t difficult from that point of view, because you simply look around you and celebrate what you see. The character portraits in the book are not without their darknesses. ‘Bouncers’ and ‘Brothers’ both, I think, carry a sense of the menace of their characters, while ‘The Bloke Selling Talk Talk in the Arcade’ turns everything into manipulative patter: he ‘knows the time…to ask about/your children, your wife.’ I have written poems about people I really don’t like, but they don’t generally seem to go anywhere. Poems need a great deal of time and energy, and that’s easier to conjure if you’re celebrating – can you imagine Hopkins writing about things he doesn’t like? Even when he’s despairing he seems fabulously energetic and joyous in his poems. It’s essentially true that almost all of your poems will never be seen by anyone, so if you’re going to spend time on them they have to make you happy. Bukowski talks about writing having to compete with going to the movies as a form of entertainment for the evening. There’s the simple and wider human truth that, in life, if people don’t like each other, they tend to avoid each other and try not to give each other headspace – the concentrated thinking of poetry is for celebrating those you love.
Paul: I notice that you can vary the line length considerably within a poem, such as in ‘X16’ or ‘Aquafit’, and that often the line equates to an idea or the length of a breath. What do you feel determines your line?
Jonathan: When I was in university I was lucky enough to set up an interview with Owen Sheers, and I asked him almost exactly this question. I think if you look at a poem like ‘Winter Swans,’ you see that the line length varies and the line breaks are in keeping with an oral pause – it gives this lovely, natural, laid-back sense of form, and allows the brilliance of his metaphors to absolutely sing with clarity. So that approach to the line is a significant influence.
During the years of writing the poems in the collection, I experimented more with tension between the line break and the oral pause, using the break to generate ambiguity and surprise, breaking the line halfway through a phrase or between an adjective and a noun, say. You can see that happening in poems like ‘Girl’ and ‘View of Valleys High Street through a Café Window.’ A Poetry School course with David Briggs in Bristol was an important factor here, and the writing of David and some of the brilliant writers on the course, including David Clarke and John Wheway.
The other thing which is worth mentioning in terms of the construction of lines is that, when I was writing very intensely as part of a Literature Wales bursary in 2011, it became very natural to write in a loose iambic pentameter with lots of internal rhyme, a form that’s influenced by Dead Sea Poems-era Simon Armitage. You can see that at work in poems like ‘How to Renovate a Morris Minor,’ ‘Bamp’ and ‘Seal.’ This is a really natural form for me and works for smashing out an idea quickly, either in a form that will roughly remain for the final version of the poem or just to generate material quickly which can be shaped differently later.
Mondays. 7pm. The ladies
sink into the pool,
chat of their parents’ health, their daughters’ work.
Their bathing suits are holding something back.
Squat thrusts and shuttle runs:
they walk in the water.
The instructress stands above them like a billboard,
mimicking them: ‘And right, and left, and…’
In the men’s changing room,
a boy in council uniform
sweeps the dregs of shampoo to the drain.
From the pool come love songs.
Paul: The blurb to your book mentions ‘the abandoned high streets where a working-class and Welsh nationalist politics is hammered out’. Yet, the politics in your book is subtle and told slant. Which ways did you find to bring politics into the mix?
Jonathan: I suppose the most overtly political books to have come out of Wales in the past ten years or so might well be Owen Sheers’ The Blue Book and Mike Jenkins’s Barkin! They’re both books which deal with the political through the human and through the personal. In his dialect poems, Mike is dealing with the lives of Valleys characters and, in doing so, powerfully exploring the injustices which rule their lives; in the title poem from The Blue Book Owen Sheers focused on the history of the oppression of the Welsh language, by focusing on his brother learning Welsh. That’s it really, isn’t it – writers care about people, not politics. Poems from My Family and Other Superheroes which might be read as political each have a very human story behind them. ‘In John F Kennedy International Airport,’ for example, comes out of the experience of backpacking around America as a student and the conceptions of Wales which are there in that country; the First Minister comes in, in truth, as much to provide a punchline and because it works for the piece, as to make a political point. One of my most vivid memories of primary school is when a teacher got us to dress up in Chartist clothing and re-enact the march to Newport, ending at the Chartist Mural in John Frost Square, celebrated in one of the poems in the collection. I didn’t realise at the time what she was giving us, but looking back it was an utterly extraordinary way for a teacher to introduce children to their regional and class identity. Because of her, I wanted to write that poem.
Paul: You’re not afraid of the work ‘fuck’. Discuss.
Jonathan: I think a lot of this has to do with Larkin having been one of the first significant poets I was exposed to. I hope where the word is used in the poems it isn’t artless, that it’s to do with how it plays off against what’s around it. It can help with giving a sense of power and a sense of the persona, as in ‘View of Valleys Village from a Hill’: ‘From here, I could reach down//and fuck with them.’ It can also create humour of course, as in ‘View of Valleys High Street through a Café Window’: ‘Brollies bob above each head/like thought balloons, if everyone were thinking,/Fuck me, it’s raining.’ And the ending of ‘Flamingos’ – ‘Fuck that, you say, Let’s all be fabulous’ – is the line of mine that I most get said back to me by readers. Before the book came out, I have to say that my mother asked me to take out all the swear words, but I didn’t see how it could be done – ‘From here, I could reach down//and mess with them’?? I can still remember the first time I ever heard the word, in the playground, one misty morning when I was in what would now be Year Six. There was a kid in class who had a few older brothers, and he wore Guns ‘n’ Roses t-shirts to mufti days. I remember the sound of it as he said it, that sense of something brand new which had always been there. So I suppose when I’m using that word, there’s part of him in it.
Paul: Your poems can get surreal at times, such as in ‘Restaurant’. How did this poem, with its soup of blue emulsion, and mermaid riding a horse out of the kitchen, come about?
Jonathan: I was in Toronto about ten years ago and I came across a book called The Practice of Poetry by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, in a second hand book shop. It’s full of writing exercises – all sorts, from the practical to the mad – by established poets, and is great for writing and teaching. The exercise contributed by one of my favourite poets, Thomas Lux, focuses on free writing – just splurging onto the page for a set time each morning whatever it is that’s in your head, then re-shaping it, taking a phrase from Monday’s page, a phrase from Tuesday’s and so on, doing whatever the material needs to make it a poem.
I’d done lots of this in workshops of course, but because Lux was recommending it I became much more disciplined and systematic about it. There are complete poems which just emerged very quickly from this free-writing and are in the book almost exactly as they slipped out one morning – ‘My Uncle Walks to Work, 1962’ and ‘Jack-in-the-Box’ are in that category.
Another way I used this exercise was to generate titles for poems, which is why some of my titles end up long and crazy. This was the case with ‘Restaurant where I am the Maitre d’ and the Chef is my Unconscious’ and also with ‘Bookcase Thrown through Third Floor Window.’ These were phrases that were in a page of free writing. Once you have those titles, writing the poems simply becomes a process of figuring out what it is that those titles mean.
Paul: Is ‘surreal’ the right word?
Jonathan: The poems we write are love letters to the poems we love by others, and I’ve always enjoyed surrealism. I love poetry which uses pop culture figures and which uses an imagined or exaggerated reality to more clearly show us the real. ‘The Big Parade,’ the wonderful opening poem of Stephen Knight’s Dream City Cinema, is the sort of thing I mean. That carnivalesque parading of ‘everyone I’ve ever known/and some I’ve only seen on television’ is wonderfully entertaining, but when you look at the ending, it’s clear that the poet has done all this to get us to look more closely at something serious. Similarly, Deryn Rees-Jones’s ‘Lovesong to Captain James T. Kirk’ has long been a favourite poem, with its wonderfully fantastical take on desire and familial relationships, and Jo Shapcott’s writing has been important too, with poems like ‘Superman Sounds Depressed’ and ‘Tom and Jerry Visit England.’ Poems like ‘Evel Knievel Jumps Over my Family’ and ‘My Family in a Human Pyramid,’ which focus on a fantastical event in order, ultimately, to get to familial love and connection, are tiny hymns to the amazing achievement of these poems.
PART THREE: POETRY LIFE
Paul: Which contemporary poets do you enjoy? Which books have inspired you of late?
Jonathan: Three holy books for me are Tom French’s Touching the Bones, Alan Gillis’s Here Comes the Night and Greta Stoddart’s At Home in the Dark. I think I love Stoddart and French for similar reasons – the seriousness and gravity of their work, and the way they write about family in poems like ‘Touching the Bones,’ ‘Night Drive’ and ‘Allies’. In ‘Pity the Bastards,’ French has that commitment to writing about place and class which is obviously going to appeal to me, while I love Stoddart poems like ‘Switzerland,’ with their humour and complexity. Above all it’s the approach to language in this work, the incredible lyricism and beauty of these poems, which I love.
Here Comes the Night is something else again. The scale, energy and ambition of it is astonishing. There’s so much life crammed into every page – it’s a joyous and singing book. I remain of the opinion that it must be a sort of magic thing, because however many times I read it, I open it and there’s another fantastic poem I hadn’t noticed. It’s deeply empowering – you read it and feel like you can do anything. For a long time I carried it with me in my knapsack to work, poetry reading, workshop, and if I ever got nervous or anything, I’d think, It will be okay. Gillis is with me!
Paul: Which emerging Welsh poets particularly impress you?
Jonathan: With apologies to those I’m missing due to simple absent-mindedness, I’d mention in particular, among the writers who’ve published first collections or pamphlets in the last few years (breathe in!), Maria Apichella, Nicky Arscott, Emily Blewitt, Zoe Brigley, Nia Davies, Joe Dunthorne, Rhian Edwards, David Foster-Morgan, Dai George, Natalie Ann Holborow, Rhiannon Hooson, Mab Jones, Richard James Jones, Alan Kellermann, Jemma L. King, Anna Lewis, M.A. Oliver-Semenov, Stephen Payne, Clare Potter, Katherine Stansfield, Christina Thatcher and Susie Wild.
In a sense I don’t feel I need to talk too much about these writers, because their place in UK poetry and the brilliance of their work is clear. So it might be nice to mention here a couple of writers who are on their way to publication and are deeply exciting.
Firstly, Glyn Edwards (no relation!) has a wonderful collection coming out with The Lonely Crowd later this year, full of responses to poets like Dylan Thomas, Edward Thomas and Frost. He’s a wonderful, refined lyric poet who writes with gravity and an interesting sense of form – we managed to publish an intriguing fold-out concrete poem about football by him in an anthology of new Welsh writing a couple of years ago. He wears a Hughes influence well, and writes brilliantly about things like landscape and fatherhood.
Secondly, Rhian Elizabeth has a collection due from Parthian, following her first novel. The poems I’ve seen from her are brilliant – honest, raw and deeply powerful. She has a really distinctive voice which I think will do great things, and which reminds me in places of Andrew McMillan – this will be a really exciting book.
Thirdly, I’d like to mention Benjamin Palmer from Cardiff, who’s taken some of my Poetry School courses and published in magazines here and in the States. He’s lived in Mexico for some years and has a really transatlantic sensibility. He writes wonderfully about Mexico and has real range in his writing, moving from deeply emotive poems to deeply funny ones. His writing shows the influence of American writers like Simic and Tate, and he’s very unusual among writers from Wales, ploughing his own exciting furrow in an accomplished fashion.
I think one thing that’s worth mentioning in terms of emerging writers is the tendency – and I don’t know if this is worse in Wales than elsewhere – to prioritise writers in their twenties and thirties over writers who come to everything a little later, or who simply keep going. 2017 was an extraordinarily rich year for collections from Wales, but for my money among the best was Alan Perry’s wonderful self-published collection Waters. Acknowledged as an influence by writers like Stephen Knight and Robert Minhinnick, and an Eric Gregory Award-winner in 1970, his writing is magnificent, taking in themes like family and the past with great warmth and a very clear eye. Similarly, recent Cinnamon Press collections by John Barnie and Kathy Miles deserve great celebration, and I’m also lucky enough to be reading at the moment the unpublished manuscript of Michael Arnold Williams’s second collection. It is both true that if this manuscript were produced by a writer under forty it would already not only be published but lined up for the significant prizes, and that I can’t think of a writer of that age who is writing with this level of ambition. It might be the case that we need to do more in Wales to celebrate our experienced writers as well as our newer talent.
Paul: Have you met Michael Sheen, Lianne Wood, Cerys Matthews or any other Welsh celebrities/literary figures?
Jonathan: To be perfectly honest, over the past few months, Sheen has been nothing but a bloody menace. He rings me up at all hours, and it’s always ‘Jon, will you write the libretto for this?’ and ‘Jon, do you think this accent sounds right for my new role as a young Bill Shankly?’ I thought he was harmless, but the other day I was walking round Tesco, and Sheen ‘just happened to’ leap out suddenly at me in the freezer section. Then the other night, I was just locking up, ready for bed, when I heard something out in the garden and looked out to see Sheen standing there, muttering something into the herbaceous border. To be perfectly honest, I don’t even know what a herbaceous border is, but it was definitely Sheen. I’ve taken to keeping a golf club by the bed, and a guy down the Rugby Club knows someone who can score a fake passport if it comes to it. Katherine Jenkins is something else of course, but I can’t discuss that at present, given the ongoing legal situation.
Paul: Where are you at in terms of new book out? What themes and approaches are driving your recent writing?
Jonathan: Book two is essentially done, and the plan is that it will appear in the autumn. I’m hoping to read a fair few of the newer poems at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival in April: https://cheltenhampoetryfest.co.uk I think a lot of what’s going on in the manuscript is recognisable as the work of the author of My Family and Other Superheroes. The opening sequence attempts to celebrate a century in the evolution of my family, often viewed through experiences with pop culture figures, from my grandfather watching Harry Houdini perform in Newport at the turn of the twentieth century, to me just missing Kurt Cobain when he visited nearly a hundred years later: https://www.brookes.ac.uk/poetry-centre/international-poetry-competition/2017-winners-and-shortlist/open-category/ There’s a bunch of Valleys characters – an ageing pub landlord, a postman, a school friend who spent time behind bars – and there are zoo animals and narratives, sonnets and history. Auden has become more and more important to me. One thing which is a little different is a greater focus on monologues, which I think comes out of spending so much time teaching Carol Ann Duffy to my students. Some of the voices the collection offers are an eighteenth-century servant and a twenty-first century phone box, a retail park tree pouring its heart out and the spirit of the city of Newport, wanting to tell you all about its day. It’s been liberating to let these other voices speak for a while, though why they all want to talk in exactly the same voice as I do is completely beyond me.
Paul: Is there a question I should have asked?
Jonathan: It would have been lovely to have been asked something about animals. I love writing about animals and there are more of those poems in the second book. The more surreal the animal, the better – when you look at crocodiles, flamingos, giraffes and so on, you don’t really need surrealism in art or poetry. ‘Are giraffes really there in the world and can other people see them or am I just imagining them?’ is among many significant questions giraffes breathe and provoke. Animals are the reason I love Ted Hughes and one of the reasons I adore Hopkins. There’s a sense with the more outlandish animals that they have these ludicrous bodies, but you look in their eyes and you see someone a bit like you. I was at an aquarium in Seattle a few years ago and there was this octopus – this ridiculous go-everywhere body, all these thin thin skirts, a body like it had sneezed itself. But its eyes were wise, and I couldn’t help thinking there was an old guy on a park bench trapped down in there somewhere, saying Let me out. If it isn’t stretching the point too much, there’s something in all of this of course of what poetry can do – it can unleash the old guy in the octopus! I mean the connections poetry can build between different people, the way that it can coax our real selves out of their shells, shorn of all their daytime identities and buttoned-upness, finally stepping out into a tender light.