Thanks for this interview, John. Good to talk to you. I’ve just been re-reading the poems you have in the current issue of Sentinel Literary Quarterly where you are the featured poet. I feel they convey a powerful sense of Place, like so many of your poems do. Is this important to you? I particularly love the reflective lines in ‘Gardener’s Friend ‘ where you say to the robin who is watching you dig ‘Isn’t it a strange thing … to be alive and conscious, and not know why?’ Do you feel a strong connection with landscape, inner and outer?
Broadly, yes to these questions. Through most of our evolutionary history we lived in the wild, the open air, part of the natural world and not apart from it. Our psychic well-being depends on keeping in touch with that heritage. In our modern world that requires conscious choice and activity. To be out of doors, in however humanly modified an environment, offers refreshment, stimulus, food for perception and imagination. It is good to have places that are familiar, some of which are like ‘centres of the world’ to us, and to visit new places, and new kinds of place. It’s like making friends. Each new friendship reveals something you have not known before, or not known so well, and the same is true with landscapes, cities, villages, gardens, and of course, interiors.
As for that robin, and other robins, they do seem to seek a relationship with people in a way that other birds don’t, and to want more than freshly turned soil or food on the bird table. Like us, they seem to have an ache of consciousness. How should we think about the fact that we are here? Of course there are many different answers, some compatible with others, some not. In the tradition of ‘honest doubt’ that unites agnostics and many religious believers, the answers are often tentative, sometimes accompanied by what Thomas Gray calls ‘trembling hope.’ I think most conscious beings carry the burden of this mystery. And people with certainty in this area are often more or less frightening.
You have a new collection coming out this year, from Worple. Can you tell us something about it? Title? Will it be prose poems as in ‘Wings’ or a range of forms and styles?
There are a few prose poems, but this collection is mainly verse. I hope readers will find it both unified and varied in style, approach, mood and subject.
It’s called What Possessed Me. That’s also the title of one poem in it, which is about how, in my teens, for no reason I could have articulated at the time, I took it into my head one spring holiday to go on an absurdly long cycle-ride. On my return my mother didn’t actually say ‘what on earth possessed you to do such a thing?’ but that was what she evidently felt. As my father understood, it was a rite of passage. ‘He wanted to prove himself,’ he said, and it was news to me. But when I put the collection together I saw that several other poems in it were also about being possessed. ‘Something led me to…’ and other words to that effect are a recurrent motif, though it is not always so explicit. And I think of poetic inspiration as a kind of possession. I find the poem resists my having too deliberate a plan of what I want it to be. If I have a topic in my mind I often have to placate the muse by writing something else before I get to it, something I have no idea I am going to write when I pick up my pen. That can free me up to find the right way in to my pre-conceived agenda. Sometimes the unplanned piece is better than the planned one, sometimes not. The whole collection is a record of some of what has possessed me.
After you have a collection published and are beginning to think about working towards a new one, do you let the poems just ‘happen’ or do you consciously have a possible theme in mind? I have tried the latter myself and it doesn’t work for long – I go off on tangents and end up with a hotch-potch of pieces. I know other poets, though, who are able to be disciplined enough to keep an overall theme in mind. Do you have a ‘method’ or does it differ from book to book?
Like you, I admire those who can successfully build a structured collection. I’m a big fan of a relatively unknown but senior American poet, Henry Lyman, who has recently published his first substantial collection, The Land Has Its Say. Each poem in its five sections works autonomously but they build into a structure you can stand in like a cathedral. I admire – and, generally, do otherwise. I write the next individual poem I want to write. I often become aware of emerging themes. In recent years I have begun to think more often in terms of the sequence, though never abandoning the one-off piece. There is a sequence at the end of White Wings which you could say was governed by Place, though also by Time – the framework was a fortnight spent in North Norfolk. In the new collection there is a sequence about a short stay in Athens, and another about visits to the cathedral at Llandaff and the green space between it and the river Taff, where I have walked often over many years.
In 2014 I was invited by Michael McKimm along with other poets to contribute to the Worple anthology, Map, which was published in 2015 to celebrate 200 years since the appearance of the first ever geological map of a whole country, the essentially single-handed work of William Smith. The invitation stimulated me to find out about Smith and about geology, to reread Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything, and to relate what I was reading to journalism I was encountering about climate change. The result is what I call a sequence, but you might call it a hotch-potch – maybe your own hotch-potch is more of a sequence than you think, Mandy! – which is due to be published as a separate small book called Strata Smith and the Anthropocene by Knives, Forks and Spoons later this year.
Following on from this question, it would be good to know your thoughts on ways of ordering a poetry collection. Poets are often anxious about this – whether to order poems by theme, at random, lighter pieces leading to ‘heavier’ etc etc. I know you gave me an invaluable piece of advice when I was working on Poems for a Liminal Age and wasn’t sure how to assemble all the poems to make them truly meaningful – you said ‘think of it as a series of rooms with one leading naturally into another’. Is this how you work or, again, do you try different ways?
I am glad you found what I said helpful, Mandy. Yes, I think quite hard about the collection as a composition, about how it will read to someone willing to progress through it from the first page to the last, though like many readers I often browse here and there in a new book before I settle down to read it in sequence. I try to give my collections a forward momentum like a story, and I hope each one has a cumulative effect, so that the reader has arrived somewhere and been changed by the time they read the last page. But there are choices to be made, which are not always easy. Should you group poems by theme, or mix them up? Are you a Gertrude Jekyll, or do you prefer Great Dixter? Should an earlier poem about some recent event come before or after a new poem about a childhood memory? In principle, in both cases, either way might work. I hope the poems you have accepted for Sentinel Literary Quarterly are an example of such a sequence, with a development and correspondences between the poems. I did not expect you would publish all six, but I could not help selecting and arranging them to be read as group.
Finally, how do you feel about the role of the writer in society? Should a poet consider himself/herself as an agent for change and focus on contemporary issues that feel important? There is another viewpoint, of course, that the purpose of poetry is to entertain and offer some respite from the cares of the world. It would be good to hear your thoughts on this. I know you have done a lot of research into the work of Shelley who would often go in all guns blazing. How do you think he might view the poet’s role today?
I would like to unpack the terms of your question a bit. I do think a poet is an agent for change just in the measure that she or he is a good or, I would rather say, a genuine poet. Focusing on contemporary issues is only one way to do this, though an important one. There is not an either/or between that focus and being an entertainer, or as some would say, merely an entertainer. Offering ‘respite from the cares of the world’ is a valid middle term in that opposition, and could be put more strongly: a vision of what life can be at its best may refresh the spirit and refocus our energies. We are reminded by it of what we value, and in that light we are better able to discern what we wish to oppose, and what is wrong with it. This is getting closer to my idea of how a poet can be an agent for change without directly focusing on, say, politics in the broadest sense, including the politics of climate change, which is inseparable from the politics of social justice, though these are certainly concerns of mine. My writing about landscape and wild life is, I hope, a way of sharing my sense that these things matter and are worth defending. More generally, I am drawn to celebrate in my writing the positive moments in the flux of experience, the epiphanies, whether in the natural, the human, or the cultural world. The more we dwell on things, good or bad, the larger they become in our lives.
I have no doubt Shelley would be a fully ‘committed’ poet if he were living today, striving to make a difference. At the same time, he was aware of the pitfalls. Political poetry can be dreary, self-righteous, hectoring, ignorant, or all of these things. If you are going to engage with public affairs, you had better take some trouble to understand them. And artistic talent does not always go with political wisdom. Shelley knew this, but the poetry he took the most trouble to get published, together with his essays and plays, has in it, in a borrowed phrase he applies to himself, ‘a passion for reforming the world.’ He wrote sometimes in a very direct way, such as in A Masque of Anarchy, his response to the Peterloo massacre, and the sonnets ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘England in 1819.’ These poems are deservedly popular, but he also wrote in a more esoteric form, as in Prometheus Unbound, which is both poetically and politically as subtle as it is powerful. He knew that the audience for work like this would be small, but he hoped it would be an influential and dynamic audience.
Shelley’s way of approaching a poetry of commitment was to contrast the hell of how things are with a vision of the heaven of how they may be in the future, if only we can overcame our inertia and pessimism to bring about change. He wrote several long poems with this pattern, starting with Queen Mab, though you can see it also in all the poems I have mentioned. The depiction of an earthly heaven, of a possible utopia, was as important as the exposure of current injustices, cruelties and absurdities. I would say, with Shelley, that to present an image of life as it should be, whether in a future utopia or as we find it in more accessible privileged moments, such as a walk on a sunny day, is to remind us of why we should resist the forces of darkness that surround us, and motivate us with the knowledge that something better is possible. To depict such moments is in itself ‘to be an agent of change.’ This is especially true when the culture around us, whether popular or rarefied, seems to prefer to dwell on the pathological, the extreme, the violent and the sensational, and to reject what for convenience we can call the real world in favour of various forms of endlessly elaborated fantasy.
There is always an important place for a poetry of direct intervention, though it is hard to bring off as well as Shelley did in the context of post-revolutionary Europe, or as Yeats did in the very particular context of Anglo-Irish history. My Strata Smith and the Anthropocene has a polemical edge, which comes from my sense of urgency about our collective destructiveness, not only towards the climate but towards other species as well as members of our own. In the later sections of What Possessed Me there is a hint of more overt political and social commentary than in my earlier collections. In some of the poems still in draft which may eventually appear in a future collection, this trend continues.
I must add that I was inspired at setting out, not only by Shelley and Wordsworth and other poets of the English-language pantheon, but by modern poets who had a clear oppositional stance to prevailing norms, and conveyed a conviction about how things should be, though their convictions were far from identical: among them were George Oppen, John Riley and Jim Burns. Each of these shone a light on what they deplored around them, and made it possible to see what their own vision of a better world would be like. Each of them, like Shelley, not only wrote but lived – in Jim Burns’s case, he still lives – in the light of their beliefs. I try to do the same.
Lots of thanks, John, for this interview, and for all your poems.
It’s been a pleasure and a privilege, Mandy. Thank you for prompting me to think aloud by providing such good and sympathetic questions.