Originally from Bradford in West Yorkshire, Terry Jones graduated with Honours in English Literature at University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. He later completed a post-graduate teaching qualification (PGCE Cert. Ed) at Manchester University, taking the University Withers Memorial Essay prize. He coordinated and taught Access to Higher Education, A level literature programmes, and undergraduate degree courses in English Literature and English Language in Further Education. Married, with three grown-up daughters, he lives close to Carlisle on the Cumbrian borders. He now works as a freelance writer and private tutor. His poems have appeared in most major UK poetry magazines, including Poetry Review, Agenda, Magma, The London Magazine, Iota, Envoi, The Dark Horse, Orbis, The Shop, and Sentinel Champions amongst others. He has won several poetry first prizes including The Bridport Prize (2011), Sentinel Annual Poetry Competition (2011), Canon Poets Sonnet or Not Competition (2011), and Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (September 2012). In 2011, Poetry Salzburg published his short collection; Furious Resonance.
You have been a teacher for over 25 years. When did you start writing poetry and what was your earliest success?
I’m not sure there is a start point for when someone, anyone, might begin writing poetry. For me, language, words, how they combined musically, how they concealed or revealed the world, always seemed strange and essential at the same time – a sort of alienated dwelling, with a sense that any individual word resonated with things in its own odd way and was always in the process of transforming to something else. Even as a child, I had a sense that words were a sensation of taste and thought and texture, that they were sensual and ordinary at the same moment. I published my first poems in student magazines when I was at university at University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. One of my lecturers there was the poet Jeremy Hooker –a subtle and fine poet and teacher who (though he would be too modest to know it) created a space in thought for me. Success? I took first prize in the Ottakar’s/ Observer National Poetry Competition, when it was judged by Andrew Motion, in 2001 or 2, though by then I had already published in several magazines, including Poetry Review, when it was under the editorship of James Fenton.
You currently combine freelance writing with work as a private tutor. What in your view is your role as a writer in today’s world? How does that compare with your work as a teacher?
The writer’s role: to bear witness; to explore with language; the ancient Greek term for ‘the word’ is ‘logos’ – translatable as speech, thought, reason, language, and as word. Etymologically, ‘logos’ is related to a more primal word, ‘legein’, which means to gather. Writing gathers and makes things visible; by contrast, political tyrannies work to disperse and censor. Poetry questions and teachers should teach how to question.
Do you write poetry exclusively?
Yes, mainly poetry. Although, as a long term Branch Secretary for UCU, I was perfectly happy writing press releases, activist newsletters, position papers, and whatever else was needed for the job in hand. Why? Definitionally and ontologically, I believe poetry can be the place where truth happens, where language is under most pressure to be trusted as what it is.
What are your most productive writing habits?
Silence. Introversion. Word tasting. Alcohol. Thought tasting. Walking. Nicotine. Coffee. Sleep deprivation. Blood rhythms. Sex. Philosophy. Reading. Foul rag and bone shops. Love and worry. Time at the desk.
Though not necessarily in that order or frequency.
Does being a teacher help you maintain a certain level of discipline in your writing?
All my students in Colleges I taught in have been (by and large) adults. I suspect some of them had more discipline than I have. What can I say for discipline? I try. I fail. I berate myself, and fail to learn. I persist, sometimes. Join the club. I think the best thing to say to a writer is, put in the hours as necessary, but don’t try too hard. Read. Think. Wait.
In 2011, you won three major poetry competitions. In what ways, if at all, have success in these competitions impacted on your work and how they are received?
What can I say: the competition wins are confirming, and very welcome financially. They play no part in how I approach or shape a poem: if it doesn’t feel right to me, it’s in the bin, or on the recycle for possible re-write pile I’ve given up a full time job in teaching to write, and not surprisingly, I’m feeling the pinch. My choice. Lots of people in the world are worse off. Listen in, younger poets: no money in the muse. Write for the writing.
A major competition success can make you focus on a certain tone and shape for a poem, but ultimately the pressure has to come from within. Like any writer of poetry, I measure reception of the poems by the balance of acceptance/ rejection slips. As always, more of the latter than the former. The odd dry garland doesn’t in itself yield much poetic fruit, and every poem is a new beginning.
There are hundreds of writing competitions in the UK every year. What makes you choose which competition to enter? Do you think writing competitions are necessary for the development of literature?
It’s not so much the competition, as the occasions when I feel I have a poem that I would like to have an audience, with the possible/ unlikely side product of a prize; major national and international competitions combine both of those potentials. Necessary? Well, given our current cultural configuration, I suspect they are necessary – certainly, given the small audience, for poetry. In an ideal world, poetry and the financial attractions of competition would have no connection; but by the same token, that would be a world where poetry as the separate activity it is, ceased to exist. There’s a complex issue here, and no space to explore it fully. As it is, competitions sift, sometimes like an indiscriminate whale; but they also provide the highly visual spout that reminds us poetry is not extinct…plankton poems and whales…Perhaps there’s a poem in there.
Specifically, what is your experience with Sentinel writing competitions?
Well organized competitions working with independent judges on the basis of the strict anonymity of submissions do have a crucial role to play. On that basis, I’ve done rather well with Sentinel; but I’ve submitted good poems to Sentinel where in the view of judges better ones have been preferred. I’ve also won several other competitions, including the Bridport in 2011, as judged by Carol Ann Duffy. Sentinel is performing an essential role, not least in putting out some excellent collections and anthologies, and I admire its internationalism.
After ‘Furious Resonance’, what other collection are you working on? When might it be expected in the stores?
I have two collections I’m working on at the moment, and I want to find and work with an English publisher for them, though nothing is established as I write. I continue to publish in the magazines and competitions, with new poems forthcoming in Iota, Magma, The Rialto, Wasafiri and others, and with recent poems in Ambit, Agenda, and anthologies like the Two Ravens Press anthology of eco-poetry, Entanglements, and the Robin Hood Book. Through competitions and magazines, I’ve published forty poems this year. Good publisher? – Speak to me!
Quick exit question. Many people have written to ask if you are the same Terry Jones of Monty Python. Do you get that a lot? Any chance of your venturing into acting?
No, I’m not the Monty Python Terry Jones, who (joyfully, I imagine) shares a name with me.
In any case, he’s from a middle class background, so he probably has a suppressed middle initial. Luxury. I’m Terry Jones, full stop. Let’s hope that kills the parrot. SLQ