We’ve been chatting to poet Jonathan Edwards about his debut collection, My Family and Other Superheroes, which recently won the Costa Poetry Prize. Get a copy of that fantastic collection here.
Jonathan was born and brought up in Crosskeys, South Wales. He has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick, has written speeches for the Welsh Assembly Government and journalism for The Big Issue Cymru, and currently works as an English teacher. He won the Terry Hetherington Award in 2010, was awarded a Literature Wales new writer’s bursary in 2011, and in 2012 won prizes in the Cardiff International Poetry Competition and the Basil Bunting Award. His work has appeared in a wide range of magazines, including Poetry Review, The North, Poetry Wales and New Welsh Review.
Throughout My Family and Other Superheroes you combine intimate glimpses of your own life with famous references to popular culture, like Back to the Future, and major historical events such as Henry VIII’s Acts of Union. Was this contrast something you intentionally strove to achieve throughout the collection?
I think, ultimately, that poets write about what they love. For me – all of us, I suppose – that means writing about family. The first poems with which I did that were successful with magazines, but some of the feedback I got – and I don’t know if this was a polite of saying the poems weren’t good! – was that to write about your family is to write for your family, to limit your readership to that select group of people. I really love my family, but I would also like lots of readers! So a solution was to write about things and people like Back to the Future, Evel Knievel, Gregory Peck and so on, which have a wider frame of reference. An important inspiration here was the American writer David Wojahn, whose collection Mystery Train, and particularly the sonnet sequence of the same name, is an object lesson in how to write poems about popular culture. The sonnets explore a number of apocryphal but plausible moments in pop culture, such as Francis Coppola teaching tribesmen the lyrics to ‘Light My Fire’ on the set of Apocalypse Now, or a time when Delmore Schwartz went to a Velvet Underground gig. At the same time, Wojahn writes these big, moving poems of family, very much in the school of another favourite writer, Mark Doty. So a combination of those things was what I was after, and the work of the British writer Jo Shapcott, and Wales and Seren’s own Deryn Rees-Jones, were also very important in getting me there.
Much of the collection is written from your point of view, yet in both ‘My Family in a Human Pyramid’ and ‘Evel Knievel Jumps Over my Family’ you refer to yourself and your family collectively as the ‘Edwardses’. Is it fair to assume the ‘Edwardses’ became a character itself during the writing process?
I think the first thing worth saying here is that I’m not entirely sure about the poems being written from my point of view. It’s true that their status as monologues isn’t as front and centre as it is in, say, some of my favourite poems by Carol Ann Duffy. There are poems in the book, though, such as ‘Girl,’ and ‘On the Overpass,’ which very much seek to make the reader respond to, and question, the poem’s speaker as much as its subject. I think, in any case, that to some extent all poems are monologues, all poems are written from their own point of view, far more than they are from the author’s. If it makes a poem work, I happily invent phantom children, brothers, ex-wives, all sorts of things. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, as I don’t know if a supposed sincerity to the poems is part of their appeal, but the best story I can tell regarding the relationship between the poems and my own point of view concerns the poem ‘Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in Crumlin for the Filming of Arabesque, June 1965.’ The poem imagines that my mother and father met in Crumlin at the filming of Arabesque, but the truth is that neither of them were anywhere near that village on that day – they actually met on the village corner a couple of years later, when my mam asked my dad if he wanted a chip! After the book came out though, a good friend said that he had found footage of the filming in Crumlin on youtube, and could see my mother standing there in the crowd! I really, really love that problematic relationship between poems and reality, the ability of poems to create as well as reflect reality.
With regard to this issue of ‘the Edwardses,’ that noun, and particularly its absurd plural, seemed a nice shorthand way of describing the togetherness and bonds of family that the two poems you mention are interested in. I was also thinking here of ‘The Simpsons.’ To some extent, we’re the first generation to live in post-Simpsons families, and, whether or not poetry wants to think about that, for my money it should – that same approach of using layers of pop culture allusions to ultimately say something about relationships between parents and children can be adapted, I think, to poetry. A number of the poems have episodes of The Simpsons as a direct influence. ‘My Family in a Human Pyramid,’ for example, is based around an episode where Springfield tries to break the world record for the world’s biggest ever human pyramid. The physical interconnectedness of the pyramid in the poem might say something about our bonds to our families and our ancestors, but what was in my mind at least as much was that pyramid in Springfield, and the way it collapses because Jimbo Jones realises he’s touching another boy’s hand! I think that connection with down-to-earth everydayness can keep you grounded and productive as a writer, without the idea of writing poems becoming too intimidating.
What is your definition of a superhero, and has that definition changed over the course of writing this collection?
For me, ‘superhero’ in the collection has two meanings. Firstly, there’s the world of pop culture superheroes, like Marty McFly, Ian Rush, Sophia Loren – these technicolour, larger-than-life characters who seem to inhabit another realm, and who I try to use to say something about ordinary life, and to make what I say striking and accessible. Secondly, I was interested in ordinary people as superheroes. Newport was an important place in the thinking of the book. If you think about how Newport has changed in the past twenty years, the way in which its high street has gradually grown less bustling, the way in which the removal of the Chartist mural represented an attack on its history – I was interested in reflecting the ordinary experience of those of us who live in this area and in the Valleys. ‘Starbucks Name Tag Says Rhian’ and ‘The Bloke Selling Talk Talk in the Arcade’ are among character sketches of Newport characters in the book – even bigger superheroes in their daily lives, for my money, than Evel Knievel or Doc Emmett Brown.
You appear to have a fascination with roots, and ties to both people and places, as seen in both ‘Lance Corporal Arthur Edwards (1900-1916)’ and ‘Anatomy’. Do themes such as family and a sense of belonging feature often in your work or are they themes you found yourself exploring specifically for this collection?
I think, from my earliest poems, I’ve always thought of writing as a way of thinking about roots. I don’t know if the sense of loss is more acute in my family than any other, but World War One to some extent cast a shadow – my father’s uncle was killed there, my paternal grandfather made it back but died before I was born. Then there are all the old family photos – the only one we have of my great grandfather, for example, shows him grinning, his hand on the knee of a woman who isn’t my great grandmother! Such characters are enigmatic, but also – look at their eyes, their curly hair – they’re me! – and so writing poems is a way of filling in the gaps, imagining yourself into that space.
More widely, I was of course interested in exploring my roots as a Welshman, especially in the second sequence of poems in the collection, which begins with ‘Anatomy.’ John Davies’s wonderful book ‘A History of Wales’ was an important inspiration – you can’t read about the centuries of linguistic, cultural and physical oppression, but also incredible achievement and pride, without wanting to pick up your pen.
Your poems feel very direct, particularly ‘Girl’ and ‘Brothers’, but are written in such a way that the directness translates into conversation rather than intimidation. Is talking to your reader, rather than talking at or around them, important to you as a writer?
I think sometimes the poems are addressed to specific people. ‘Decree Nisi,’ for example, is written to ‘Kelly,’ while ‘Lance Corporal Arthur Edwards 1900-1916’ talks directly to my great uncle. I think the thing is that a lot of poems I love do this. I’m thinking of a wonderful poem now by Tom French called ‘Night Drive,’ which is written to his mother, and another by Greta Stoddart, ‘You drew breath,’ written to her child – the astonishing work of those two writers was an important influence in terms of my thinking about family. I suppose addressing someone directly, particularly if they’re a family member, helps to enact the connections of family I wanted to think about in the poems. In addition, there’s always an increased sense of drama, urgency or even performance in the use of the second person – the monologue becomes an implied dialogue – which can help a poem to work. Along with humour, the choice of titles, the sort of accessible register I often use and the use of pop culture, it’s one of the things that some of the poems do to try and engage a reader, to involve readers in the poem and ultimately to move them. I think it’s that which every poet is ultimately after.
Having your debut collection win the Costa Poetry Award must be incredibly exciting. What are your future plans for your writing?
To go back to Tom French again – his first collection, Touching the Bones, is just absolutely astonishing, isn’t it? ‘Night Drive,’ ‘Touching the Bones,’ ‘Pity the Bastards’ – just amazing poem after amazing poem. The sort of thing that makes you so glad that poetry exists and makes you see what it’s for. I’m bad at making plans and rarely fulfil them in any way that can be traced to intention. Genuine poems arrive on their own terms and surprise you and won’t do what you tell them. All you can do is set out by such co-ordinates and keep going. Just this last month or so I’ve found myself writing more and more about characters from adolescence and childhood – a sort of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog in verse, which has really excited me. I’ve also got some sequences on the go about Welsh football and some sort of pseudo-responses to ideas in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, if that doesn’t sound too grand. The Costa Award is, of course, an incredible, incredible honour, which I still don’t know that I quite believe – to think that these things which I scribbled in my front room are out there, and that people like them, is something to feel enormously grateful for. I’ve also got a feeling that it means there will, as with the first book, be a lot more poems to come about coffee!